Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Get lost. No really, get lost.

Love reading these lists from Lonely Planet. This one is the best cities to get lost in. I've done two.

Venice is certainly deserving of the top spot. The alleys, canals, bridges and poor signage make it easy for anyone to get lost. But it's not really that big so you can't get so lost that you won't manage to wander back to where you started or where you want to go. I spent hours getting lost in Venice while I was in the city last May for a few days. I saw so much more that way and met some very interesting people. Some of those people even asked me for directions. Ha!

I also really loved London. I stayed with a friend in a London suburb for a week so I had learned the lay of the land after a few days, but still ventured out each morning to explore the city and only used my map when I wanted to get to a specific place like the Tower of London, Big Ben or the British Museum. Even then I didn't really have a timeline so I could wander until I got there. The only time I really needed to be somewhere at a certain time was to see The Lion King in the West End. Spectacular.

I'd also add some places to this list:

-Cusco, Peru.

-Pretty much anywhere in New Zealand.

-Cairns, Australia, as well as Bryon Bay and Rainbow Beach. They're small, but worth exploring.

-Ljubljana, Slovenia. Also the Lake Bled area.

Motor it to Mobile

I always leave the country, flying solo, so I figure I can take me, myself and I on a day trip to Mobile.

So I did.

Got up early one Sunday morning and hit the road with a very large cup of coffee.

First up, mass at the oldest Christian church in Alabama, the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

It was absolutely beautiful, although I had a hard time hearing whatever the priest was talking about. I’m Catholic, so didn’t feel at all out of place, but his homily involved a C.S. Lewis story about a lizard and it was lost on me.

I love old churches. Even though religion always seems to tell you to live simply, old churches are rarely simple. They’re absolutely exquisite and elaborate and ornate.

In foreign countries, I’ve always found the best way to experience the architecture was also to experience the service. So I’ve sat through all kinds of services, sometimes in other languages, and even though I didn’t always know what was happening, it’s always a quiet way to take in everything around you.

According to the cathedral’s Website, the cornerstone was laid in 1835. Michael Portier had become the first Bishop of Mobile in 1829 and he wanted a cathedral. Designed by Claude Beroujon, it was consecrated on Dec. 8, 1850.

The cathedral has survived fires and hurricanes, but has been restored several times and the last one was completed in 2004.
If you’re Catholic, go to a service when you’re in town. If not, still sit through a service, or at the very least, visit and take in the architecture and huge stained glass windows.

After mass, I headed to the flea market. I had high hopes for a great find of some sort. But with a heat index of roughly 115, I was fading fast. I did find a man selling candles that his daughter made and they included pomegranate and gardenia two absolute favorites. So I just had to get them.

Of course, with more touristing ahead, it was a faulty plan. The candles melted some in the car, but work just the same really.

The flea market was an experience for sure. I saw a guy walking around with some sort of white bird on his shoulder. Reptiles and farm animals for sale. So were puppies and kittens, they all looked miserable in the heat and I could hear them whining everywhere. One vendor was selling leather goods and biker like things next to people selling ladies purses and other girly things. Had to laugh as I walked through the stalls. There was a used book seller and I combed through the shelves for awhile, but the heat was too much for me. Never thought I’d walk away from old books without one in my hand, but I was melting.

After sitting in the car for a few minutes to cool off, I headed back to downtown Mobile to the Museum of Mobile. But I saw Fort Conde on the way and stopped there first. It’s a replica of the 18th-century fort and they must have all been short, because even I felt the need to duck in most of the doorways, and I’m not very tall. (photo is view of downtown Mobile from inside Fort Conde)

In the information center I found a brochure for Cathedral Square Gallery. I thought it was closed on Sundays, but the brochure said it was open, so I walked as quickly as possible the 10 or 15 blocks to the gallery on Dauphin Street. By the time I got there, I was feeling as thought I might collapse, it was just so hot.

But, the gallery was well worth the short trek. The artist were rearranging the gallery and were quite friendly. Watching them move their displays around and arrange the handmade jewelry as they talked and laughed made it feel as if I was a part of their circle. They were all lovely and talked about their art and offered a much needed drink to cool off.

