In 2011, I spent three miserable days in Copenhagen under omnipresent rain clouds, and it wasn't until a few months later that I realized how much of the city's beauty I had missed out on because I had let the rain get to me. Since then, I've been making more of an effort to see cities for what they are, and not what they're subject to.
"Welcome to the rock," my cabbie cheered upon picking me up at the airport in St. John's, Newfoundland. Her accent was noticeably thick, and for a minute I wondered if I had been flown a little too far and landed in Ireland instead. Even in the darkness of the cab, I could see her hair was red as the girl from Brave, and I wouldn't put it past this woman to know how to bend a bow. Or sing a dirge. Or pound a Guinness.
But her main concern, other than getting me to my friend's house, was to make sure I had made time for Screeching In, an elaborate Newfoundlander ritual that involves local hard liquor (Screech), bologna on a toothpick, kissing a cod fish on the lips (or ass), and call-and-response in local dialect. For instance, if you're somewhere in the world and hear the question, "Dat you?!," your response is: "Indeed I is, me ol' cock! And long may your big jib draw!" Colorful word-flourishes like this are par for the course during the ceremony, and even when sober they're just as fun to shout.
Shooting "Newfoundland's Finest Rum" is probably as necessary to visiting St. John's as getting your vitals taken at the emergency room. It's the meeting point for visitors and regulars, because at one point, all of the locals have been Screeched In as well. In a roundabout way, it's a turning point in self-awareness. But that could just be side-effects of the rum.
Partakers are awarded an ornate certificate endorsed by the Newfoundland/Labrador Liquor Corporation; surely the best kinds of souvenirs are the ones that confirm something important happened. But the best part is remembering how welcoming everyone in St. John's was, and knowing that when I return, I'll be bringing along my status as an hono(u)rary Newfoundlander.
Gros Morne, whose name means "Great Somber," is a harrowingly beautiful stretch of wilderness on the western end of Newfoundland, Canada. It's one of those rare places that teaches you the meaning of the word "grandeur" while at the same time beckoning you to rest in its landscape.
I'd be lying if I said I wasn't at all skeptical of finding the actual building in which my father was born. He was born a Baby Boomer in St. John's, Newfoundland, outside the nation that raised him, to an Air Force officer during the nascent years of the Cold War.
Coming here in search of my father's birthplace was a pilgrimage of sorts, but certainly an ambiguous one, too: research into St. John's mid-century city layout was hardly thorough, and after piecing together written descriptions of the city I could only muster a partial view of a dirt lot obscured by trees using Google Street View.
It was a long walk to Janeway Place, the lone street that matched an early facility's location on the north side of Quidi Vidi Lake. Clouds loomed and threatened rain, and the lack of a grid system made navigating St. John's streets a little more complicated than most cities. Along the way, I searched for meaning in the little turns, or pictured my grandparents ambling along on these streets, my infant father wrapped up in a blanket, keeping at bay the biting Atlantic flurries.
The children's hospital no longer stood where I'd been led. It had been demolished many years prior, after the Janeway Children's Hospital Foundation had relocated. Across the street, a new long-term care facility neared completion—I was happy that new use from the space had been found, but strange ghosts hovered over the empty lot where my father came into this world as a ten-pound newborn. I wanted to force meaning on the rocks and dust and into their energies and chemistry, and draw abstract connections from their presence at dad's arrival. With Oma and Opa both gone, these inanimate objects were now the only witnesses—and I wanted them to scream at me, and tell me what it was like. What was everyone doing? How much snow was on the ground? Did the sky split?
Was there a thunderbolt?
Try as I might, I couldn't squeeze any meaning out of the ground beneath my feet. It was cold and indifferent, a composition of metamorphic rock that had formed over millions of years and had seen plenty on its surface come and go. It wouldn't remember us in the way we remember it, regardless of what we do to influence it.
But though it's just a pile of rocks and dust, it's still special. At least to my dad and me.
I went to art school long enough that I'm allowed to say this: There's a lot of art I don't like.
Or how about a little bolder, courtesy of Igor Stravinsky: "Most art is sincere, and most art is bad."
I remember overhearing a comment at the Reina Sofia in Madrid that went something like this: "How the hell did this piece of shit get in here?" And while my first instinct was to brain-slap that uncouth Philistine (who let him inside?) and his mouth-breathing companion, I couldn't help but echo his sentiment—quietly, to myself—towards a few other pieces in the room.
And I'm what one calls "educated" in art.
