CultureExploreTravel

Most people eventually graduate from a tourist into a traveler, and when they do, they realize that all they want to do is get under the skin of a city. At least, that’s what I want to do.

Getting under is no easy feat. When I first started traveling, I wanted to see everything. Every few days, I longed to see what the sky looked like from a different landscape, another city. Would it still look the same? Would it still feel the same? I loved the fast pace and the feeling of freedom, the idea that I never had to remain stuck in one place, that the very next day, I could be across fields and fences, through woods and over mountains, several lakes away, oceans even.

That’s all fine and dandy, but you get through to the city’s secrets as much as an elephant might be able to squeeze through a hobbit’s door. Upon reflection, I’ve come to see cities by their multi-layered personalities and identities. As I break through the layers and get to know each city like a person, I find that each new place has the epic possibility of becoming another home.

1. The Stranger

A city is a stranger when you’ve only seen it from above or through the airport windows. You’re so close, nearly touching, almost bumping into each other, but the only sorry you’ll mutter in its direction is an apology for not being able to see it, rather than for stepping on its toes (in fact, it’s utterly brilliant if you can manage to step on a city’s toes). It’s a city you haven’t been to yet, or have constantly missed, perhaps only ever experiencing through a book or a fellow traveler’s tales.

I wish I could say I’ve been to Tokyo, but I can’t, not with any sincerity. I’ve flown into Tokyo six or seven times – and then flown out on the same day, never leaving the airport. Maybe you get a flavor of Japan from browsing the airport’s duty-free shops. Even then, I’ve only seen Tokyo as much as I’ve seen a silhouette out of the corner of my eye: a stranger I’ve let pass by.

2. The Coffee Server

This is a city you only interact with long enough to fulfill some orders, a list of things you wanted to see and do. You stay only long enough to see what the city wants you to see – its tall skyscrapers, its famous monuments, maybe a glimpse of its transportation system, a cafe or two, the main square. You see what’s staring at you straight. You stay long enough to not really form a concrete opinion, and know only enough to say, “Well, it was fantastic!” or “It was nice.”

I spent only an afternoon in Warsaw during the spare time I had between traveling from Krakow to Vilnius. Warsaw – and other cities I’ve spent too short a time in –  is like a person that serves you coffee. Although indubitably rich in history, I only remember walking along the river, seeing the oldest apothecary, sending postcards from the post office in the main square, and wandering the cobblestone streets. You know they had a life’s worth of history before the moment you briefly crossed paths, but all you know of them is their name tag (your server today was Mary), their handwriting on your cup, and perhaps their smile (if they smiled).

3. The Acquaintance

You might consider a city an acquaintance when you’ve been there enough times to recognize its cityscape in magazines and posters, even when not identified. You might remember your way around parts of the downtown core, maybe one or two suburban neighbourhoods. You can take their metro system with complete ease. You know a couple of cool places off the radar of most tourists; maybe you’ve made some local friends.

Seattle is a neighbour to Vancouver (the one in British Columbia), a city I’ve been lucky to live in for the last four years. Just three hours south on the highway, I’ve made it the destination of an obligatory annual trip, just because.

Seattle – or any city you’ve been to repeatedly or spent a little more time getting to know – is like the guy in your college that you keep seeing in different classes because he’s completing the same major. I’ve been to Seattle enough times to remember my way around parts of the downtown core, to know about the cool (or gross) Bubblegum wall in Post Alley, the epic Pinball Museum in Chinatown, and the Fremont Troll permanently living under Aurora Bridge. Similarly, I’ve spent enough time around this guy-also-majoring-in-English (his name is Bob, for simplicity) to know that he only writes with blue ballpoint pens, speaks up frequently in class, occasionally replaces his glasses with contacts, and walks with a four-count rhythm.

But you’ve only said a few words to him, if any at all, and you’re not even sure he knows your name. I don’t know if Seattle knows me. Do you know I’ve walked your streets, Seattle?

(Doesn’t that sound like an Owl City song?)

4. That Friend from Third Grade

At this point, the city has started to drill a layer into you, leaving little dents and impressions. You might have been staying in the city for a couple of weeks, walking the same streets at least a hundred times, and finding several new streets every day. You have a favorite cafe that you always find yourself headed to when you can’t sleep. The city has started to become much more familiar to you now.

A city like this for me was Prague, Czech Republic. I lived in a dorm on Tržište on the west side of the Vltava river for seven weeks, reading Kafka and Kundera, studying Czech and other good things at Charles University. My friends and I crossed Charles Bridge (or Karlův Most) on a near-daily basis to get to class. I regularly got a chicken panini from this one cafe behind the school. Because I studied in Prague, I learned about the history that had happened right on its streets, about Prague Spring and the self-immolation of Jan Palach right in the middle of Wenceslas Square.

