Monthly Musing: Off the Map

Everyone has his or her own list of dream destinations, places where, if we had the time, the opportunity, the money, we’d drop everything for the chance to experience.  Places that we are so compelled to that we’ll flip right to an article about them in the latest issue of our favorite travel magazine, or suffer through PBS’ ceaseless contribution requests to hear the scoop straight from Rick Steves.

My friends and I often discuss our travel wish lists, exhausting an extra hour at dinner with visions of street souks, petit bistros, and Icelandic hot springs.  New destinations are easy to add to the list.  We catch a photograph of a place we’ve never heard of before and we’re hooked–we have to go there someday!  And while it’s fun and magical to imagine the moment we step off the plane and into that long-awaited adventure, our travel fantasies are undoubtedly biased.

Because, in addition to our Must-Gos, we also have the Oh-Nos, the places that violence, politics, and war have figuratively wiped off the map for anyone not a soldier or a native.

As eager travelers, we like to think that “the world is our oyster.”  Advancements in cultural and eco-tourism encourage this notion–that even far, far away is still within reach.  We always think about all the places out there for us to explore, but rarely do we dwell upon the reality that there are some places we never will.  There are countries that will never have their own guidebooks, that will only occupy our fears and never our dreams.

Dismal circumstances have marked these places with a foreboding “X,” and we quickly write them off as “too risky.”  To do so may be quick, but it should not be easy.  Because when we erase a destination from our personal maps, we also erase all of its stories–the people we’ll never meet and the things we’ll never see.  And the world we try so hard to understand, to capture and contain with our words and our photographs, becomes a little bit smaller.

 

Above image found on Google Images is an illustrative example. I do not own the book rights.

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Burano, Italy: Le Case Colorate

While the budding flowers and leaves of spring are finally introducing some color back into the Boston scenery, the Venetian island of Burano remains vibrant all year long.  On Burano, small, square houses are splashed with every color on the paint palette, ensuring that even the cloudiest of days seems bright.  Tourists often ferry over from Venice to behold Burano’s residential rainbow.  Yet, those who wander a little further down the winding canals will find that inside houses of pink and orange and green live true Italians.  They hang laundry from shuttered windows to dry in the sun and wind their way down narrow passages to get to the market, venturing to the main island only when absolutely necessary.  Because it’s easy to live simply when your life is already in color.

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Finding Faith in Caimito, Puerto Rico

The building was hardly threatening. Dirty white labeled with a large “Bienvenidos,” and a few hand-painted crossesStill my stomach turned as we entered the Christian Community Center of Caimito, Puerto Rico for Sunday mass.

I have never been a religious person.  My parents chose not to christen me, marking me a heathen child and forever freeing me from the Sunday school obligations that plagued my childhood friends.  I know embarrassingly little about the Bible, and Catholic churches make me nervous.  It always seems painfully obvious that I don’t belong in a church, like a silent alarm warns God of my intrusion.

My intentions for being there were good.  I had joined a group of like-minded students from my university to volunteer at Iniciativa Comunitaria, an organization for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in neighboring San Juan.  We were put up in the Christian Community Center’s guesthouse.


Front view of the Christian Community Center.

Driving into Caimito had been my first real introduction to poverty.  Faded houses lined the winding, narrow streets, their laundry lines sagging with worn clothing, backyards piled with junk.  Locals eyed us warily, sitting on plastic chairs outside the corner store, a hub for the local drug dealer.

None of this seemed to faze Reverend Juan.  He left Puerto Rico after high school to study medicine in New York.  Instead, he returned to Caimito and found the power of God.  Forty-one years later, he remains the Christian Community Center’s unshakeable leader.  His smile was magnetic—the wide kind that spreads all across the face and crinkles the eyes. Why is Puerto Rico better than where we came from up north?  Under the yellow warmth of the sun, Juan reminded us, “Here: no snow.”

He told us about his life, his family, his work.  How we didn’t need school to follow our passions—that the answers are in our hearts and not a textbook.  We were all entranced.  As I write down Juan’s advice now, the words seem cliché.  Coming from him, they sounded like truths.  I had listened to sermons before, listened to men of God deliver similar messages. I always thought they were nice—warm and fuzzy ideas that never left an impression.  But here we were with Juan in regular conversation, and I couldn’t tear myself away.