But for every ten hacks, there's one artist whose work I can really dig into. And for every handful of those, there's an artist with whose works I can spend the afternoon. And I did just that, as best I could, at the New York Museum of Modern Art last week, in a corner room stocked with Wassily Kandinsky's Panels for Edwin R. Campbell. Heavily influenced by his training as a musician and deep interest in spirituality, as well as a staunch defender of abstract art, he is perhaps the preeminent forerunner of a select group of painters who reached back into that ancient rite of artist as spiritual guide, and as guardian and translator between seen and unseen worlds.
Kandinsky's abstract forms burst into concrete shapes for the briefest of moments, flickering in reality like fireworks before disappearing, lost again in the unconscious, like a dream forgotten upon waking. Born with his senses fused, he perceived music in a way that is lost on the rest of us: percussion was tactile, harmony was sweet, melody was spectral. Operating from the belief that music was the most abstract form of art, Kandinsky gave each measure its own color, and each measure its own brushstroke.
For him, the point of a painting wasn't a picture any more than the point of an arrangement was its final note: the actual act of painting, like playing a song, was the point of a painting. The point of a song is singing, and the point of a dance is dancing.
Kandinsky concealed in his work the key to quality of life: You don't find the substance of your life at the end. You find it along the way.
Look closely at his work: do you think he had any fun painting it?
Do you think that was the point?
Better late than never, right?
I spent February of this year traversing the "belt" of Central America: after flying into San José, Costa Rica, I meandered north through Nicaragua and Honduras before catching the redeye out of San Pedro Sula for a sixteen-hour, five-airport flight back to Los Angeles with Spirit Airlines.
Despite my main camera getting nabbed in Liberia, I still managed to get some great shots of the trip using my GoPro HD Hero2, which I've compiled in this little roundup. One of them was even featured on GoPro's Facebook page and garnered over 7,000 likes and several hundred shares!
But why nine? you ask. Why not ten?
The answer lies in the fact that I am, in fact, ridiculously meticulous when it comes to design—I'm obsessed with ratios and angles, platonic solids and even rhythm across a composition. So why nine? Because you can't do a Top 10 with a 3x3 grid. Simple as that!
Not all of these photos are the best photos, necessarily. But I picked them because of the moments in travel they represented to me, however unique, mundane, or somewhere in between.
Anyways, enough babbling: here are each of the nine, with a short caption detailing each one (also, don't forget to follow Sparkpunk on Instagram for more travel num-nums!):
"During the span of this five-minute game, a player encounters an entire lifetime of obstacles and choices. A character begins as a young adult, ages, and dies, all the while moving across the screen through different phases of life. Points are earned from rewards in treasure chests, but many of the chests are empty; Rohrer has noted that in the game, as in life, 'not every pursuit leads to a reward.' Players may seek points alone or in the company of a life partner. Travel and treasure gathering are easier for the agile solo player, but couples can earn more points, although they face more obstacles and one will eventually be slowed by grief when the other dies. Unlike other video games, players do not have multiple lives: 'You die only once, at the very end, and you are powerless to stave off this inevitable loss.'"
—Passage (2007) by Jason Rohrer
Solitude and travel, for many, is seen as a careful dance of trepidation. An awareness of one's own smallness and finitude is exponentially compounded when alone, and in an unfamiliar setting—this is why many people wouldn't even think to travel by themselves.
But like playing the air guitar in your living room or singing in the shower, traveling solo requires a high degree of comfort in your own skin, an inner confidence that has absolutely nothing to do with the world outside. It's the art of playing by yourself, with you as the audience, performer, conductor, and critic. Solo travel is the greatest measure of this particular kind of confidence, but it is also the greatest teacher of it.
I confessed to a friend recently that I am lonely more days than not. But, I added, I've also become great friends with solitude. I've made the solitude work for me, rather than against, like some weird monk with a Mountain Hardware (TM) polyester habit and white earbuds leading to a pant pocket. Solo travel has given me the gifts of quick, frequent movement and deep, personal reflection, but it has also taken me away, for a time, from the people I love most.
Still, I believe in the gospel of movement, in the story of the traveler's refinement as she racks up miles, handshakes, and conversations with strangers. Because of the long hours spent waiting, travel makes us patient. And it's through this portal of patience that all of the other fruits of good character follow. The best travelers are the most effective peacemakers, are more likely to engage a stranger with kindness, and are the most content lovers of life.