With that extra behind-the-scenes knowledge, a city feels more intimate somehow. You can look at a building and feel sorrow at the previous fires that tore it down, imagine the different hands that laid on it to put up new skeletons and new faces. You can sit inside the Elephant House and let your eyes roam over the dedicated Harry Potter quotes scribbled all over the walls, even those of the toilet stall, feeling the same inspiration J. K. Rowling got from just being in the glowing city of Edinburgh.

Cities like these, that you met like a friend in the third grade (her name was Maris, if you’re curious), start to let you in. Maris told me the major events in her past (like how her parents divorced when she was five), and the random moments too (like the time she hollered at the universe when she got to the top of a Douglas Fir, or the time she practically cackled as she drew a moustache on her sister’s face). So did Prague – she seemed unbothered when talking about the long drawn-out separation, and finally divorce, of Czechoslovakia; she said it had been rather peaceful and mutual. Prague giggled when we saw the magnificent albino peacock in the palace gardens, like a little kid gleeful at revealing its star prize, and positively skipped when we indulged in one of her black light theatre shows (Faust: Between God and the Devil, thankfully with a student discount ‘cause we’re such cheapos).

You may have eventually moved to California and lost contact with Maris, or left Prague to see what else Europe had to offer, but the memory lives on, two, five, eight years later, and if you ever went back, you’d recollect and reconnect in a heartbeat. Until then, if there is a then, what you’ll remember most about the city and that friend from the third grade are their smiles and how they made you feel.

5. The Best Friend

If this city is your best friend, you’ve been past the ‘restricted access’ sign, gone where few have ever been, would ever dare to go. You’ve gone completely underground, where no natural light exists, and found yourself crawling through the sewage system. You can hear the subway roaring past somewhere above you.

At this point, you’ve seen the deeper problems entrenched within the city. You’ve seen the buggers that start the acne on the city’s face, the viruses that make the city sweat and shiver. You’ve spent enough time not only living in the city but studying the city, reading in the parks, people-watching in cafes, movie theatres, shops, and ice rinks. You’ve been able to put a magnifying glass to the culture, scrutinize it, and not only understand it but also praise or criticize it. You’re deeply enfolded by the city, you walk the streets with greater purpose and focus. Because you have the luxury of more time here, you’re trying to unlock the doors in the endless labyrinth, seeking routes towards the Minotaur, and you’ve been retracing your steps so often there are parts of the labyrinth you know by heart.

Vancouver is my base, one of the few places in the world I can run back to, to rest my head. Whenever I return from trips, I’m instantly comforted just knowing I’m now in a place where I can find my way without getting lost. When I get tired of running away, this is the place I run to.

It’s like the best friend, the person you know inside out, the one you go to when you have news to tell or need a shoulder to cry on. Vancouver and I have made memories; like two girls staying up all night, laughing, gossiping, listening to music, we’ve grown to recognize each other’s poker face (Vancouver grinds its teeth when people tell her she’s boring), live with each other’s flaws (she’s seen me at my worst and I’ve never seen her capable of going below zero degrees Celsius – or is that actually a compliment?), celebrate each other’s high notes (I heard Vancouver clap the loudest when I walked on stage to get my university degree). Vancouver and I have private jokes. We whisper secrets in each other’s ears. What are those secrets, you may ask. Well, they’re our secrets for a reason; you shall have to make your own.

Vancouver and I have routines: the Richmond Night Market in the summer (no matter the stupid new entrance fees and the increasing prices every year), reading books on Kitsilano beach when it’s sunny, and Japadog or Sushi California when I need a pick-me-up. Like with best friends, I feel inspired by Vancouver’s unique skyline, the twinkling lights of Science World and BC Place at night, the elegant dame that is Canada Place. I feel proud of Vancouver’s accepting nature (Vancouver is so LGBTQ-friendly, it even has its own gay nightclub scene dominating Davie Street).

Like a best friend, I know that no matter where I am in the world, I can always come back to Vancouver and trust that it will be there for me, maybe slightly changed, but more or less the same. Vancouver is a city I choose, over and over again, to come back to.

6. The Family Member

At this ultimate level, you’re completely aware of the city’s limits, how it ticks and what makes it pulse. You’re acutely aware of its residents and how they make the city the city it is. Maybe you’ve joined several groups within the community, volunteering at the retro cinema, the animal shelter, the crisis call centre. Maybe you’re part of the work culture or the student culture or both.

