Quantifying the trip: a collection of travel stats

I haven’t yet concocted a suitable epitaph for Spencer and my summer exploring the globe or written a grand essay about what it all means to me. There’s still a long list of potential blog posts in my journal, and someday soon, I hope to write a few more stories and put them up (along with mini travel guides for the places we went).

Until then, though, consider this my sign-off for the summer travel extravaganza. Here’s a bullet version of what we did this summer.

    • Spent three months on the road, traveled in four foreign countries (Mexico, Italy, Vatican City, India), touched down in two others (Canada, Germany) and visited a total of 13 states or regions in the countries we went to (Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico, DF, Veneto, Toscana, Lazia, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu)
    • Took 12 flights, eight trains, 25 buses, 17 subways and metros, 12 ferries, innumerable taxis, autorickshaws and a few hikes to cover a total of 31,736 miles (51,071 km)
indian autorickshaw
Auorickshaws, our lifeline in southern India.
    • Visited two of the world’s megacities, each with a combined urban population of over 20 million people (Mexico City and Mumbai)
    • Lived out of a backpack with four t-shirts, one pair of pants, one skirt and four pairs of underwear
    • Read a total of 21 books, mostly about the countries we visited (see them all here), left 11 of them on planes, in hotels or at libraries and bought another 11 while traveling
The books we brought on the Italy/India leg. We came home with just as many, but a lot of the titles had changed.
  • Fell in love with tejate in Oaxaca, bhel puri in Mumbai and deepened my love for gnocchi in Italy
  • Found myself in awe of how old human history is after seeing the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, pre-Hispanic ruins at Teotihuacan and Zapotec ruins at Monte Alban
  • Visited places where the native languages spoken include Spanish, Zapotec, Mixtec, Italian, German, Marathi, Hindi, Malayalam, Kannada and Tamil
  • Developed a renewed appreciation for the orderly roads in the U.S., but found myself wishing bidets and hoses in bathrooms were more common in the States
  • Watched Maari, a Tamil movie, and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, a Hindi-language Bollywood movie, in theaters without subtitles and became obsessed with both of these songs:

  • Traveled through 13 time zones, changed time zones seven times and had one day that lasted 31 hours (July 28).
  • Met up with college friends on two continents, stayed with a friend’s relatives on a third and made new friends we hope to keep in touch with all over the world

Rome, ancient and modern

Near sunset, the Piazza del Popolo is buzzing with the practiced hum of a sound and lights crew setting up a concert stage. Lights hang from the awning and a screen projects an image from someone’s Mac that will no doubt turn into the graphics for Coca-Cola’s Summer Festival in time for the opening two days later. According to their website, 50 Italian and international artists are scheduled to play a three-day festival, taking advantage of Rome’s 80-degree summer sun.

At one time, the city gates on the north side of this square provided many people’s first glimpse of the world’s dominant metropolis. At its peak, ancient Rome had a population of one million, with more than 50 million spread across its vast empire. The north entrance is an archway flanked on the left by the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and on the right by a carabinieri (Italian federal police) station. On the south, two domed churches straddle the Via del Corso, a wide boulevard now home to international fashion chains.

In the center of the square, there’s an obelisk, one of at least eight stolen by Rome from Egypt. I’m a terrible judge of distance, but it seems close to a hundred feet high. (Wikipedia tells me the obelisk itself is 24 meters, though the base brings that to 36). Originally, this obelisk belonged to the temple of Ramses II, who lived around 1300 BC. Romans brought it to their city around 10 BC, where it decorated the Circus Maximus, and moved it to this square in the 1500s.

Santa Maria’s church isn’t quite as old, dating only to the mid-1400s, but its facade was built with stones from the Colosseum. Much of the damage to that ancient arena has come not from earthquakes or the slow decay caused by wind and water, but from theft. Seeing a ready supply of already-cut stone, builders in latter years found it expedient to simply cart off pieces of the Colosseum, which was built around 80 AD and stopped functioning as an arena around the 6th century.

Once again, I am the New Worlder struck speechless by the sheer age of the things around me. This church was built 600 years ago using stones that were then part of a stadium nearly twice that old, and it is still older than any structure in the United States. The obelisk was built in tribute to a pharaoh who ruled three millennia ago, who predates Jesus by a span of time longer than I can quite understand.

Venice showed me a sea breeze, even on the other side of the world, will always find a way to remind me of home. In Rome, I’m struck by the feeling of ambient history. Here, trendy bars and smart cars blend perfectly into a sea of Roman stone and Baroque churches.

Modernity and antiquity never feel at odds – perhaps because Italians have learned to be modern (smartphone-wielding, Vespa-riding with an efficient national train system) without moving at the frantic pace that seems to integral to the world’s other metropolises. It’s nearly impossible to get lost navigating because there are so many stone monuments, cathedrals and ruins spread around the city center. All you have to do is glance at your map to find the right one.

