Tuesday 17 April 2018

Cute shoes are useless, and other lessons from three months traveling the world

The Reader Center is one way we in the newsroom are trying to connect with you, by highlighting your perspectives and experiences and offering insight into how we work.

Our 52 Places Traveler, Jada Yuan, has spent the past three months on the road, visiting a new spot every week as she has traveled through the Americas for the first leg of her yearlong trip.

We invited readers to ask her questions about the journey and traveling alone, particularly as a woman. Here’s a selection, and her responses.

You can also read all of her dispatches so far, or check out her Instagram posts and stories.

Jada Yuan, the new 52 Places correspondent, was chosen from more than 13,000 applicants. Credit Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A typical day on the road
Q. I am guessing there is no such thing as a “typical day” when on this assignment, but I am curious as to how you divvy up your precious time; i.e., what percent of your time goes toward each of the following: sightseeing, writing/editing, social media, making travel arrangements or being in transit, and personal time? - Allyson Rice

Oh Allyson, just answering this question is giving me anxiety shivers! Time management is not my friend.

I have some help with travel arrangements from The Times (and data scientists from Kayak, the travel aggregation site, who crafted an initial itinerary for me), so that’s taken a burden off. I try to make sure I have three days of activities in a place, and a full day of writing, plus two mornings for editing and fact-checking. That isn’t always possible so I’m often squeezing writing and social media into whatever spare moment I have.

I have two sacred times for myself: a weekly therapy call (this job is stressful!) and dinner. I’m willing to pull an all-nighter as long as I can have an hour of eating good food and sipping wine very slowly.

Most important, if I’m somewhere incredibly beautiful, I pause to take a mental image and be grateful. Who knows when I’ll be back to any of these places. That’s precious time, too, and I don’t want to waste it.

Packing for the journey
Q. How has your fast traveling pace streamlined your packing or the perception of what you “need”? - Shelley Steingraeber

Glad you asked, because I think about packing constantly! I’ll go over more of this in a separate packing article to come, but I’ve sent back maybe four shipments of stuff and the majority has been clothes. Cute dresses, cute shoes, cute jacket — all of it is gone.

What I’ve needed are items (mostly black) that can act as a uniform, layers to keep me warm, fast-drying underwear and a bra that won’t dig into me on the plane. Toiletries, I’m still carting around too many. I also joke that half the weight of my bag is tampons, but those aren’t going anywhere.

Scenes in and around Kuélap, Peru. Clockwise from top right: a flower blooms in the mountains above the Utcubamba River Valley; the courtyard at the Casa Hacienda Achamaqui; coca tea at Restaurante Túristico; an entrance to the Kuélap ruins. Credit Jada Yuan/The New York Times

Favorite meals
Q. What country or place has your favorite typical breakfast, and what did you eat for breakfast there? - Elise Evans

Q. What’s the best thing you’ve eaten? — Juliana Baldo Walker via Facebook

I’m combining these two because all roads in food satisfaction lead to Bogotá, Colombia. I would eat every meal I had there a million times over.

The Click Clack Hotel, where I stayed for a few nights, had hands down the best breakfast of the trip. Nothing crazy, just omelets done well, strong coffee and platters of exotic fruits.

I also went to the Plaza 7 de Agosto market and got this insane fruit cocktail called a salpicón, which is mango, papaya, banana and watermelon bathed in a purée of papaya and watermelon. Also, arepas de choclo at brunch (sweet corn cakes with cheese) — yum. The best of the bunch was the lulada, a drink made out of lulo, a tart fruit that grows in Colombia and Ecuador. Eat it with a spoon, die of happiness.

(For future breakfasts, I’m looking forward to France and Italy, always, and China. Love egg and tomato and any breakfast foods with a kick of soy sauce.)

Surprises along the way
Q. What has been a surprising discovery for you at any of your locations so far? An unexpected turn of events, a detour, a random act of kindness? - Shelley Steingraeber

When I think of surprises, San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the first that comes to mind. I was eager to go there to see the Hurricane Maria damage for myself, and also to see if there was a way that, in writing about it, I could help out somehow. The hotel stock was so depleted that I was still scrambling to find a room when my plane took off. (I ended up booking an Airbnb, but just barely.)

