Category Archives: travel

Just What The Doctor (didn’t) Ordered

It’s official. Chemo is OVER! And I must admit, it was very anti-climactic. While something as momentous as this period in my life feels like it should be heralded as a rebirth, a moment to exhale, to celebrate the spirit of the fight, it was just another day in the chair hooked up to the whir of the IV poison going in my port. Oh well. That’s why I planned this huge family trip to Tuscany. I needed something to look forward to the past 5 months of feeling like crap. I need to hear that trumpet in my own heart, if not that of my family. So against the wishes of my oncologist, and after having to push it back a week to allow of my unexpected expander replacement and lavage, we were off!

I’m normally the kind of traveler that can’t sit still. I don’t really care for the beach, and the idea of vacation where you sit on the beach all day sounds like a form of torture to me. But this vacation I planned with a somewhat-out-of-the-way historic farmhouse in the somewhat-out-of-the-way historic Garfagnana region on Tuscany. Surrounded by panoramic views of the foothills of the Alps with an infinity pool and a home that dates back to the 18th century (but foundation much older), we didn’t leave the property for the first 3 days. I cooked. We picked and ate cherries straight off the tree. It was glorious. And peaceful. And calm…. And for the first time since November 15, 2013, after hearing the words “we found a mass, and it’s going to be cancer”, I remember who I used to be.

This is what relaxation looks like.

This is what relaxation looks like.

Staying shady

Great trips start with London

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Climbing Like Ivy (that’s my new motto) [*UPDATED*]

