The Best Meal of My Life was in China

The Best Meal of My Life was in China

2017 was been quite an unpredictable year, and China was not on the list at all. In January, I was going through my post-Peace Corps period of depression that came in part from moving from a sunny, tropical country to single digit temperatures in Washington State. I was adjusting to a new country all over again, in much the same way that Americans are adjusting to a new country ever since the election happened. It still feels like I’m adjusting to a new country that isn’t quite how it was when I left it.

2017 has also been a year of disappointment. After getting rejected from my second Fulbright Application to study arts therapy in South Africa, I had booked a one-way ticket to Cape Town from Seattle through Gotogate.com, hoping to see a new place for about a month starting on January 18th. The Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle was closed due to a snowstorm, so I drove 6 hours nonstop around the highway through snow and freezing rain, and I still missed my nonrefundable flight. So, I decided to move to Washington D.C. the next day because of the strong Wellesley and Peace Corps networks there. I had been planning to move to D.C. eventually, just not right after getting a $150 yellow fever shot intended for my South Africa trip or with only two carry-ons with my Hawaiian shirts. That’s how it worked out.

2017 has also been the year of surprises. China had never been on my list of places to see. The only Asian country I’d been to was Japan, and I’ve always wanted to travel to The Philippines or Southeast Asia, not China. Why would I bother getting a visa?

Then, I was given the chance to go on a freelance work trip. I applied for a rush visa on Monday morning after waiting outside of the Chinese Consulate at 7 a.m., then I picked it up on Thursday morning. That night, I took my ten-year visa with me on a flight from JFK Airport to Shanghai with my new coworkers. I had no expectations. I just knew that this was a wonderful chance to immerse myself in a new language and culture.

During this whirlwind trip, we flew to four different cities in one week. I didn’t even know what day of the week it was, and that’s how I like it.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of the culture, and more specifically, the food. I expected the food to be decent, but not worthy of dedicating an entire article to it. I’ve heard people say that the food in China isn’t good, but that couldn’t be farther from my experience. I love trying new foods. I love exploring the textures of different foods and I love the memories and emotions they bring. It’s a sort of exploration that was absent during my Peace Corps service in Nicaragua, where beans and rice were eaten three times a day. People ate to survive there. I’m privileged because I am have the economic advantage of seeing food as an experience, not as fuel for survival. I’m lucky.

Now, about the best meal of my life. The dinner in Changzhou was an otherworldly experience, and I must tell you about it because it reminded me of why humans bother putting effort into the food they prepare and present in the first place. From the moment the first dish arrived on our spinning, glass table to the last scoop of our chopsticks, he entire process was art.

It began. We sat down in our private, white-walled room and waited with anticipation for the operatic spectacle to commence in all of its glorious sensation.

Alan, one of my new coworkers, ordered in Mandarin. I couldn’t understand any of it. To me, Mandarin sounds like a harsh language. He and the waitress sounded so annoyed with each other, but my perception was just based off of the tones of this language so different from my own. In China, the people sounded as if they about to get into a fist fight until, all of a sudden, they’d burst out laughing. I’d feel relieved after that. In college, though, I remember some of my white friends telling me that myself and my Latina friends would sound loud and upset, but then I’d clarify that that’s just how we spoke to one another. To me, it was normal to speak with emotion. The tone of my voice definitely changes when I speak in English vs. Spanish.

Once Alan ordered, we’d wait for a minute or two for the hostess to take her stylus and tablet back to the kitchen. First, some cold dishes would arrive so that we wouldn’t have to worry about small talk. Green, hose-like noodles. What’s this? I asked, countless times. Mussels with vermicelli. Pork belly. Buttered shrimp. More butter—this time, mushrooms in a buttery broth. Spicy soup with peppercorns. After this, I wanted to cook everything in peppercorns.

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This was a meal to remember, and it just needed a soundtrack. So, I imagined Vivaldi’s “Winter”  to accompany my euphoria. In between bites, I’d pause and watch Gia pick up a mussel with her chopsticks and spoon. Wayne took his chopsticks and jabbed at some greens, scooping them up like a heron catching a fish with its beak. The tapping of the chopsticks on the porcelain plates and the clinking of a beer bottle against the rims of the wine glasses broke the silence.

