The second half of 2017 and 2018 so far have been a whirlwind. I had the chance to live in California for ten months, and to teach at a university there. But I am back- and ready to resume blogging. For fun, I created a video on an older blog post – “Travelling on the Cheap”. Here is a link to the video on YouTube:
Summer has found me terribly lazy, and so today’s post is actually a link to another post I wrote for a blog on planning and authentic communities. It addresses links between countercultural expressions and authenticity. Enjoy, and happy June!
I decided to write this posting when the camellias on the bushes outside my house just started shedding their blooms. They were still at what I call the “poetic stage”, meaning that the dying blooms on the grass looked both beautiful and tragic at the same time.
Looking at the camellias gave me a sense of enchantment, and regular followers may recall some of my past writings on the link between authenticity and enchantment . Following in that vein, this post looks at three sources of enchantment found in poetic landscapes -landscapes that combine beauty with a thread of tragedy.
1. Giardini di Ninfa, just outside Rome
I visited these secret gardens when visiting friends in Rome, and was lucky enough to see them in May when the roses had just peaked. The gardens are built on the ruins of an papal estate, which was itself taken over by the Caetani family in the 14th c. By the 16th c. its castle was no longer habitable; but a Caetani family member commissioned creation of a garden on site, which also fell into ruin, until 1921. At that time, another family descendant initiated garden restorations. The last living descendant, Leila Caetani died in the 1970s. Upon her death, the garden became an Italian National monument. For more information on this amazing spot, a New York Times article from 2002 fills in some wonderful details.
I love these gardens for their beauty, tranquility, and spirit of reinvention. Of course, there is something poetic for me about the various incarnations this garden has had -and the fact that it belonged to a powerful family whose direct descendants died out. Its relatively reclusive nature adds to the poetry. The garden is only accessible 2-3 times per month to the general public. More information on when and how to get there is available from turismoroma .
2.New York’s High Line Park
This park was created from an abandoned elevated rail corridor in the heart of downtown Manhattan, beginning in what was once the city’s meat packing district. While heavily gentrified now, and starting to be a bit of a tourist attraction, this park still brings me enchantment (I’ve visited twice).
So many wonderful intimate spaces along this park:
For me three things make this a poetic, enchanting landscape.First, its origin story, which was a highly engaged and activist-led approach that began as a very uphill battle to save the elevated structure (it had fallen into disrepair, and was seen by many as an eyesore). From my perspective- the languishing structure itself is what gives the park its element of tragedy. Fortunately, the new park into which it has evolved adds so much beauty, while honouring its origins. Second, I love the God’s Eye view that you get of the city when you walk above the streets for a stretch of this many blocks. Third, it always has some sort of surprise in store for you, and this brings out something new in everyone who walks along it- either for the first time, or as a regular park user.
3. Olsany Cemetery, Prague
This lovely historic cemetery got its start with the Plague, as a burial place in what was at the time the outer edges of town. Today it has become a large and yet beautiful burial site, accommodating the remains of many famous writers and politicians.
We visited in the Summer with friends, and found it beautiful and humbling to walk through. Perhaps the most tragic of the graves we saw belonged to Jan Palatch, who set himself on fire to protest the invasion of his country in 1968. Prague does cemeteries with just the right amount of poetry. There is also an amazing Jewish cemetery there (which we only viewed from a distance). For more information on the site and why you might want to visit, Wikipedia has a great overview.
Landscapes are a rich source of poetry and enchantment, and these three spots are just the tip of the iceberg. This topic is one that I could write scores of posts on (so be forewarned). And it’s always wonderful when other bloggers alert us to other examples of these authentic places.
I just got back a week ago from a short, spur of the moment trip to Los Angeles (LA). Poor LA can sometimes get a bad rap, especially from city planners (my profession) who complain about the excessive highways and regional sprawl. But it’s really growing on me. In fact, it’s on the cusp of blossoming into another, more interesting phase in its existence. This is my fourth time in Los Angeles, now. I find that the key to enjoying LA, and to connecting with real people who live there, is to stay in a residential neighbourhood (and yes, this typically means relying on a service like AirBnB). It can also involve my favourite hobby of riding a light rail/ subway line and getting off at different stops to explore on foot. While In LA this time, I stayed in Silver Lake, and spent some time cruising the Gold Line. A friend also introduced me to a well-kept secret, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, are some photos.
