Saturday, July 31, 2010

Back to the Travel Writing Gig

Before leaving for South Africa, I was writing freelance for my old internship at Premier Tourism Marketing. It was a nice way to keep a connection with them while at the same time making a little extra cash. It didn't hurt that I was writing about a subject I actually like--wait, love.

Now, I'm back at it, writing travel articles for them on a regular basis. I'm hoping that working for them as a freelancer will open doors to future writing opportunities. Plus, after long hours at my copywriting job where I'm writing marketing copy all day, it's nice to write something different, something that I find interesting.

Since I began my full-time job, I have relished in my free weekends away from a cubicle and a computer screen. But today I spent a few lovely hours visiting Williamsburg, Virginia, writing about the history and activities to do in this traditional town. It reminded me how much I love reading about different locations around the country and the world. I've actually been to Williamsburg back when I was in 8th grade, so this was a chance to revisit some of those fond memories. Through these simple articles, I find a little escape.

I'm excited to continue with my dream of travel writing, even though this gig is just a small step, at least it's a step in the right direction.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Seeing the World Through New Eyes

The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. --Marcel Proust

I have always admired Proust for his profound and insightful words. But when I read this quote, my respect grew to an even greater level. I preach about how people need to travel and see the world, how they need to leave behind their everyday lives and experience something new. However, I have never addressed the highly irritating--and highly common--issue of the close-minded traveler. In a nut shell, this is the person who travels to different places, but cannot open their eyes to what their really experiencing. They go into the trip with the idea that they are going to a new place and therefore they are broadening their horizons, however, when they arrive, they look at everything the same way they do at home. They are the same person, with the same attitudes and opinions and views on life. Nothing has really changed except the setting.

I have had the unfortunate pleasure of traveling with people like this, and they are probably the most annoying travel companion you can have. (Yes, even more annoying than the extreme tourists who hang a camera over their neck, wear apparel that screams foreigner and snap photos of every passing streetcar.) It doesn't matter where they go, or what they see, or who they meet, their minds are forever closed to the beauty and culture that surrounds them. Sure, they can take the tour and learn the facts, but they aren't really soaking it in. What are they actually seeing when they enter that ancient church or world-class museum? They see what they want to see, and close themselves off to the things that they don't understand or care to know about.

I have never been an expert in the field of art, but when I entered the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I pushed my lack of knowledge to the back of my mind and took the time to inspect each piece. It didn't matter that I didn't quite grasp the idea of brush strokes and lighting, that the hidden meanings behind paintings seemed a little far fetched, or that the artist's name didn't ring a bell. All of that fell away as I listened to our guide tell us the inspiration and stories behind each piece, how the artist captured his or her emotion through oil on canvas or Fresco, and the general characteristics of the paint. Suddenly, something I used to find somewhat monotonous, suddenly seemed fascinating. I was intrigued by the artistic techniques. I wanted to know more about each artist's life: where they lived, how they grew up, who they loved. What I enjoyed most about the experience was that I opened my eyes to something new, and I learned from the experience and stumbled upon an appreciation I never really had before. Obviously, I didn't have to go all the way to Florence to find it--I could have easily discovered it at the Chicago Art Museum--but I found it nonetheless.

For me, that's what travel is truly about. Not just going to a place, but really seeing a place for what it is. Anyone can say I went to Paris, or Egypt, or Thailand. Hell, people can even say they've gone to San Francisco or New York City. But to truly discover those places is to open your mind to the environment, the culture, the vibe, and appreciate everything for what it is. Previously held perceptions and opinions will only block a person from the beauty and distinctiveness that accompanies every destination.

So the next time you go on a vacation, cast aside all your habitual notions, all your conceptions and all your doubts, and just look at what is around you.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Cultural Festivals Transport Us to Another World

As anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows, I love Italy. I would go back in a heartbeat if I could. Sadly, I do not have the money nor a stable enough career to take that vacation. However, I can always get a taste of Italy if I really want to. Indeed, food is a gateway to culture and tradition. All I have to do is whip up some spaghetti bolognese, or grill a proscuitto panini, or scoop a spoonful of straciatella gelato, and I am instantly back in Rome walking down Via del Corso. And one of the best places to eat Italian food is at an Italian festival.

Italian Fest is next weekend, and I fully intend on hitting up Little Italy all weekend long. Not only will the food be sensational, but there will be wine tastings galore. (Because it certainly is not a meal without a glass of vino.) On top of the sustenance and libations, Italian Fest will also offer cultural keepsakes from vendors and artists. I will be looking for any photo or painting of an Italian city to hang on my wall at home. Even though I can purchase Italian fare and souvenirs, it's the vibe that really makes the experience enjoyable. There is an electricity, a feeling of community at International festivals. They pull you into the culture, and it's sad when you have to leave that world. 