Not all of the food was unforgettable. The sliced, brown jellyfish tasted bland. It was gelatinous and crunchy, but without much flavor. I’ll never forget its magnificent presentation over ice, though.  If my tongue couldn’t enjoy it, my eyes would.

My favorite dish? The pig lungs. They came so thinly sliced and beautifully spiced. Each slice melted on my tongue, as if I’d finally tasted the most expensive cut of meat imaginable. The chile it was marinated in reminded me of some sort of Mexican chile (maybe guajillo), bringing in a foreign familiarity to it.

“Ganpei” I said, after we poured Snow Beer into our wine glasses and clinked them together. We spun the glass table around and around to make sure no one would emerge dissatisfied. I loved the equitable feel of not only the round table, but also of the round spinning wheel. If someone wanted some steamed buns across the table, you just had to spin the table yourself or ask someone else to spin it for you. Eventually, you’d get a taste of each dish anyway.

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Our waitress brought us this intricately designed, big, black and red bowl with bubbling fish and squid swimming in red chiles. Absolutely divine. Everyone just kept going at it, eating as if this meal were their last.

I wish every meal would be this communal. Growing up, my nuclear family made it a point to eat together. Now, my friends have replaced much of my nuclear family. I’m used to eating alone and traveling alone, but in this moment, I was happy I was doing none of those things. My temporary, adoptive family took me by the chopstick and helped me navigate this new world, this new country I had had no desire to explore until it swept me away. These people didn’t seem like strangers much anymore.

This meal reminded me of the artistry involved in presenting the simplest foods, whether they be noodles or pig lungs. I wanted to stare at the food instead of poking at its elegance. Nonetheless, hunger always wins and consumes all in its path. I was so full. I thought I’d explode, but it wasn’t the fullness in the American sense of being fed horse troughs of unreasonable proportions. Contentment, appreciation, and gratitude filled my being.

What a heavenly, otherworldly, sublime meal. The feast of my life that reminded me that life is good. Life is forgiing. Life is a rollercoaster. La vida es un carnaval, como dice Celia Cruz.

The next day, as I sat in the airplane on the smoggy descent into Beijing, an old man in a golf cap sat in front of me and stared out the window like a little boy who had never flown before. China, and this meal, made me feel like I was flying for the first time all over again.

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A Love Letter to Bogotá

A Love Letter to Bogotá

Ah, Bogotá.

Every day, the thought of your cloudy skies and rainy streets permeate my mind. I never thought either of those things would appeal to me, not now they’re forever preserved in amber in my memory.  

I flew into you, knowing little more about you than the fact that you’re bursting with about eight million people.

The hum of Pillar Point’s Dove oozing from my headphones, I gazed out onto the hazy, emerald mountains outside my scratched, undersized window. I’d watched Kia Labeija voguing through Bogotá each day before visiting you, each time my soul building with anticipation to wander La Candelaria’s cobblestoned streets. 

I couldn’t wait to see your jarring contrast of skyscrapers and Montserrat’s looming presence with my own eyes. I wanted to feel as free as the uncaged Kia.

As soon as I arrived, I felt disoriented. Which way was North? I wondered countless times. My obsession with order was flipped on its head. I’m usually quick to orient myself, but with mountains on all sides, it was hard to do so.

Which way is up? I might as well have wondered. I was vulnerable in a most basic sense, but I’ve learned to grow from this discomfort.

I was nervous and thrilled, but with you, this excitement was different. I’d returned somewhere I’d never visited. I felt as if you’d been waiting patiently for me all these years, trusting I’d walk in the door eventually. Like a dormant volcano whose crater filled with water over millennia, you basked in waiting.

What was the rush?

I’d meet you in due time. Now, as I write this, I realize how much I miss you. I miss the cool air that put my blankets to use. I miss wearing jeans without sweating and layering my clothes. I miss the peppery smell emanating from food carts selling warm empanadas.

“Beef or chicken?” the vendor asked me.

