Ten Years of Travel

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My retired 2006 passport.

A new passport is a nostalgic moment for a traveler. All the crisp blank pages are inviting, but one misses the reminders of past journeys in the pages of ones old passport. I scanned my recently retired passport and I invite you to take a walk down memory lane with me as I recall the trips it reflects.

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Republika Hrvatska: we call it Croatia. In 2008 I followed the Rick Steves itinerary for Slovenia and Croatia, traveling by myself. It was lonely at times but on the whole a really great trip. I could easily be persuaded to go back to either country. I flew into Slovenia, rented a car there and drove it into Croatia, dropping it off at Split. I flew home from Dubrovnik, evidently via Zagreb (though I didn’t stay there). There’s no stamp for Slovenia because it was already in the Schengen Area, which I entered when my first flight landed in Frankfurt.

Later in 2008 I went to Thailand (visas a couple pages later) but China stamped me as entering when I changed planes in Beijing. The U.S. welcomed me back that year on December 6.

In 2007 I traveled to New Zealand — for the 14th time! Then continued to Sydney for a few days. The whole trip was about five weeks, including a strenuous backpack in the Nelson Lakes National Park, some rest and relaxation in Auckland, the Tongariro Traverse, and the Milford Track.

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From 2010 to 2015 I’ve spent a month or two living in Paris each spring (except one year in September). Most of these stamps are from those trips, except the one at the lower left, which is from a 2009 trip to Costa Rica. The biodiversity of Costa Rica was marvellous: plants, insects and birds especially. The only place remotely comparable that I have been was Lamington National Park outside of Brisbane.

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Most of the stamps on the right-hand page relate to our 2008 trip to Thailand. We arrived in Bangkok, then traveled overland to Chiang Mai. We had reserved four more flights through Bangkok, including a side trip to Cambodia. But while we were in Chiang Mai royalist thugs (“yellow shirts”) took over both of Bangkok’s international airports. At first I was nonplussed — “How long will a relatively modern country take to clear demonstrators out of the international airport of their capital city?” — but the answer turned out to be more than a week, after which the airports were still mostly closed for several more days. We finally realized that we were “stranded” in Chiang Mai! There were lots of flights to Vietnam, but Americans needed a visa that we didn’t have. There were flights to Laos, which issued a visa on arrival, but the ongoing flights all went through Vietnam or back to Thailand. We could have taken an all-night bus to Myanmar, but ongoing reservations were iffy. There were of course daily flights to Bangkok, but all were cancelled indefinitely. The computers at our hotel were in use day and night by other travelers in the same predicament. Finally we saw a billboard announcing a new direct flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket. We were able to book this flight for a few days later, as well as ongoing flights to major cities served by our trans-Pacific carriers, which were cooperative about re-routing our frequent flier trips home. In my case this involved a one-day layover in Singapore. Apart from the stress of being trapped we had a lovely extended stay in Chiang Mai. And we eventually got to Cambodia in 2014.

I first heard of Luangprabang, Laos, during our investigation of escape routes from Chiang Mai in 2008. Just saying the name of the city was delicious! And the fact that monks still begged for their breakfasts every morning was fascinating. Two of us visited in 2011 and we liked it so much that we returned, along with our other two travel buddies, in 2015. The Lao PDR departure stamp on the right-hand page is from our first visit (the entry stamp and visa being on the following page). The 2011 trip started with two weeks in Vietnam — for which I don’t see visa stamps! — and two of us ended the trip with a few days in Hong Kong, with stamps on the left page.

The Amsterdam stamp in the lower right of the second page is from a 2008 trip with my 15-year-old nephew Andy to Paris. That ten-day stay is what gave me the idea of planning the longer visits I’ve been taking since 2010; the illegible 2010 stamp on the lower right of the first page is from my first long Paris stay.

The upper stamps on the left page are from my two-week trip to Japan in 2013, with my Japanese friend Taka. I stayed with him in Tokyo for the first week, then we traveled together to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. I want to go back!

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These trips have already been described, except the Singapore stamps on the lower right of the left page, which are from the last part of a 2014 trip that began in Laos and Cambodia. I miss the days when other countries — Australia and Brazil for example — also required big colorful visas like the Laotian one on the right page!

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Paris trips, 2013-15. Ho hum.  🙂

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Laos and Cambodia stamps from our 2014 trip at upper left and lower right. Angkor was spectacular and Luangprabang is always charming.

The stamp on the lower left is for arrival in Italy in 2015. I spent five days in Rome, then four days in Venice before continuing to Paris for a six-week stay.

The visa in the upper right is from a 2006 trip with Jason to Turkey. It was fabulous! The politics are dicey but I would still be happy to return.

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Just my 2014 Laos visa.

