Thursday, August 19, 2010

Simplifying on the Road

I seem to be on this getting-rid-of-the-stress-and-embracing-simplicity kick as of late, but I feel it's important when everyone just seems to be running around non-stop. With the help of Twitter and StumbleUpon, I found a great article by Eric Weiner, a former foreign affairs correspondent for NPR.(He's also the author of a travel book called The Geography of Bliss, which I plan on promptly picking up as soon as possible.) The story, appropriately titled The Skrink-Wrapped Traveler, is about lightening your load when you travel; removing all the clutter--physically and mentally--and living more modestly. At least for the few days or weeks of your trip.

It all starts with what you bring, how much you pack. Weiner wisely says, "Travel, good travel, is about going without...because a pared-down life is a better one. That’s why packing light is smart." I fall victim to over packing, or at least I used to, but recently I've been able to successfully shove my life into a small carry-on bag. I need some more practice, but I'll get there. This whole concept of traveling light fits in perfectly with my last post about getting rid of our gadgets, removing that distraction from our lives. The two seem to go hand-in-hand, because doesn't the constant need to check our phones or emails add extra weight to our day? It's just another thing we have to do. I do, of course, realize that communication in our world today is important, so I understand it's difficult to leave it behind. But it's worth considering, maybe just for a long weekend.

Just a backpack with some clothes and toiletries, no phone or computer, and the world at your disposal.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Getting Back to Nature

I wrote a post a few weeks ago that talked about the technology-free vacation. I believed then that it was a great idea. Now, after reading an article in the New York Times Technology section, I find it even more appealing. The article chronicles a trip taken by five neuroscientists to a remote area of Southern Utah, completely detached from cell phone reception or wi-fi. For a week, these scholars hiked, rafted and camped in the wilderness, the whole time discussing how heavy technology use effects our brains and how nature may reverse it.

Some of the scientists were skeptical about it, while others embraced the idea. Since this trip is a rarity in our world today, where people can communicate even from the farthest reaches of the globe, it was difficult for these men to give up their laptops and blackberries. But they did it, and you know what, I think it was the best thing for them. They even reported, after a few days of physical activity and fresh air, they were more relaxed, focused and reflective. The constant nagging of a cell phone seemed to dissipate, and it almost seemed silly to want to check email. Even with important happenings going on back at home, the scientists were able to push it aside and enjoy a trip that took them away from it all--literally.

Not only did the trip effect their personal gadget-checking tendencies, but it also changed how they looked at their scientific research. According to  David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, what happens to us when we step away from our devices is important to study, it's essential to science. What these scientists found was that taking time away from technology and spending it outside participating in physical activities increased their focus and attention. Their minds were able to relax, producing clearer thoughts and more cognitive reasoning. Perhaps nature is the cure. Of course, the scientists all need more proof of this before jumping to that conclusion. Mr. Braver, a brain imaging expert and one of the skeptics, wants to use imaging to study what happens to the brain when it rests. Mr. Kramer, a professor at the University of Illinois, wants to investigate the benefits to the brain that occurred, whether they were due to being in nature or by participating in physical activities. Mr Atchley, a professor at the University of Kansas, says he wants to study the addictive nature of people and how it can result in bad decisions and destructive behavior.

While the trip didn't cure them of their technology dependence, it did make them realize that a little downtime is important, a way to unclutter thoughts and focus attention. Isn't that why they call it a vacation? It restores you, in a way. I've felt strongly about the need to take a break, because working too much, multi-tasking, checking phones and emails 24/7 can fry your brain; it's mentally exhausting. If you don't take some personal time, you'll go crazy.

I don't know if I would be able to completely give up technology for a week--or even a weekend--but it is something I am willing to try. If nothing else, it will be a freeing experience. Now, I just have to convince my boyfriend, who has a computer permanently attached to him at all times, to come along for the trip.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Blow to Illinois Tourism

Driving on I-90 Southbound from Wisconsin is a typical route for me and my friends visiting from Milwaukee. And since I live in Chicago, and most of them are either from the area or have been here so many times they feel like they live here, we're never been in need of any Chicago tourist information. But for the people who have never ventured across the border--though that's a rarity--or for the ones visiting from other states, they need all the help they can get. But unfortunately for them, they won't find any on I-90, or I-55, or I-80. I think you see where I'm going with this...