“Mmm…One of each, please. Oh, and do you not have salsa?”

“Como no,” he said, and he placed the magical ingredients in a brown paper bag.

I felt inspired during the Bogota Graffiti Tour. I’d learned of the artists from Ecuador, Mexico, and New Zealand who’ve made this place their second home, and now I wanted to join them.

A Reptilian monster wrapped itself around buildings’ unassuming walls, and an indigenous woman looked to the sky, averting her gaze from us mortals. I’d learned of the artist the police had shot, then of the subsequent police barrier protecting Justin Beiber while he stained your walls. Once the police left, your artists reclaimed your wall.

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I loved the atmosphere of change. Of recuperation from trauma of a violent, capitalist-driven cocaine trade. Just like with any trauma, I’ve never completely recovered from mine. I constantly seek to explore my traumas and the effects they’ve had on me, and writing has been my saving grace in that process.

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On your walls, people explore their traumas or those of humans no longer with us. This homeless man was beaten to death and one artist commemorated him.

I was only there for three days, yet I was blessed with being able to queer it up during the LGBTQ Pride Parade. Just like Pride in Managua, Nicaragua, you haven’t sold out to corporate interests. Instead of free t-shirts, I got kisses on the cheek from new friends. We floated past the rainbow banners in between patches of sunlight that the skyscrapers’ granted us. I took my sweater off and put it back on.

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I danced the night away at the immensely fabulous gay club, Theatron, then on the taxi ride home, I fell into darkness. It could’ve happened anywhere, and I’ve learned just how resilient I am since it happened.  

I wanted to stay. You know, I really do love museums. It’s how I get to know a place intimately. I wanted to dive further into you, to explore your history in its glory, sadness, and tumult. I still want to know you. I felt the heaviness in my heart one feels when they’re not ready to leave a place. This feeling reminds me of Iranian author Azar Nafisi’s words about leaving:

“You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place… like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.” – Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

I miss who I was when I was with you. Now you know. I can’t wait to explore you again.

Love,
Char.

I’m now a Travel Latina Contributor

I’m now a Travel Latina Contributor

Hey folks,

I’m excited to announce I’m a contributor for Travel Latina!

About them:

Inspired by other wanderlust-infusing travel blogs and Instagram profiles, Travel Latina (https://instagram.com/travel_latina/) is a way to feature Latinas on their quests. We feature women of the Latina American and Caribbean diaspora who travel the world. Whether they live in another country, take a business trip, or plan a trip for themselves, we love to feature their beautiful photography.

In addition, we want to empower Latinas (and Latinxs) to travel with posts about trips planned by Latinas, celebrity Latinas, Latina entrepreneurs, news about Latinxs in general, to combat negative stereotypes and machismo, and work on reclaiming the Latina hashtag (similar to this wonderful tumblr: http://reclaimingthelatinatag.tumblr.com). We want to promote positive stereotypes and role models about and for Latinas.

All it took was an email to introduce myself and show interest in writing for them.

Peace,

Char

From Tobaggan Parties to Bringing a Surf Resort to Nicaragua

From Tobaggan Parties to Bringing a Surf Resort to Nicaragua
In July 2015, the CEO of Wanderful, Beth Santos, connected me with Casey and Bill Morton, owners of Soma Surf Resort in Popoyo, Nicaragua, where I would go on my first press trip.

Soma means “South of Managua”, and it is quite the opposite of the mountainous region of Matagalpa that I call home. I headed to Soma to capture the spirit of this amazing place, and walked away with a new appreciation of surfing. I had never been to a surf resort. I felt vulnerable.

Just as I quickly learned to stand up on a surf board, I learned that you don’t have to surf to enjoy a surf resort.
Soma offers something for everyone, whether you enjoy taking a yoga class or sipping watermelon mint coolers by an infinity pool. Soma is a place that makes visitors disconnect with the stressors of the workplace. There are no televisions in the rooms, coaxing guests to socialize with one another over shared meals after exhilarating surf sessions.
Casey and Bill Morton both grew from vulnerable travel. I interviewed them to find out more about what made them leave the comforts of their from their small town, to moving to California, to opening up a Surf Resort in Nicaragua. Find out what travel was like for them, and how it’s changed.
A Cowboy burger with blue cheese and vodka watermelon mint cooler.
A Cowboy burger with blue cheese and vodka watermelon mint cooler.