UPDATE: So, the magazine that had hired me to write Travel Ninja turned out to be, let’s just say, undependable. The good news is I got a better gig at a better place! Instead, find me on Flyertalk.com. My column, Crewed Talk generally comes out on Tuesdays. Also, the sarahsteegar.com website had a little problem with its web host and they disappeared all my work. [*very sad/mad face*] But what can ya do? You can still find me, however, at FA Travel Writer and I’m on Twitter.

~~~~

Hi guys. I just wanted to drop a line and say that even if I’m not here a lot these days, you may notice me popping up in new places. At least I hope so!

As part of a “more proper” refocusing of my writing into freelance travel publishing, I have finally taken the plunge with a showcase website, at sarahsteegar.com.

It’s still a toddler, so to speak, but I’m working on it. Please check it out, if you like, and feel free to provide feedback. Not just on the site – but on the world of travel in general. And I welcome it, because  I have a new gig that involves answering those very questions…in my new travel columns! That’s right, as of March 1st you can find me at the brand new Ah-Ha Traveler website and downloadable magazine. It’s fresh, it’s fierce and, best of all, it’s free! FREE!

On the website you can find me as Travel Ninja, a shorter column where I will share traveling tips gathered from my experiences as a flight attendant, expat and an all-around avid traveler. My magazine column, From the Air to There, will provide  a more in-depth discussion of airline, destination and traveling issues.

The idea behind these columns is that I live several angles on travel. Being a Flight Attendant offers a particularly unique angle as, going to the same places over and over and over, we are often something in between a tourist and a local. We love our classic touristy stuff, but we also get enough regular experience to stay on top of what is new and relevant in some cities, and to find local haunts where we just like to make friends and hang out like locals. If that doesn’t provide enough street cred for the job, there’s always that whole “bi-continental commuting thing” I’ve got going on, which should fill in any gaps.

Meanwhile, The Ah-Ha Traveler website is shaping up nicely with some smart content to check out now, but mark the calendar for March 1st to make sure you download your first free issue.

All the while, keep your eyes peeled. My strategy is to climb like ivy – it may seem slow at first, but hopefully, all at once, my writing will be framing every window in town. Through which we can look at the world together. (What…too much? 😉 ) …See you there.

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The Tourist’s Veil

There is one more story from Madagascar that I haven’t had a chance to tell. To set the ambiance for this event, you should know that the issue of walking at night was an ongoing debate amongst us three. I had read consistently that in Tana it was a no-no. However, our hotel was mere minutes from the places we tended to eat, around Boulevard de L’Independence, and Adam and Wendy are more the “Oh…it’ll be fine” type. I admit it was tempting. You feel silly and wussy and a little xenophobic to hesitate walking such a short distance, even when the locals tell you not to. Usually we settled the debate by asking a disinterested party: our waitress, the handyman at our hotel, etc. Always they said “Take a cab”. One time, after a skeptical look from us, our advisor said “Remember: when you’re white, not at night.”

The west coast fishing village of Mangily was one place I’d been told we could venture after dark. We discovered that it is one thing to feel tempted to walk a short way along the familiarity of busy city streets, knowing the locals will absolve you by insisting you should not. It’s another to have been told you’re perfectly safe to walk alone down a quiet dirt path into the black, black night of Nowhere.

We had just finished our second dinner in a row at the fantastic Chez Freddie and embarked on the 15 minute walk back to our beach bungalow. Our only light was the moon above, and some bleed from the few structures with electricity along the beginning of the route. The sandy road ran behind the line of beachfront accommodations to our left; to our right was total darkness, and some trails that disappeared into it. It already felt like a demarcation between Mangily-for-tourists and the villages that burrowed inland, like our only way home was the alley behind a restaurant. Then came the crying.

It was a woman, somewhere at the end of those night-eaten paths. She was wailing, somewhere in the distance. We travelers locked eyes, but at first we kept walking. It was faint, and clearly none of our business. What were we going to do, jot off blindly into midnight fields of goodness-know-what? The normal person in me felt cowardly; the Anthropologist in me chided “arrogance” at the idea that we’d be the only ones to save her. My mind filled with images of ways it could go wrong: fighting our way through clutching, waist-high vegetation to find someone with a limb cut off in an accident (and we would help how?) or perhaps a girl being attacked by men wielding scythes; stumbling into a village ceremony of some sort, the unwelcoming whites of eyes all trained on us; fumbling into the darkness, never to find a thing – including our way back. No images arose of us actually being helpful.

But we could not ignore someone so clearly in distress. We stopped in our tracks when it became clear it wasn’t a fleeting lament, twitchy and struggling with our conscience vs. our logic. But Wendy is an innate Protector of Women; she had that look in her eye and I knew she was considering plunging into the darkness after the voice. She would do it, too.

“It doesn’t sound like she’s hurt, or being attacked,” I noted. “I mean, it’s going on and on and on. That’s not fear or injury. She sounds…sad.” The other two nodded. “That’s grief,” we determined. Snatches of calm male voices floated to us from around the bodiless keen, as if trying to comfort her. In some sense, we felt better. “But what if it’s not grief?” Wendy had to ask.

Just then a woman rushed out of a stick house on the ocean side, hastily wrapped in a lamba (Malagasy sarong). She tore across the road, crossing just feet from us, and dashed confidently inland into the darkness.

“Look, she’s got support,” Adam pointed out. “Wendy, we simply can’t help,” I concluded. And with that, we continued to our temporary home, heavy-hearted and uncomfortable.

The next day a local boy sat talking to me on the beach. Surprisingly, he had nothing to sell; he seemed to just want to chat with the vazaha. Maybe he was practicing his French. I asked him about life in the area and, eventually, if he knew everyone in the surrounding villages. When he said yes, I mentioned the night’s events. “I didn’t hear anything from the villages last night, but it is the anniversary of a tragedy from three years ago…a woman left her house and shut the door, with her 7-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl sleeping inside, and a candle burning.” He did not have to describe how fiercely a house made of dried sticks would blaze. “The smoke was very black and thick, and the boy could not find the door.” My new friend mimicked the boy’s search with outstretched hands. “And they never got out?” I asked, without thinking. But sadder yet, he nodded. “Yes. They did, but it was too late. It was…very awful.”