Authentic travel includes getting to know the people living in your destination. Talking to locals is a start. But with only a few days or weeks in a place, building understanding can be a challenge. That said, other telling details that can help. Among the most fascinating: how people mark out (in an attempt to claim or conquer) their territory.
What territory says
Architectural details, public art, fencing, murals, landscaping details, signs, hedgerows separating out farmers’ fields – these items say many things. They speak of what people value; what they fear; their sense of humour and/ or curiosity. Marked territory can tell you about how locals lead their lives, and who benefits (or fails to benefit) from flows of power. The photos below are all examples of local territory marking. They speak to me of who (at least some of) the locals are and how they relate to each other.
The above photo shows how a bank operating in a multi-cultural city like Honolulu celebrates the locals who descended from Chinese settlers roughly a century ago. In my part of the world, which has attracted more contemporary Chinese migration, the features shown above tend to speak less about current migrants and what appeals to them.
I love how, in the photos below, the business operator is surreptitiously and temporarily claiming territory, without making the same type of investment as someone in a conventional store. Perhaps rents are far too prohibitive- or maybe the owner just prefers this transient approach. You see her/him trying to legitimize the mobile business as it takes up a parking space for just hours at a time. Judging from the quality of the sign, it seems to have been working.
Silver Lake neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Author photos, February 2016
Claiming space doesn’t just happen with businesses. Parking is a big focus of space-claiming. While on-street parking is typically public, North American city dwellers often view the space in front of their homes as their personal (private) property- particularly when parking becomes a more scarce resource. Unknown cars parked in those locations may be told about their transgressions through windshield notes- or even more aggressive acts. But driveways are less clear, and are sometimes used or blocked by others, resulting in conflict and a need for the homeowner to mark that territory as his or her own. The example below is also from Los Angeles:
And, of course walls and gates are obvious territory markers. They can be beautiful or whimsical. Sometimes the beauty is offered as an apology for space claiming. It may also be an indicator of some shared neighbourhood territoriality- a contribution to the larger public realm even as the individual space is claimed.
Some of my own neighbours in Vic West achieve this by offering of floral bursts beside or through their fences:
And here are some other examples of fence appeal, one by a business, and another by an art gallery/ centre:
So here is my challenge to you: on your next trip, try to find and photograph as many interesting or appealing territory markers as you can. I guarantee that it will get you thinking about your destination, and the relationships between inhabitants, in new ways. Territory markers are a rich topic for exploring further. Watch for another posting on this topic, and please suggest your own in the comments section of this blog.
Enchantment is such an important ingredient of authentic travel. Besides visits to spaces that are themselves enchanting, how else can we encounter the lush joys of enchantment? Here are three quick ideas for your next trip.
1. Take something beautiful home with you as a memento
Obtain a beautiful object, and treasure it in your daily life. It could be an attractive pebble you keep in your pocket to remind you of the wonderful day you spent at the beach with your family. It might be a piece of art for your home, a hand-made journal, or a piece of jewellery. But it should be something that will ground, or re-ground you to the place that you visited- far into the future.
Here’s what I mean.
I lived and studied in Montréal for three years, at a really pivotal time in my life in my twenties, in the late 1980s. (Yes, I am that old.) My experiences there were life-changing. But after moving back to British Columbia (on the opposite side of my country), it took several decades before I would eventually return. When I finally did go back, I felt an incredibly strong mix of joy and nostalgia. I can even recall one day, standing in the streets of Vieux Montréal (the city’s historic district), when I felt a wave of anguish about having absented myself from that place for so long. And, later in the day while in that very district, I bought some ornate silver earrings with the city’s symbol-an abstract flower. Something about that felt very right- I knew on the spot that the earrings would be an important memento of my earlier life there as well as of my return. Whenever I wear them now, I re-live my love for Montréal, with fond memories of all my times there. I also get ideas about my next trip back.
2. Do something that scares you but that others enjoy
I’m not talking about taking crazy, unsafe risks. Think of this as a prompt for a micro-risk. We all have irrational fears that hold us back. Is yours a fear of heights? Of looking foolish? Of certain animals or reptiles? Of boating? A holiday is the best time to try one of these things, because you typically have fewer stresses on vacation. Go for that hot air balloon ride, that jungle excursion, or that silent meditation retreat. (Note that I have listed that as a scary thing to do, because the idea of not talking for three days frightens me.) I am slightly afraid of heights, and so whenever my mountain goat of a husband wants to climb up an historic tower to get a better view of the city below, I gulp a few times, agree, and then feel exhilarated once I’ve climbed back down.
