Sunday, September 13, 2015

A lot has happened since my last post, things that completely changed the course of my life and altered it down to its very foundations. I have traveled through all of it but my broken heart has locked up my words making it difficult to share here or anywhere.

Last time I posted, my life was moving along like a wandering creek, flowing or trickling through its course over sand or rocks, as life will do. June of last year we went to Mazatlan Mexico for my husband's 50th birthday, made a few road trips in the following months, and on April 11th I bought tickets for a two week trip to Berlin to celebrate my 50th birthday, and the completion of my college degree, in my favorite city and alongside my brother who lives there and whom I rarely get to see. I was elated that day, looking forward to a long stay full of free traveling and free time in my favorite place in the world so far.

I had not the slightest clue that the very next day my world would be shattered. Friday afternoon I had chatted with my son on Facebook, satisfied that he was spending the weekend with good friends. He was happy. As a mother, that's pretty much all we ever want, is for our kids to be happy. He returned from his trip Sunday night, April 12. He posted "It's good to be home." It was the last Facebook post of his life. He went for a walk and was killed that night. I learned of it the next morning when my dear husband had to tell me. We hugged and cried and floundered in sadness, doubt and misery. My husband asked if we should cancel our trip. I replied with a firm and adamant "no". I knew we would need that trip more than ever. I was right.

You see, there are many things people don't talk about or understand when it comes to grief. Over the past 5 months since this happened, we have learned all its hard lessons and terrible secrets. We have felt the shattered helpless despair of the bereft, the disbelief, the doubt, the anger. There is a deep sadness that lingers below the surface of even the happiest of days and comes pouring out at the slightest provocation. Sometimes it is a song, or a movie we saw together. One day it was a Facebook meme of a Monty Python reference. On any given day, we find that we have very little control over our emotions and are prone to irritability about everything. At the same time, we find it difficult to care very much about anything, and to quote Pink Floyd, "Nothing is very much fun anymore." I work in customer service and my husband is a truck driver so this emotional instability is a very real and daily challenge. So, as it turns out, I was right about not canceling our trip. We needed it desperately by the time it came. We needed the total change of scenery. We needed to not have to drive anywhere. We needed our happy memories of the last time we were there, when our son was able to come with us for a week. We also needed to confront our new future, together and with no distractions, to find a new purpose and new goals in our lives that no longer had to do with leaving a legacy for our son who could no longer be the focus of our future.

We are now actively trying to move to Germany. I find it is one of the few things that awakens a sense of interest in me these days. We see and feel the shortcomings in our current life much more keenly, feeling more aware of its limitations, its staleness and its frustrations. The one thing I always wanted to instill in my son was the awareness of this big wide world and its endless opportunities. I wanted him to feel its openness, to know that this little box we all grow up in, our hometown, is only one small fraction of many sights and sounds and cultures of many ways of life, all waiting to teach us new ways of thinking, new hopes, new dreams and new purposes.

I know this post is already very long, but I will add some thoughts I wrote while taking a creative writing class last spring, a year before my life was to be up-heaved and redefined, and yet this thread of living life to the fullest remains, including the message to my son, and now my message to you.

