Bike tours are some of the best ways to get to know a city, especially one as historical as Washington, DC. This Spring we’re offering Cherry Blossom tours, and I’ve enjoyed learning the history about these beautiful trees found in DC.
The Japanese sent about 3,000 trees to DC in 1912 as a diplomatic gift to the U.S. and many of them have lived twice as long as their expected lifespans of forty years! While 3% die each year, saplings with the original trees’ DNA are kept in the National Arboretum. We’ve actually donated trees back to Japan when they lost them due to flooding in the ’50s and ’80s.
I learned all of this as I prep to lead Cherry Blossoms bike tours with Bike and Roll DC -check us out when you’re in town!
Whoever said that Instagram is only a place to post poolside selfies and photos of deliciously greasy In-and-out burgers hasn’t discovered the creative potential of this application.
While I, too, post selfies and pictures of papaya and chile smoothies I make on my @vulnerabletraveleraccount, I’ve connected with other travelers I otherwise wouldn’t have met through it. Instagram helps me connect with others and with myself, since the photos I post are so personal to me and reflect the roller coaster ride that is Peace Corps Nicaragua.
I also use instagram to be more creative in a non-creative environment. While I teach art classes and enjoy sketching alongside my students, there isn’t much of an artistic community in my city. While there are remnants of murals along the city walls, there are no galleries or art museums—only private studios. I can, however, connect with other people who share my interests online, whether they’re artists or not. Since I use hashtags like #travel, my posts make the feeds people from anywhere in the world can peruse.
One of my followers, @zorrathexplorer, found me and liked and commented on my photos. I looked through the photos of a two-week trip she’d taken with her ex-girlfriend to Japan, and an unassuming photo stopped me in my tracks. It was of an older Japanese woman, sitting by a metal grill in an Okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima.
Her confident yet resigned pose left me spellbound. She rested one arm on her lap and her other elbow rested on top of the table. Something about the way she didn’t feel compelled to smile gave the photo a raw feeling. Her vermillion apron juxtaposed playfully with the drab, nearly mechanical background. The photo had not the quality of a dream, but of the memory of a dream. It was foreign yet familiar.
I hadn’t painted anything in three months (the last being a portrait of my mother), but within three seconds, I knew I had to paint this woman. I expressed this interest in the comments, and Ally emailed me the original. We also chatted about her travels, and she gave me the story behind the photo, explaining that she’d taken it on her iphone 4.
This was one of the most detailed paintings I’d ever done. I’d done portraits of Nicaraguans before, and I tend to focus more on the shades and shapes I see rather than the details in my subjects. For my Japanese painting, the squares and straight edges of the kitchen’s tables, frames, and coffee machine called for me to use a ruler. It was fitting to be accurate and precise in a painting set in Japan. When I visited Tokyo and Kyoto in 2013, I marveled at how organized everything seemed. I didn’t see a single piece of garbage on the floor, and the metro ran impeccably smoothly. My painting brought this appreciation to life.
Three weeks of painting later, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the result. On a trip to the Solentiname Islands’ artist colonies, I showed the portrait to Maria Guevara, a painter and owner of the Hotel Celentiname and asked for her feedback. She liked how my portrait depicted the woman at rest in her surroundings. “The only thing I’d change is that I’d make the background darker so that she pops out more. Does that make sense?” When I looked at Maria’s landscape paintings, I noticed that the areas behind the houses she created were very dark, and this effect gave the houses a three dimensional effect.
Now this painting is sitting in my kitchen. This unapologetic working woman reminds me not only of Japan, but of how social media has connected me with others and with my sense of creativity.
Out of all the markets, restaurants, bridges, and museums, my spot was a bench. I had just arrived in Tokyo on a solo trip, and it was my first time in Asia. I had chosen to travel to Japan because I’d just spent ten months working at a high school in Texas. I’d finished an unhealthy job and saw the demise of a once enriching long distance relationship.
I needed a fresh start. I was exhausted. Adjusting to an 11 hour time difference didn’t help. I’d also spent over a year trying to make a career and relationship work in a place where I was supposed to have been able to understand the language and the people. Maybe I’d have better luck in a place where I couldn’t understand it all.
It was June 2013, and I can still remember the cool humidity. My hand brushed the water off of my bench before I sat down in Hibiya park. My bench overlooked a carp-filled pond that was shaded by an enormous tree. Its branches extended 20 feet over the water. A dove flew right toward me and veered off at the last second to perch beside me. Sorry, birdie, but this lady had no stale bread to offer, I thought.
About 40 feet away stood a Japanese businessman wearing a black suit and a bowl hat. He puffed away at his cigar while feeding bread to a turtle. The oversized, golden carp swam about, snapping at the bread and water bugs that skimmed the surface. Drops of water fell from the branches above and landed on my face.
