Coming Home (pt 1)

It begins at the gate, straining to pick out the familiar combination of ö and ú and cs and zh from the babel in the airport corridors. But this is a Greek airline, flying from Athens. All I hear is ψ and λ and η.

It’s at Ferihegy that I get my first taste: Üdvözöljük! I wander the arrivals hall gathering snippets of conversation, seeking not to overhear or understand but to absorb the music of ë and ői and gy. I examine the faces of the baggage handlers, in their red and green jumpsuits, for telltale signs of Hungarianness. I don’t even know what I’m looking for. Try as I might, I find nothing.

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From the back seat of the sweltering taxi into town, I crane my neck and scan for familiar landmarks. The road has changed a bit, and my memory is hazy. Everything looks new, different: large structures of tinted glass, advertising space for rent or lease; a stadium that may have been there before, but must have been renovated. I’m frustrated, seeking the payoff of a burst of familiarity, love.

But this is not my Budapest, this no-man’s land of industrialness surrounding the airport. I ease off looking for specifics, and again listen for the tune. Signs: Csemege. Nonstop. Sörözö. Cukrázda. ABC. Each of these simple words constitutes a new layer of delight. I realize my hands are clasped tightly together and I am grinning hard. Never before have I been so excited about a convenience store. Üllői ut. Müemlék. Szigony utca. The buildings are as grand and soot-grey and crumbly as I remember. The sidewalks are cracked, dimpled by tree roots.

Múzeum. The grand staircase leading to the Hungarian National Museum. I finally know where I am. “I never went to the museums as much as I should have while living here,” says my brain to itself. We’re in heavy traffic. It’s stifling in the back of the cab. I can barely breathe. Károly körút. Deák Tér – jaj! I don’t recognize it. There’s a new greenway dotted with evenly spaced trees that have been manicured to resemble lollipops. The old bus station – long a humongous boarded-up pit of nothingness, is now a green space with cafes and young people lolling. And bike lanes! Are those really bike lanes? My brain reels with the possibilities, still just wisps of thought, of the gritty, edgy Budapest of my memory overlain with modern conveniences like bike lanes and green spaces.

At last, the taxi pulls over and the driver delivers my bag to the curb in front of a building on Andrassy, where I am meeting an old friend. It’s just a few doors down from my last Budapest address. Standing on the wide sidewalk on the grandest boulevard in Budapest, my heart races, swells, leaps into my throat, all at the same time. I want to embrace the buildings, to kiss the pavement, to press my face against a Hungarian structure. Instead I pay the driver, and tip awkwardly – I have forgotten how it’s done; you’re supposed to tell the driver the amount you want to pay (including tip) and he gives you change. I am deliriously flustered. My eyes tickle and well up. I take some deep breaths, a moment to compose myself.

Coming home.

Ode to Eressos

I’m walking along the narrow streets of ‘pano Eressos late one Monday morning. Chatting with cousin Fani, I’m overcome by some strange yet familiar sensations. My throat feels more open, and more air can flow through my trachea. There’s also more room in my chest – room for my lungs to balloon and stretch, as if waking from a long hibernation. 

The muscles around my mouth relax and feel almost buoyant. They draw my cheeks and lips upward, causing the corners of my eyes to crinkle. 

My heart wriggles and then creeps out from its cave along my spine and into the great room of my chest cavity. Its quadrants expand away from each other, like those polymer toys that quintuple in size when placed in water. 

I feel larger yet much lighter, floating across the cobblestone alley.

Oh right. This is joy. 

 

A thin, sweaty line

The moment I shrugged and got in the taxi, I knew things had turned.

I had been told that the ride from Cancun bus station to the ferry port would cost 40 pesos (about $3.50). When I question the 70 pesos quoted by the taxista, he points across a busy traffic circle to a shared van. Faced with the option of hauling my heavy dive gear and over-packed bag 50 meters to save $3, I choose ease.

Backpacking, especially for an extended period of time, dramatically adjusts internal economics, the value of things. Yes, you absolutely haul your gear 50 meters to save $3, because $3/day saved over one year equals an extra month of travel. These transactions seem insignificant on a daily basis, but will have lasting effects.

But now I’m on vacation. I’m not backpacking. Yes, I’m staying in hostels and eating relatively inexpensive street food. I’m refilling my water bottle for free instead of buying a new one. For the most part, I’m hauling my dive gear instead of taking a taxi. But after three nights in a sweaty corner bunk in a 10-bed dorm, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and sleeping and average of 3 hours/night, the prospect of hauling my gear that extra 50 meters to save New York City pocket change seems impossible, if not foolish.

I shrug and get into the taxi.

A claustrophobe. Underwater. In a cave.

OK. Technically the part of the cenotes I dove are “caverns,” not caves. All this means is that you can see light/an exit to air. But still, as a human with a fear of getting stuck underwater with no way out, diving through an underwater cave (sorry – cavern) was kinda a big deal. One must be so careful these days.

(“…Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days….”)

So yeah. Today I dove the “Dos Ojos” cenote. And it was amazing. And I didn’t freak out even a little bit. Oh – and I didn’t die by water.

A cure for bullshit

Whenever I need a break from bullshit, I go diving. I still remember July 2007, almost a year into the most disorienting and downright wacky job of my life, I took off for a week’s diving in Tobago. After just one dive, the salt cleansed every ounce of bile from my blood. The canned oxygen, sucked in through rented regs, oozed out from my lungs to find and repair frayed nerves. The warm water conducted away all the tension irradiating my body and drowned it like a rat.