At present, I'm still on the road—I'm holed up by myself in a café on the Lower East Side in New York City. My family, friends, and girlfriend are a phone call or a flight away, and while I miss them, I'm happy to be here, too—even if it means being by myself for a time.
“It’s not that we have to quit this life one day, but it’s how many things we have to quit all at once: music, laughter, the physics of falling leaves, automobiles, holding hands, the scent of rain, the concept of subway trains... if only one could leave this life slowly!”
—Roman Payne, Rooftop Soliloquy
It might seem out-of-place to feature this video on a "travel blog," but before any conclusions are drawn, hear Amanda out at the 9:30 mark:
Through the very act of asking people, I connect with them. When you connect with them, [they] want to help you…it's not easy to ask. Asking makes people vulnerable…"celebrity" is about a lot of people loving you from a distance…but this is about a few people loving you up close, and about those people being enough.
I've found the art of travel in the state of being vulnerable, and by being willing to ask a stranger for something. For an overwhelming majority of the time, people have been good, kind, and hospitable to me. The best journeys are the ones when I let others be responsible for my voyage, delivery, and activity. Wherever I go, I go as a disciple of that place and the people I find there.
And disciples tend to ask for a lot of help along the way.
The first time I went looking for it, I overshot the turn-off for Punta Jesús Maria by almost 15 kilometers, which is a lot of distance to overshoot something on an cantankerous two-speed bicycle with knobby tires. Especially when the island being pedaled across is only 30 kilometers to begin with.
To be fair, the sign for the turn-off wasn't terribly prominent. Sure, it was the size of a small barn, but years of weather had eroded enough of the paint so that it looked like any other piece of upright plywood standing alongside a small Nicaraguan road. And the guide in town had told me that it was a 20-minute ride, but I hadn't compensated for the fact that her legs were shorter than mine, and she likely pedaled slower.
Ever-susceptible to attention deficiency—even while riding a bike on a road with no shoulder in a country with few traffic laws—I passed the time fidgeting with my GoPro-mounted Forever Alone Camera Stick(™). With the exception of random clearings and stray teams of bone-thin horses, there wasn't much along the road that kept my attention on pedaling, so I experimented with the camera stick and filled a high-capacity memory card with a medley of poorly-composed self-portraits, set at two-second intervals. I'd regret doing this later, while on my computer, as I combed through hundreds of pictures to find the one decent one I could put on Instagram for Mom. The rest I deleted. Mostly.
I'd brought nearly a gallon of water along for the ride, which I reasoned was more than enough for an afternoon with limited sunlight. Sunscreen with a three-digit SPF rating was lathered liberally on every exposed square inch of skin, and I rode in the shade whenever possible. Still I sweat more than I drank, and I returned with red demarcations around my collar and elbows. I'd spend the next full day in bed, nauseated and energy-sapped—sun stroke, naturally.
Elsewhere on the island, über-athletes were competing in various ultramarathons, clamoring up ashen slopes, scuttling back down, and then tearing back up once again. I was sharing a six-bunk dorm with four of the runners, and by the time I returned from my sunset bike ride, most of them had finished and were passed out on their mattresses. A sun-scorched girl lay on the cool tile floor, praying for aloe vera and a quick death. I asked her if I could get her anything. She said no.
I heard later that one runner had gone missing for a full 24 hours before turning up in town, looking as if she'd fallen into one of the volcanos and then belched out of it. Elsewhere, the athletes showed up early at the restaurants in town, ate them out of house and home, and went to sleep before even the schoolchildren. I, on the other hand, sauntered around town for a while before settling on an Italian restaurant, out of which trickled the last men standing from the day's grueling event.
By the time I holed up for the night, some of the other athletes in the dorm had been sleeping for four hours. Tile Floor Girl was still holding to her namesake in a fitful rest next to my bed. I nervously stepped around and over her to my bunk, and did the best I could to sleep.
The following day, I couldn't finish the breakfast made for me by the Canadian expats at the nearby café. My stomach was doing somersaults—symptoms of a body in revolt against poor treatment. That gallon of water, as it was now being made apparent, was not nearly enough hydration for the bike outing from yesterday. I made it back to the hotel without ralphing on the sidewalk, but as I crawled into bed I wished I had. I wanted to talk to Tile Floor Girl about her sun stroke, to see if she had any advice, but she wasn't there.
I pulled the sheets up, and brought the water bottle within reach. I was dog sick. And I was in love with Nicaragua.