It was decided we would all attend church the next day.  We wanted to pay Juan our respects and thank him for letting us stay, and what better way than by seeing him in his element?  My head agreed that it was the right tribute, but my stomach still tightened anxiously.  Talking with Juan outside, eating pinchos and arepas—it had all been informal.  I knew that, setting foot inside his church, the informality would disappear, replaced by unfamiliar rituals, this time in a language I barely understood.

We filed into the church early, interrupting Juan’s wife as she led the morning lesson.  The room was small, white, sparse.  No more than thirty chairs made up both sides of the aisle, and there was a small platform stage by the lectern with a rainbow mural backdrop.   About five people–and Juan—sat in the rows, all with their books open, sneaking peaks at us as we took our seats. We listened patiently until the lesson concluded, and I shifted in my seat worrying what would come next.

Juan wanted us to each introduce ourselves.  I grasped the microphone. “Hola,” I said and was answered with a chorus of holas. I said something terrible like, “My name is Samantha. I can’t speak Spanish because I speak Italian. But thank you for everything,” and everyone smiled politely and refrained from wincing.

One of the women seated got up and approached the pulpit.  She was small and hunched, dressed in a long skirt and shawl, and she closed her eyes in front of us and began to pray out loud.  Every now and then the doors to the church opened and closed, a couple teenage girls crossing back and forth to the attached Sunday school room.  No one seemed to heed the interruptions.

At one point, the girls settled by the other church members on a nearby bench with two toddlers in tow—a little boy and an older girl, their skin fair with only a hint of underlying pigment, both with wide blue eyes.  Everyone’s focus shifted from the old woman’s prayer to the babies, fidgeting on the girls’ laps.

And all of a sudden there was singing.  The woman stopped praying and broke out into a warbled hymn, and the rest of the church joined in.  The teenage girls smacked tambourines and everyone clapped.  Another woman stood up, lost in the song.  They were out of pitch and off-beat.  I wasn’t even sure they were all singing the same hymn.  The baby boy wriggled free and ran across the room, his shaky steps matching the beat as one of the girls chased after him.  All at once it had become joyful chaos, and we all clapped along.  This was not the calm and ordered mass I was used to—and yet it made perfect sense.  The young and the old, singing to God in loud notes and baby shrieks, sincerity and laughter.  Here in Caimito, a perfectly intimate display of what they were all praying for: life.

The song faded away and Juan finally spoke.  In Spanish and English he thanked us for volunteering our time to help the community.  The baby barreled toward him, and Juan crouched down to let him leap into his arms.  He lifted the boy up and passed him around to us as we prayed for gratitude and kindness and meeting one another.

And just like that, the service was over.  I was not relieved because I had forgotten my anxiety, completely entranced by these people on a regular Sunday in their tiny church.  We went around hugging and kissing the church members, saying “Mucho gusto” and “Muchas Gracias.” I thought about what Juan had said as everyone clasped our hands firmly, looked into our eyes, and held us close: “We are a family.  Our family is your family, our church is your church.”  Blindly and absolutely, I believed him.

Reverend Juan. Photo taken by Amit Persaud.

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7 Ways to Avoid Looking Like a Tourist in Italy

This post is a re-blog of an original guest post for A Girl and a Suitcase. Make sure to check out Adria’s blog!

Can I Get A What? 

Incredible food. It’s likely one of your main motivations for traveling to Italy, so you should know how to pronounce what you’re about order. Meals are a great source of pride for Italians, and by butchering the name of your dish, you’re disrespecting the work that went into it. Skim through a phrasebook and familiarize yourself with some common food pronunciations. Also memorize a few courtesy phrases like, “Could I have…?” Your Italian doesn’t have to be perfect. Just putting in the effort will please the waitstaff and ensure that the cook is the only one doing the butchering…

Put Your Foot Down

Italians are notoriously pushy when they’re stuck waiting in line. Market stands and cafe counters often teem with people and can be overwhelming to tourists. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to push your way to the front. Always know your order ahead of time. At the counter, speak clearly and have your money ready so you don’t slow down the fast-paced service.

