Tag Archives | Solo Travel

What’s in New Jersey?

“What’s in New Jersey?”

That is almost always the immediate response when I tell people I’m headed to New Jersey. Once associated mainly with Atlantic City and its casinos and boardwalk, the mention of this northeastern state now provokes loud images and soundbites from “Jersey Shore”, the MTV reality TV show that followed several housemates spending their summer in the borough of Seaside Heights, which sits around the halfway mark on the coastal stretch known as the Jersey shore.

“I’m going to visit friends. They live by the water… the town has a really chilled and relaxed vibe,” I reply. 

“By the water…” The pondering begins. Silence follows. “You mean, the Jersey shore…???”

Sigh. No more needs to be said. Unbidden visions of JWoww and Snooki are suddenly bursting before our minds’ eye.  Locals are quick to counter that all that went down in Seaside, far south of Highlands and Monmouth Beach where I spend my time.

So… why a 3-week stay in New Jersey?

My friend, K, and her husband, S.

I met K almost 7 years ago in Tibet. She was traveling around Asia; I was taking a circuitous route back to Toronto from Auckland, my ‘home away from home’ for (almost) two glorious years. We met on a G Adventures tour (GAP Adventures at the time) that started in Beijing, took us on a 48-hour train journey to Lhasa, continued overland via jeeps through several smaller towns in Tibet, before ending the trip in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Point-and-Shoot Photos from Tibet, 2007

Lhasa – Circling the Potala Palace

Lhasa – Spotting the Moon

On the Road To Gyantse

On the Road To Gyantse

Desert Road, To Gyantse

Prayer Flags at Everest

Prayer Flags at Everest

Although we tried to keep in touch during the first few years after returning to our respective homes, life got in the way as it often does and contact became sparse and then more or less trailed off. In 2012, I had some time off and decided that it was about time to reconnect.

By this time, K and S had moved in together. While K was thrilled that we would be meeting up again, S was a little more wary. He’d never heard mention of me and the details of our friendship hardly allayed his concerns: we met halfway across the world 5 years before and the sum total of our interaction since was a few emails. And now I was coming to stay with them? To say he was concerned about his physical safety is not an exaggeration… he’s from Queens, NYC.

His reaction was understandable. Friendships are normally developed over months and years, not a week to 10 days. But there’s an intensity to travel and to the bonds that are formed during it: you begin to rely on one another, to look out for each other and to admit truths that you might be loathe to express to those who you see day in and day out. Your ‘travel friends’ are getting to know the you that’s coming into being, the one that changes and grows because of the travel, at the same time that you yourself are. And the longer you’ve been roaming, the more you look for those true connections, what with all your old and familiar friendships feeling so very far away.

Fast forward to today and I’ve met the families of both K and S, stayed in relatives’ homes near and far and had the privilege of attending their wedding.

When they think of me, they now also think of food.  Generally meat. Often on a spit. Did I mention I was invited to their Greek Easter celebration last year?

Greek Easter 2013

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Adding skordalia to the beet filling for the pantzaropita

Homemade Dessert

Homemade Dessert

Food, Food and More Food

Food, Food and More Food

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb and Kokoretsi on Spits

Lamb Close-Up

Lamb Close-Up

So it all seemed very natural that my stay ended up being dominated by food. Poor K now had to put up with two large appetites, her husband’s and mine! She would wake up thinking: What are we going to eat today?

Ingredients

Ingredients

I watched as K’s practiced hands made pita after pita after pita for one of the 4 or 5 savoury veggie pies (her own variation of spanakopita) we consumed during my stay. She’d layer the bottom of a cast iron pan with one pita before adding the filling (a combination of various veggies she’d grown in her garden, onion, garlic scapes and feta cooked down in a pot) then covering it with another layer of pita, folding over the edges of the bottom layer to seal everything in, then adding a generous topping of extra virgin olive oil. I very quickly understood why they purchased their olive oil in one gallon cans: it is used in a huge amount of Greek dishes from sauces, to appetizers, marinades and mains.

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

Rolling Out the Bottom Layer

K's Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

K’s Garden Veggies for the Pita Filling

One Gallon of Olive Oil... Disappears in No Time Flat

One Gallon of Olive Oil… Disappears in No Time Flat

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

Finished Product: Veggie Filled Pita

 I learned how to make proper tzatiki, draining the cucumbers of excess water with a sieve and salt. Unsurprisingly, the larger the container of greek yogurt the happier everyone is. The tzatiki is topped off with a few whirls of extra virgin olive oil.