I have a rule that I only buy jewelry in foreign countries made by the locals, or handmade jewelry at home.

Despite my lack of disposable income, I was of course drawn to the jewelry counter where I got to chatting with Deborah B. Moore of the Fairhope area who was one of the artists. Since I had just completed my graduate courses for my Masters, I decided a pair of earrings was an acceptable gift to myself. So I bought two. I just couldn’t decide.

Deborah told me about the gallery and her art. She has a Virginia connection through her daughter and so of course, I loved her immediately. Have I mentioned lately how much I love my Commonwealth?

With my earrings tucked in my bag, I headed back 10 or 15 blocks to the Museum of Mobile. I learned about the history of the city and how it became the place that it is. I’ll admit I was quite tired by the time I got to the museum, so I’ll likely have to visit again to take more of it in. There are exhibits about the settlement of the city, it’s growth, the port and state docks, the role of the city during the many wars since its establishment and more. I didn’t know it at the time, but the museum offers free admission on the first Sunday of the month.

An entire day spent exploring Mobile was absolutely lovely, but I could spend many more hours in the city and the surrounding areas.

A solo tourist day is a great break and a great time. If you can’t fly solo in a foreign country, might as well apply the same principal at home.

Around town

About a week after our maiden Coosa voyage, Jeannette and I took to the streets of Montgomery to play tourist for the day. She’s from California and I claim Virginia, but while in ‘bama, see ‘bama, we said.

We started with some school work and coffee, then off to lunch at the Smoothies and Things shop downtown. About that time, the sky opened up and we ended up a bit wet.

Up next, wandering the halls of the state Capitol. We met a friend of mine who works there and between him and the nuggets I’d picked up from other tours and visits, I’d say we gave Jeannette the best possible tour of the historic building.

After roaming the Capitol, observing the deceiving paint in the House chambers and staring up at the rotunda for awhile, we said goodbye and walked back down Dexter Avenue to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church.

We stopped at the gold star at the top of the steps where Jefferson Davis had announced the South was seceding from the newly formed United States in 1861. And looked out at the street where the Voting Rights March ended in 1965.

I’d never been in the church, even through I drive by it almost daily. There’s a mural that covers an entire wall in the basement and as the guide takes you through all its parts, which depict significant moments in King’s life and the Civil Rights Movement, you can’t help but stop and catch your breath when you realize so much of it started in that very basement. It’s the only place where King was a full-time pastor from 1954 to 1960, although he preached all over the U.S. In his office there, is where he directed the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

People who stood in that same place saw a wrong. They didn’t just talk, they took action.
Jeannette and I walked out of that church and I said, “He was 26. I’m 26.” (Although, I turned 27 a few weeks later. Guess I better step up my game.)

We went back in time a bit as we walked up to the First White House of the Confederacy. It was another place I’d wanted to visit, but hadn’t quite gotten around to it. In my defense, it had been closed for awhile.

Compared to the current White House, it was small and we noticed it looked as if some of the wallpaper was held with clear packing tape. But the rooms were preserved and I decided I’d have never made it as a lady back in the day in the South, or anywhere. Far too proper, with too many dresses. With far too many frills and hoops and layers. And it’s just plain hot here. I’d have been absolutely miserable and probably not so ladylike about it.

I did absolutely love what I think was called the Blue Room. It was for guests, but I thought it was the nicest and most beautiful of all the rooms in the house. Plus, I liked the curtains. And blue. It’s the simple things.

Whenever I’m walking around downtown -- and not working -- always stop at the map in front of the Archives. I absolutely love that thing. Little bit hot in the summer, so we didn’t last that long, but every time I look at it, the explorer in me gets ambitious again. That’s always a good thing.

A few weeks later I got my friend Mike out and we headed to the Fitzgerald museum in Cloverdale. I’d read some Fitzgerald in school and knew he’d been to Montgomery and met Zelda here and so on, but I hadn’t been to his house.

Seeing a trend here? Unfortunate it took me so long to get to exploring, but now that the bug has bitten, there’s no stopping me.