You’ve snatched bits of reality from a multitude of people living within the city, making it breathe and heave and sigh. You’ve got your hand on its heart and when the city sneezes, it shakes you like a hungry hurricane. You’ve tapped even further into the city’s secrets, and you walk the city’s streets not like a labyrinth but like the blood vessels under your own skin, all directed towards your heart.

Cities you’ve gotten to know at this level are like family: annoying, infuriating at times, but in the end, home. The city has seen you through your teenage phase where you hated the world and felt like the world hated you, where you tested your parents’ patience, trying your hardest to push them away (this only made them pull harder to get you back).

Singapore is this city for me. When I was living there, I didn’t really appreciate it. I’d been spoiled by my years in the States and all I wanted was to return to North America. What an impatient, arrogant child I was (still am at times), but Singapore was patient with me. It taught me, shaped me, disciplined me. Even though I’d never go back to live there, I’d rarely turn down a chance to visit it again. Hah, what do you know, it’s exactly like family.

I couldn’t live according to the fast pace of Singapore. As a small country, the greatest investment is in its people and that’s why there’s such an emphasis on a stellar education. From a young age, students are told studies are the most important focus; there’s an almost military-like system to the education. I’m not sure I’d ever study in Singapore again if I could get a do-over of my life, but I’m still proud to hail from this tiny island nation.

Singapore will always live within me. Even though I am not Singaporean (I’m Malaysian), when people ask me where I’m from, I instinctively say, “Singapore,” hesitate, and then correct myself, “Uh, actually, I’m not really sure.”

But I think that says it all. I was born in Singapore and lived there for ten years of my life (that’s half my life!); that kind of time leaves a mark on you. When people stare at me and follow up, “Singapore… That’s in China, right?” I can’t help but get defensive.

No, it’s a highly-developed country blazing the path in Southeast Asia. It may be small, but it’s made up of some of the most patriotic citizens and is on the technological and financial forefronts of the world.” When Lee Kuan Yew died earlier this year, the whole country was crying, millions lining the streets to pay their respectful farewells. The whole country was in mourning for months.

I am proud to be from Singapore. And simultaneously, I have a love-hate relationship with Singapore. It was my disciplinary yet loving parent. It was my annoying little brother that constantly asked too much attention of me when all I wanted was independence. Singapore is my birthplace, a city and country I have an irrevocable bond with, which, for better or worse, through rain or shine, whether I hate it or love it, has chosen me. It’s my family.

The more I travel and think about how to put cities and new places into words, the more I personify them, thinking of them less and less as the settings for great stories and more as full-blown characters that have their own epic stories. They have identities and, like people, they get sleepy and hazy in the hot midday sun, and romantic in the midnight air. They have moments of shyness and there are times when they’re bold. And eventually, when you’ve gotten under the skin of a city, you realize that the city has gotten under your skin too.

Image: Image

Travel

According to common legend, bliss is defined in the dictionary as “perfect happiness,” but I am convinced there would simply be a picture of Eastern Market. That is all the definition you need. Last Saturday, I treated myself to a visit to this delightful place in Washington D.C. after a hellish few weeks of midterms. There is nothing quite as restorative as perusing through this massive market full of treats and treasures.

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Directly off the blue line metro at the appropriately named “Eastern Market” stop, the lovely Capitol Hill neighborhood welcomed commuters with an interesting rendition of Pharrell’s song “Happy” – always a promising sign. Making my way less than two blocks to the heart of the market, I grinned at the sight of friendly crowds and vendors in their full splendor. Where should I go first? Eastern Market, opened in 1871 as a way to urbanize Washington and provide residents with goods, is made up of three main areas – the indoor South Hall Market, the Weekend Farmers’ Line, and Weekend Outdoor Market.

I was a bit snackish (and a bit broke), so I started the visit by winding through the Weekend Farmers Line, an open-air venue outside the main building called South Hall where local farmers sell their freshest produce. Walking through you can count on grabbing free, tasty samples of perfectly crisp Pink Lady apples, tangy homemade mustards, artisanal cheeses, fresh fruits, and more. Each vendor is so proud to tell you about their produce and answer any questions you may have, which I find much more pleasant than searching for produce in the refrigerated aisles of a supermarket.Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Eventually, I made my way inside the impressive South Hall Market. Picture a scaled down version of Grand Central Station full of baked goods, produce, flowers, and other neat trinkets. That’s what it looks like to me at least! Eager shoppers peer over strangers’ shoulders and into every display case making sure they’ve covered all the bases before they head home to cook their garden-fresh meal. Wisely or mistakenly, I choose not to buy a glorious, fragrant slice of sweet potato pie from one of the vendors in the name of disciplining my gnarly sweet tooth. You be the judge.