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

More Yogurt = More Tzatiki

K showed me how to cut up the tomatoes properly for the Greek salad: take a small knife and make a scooping motion to carve out a section that includes a good chunk of the “meat”. If you do it well, you should be left with just the top of the tomato in your hand. I, however, did not do it well and was left with, instead, a tomato that looked like it had been cored. I hid my tomatoes under hers.

Finished Product: Greek Salad

Finished Product: Greek Salad

And, ah yes, last but not least, the meat! The marinade is a basic combination of oregano, salt, pepper, lemon juice and, of course, extra virgin olive oil, but man, is it ever A-MAZING! Grilled on a bbq or skewered on a spit and roasted, the combination of the sour bite of the lemon juice and the slight bitterness of the oregano with the salt and flavour of the meat (usually pork, but chicken occasionally) was drool-inducing.

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Prepping the Pork for the BBQ

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Chicken and Pork on Spits

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

Finished Product: Roasted Pork

My three weeks in New Jersey were food-filled, rather than activity-filled. I wanted the opportunity to hang out with K and S, something we’d never really had an opportunity to do given how we met. I wanted the chance to get to know them in their space, doing nothing special, the way you do with friends who live in the same city and the goal is just to spend time together.

Share on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUponShare via email
1

Costa Rica Baby! The Journey Begins….

Sorry for the random early morning Wednesday posting, but writer’s block got in my way and I finally managed to beat it down last night.

**********************************

No idea why this title jumped into my head, but it did, so I decided to just go with it. Perhaps it’s a sudden renewed enthusiasm given the country’s performance thus far in the World Cup. I mean, fair’s fair: group D winner beating both Uruguay and Italy!!

So why now? Why choose this moment to write about Costa Rica?

As part of a daily (well, almost daily) self-appointed writing exercise, I’ve been going through my travels chronologically and it’s led me to reflect a lot on traveling solo and on which locales I’ve done by myself and how/if those experiences have significantly differed from when I travel with others.

And thus, my meandering mind eventually led me back to my time in Costa Rica.

Trees near the Nauyaca Waterfalls

In December 2012, I was looking for a place that had these attributes:

  • No significant time zone difference from Toronto as I would be working while away
  • Relatively short flying time
  • Internet access
  • Warm temperatures
  • Proximity to water
  • Good value accommodation with a nice view/setting
I had negotiated into my contract a two-week period during which I could work from abroad allowing me to get my travel fix. It was a particularly touch-and-go time for my client so I needed to find a place that was in the same time zone or very close to it. 
When you get to pick up for two weeks and work from elsewhere, though, it’s hard to find a companion. First, that person has to enjoy a fair amount of alone time as I would clearly need to dedicate time to the job. Second, he/she also can’t mind staying in one place for two weeks, another tough sell when you consider that most people in Canada get a maximum of 4 weeks paid vacation per year. Or else, this individual has to have flexibility regarding how and where work is completed. 
So, solo trip it was. 
I started off by looking for a country and then whittled it down from there. Based on the above list, I felt like the Caribbean, Central America and possibly South America regions offered the best options. I ruled out the first because it tends to be more expensive and the third because I didn’t know enough about the countries there – or speak any passable Spanish – to feel like I could make it around comfortably and safely on my own. 
Once I’d settled on Central America, Costa Rica quickly popped to the top of the list as friends who’d been there before enjoyed their time there and came back with fun stories.

Now, let me tell you about how I conducted my search for a place to live (in this case). Price was clearly a factor but after that it was about surroundings, rather than location. I didn’t want to be in a city: I wanted to feel about as far away from Toronto, traffic and crowds as I could. 
A quick search on one of my favourite vacation rental sites (www.vrbo.com) followed and I quickly found a more than suitable property: Casa Selva, a little studio that looked like it was built into the jungle, surrounded by trees, and about midway to two-thirds up a mountain.

Casa Selva Porch

It was at this point, after I fell in love with it, that I realized I still needed to learn WHERE this place was. I crossed my fingers that it was a decent driving distance from one of the two international airports. Casa Selva was located in… Dominical. Huh. Where was that? A trusty Google maps search  and… 4 hours driving from Juan Santamaria International Airport. Score! A small surf town… up a mountain dirt road…. 4 x 4 required. I was in. 

Surfers Finishing Their Day – Dominicalito, the Smaller Beach in Dominical

Upon arrival at the airport, the first thing I took care of was purchasing a SIM card. Not as easy as it sounds. Juan Santamaria airport is not very big and it turned out there was only one mobile phone stall before exiting the customs area. Because I’d be driving straight to Dominical, this was my best chance, especially, as I would need to conduct the transaction in English.

