hot springs eternal

There’s something about hot springs that, for me, is really special—the literal immersion of oneself into nature. I’m not much of a swimmer and I hate being cold, but the idea of just sitting in a warm pool in a magnificent natural setting is highly appealing. In the bleak of a Michigan February, I find myself pining for these places of beauty and warmth. I’m making it a point to seek out some hot springs on my next trip down south (perhaps this one, or this one when it re-opens), and am toying with the idea of a trip to Iceland, where geothermal baths are plentiful.

September 2001, Niigata Prefecture, Japan

It’s late in the evening. We’re on our way to Niigata to visit the island of Sado-Ga-Shima, famous for its gold mines and legions of feral cats. We stop off at an onsen, or traditional Japanese hot springs bath.

As with most things in Japan, there is a cultural learning curve. Bathers enter the baths nude–a personal article of clothing such as a bathing suit would be seen as unclean; sullying the water. 44-year-old post-pregnancy me would, ironically, probably be less self-conscious than my 27-year-old self was about public nudity. But thankfully, the darkness obscures us. We sit in the open air, bathed by moonlight and warmth and heady infatuation.

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June 2010, Buena Vista, Colorado

On a blindingly sunny Saturday, M and I hook up with our old Detroit friend K, who has offered to act as tour guide that day since our host D has to work. She drives us obligingly a couple of hours out of town to Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, with a stop for a hike at the beautiful and scenic Roxborough State Park. Despite calling itself a “spa”, which might connote something fancy, Cottonwood is a kind of funky, unfussy place where you can rent a lodge-style room or even a campsite. It makes me happy that these kinds of places are largely accessible to the general public and haven’t been overly commodified or made exclusive. Overseas, I would expect as much, since other cultures consider it more of a “right” that everyone be able to partake of a natural attraction regardless of income. But, given our American tendency to privatize and bleed every dollar we can out of tourists, I’m pleasantly surprised whenever that’s not the case.

cottonwood

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October 2014, Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Winding through the mountains of Sao Miguel island, my best friend A and I happen to pass a sign for Caldeira Velha, a park with hot springs, and can’t resist pulling over. We don’t have a whole lot planned for this trip, other than to see where the road takes us. We park the car in a lot off the twisting road, and walk towards the park. The red dirt path pops cheerfully against the intense, saturated greens of the forest. We reach the springs, where you can actually see the water boiling up out of the ground in spots. A small waterfall flows gently over a ruddy, moss-covered rock face and into a natural pool. We don’t have bathing suits, so we roll up our jeans and sit at the edge of a smaller pool, like a large bathtub carved into the rock, submerging as much skin as we can. There’s an autumn chill in the air, providing a welcome contrast to the deliciously warm water. We sit in silence broken by the occasional birdsong or foreign chatter, and meditate on our good fortune.

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A couple of days later, we are in the town of Furnas, known for its hot springs and geothermal cuisine, in which pots of beef and root vegetables are stewed low and slow in the ground. This time I am prepared, having bought a cheap swimsuit in a tourist shop the day before. There are two main baths in Furnas. One is in the Terra Nostra botanical park; a huge pool of mineral-rich water the color of milky tea. The other, which we decide to try, is the Poça da Dona Beija, a series of five pools of different temperatures set amidst lush subtropical foliage. It’s dusk when we get into the water, and a fine rain mists our faces. We make small talk with a couple of young Canadians who have overheard us speaking English and who we recognize from our flight. The iron-rich water stains our nails and skin and swimsuits. We splash around, blissed out by the cool rain, hot water and the beauty of twilight fading on the verdant gardens.

ambush 1990

The fat little man ambushed us, limbs and appendages flailing as he stumbled toward us, his breathing labored from the effort, or perhaps nerves. In his hand was a 10-franc note, the pretty one with the cartoon drawing of the Little Prince on it. He waved it in our faces. “Regardez! Regardez comme il est beau,” he huffed, gesturing at his shriveled penis. His clothing lay in the bushes a few yards away. We saw the thing unrolling in slow motion– his progress out of the brush and onto the path in a wooded area of the Bois de Boulogne where we had taken a shortcut on a perfect summer afternoon; his brandishing of the bill in our faces; his chubby hand reaching out to grab my small, still-developing breast. We walked at a clip, our pace having increased as soon as we’d seen him out of the corner of our eyes, but it didn’t occur to us to run; in his nakedness, he somehow seemed less of a threat.

