It’s been 15 months since I last took an international trip, and I almost forgot I needed to grab my passport. I was packing this afternoon for a few days in New York followed by a New Years week trip to Guadeloupe, and I was going through my wallet thinking “Work ID… check… MetroCard… check… Oh, I should grab my debit card that doesn’t charge foreign fees, check, got that… do I need my passport card or is my driver’s license enough OH WAIT I NEED MY ACTUAL PASSPORT!” And then I had to go find it, which took a minute because it was buried under a bunch of old phone chargers at the back of a random drawer, instead of sitting in my important-documents drawer where it belonged. I mean, that turned out to be not such a big deal, because one of those phone chargers was my international-plug-compatible-with-two-usb-ports charger that I need anyway, but still. Passports really do belong in the important documents drawer…
But this is all just prequel to the important fact, which is that I’m finally getting to Guadeloupe, eleven and a half months after a New York Times article made me want to jump on a plane immediately. I already knew it was beautiful, because Guadeloupe is where they film Death in Paradise, one of my favorite British detective shows. But this article pointed out that there are ultra cheap nonstop flights from New York, and that the food is a unique (and spectacularly delicious) blend of Creole and French haute cuisine. In fact, the flights from JFK to Point-à-Pitre on Norwegian Air are so cheap that a round trip costs only about $100 more than the round trip between DC and NYC. And we’re AirBnB-ing two bedroom apartments, four nights on one coast and five nights on the other, for something crazy like €130/night.
I am going to eat ALL THE SEAFOOD. And I am going to scuba dive and see ALL THE FISH. And although it may be a bit rusty at this point, I am going to speak ALL THE FRENCH. I can’t wait!
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is so uniquely North American that people in most other countries don’t quite get it. The Fourth of July? That’s easy enough, many countries have an Independence Day, or at least a day where they set off fireworks. (Everybody likes fireworks!) MLK Day? It’s also pretty standard to have a holiday to recognize an important historical figure. But Thanksgiving, as celebrated in the US and Canada, with its ritual foods, is just sort of puzzling.
When I lived in France after college, and worked as an au pair, Thanksgiving was tough because I got homesick. It’s always been a big deal in my family, and Skyping in just isn’t the same. So, I invited my new friends over for a traditional Thanksgiving meal! My little studio didn’t have an oven or a microwave, just a hot plate, so I baked the pie and the sweet potatoes in the family’s oven while the kids were watching cartoons, much to the parents’ bemusement when they got home from work. And, as you can tell from the expressions on my friends’ faces, they didn’t really know what to think about this weird food either. (From left to right, they are French, English, and Mexican. No cranberry sauce in any of those countries…)
Now, back in the US, we as a country are so in love with fall foods that it’s not enough to eat them on Thanksgiving itself. No, we need Friendsgiving too! I hosted one for the first time this year, and it was actually kind of fun to experiment with different dishes. For example, if you have vegetarians in your life, a wild-rice-and-mushroom stuffed squash beats a tofurkey hands down, in my humble opinion.
And then of course there is the main event. This year, for a variety of reasons, I officially co-hosted Thanksgiving, and I was responsible for the dessert and the green beans. I made five pies: pecan, pumpkin, apple, and two chocolate pecans. They were all a hit, so if you’re wondering what the secrets are: for a good chocolate pecan pie, use Ghirardelli 60% dark chocolate and a splash of bourbon or grand marnier. For apple pie, add a pinch or two of chai spices to your cinnamon. And for pumpkin pie that is unbelievable fluffy, follow the Smitten Kitchen recipe, cook the pumpkin on the stove, and use a real whisk (forks don’t quite cut it).
Five pies, four pounds of green beans, a tray full of cheese and crackers, and a backseat full of folding chairs? Good thing I have a hatchback!
My culinary adventures in Tokyo fall squarely into two categories: food I ate with my cousin (who speaks Japanese and told me what to order) and food I ordered for myself. Food I ate with my cousin was uniformly delicious, and while most of the food I ordered for myself in Japan was good (except in Kyoto, where stuff got weird), I also ended up making some big faux pas. There was the time I thought I was ordering tea, and actually the teapot was full of the water they had been cooking pasta in. There was time I thought I was pouring water from a pitcher into a cup, but actually I was pouring it into the container that they put your check in when they bring it to you. (That mistake I didn’t even realize until 20 minutes after I left the restaurant, where I put together the one waiter’s horror as he snatched the cup away with the other waiter’s surprise when there was nowhere to put the check.) And then there were the times when the food still had its eyes, but I draw the line at eyes. I just didn’t eat that stuff.
