Imagine stepping out of your apartment and across the street to hop on the city train that runs by regularly. A few minutes later you transfer at the main station to a regional train that quietly whisks you away from the urban center. Soon you're in countryside, and within an hour you see the largest waterfall in Europe churning and misting over the next hill.
You follow the well-marked paths from your station to the falls, where you can get close up via various observation points, let your young traveling companion swing around on a playground, or explore a neighboring castle. Then you hop on a boat that takes you down a cool clear river, one full of history and poetry as it defines the border with another country. Swimmers float by, laughing and splashing.
You get off the boat at a shady clearing nestled in the trees and see a beautiful swimming pool complex and cafe on the river. You spend a couple of hours playing and sunning. When you're tired you take the boat and trains home, and get ready for the next day's adventure.
This was just one of the days that came to pass during three weeks living in Switzerland this summer, and it's a good example of the kinds of adventures that my wife, daughter and I (along with a friend who visited us for part of the trip) had in that time. With a centrally located apartment in Zürich and our travel passes in hand, we were fortunate to explore a lot of different corners of this awesome country. From snow-capped mountains to rushing rivers, lush woods to bustling lakefronts, beautiful cities with amazing architecture, innovative museums and interesting festivals, we saw a lot.
I recently returned from my first trip to Croatia, where I spent a week hiking, biking, kayaking, rafting, exploring and eating throughout the country. Between grieving my mom's death, working through her stuff, the busy-ness of work and trying to stay caught up on the rest of life, I hadn't had much time recently to do something purely for fun and purely for me. When my sabbatical was coming up this was one of the first things I planned, and I'm so glad I did it. (My mom also loved to travel and explore new places, so I think she would have encouraged it, too.)
I coordinated the trip through REI's Adventures program, which offers adventure/active travel and vacations around the world. I really appreciate that they focus on using local guides to facilitate small group trips full of context, history and authenticity in a true spirit of exploration, instead of just shuffling hoards of people through a standard tourist experience in all the standard locations. In Croatia this meant constant conversation with our two guides about the political and cultural history of the areas we visited, delicious home-cooked meals at the houses of everyday Croatian people, adapting our plans to the moods and weather of the day, and being able to linger in beautiful locations we had biked or paddled to, before and after the tour buses or cruise ships had come and gone.
This is my second trip with REI (the first being a week in the Galapagos Islands), and I felt fortunate that both times we had excellent guides (thanks Marin and Valentin!) and a group that was easy-going and enjoyable to spend time with. Celebrating our milestones and accomplishments over meals together each day was a real treat.
Croatia itself is just beautiful. The landscapes are so varied: lush national parks with waterfalls everywhere, open plains, islands dotting an amazing coastline, bustling cities. It has modern infrastructure and a high standard of living, but reminders everywhere of the not-so-distant periods of war and conflict.
Tourism is on the rise and is perhaps the country's main "export," and so they are wrestling with how to balance the many benefits that brings with the concerns of congestion and environmental degradation.
In addition to the joy of learning about a new place and getting outside my cultural comfort zone, the trip also served as a challenge to myself around physical fitness. The trip activities were rated as "moderately difficult" and I knew that I would need to do some preparation to go from my relatively sedentary lifestyle to being fully ready to take on a week of day-long physical exertion. Apparently I do pretty well with goal-oriented training; adjusting my diet, doing bike rides around town with a loaded-up trailer in tow and working out at the gym three to four times per week in the months leading up to the trip was a lot easier when I could do it in the name of not totally embarrassing myself in Croatia.
And it paid off! Each day I was more than able to keep up, sometimes even being the one who was pushing for a bit more speed or distance. Biking felt especially good and I think I was smiling for most of a 22-mile ride through the rolling countryside.
It's just long enough to transition away from full-on tourist mode and get to know a place a little bit more from a local point of view. Immersing ourselves in a new landscape is also a great way to get perspective on the world and the rest of our lives - what we value, what we miss, what we want more or less of and how we might make that happen.
This year's trip was different in a few ways. Our last three have all been in the U.S. so we were excited to again be overseas and where we didn't know the language. It was also very new to do this kind of trip with our 11-month-old daughter. We wanted to challenge ourselves in these ways and while it was hard at times, overall it was a really fun and amazing experience.
Kelly and I are fortunate to have enough flexibility in our schedules and employment that we've continued the trend of trying to live in another place (e.g. Portland, OR, Washington, D.C.) for 3-4 weeks per year. It's just long enough to transition away from full-on tourist mode and get to know a place a little bit more from a local point of view. Immersing ourselves in a new landscape is also a great way to get perspective on the world and the rest of our lives - what we value, what we miss, what we want more or less of and how we might make that happen.
This year we spent that time in Asheville, North Carolina.
It's a place that I've spent a fair amount of time already - visiting my dad's parents there when I was younger, attending Camp Rockmont for several summers in a row, going on various whitewater rafting/canoeing trips nearby and visiting college friends there more recently - but it was great to experience the city in this new way as it lives into its emerging culinary/artistic/outdoorsy identity. The mountain air, lush woods and trails, flourishing food scene, accessible size, eclectic neighborhoods and friendly people made for a really memorable time.
We stayed at a beautiful Airbnb house near the downtown area, which meant we could walk into town and experience a restaurant, bar, market, sidewalk performance or drum circle whenever we felt like it:
Kelly and I were fortunate to be able to spend a week exploring Colorado this month, mostly around Boulder, Vail, Glenwood Springs and Steamboat. It was a great chance to visit some family in the area, see some different landscapes, hike/bike/raft/etc., and just generally enjoy life at 8,000 feet above sea level. Apparently there's a lot more of the state than one can see in a few days, so I expect we'll be back again soon. Some photos and notes from our trip follow.
Vail is like Disneyworld (but cuter) for people who want to be able to pick up an expensive handbag or some sushi right after they get off the slopes, with everything laid out just so for the optimal outdoorsy tourist experience:
After a long day and a half of travel that took us through the markets of Otavalo, back through the beautiful mountains to Quito, through long lines and paperwork at the airport, and then to Atlanta and Dayton, Kelly and I are back home in Richmond. Ecuador already feels far away, but we'll soon have a chance to revisit it through photos, video and stories.
Thanks so much to everyone who followed along on this blog, and who cheered us on as we traveled. It was an interesting experience to share and get feedback along the way, and we'll certainly look forward to sharing more of our experiences with you in person.
This will likely serve as the final "real" post here, and we'll eventually take this blog down. You can look for more reflections and our photos soon on my personal blog, my Flickr account and maybe even my YouTube account for some videos.
We might have mentioned that Banos is located at the base of a volcano, Tungurahua (which means "throat of fire" in the local tongue). Well, literally at the moment we were pulling out of town this morning, that volcano erupted. As in, the road we were on closed as we were on it, police cars and ambulances sped by, and we saw the ash cloud forming behind us. The locals pretty much dropped what they were doing to line up along the road to watch, so we knew it was a big deal. Exciting!
The road was eventually opened at least temporarily, and we sped off into the hills (and we made it to Otavalo where I write from). Do we have good timing or what?