3. Be generous
Everything your parents told you about being kind, and how generosity ultimately makes the giver feel incredible is true. We all know how to be generous- the one thing I would add is that generosity is about ensuring that what you give will be helpful (rather) than harmful to the recipient. This means thinking about the cultural context and, sometimes, about where the need is greatest. While travelling in Mexico recently, we certainly ran into many people with low incomes, whose daily lives contained a lot of struggle. But we also knew that we weren’t sufficiently grounded in the community to know who best to help, or in what way. And so, we did not give to anyone begging for money on our trip, but on our return home made a donation (much larger than what we would have given in aggregate to the individuals in need who we met—and yes, we did follow through!) to a charity whose work we had learned about while in the community. The key thing here is that the charity was directly linked with local people who knew best what their community needed.
This post has suggested three active ways that might help you achieve a sense of enchantment on your next holiday. It is certainly not the last word on this topic, as there are many more ways that you can do this. Please feel free to suggest your ideas as well!
If you crave authentic travel experiences, chances are, you’re often thinking about that next trip. This also means reflecting on how to pay for it -and how to save money during the experience. Here are nine ways to save money while travelling, that also bring you closer to the local lifestyle.
1. Do lots of walking and transit vs taxis
This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget. It’s comforting to fall into a taxi when you’re unsure of your route. So instead, make the alternatives easier. Prepare well, by downloading maps in advance. And consider downloading an app that allows you to navigate offline. While it still has some glitches, the Navmii app is one example. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask friendly locals for advice. Most people do like to be helpful.
2. Spend less on food
We often try to have at least one meal a day on the cheap. Often this involves buying street food from a local vendor (see upcoming blog for more tips on this topic). It can also mean buying fresh produce, cheese, and bread for an outdoor picnic, whether from a farmer’s market or local shop. And, save costs by eating your main meal at lunch -many restaurants charge less at lunch and more for dinner. Then have dinner in your room/apartment, freeing up funds for entertainment -or a future trip.
3. Avoid the guided tour, but if you do one, choose a walking over bus or trolley tour.
We’ve come to love walking tours, both because they are less costly than bus tours, and because they provide a more interactive and immediate way of learning about the local history and current lifestyle. Walking tours are often more amenable to creative touches, including story-telling and personal anecdotes. Also, they tend to be smaller.
4. Go to a local sporting event -especially if it’s minor league or amateur.
While travelling in Granada, we stumbled on a local cricket game, which gave us fascinating insights into the local community. Cricket is the slowest game imaginable (you can tell I’m not a fan). But an hour watching people just hanging with each other, having a laugh, catching up, was worth the entry fee.
And in Mexico City we took a walking tour that culminated in going to a Lucha Libre match. Definitely one of our trip highlights.
5. Use your own steam at local viewpoints
Try to walk up and down on your own steam -or at least walk on the way down. It’s an antidote to any over-indulgences , and you may get to see some overlooked sites. We paid to go up in the funicular in scenic Guanajuato, but enjoyed the walk down. The photo below is of one of the new friends we made in that process.
6. Research local liquor laws
I can remember taking a picnic to a free summer concert in Florence, complete with wine. Buying your own bottle is way cheaper, when local liquor laws allow it. Unfortunately most Canadian provinces don’t, but a blind eye is often turned in Quebec cities like Montreal. It helps if you’re discrete.
7. Check out the local parks and their programming
At least in summer, many North American and European cities often have free festivals, or free events linked to those festivals that charge admission. Also, look for buskers. I do believe in paying buskers, but do so according to what you can afford. It will still be cheaper than attending a more formal event.
8. Use your social network.
If a friend, relative, or a friend of a friend lives in the spot you’re visiting, buy them lunch or dinner in exchange for a half-day tour. They may lack the in-depth historical knowledge of a paid guide, but they are more likely to point out sites, features, and customs that will interest you personally.
9. Learn the language
Or arm yourself with at least enough words/phrases plus Google translate to be comfortable reading basic text in the local language. How will this save you money? Any restaurant in a non-English speaking country that offers English menus is at higher risk of charging tourist prices. Conversely, local hangouts will be more ŕeasonable.