And so last Monday morning at 1.30 am I found myself throwing bathing suits and dive gear into a bag. After overpacking in a sleepy delirium, I dug up my dusty passport and called a car service to carry me to the the airport, and freedom.

Twenty hours later I was 20 meters deep, following the bubbles of Ugo de la Sala, co-founder of the  Megalodon Dive Center on the island of Cozumel. It doesn’t matter what we saw, or which dive sites we dove over the past 6 days. What matters is that those 11 dives hammered at my reset button until it took.

It’s been 2 1/2 years since I returned from my experiment with the Range Life, and I’ve been doing a fair bit of flailing. Constructive flailing, however; I did, after all, buy an apartment. And focused flailing; most of it has been experimenting with the right balance of motion for me; always on the road, but not always away.

Now I’m reset. I’ve stopped flailing. Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Travel “The Local Way”

A few nights ago I attended the March gathering of the New York Chapter of Travel Massive, “a world-wide community of locally organised meet ups for travel & tourism companies, travel bloggers, startups, and travel media to connect and share globally.”

Though I’ve been down with the flu, I went because I wanted to connect with my friends Amanda Rogers and and Steve Mann, the co-founders, producers and videographers of The Local Way, a travel video series. The videos follow local guides as they “take” you on a tour of neighborhoods in a variety of cities – so far in Paris, Dublin, New York and L.A.

What I love about the series, beyond the travel aspect, is how its format captures the essence of a city. The hosts focus on authentic, small, local businesses and how those businesses relate to the microculture of the surrounding neighborhood and its residents. These are the things that imbue a city with the sort of rich, layered flavor mostly absent from the suburbs. It’s why city folk pay twice the rent for a quarter of the space. It’s why they endure noisy neighbors and sweaty, smelly subway commutes.

Visitors come for the shopping and (sometimes) stay for the culture.

“I used to rent out my apartment [to tourists] while I was living in the East Village,” says Amanda over post-TM beers and burgers. “They would always leave behind [emtpy] shopping bags. But when they came back after a day of shopping, they would want to know where to go out in the East Village.” The Local Way New York, she hopes, will offer them a more “insider” option than the Lonely Planet and a more personal option than New York magazine.

The cool part, of course, is that New Yorkers – or Parisians, or Dubliners, or the LA-LAs (what do people in L.A. call themselves?) – can watch the videos to discover more about their own city. The key is that the local guides, because they are local residents, offer an authentic point of view. Sure, a video journalist can parachute in, grab a local, and follow them around with a camera. But The Local Way removes that extra layer between the viewer and the cocktail bar, or boulangerie, or Irish music pub.

So far the whole series has been self-funded by Amanda and Steve, who work day jobs to get by. To make their final push, they just started an Indiegogo (crowd-funding) campaign to raise money to complete their series and take the series from project to business. If you would like to support “travel the local way”, small businesses in big cities, and/or “a new form of documentary” (Amanda’s words), I encourage you to throw a dollar or two their way:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-local-way

Singapore slings

On Monday evening I didn’t win two free economy-class tickets on any Singapore Airlines flight.  That honor went to Craig Zabransky, who blogs over at Stay Adventurous. Damn him.

Too bad, because thanks to Singapore Air PR guy James Boyd, I now know where to get the best martini in Singapore. And I sure could use a martini right now.

Never mind. I still had fun at the latest New York Travel Massive, the largest travel-industry Meetup in New York. The enclosed rooftop bar at Eventi Hotel was well heated by the exhalations and exhortations of 100-odd travel professionals. The travel industry is set to become much more interesting. Orbitz, Expedia, Kayak and dozens of others broke the first barrier by offering us price comparison. TripAdvisor et al gave us peer reviews to help gauge quality. But no one has quite cracked the nut of the thing that makes us price-hunt on Priceline or book a room at AirBnB: travel inspiration.

Right now, there’s no site I can search for, say, a vacation that during which I can be “active most days but relax other days, with great restaurants, English-speaking, within a 3-hour flight of my home airport and which costs $200 or less per day.” Worse, there’s no site that tells me, “Sure, I can book this trip to Bangkok for you. Bangkok is great. But the Songkran Festival will happen during your trip, and the wildest Songkran party in Thailand, by far, happens up north in Chiang Mai.”

And then there’s the destinations (and service providers to/at the destinations) themselves, trying to find new ways of marketing themselves. The more enlightened are reaching out to bloggers, leveraging social media, and engaging directly with potential travelers. But as in any other industry entrenched in its ways, these enlightened marketers are few and far between.

Speaking of which: I have never had any desire to go to Singapore. It seems a long way to go to eat good food and shop. Plus the famous chewing-gum nonsense. But now thanks to James Boyd at Singapore Airlines, I want to go get a cocktail at the following places:

3. The Ritz Carlton Millenia – “It’s got a good but basic lobby bar,” says Boyd. “And it’s my favorite business hotel in the world. The staff gets it – the needs of a business traveler. It just works.”

2. Blu Bar at Shangri-la – “Extremely glamorous.”

1. Compass Rose bar at the Stamford Raffles Hotel – “It’s on the 65th floor and has a sweeping view overlooking the harbor.” Plus, Boyd assures me, they make a great martini.