Entering the Colosseum, tourists are filtered into an exhibit hall on the covered, curved upper level before being allowed to come out of the tunnels into the stadium itself. Shuffling our way with the throngs of visitors, we could have been in any sports arena in the world; just replace the stone with concrete, and I’d have been waiting in the wings of Memorial Stadium to march into a Garfield High School football game with the rest of the band. The design entirely unchanged after almost 2,000 years. Even the word arena, now ubiquitous, comes from the Latin for sand – the sand scattered on the Colosseum’s stage to absorb the blood shed by gladiators.

In the Piazza, the setting sun shines gloriously against church and obelisk. The concert set-up has taken the bulk of the square, but there’s bare ground left. A Michael Jackson impersonator trades control of the audiosphere with a South American pan flute ensemble, adhering to some unwritten code of Roman street performers. His performance lacks a certain showmanship, but his moonwalk is solid and an appreciative crowd forms, then disburses as he finishes the act with an underwhelming sample of Billie Jean.

On the south end of the square, a man blows bubbles with a giant net. He’s happy to take donations in the hat he’s set out by the bubble soap, but his face lights up when kids run forward, eager to chase the watermelon-sized orbs. Most are popped while they’re barely head high, but a few float higher, the rainbow light from the soap shimmering against a backdrop of ancient stone.

Sea breezes and sore feet

venice canal
Canal below the Bridge of Sighs.

This post was updated on June 21 to correct the county my grandpa grew up in. Thanks, Dad!

A Seattle girl like me was bound to love Venice. The lingering smell of salt water calls up my fondest childhood memories of exploring downtown, which was always tinged with the smell of fish.  I’ve heard more than one person complain about Seattle’s ocean odor, but to me it’s always meant fresh food, crisp air and the chance to feel the freedom of a boat on Puget Sound.

We arrived late last night on a train from Rome -the intercity variety, which takes nearly six hours to wind its way north, stopping at a dozen metropolises along the way. Lightning flashes lit up the damp cobblestone streets, though the rain had stopped falling. They were the kind I’ve rarely seen outside of movies, where the entire jagged path of light is visible just before it whites out the entire sky for an instant.

Growing up in Seattle, it took going to college before I realized that most Americans don’t live in places where ferries are an integral part of the public transportation system. My grandparents live across the sound from the city proper, so I rode those huge boats named for the dry inland parts of the state dozens of times per year, relishing the spray and wind that made standing on deck a freezing experience, even in the heat of summer.

The vaporetto boats here are an order of magnitude smaller than Washington State Ferries, but they’re run in the same spirit (and cost about the same to walk on, about $7). Riders are loaded and unloaded quickly and efficiently, and while many people use them for daily commutes, the ride is an experience in and of itself that’s worth making time for if you’re visiting.

I somehow didn’t realize until a week before we left that Venice is a city without cars. I must have known this at some point, but I guess I hadn’t given it much thought until my arrival was imminent. This doesn’t mean calm: there are still crowds of people, unwashed masses teeming off the cruise ships and smaller boats. They turn the street lining the open ocean into a Times Squarian mess of humanity, except because not everyone is American, my countrymen stick out by virtue of their inability to speak at what Europe considers to be a civilized volume.

The guidebook tells me, “80 percent of Venice is not touristy, and 80 percent of the tourists never notice.” I’m not sure I believe it, but it’s an optimistic philosophy that I appreciate. Our B&B is twenty feet from the eastern edge of Venice, practically off the last island forming the giant fish-shaped network and a good half hour’s walk to St. Marco’s Square, the main tourist destination. In the morning, we hear more Italian than English on the sidewalk for the first five minutes of our walk.

No cars means the cobblestone streets are narrow and because all buildings are basically the same height, it’s impossible to see the place you’re trying to navigate to until you’re more or less there. It’s an intricate city of alleys with strange shops to stumble into, full of carnival masks and wax seals and gelato in a dozen flavors. It is a city built for getting lost.

Today we spent twelve hours exploring, on foot for nearly all of it. I walked the start of a blister into my foot and crossed a score of bridges, stopping every time to stare down into the water, somehow both blue and colored like algae. Everything feels old, doubly so for us New Worlders who can’t conceive of historical monuments built before 1500. On a gondola ride, we passed a row of nondescript buildings, brick with stucco over the top. “Those are from the 8th century,” our guide says. I still don’t quite believe him, because how can anything that old still be here on earth when it’s sitting on a lagoon slowly sinking into a rising sea?

My grandfather lived in the small town of Ada in Kent County, Michigan, for nearly all of his life and always called Seattle a “funny little town” when he came to see us. He and his wife once visited Venice and found little redeeming value. They came away complaining that the city was dirty.

I wonder at their judgment – by that standard of cleanliness, you’d rule out New York City, San Francisco, the entire continent of Africa, Asia minus possibly parts of Japan and Singapore, anywhere else with a population over 1 million people, anywhere humid and pretty much any hiking, camping or other outdoor recreation. If half the word now lives in cities, are you really living if you have the means to set foot in a concrete jungle or explore your choice of old world monuments but opt out because you’re afraid the cobblestones might smell like piss, because the trash might be uncollected, because Venice might not actually be Disneyland?