Unluckily for me, the name on the booth’s signage wasn’t a company I recognized and so, I walked right by it and into a gaggle of people, passengers, taxi drivers, and guards. It looked like the exit but there were no signs or doors, just a couple of luggage scanners and security guards standing by. Did I need to scan my luggage again? I wasn’t sure, but no one waved me over either so I kept walking and  landed immediately at the car rental desk. Oh crap.. I’ve ‘officially’ left the airport now?

Shoot. The SIM card. I asked the gentleman at the desk and he indicated that the stall back in the airport was the only supplier available. He got up, walked me back to the security area, spoke with one of the guards and I was allowed back in to return to the cell phone company. Thank goodness for the more relaxed atmosphere of Costa Rica! The cell phone would come in so very handy later that day….

I picked up my rental car, a Suzuki Jimmy (4 x 4 with manual transmission), including GPS. TIP: if you’re driving yourself through Costa Rica, a GPS is a MUST, as roads wind unpredictably and often don’t have signs. Also, if you need to do any uphill driving as well, I recommend a more powerful engine. I had some interesting moments trying to match gears with degree of incline.

In order to get to the highway, the genteel female GPS voice led me through city streets, turning this way and that, down residential streets, veering off to merge with local traffic. The instructions didn’t work all that well – for example, directions were given in miles… I don’t have a clue how far a mile is… I’m Canadian! – and in minutes I was lost. A few U-turns and some serious nervous sweating later, I managed to get back on track and on the road. The main road that would take me to Dominical had been paved in the last 5 years or so which made the drive much more pleasurable: earlier accounts from visitors and ex-pats usually included details of bone-jarring ruts and bumps that went on for hours!!!

Inevitably, traffic jams would appear on random stretches of the road, no surprise really when much of the journey provided only for one lane traffic each way. Stray dogs were everywhere and I was terrified that I would hit one who had cluelessly wandered onto the road.

I was running late. The plan had been to get there relatively early, preferably before it got dark, but I failed to realize that in Costa Rica, unlike in Toronto, even in summer the sun sets early, around 5:30pm. Then, it started to rain, heavy, steady drops. Things were getting more complicated and I could feel my body stiffening with tension. The drops turned into a downpour and as night began to fall, the downpour turned into a torrent of rain covering the car so rapidly and violently that my windshield wipers were rendered useless, shooting back and forth so rapidly that I feared they might fly off at any moment. The sky turned pitch black and there were no lights to ease my way; while I knew the safest course of action would be to pull over, I couldn’t see anything and had no idea where I could pull over, lest I end up, best case, in a ditch, worse case, off the side of a cliff.

On top of these, let’s call them adverse conditions, the directions involved spotting landmarks that while easy (or easier) to see during daylight, were next to impossible at night. Paraphrasing slightly: once you enter Dominical, you’ll drive over a bridge (more of a gut feel than a confirmed sighting at night time in the pouring rain) and past a police shack on your left (hmmm… that concrete structure seems like a good possibility); just past the 150 km route marker (say what?!?!) you’ll see a salmon-coloured bus-stop on your right (one: bus-stops don’t look the same in Dominical as in Toronto; two: what does salmon-coloured look like in the dark??); turn left onto the dirt road leading up the mountainside across from the bus-stop. Riiiight…. The directions only got murkier once I started the uphill dirt road climb.

And during all of this, with the threat of a stray dog hit-and-run incident, little to no electricity, a pitch black wall of night sky, a deluge of water, and no clear idea of where I’m going, the one thought running through my mind is: please don’t let anything happen because I do not want to explain to my father how I got into this situation. I’m not concerned so much about the possibility of damage to the car, injury to myself, or being completely lost in a foreign country – I am shit terrified of having to explain this to my father if I live.

Clearly I made it. More on that, what I learned during my stay and how the domestic SIM card was a very advantageous item to have on hand in the next post.

Sunset at Dominicalito

Do you have a story like this to tell too? What place were you unprepared for and why?

Share on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUponShare via email
0

The Singing Monk – Ryoan-ji Temple, Kyoto

A chunk of time ago, I got to spend 5 weeks in the Kansai region of Japan. Friends were teaching English in Kobe and Osaka and generously offered me a space to lay my head at night. During the days I’d wander – a particular favourite was Kyoto – and do my best to figure out the transportation system and in the evenings I’d make my way back to enjoy dinner with my friends – the perfect combination really for a solo traveler: new and adventurous in the morning, “old” and familiar in the evenings. 