In the interest of broadening my horizons--Italian Fest is not the only place to get great food and wine--I will also be attending Greek Fest at the end of August and then Polish Fest in the beginning of September. Obviously, I will try to fit in more if I can, but those are the three big ones. And for one day--or however long I spend there--I will be transported into the world of these fascinating countries.
I can't wait to take a bite.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Great Wine from an Unexpected Source

Imagine sipping wine poured straight from the barrel, letting the taste of fresh fruits and sweet spices settle on your tongue. Now imagine those citrusy, crisp flavors came from moldy grapes grown in the moldiest region possible. It's no joke, it's real. Mold in the city of Tokaj, Hungary, is responsible for some of the best wines in the country. Since two large rivers, the Tisza and the Bodrog, converge in this area, moisture and dampness take over, making it a breeding ground for fungus. But unlike wine cellars in California, France and Italy, Hungarian wineries embrace the spores. The black mold, Cladosporium cellare, thrives in the wine cellars, and Botrytis cinerea, also called “noble rot,” attacks the grapes in the vineyard. But this is one of the secrets to the famous sweet wines, like Tokaji asz.

The way it works, as I understand it, is when the mold attaches to the grapes, they dry up into solid balls of concentrated sugar. This allows for a very unique flavor to emerge. The reason fungus works in harmony with the grapes is because the vineyards are planted with furmint. Apparently, this is beneficial to fungus.

But if you want to try the full range of wines from the area, it is nearly impossible. These wines, though becoming more and more well known around the world, are a rarity outside of Hungary. So it seems a trip to the Hungarian countryside is a must in order to taste the unique complexities of these wines.

I'm a big fan of wine, trying different bottles from different regions every chance I get. But I had no idea that Hungary had a wine region comparable to Italy's Chianti or France's Bordeaux. So how did I hear about this booming wine capitol? Where else but NY Times Travel section. Evan Rail had the privilege of venturing to Hungary to sample some of their exquisite wines, and I have to say, he inspired me to travel there as well. I have always wanted to visit Budapest, and apparently Tokaj is only two and a half hours away by car. It seems like it would be a nice side trip.

Rail recommends, in his article about the vines of Hungary, that travelers rent a car when they arrive in Budapest, since it will be much easier to get around to the different vineyards. For lodging, there are a number of options, but he suggests Grof Degenfeld Castle Hotel in Tarcal and Torkolat Panzio in Tokaj. Usually special offers are available, but you will have to do some research on the deals and see if they are worth it. From Rail's descriptions of the accommodations as well as the many wines he sampled, I'd say it's definitely worth it. I probably won't be able to schedule a trip this year, and next year might be difficult, too. (I did just start my job three weeks ago, and it's not like the money's rolling in.) But wine is something I truly appreciate in life, and I think it's important to branch out.

Wine making is an art form, even when painting with moldy grapes.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Electronics Free Vacation

It wasn't too long ago that going on vacation meant completely detaching from our everyday life. Yes, there was a time back before cell phones--though some may not be able to remember back that far--before computers and the internet, when people left town and, really, left it all behind. Now, it's difficult not to stay connected, no matter what part of the world you're visiting. Take my recent trip to Africa, for example. For the most part, we were pretty detached from the world and the daily occurrences in the news, unless it related to soccer. But for some reason no one liked being that distant, that cut off. Since we didn't have wireless in our villa, it became a mission to find some way to access email, the internet, anything. I was not as eager to find a way to connect back to life in Chicago, but even I had my smart phone that could access my email. But I made it a goal to keep my phone turned off, and only to turn it on in case of an emergency. The guys, however, were determined, and carted their laptops all through one of the local malls until they found a place that had wifi. Admittedly, I caved in and checked my email, and it was a good thing, too, since I would have missed a credit card payment had I not.

The bottom line is that more and more people are going on vacation and not really leaving their work at home. There is no such thing as "getting away" because you can always be found. Our society is over-connected, it seems, and no one wants to change that. I mean, look at the facts. We live on a planet of 2.5 billion cell phones. In America the Kaiser Family Foundation says that children spend nearly 8 hours a day looking at phones, computers, TVs and other interactive media. CareerBuilder says 25% of workers stay connected with the office during their holiday. And really, I think that number is probably larger, cause how many businesses can CareerBuilder really monitor.

But what if you really want to detach? To go on a trip where phones and computers are prohibited? To venture to a place where they've never heard of wifi? To truly achieve escapism? Is it even possible? What if there was a vacation company that created electronics-free getaways? Researchers at Mintel say that technology is not going to decline, but the forecast for downtime and disconnection is improving. Research has shown that taking short breaks away from media and technology can actually help students with their reading and arithmetic. Perhaps we all need to take some time away, truly let go of everything, head to a "zero coverage" zone, and just switch off. If we took the time to dig our toes in the sand, lay in the sun and not use our touch-screen-prone fingers except to sip a large cocktail, then perhaps there were be less chaos and craze in the world. Maybe if we switch off, our brains will actually light up.