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Last but not least, Morocco in 2012. I started with two nights in Essaouira, then joined Jason in Marrakech, from which we traveled overland through the High Atlas mountains, out to the desert (including an overnight in a tent accessible only by camel caravan), then to Fez and Meknes, ending up with a night in Casablanca.

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Venice vs. Marrakesh

On my recent visit to Venice (my first) I was struck by its similarities and differences with the old quarters — “medinas” — of the Moroccan cities that I visited in 2012: Marrakesh, Fez, Meknès and Essaouira.

The similarities are obvious:

  • Both are medieval in origin, and have complex street patterns resulting from individual settlements rather than a grid or other master plan.
  • In both cases most streets are too narrow for cars or trucks, so they are mostly pedestrian.
  • It’s easy to get lost in either place, which can be upsetting, or exhilarating, or a mixture of both.

    A narrow alley in Marrakesh.

    A narrow alley in Marrakesh.

    A narrow alley in Venice.

    A narrow alley in Venice.

  • In both cases there are also some broad streets, and some open squares, but they are more the exception than the rule.

    Saint Marks Square in Venice.

    Saint Marks Square in Venice.

    The city square in Meknes.

    The city square in Meknes.

The differences between Venice and the medinas are equally striking.

  • The canals of Venice are the most dramatic difference. While to a walker they are as much of a barrier as a wall they relieve the claustrophobia of the narrow alleys, and afford an efficient and connected network of transport for anyone with a boat.

    A small canal in a residential area of Venice.

    A small canal in a residential area of Venice.

  • There are dead ends in Venice, either in a doorway or on a canal, but in most cases an alley will eventually connect back into the network, however circuitously. The opposite is true in the medinas: except for a few main routes most side alleys lead in a tree configuration to a group of residences, in which all but one alley takes you to a dead end. Navigation is tricky in both places, but far more stressful in a medina!

    The map showing the way to a popular restaurant in Marrakesh. There's no direct route!

    The map showing the way to a popular restaurant in Marrakesh. There’s no direct route!

  • Another difference intensifies the alienation of navigating in a medina: muslim houses are organized around a private interior courtyard and have few if any windows opening on the alley. I imagine that this may relate to protecting women from view, although there may be other cultural factors at play. Even when you’re totally lost the windows of Venice’s buildings are some comfort, while in the medinas you only see a similar patterns of windows in the former Jewish quarters.

    A typical alley in a Muslim area of Essaouira, with almost no windows.

    A typical alley in a Muslim area of Essaouira, with almost no windows.

    The interior courtyards in the muslim quarters are as lovely and welcoming as the exteriors are sterile.

    The interior courtyards in the muslim quarters are as lovely and welcoming as the exteriors are sterile.

    A small square in Venice.

    A small square in Venice.

    The former Jewish quarter in Fez. It has windows as in Venice while the Muslim quarters do not.

    The former Jewish quarter in Fez. It has windows as in Venice while the Muslim quarters do not.

  • While you can get lost in either place, navigation differs significantly in detail.
    • Google Maps beautifully tracks the alleys and canals of Venice, and gives you suggested routes between locations, including water taxi options. In the narrow alleys signal strength can be iffy, so the location shown on your smartphone can be quite inaccurate, but by correlating street signs with the electronic map you can usually orient yourself fairly easily.
    • The medinas are another matter entirely! Google maps (as of 2012) makes no effort to reflect the small alleys; it just tells you’re in the medina and leaves the rest to you.
    • Paper maps are available but they differ wildly as to the small alleys, and unless you read Arabic the street signs are mostly useless.

      Three maps of the same part of Essaouira. The two on the right are fairly similar but the one on the left is wildly different!

      Three maps of the same part of Essaouira. The two on the right are fairly similar but the one on the left is wildly different!

    • The medinas instead offer you “Arab GPS,” which is asking a young man to show you the way. For a euro (or two or three) the guy will take you where you’re going … maybe. Sometimes quite directly. Sometimes via his uncle’s rug shop. Sometimes the guy has no better idea than you do and will just ask people along the way! Only near the end of the trip did a hotelkeeper tell us the best strategy: ask a woman. They won’t ask for money; they won’t lead you somewhere weird; they will just tell you which way to go!
  • Venice is fully pedestrianized: there are essentially no vehicles on its streets. There are no beasts of burden either, except for men with carts. Boats serve all the roles of wheeled vehicles elsewhere: cars, taxis, buses, trucks … even ambulances. This makes walking in Venice a real pleasure. The narrow alleys of the medinas don’t allow cars or trucks either, but they have no canals. A pedestrian in Marrakesh must constantly be alert to speeding motorbikes. I didn’t notice motorbikes in Fez, but in both cities you must stay alert for donkey carts. Venice definitely gets the edge in pedestrian friendliness!

    A speeding donkey cart in Marrakesh. Look out, Jason!

    A speeding donkey cart in Marrakesh. Look out, Jason!