Riding Dirty

Trains are a great way to get around Italy–if you know what to do. Tickets are easy to purchase at electronic booths, but make sure you’ve chosen the proper fare and destination. Riding the wrong train or taking it further than your fare allows can get you kicked off the train or fined. After you buy your ticket, STOP! Find the yellow validation machine and stamp it. An unvalidated ticket can also warrant fines.

Big Spender

In the US, it’s normal to pay for small purchases with large bills. In Italy, it’s like the 8th deadly sin. Cashiers hate making change and can be rude if you deny their request for exact coins. Use your larger bills for larger purchases and save your 1 & 2 euro coins for gelato money. It’s always smart to be on the cashier’s good side, especially if you plan to go back for more gelato (you will).

Under My Umbrella

If you want to see that piazza when it’s less crowded, wait until it rains. Italians scatter at the first sign of precipitation and those who can’t escape come prepared. Sleek raincoats and long umbrellas are rainy day essentials. Check the forecast and always carry a compact umbrella so you don’t end up the only person in Italy who’s drenched.

Energy Boost

There are no Starbucks in Italy because coffee is an art form. It’s perfectly acceptable to sip an early morning cappuccino or latte. This window closes after the clock strikes noon, when true Italians drink only espresso. Other coffee drinks are still served throughout the day, but show that you’re a newbie.

Food Rules!

The typical Italian dinner doesn’t start until 8pm and many restaurants don’t even open until then. If waiting to eat late is difficult for you, have a late lunch or buy a snack to tide you over.

Good gelato is always served in metal bins, which signify it’s homemade. Gelato should appear smooth and fluffy, and never grainy.

You’re probably used to eating pizza by hand and by the slice. Many Italians actually use a knife and fork and most order a whole pizza for themselves. Take out is frowned upon. Hope you’re hungry!

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An Ode to Paris

Today marks the one year anniversary of my first visit to Paris.  There’s something about Paris that stays with you–my memories are still so vivid it seems more like one week ago, not one year.  Sipping champagne at an open-air bar, strolling along the Seine, breaking a fresh baguette under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower–each moment held a certain magic that can only be found in the City of Light.  The following are a few of my favorite shots I took along the way.  Although the champagne is long gone and the magic now faded, these photographs remind me that I’ll always have Paris…

Pond reflections at the Luxembourg Gardens

Striking a pose while the Capitol Building looms in the background

Morning sunlight strikes the Seine

Approaching the Louvre

Sacre-Coeur Basilica sparkles white from the top of Montmartre

The Eiffel Tower overlooks city side streets


Bonsoir!

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7 Perks of Learning a Foreign Language

With English on track to becoming the “global language,” it almost seems unnecessary for travelers to know the languages spoken in their destinations.  Going with what you know may be the easy route, but it’s not always the most rewarding.  Read below to find out why learning a foreign language is still a worthy endeavor!

Image found here

The Obvious

Communicating with local people in their own language can provide a more rich and authentic experience in the country you’re visiting.  You might strike up an interesting conversation, learn about a secret hotspot, score a bargain at the local market, or even be invited to a home-cooked meal.  No matter the country, most people will consider your efforts as signs of respect and treat you accordingly.*

*Parisians, as a rule, are the exception

The Logistical

Sometimes it’s just plain hard to get around in a foreign country.  Signs look funny, maps don’t make sense, and you could have sworn that train was supposed to arrive an hour ago!  When you know the local language, it’s that much easier to (GASP!) ask for directions, understand airport announcements, or negotiate your fare with a pesky cab driver.  We travelers all get lost–we’re used to it.  But if you use your skills to arrive successfully at your destination, you can proudly declare (in your new language): “Not this time!”

Image found here

The Motivational

Nobody wants to mess up and look stupid.  Unfortunately, you have to be vulnerable to learn a foreign language–even though you might say something completely wrong (…you will).  Constantly putting yourself out there seems tough, but it makes you more resilient and builds confidence when you finally start getting things right (you will!).   The eventual comfort you develop speaking with foreigners will translate to a greater self-assurance meeting new people in any situation.

The Empathetic

Those who pursue a new language will often find it frustrating, embarrassing, and downright exhausting.  Experiencing the process for yourself will make you understand how difficult it can be for foreigners to learn English.  You’ll come to fully appreciate the people with “a little bit of English” who have helped you in your travels all those times when you didn’t have the words.