World Cup Creates Unity in South Africa and the World

Crowds of people dance in the streets, waving their country flags proudly and wailing on vuvuzelas. The loud, incessant horns seem never ending as I enter the stadium to witness my first ever World Cup match. But while this is an important moment for me personally, it's even more monumental on a universal scale. 

South Africa is the first African nation to host the World Cup. For the longest time the country was divided by prejudice and hate during the Apartheid era. But since Nelson Mandela came to power, South Africa has worked to be a more peaceful and united country. And now the whole world is watching. The World Cup is a way to show everyone how far they have come, and it needs to go off without a hitch. But unfortunately media outlets across the world created false impressions of how dangerous South Africa was. Many people decided not to come, fearing terrorist attacks and violent crime. I'll plead guilty to having doubts, I was definitely apprehensive when we first arrived in Africa. Since all I had ever heard was negative hype that claimed tourists would be robbed, mugged or murdered on the street, and terrorists would roll out with machine guns. It was and still is pathetic that I ever had these thoughts, but it was what was flashed in front of me for so long. I had studied Apartheid, knew the horrors or Uganda and Rwanda, fear was pitted in my stomach.

But South Africa is nothing like people made it out to be. Or at least, the South Africa that I saw. Durban is full of friendly, helpful people just trying to get by. It's no less safe than America, and in fact, there were times I felt safer in Durban than I did in some neighborhoods of Chicago. Of course, thanks to the World Cup, police swarmed the city like flies hovering over food. But I have a feeling that even without the increase in security, Durban would have been peaceful. The people want to be respected, the country wants to burn their bloody past, and Soccer is the way to do it.

Durban built a brand new soccer stadium for the tournament, The Moses Mabhiba Stadium, complete with seating for 70,000 spectators. The impressive arch that sweeps over the pitch features a cable car that runs on non-game days, taking visitors up over the stadium, giving them unparalleled views of Durban.  When the stadium is packed with people, it's even more impressive. This is where everyone, from all over the world, is joined together, experiencing the same match. Every game, we sat in a different part of the stadium, and this provided us with various viewpoints of the field as well as the fans. We made friends with people sitting around, bonding over nothing more than the fact that we all had a ticket to a World Cup game. It no longer mattered what country we were from, everyone was a soccer fan, everyone was there for the same reason. The World Cup brought everyone together, and I believe South Africa accomplished what they wanted all along: Unity.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Durban: Beach Capital of South Africa

Located in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, Durban is a coastal city full of great food, friendly people and gorgeous beaches. My two week stay here could not have been more perfect, with the exception of a few cold days when we first arrived. Since it's winter in South Africa, most of the country is relatively cold, with temperatures ranging 35-50 degrees; but Durban is the warmest place we could be, and they were proud to announce that throughout the city. The coldest day we had was probably the day we arrived, when it was at a brisk 60 degrees. But a majority of the time we had beautiful, sunny weather, and I only needed to wear a light jacket in the evenings when we went out. But enough about the weather, cause who really wants to hear about that?

On the day of our arrival, we anxiously awaited our luggage and picked up our World Cup tickets at the airport. With only some slight issues, we made it to the car rental and picked up our vehicles. Little did we know that South Africa was one of the few countries where people drive on the other side of the road. This was no problem for my dad, being from England and all, but my mom was not so thrilled. I had the lovely honor of navigating her into the city, keeping a close eye on that left-hand side as it inched close to curbs and other obstacles on the highway. After about 15 close calls and 8 heart attacks, we arrived at our destination, our humble abode for the remainder of the trip.

Our home for two weeks was a self-serve villa in the Sydenham neighborhood. It sat cozily on a hill bordered by quaint little homes, all barricaded by thick concrete walls and remote controlled gates. Signs for "Armed Response" hung near the entrances, warning any who may try to invade. Butterflies built in my stomach. Were we in a safe place? It didn't help that no one was around to greet us when we arrived, there were no instructions on what to do, how to get in. My mom and I, being overly cautious, wouldn't allow my boyfriend, Steve, to talk to anyone who happened to walk by. We were completely out of our element. Luckily, a woman from the little hotel across the street came to let us in, giving us the key and showing us the complex. The fear passed, excitement grew.

After settling in, purchasing food for the kitchen, getting unpacked, we headed out to explore Durban.
As mentioned, the beaches in Durban are incredible. I could have spent days just lounging at one of the many coastal cafes, sipping a cocktail and enjoying the breeze off the Indian Ocean. Luckily, our schedule allowed me to spend a lot of time near the water, and I definitely appreciated the peaceful moments of relaxation. And there weren't many thanks to the massive crowds of soccer fans that bombarded the fan center to watch every game broadcast on a big screen. But the atmosphere was electric, making the experience even more enjoyable.