It’s sad to me that the house has been split up and parts of it are rented as apartments. Although the writer in me thinks it would be quite cool to live in the Fitzgerald house.

The museum’s director told us about the Fitzgerald’s and I read an article their daughter wrote about life with dad. It certainly didn’t sound like a cakewalk.

Photos and documents are hung all over the walls and the rooms that remain as part of the museum are said to be like they were when the Fitzgerald’s lived there for a short time in the winter of 1931.

I knew that F. Scott had been stationed in Montgomery during the war and that’s how he met Zelda. But wandering the halls of his home and reading letters from him and people in his life, and seeing how connected he was to Montgomery, through Zelda, was fascinating.

Just another day when I realized how much had happened in this town and all the significant people who had been here at one time or another and the impact that time in Montgomery had on their lives.

The museum could use some help, though. It may be small and the Fitzgerald’s may have only lived there for about six months, it’s the only home of theirs that’s still standing, according to the museum. It would be an absolute shame to lose that piece of literary history. Locals, this is in your backyard. Take some time, go see it.

Early in August, I had planned a day of touristing, but was just too tired. Instead, myself and Advertiser reporters Jill Nolin and Markeshia Ricks decided to go to the W.A. Gayle Planetarium.

I haven’t been to a planetarium since I went in Australia about five years ago. I’m fascinated by space and a day at the planetarium brought back some of that enthusiasm. Plus, it gave me story ideas. The show we saw was from 1997, so it’s a bit dated, but the woman working that day said the show changes regularly.

She showed us constellations and helped me remember how to find the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia and other stellar groupings. The red laser pointer did make me a little queasy after awhile, but that may have been because I hadn’t eaten anything yet.

Either way, the planetarium is an easy access, $4 trip to outer space .

I agree with the kid who was sitting a few rows in front of us.

“That was awesome.”

Monday, September 27, 2010

Outdoors in 'bama

Normally, I’d write about some insane international adventure. Getting lost in a land where I do not speak the language and refuse to pay for a cab, so I hoof it for miles to see an old castle. Or miss a train and get on buses that break down or get in cars with strangers.

All sounds crazy, but it’s just what I do when in a land far, far away. Not to mention the incredible scenery, culture, food and friendship.

In another world, you start to see your own so much more clearly. And your little comfort zone expands, exponentially.

But this year, I’m very poor after just about finishing my Masters and have been bouncing all over the country for conferences, board meetings, races and family fun.

Minor details. And they won’t stop that great need for wander I seem to have developed.

Instead, I have turned that wander closer to home.

No one ever seems to truly explore the place where they live, but I am putting this time stateside to good use and entertaining myself so I don’t go stir crazy.

To start, after almost three years of living in the Montgomery, I finally kayaked the Coosa River. My very good friend, Jeannette, and I spent the day floating, chatting, contemplating the world and our place in it.

We’re about the same age and going through a lot of changes in our lives and starting to make very big decisions. In truth, we were both dealing with a little heartache, of different kinds. We agreed that no matter what we did, we’d be okay, but it’s always good to have someone tell you that and talk it out with a good girl friend.

She also found a quote that she gave me later that we decided perfectly described our day: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy amidst the simple beauty of nature. As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow.” --Anne Frank.

A day on the river can be that peaceful place to sort through your thoughts, or you can take friends and just goof off. You can, in fact, escape the world -- even if just for a few hours -- on the Coosa. Or other nature outings. Like Oak Mountain State Park, but I’ll come back to that. Or you can take a big group of friends, like we did in August, and stop for lunch, chat, race and float your way down the river. Although, Advertiser reporter Markeshia Ricks and I didn’t really want to try getting back in the kayak in the middle of the river, so we were well ahead of our newspaper friends who were towing their kayaks with their feet as they floated.

Whatever you do, take lots -- and lots -- of sunscreen Especially if you’re like me, making regular appearances as lobster girl.

I highly recommend the day on the river, repeatedly. I’ve now been twice in about six weeks and despite the sun burn, wouldn’t trade those days for the laundry I needed to do, or reading I should do or extra work I could do.