#1: Free writing: 4/1/14
I can’t wait for the cold and rain to go away. It’s not that I mind it so much, but we bought a new Harley in January and I’m just itching to ride it. I’ve only been on it a couple of times so far. It feels a lot different from our last bike, which was a little smaller, and my seat sat lower to the wind. On that bike, my husband’s body shielded me from much of the wind but on the new one I sit higher and can see above his head without looking around the side of his instead. I feel more wind and it’s colder but the ride is smoother. This new bike is quieter than our old one. We made sure that one was louder, switching the pipes to ones that roar like a Harley should. It made us feel safe, knowing that if drivers didn’t see us they surely heard us! Now I worry a little that this humming quiet ride holds danger, but then, all life holds danger. We ride because we love it and would rather enjoy a short life than regret chances lost over a long one. When my mother died last year, we thought of that often. She used to travel a lot. Sometimes it was to visit me but more often it was just to sunny places that got her out of cold Berlin. But she hadn’t traveled at all for quite a few years. Instead, she stayed home and smoked stinky cigarettes and hid her money in a hole in the floor in a corner of her bedroom. Truly! She had thousands of Euros in the floor, saved to give to my brother and me. I was happy to get the money, but would rather she had used it to buy nice things and go out to eat and travel like she used to, and like I do now. I save against a rainy day, but my husband and I learned from my mom that life is too precious to stash under a floorboard, curled up in the dark like a rat. So we save some but spend more. We ride our Harley on sunny days, with no shelter between the world and us, nothing blocking the scents or the wind. In spring, I can always smell the daffodils, then the lilacs, then the roses. We travel too, where more exotic flowers grow, like Mexico. We’re going there this summer for his 50th birthday. The last few years we’ve gone in December, just to get away from the cold and rain and grayness of western Washington winter, but thanks to my mom, we’re going in summer too, staying in a new place we’ve never been before and next year we’ll see Italy for the first time and see if we’ll love it enough for a second or third visit. And then a year or two after that, we have plans to visit more of Europe. I’m going to visit Jim Morrison’s grave and leave a lipstick kiss on Oscar Wilde’s tomb. I love their writing but I also like that they lived their lives the way they wanted, even when others didn’t approve.  I can’t wait to see the history of Prague and Vienna and learn why Paris is called the city of lights. I’ll be done with school by then and we might live there one day. I watch a show on TV called Househunters International about people moving to countries that are not the United States and I think “Yes! I want that!” And I watch and learn what things cost, what jobs the people have and hear the stories of why they’re moving, because I know they are just like me and want a life that is interesting and worthy of being the memories we have left to look back on when in our last dying days we think about our joys and regrets, courage and cowardice. I plan on leaving skid marks on the way to my grave, clear tracks that show I played hard and lived my dreams and saw everything I could before it was time to go. I hope that is the legacy I leave my son and he won’t have to dig it up from a hole under a floorboard.

~ Happy wandering

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Travel Budgeting

Travel is a fun amazing adventure, but it can be quite expensive. In my household, we are continuously saving for our next trip. Whether it’s the $800-$900 for air for two to Mazatlan or several thousand to visit Europe, it takes plenty of planning and saving.

We live in the Tacoma area, which means all of our flights go out of Sea-Tac International Airport. If you are lucky enough to live in LA or New York, your air prices are a lot less than ours because your flights are more direct. Lucky you. When we go to Mazatlan or Puerto Vallarta, we choose Alaska Air flights through LAX or San Francisco because they are the most direct for the money. For Europe, we usually have to make one or two plane changes before we get to our final destination. Those extra flights add cost to our trips as well as time.

There are several factors to look at besides just the cost of the plane ticket when you are planning a trip. The cheapest ticket may not be the best choice for you. Routing is very important too. Some airlines only go through certain airports which can add up to many wasted hours between you and your final destination, even as much as a whole day. Ask yourself if saving $25-$50 is worth a whole day of your hard-earned (and in the US, probably short) vacation. Take Mazatlan from Seattle for example. We can fly the cheapest with US Air, but it flies though Phoenix, several hours beyond our destination, and then maybe on through Mexico City, an airport notorious for flight delays. Even on time, that flight takes 4-8 hours longer than our usual route through LA. The cost difference isn’t that much and we happily pay an extra $25 bucks to get to the fun sooner and with a lot less stress. It still takes a careful eye though, because Alaska Air often does this devilish thing where their connecting fight doesn’t leave LA to Mazatlan till the next day, and it’s not even cheaper. Also, routing is an important factor at certain times of the year, such as winter or hurricane season. We had to spend an extra day in New Orleans once because our flight via Dallas was cancelled due to hurricane force winds that blew out a large bank of windows at the Dallas Airport. Know the common weather problems at different airports for the time of year you are flying. Taking a southern or lowland transfer in winter over a northern one is a lot less likely to result in a snow delay for example.

Once you have decided when and how you want to fly, it’s not hard to start budgeting the cost of air for your trip. A site like Kayak will let you compare many different flights at the same time. That will give you your ballpark numbers for air. Then you also need to think about how long you will stay and let that guide your food and lodging costs. This can vary a great deal depending on where you are going and what kind of traveler you are. Here is where a good travel guide and research can help you. This is the time to ask yourself what style of hotel you want: Do you need air conditioning? Will you really use a spa or gym? I don’t care about spas or gyms, but control over my heat and AC are important enough to me to pay a little extra for. A travel guide can help you identify the average cost of hotels in the low, medium or high-end range for your destination. Will you be eating fast food or expensive restaurant food? A good average for meal costs is about $35-50 per person per day. Once you’ve made those decisions, you will know the total cost of the basics: transportation, lodging and food. Add in your extras like shopping money, local transportation costs for buses, trains or rental cars, and you’ll have your final number. When you see it, do not panic!