Overall, my food consumption in Tokyo was either noodles and onigiri, which were nice and cheap, or sushi, which was expensive but not ridiculous.
Below is conveyor belt sushi! The way it works is that each color of plate is associated with a price. The chefs just stand on the inside chopping away and putting plates on the belt, and then as it goes by you pull off whatever looks good. At the end you stack them all up and they count your plates, and then give you the total. It’s a pretty good deal if you go with enough people; I think my share was only $20 or $25, which is amazing given how many different kinds of sushi I tried! (I did not eat the ones with eyes, although my cousin’s fiancé, who is Japanese, did.)
I did not eat the things with eyes.
Conveyor belt sushi! Three people go through a lot of plates.
Noodles of Tokyo. Clockwise, cold udon with a poached egg and tempura sticks of shrimp and vegetables; mushroom soba, ordered from a restaurant where no one spoke English by pointing at a picture of what I wanted to eat (the soup was delicious but I ended up with a teapot of pasta water); and dumplings. No idea what was in them. In theory, I am a big fan of the picture menu in countries where the alphabet is completely unrecognizable, but of course those menus limit you to tourist restaurants if you want to understand ahead of time on what you’re going to eat. I don’t particularly like eating in tourist restaurants… which is why I ended up eating a lot of very weird, oddly gloopy things in Kyoto.
Udon with tempura sticks. One was shrimp, the rest vegetables. It was cold, which was super refreshing on a hot day!
Dumplings! My favorite food. I think this restaurant may actually have been Chinese, but it was very hard to tell.
Mushroom soba. This is the meal where I poured myself a nice cup of pasta water.
Plastic food. This was super common, and I have at least ten or twenty photos of amusingly shiny plastic food, ranging from crepes to pizza to udon. I’m guessing the point is to take the picture-menu-for-tourists thing one step farther, but maybe not.
A year ago today, I landed in Tokyo to start my bar trip. In some ways, it seems like just yesterday, but when I think about how much I’ve grown as a lawyer, it makes a bit more sense. I was pretty bad about posting on this blog while I was on my trip, because I didn’t have enough time to write both in my paper journal and on here, and I prioritized the paper journal. But now I’m on vacation (and it’s a real vacation! Because my big case settled at 3 pm on Friday!) and I am finally going through my pictures, and the circumstances are perfect for me to finally put in some updates.
(I took almost 5,000 photos on my trip, between my phone and my DSLR, but my computer can’t sort them in chronological order. So these photo-and-story updates will be thematic more than strictly chronological.)
A few days ago I was flying back from Boston on the same flight as my sister-in-law, and I was using the time in the airport (thanks, flight delays!) to sort through some of my pictures from the trip. (Yes, it’s been 8 months since I got back; no, I haven’t gotten past the first week’s worth of photos yet. Japan was awesome and I took a ton of pics, I’m having a hard time sorting them!) We chatted some about the trip, and she mentioned that her parents had been worried about my safety, so I thought this would be a good time for a post on what to think about, when you’re traveling alone, to stay as safe as possible.
When Planning Your Trip
I posted earlier about how to choose your hostel (https://atwlawyer.com/2016/07/16/how-to-choose-a-hostel/), but you actually need to be thinking about safety one step earlier, when you are choosing how to arrive in the city in the first place. Ideally, you can pick a train, bus, or plane that will arrive before it gets dark, so that you have the luxury of time and daylight to get yourself situated at your hotel/hostel/airbnb. If that’s not possible, you want to at least try to schedule things so that you arrive at your lodgings by 9 pm or so. In my experience, that’s about the time of night when the feel of a neighborhood can change from comfortable-but-be-alert to get-your-ass-off-this-deserted-street. If you have no choice but to arrive at a horrible time of night, then you need to take that into consideration when you’re choosing your lodging, at least for the first night, and you need to budget a lot more for transportation. Public transit probably won’t even be running, or it might not be safe, and so you need to be able to pay for a taxi. You also need to be staying at a place that has a 24-hour front desk, and not an airbnb where the owner can only give you the key in person.