Where are you both from originally?

Casey: We are from West Seneca, NY, outside Buffallo. It was a very small, tight knit community. It was always freezing cold, but we never let the weather get in the way. We would go to “Toboggan parties” with our friends.

How did you meet?

Bill: We were high school sweethearts. I was on the basketball team. Casey was a cheerleader. We met at a Christmas party. Casey had gone with my friend Steve, but then he got sick at the party. So, I  asked him if I could take her home. We sat and talked on her stoop, and we went on eight dates before we went steady. The day Steve puked was the luckiest day of my life. We’ve been together for 45 years and married for 40 years.
It was 1970, and men were getting drafted to go to Vietnam. I had a higher lottery number, 256, so I wasn’t as worried about getting drafted. We went to a public school, so our friends were getting drafted right and left. I was learning how to sow and cook with the girls in home economics class, and the boys were in wood shop class. Could you imagine sitting in one of those classes, waiting to be called? That’s how it was for us.
Some of our friends went to Canada. Nixon eventually pardoned them. It was the only war where soldiers went and returned to protest. The protested on college campuses and in DC. Jane Fonda even came to speak at our progressive Jesuit college. It was a politically active time! Now, you don’t really see veterans protesting. It’s insane that at 18, you could be sent to war, but you couldn’t drink or vote.
There was an external political dynamic going on. There were riots on Detroit. Our parents on the other hand, were just happy to have a solid job, a car, and a dog. Then in 15 years, everyone questioned everything.

Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?

“We had both flown before in college, but the morning after our wedding, we boarded our plane to LA. We were the first people out of our class of 120 to leave. It was a blue collar town in the rest belt of America. Car part plants were closing, and we knew we had to leave.
Casey was a queen. She cried as soon as we sat down on the plane. The airplane staff asked if she was okay, then the pilot told her to control herself. I just thought “Does anyone have some Valium?”
Casey: I was bawling, thinking “What have I just done? Have I lost my mind?”
Bill: Soon enough, the fear stopped. We found strength in ourselves and each other.  We both had an adventurous spirit. We had to focus on paying the bills, so we went job searching.
Casey: The LA employment office listed jobs on index cards on peg boards
Char: like the coupons at grocery store entrances?!
Casey: Yes! I had a degree in Sociology, and I went into Marketing. I found a job posting for Halston in the LA Times. I was one of 300 applicants. My interviewer asked me to meet him at his house, but I refused. So, he interviewed me at Hamburger Hamlet. I got the job.
Char: What made him pick you out of 300 applicants?
Casey: I stood out because of my passion. I was hungry for work.
Bill: The move to LA strengthened our relationship. We raised each other. This move formulated our move to Nicaragua. 

 

Casey and I during my first press trip.
Casey and I during my first press trip.

Where else have you lived?

Casey: We moved around because of my job. We lived in Laguna Beach for 17 years, then we moved to San Francisco where I did marketing for Calvin Klein. Bill worked in schools as a speech pathologist.

What did your loved ones think about your travels?

Bill: My mom didn’t speak to us for five years after we left New York. In her Polish culture, she was used to living in a tight knit family. Leaving wasn’t an option. She was angry at me, and took it personally. We reconciled eventually.
Casey: My dad was sad to see us go, but he said “It’s your life. It’s what we raised you for, and we’re here to support you.”
Bill: our friends thought we were crazy. They visited sometimes, but we changed in a different way. We moved around, but we had the choice to.

How do you think your son, Bill, perceives living abroad?