NOW you can work up your savings budget number. Take that total figure and divide it up by how many paydays you have until your trip. Even though the original number might have been scary, if you are serious about your trip, your savings number should scare you a lot less. If it’s higher than you are comfortable with, ask yourself if you can go a little later or shave off a day or two, or if there are things you are spending money on that are less important than your trip. Most of us waste a lot of money and this exercise will help you identify where you might be able to cut back on other costs. Can you change your phone plan or cable plan to a cheaper one? Do you buy a lot of meals or coffee out? For the one-month long Europe trip I plan to take with my husband in 2017, I need about $12,000. At the time I started saving for it, that worked out to saving $300 a month. I cut back on going out to dinner once I realized we were spending around $150 a month on dining out when we were just too lazy to cook. I also modified my land phone line plan, which saved me another $25 a month. Any tax return money we get will also go directly into the travel fund. Although it is not part of my budget, it will add to the fun money we have when it’s time to go. All it takes is planning and some discipline. If you really want to travel, you can do it. Start saving today!

Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guide Book Review: Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door 2014

    I want this blog to be a useful tool for travelers planning their journeys, and research is a big part of that, as I discussed in my first post. A good guidebook can help you immensely and a bad one is just dead weight, so travel guide reviews will be a regular part of this blog.
 I worked at a travel agency for 5 years and saw a lot of different guidebooks on their shelves from Berlitz to Frommer’s, Michelin to Steves. It was while I was working there that I really started reading them. As I was more able to travel myself, I began to put more effort into my own research and planning.
  I started at the library. Travel agencies don’t pay well, so free resources like the library are the right price before dropping 20 bucks on a book. I checked out Rick Steves books because I was familiar with him from his public television series and I like his down-home style and good attitude, plus he’s from my neck of the Northwest. He seems to know his stuff. I bought his Germany book in 2012.
  Currently, I’m planning a trip to Italy for next year and a more extensive Europe tour in 2017 for my 30th wedding anniversary, so I checked out Rick Steves’ Europe Through The Back Door 2014 guide. I was looking for an overview on Europe highlights and this guide seemed like a good place to start.
  First off, this guide is sub-titled “The Travel Skills Handbook” so that is a clue that this is designed for less experienced travelers. It does live up to that subtitle. Europe Through The Back Door is divided up into two main sections. The first half is all about travel skills. It begins with a map of Europe and then takes the reader on a step by step tour of how to budget and plan the trip, required paperwork such as passports and visas, how to pack, transportation options, money, common scams, communication and travel styles. The flow is practical and logical and the table of contents makes it easy to get to just what you want. Information is not just general. It includes phone numbers, addresses, web URLs and even bus lines when appropriate. I particularly appreciated the Theft and Scams section as well as Rick’s personal opinions on what places were overrated which helped me narrow down a rather large bucket list of sites for my trip.
  The second half of the book is called “Back Doors: Finding a Back Door of Your Own” and covers Rick’s favorite locales, divided up first by country or region and then listing a sampler of trips by interest such as chocolate lovers, castles or war history. While this section featured interesting info and was laid out by region, its features were “back door” travel, as in off the beaten path, less well known than the common tourist sites in each region. For the most common tourist sites in Rome or Paris, get a book specifically on those places.
  Overall, this book is a great tool for the inexperienced traveler just for the travel skills section alone. Even for an experienced traveler wanting to learn to pack lighter or to know the scams common to a new destination, this book is a good all-in-one resource to wise you up and get you excited for your travels. I give it 5 stars for the first half and 4 stars for the second half.
  Now for the real question: should you buy it, or just check it out from the library? Well, I used up all three of my renewals to keep this book for a total of 9 weeks so I could read it cover to cover. I have a charity event at a bookstore coming up and was wondering what to buy at that. There is a 90% chance I will buy this book at that event. I suggest you check it out from the library and decide for yourself.
  Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

You're Not In Kansas Anymore!