Image found here

The Practical

Language skills are an impressive addition to any resume.  You might find a job in a country where your secondary language is spoken, or land a position that values capable translators who can deal with certain clients.  Even if language proficiency isn’t part of a job requirement, it shows prospective employers that you are focused, dedicated, and culturally sensitive.

The Journalistic

When you first start learning a new language,  your reading and writing skill levels will be roughly on par with children’s books (e.g. I eat the pasta.  It is good!).  Although you may not be the next great Italian novelist, your simplistic writing style in a new language can actually improve your writing in English.  A limited vocabulary trains your brain to communicate ideas in a concise but effective way.  When you return to English, you’ll realize you can better recognize any extraneous words or phrases obscuring your point.

The Confidential

Calling all companions!  This perk applies to those who learn a language with a friend.  Not only do you have someone to practice with and confide in, you also have a partner in crime.  When you return home, you’ll be able to speak to each other in your new language–it’s like your own secret code!  Just be careful!  You never know who’s listening and can understand…

Image found here

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One Hour in Valletta, Malta

A country’s capital city is usually an urban metropolis bustling with frenzied energy.  Not so in Valletta.  The authors of Let’s Go Europe claim you can explore Malta‘s capital in only an hour–and they’re right.  Sandstone buildings line quiet, narrow streets that lead downhill to the sea.  Old haberdasheries and family silversmiths snuggle in with modern stores on the island where Italian, Arabic, and American influences combine to make the perfect escape.  In Valletta, the views are breathtaking, the people friendly, and the traditions strong.  So take just an hour to meander.  You’re sure to feel right at home.

 

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Travel Girl’s 10 Tips for Packing Light

Courtesy of Google Images

I don’t claim to be a travel expert, but when it comes to packing, I’m awesome.  Most people dread packing; I enter into a state of packing nirvana.  For me, it’s like fitting the pieces of a layered puzzle together.  The prize? Getting to go on an exciting trip, of course!

OCD-like raving aside, these days an efficiently packed suitcase gets you more than an easy trip up the escalator.  Airlines continue to tack on new fees for both checked and carry-on luggage, and these pesky costs can eat away at your budget before you even arrive at your destination.

Below is a collection of 10 simple tricks for squishing in all that stuff.  Unfortunately, there’s no miracle solution for a well-packed suitcase.  You have to put in some time and thought (and patience) to reap the benefits.  But if you do, you’ll be sashaying past that flight attendant and dropping the extra $60* on the perfect Paris dress instead!

*Actual amount saved by Travel Girl due to packing efficiency

Roll With It

Neatly folded shirts are great for clothing store displays, but they still take up space in your suitcase!  Instead of making your clothes perfectly square, fold them in half and then roll them like you would a towel.  Rolling not only saves room, it saves time, minimizes wrinkles, and allows you to fit items into smaller crevices.

Stack Attack

Now that your clothes are rolled and ready, it’s time to stack them.  Larger items like pants and sweaters make up the bottom row, with items getting increasingly smaller as you approach the rim of your suitcase.  Keep all of your clothing in groups by type; pants with pants, long-sleeve shirts together, and so on.  You can easily snatch a tank top out of your bag if you already know where it lives.

Doggie Bag

Ball up that plastic bag from your last grocery store trip and stuff it somewhere accessible in your suitcase.  When your clothes get dirty, you can just throw them in the plastic bag until you’re home or able to do laundry.  Separating dirty items  prevents you from rifling through your luggage in search of clean clothes and turning order to chaos.  This trick works especially well for shorter trips when you don’t plan to unpack much.  It’s also really easy to dump dirty clothes straight from the plastic bag into the washing machine.

You Won’t Wear Those

We all like to imagine strutting through the streets of Milan in our trendy red pumps, but ladies, a well-packed bag requires altering your fashionable travel fantasy.  Heels don’t fit into each other like other shoe styles, and the pointy spines are very difficult to pack around.  And then there’s the truth we try our hardest to ignore: high heels hurt!  They’re great for a fancy dinner, but terrible for a night walking around a foreign city (especially those European ones with cobblestones–ouch!).  Substitute  a pair of sophisticated wedges or flats for your stilettos.  Both are more packable and wearable, and they can be dressed up with the right outfit and accessories.  If you absolutely must bring heels, invest in brands like Aerosoles or Naturalizer, which offer shoes made specifically for comfort.  These companies have recently revamped their lines to offer more stylish designs.