Casey: Billy has been traveling since he was nine months old. He went to Indonesia and Java when he was five, and Macchu Picchu at seven.
Bill: I remember when Billy was nine and we were hiking the half dome in Yosemite. All of a sudden, he stopped and yelled “Why can’t we just go to Disney? Why do we have to do all this hard shit?” I said “It’s just a little farther. Once we got to the top, everyone there clapped for him.
Casey: Billy has always been at ease going places. He could be anywhere, whether it’s the Ritz Carlton or a village. Traveling gave him early exposure to different lifestyles and religions. He understood that people could be Christian or Jewish, and that it was okay to be gay. Once, we had friends who were a gay couple come over. “Why does one of them wear a skirt?” Billy asked. I just said “It’s because they want to.” And Billy would just say “Okay.” Billy is still pretty traditional in some ways . He takes his grandma to church.

How do you think social media has framed how we view travel?

Casey: People travel more now. We are more connected and can google anything. This makes the world easier to access. Back then though, we were more adventurous. We had outdated guidebooks. There was more of the unknown. I remember going to Africa alone for work. I bought a ticket through the newspaper. When I got to the airport in Paris, the FBI was waiting for me. It was a forged ticket! I had to repurchase my ticket and get my attorney on board. I went to Tanzania anyway, and climbed Kilamanjaro. 

Bill: Surfing was also different back then. We used to meet at 6 AM and go look at the waves. There were no “surf cameras” so it was more exciting. There was more of a “renegade surfer attitude”. We might have spent three hours looking for the right waves, then ended up at In & Out. We would say things like “Let’s go to Costa Rica and figure it out.”

Where in the world are you now? Where will you go next?

Bill: Ideally, we would keep this place. We have a unique product. At the same time though, we’d like to spend more time back home. Both of our moms are about 90 years old. Billy is probably going to get married and have kids.
Casey: The point is that there is nothing for us to do there. We’re in our 60’s. What could we do? In the U.S., there’s not a place for older people. They’re neglected in the workforce, but their talent is untapped. In Nicaragua, elders are respected and cared for. Since the 2008 stock market crash happened, we know people who lost their jobs and ended up unemployed. In Nicaragua, the cost of living is low. There’s decent health care and interesting people.
Bill: At Soma, we’ve always been a step ahead. We were the first folks here to offer surf lessons. I came here on a surfing trip with Billy, and someone casually mentioned that this property was for sale. When I came back a year later, the price has dropped. The area was rustic and plain, but I knew that it was on the verge of exploding.

Casey and Bill show that traveling is worth the risk taking. As travelers, it was worth placing themselves in a vulnerable situation, because they eventually realized the potential in their travel plans.

They left what they knew behind and supported one another as travelers in order to make their dream of opening up a boutique surf resort a reality.
Stay tuned for a behind the scenese look at Soma’s restaurant!

Adele: The Sweetheart of Big Corn Island

Adele: The Sweetheart of Big Corn Island

As a traveler, I’m used to constantly changing how I view the world. It isn’t something I feel as if I have to stick to-it just happens naturally for me. This year, as a traveler, I’ve begun to have more conversations with the people I run into on the day-to-day. I’m starting to ask them more about them instead of telling them about myself.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of explaining who I am and where I came from, especially since I am seen as a foreigner in Nicaragua, the place I have taught English for with the Peace Corps the past 17 months.

I’d gone 17 months without seeing my mom. Luckily, over the holidays, she came to visit me. I used the money I’ve earned writing travel-based articles to buy her and myself a ticket to Corn Island, an island off Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. I didn’t know what to expect, because it is a small place, and has not been completely overrun by tourists. I’d only heard good things from other volunteers, so we made it out there.

On our third day there, my mom and I decided to go for a walk around the tiny island. We heard black men speaking in English Kreole to one another. Country music was blasting from one house. A group of men were sitting outside. I said “excellent music choice!” and gave a thumbs up to them. Listening to country music reminded me of home. “Come in and sit down, sweetheart!” one man said.

When I heard Kreole, though, It was strange for me to be in a land so close to my own, but I couldn’t understand the language. Luckily for us, people also spoke English and Spanish there. Sometimes we’d speak to people in Spanish and be responded to in Spanish, and vice-versa.