So I was pretty stressed out when I got there. But the first thing I encountered was a bunch of women dancing around and singing by baggage claim. And through that encounter, I met everyone I hung out with on that trip. People were dealing with so much trauma and loss and yet I was welcomed into homes, onto farms, at parties.

I hope everyone gets a chance to experience the warmth of Puerto Rico as I did.

Health and sanity
Q. How are you keeping yourself healthy and sane during the many hours of alone time? - Sara Brenneis

The healthy part, I’m not sure I’m succeeding at. So. Many. Carbs! So. Little. Exercise.

My mind, I have a better handle on. I’ve cried a few times, and felt quite overwhelmed, but that’s what phone calls to my therapist in New York City are for.

I’d like to tell you I’m finally watching “Breaking Bad,” but mostly I unwind with TV shows that don’t require much thinking (“The Bachelor,” “Queer Eye,” the entire first season of “The Good Doctor”). Phone-a-friend is always a good option. I have a few folks on Instagram — and folks I’ve met while traveling — who have become pen pals.

And a friend encouraged me to talk into voice memos as a feelings diary, which I did a ton while driving hours by myself on dirt roads in Chile. Essentially, my iPhone is my Wilson.

Costumes at Carnival in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Credit Jada Yuan/The New York Times

Traveling alone, as a woman
Q. I realize that solo female travel is becoming a much more common thing. Have you encountered any discrimination, uncomfortable sexualized situations, or barriers due to being a solo woman on the road? - Elise Evans

I definitely encountered tons of uncomfortable sexualized situations when I was in my late teens and 20s and traveling solo. Either I’m getting too old to get hit on or sadly, I’ve gotten used to it. So far, nothing overt has happened, other than some construction workers in Chile relentlessly asking about my marital status. I let it slide because it just didn’t seem worth the energy expenditure.

Q. What would you recommend to young women solo travelers who love off-the-beaten-path destinations and enjoying night life, but still want to remain cautious and safe? - Livia Halltari

When you say “young,” I’m assuming you mean young enough to handle slightly rugged lodging. I’d stay in hostels. They have a community around them, and you can form a buddy system with other solo female travelers. Hotels make it harder to have those kinds of interactions.

When you’re out, keep yourself on a two-drink regimen, for your sake and your buddy’s, be mindful of being slipped drugs, and always have the club or restaurant call you a taxi home, unless you’re ride-sharing and feel O.K. with that.

About off-the-path destinations, I think the safest thing you can do is always make sure someone knows where you are: the innkeeper, plus a parent or a close friend who will know to sound the alarm if you go off the grid for too long.

Safety is a huge concern for women (and often people of color and other minority groups), and I’m not sure everyone gets that. Trust your gut and be as cautious as you feel like you need to be, even if people make fun of you.

The worst trouble I’ve gotten into while traveling has been when I’ve tried to act like a local. Hang out with locals, but remember you’re always a potential target.

And try to have fun. It’s possible, I promise!

Q. What has been the easiest and hardest thing, specifically about solo travel, as a woman? - Ashley Zari

Hardest: Definitely safety concerns. There’s a patina of anxiety that coats me every time I go out in an urban environment — especially since I’m doing so much work with a phone and a camera that are ripe for getting snatched. It’s infinitely better to walk around with someone else, not just for the warmth of companionship, but also to have the chance to relax into my environment a bit.

Easiest: Not having to compromise and be on anyone else’s schedule (except for my editor’s). That probably says something about why I’m still single!

Advice for older women
Q. What advice do you give for an older woman (healthy, but 70), traveling alone? - Alyn Caulk

Hi Alyn, if you are the older woman in question, I say mazel! Happy to have a fellow adventuress on the road.

Tour groups and activities like cooking classes are great ways to make friends while maintaining the independence of traveling alone. Europe by bicycle is my favorite way to see the countryside, and all the trips I’ve taken have included active seniors.

This time around, I’ve hired private guides for wilderness hikes, both for the company and a fail-safe should anything go wrong.

Also, say hi to the 30- and 40-somethings you meet. Chances are we think you’re very cool.