While floating, enjoy the quite time, laugh your way through the rapids, and look for the bird nests tucked under the bridge.

Another piece of outdoor heaven in our backyard is Oak Mountain. Reporter Kym Klass and I took the dogs for what we thought would be a leisurely afternoon hike.

Turns out, the hike is almost entirely straight up hill and then straight back down hill. Not easy at all. She brought her beagle and I had my puppy, Grover. He was about six months at the time, now about eight months, and that was his longest car ride yet and certainly his longest adventure at the time.

To start, he looked and sounded a little like a wild boar, as he tried to race off and sniff everything, dismayed that his leash only let him go so far. To my dismay, that leash was attached to my arm, which was incredibly tired by the end of the day from keeping him nearby. Who needs to go to the gym? Take this puppy for a walk. Roughly the same amount of work. But about halfway through the hike, going up hill, it seemed like Grover wanted to sniff something or take a bathroom break. Nope. He just laid down in the middle of the path in front of me and looked at me as if to say, “What? I’m a puppy, I’ve got short legs.”

We stopped for a minute and continued on. A bit later, going almost straight down a hill covered with pine needles, making it less than steady footing, Grover decided he’d try to race down, but then stopped suddenly in front of me and laid down. The hill was so steep he just slid down the hill a ways. I’m amazed I didn’t break anything on that hike. Finally we made it to the waterfall all the signs were telling us was just ahead. Grover probably drank the entire creek’s worth of water and got nice and dirty, which meant I was equally dirty.

What seemed like forever later, we made it back to the car. We were hot, sweaty, dirty and absolutely exhausted. The dogs got in the car and passed out, Grover in his bizarre car sleeping position, in which he lays down in the backseat and leans his head straight up on the back of the seat. It cannot possibly be comfortable.

For a puppy, Grover made a good showing and got along with the other dog. Kym and I were just spent, but decided we’d probably do it again.

A day outside, despite the insane ‘bama heat and humidity, is always worth it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Fanning my travel fires

Tonight I went to the first meeting of Meet, Plan, Go.

It's an cool initiative brought to you by three women. Two of them founded Briefcase to Backpack. The third is an independent consultant on how to travel internationally.

I've traveled solo for the last five years and have loved it. But being stateside for more than a year has me a bit antsy.

I came across the information for Meet, Plan, Go and even though the closest one was in Atlanta, a 2.5 to 3 hour drive, I decided it was worth the hike.

And I was right. The theme of Meet, Plan, Go and Briefcase to Backpack seems largely to be sabbaticals and career breaks. Being a young journalist, it's probably a great time to up and leave, but the event gave me lots of ideas for future travel adventures and how to make them more productive than just seeing the world -- which is obviously productive in itself, but thinking of ways to finance such adventures is extremely useful and motivating.

The Atlanta event was hosted by Barbara and Elizabeth Pagano, a mother-daughter duo. They spent six months sailing together and now help others pitch and plan sabbaticals from their corporate lives.

The panelists were Garrett Schemmel of Hostel Dog, Heather Wilson of Conscious Execs, and Marc Reich of REI.

One attendee asked how to quiet the naysayers and just go for it when you want to check out for a year and see the world. Barbara Pagano said that in their case, they weren't expert sailors, but they were smart and quick learners and they'd figure it out (they had sailed many times before the trip).

She encouraged the attendees to plan trips and "go before you're ready," so that you can learn as you go and get a richer experience.

I agree. Obviously, don't set sail if you can't swim or have a clue on how to sail. But, with some travel sense and a rough plan and even with limited language skills, you'd be amazed what you learn and how quickly you adapt in foreign lands when you don't have what some would consider the requisite skills. I went to Peru with limited Spanish skills and went to towns without a place to stay that night. I've gone swimming with dolphins, snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, sailed the Whitsundays, hiked in the Andes, gone horseback riding through areas where Lord of the Rings was filmed and more. None of it would have happened if I hadn't just up and left the country.

Don't spend all your time dreaming and planning. Eventually, you just have to go.

Check out those sites and go to a Meet, Plan, Go event in a town near you or their bootcamp in January.