We stopped by this tiny little coconut shack on the north side of the island. We met Sidney, the shack’s owner, and my mom enjoyed a fresh coconut for about 40 cents. She sipped the fresh juice from a straw, then Sidney hacked it open with a knife. We ate the delicious, young pulp, and told Sidney we’d be back the next day. Meet Sidney on my facebook page!

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Adele and her husband have been married for 40 years. They sell coconuts and jam by the beach. Sounds like a perpetual honeymoon to me!

Sure enough, my mom and I returned the following morning before our flight back to semi-reality. This time, Sidney’s wife, Adele, watched as my mom and I giggled at each other sipping from the coconut. We also took selfies by the bus stop that had a giant manta ray placed on top.

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Yes, that is a manta ray on top of a bus stop. Only on Big Corn Island.

I wanted to know more about Adele. I told her that id I lived there, right by the beach like she and Sidney did, then I would never leave. “Do you ever leave?” I asked her.

“Only for visits. I have been to Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, to all kinds of places. There is no where like home, though.”

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“I like your bag,” said Adele, complimenting mom.

Adele had such a calm, reassuring presence. She didn’t say much more than was necessary, yet she let us enjoy ourselves, soaking up the view and the breeze while sitting on her red, plastic chairs.

I never wanted to leave. I’m glad I met Adele and chatted with her for a bit on Big Corn Island. In 2016, I hope to spend more time asking people more about themselves during my travels.

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Adele carved out the sweet, gelatinous coconut pulp for us.

This article is featured in the January edition of the Wanderlust Life Magazine. Interested in travel and wellness? Subscribe for free here and visit our facebook page!

The Nicaraguan Lifeguard in Jeans

For New Year’s weekend, I stayed at the Paradiso Resort at the Apoyo Lagoon in Nicaragua. It’s a Peace Corps favorite because we can afford the dorm rooms and the food on our $150-$200 monthly earnings. The fact that the resort lies on the beaches of a clean, warm volcanic crater lake isn’t too shabby, either.Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and the resort was insanely busy with even more guests coming in with day passes. There were Americans, Nicaraguans, Canadians, and Germans, among others.

 

My mom visited me in Nicaragua after 16 months apart. i had to sho w her my favorite lake in Nicaragua before she left.

As I was swimming in the dark blue, deep water, I saw a kayak capsize. The Nicaraguan couple next to it didn’t know how to swim, but they at least had their life jackets on. Many people have drowned here because they don’t know how to swim, and the lagoon gets deep very quickly. I swam over to them and pulled the woman back to the kayak. She didn’t know how to kick. We were about 100 meters from shore.

I wondered how long it would take me pull them back to shore. Then, came Luis, this staff member, coming to our rescue on a paddle board. He was soaking in his jeans and white polo, but that didn’t bother him. He pulled the couple back to safety to a nearby raft, and sent them on their way. This was just another rescue to him.

 

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Luis is a father, gardener, repairman, groundskeeper, bartender, waiter, and a lifeguard in jeans.

“I once saved an Argentinian man. He was drowning. I pulled him back onto shore, did CPR, turned him sideways, and he spit out the water. I don’t know how many people I’ve pulled out of the water,” Luis says.

As I sat on my rainbow beach chair, I saw Luis, running back and forth along the shore as if he were in a relay race. His jeans soaked as he pulled kayakers and inner tubing locals and tourists away from the rocks. He hauled abandoned kayaks back to shore. He wasn’t the only staff member toiling away. There were around 7 waiters serving hundreds of people, picking up after them, bringing them mojitos and piña coladas, calling out animals like “Gecko!” Or “Whale!” To find the people whose day passes had the matching animals on them. These were some of the hardest working hotel staff I’ve ever seen.

Luis is a 33-year old father of two boys. He has been married for nine years. His five year-old-son does mixed martial arts. He gets his energy from his father. Luis is a gardener, repairman, groundskeeper, bartender, waiter, and a lifeguard in jeans.

As this New Year begins, I wanted to thank all of the hotel staff who have taken care of us during the holidays. I also wanted to thank you all in advance for taking care of us long after the Holidays end. Thank you for taking care of travelers like me 365 days a year.