As we left the woods and re-entered the open expanse of the park, we giggled nervously and incredulously over what had just happened. We thought of the clever, biting things we would have said or done, if only we’d been quicker-witted: stealing his clothes; telling him “C’est beaucoup trop petit pour moi.” We didn’t feel scared or upset particularly, even though something far worse could have taken place. We were in that bubble of teenage-hood where invincibility trumps reality, and in the end, secretly savored the thrill of a brush with danger and a crazy story to tell our disbelieving friends when we got home.

traveling companions part 3: family

It’s pretty inevitable that you’ll end up traveling with family at some point, whether by choice or obligation. If done right, it can be a great bonding experience. If not, it can make you feel like a screaming teenager again.

Growing up, pretty much all of our family trips took place in and out of cars. With four kids, there was much of the typical bickering/ whining (“mom… she’s touching meeeee!!!!”) and parental threats of pulling over to administer punishment for said bickering. But there were also lots of fun moments of games of I Spy, 20 Questions, and sing-alongs (where I learned how to rock a harmony with my mom singing Beatles or holiday songs).

Since then, family travel has mostly consisted of a bunch of us converging on or around someone’s house, whether it be my dad’s lake house or my mom’s place near Hilton Head. The key for me in these situations (or really anytime I’m in large groups) is the ability to get away and have a little quiet time each day, especially if there are kids around. Usually this means getting up early to read, write or take a walk before everyone else is up, or just disappearing into a bedroom for some down time. As social as I am, I find that I get cranky if I don’t have these opportunities to recharge.

Of course there have been other family trips where we meet somewhere and do more of a tourist thing. In the last 13 months I’ve been on three trips with my mom and her husband- twice in the Blue Ridge mountains, where I brought a friend each time, and just this past weekend to San Diego for a family wedding. In general my mom is great to travel with. She likes to be active, and is usually up for any type of activity we suggest. The only problem is when she starts complaining, usually about service or food at restaurants and/ or about driving and traffic related issues. I’m not sure if it’s a function of her age and being set in her ways, or if it’s just her personality, but it always puts a damper on things. I think the more you go elsewhere and experience other ways of being, the less you have an expectation that things “should” be a certain way, and maybe it’s easier to adjust or accept differences. Or perhaps certain people are just more rigid. My mom didn’t really do much of any traveling until later in life, so I try to cut her some slack. When I do encounter this kind of behavior, in her or other people, I try to diffuse it by saying things like “Just be glad that we’re able to be here!” or other statements that focus on the positive.

When I started traveling on my own, I reveled in the fact that I was out in the world without my parents, discovering things for myself and figuring out how to be independent, so I wasn’t chomping at the bit to include them in my travel plans (not that they would have wanted to… they didn’t even make it to France the whole year that I lived there). My first voluntary trip with a family member was in my mid-20s when I went to Italy with my sister B- there was a February sale on tickets that happened to coincide with her college spring break, so we went to Rome for under $300 each. I’m five years older than her, and I’d say this trip marked the beginning of our relationship as peers. There were a few bumps in the road, mostly due to our age difference and level of experience as travelers (I’d spent nine weeks backpacking through Europe and was accustomed to staying in youth hostels and eating on the cheap; ironically, although she was younger, she had slightly more upscale standards) but overall we had a great time and I was so glad to be able to share that with her. We’ll always chuckle about the night in Florence when we dined and dashed because the food was so horrible and we waited 45 minutes for a check that never came.

Once all my siblings were adults, I’d hoped to be able to take more trips with them, but it seems like things never line up. My sister N had young children for several years. Now, her kids are old enough where she could leave them, but B just had her first baby. Meanwhile, my brother J and his wife are child-free for the time being, but don’t have the financial freedom to do a lot of traveling. N wants to do a girls’ weekend this winter for her 40th birthday though, so who knows. I’ve always wanted to go overseas with J, because we have a lot in common and I think we’d enjoy the same destinations, activities, etc. But at this point, it’s looking pretty unlikely that we’ll ever get to go anywhere just the two of us.