Arriving in a New Place
There are a lot of times where I haven’t been able to take my own advice, and I’ve ended up getting into strange places at 3 am. Whether it was scheduled that way or an accident due to a delay of some kind, in order to be safe you need to have a plan ready by the time you step off into the airport or station. First, if you don’t already have enough for a cab ride in the local currency, get cash. Go to the very first ATM you see, even if it’s before the bathroom and you’ve been holding it for hours; there might only be that one ATM, and if you exit through security without getting money, you could be in big trouble. If you will be taking a cab to your destination, have a printout (or pull up on your phone) the name and address of the place you’re staying, and ideally a map. Often there are language barriers, and it’s best to avoid confusion. (Once a cab driver took me to the Red Fox rather than the Red Fort. They were 10 miles away from each other.) If you won’t have data in the place you’re going, take screenshots ahead of time on google maps. This is definitely a place where Uber comes in handy, but remember that not every city has it, so check ahead of time. Also, sometimes Uber is not allowed to pick up passengers from airports and train stations.
If you’re taking public transit and arriving at night, you should already know what train or bus route you want to take; how much a ticket costs to get to your destination (many cities have zoned pricing); and what the final stop in the direction you’re going is, as well as approximately how many stops you will be going. The frequency of service is much slower at night, and you don’t want to spend half an hour sitting alone in a deserted station waiting for the next one if you can avoid it.
If you’re going to be walking, and it’s late at night, you need to have familiarized yourself with the route already. Have the map (or screenshot of it) on your phone for easy access. Prepare yourself and your bags, so that you don’t need to stop and tie a shoe, reposition a purse, or grab a coat that’s falling off your pile of stuff. Walk confidently and directly, and don’t wear headphones.
Just wandering around a new city is one of my favorite things to do when traveling, and as long as it’s daytime and you stay in the right neighborhoods, you’re generally fine. How do you find the right neighborhoods, though? Start with the place where the biggest tourist attraction is: the Louvre in Paris, the Jama Masjid in Delhi, the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakesh, Big Ben in London, and so on. A radius around that will be very touristy, and pretty safe, and if you get past that and start to feel uncomfortable, you can just turn back in. The size of the radius will vary immensely based on which city you’re in and also, realistically, on your race and how you are dressed. If you want to explore outside of tourist areas, depending on where you are you’ll be fine just picking a direction and walking around, but you might need to do research ahead of time.
In cosmopolitan cities like London, Paris, or Tokyo, where the population is diverse, most of the city will be totally safe, and you probably won’t stand out much. Smartphones come in very handy here, because you can look at a map and try to figure out where you are without looking too much like a tourist, since everyone has their nose in a phone all the time. In more homogenous cities, such as Delhi or Phnom Penh, if you are of a different race than most of the population, you will stand out. Period. (In Morocco, I was traveling with a Chinese friend, and we got catcalled with “Konichiwa” for her and “fish and chips” for me, in addition to “gazelle” for both of us.) It can help significantly to dress conservatively and in a color palette that blends in a bit. On my last day in India, I looked out the car window and saw such lecherous expressions on the faces of two men on a motorbike that I shrank back into my seat, and then followed their gazes to see what they were looking at. It was a blond woman in a sleeveless, just-above-the-knee sundress which would have been perfectly appropriate, and even modest, in the US. In India, though, she was practically naked, and people reacted accordingly. In conservative countries I usually wear a light cotton tunic with three-quarter sleeves, over loose-ish pants or tucked into a long skirt, and that helps a lot.