You Won’t Read That

Vacations seem like the perfect opportunity to finally tackle that stack of books you’ve been meaning to read.  They’re not.  Unless you plan on plopping down on the nearest beach for the entire trip (totally fine if you do), you’ll likely be too busy exploring your destination to make much progress on Tina Fey’s new biography.  Books eat up room and add extra bulk, making it more likely you’ll be charged for exceeding an airline’s luggage weight limits.  I’m a book lover, so I would never want to deprive you.  Pack the book you’ve been wanting to read the most so you’ll be more likely to read it.  Paperbacks and shorter novels are always preferable.  Long flight ahead of you?  Consider downloading books on tape, which will spare your eyes from poor airplane lighting and also shrink your suitcase.

Woman With A Plan

You’ve mapped out your entire itinerary, so why wouldn’t you extend the same courtesy to your wardrobe?  Lay out staple items (cardigans, skirts, etc.) from your closet, to see what clothes will combine with other pieces to be worn multiple times.  Check the weather forecast to pinpoint what you’ll need to bring, and then start planning.  Using a 2-week trip as an example, plan a week’s worth of outfits that reuse your staple items at least twice.  Do laundry at the end of the week and then repeat your outfits.  If you’re backpacking or traveling to a country where a washing machine is a luxury, do your best to predict a realistic laundry schedule and adjust your planned outfits accordingly (i.e. pack more t-shirts to wear with the same pair of pants).

Need more ideas? A dark-colored dress in a light weight fabric is low maintenance and can be dressed up or down.  Pants and shorts can be worn repeatedly without getting too dirty, so always keep them to a minimum.  Statement jewelry is better left silenced at home in your jewelry box.  Opt instead for a simple pair of faux diamond studs for everyday wear and one pair of fancier earrings for nights out.  Only bring jewelry that you always wear and/or won’t miss if it’s lost or stolen.

No Size Fits All

When deciding how many bags to bring, stick to the Rule of 3: one large suitcase (the checked bag), one medium bag like a backpack (the carry-on bag), and one small bag (the personal item).  An over-the-shoulder purse with a zipper will hold your important documents and work for daily travel without getting in your way.  Your carry-on bag should hold other important items that you want to keep near you like iPods and cameras.  Carry-on sized bags are also great for weekend trips if you plan to leave your larger suitcase behind.  Low-cost airlines like Ryanair and EasyJet only allow one personal item, so make sure your purse fits inside your packed carry-on bag.  For trips that only require a carry-on, pack your toiletries last so they’re easy to take out before you go through security.

Layer Up

I hate looking like a tourist, but I’ll make the sacrifice if it means saving suitcase space.  Wear heavier items like jackets and sneakers on your flight to lighten your luggage.  Both are easy to remove and place in a security bin without too much extra hassle and also easy to change out of once you arrive at your destination.

Golden Rules

Follow the instructions!  Immediately after you book your flight, go on your airline’s website and read their luggage requirements.  If you don’t know the proper luggage measurements and weights before you start packing, you’re already sabotaging a successful suitcase.  Use your bathroom scale to check whether your bag is the proper weight.  Eliminating some items ahead of time is always better than being shocked when your bag pulls big numbers on the airport scale.

Love It or Leave It

We all have them: those articles of clothing that just hang in our closets, waiting.  We swear we’ll wear them when the perfect occasion rolls around!  While it’d be a nice surprise if that opportunity were to occur on your trip, the chances are unlikely.  You probably haven’t worn it because it’s impractical, and there’s no room for the impractical in an organized suitcase.  My motto: if you have doubts, leave it out!  Yes, it’s painful at first, but you’ll forget all about that sparkly tube top when you’re using the extra luggage space to bring back a colorful Indian sari.

Final Note: Efficient packing is all about editing.  Focus on what you definitely need, not what you think you might use.  You can always make up for packing too little, but you’ll end up paying more if you overpack.  Think of your suitcase as a representation of your trip: bring some of home with you, but be open to the place you’re about to visit.  Happy travels!

Have any great packing tips that I’ve missed?  Share them below, and I’ll include them in a follow-up post!