My mom, who’s in her mid-60s, is planning a trip to Ireland with her sisters for this fall or possibly next spring. I really hope that down the road, after people’s kids are grown (or even before), my siblings and I will plan some trips together. Although we all have different travel styles, I like to think that we’d have a ton of fun wherever we went. And who knows, maybe they’ll get me out of my comfort zone to try something I wouldn’t normally do, like a cruise or all-inclusive resort. You never know, stranger things have happened when family is involved.

traveling companions, part 2: the best friend

This post is the second in a series about various travel companions; go here for part I.

hilary-noelle-1The very first trip I ever took without my parents was with my high school best friend, H. One of my uncles, a priest who researches our family genealogy in his spare time, had organized a three week trip for us to France, where we were to stay with distant relatives in Alsace. He accompanied us for part of the trip, but most of the time was spent with my friend bouncing around different homes in the French countryside. I’ll write more about this trip down the road (or check out this related post from my old blog), as there were many formative firsts worth recounting. But H was a great companion, especially given that we were just 16 and full of all the teen drama and emotions one would expect at that age. H and I had a connection such that any and everything could be turned into an inside joke funny to no one but us (“Albert? C’est toi?” Mort de rire.). When uttered later, these would provoke the other person to giggling fits that would often end in tears of gleeful hysteria. I’m sure we got into some minor snits with each other at some point, but my primary memory of this trip is that we got on grandly.  (Sadly, the postscript to all of this is that we had a falling out when she tried to steal my boyfriend freshman year of college. We might’ve gotten past it, but she moved away the following year and we never reconciled until a dozen or so years later. By that time, we had grown apart too much to get things back to the way they were, and although we’re “friends” on social media, I haven’t seen her since. But I cherish the memories of that trip like none other.)

noelle amanda azoresThese days, I am so lucky to have a best friend, A, whose travel pace and preferences mesh almost perfectly with my own (and who’s never tried to steal any boyfriends). When we were younger, we didn’t have much occasion to travel together since she was still in school and/or working to pay off student loans. (An exception was one ridiculously fun weekend in NYC circa 2000… memories of dancing like crazy to Led Zeppelin in a divey Lower East Side bar…) In 2014, though, we were able to take two trips–one to Louisville and the Smokies, the other to the Azores–and both were pretty near perfect. I kept finding myself in certain situations thinking, “if I was with M, he would be ornery and complaining right now,” but everything was smooth sailing. It just confirmed for me that I was not the problem (well, at least not as much as he would have me believe), and I felt much better… I’m not the difficult one, I’m a great travel partner! Ha. And, we may be getting older, but we still have just as much fun… in Asheville, NC, we charmed our way into a “private” club and danced our asses off like it was 1999.

Of course if your best friend is crazy or has a completely different idea of fun than you or is just difficult in general then I can’t really advise taking that mess to another location. But assuming you get along (and if not, it kind of begs the question of why is this person your best friend?), no reason not to take that party on the road. A and I are already daydreaming about our next trip* and checking cheap ticket sites on the regular. Costa Rica is a solid contender, but we’re also considering mainland Portugal and a couple other spots. I can’t wait to find the next place where we’ll dance with all the abandon of our 27-year-old selves.

*Update– we booked a trip to Argentina in October 2018! Stay tuned for fun times ahead.

tiki, teardrops and true confessions

tiki noIt must be a rite of passage to get your ass kicked by tiki drinks while visiting Los Angeles. The task was not hard to accomplish, what with a happy hour cocktail at the Roosevelt Hotel, huge beers with dinner, and a stop at the Rainbow for a whiskey soda and some jukebox glam beforehand. More reasonable humans might have called it a night at that point, but it was only 8:30! And this particular tiki bar was in walking (er, stumbling) distance from my friend T’s apartment.