Hibiya was built as Tokyo’s only westernized park and it was my favorite place in the city. Sometimes, you just know you’re in the right place at the right time. The air was cool and misty. All of the plants were relishing in all the moisture. The weather was such a contrast to the heat I felt from driving across the Southwestern U.S. All I wanted to do while driving through New Mexico was blast my air conditioner in the hundred degree heat, but I didn’t want to kill my low battery.
Now, I was walking through paradise with my umbrella. There were cats everywhere in Hibiya Park. Why? Where did they come from? They glared at me as I snapped their pictures.
Cities that are bursting with people need calm, green havens like this one. Just as Central Park can numb the sound of ambulance sirens in NYC, Hibiya can, too. It was so green here-as if the trees invited you in and begged for you to breathe their cool air. I journaled for a bit, closed my eyes, and soaked in the calm. There was no place I would have rather been, especially after making the mistake of wandering into the overwhelming Sega Video Game Arcade I’d popped into earlier. I appreciated Tokyo’s introverted side more than its technological, flashy side.
After a moment of stillness in my green spot, I got up and headed for the frenzy of the bustling Shibuya district. It’s a clean version of Times Square that is famous for its diagonal crosswalk. I stood in front of this intersection and witnessed the masses flowing through, like red blood vessels being pumped in and out of a heart. Each time the light turned red, the pedestrians piled up and waited at the starting line. Once the light said “walk”, waves of people raced to the other side, as if it were 6 a.m. at a Macy’s on Black Friday.
While green parks are calming to me, places like sprawling city centers are strangely soothing to me as well. Commercials were blasting on oversized TV’s, rich kids sipped on strawberry cheesecake frapuccinos, and a girl dressed as Alice in Wonderland walked by.
Tokyo led me from a green space of tranquility to one of concrete tranquility.
I didn’t identify as an introvert, specifically an INTJ introvert, until I read Susan Cain’s Quiet:The Power of Introverts In a World that Won’t Stop Talking. In 2013, I tutored at-hope youth (thanks for guiding me about changing the ‘at risk’ terminology Kim Scott!) at Burbank High School in San Antonio, Texas. The job required me to be “on” constantly, and to mentor students from 7:45-5:45 each day. Looking back, it’s no wonder I felt exhausted. As an introvert, I craved being alone throughout the day, while my extroverted coworkers planned team hangouts.
Working with people drained my energy. For my coworkers, working with others gave them energy. After reading Quiet, I learned that introverts aren’t necessarily shy. They don’t hate people. They just need time to recharge. We are very introspective people. While I enjoy going to parties, I’d rather spend quality time with one or two people. Group hangouts can overwhelm me because I’m an attentive listener, but it’s hard to focus on one idea when conversations are criss-crossing one another at the dinner table. While this list definitely has extrovert qualities as well, here’s how I see travel as an introvert:
1. Solo travel isn’t scary.
In June 2013, after my job in Texas ended, I drove from San Antonio to Los Angeles in two days, then flew to Japan. I wanted to be in a completely different place, where just walking down the street would be a challenge, because I couldn’t read the signs. I had to just sit back, watch and listen. I was comfortable trying roasted squid on a stick in aTokyo market , but I also enjoyed meeting up and staying with my friend Kaori, owner of Colori Caffe, the only queer café in Kyoto at the time.
2. Non-verbal communication is important
In Japan, when I wanted to ask how to get to Colori, I stopped by a konbini (convenience store) and asked for directions. The cashier was confused, but I could tell he wanted to help. I took out my journal, and began drawing a sketch of where I thought the café was. Then, he grabbed my pen and drew my destination in. After that, I knew where to go.
3. I prefer making a few solid relationships
I’ve been in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps for 14 out of 27 months. Although I do live here, I still consider myself to be in a state of travel. Each week is different, and there’s so much in this tiny country that I need to see. I have my Peace Corps family, but I can honestly say that I’ve made 2 good Nicaraguan friends, Rosa and Abigail, who are in their 30s and 40s. Rosa is a single mom who has seen me at my lowest points, such as after a long distance break up. Abigail has also seen me at my worst and at my best. I appreciate her so much that she was the subject of my first acrylic portrait ever!
4. I take advantage of free time
Back home, I would run out the door every morning, careful not to spill coffee on my shirt on the way to work. I’d teach math and science from 8:15-5:45, go to the gym, then come home and look at Buzzfeed Travel articles. Or, I’d look up pinterest recipes to give my every day lunch some sort of variety. When my student asked me “Miss Stoever, do you have a boyfriend?” I wouldn’t say “No, I’m gay”, because I didn’t feel comfortable coming out to them. I would just say “I’m too tired to date right now. Sometimes I take naps before I go to sleep!” They thought I was kidding. I wasn’t.
Now, living abroad has given me more down time than ever. I’m more energized. I have time to use my French Press to make my morning coffee. I’ve had more time than I ever thought I would have to reflect on how much I’ve grown, and to paint the portraits I never thought I’d be good enough to paint. Now, I write about my travels instead of just reading about travel.
Are you an introvert, ambivert, extrovert or none? Do you prefer meeting people when traveling, or traveling alone?