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Tea, Anyone? A Boston Harbor Photo Essay

Fan Pier continues to be a great respite for those longing to escape the chaos of everyday city life.  When the weather is nice, you can relax at a picnic table and gaze upon both sea and skyline.  Walk from the New England Aquarium along Rowes Wharf and Atlantic Avenue past the Boston Harbor Hotel, and then cross over the Evelyn Moakley Bridge to see for yourself!  The Charles River may take the credit in most Boston postcards, but there’s just nothing like the ocean…


A view of the skyline from the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse.

Things are looking up! Crossing the Evelyn Moakley Bridge.

View looking out into the harbor.


Boat docks near the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Dilapidated shack on the water.

Seagull knows it’s the place to be.

In between buildings on Atlantic Ave.

Photos taken by yours truly!

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It’s Not Me, It’s You: An Open Letter to the Travel Channel

Dear Travel Channel,

You may not know it, but we’re on a break.  Our relationship has been a long one–second only to my lifetime romance with chocolate.  For eight years I’ve watched you religiously, wondering where you’d take me next.  All those countless nights we used to snuggle on the couch together to pass the time… So you might have noticed how I’ve been pretty distant lately.  Sure, I’ll linger for a minute or two to watch Bourdain catch a fish in the Amazon.  But at the first commercial break, I’ll stray, flipping down two channels to TLC where I’ll contentedly watch Say Yes to the Dress for the next half hour.  And when I choose wealthy bridal fittings over you, Travel Channel,  you know it’s bad.

I’ve tried to be reasonable, tried to give you the benefit of the doubt, but my patience is worn through.  I’ve stopped watching because I’ve stopped having a voice.  As a female traveler, I’m simply no longer represented.  You, my dear TC, have gone all-male.

You can try to argue, but I don’t have to look far for the evidence. Man vs. Food, Mancations–the proof is in the promos.  It almost seems that being a middle-aged, slightly overweight man is a requirement to host a show.  But don’t worry! He may be ordinary, but he makes up for it with a fascination for the Extreme or the Bizarre.   So while these Average Joes travel (prove their worth) by testing their physical or intestinal fortitude, your female hosts get to….traipse across the Sexiest Beaches in a bikini?

I know you’ll counter with the obvious: Samantha Brown. God love her, but where is she? Nowadays, the only Samantha Brown I see is from a 2004 rerun at 10 a.m.  While I’ll always respect her quirky sense of humor and genuine interest in travel, there’s a reason why Anthony Bourdain occasionally disses her: she’s safe.  She takes dainty tours in the pretty parts of town and eats the mint from her hotel pillow at night.  Her show is fun and luxurious and escapist, but it’s just not realistic when I’m praying for clean sheets at my 15 € hostel.  Samantha Brown gets a taste of culture without having to get her hands dirty. But let’s be straight, Travel Channel: this Travel Girl knows the value of some soap and water.

You and I both know that your one saving grace is Bourdain.  He gives viewers their own taste of the authentic with each dish he tries and always manages to tap into the heartbeat of a destination.  He’s wise with the years and experience to relate to older travelers but still badass enough to earn a cult following from the young.

But I’m not a chef.  I occasionally wear a leather jacket, but I’m not badass.  I’m just a girl who wants to learn more about this big ol’ world we’re living in.  Ask my girlfriends who have all gone abroad, ask the female editors and writers gracing the pages of magazines like National Geographic and Budget Travel, ask the 80% of women making travel decisions, and they’ll tell you the same.  In fact, they already have–but maybe you just haven’t been listening.

Travel Channel, it’s time for you to bring back the female travel host.  The one who considers immersing herself in another culture both challenging and entertaining in its own right.  The woman who explores the places we female travelers have been longing to go and who inspires us to seek out new adventures.  The one who can out-eat Adam Richman and out-drink Anthony Bourdain–or who’s at least not afraid to try.  The woman who, at the end of the day, is not defined as a woman at all, but as a traveler.

If it means eating octopus tentacles or log-rolling or getting tribal tattoos, bring it on!  I, for one, am up for it.  Any of the above is preferable to feeling like the female traveler is obsolete. Far from it, TC.  She’s out there and she’s more curious than ever.  I hope for the sake of our relationship, Travel Channel, that you can find it in your heart to make things right.  If not, well, I just might leave the country…

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