But if you’ll permit me, let’s backtrack to Thanksgiving. In the dinner afterglow, perhaps three glasses of wine in the rear view mirror and tryptophan coursing through my veins, I found myself on facebook chatting with an old college pal who was visiting home from LA. We briefly toyed with the idea of trying to get together, but the timing wasn’t going to work. He suggested that I should just visit him in California, and in my warm and fuzzy and expansive postprandial state, I found myself thinking that was a great idea. A few keystrokes on my phone, and I had a ticket.

Mind you, I hadn’t seen T in about ten years, not since his wedding reception when he still lived in Chicago. Back when I was in school at Michigan State, I used to visit him there fairly regularly, taking the EL to the resale shops in Boystown or poking around Andersonville’s coffee houses and junk stores while he was at work. In the evenings, we’d go to dive bars, drink shitty beer and see bands play. Occasionally, his band would have a show, and I’d sing along in the front row.

Ten years later though, did we still have anything in common? I pondered this somewhat nervously as the trip approached. We were both unattached and had recently gone through divorces, so there was that. But we hadn’t really kept in touch since he’d moved (and even for a decent period before that), and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Girlfriends inquired excitedly whether there were any “romantic possibilities” for my trip; I answered quite honestly that I had no idea.

detroit streetMy first afternoon in town, as we wandered the streets of Hollywood at sunset, I kept seeing bits of home everywhere I looked… Berry Gordy’s star on the Walk of Fame; a sign for Detroit Street; a guy in a Tigers t-shirt. As it turned out, by this time there was someone back home who was tugging at my heartstrings like a cheap ukelele, and as much as I was enjoying the California sunshine, I couldn’t help but have him (and by extension, the city I associated with him) in my thoughts. Naturally I thought the best way to deal with this was with a cocktail.

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restless legs syndrome and the wanderlust gene

croix de toulouseI don’t have any tattoos, but I’m thinking that DRD4-7R would be a good one. It’s the name of the gene supposedly responsible for my restless, never-satiated nature; the one that makes me constantly seek out new experiences and new terrain. The letters could possibly fit inside the other tattoo that I’ve long contemplated, the croix de Toulouse (where I lived for a year), aka the cross of the Cathars. In addition to this cross symbolizing the region where I spent a formative year of my life, the Cathars were a group of persecuted heretics, and although I don’t espouse their beliefs, this probably says something about why I identify with them.

The other day I challenged a friend: “I feel like you’ve constructed this quasi-hermetic life in which you inhabit maybe 5 square miles surrounding your house and that’s it… Why is that? When did you become that way?”, I pressed, with genuine curiosity but, if I’m being honest, a note of judginess in my tone. This question was posed to a person who used to travel in his youth, and even lived abroad for a couple years, but who currently takes pains not to leave the cloister of his neighborhood.

On another occasion, he had answered a similar query by saying, “I get the world to come to me”- i.e. via food and drink, namely. This time, he replied with a question of his own: “Why is it that you always feel the need to be leaving?”

Why, indeed. I thought about this for a moment. And although I think he was just diverting focus from scrutiny and didn’t care too much about my answer (I say this because I gave a flip response and the subject was changed), it got me thinking… what makes some people crave a constant change of scenery? Why am I itchy unless I have plane tickets in the bank or a road trip on the horizon?

I’ve always had “restless legs syndrome”, but after I got married I accepted the idea that sacrifices would have to be made. We were homeowners now, and not getting any younger; we should put money in savings for the house or retirement rather than take frivolous vacations. Besides, any time I’d suggest a trip, even just a short weekend road trip up north or something, M would claim he had to work, and we wouldn’t go. Towards the end of the relationship I just started going off on my own with friends since he was unwilling.

One of the first things I did after our separation was book a trip to Portugal. Buying those tickets made me giddy, and reconnected me with the person I was eight years prior. Since then, I’ve been to LA and New Orleans, and will soon be planning a trip somewhere in Central America thanks to a free ticket given as compensation for a canceled flight. Not to mention that I have enough Delta miles for a round trip to Europe. I’ve been window shopping for cheap plane tickets the way some women window shop for Louboutins.