The news this morning reported that 13 of the 15 tourist information centers sprinkled throughout the state were shut down on account of budget issues. This means those convenient little kiosks at interstate rest stops have shuttered their windows and sent their employees packing. The reason? Only state contracts that pertained to health and security were approved by the governor's budget office. The only two centers left are the Springfield and Chicago locations, which are run by volunteers. Tourism has taken a serious blow in the state budget.

This event has caused tourism offices around the state to wonder about their own budgets as well as how they will be able to continue to attract visitors. With these cuts being made, state tourism bureaus are concerned that they could be next. But most feel this would be a huge mistake for Illinois. According to reports, tourism generates $2.1 billion in tax revenues annually for Illinois and its communities and creates 303,000 jobs.  The tourism centers were generally the first stop people made when entering the state, generating $68 million for Illinois' economy. Now that resource--and the revenue--is gone. And with no set budget for tourism set for fiscal 2011, it seems the closing of these centers is only the beginning.

For now the tourism offices can only wait for their budgets to be approved for next year, but fears of more cuts and closures are escalating as Illinois sinks further and further into debt.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Praise for "Without Reservations"

The beauty of the travel memoir is that it not only captures the essence of a place, but also how the person reacts to it. Alice Steinbach does this brilliantly in her book Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman. Of course the title is what initially drew me to pick up the book, but the voice and the insight are what kept me reading. I must have ear-marked over 20 pages that had funny quotes or interesting observations or travel ideas that truly struck a cord.

The memoir traces the time Steinbach spends in Paris, London, Oxford and various cities in Italy. It discusses the monuments and buildings she visits, the streets she explores, the clothes the buys, the food she guiltlessly enjoys and the many interesting characters she meets along the way. Each chapter draws the reader into Steinbach's internal thoughts, brought on by every place to which she travels. Steinbach participates in typical tourist activities, but what is really fascinating are her musings about her travel adventure to discover herself. Yes, self-discovery and travel, it seems the two often go hand-in-hand. But I found Steinbach's witty comments and deep explorations a refreshing mixture from the typical, cliche travel-the-world-and-find-yourself stories. She is relaxed during her time away, but also concerned with the life she left behind. She is curious about new things, but still feels comfort in the everyday routines. This is how it feels when we travel, especially when we take long breaks from the ordinary. I felt myself relating to every emotion she conveyed, which was probably why I marked so many passages.

Or perhaps I was so enthralled with this memoir because it is exactly the type of book I want to write someday. This is the kind of trip I would love to take sometime in my life, and if I could tell my story as well as her, I would feel incredibly accomplished. So while I work on documenting my trips and getting my work published, I will refer back to Steinbach and her encouraging words about travel, companionship, love, life and every moment in between.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Have Ipad, Will Travel

Lonely Planet is teaming up with Apple.

After years of selling traditional travel books, the travel guide mogul is catching onto the digital trend in a big way. With the recent success of the iPad, Lonely Planet decided the device would be the perfect platform to launch their Discover series. According to an article in The Independent, Lonely Planet's digital travel guides are available to download to the iPad, where travelers can use the touch screen to navigate between pages and maps as well as bookmark key sights and make notes using the iBooks application. Travelers can also look up information on Google and Wikipedia while they're jetting off to various locations around the world. The head of Lonely Planet, Matt Goldberg, says that since the needs of today's traveler are constantly changing, why not have a device that is flexible and functional enough to change with them? With the help of Apple's e-publishing technology and Lonely Planet's expertise on travel, the two have created immersive guides that get travelers right into the action.

While I am reluctant to purchase the iPad for my own personal reasons (don't need to drop that much money right now) I believe this is a great way to use this technology. While traveling, it's not easy carrying around a heavy travel guide, flipping through the pages as you navigate through crowded streets looking for that one church or museum. This definitely opens up possibilities for other travel publishers to get in on the e-guide action. I'm looking forward to seeing more travel innovations such as this, and maybe if Let's Go or Rick Steves created travel guides for the iPad, I would seriously consider buying one.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Two Worlds, One City

People often ask me why I love living in the city so much. My go-to responses include: I grew up in the city, so I'm used to the atmosphere; I like being able to walk anywhere I need to go; I like that the houses don't all look the same; and there's just more to do. But now I can add another reason to my long list: You can experience completely different worlds without leaving the city limits!

Allow me to explain the happenings of this past weekend and how I came to appreciate the city of Chicago even more than I already do.