The most important advice is to be realistic, and err on the side of caution. If you need to ask directions, step into a café or shop and ask someone who works there for help, don’t stop a stranger on the street (making it clear to everyone not only that you’re a tourist but that you’re confused). And be careful about going out after dark. There are certain experiences (mostly involving alcohol) that are simply more dangerous as a solo woman traveler than as a solo man or as someone traveling with a group, like going to an all-night club on a tiny island that is only accessible by the occasional ferry boat. I usually only ever have one drink, unless the bar is in the place I’m staying, less than a 10 minute walk away down well-lit (and populated) streets, or if I’ve managed to make friends from the same hostel who want to go out together in a big group and will keep an eye on each other, and even then I stop at two or three drinks. If going out at night is a big part of what you enjoy when you travel, then take a few basic steps ahead of time: leave your passport and all but one credit card locked away so you can’t accidentally lose them; have enough cash for a cab; and, if you’re staying in a hostel, set everything out on your bed before you leave so you won’t be fumbling in your bags in the dark, and waking everyone else up, when you get back.
As long as you have a plan for the day you arrive, do a little research ahead of time on safe/unsafe parts of the city, and walk with an air of confidence, you should be fine. Just don’t be stupid, especially after dark, and listen to your gut when it warns you something is wrong. Have fun!
This is kind of self-evident, since it’s been six months since the last time I wrote a post, but there you have it. One thing I have learned about being a lawyer is that just because something is super obvious to everyone doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it down, because you never know who is going to need that contract, or deposition transcript, or whatever, weeks or months or years down the line. So. It has indeed been a while since I’ve updated the blog. I’ve been busy lawyering, and I haven’t really been bitten by the travel bug since I got back, except for a few days of shameless lobbying to get sent to Norway to defend a deposition. That failed, and I ended up defending it over video conference at 4 am. Also a useful life experience, but with significantly less herring and funky brown cheese involved.
But I was having lunch with a friend today, and we were talking about what books we were reading now that work had calmed down a bit, and I remembered that I had this whole creative outlet that I had been completely neglecting. And that I actually really enjoy writing things that aren’t memos or motions or briefs. And here I am!
I think I may have mentioned in one of my earliest posts that a friend had suggested I do a spa spin on my trip, and given how much my feet hurt just two days in, I eagerly took her up on that idea. I will (eventually) write longer posts about many of these, but here is just a brief list of all the ways I attempted to pamper myself on my trip:
The foot massager machine in my hotel room in Tokyo. A special perk for the “ladies only” rooms. It… sort of worked…? Ish. I still had a cramp on the bottom of my foot for a week.
The three different styles of hot tub/onsen at the ryokan in Hakone. One a mix between a (slightly moldy) indoor stone waterfall and a 1920s shower; one a giant wooden barrel sunk into the floor, with a copper bottom; and one a flagstone tub that was too hot to touch.
The foot onsen in the Hakone sculpture garden. In retrospect it looked like a feeding trough with pebbles on the bottom, full of feet.
A foot reflexology massage in a dingy hole in the wall in a rundown mall in Singapore. It hurt, a lot, for an hour, as he basically just ground my tendons into my feet, but I think it helped.
A traditional Cambodian massage in Phnom Penh. A unique experience (and they had goldfish swimming around in the floor), but because they use a mattress on the floor instead of a Western massage table (in order to be able to sit on you with more pressure) there’s nowhere to put your face and I spent most of the time trying to figure out how to breathe.
A foot reflexology, and also shoulder massage, in Hong Kong. Bliss.
A sauna in Helsinki harbor. Cons included the fact that the place had just opened the day before, so there was still sawdust everywhere, and also people could wander around without paying and, I’m fairly sure, see in the window to the sauna. Pros included the refreshing feeling you get after swimming the length of a pool filled by the North Sea, which is 17 degrees Celsius, so all of a sudden the air feels balmy. Also the amazing views. And the awesome hats that Finnish ladies wear in the sauna. No clothes or bathing suit, just sitting around chatting completely naked except for a giant felt-y, bobbly thing on their heads. With flowers.
Bath #1 in Budapest, originally built by the Turks, which had something like four different saunas (including a salt one and an aromatherapy one) and 6 different pools, and a great view from the rooftop hot tub out across the river and the city.
Bath #2 in Budapest, a giant yellow building with two enormous pools outside (one regular and one hot), and at least 17 pools inside, as well as saunas and steam rooms. I tried to up the relaxation quotient with a massage, but should have been warned by the fact that there was a place fill out how many physical therapy appointments your doctor had prescribed you: it was a very cursory medical massage in a wooden cubicle which was clearly over 100 years old, on a massage table that was so hard I ended up with bruises on my cheekbones.