I’m here with my cousin and we both love to swim, so I wonder aloud if it’s possible to jump in a canal and make a go of it. No, she says – you’ll come away with an infection or worse. I’ve seen open air sewers and lakes overgrown with algae and this water smells like nothing but sea, though it’s murky. But there are mussles lining the brick walls up to the tide line, and I counted three whole oranges floating in one canal during our gondola ride. The gondoliers throw their cigarettes into the water, and a deep dive into the canals would uncover more trash and treasure than a lifetime of sorting could hope to classify. I suspect a swim is ill-advised, but I love the canals all the same. They smell at once exotic and like home.

Pre-adventure planning

I’m pretty sure this isn’t news to anyone who knows us well, but Spencer and I are one week away from a three-month around the world travel extravaganza!

Rachel and Spencer
The intrepid adventurers on a previous trip to Smith Rocks State Park near Bend.

I was fortunate enough to get a sabbatical from my new(ish) job at the Spokesman-Review, and Spencer is starting grad school in the fall in Gonzaga’s mental health counseling program, so we’re taking this chance to see the world a bit before we settle down.

We’re both hoping to update our respective blogs regularly from the road, though time and internet availability may vary from place to place. But for those of you who want to follow along, here’s a quick overview of what we’re doing.

Stop 1: Mexico

May 19-June 6

This was my pick – I’ve spoken Spanish for a while and spent a lot of time on the Arizona-Sonora border, but have seen little else of Mexico. We’re flying in and out of Mexico City and spending about three days there visiting the National Museum of Anthropology, checking out architecture and visiting a few friends.

I’ll finally get to meet Reed Brundage, the man behind Mexico Voices, where I’ve worked as a translator for about two years now. It’s an awesome blog that takes news and commentary written by Mexican journalists, mostly about politics and the drug war, and translates it into English.

The bulk of our trip will be spent in Oaxaca, a state in southeastern Mexico with a large indigenous population (and not the site of any recent violence or unrest related to the murdered Ayotzinapa student teachers, drug cartels or anything else, for those of you who like to worry). We’re taking a bus shortly after arriving and returning to Mexico City for the last few days of the trip.

map of Oaxaca
Oaxaca relative to Mexico City.

Oaxaca is known for its crafts, mezcal (a spirit distilled from the agave plant that’s similar to tequila, but often has a smokier taste) and delicious cuisine. We’re planning to sample mezcal, tour women-owned businesses through Fundacion En Via, a microfinance group, and go on a four-day hiking tour of rural communities in the mountains.

Stop 2: Return to the States

June 6-June 15

Following Mexico, we’ll fly back to Seattle and spend a few days visiting our respective families in Seattle and Portland. My cousin Zoe is graduating from Issaquah High School on June 12, and my cousin Hannah is graduating from Western Washington University on the 13th, so naturally we had to come home for the festivities!

Stop 3: Italy

June 15-June 27

This trip was my mom’s graduation present to Hannah, so Spencer and I are tagging along to spend some time with them. We’ll be visiting Venice, Florence and Rome and seeing a lot of artwork. I’ve been using Duolingo to learn some Italian, so I’m hoping I might have a vague idea of what’s going on once we arrive.

Stop 4: India

June 27-July 28
trip backpack
I’ve already planned the entire backpack out. (Not all the books are coming.)

This is perhaps the most exciting, daunting and as-yet unplanned portion of our trip. We’ve got a full month to explore the vast Indian subcontinent – no small task, given its massive size.

I think a lot of maps are bad at conveying relative size and distance. While planning a route around the country, I often found myself looking at two Indian cities and thinking, “Those look like they’re pretty close together…” before asking Google Maps to give me a route between them. Whoops – turns out they’re 15 hours apart.

We’re flying in and out of Mumbai and have had a somewhat shifting itinerary. Originally, we planned to spend most of our time in the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, figuring it’s impossible to see all of India in one trip, so we’d leave Delhi, the Taj Mahal and the sites up north for another time. But in the past week or so, we’ve realized that our original plans to visit some forested areas may not work since we’re going in the height of monsoon season, so we’re now reconsidering a leg up north. Stay tuned for more on that.

I’ll expand more on this later, but for folks with a knowledge of India, our rough planning currently includes a few days in Mumbai, then traveling by train to the caves at Ellora and on to a tiger reserve near Nagpur. From there, we may fly to Delhi and see the Taj Mahal and possibly Varanasi, a Hindu holy city on the Ganges River. From there (or from Nagpur), we’ll fly to Bangalore, then take trains to Mysore, Kochi, Alleppey and Madurai before flying back to Mumbai.

Whatever we end up doing, I’m sure it will be exciting and beautiful, with a touch of traveler’s diarrhea and abject fear about train schedules thrown in. I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

r & s
We’re both excited, even if we’re still not 100% positive this will all work out.