But back to my friend’s point: Why? Well, right now I think it’s pretty obvious that travel offers an escape from certain realities of my life: that I’m going through a divorce; that I live in a cramped little apartment; that I’m single and will likely never have a family so I might as well do things people with kids can’t do, like pick up at a moment’s notice when I find a great deal. (This isn’t a pity party, by the way; just me adjusting to my new normal.) But the other day, I came across an interesting article that talked about a genetic component to all of this; a “wanderlust gene”. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

According to David Dobbs of National Geographic, the mutant form of the DRD4 gene, 7r, results in people who are “more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities.”  [Ahem.] He went on to say that bearers of this gene “generally embrace movement, change, and adventure” (paraphrased from Dan Scotti in this Elite Daily article; here’s the original NatGeo article). Another blog article tells us the gene is “carried by an approximately 20% of the human population and is linked with restlessness and curiosity along with being a named association with ADHD (Schilling, Walsh & Yun, 2011). This restlessness can cause people to take bigger risks which includes exploring new or different places.” The ADHD connection was not shocking to me at all, as someone who has long suspected myself of being on the spectrum.

Of course not all travel can be explained by genetics- there are people who travel for status, to check things off a list, or who go someplace like Cancun and never set foot off the grounds of their all-inclusive resort- but my Capricorn nature loves scientific, reasoned explanations to things, so I appreciated stumbling on this info. Now, to consult the I Ching to see where I should venture next… suggestions welcome!

traveling companions: the significant other

I know a few free-spirited folks who favor solo travel–setting off to parts unknown completely untethered, able to go where you please and when you please, and meet new people along the way. Personally, I usually prefer companionship, but it’s crucial to know who makes a good traveling companion. I’ve been fortunate to have had more good ones than bad, but the bad ones have unnecessarily ruined some trips that could have otherwise been outstanding, and wasted a ton of my money and time. In a series of posts, I plan to review the most common categories of traveling companion and evaluate the merits and demerits of each, as an excuse to revisit some old travels and lovers and friends.

Let’s start with the most common, the significant other. The significant other can make a great traveling companion if the relationship is on solid ground AND if you both have similar travel styles. I had wonderful trips to Montréal & Québec, New Orleans and Washington, DC with J, a pretty easygoing but adventurous guy who enjoyed a healthy mix of seeing the sights and spending time lounging in bars or cafés, with appropriate amounts of napping and sex thrown in. Long car rides were no big deal with this good-natured and fun-loving companion; we’d listen to music and sing harmonies and occasionally pull off onto a country road for a quickie. Oh, to be young and in love.

I went up north and down through Wisconsin and Chicago with a different J; that trip worked also, mostly because he let me dictate everything. Not as exciting or sexy, but a pleasant way to spend a week out of town. At the time, he was very much a homebody and this was pretty much the only trip we ever took in 5+ years of dating. Ironically, he now spends most of the year on the road, touring in a rock band. How times change.  We stayed in cheap up north motels and watched the leaves change color and stumbled on the “cool” part of Milwaukee by accident and went to Shedd Aquarium and had a generally lovely week.

M, however, was a different story. To start with, we had very different ideals of the perfect vacation… his involved being near-catatonic on a beach somewhere, preferably with a huge spliff in one hand and an icy pastel-hued libation in the other. I am much more on-the-go, preferring to rise fairly early to take in some sights, followed by a leisurely lunch, nap, a little more sightseeing and then dinner, drinks, etc. I feel that it’s also important to know how someone will react when outside their element. M hadn’t traveled much prior to dating me, and everything always seemed to present some kind of problem or issue. How much of this was innate vs. him just wanting to be cranky with me personally is a matter of debate; he subsequently traveled to some borderline third world areas and had a grand old time. My hunch is that his filters were set not to complain on that trip since he was with a business associate and not his romantic partner. But that just goes to show that those things are subjective and you CAN choose to overlook minor inconveniences rather than complain and spread misery. I will never understand that… I always feel so fortunate to get to go places and do things that a little discomfort is no big deal.

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