Suddenly the sounds this woman was making made all too much sense and the images stung my eyes. It is difficult to describe the feeling it gave me. The story had little do with the loud things that divided me from this woman: the poverty, the local importance of skin color, our basic standard of living. Even where tourists are from, children die in house fires, parents make terrible mistakes. But at the same time, those elements felt relevant. Maybe it’s because when children are literally all a person has, losing them so cruelly reminds me just how little Luck cares about balance.

Whatever the reason, I also felt intrusive to have overheard her pain. Like I’d peeked behind a veil of privacy that separates all tourists from the life of locals. A veil which obscures the fact that, behind everything we see, there are people living, breathing, celebrating, suffering. It is both something we should not forget and none of our business. That night’s mystery symbolized the veil that had been there all along, as we passed through town after town in our car: people were working hard, but they looked okay. They all appeared fed; children laughed in the streets. But the truth lay at the end of dark roads that are too terrifying for us to go down and we are ill-equipped to even try.

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Making it Happen. Every. Single. Day.

Wendy and I had this exact same thought. Our first overwhelming impression, in our separate taxis from the airport to Antananarivo. There is no better way to describe the encompassing thrum as people piece together their daily survival before your very eyes.

It’s such a contrast from home, where the jobs we perform have nothing to do with our actual daily needs. For us, the facts of life happen behind the scenes. Somewhere else. But in places like Madagascar survival plays out each day in a constant-motion drama. It’s arresting to see how hard *most of the entire world* works, for such incongruously humble lives.

Don’t get me wrong; I was never one of those who thought that if someone is struggling to make ends meet, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. (Nor that I have any real clue about the life of the people I’m seeing.) Even so…the scene is striking. People walking, walking, everywhere. Barefoot. Bare feet! Rolling tires down the road. Infant tied into the small of a woman’s back – or the back of another child – head flopped to the side in oblivious baby slumber. Carrying you-name-it on her head: planks of wood, birds, oranges, carrots, laundry, barbed wire, firewood, sacks of rice, bricks piled 10 layers high. Wandering zebu, chomping dry grass. Stalled cars. Fixing bikes. Whole families pushing carts. Together. Uphill, burdened high with rice or wood. Maybe a youngin’ perched on top. Embroidering linen. Selling honey, self-collected; different flavors from different trees. Riverbeds crowded with washers: of clothes, of zebu, of cars. Of themselves. Planting rice, ankle deep in shiny water. Scattering seeds, skirts a fabric bowl. Plowing muddy terraces. Burning land. Tending to a mud-brick kiln, black smoke seeping out the cracks. Smearing homes with red clay stucco. Children walking home from school, blue-uniformed herds. Women braiding hair. At wooden stalls. Stall after stall after stall. Selling nuts and nails and everything in-between. Making. It. Happen.

Then there is a different kind of work. We became very aware of pretty young Malagasy paired up with vazaha men. Particularly middle-aged ones. In fact, our favorite hangout was Hotel Glacier – a notorious prozzie bar with an open friendly ambiance and fantastic food. We expected a sad scummy joint (as we’d read in advance what was also “on the menu”); what we found challenged our preconceptions and made us debate our multiple types of naiveté. Were we really looking at prostitutes, or just pretty girls from a poor country who dream of finding a foreign saviour? It was impossible to tell. On top you saw just an ice cream and pastry shop on one side, a cafe on the other. A gem of a place where locals and vazaha mingle, for reasons that all look sweet on the surface. Gorgeous smiling locals, dressed like any in a London lounge. Chatting friendly in the washroom. Helping me dig-up some TP. Back in the bar, receiving drinks from mostly middle-aged white men. Was that it? Laughing. Smiling at us like we’re all on the same page. We did not actually see any women leave with any men. But we looked, simply because we do not understand. So much we do not understand.

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Venice…and that First Kiss Feeling (*Redux)

For me, Europe is like my fiancé: it’s the one that has totally taken your heart. There are lots of different options (places/boys) and so many are interesting in different ways, but this is the one that’s clearly “a keeper”. Sure it’s imperfect, but it’s the one that dependably makes you happy. Keeps you interested. Challenges you. Makes you feel warm and cozy inside; makes you smile. Makes you feel like you belong. Like you occupy a particular, irreplaceable niche in its life as much as it does it does in yours. But it’s also been a long time since you had that “first kiss feeling”.

That’s what Venice just did for me. After years of a solid loving relationship with Europe in which I grew to feel that it held no more surprises, Venice gave me that first kiss feeling. I guess, after ages of hearing that it was dirty, stinky and clogged with tourists, I was bound to be pleasantly surprised. The water, the boats, the cheerful Italians, the bridges, the food. Venice is a place you could just wander the streets for days and never grow bored. Every corner is more interesting than the last. It’s a giant labyrinth of bridges, tiny twisting streets and stunning architecture. (We had plenty of laughs as the men would lead us somewhere confidently – only to wind up dead ended into the water.) Underneath all of your enjoyment lies the nagging and unfathomable issue of how such a place could ever exist. Seriously. How did they do that?! But anyway…

We were accompanied by our friends Dan and Anna, and we couldn’t be happier to have shared the weekend with them. I had purposely never gone to Venice, figuring that it would be a shame to waste the romance of it by traveling there solo. So it is perfect that Del took me there for a birthday present, and just as nice to have shared it with another couple that we like so much. I can’t believe I ever held such low expectations for such a wonderful place! In fact, I hope to go back again and again. (Namely, I’d love to take a less strenuous visit, when I can just relax and drink a cappuccino while listing to the water slop against the stairs, boats and houses.) My only disappointment was not being able to see an opera in the famous Teatro de Fenice (sold out), but hey, I can always use an excuse to go back!

If you’d like to hear about my recommendations, I’ll post those tomorrow. Otherwise, I’ll leave you with a couple of photos (as usual, the rest are on Flickr).

Grand canal
From Accademia bridge over the Grand Canal

from burano
Looking back from the island of Burano.

hot chocolateDIY hot chocolate deluxe.

servicio gondole

Servizio Gondole (from St. Mark’s).

Note: This is a post I did back in 2008 for my former blog “Life with the Others”, which focused on travel and cultural topics. I am working on a new post for Killerboob, but recently I was reminded of the post below and – if you will allow me to be immodest – I like it. So I decided to dig it up and cross-post it here. Hope you like it, too.

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