Finally, I crossed the pedestrian street to the Weekend Outdoor Market to scout out some one-of-a-kind furniture pieces for my new apartment. This market is more “flea” style, complete with antique furniture, clothing, jewelry, artwork, and other crafts. Admittedly, it is not the cheapest flea market in the District, but you can be sure the quality of goods is relatively high. From vintage maps, giant pig statues, pearl necklaces, wooden cutting boards to thrifted leather jackets, there is something to entertain everyone. I spied an organically shaped pine coffee table that was perfect for my living room, so I was quite happy.

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Before I knew it, it was late afternoon and I had to get back to my reality of obligations. Walking back to the metro I was already planning my next visit, and rest assured I headed home smiling from the buzzing energy of the little world that is Eastern Market. DMV-ers and visitors, put this destination on your itinerary. You won’t regret it!

Image: Flickr

CultureEducationTravel

CHOOSING THE DESTINATION

With over 190 countries in the world and 50 states in America alone, how do you figure out where to travel to? How do you narrow down the choices let alone choose just one?

Although we live in a globalized world with phenomenally quick modes of transportation and travel guides in every language, the bottom line is that physical convenience does not equal financial accessibility. Traveling is still a very costly activity and must therefore be considered carefully. When it comes to spending, even the smallest details of a trip can make the difference – check out our tips for traveling on a budget.

Ultimately the biggest question still comes down to where you will be going and then building your plans around that decision. I have compiled the most useful information that helped me decide to travel when I had one week available to me this previous November while I was studying abroad in Denmark.

1)   Here at Carpe, we suggest that you aim high! Get a pen and paper out and write down all the places you want to go. Consider characteristics of places you would enjoy exploring. Maybe you want to visit somewhere with historical landmarks or sandy beaches. Perhaps you want to experience what sleeping in an igloo is like! Whatever strikes your fancy write it down! Follow the steps below to sort out what your most realistic options are. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere with a lot of museums and was accessible by public transportation. Those two key factors helped me narrow down my search to London and Paris.

2)   How will you be traveling? Consider the way you will be traveling and what you’re realistically able to afford and physically handle. If you live in the United States but and want to visit Australia, keep in mind that that trip is over 24 hours worth of flying. Don’t be afraid to look locally and consider what is just under your nose! Although I toyed with the idea of going to Turkey or even South America, ultimately I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford those plane tickets and that one week would not be enough time to explore any surrounding areas.

3)   How much time do you have? Are you taking a short getaway weekend trip or will this be an all-out excursion? Figure out how many days and nights you have, and don’t forget to factor in travel time and potential jet-lag. A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel to China to see family, but I did not realize that the time difference would cause me to be so tired! It took me about three days on each end of the trip to properly adjust to the new time zone. If you are doing a short trip I would suggest not going too far out of the same time zone, or you will lose exploration time to sleep.

4)   Consider your age. This may sound like an odd step, but take a second to think about your age in relation to the place you want to visit; if you are thinking about going to Las Vegas but are only fifteen, explore some other options and figure out how you can get the most experience out of your trip. If you have a very touristy city like New York on your list, keep in mind that because those are in metropolitan areas and therefore more handicap accessible, they might be better options for when you are older. Take advantage of the extra energy you have when you are younger and go somewhere that you can utilize that physical capability. On my independent trip, I got around almost entirely by walking and taking the metro. It was necessary for me to have the energy for multiple days of walking, but because of the solid infrastructure I could have taken cabs if necessary.

5)   Are you traveling in a group or independently? In our first Travel Series post we outline the importance of safety. It’s critical to take into account safety aspects whether you are in a group or alone. If you have never traveled alone before but are choosing to for the next adventure, consider going somewhere that is safe for a young person who is new to traveling. It also helps to visit somewhere that you know someone. When I travelled to London and Paris by myself I asked my friends via Facebook if they were also in those cities. It turned out that I have more than a few friends in both places who I was able to meet up with and explore the city with! If you are in a larger group maybe go somewhere more adventurous – you will have more people to keep on eye on the surroundings and belongings, and to help take care of each other.

Wherever you choose to go, I hope you have an awesome time! Traveling is a wonderful privilege and I hope some of this advice helps you narrow down your next travel destination!

Where are you going next? Let us know!