Welcome to The Blissful Wanderer blog. As a lover of travel, culture and informed tourism, I hope to share information, experiences and opinions with other travel lovers that will help make our future travels a little more fun and a lot less stressful.
  I believe the key to successful travel is to be open-minded and accepting of the places we visit. I don’t know how many times I’ve been embarrassed by “ugly Americans” while I’m a guest in another country. Ugly behavior includes but is not limited to acting like a jerk because people don’t speak English, getting freaked out by things that are just done differently in the country being visited, and treating the locals like servants. Ugly behavior isn’t limited to Americans, but sometimes I feel like we work hard at cornering that market.
  Travel done well opens one’s mind to the rich history and culture of the human race. It can bring people together in greater understanding and appreciation to help build bridges toward a more peaceful future for our world. Traveling well requires courage, acceptance, and a willingness to learn from and appreciate our differences. Travel done ugly is fueled by intolerance, unrealistic expectations and frustration over the very differences a traveler should be trying to appreciate.
  How can you tell if you might be an ugly traveler? Watch an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters International for some clues. Do you go to a new country with zero knowledge of the way of life there then complain about it? Warning! Does the phrase "We don’t do it like this back home” frequently pass your lips? Red alert! Do you get angry when you go to another country and a waiter or taxi driver doesn’t speak your language? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you might be an ugly traveler setting a bad example and making it that much harder for everyone around you.
  I use House Hunters International as an example because almost every episode has at least one classic example of bad behavior. Almost all of them are based on poor planning leading to incorrect expectations and assumptions that could have been avoided with a little research ahead of time. Many inexperienced tourists share these common problems experienced by those newcomers:
  1. Language. Whether visiting or moving to a different country, don’t assume everyone speaks English. Many people will but many won’t. Arm yourself with at least a few basic phrases including “Do you speak English?” and “I don’t understand.” I have noticed that when I speak to a person in their own language first, even badly, they are appreciative of my effort and more willing to work with me and we end up learning from each other which is fun, as opposed to getting frustrated with each other which sucks.
  2. Kitchens and bathrooms and closets, oh my! Housing varies greatly in many European and South American countries. A German kitchen and bedroom is a lot different than an American one. A “suicide shower” which has an electrical device that heats water at the shower head, is a common and accepted feature in many Central and South American nations. Public and business bathrooms are not free in Germany. Suck it up and learn to accept it. Keep in mind that European culture and cities are a lot older than American ones. The buildings people still live and work in might be 100-200 years old, have no elevators and small kitchens. Closets are not common. I have seen far too many potential homebuyers complain about the lack of closets, small refrigerator or having a toilet in a separate room from the rest of the bathroom facilities. Knowing what is normal before you visit will make it easier to get used to. Instead of closets, expect to use an old-fashioned piece of furniture called a wardrobe. That tiny fridge and small supermarket are because most people don’t have cars and can’t or don’t want to carry 8 bags of groceries on the bus then up 8 flights of stairs. Instead, embrace the concept of buying fresh food every couple of days and appreciate the idea of fresh vegetables, a nice dessert from a local bakery or today’s fresh special fish or meat from the butcher or market. Yes, these lovely industries are all still viable and lively businesses in most of Europe. Isn’t that wonderful?
  3. Public transportation. You might never ever take the bus or train in your home city, but it is often the most common form of transportation in most European cities. Gas is crazy expensive in Europe, running about double what we pay in the US. Car insurance and drivers’ licenses can also be ridiculously expensive. For those reasons, as well as ecological ones, the best way to get around when visiting major European cities is by bus and train. Get a good map or guidebook and you can get around like a native. Rick Steves’ guidebooks will actually tell you exactly which bus lines to take to major attractions and what the cost is. I got his books for free from the library. Isn’t your $5000 trip to Europe worth a free trip the library or a $20 trip to the bookstore?
    Travel can be a fun and enriching experience when one is willing to accept that where you’re going is different than where you are from. Before you utter the words “This is not how we’d do it back home” check yourself immediately by remembering you are not in Kansas anymore. You are now a world traveler, a guest in another country, and an ambassador and student in a new culture. Your job on this journey is to learn, and enjoy, to surrender yourself to the new people and ways of living you are moving through, and to leave with a better understanding of your fellow passengers on spaceship earth. If you do a little homework before you go, you’ll enjoy the trip more and leave a more positive impression on those you meet along the way.
  Thanks for reading! May all your wanderings be blissful!