Travel is a wildly privileged thing to do. But just because it’s a privilege to travel doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and unicorns.
We all have travel horror stories and things we hate about travel, even if our Instagram captions beg to differ. #blessed
But what I hate most about travel has very little to do with the one-off horror story, the mundanity of waiting at an airport, or praying to your deity of choice that you can find a bathroom before your body ejects the local specialty your body’s still adjusting to.
No, no. Because when I think of travel, I’m thinking even more broadly, like going across town to try out a new restaurant as well as landing in faraway places.
And no matter where I go, the disappointment is always the same.
This weekend getaway in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania sets off with a little rafting trip up the Youghiogheny River for some crazy, totally gnarly… Class I rapids. There were kids on board, so give me a break. Then, trail running along the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) trail and a little hike on the rugged Laurel Highlands Trail in Seven Springs.
Berlin to Bannau Brycheiniog National Park in Wales. 1,400 kilometers or 870 miles by train and bus to a new country––Wales––for a little trail running and hiking and to learn a bit more about Welsh culture and heritage. I also met up with Jodie Bond, a writer and the head of communications for the park, to find out why they dropped the English from the park names, what it has to do with climate change.
When you live abroad and use your money on travel instead of paying mortgages or feeding offspring, people tend to ask: “What’s your favorite place you’ve been?”
To be clear, I hesitate to entertain absolutes no matter what the topic of conversation is. Like tastes in music, my “favorite” place ebbs and flows with the seasons, my mood, and probably some wild card, like am I depressed or surfing a serotonin high.
Disclaimers aside, let’s talk about five places that have burrowed their way into the reinforced cavernous bunker that is my soul.
It’s a car-free, Greek island. It’s as if Zeus and his crew tailored-made this place for me.
I hate cars and I love all things Greek. I even married one of ‘em.
I first visited Hydra on something of a whim. We were planning our first trip together to Greece, starting with a stop in Athens to see the sights and visit a friend.
But where to next?
Among my friend’s many recommendations was Hydra, the car-free island just an hour or so outside of Athens by ferry.
I hesitate to invoke the supernatural, but there is a certain magic to this place. And I’m hardly the only one who’s noticed. Leonard Cohen worked through a creative block here in the ‘60s. One of my favorite songs, “Bird On A Wire,” was written during his time on Hydra.
Hydra was our last trip before the pandemic and our first after the pandemic when we returned in April 2022 to run in the Hydra Trail Event. I can still smell the fresh oregano on the mountainside during brief lulls in the race. It’s a place where, as Cohen might’ve said, I’ve found my way to be free.
Suchitoto, El Salvador
El Salvador itself was a special experience for the both of us, but Suchitoto sticks out with its rustic colonial atmosphere overlooking Lake Suchitlán. The name comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language and means “place of birds and flowers.”
Besides the birds and flowers, it’s a place steeped in Salvadoran history––a hub for the revolutionary movement of the 70s and 80s.
Unfortunately that also made it the scene for a number of battles during the civil war.
But walking the streets these days, it’s hard for a foreigner to imagine the horror that ravaged these sleepy cobblestones. It’s the kind of place that gives even the most pessimistic and cynical of souls hope that a breath of peace can flourish just about anywhere.
Well-meaning Westerners are prone to over romanticizing Japan as if the country is a masterpiece painting and not a real place with living, breathing people.
From the landscapes emanating serene solitude to the soul-soothing temples and ryokans in the Shukuba or post stations, even the most principled traveler would need a surgeon to remove the rose-colored glasses.
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang. A friend of mine teaching in China first put this northern Laotian town on my map. With travel opening back up to Southeast Asia, I quickly set my sights on finally visiting this celebrated but still-lesser-traveled UNESCO heritage city.
And it didn’t disappoint.
I’m often guilty of this, but it’s one of those places where you think, “Should I move here?” and it’s not just a fleeting sensation.
The evil claw of mass tourism does seem to be on the horizon, so I hesitate to encourage too many people to go there. But as things stand, Luang Prabang holds a special place in my heart––even though I almost died there. At least my wife thought I did. Go watch that video for the whole story.
Like El Salvador, Jordan itself left a distinct mark on me and reaffirmed my preference for traveling to places that people, in their unintentional ignorance, warn against visiting.
Within reason of course. I’m not going to be like one of those influencers heading to Syria on the government’s dime to regurgitate propaganda and cry, “I’m apolitical!”
Sorry, Dana. We’re talking about DANA.
It’s a tiny Bedouin village that’s roughly 500 years old next to the Dana Reserve where you’ll have the surrounding Martian landscape to yourself. One of my favorite travel memories is just sitting on the rooftops, sipping tea, and watching the sun set with the muezzin belting out a call to prayer that echoes across the endless sky.
If you’re interested in learning more about these places, I’ve got videos on all of them. Just go to my channel and make with the typity-type.
Palestine. Judea and Samaria. The Palestinian Territories. The home of the occupation. Those are just some of the names for arguably the most contentious piece of land within one of the most contentious regions in human history.
I never felt like I deserved to go to Jerusalem. It’s a city that in my imagination oozes religiosity. Only those who said “Next year in Jerusalem” and meant it ought to go. Or perhaps anyone with deep ancestral roots in the area, ranging from the various groups of Arabs and Jews who’ve seen the likes of the Ottomans, Brits, and Jordanians come and go.
In general, I’m talking about people for whom Jerusalem means something more than a place to grab some humble brag shots for social media. Not some American shmendrik who’s about as pious as the village idiot from Chelm.
Although I forced myself to the sights, like The Wailing Wall with the Dome of the Rock glistening in the background, I can’t say it sparked a spiritual revolution within. I actually felt a little guilty. This is something many of my ancestors would’ve been incredibly moved to see for themselves. As far as I know, I’m the first in my line to have seen this place in presumably thousands of years. Yet there I was, feeling like I stole some teenage girl’s front row seats to a Billie Eilish concert.
But what did light up my soul, much like in Tel Aviv, was eating in Jerusalem. Joel Haber shows us the way in this video.
Next time, we cross into the Palestinian Territories through Checkpoint 300 for a stay at Banksy’s Walled Off A Hotel and to learn more about a certain hunk of junk that towers over the Palestinians living in the adjacent Aida Refugee Camp.