When we stayed in an up-and-coming suburb in Prague, the local bar /restaurant had prices 1/3 the cost of those in tourist areas. We had taught ourselves just eight words in Czech, but using them on Day#1 as foreigners must have endeared us to the locals. One man with a bit more English than my Czech helped translate a few items so we could order. And so this helped me, as a vegetarian, quickly learn to say -and spot Greek Salad on menus exclusively in Czech. (In case you wanted to know -it’s recky (pronounced “retzky”) salat.)
These are just a few tips which could help you save money while travelling, while also putting you in more direct contact with locals and local experiences. By saving money you’ll be able to extend your travel budget further, giving yourself room for more authentic travel experiences on your next trip, and others in the future.
While recently in San Miguel de Allende, I learned of two wonderful, and inter-connected charities. What does this have to do with authentic travel? Essentially, while both organizations serve the local population, they also enable North Americans, who make extended stays in that city, to have a more genuine, mutually-beneficial connection to the local people. We first heard of them when we signed up for a three hour walking tour through the historic city, which has had a long history of ex-pat influence.
Founded nearly fifty years ago, Patronato por los ninos provides dental care, and medical services not covered through the social safety net, to children in the hundreds of villages which surround the city. While the staff delivering the care are all Mexican, the ex-pats do their part through fundraising. Walking tours are probably the largest mechanism for this. Patronato is an American organization, which gives tax receipts to all American donors. A parallel Canadian organization, Amistad has also begun partnering with Patronato in giving care. This is not a duplication- it is only by donating through Amistad that Canadians can get a tax receipt, plus Amistad offers other non-medical programs. For example, Amistad supports the local library and related reading programs, and offers art classes to local children.
This example builds on an earlier post. It spoke about the role of self-transcendence – accepting that we are all part of a larger universe- in personal authenticity. The same post also suggested four criteria for authentic travel that would flow from that understanding of authenticity -finding experiences that allow a person to:
- lose track of her or himself in the experience;
- become more curious about (and kinder to) others who initially seem quite different;
- build his or her courage muscles; or
- enhance an ability to be generous.
From my perspective, even just taking a walking tour with Patronato por los ninos hits at least three of the four criteria. And, for those ex-pats who volunteer with these, or any other locally-serving charities (particularly ones which have local staff and/or partners), probably all four criteria are kicking in at high gear. I’d love to her about other volunteer groups that provide this type of mutually beneficial ex-pat and local exchange.
The mark of a great neighbourhood -whether at home or abroad- is its kid- and dog-friendliness. In other words, great neighbourhoods offer something for all members of a family Kids, the elderly, and dogs are like canaries in the coal mine -the first to suffer in toxic and unnatural contexts. And as travellers, we recognize something universal when we watch families enjoy themselves.
We’ve just spent a few days in San Miguel de Allende where families mingle freely in the town square, known as El Jardin (the garden) for its lovely shade trees and numerous park benches. Abuelas (grandmothers) and mothers seem relaxed as they watch toddlers and ten-year olds running with toys on strings, or chasing after pigeons. Costumed animators provide another family-friendly distraction on weekends. And, of course, the balloon sellers are doing a brisk business.
Here, for your viewing pleasure, are some photo examples of this family-friendly town. From an urban design perspective, some of the most notable features are the wonderful nodes that draw people to the town centre, such as the main square (El Jardin), the large cathedral, and surrounding shops. These are places where people can spend money- or hold on to every cent they own. The town also shuts off the streets to vehicle traffic, and widens the range of closed streets on weekends. And, there are many places to sit comfortably in shade and in sun.
As someone of Celtic, German and French ancestry, I am not truly in touch with my own Indigenous roots. Visiting Mexico City’s Anthropological Museum, I was struck by the richness and diversity of the Indigenous cultures there that pre-dated the Spanish. It was also wonderful to see many Mexican people (perhaps also tourists from other regions) spending time and engaging with their heritage.
In our forthcoming book, my co-editor and I have done our best to invite other contributors who are able to bring in some Indigenous perspectives on planning for authentic communities. Without this knowledge personally, I hesitate to say more at this point in my blog. But it is an important perspective. Instead, I offer a few photos that illustrate the beauty and importance of Indigenous Mexican heritage. All come from the Museo Antropologico in Mexico City.