Scenes from Chattanooga, Tenn. Clockwise from top right: The Dome Building; "Bette Davis Eyes" by John Henry at Sculpture Fields at Montague Park; the upstairs lounge at the Dwell hotel; Rondell Crier, an artist and youth mentor, at a potluck in North Shore. Credit Jada Yuan/The New York Times; portrait of Rondell Crier by Mary Ann Twitty

Traveling as a woman of color
Q. Can you write about what it’s like to travel alone as a woman, and even more so, what it’s like for a person of color perhaps? Many articles and blogs I find of solo female travel are white women, and I think their privilege plays into a lot of their experiences, especially positive ones on the road.

As an Asian woman who blends in easily in many eastern and Southeast Asian countries and has traveled to many of them, I always worry about how I’m perceived and treated by locals. - Emily L

Hi Emily! I’m half Chinese, but I don’t read as “Asian” in China, so I can’t speak to your experience of being able to blend. Chinese people can spot the pale, not-so-skinny American in me right away. I have, however, seen my dad encounter confusion and surprise that he doesn’t speak the language. He’s a scientist and is antisocial (sorry, Dad, it’s true!), so he mostly runs off, which seems like a fine enough policy to me.

The phenomenon of young white women writing about travel being easy doesn’t seem as noticeable to me as young white men doing it. As you’ve seen, a good deal of the questions here are women asking about safety while traveling solo. It’s a pervasive concern and every time I don’t see it mentioned in another writer’s article, I feel a bit of a disconnect — as I’m sure some people from other backgrounds feel while reading my work.

I, for one, would love to experience what it’s like to pass as an Asian local, to not be immediately marked as a tourist, to fly under the radar and observe subcultures unnoticed. Think of it as a blessing. Maybe you’ll get some weird looks when people figure things out, but by that time, you’ll be at an underground karaoke party.

The bigger issue here seems to be that you aren’t finding writing out there that jibes with your experience. It sounds like you want to change that. I’d definitely be a reader.

Friendly spots for singles
Q. As a single person who would love to make these stops someday, I would be curious to learn which places are single traveler friendly. Not just in terms of safety, but places where you can walk into a bar or hotel, or roam a beach or village, and random people would want to be your friend, chat with you, and even invite you to dine with them. - ND

Well, I’m glad you’re not asking about the dating scene, because I’ve sadly had no time for that!

Any kind of resort destination, for me, has been the hardest as a single person. I felt pretty out of place at Disney Springs, which is made for families, couples, and gaggles of friends drinking around the world at Epcot. Peninsula Papagayo in Costa Rica, San José del Cabo in Mexico, and even where I’m staying now in Rogue River, Ore., all seem geared toward couples vacations.

The easiest time I’ve had making friends was on the adventure travel circuit of Chile, or any time I’ve taken a tour. Activities are bonding; you’ll likely find other single folks with similar interests. And the line, “Hey, so I’m traveling the world by myself, where are you from?” seems to work wonders at starting conversations.

Language barriers
Q. How have you been able to overcome language barriers? — Lorene Lynn, writing from Utqiagvik, Alaska, via Instagram

So far I’ve been lucky in that the only language I’ve been required to speak, other than English, has been Spanish. I’m pretty rusty, but it’s a language I started studying in first grade, as a requirement of New Mexico public schools — and I improved a lot over the course of my travels in Latin America. I’ll be O.K. in places with French and Italian, too.

Most places, I’ve befriended native speakers who know English and have been happy to volunteer as interpreters.

In my first instance of trying to talk to someone who spoke zero English, we spoke into Google Translate on my phone.

Dangerous locations
Q. Is this trip going to bring you into any overt danger? — Michael Erard via Twitter

Not that I know of, but political situations around the world change all the time, and quickly. I was vacationing in Delhi when the 2008 Mumbai attacks happened, and I was visiting a friend during several bombings in Kabul over Thanksgiving in 2012. Danger is real, but I’ve got a pretty great support network at The Times to help me keep an eye on it.

‘The essence of a place’
Q. Do you think you really can glean the essence of a place by spending at most just a week there? - Ben

Definitely not. But the word “essence” is interesting here. If we think of it as the diffuse aroma of a perfume, perhaps a scent you remember deep in your brain, then it may be possible.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the job of a travel writer and I agree with my colleague Lucas Peterson, who writes the Frugal Traveler column, that it may be to simply encourage the idea of travel as a good thing in the world.

So if I can give you, the reader, a detail to hang onto or tell a story that compels you travel to that place, or travel anywhere, then I’ve done my job.

(Source: NYT)

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