If we’re lucky enough through our travels, we’re rewarded with memories that remain alive far longer than all the others. A sight, a smell, a noise or a piece of music that takes us back to that moment when they first occurred. For me, in Kyoto, Japan, that place was the Ryoan-ji Temple and that item, a scented bookmark.

*********************

I bent down on one knee, lacing up the hiking shoes that I’d removed before entering the temple. The day-pack on my back slid to the right, a distraction. I stood, reflexively stretching my back out. 

A quiet voice behind me queried politely, “You’re Canadian?”

The head monk stood lightly behind me, very much in the demeanour with which you would expect a head monk to stand. I’d forgotten about the Canadian flag stitched to my pack. 

“Yes”, I replied. “Have you ever been to Canada?” How does one carry on a conversation with a head Zen monk? 

He shook his head and chuckled softly. “No, no”, he breathed, lowering his head as if the idea struck him as worth consideration. 

The Japanese tour group that had arrived ahead of me and gathered on the temple’s veranda had slowly drifted away. I’d almost not come to see this small temple known most for its beautiful zen garden. 

Perusing the Lonely Planet Kyoto guidebook, I’d come across a brief mention of a small temple, Ryoanji, with a highly acclaimed Japanese rock garden. It wasn’t highlighted as one of the main temples to see in Kyoto – and there are many, many temples to choose from in that city – but the description of the garden as one of the finest examples of its kind had intrigued me. 

I made my way through the building as soundlessly and as gingerly as I could, as if one heavy or misplaced step might traumatize the monks or this structure they lived within, a Zen temple that had existed since the 1400s. Every creaking floorboard made me feel like a boorish interloper. 

Stepping out onto the veranda, I was confronted with a group of 20 – 30 middle-aged Japanese visitors. I could try to admire the garden with them or I could return inside and wait for their tour group to move on. It was an easy choice. My time was my own – it’s one of the big reasons I love roaming solo. I wanted the chance to sit in silence on the veranda and absorb whatever lesson or wisp of wisdom I could from those who created the kare-sansui – the zen garden – and from those who’d sat in contemplation before me. Perhaps I could learn something from sitting, observing, watching. 

But what was I watching? Nothing changes or moves in a rock garden, not in minutes or hours. 15 boulders were placed purposefully and meticulously, only 14 of which can be seen from the veranda – it is said that achieving enlightenment is the only way to see all at the same time. A calmness really did settle over me as I sat and stared, my gaze slow and calm, floating from one to the next. It was like I was studying them, but for what purpose, I didn’t know. 

I can’t remember the sounds – in my memory it’s quiet – although I imagine instances of  floorboards creaking, intervals of hushed Japanese voices and lulls of rustling leaves in the breeze. I do remember the smell of incense, a scent I’ve known almost my whole life. Weekend visits with my grandmother to the Chinese Buddhist temple…. It’s a dark and rich aroma that brings with it a warmth and acceptance. I’ve always felt safe and quieted within the walls of that temple and there, in Kyoto, seated on the Ryoanji’s terrace, the sharp, pungent incense comforts me, lending this place and this city that is so very far from my home, a familiarity. 

I wanted to sit longer, hypnotized by the stones, the gravel, the safe enclosed space of a hundreds-year old structure that stood behind, below and before me. There is a release in the need to do nothing more than sit and observe. 

Eventually, it was time for me to leave. I made my way to the small gift counter near the main door. I wanted something that would always remind me of this temple, where I’d done nothing momentous or remarkable, but rather, was stilled. A package of 3 bookmarks caught my glance, paper envelopes roughly 3 inches in height by 1 inch in width, wrapped around a scented object, a straw length knotted at the top with faint printed images and calligraphy on the surface. To this day, almost 12 years later, the fragrance remains: soft, powdery and slightly floral. 

The head monk continued to chuckle softly at my question. As I pondered what to say next, he looked up, smiled and began to sing the first few bars of the Canadian national anthem. “Oh Canada! Our home and native land!….”

What do you do but listen, smile and say thank you. 

********************* 

No pics for this entry at the moment: I was shooting in film those days and can’t find the negatives just yet (what comes from living out of a storage unit and boxes), but for more information on the temple, have a look at its website: http://www.ryoanji.jp/smph/eng/index.html. 

     http://69.195.124.87/~vanessay/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/main_img.jpg



What places still have a special hold on your heart and mind? 

‘Til next time…. 

Share on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUponShare via email
0