Travel Throwback: Susie’s Travels From Australia to Qatar

I want to learn from women who traveled before my millenial generation took the social media world by storm. Women traveled before people announced their engagements on facebook statuses and used selfie sticks to prove where they’ve been. What were their fears? How did they discover the world and themselves?

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Susie with her daughter, Lauren, at Yosemite National Park.

Here is fellow Wellesley Alum Susie Billings‘ story.

1. Where are you and your family from originally? Where have they been and why?

My dad only ever “lived abroad” when he was stationed in England during WWII. He never got his three day pass to London, as his plane was shot down, and then he was a prisoner of war in Germany. He passed through the Paris rail yards on his return home. When I was 11, we made a trip to London and later to Paris as he wanted to see the places he didn’t get to see. They took me when I was young, as I traveled on a child’s fare on the airplane, and they hoped I would be old enough to remember.

My dad’s family traces its history to the Mayflower and I qualify through his side to be a “daughter of the American Revolution”. My mum was 5th generation Australian – originally from Britain but post convict era. My mum had a major tragedy just before she was 17- her father was murdered and the guy tried to get my mum and her mum too, but was unsuccessful.

I believe this was her major impetus to “get away”.

When she was 20, she had moved to the opposite side of the country, to West Australia (she is from Melbourne), but she came home to celebrate her 21st birthday. A couple years later she and a friend (who is now my mother in law) went to work in New Zealand. A few years after that she moved to London and worked there to find travels around Europe. I know a few of her friends did similar things. It was very common for Australians to travel to the UK and then travel around Europe before returning home to marry and have families. All Australians travelled on British passports until 1967, I think.

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Paris, the Sunday after the November attack. Photo by Susie Billings.

2. Did Wellesley College influence you to travel at all? What was it like going there for you?

Wellesley didn’t influence me to travel as I already had the travel bug. I had grown up in California so the climate of Boston was a big shock, needed a new wardrobe and did call come pretty regularly but really wanted to get away from where I grew up. I had always said I appreciated where I grew up, but it wasn’t somewhere I wanted to live.

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Rice fields of Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

3. What did your loved ones think about your mom traveling? What did they think about you traveling?

I know my mum’s sister moved around Australia due to her husband’s job and my mum was overseas so I know my mum’s mum was sad she was away. I think it was understood that she wasn’t settled anywhere – she didn’t meet my dad or get married until she was 33. She had me at 36.

My parents always encouraged me to travel and they were able to help fund it when I was younger. However, none of my friends traveled, and we were considered very unusual. In fact, we often didn’t say much about our travels as there was some jealously about us traveling. On the other hand, other people had fancy cars and bought bigger houses, fancy TVs, and sound systems. We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went towards travel.

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“We had second hand cars and stayed in the same subdivision house as our funds went toward travel” Photo of Venice by Susie Billings.

4. What was it like staying in touch with loved ones thousands of miles away?

Calls home to my mum’s family when I was a kid were for three minutes at Christmas. The line used to beep so you knew your three minutes were up. Otherwise, we called only for emergencies or major news. Sometimes cassettes would be recorded and sent in the post.

We would get a half hour news reel of what is going on in our loved ones’ lives.

We sent the annual Christmas letter to everyone “back home” so they would know what was going on in our lives. We filled every square inch of airletters – really fine paper that folded over so there was no envelope to make the airmail postage as inexpensive as possible. And we always did gifts and Christmas letters early so they could do the international portion by sea mail. That way, it was much, much cheaper!

My now husband and I have a stack of letters we wrote to each other over 18 months of our long distance relationship. We sometimes wrote four page letters as we knew it would be several weeks between exchanges of letters.

I recently ran across a letter from my mum’s mum to my mum berating her for not keeping up her correspondence!

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Bryce Canyon. Photo by Susie Billings.

5. Some people say that people traveled as much back then as they do now. We just make a bigger deal about it now with social media. How do you think social media has framed how we view travel today?

I don’t think people travelled as much at all. We would save for years and years to travel to Australia for special occasions. Dad would bank his holiday time and we would have to travel with lots and lots of stopovers. We lived in the Sacramento area and we would have to fly first to LA, then to Hawaii, then to Fiji, then to Sydney, and then to Melbourne. It was very time consuming and costly.