On Friday night I met up with some friends at a hip, downtown rooftop bar. After standing in a line downstairs for a couple minutes, our ids were checked by a pair of well dressed men, who then gave us wrist bands to indicate our appropriate age. We were ushered into the elevators that took us up to the top floor. We stepped out onto black tile flooring, speckled with flecks of blue and silver. White leather couches were grouped together throughout the large room, with fancy rugs flung out underneath them. A fire place sat quaintly in the corner next to a larger grouping of chairs and couches. The cubed tables donned little "reserved" signs, indicating we were not important enough to sit there. My friend and I walked out to the patio section, where two fire pits roared in the middle of the action, as thirsty patrons sipped their drinks and nibbled on small appetizer plates. Booth tables made of dark, paneled oak lined the sides of the patio. All of these were filled with groups of people chatting away.

A quick once around of this trendy spot, and I had the general clientele pinned: successful, well-dressed professionals in their late twenties and early thirties. While I am neither successful nor in this age range, I felt quite at home as I sat at the glowing neon-green bar and ordered a $10 glass of Argentinian wine. My outfit was no where near as nice as the suits and cocktail dresses worn by the rest of the crowd, but I certainly fit the part of young socialite with designer jeans, a fitted deep cut top and Jessica Simpson heels. (Wow, do I ever feel pretentious.) Despite my wardrobe and the pricey drink in my hand, there was still this sense of being an outsider, like I was visiting a different world. My Friday nights usually consist of dining at a local sports bar or making food at home while enjoying a movie. It's safe to say I live within my means most of the time. But every once and a while, like Friday night, I like to take a trip to the world I imagine I could one day live in; one with fancy parties and bottle service, expensive clothes and high-class acquaintances. It's a fantasy world, a lifestyle that is full or privilege and prestige. I believe it's the kind of life I would have if I ever wrote my book and became a best-selling novelist. But for now, for one night at least, I got a nice glimpse into another world, another culture and class I don't get to experience very often.

Then Saturday night came, and I found myself on the train heading in a different direction. Instead of hitting up the trendy, overpriced clubs and bars downtown, I ventured north to the outskirts of the Irving Park neighborhood. My friend and I walked along the nearly deserted streets to this small dive bar. It was lucky we knew the address, because there was no sign or anything announcing the name of this place. The space had no garnishes, no flashy decorations, just dingy windows that allowed you to peer into the dark room. As we entered, the bouncer took our ids and stamped our hands, as my friend informed me that the bar also served as a liquor store--in case one beer wasn't enough and I wanted to purchase a six pack. Classy.

As I wandered down the bar to where most people were sitting, I suddenly realized what it reminded me of: a house basement. Perhaps it was the scratched linoleum floors, or the fake wooden paneling on the walls, but I felt like I was back in high school when I would spend afternoons studying in my friends cluttered basement because her mom was occupying the kitchen. In the back corner, one spotlight was focusing on a singer and drummer performing for the tiny crowd. As I approached the bartender, I pulled out a $20, but soon realized this was far too much than what I needed. I ordered a bottle of amber wheat beer, and the price: $2.50! Even compared to my considerably frugal purchasing, that was super cheap. My friends and I made our way to a fold out table surrounded by wooden chairs that felt like they would break as I sat down. As for the people, it was quite an eclectic group. The young students who were groupies for the bands that were performing crowded together in little circles, while the older regulars sat at the bar further away just observing the action. The only couches in the bar were located right in front of the makeshift stage. The faux-leather cushions were worn and faded, so whenever anyone sat in them, they sank down deep into the couch.The occupants of said couches were some young couples, dressed in revealing clothing that left little to the imagination. It felt like a complete turnaround from the night before. I looked down at my clothes, and sure enough, they pretty much matched the feel of the evening. $10 flip flops paired with skinny black pants from H&M and a top that was over 2 years old that I got on sale.

How did this happen? Within 24 hours, my world had changed, I was somewhere else completely. But despite the dilapidated conditions and somewhat creepy bar occupants, the experience thrilled me. I had traveled to a different world entirely. What a contrast! It occurred to me that this was something I had experienced before, though in a much more subtle way. Just venturing from one neighborhood to another opens the door to another world, or at least a slightly different one. Ukrainian Village features stores and restaurants that differ from those in Logan Square or Wicker Park. Lincoln Park and Lakeview have a different mood and feel than the Gold Coast or River North. Each area offers something different; so no matter what you feel like doing, what kind of life you want to live for one night, you can find it in the city.

I wonder what world I'll visit tonight...