Lots and lots of swimming in the Adriatic (in Croatia). The beautiful, bright blue, absolutely crystal clear, very chilly Adriatic.
Nothing in Scotland, but I did try to take a bath (full of Epsom salts, to try to help with the itching from the allergic reaction I was having to the flea bites I’d gotten in Dubrovnik) in London. The little lever thingy to raise the drain plug was broken. I had to bail the tub by hand, with a mixing bowl. It was a large tub: 42 bowls worth before the water pressure let up enough I could pry the plug out with a spatula. Kind of cancelled out the relaxation…
The Blue Lagoon in Iceland, fancy mud masks and all.
And there you have it! I relaxed in every country except Scotland. 🙂
I just had one of those evenings that great travel stories are made of, and before I go to sleep (to sleep the sleep of the just, or, the sleep of those who are about to spend the following day jumping off cliffs and otherwise “extreme canyoning”) I just wanted to share the vignette. Especially since I have hardly been writing anything, which I blame on the fact that I came down with a cold in Budapest and spent all my spare hours (and hours, and hours) sleeping and/or napping and/or sitting in a steam room at a bath house.
I woke up at 6 this morning to catch a 9 am flight out of Budapest, connecting to Croatia, and by the time I finally dropped my bags off at my Airbnb I was pretty cranky. It was a combination of: being short on sleep, still having a cold, having to schlep all over every (ok, to be fair, both) terminals of the Budapest airport to pay 40 euros for having an overweight bag, the fact that they changed the gate at my Prague layover and then I had to go through such a long security line that it went from not boarding at all to final call before I made it to the front of the line, and then clearly someone had pissed in the morning coffee of the lady manning that aisle because she yelled at me six different ways in a strong accent and then yelled at me again for not understanding her, and then the flight was really bumpy so I started getting airsick and multiple kids were screaming and they made me take my headphones off so I had to sit there and listen to the screams. And then the ride from the airport to Split also made me motion sick, and then the guy who I’m renting from just left the keys in the mailbox and the wifi password on a piece of paper, so I didn’t have anyone to ask questions or advice from.
Anyway. Like I said, cranky. But then that all went away when I was able to wash my face, drop off my heavy bags, and head into town. “Town” in Split, for the most part, means Diocletian’s Palace, which the guy built for himself as a retirement home in like 300 and then has been lived in continuously ever since. People still live there, with their washing hanging out to dry and everything, though it is mostly restaurants and hotels. When I was several hundred feet up a belltower, with the sun shining, and the wind blowing, all became right with the world.
I was pretty hungry, so I googled “best dinner in split” and also checked my e-book guidebook, and they all agreed that Villa Spiza was the place to eat. They don’t take reservations, and the line was quite long, but the benefit of being a solo diner is that they can usually squeeze you in in the corner of the bar, so you don’t have to wait that long. It feels less good to have such a short wait when the guy yells “Single woman! The lady alone!” into the crowd to let you know you can be seated, though. The food was SPECTACULAR by the way, if you’re ever in Split it’s well worth the wait but you should show up early before they run out of everything. I was seated at 8:15ish, and they were out of four or five dishes already. There’s one chef, and she cooks on a six-burner stove in a very relaxed way. And everything gets finished with olive oil, salt, and pepper, very mediterranean. Anyway, near the end of their meal I struck up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, the kind of thing where if either party isn’t interested it dies after a few sentences, but if both are interested it continues for a while. (I got the sea bass, and the guy (Jack) told me how to get the meat off without getting all the bones. And it looked exactly like what cats eat in cartoons.)
So we chatted until they paid, and then they said they were going to get a drink and would I like to join them when I was done eating. They were very nice and friendly, and so I ended up joining them for several rounds of drinks and chatting, and we also made plans to get dinner tomorrow night. They’re an Irish couple, she’s a pharmacist and he’s a cobbler, and they both have tons of interesting stories and are also both good conversationalists. I think I’m less likely to talk to strangers when I have a dining companion of my own, so. Score one sociability point for solo travelers.
Tomorrow I jump (well, ok, rappel) down a 60-meter cliff. So that should be fun.