As much as I would like to tell you that animals roamed freely around the city and we had to fight off monkeys so they wouldn't take our food at restaurants and bars, that was not the case at all. Durban is a very modern and westernized city, with malls and apartment buildings and event centers. It's not the image you think of when you hear Africa. To get that, you have to drive a few hours outside the city center--which we did get to do when we went on a safari, but that's another entry entirely.

Durban is a resort city, and people from all over Africa and the world come here to relax. Because of the high volume of tourists, there are countless restaurants and delicious cuisine options to choose from. We tried everything from Italian and Indian eateries, to traditional African barbeque and bunny chow. That's right, bunny chow. It's basically the South African version of a chili bowl. You pick your protein--beef, chicken, prawns, lamb--and then they spice it up with a yummy curry sauce and place it all in a loaf of bread. Then you enjoy!

The day we tried South African barbeque, our friend Lynette--who is a local from Durban--took us out to one of the townships. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive at first. You hear all these rumors about the townships in Africa, the poverty and the crime and how dangerous it can be to visit them. But since Lynette was with us, along with three guys over 6 feet tall, I figured we were pretty safe. When we pulled up to the restaurant and hopped out of the car, we received quite a few stares. And it was to be expected, we were the only white people there. But they didn't stare at us out of hate, but rather out of shock and curiosity. It was intimidating. We stepped inside and peered through the glass case that held all the uncooked meat. Lynette told us to pick what we wanted and she would tell the women our order. So we picked four large cuts of beef, figuring that would suffice. Then she took it into her own hands to order us a liver, kidney and heart as well. My stomach started to churn.

After salting and seasoning the meat, and cooking it over an open flame for what felt like forever, our lunch was served to us on a large wooden plank with piles of salt sitting next to the slabs of beef. A styrofoam box came with the food, which I figured was where we placed any bones or leftovers. But when I glanced inside there was a potato-like substance inside. Lynette told me it was mashed grains that they heated and solidified into blocks. Pretty much like a version of mashed potatoes, but this you can eat with a toothpick. In fact, we ate everything with toothpicks. The meat was cooked until it was moist and tender, just right for my palate. The guys dove right into the good stuff, but I was hesitant to touch anything that resided within the cow's ribcage. Before I got my courage up, the heart was gone. So I tried a small sliver the of the kidney and liver. I'm happy to report it tasted pretty good, thanks to the extra salt and sauce I dipped it in. The biggest thing to get past is the texture--and the knowledge of what you're eating.

Since I was on this trip with my brother and his friends, I got a pretty decent look at the Durban night life. One of our favorite hangouts was a place on the beach called Joe Cool's. It's pretty much a sports bar, but it has different levels you can access by ramps or stairs, a large dance floor in the main room, tons of patio space and three bar areas to order copious amounts of alcohol, which we did with pleasure. We soon discovered that Florida Street is the place to go in Durban for restaurants, bars and clubs. And it definitely has a wide variety of options to choose from. A walk down this street doesn't disappoint. There were a number of dance clubs that Lynette took us to, but I'm not much of a clubber, so unfortunately I cannot report accurately the quality of these places. But if it helps, the guys seemed to have a pretty good time.

After two short weeks in Durban, we reluctantly packed our things, locked up the villa and headed to the airport to embark on the long journey home. As much as I was ready to get back to Chicago and my real life, I was sad to leave this city I had grown so attached to. It will forever hold the memories of our World Cup trip, and I won't soon forget the times we had there. I can honestly mark this South Africa trip as one of the best vacations I have ever had, and I definitely intend on returning in the future.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Back with a Vengeance

After a long absence, I have returned!

I have to apologize for how bad I've been about posting. I realize there is no legitimate excuse for my carelessness, but I'm going to make an attempt anyway. First of all, I had to finish up my internships and get through my final weeks of graduate school. Then I had to spend hours applying for one job after another as well as running around Chicago to attend interviews. You should all be happy to know that I have completed my masters and am now working full-time as a copy writer for a marketing company. Yes, you can celebrate my good fortune, I know I am. Second, as you all know I had a very important trip to South Africa and the World Cup, and let's face it, I was way too preoccupied with happenings there to post anything.

But now I have returned, as dedicated as ever to reporting on the various travel stories and personal anecdotes that I find interesting. (I don't really care if you don't think they're interesting, cause it's my blog.) As you may have noticed, I've done a little rearranging and redesigning to my page, and I think this new layout is rather fitting. So with all that has happened and all the changes going on in my life, it's gonna be a lot to cover.

So let's dive right into it shall we?