Today you can fly non- stop from San Francisco to Sydney in under 14 hours – the same journey used to take closer to 24. Also, with the advent of much more competition with international flights, frequent flyer programmes, and budget airlines, relative prices are so much cheaper.

In fact, overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with their friends!

There weren’t web sites to google- only some picture books at a store or library. I have an ongoing project of going through both my parents and grandparents slides. They are labeled in cartridges and I remember pulling down slide projection screens mounted in some people’s homes.

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“Overseas travel was so uncommon that people would hold slide nights at their homes to share their experiences with friends!” Photo of London by Susie Billings.

6. Do you remember your first flight? How did you feel?

I don’t remember my first flight, as I was two. My mum took me to Australia for the first time to meet her family. To save money, my dad didn’t come. My mum was so proud I was “potty trained,” but then when I had to use the airplane bathroom (which makes a VERY loud sucking sound when you flush), apparently all that training went out the window- much to her dismay.

7. Traveling has become pretty normal for you. I’m the first in my immigrant Mexican family to move and live abroad by choice and not necessity. Did you face pushback for leaving home?

Not from my family, since my mother had already done it herself. But, I still have family friends in California asking when will I move back home, even though I left in 1986!

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A balancing act in Vietnam. Photo by Susie Billings.

8. How and why were you able to travel so much?

Initially support from family until I was 20 – for family trips and a religious camp and school trips, then I prioritised savings and lived fairly minimally so could continue to travel. Also, worked for an international company so I took advantage of lots of business travel. Other than my initial self-funded move to Australia after graduation, the rest of the moves have been on a company’s dime. I have stayed in a lot of youth hostels – even now in my late 40’s, I have been known to stay in a hostel from time to time and have a favorite one star hotel in Paris that we have stayed in when we took the Eurostar from London. I believe more in traveling for the experience, than for the luxury. I’ve also developed a broad network of people who host us.

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Scuba diving in The Great Barrier Reef! Photo by Susie Billings.

9. Where are you now? What’s next?

I am kind of in two places at the moment. I have lived with my husband and two kids in Qatar for over 8 years. He has a great job and they are in a good school, but I was treading water. I am now in London for an academic year doing another masters and visiting “home in Qatar” when possible. I also use Skype/FaceTime iMessage to stay in touch with my family’s daily life. We have a bank of air miles (my husband travels a lot for work) so I am hoping to go home once a month. We may be in Qatar for another six years to get our kids through high school, but we never know for sure.We also don’t know for sure where we will end up or where we will go next.

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On Safari with Brett, Lachlan, and Lauren in Kruger National Park, South Africa. Photo by Susie Billings.
Traveling (and then working abroad) has been very enriching for us intellectually, socially, financially.

We got one of Hotmail’s first “free” email addresses back in 1996. In those days, you had to have subscriptions with a service provider like AOL. That way, we kept in touch with family and friends while we backpacked around the world for about 9 months in 1997. There were no cell phones to travel with then, and we would drop into Internet cafés every couple of weeks and send a long note to let people know we were still alive.

Given how I hover over my own kids now, and how I want them to text me back immediately, I am amazed at how relaxed my parents were about me traveling like that.

Lastly, I remember in my first job out of college in Melbourne, Australia, where I met colleagues who were originally from England, who had migrated to Australia, and had never returned. Airline travel was really a major expense and families from Melbourne would road trip 16 hours up to Queensland for their holidays with packed lunches. My husband, who is from Australia, didn’t travel on an airplane until he was in his late teens. Most Australians “did Europe” once in their early twenties and then maybe traveled overseas when they retired. Now with cheap airfares tons go to Bali or Hong Kong. Sometimes now it is still cheaper to travel overseas from Australia than to fly within Australia!

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More than just a bird’s eye view of Doha, Qatar. Photo by Susie Billings.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susie!

Want to read more “Travel Before Facebook” stories? Check out my Wanderful column! I interview Barbara Bergin, whose grandmother traveled the world on freighters.