Bathing Suits & Boots in the Dominican Republic

I’m no stranger to volunteering or public service. After all, I’m a teacher. But the next adventure I’m about to have is making me think about why I’ve dedicated my life to service–to teaching others, to doing good work in my community and my university, to engaging my students in community activism projects that promote social justice, the good work of non-profits, and the value of connecting across academic and public spaces.

Since I started teaching, I’ve been doing all kinds of advocacy work, getting my students and me involved in literary projects, immigrant and refugee centers, and no-kill cat shelters, setting up writing partnerships with at-risk high school students, and helping generate writing materials for startup nonprofits. It’s one of the most rewarding and meaningful kind of experiential work we can do as writing teachers–to take our talents and bring them to the world.

For instance, here we are this past semester, reading books to kindergarteners in downtown San Pedro, Los Angeles.

My students and I volunteering at a Los Angeles elementary school
My students and I volunteering at a Los Angeles elementary school

Yet, I realize that even as I’m writing this, there’s another side to me.

At the end of the day, I’m not just a public servant–I’m also a die-hard, unabashedly selfish travel writer bent on seeing as much of the world as she possibly can. I’d give up a class in a minute for a trip to Israel; I’d put aside grading if inspiration hits and I have to bang out the stirrings of an idea for a new travel essay; I’d rearrange my summer to accommodate for a trip (actually, I just did that).

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Floating down the Danube in Serbia two weeks ago

It’s not lost on me that these are selfish things, but there’s also a part of me that whispers, timidly, that knowing these things doesn’t make me a bad person. I don’t have to dedicate myself to others all the time; after all, my heart needs to flutter every once in a while, too. And I’m still at a point in my life where I can do these things, where my freelance career, my teaching career, and my personal life have aligned ever-so-perfectly for these months so as to allow me a little time to heal from a spectacularly bad professional year and and to come to grips with the fact that, come end of summer, I’ll be moving–and starting all over–again, on the other side of the country.

So, public servant and traveler. In the past, I have traveled in ways that stroke both of these egos, teaching English in Colombia, working with international students in Malta, shopping only at local markets and buying local handmade goods. But I have never done it short-term; I have never taken a trip that emphasizes volunteering. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if it works.

On the one hand, I’m thinking through the ethics of travel (ALL THE TIME), grappling with whether or not we as “gazers” can “gaze” without exoticizing another, and at the same time, I’m coming around to the idea that travel is often a joyous act. I don’t want to feel guilty for loving it. I want to feel invigorated by speaking about it, by asking questions about it, by participating in it as fully and completely as I can, with open eyes and an open heart. I want to share the messiness and beauty of meeting others, of experiencing new ways of being and living, with my world, because I believe it is crucial for us to have these conversations.

So that’s the question I’m asking myself today. Can combining public service and travel work short-term? Can I eat a ton of really delicious food on a cruise ship and then build a concrete floor?

Carnival Cruises’ newest project, the Fathom line, believes I can. Next week, I’m taking one of my best friends–grad school roommie, fellow writer, and traveling partner-in-crime Alison–to find out.

Alison and I have met in 2008 when she moved to Tucson, and since then, we’ve traveled all over the Southwest together, hiked all over a bunch of mountains, swam in seas and oceans, met up on the East and West coasts on more than one occasion, and headed down to Mexico in our cars with nothing but an Airbnb reservation and a vague idea of where we were going. Our husbands co-wrote their first book together. We’ve done a lot of cool stuff together.

So, I knew she’d be the perfect person to take along. (Plus, we’re supposed to keep each other on our summer writing schedules….we’ll see how well we stick to it when the beach beckons us;)).

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Alison and I hanging out in our beach hats in Mexico

Fathom’s Intended Mission

In this, their inaugural season, Fathom has set up journeys to both the Dominican Republic and Cuba (both sailing out of Miami) in the hopes of blending the surreal and temporary life of cruising with the harsh realities of life in the parts of the Caribbean past the golden sands and turquoise waters through something they call “impact travel.” Of course, I’m no stranger to the different sides of the “voluntourism” debate, the one that questions the ways that identity, privilege, class, and race intersect in complicated ways when white Westerners go to places of color and try to “save” them. I’ve talked with friends around the world who have been the “recipients” of said programs, who’ve experienced how terrible it feels to see tourists come in, work for a few days, take a bunch of photographs of them, and then leave feeling good because they believe they’ve made a difference.

So what is Fathom doing differently?

Here’s what they say on their website: 

“Every Fathom journey is based on our sincere belief that the person-to-person connection is among the strongest catalysts for transformation. What sets Fathom apart is the long-term, systematic partnership approach with its partner countries paired with the unique business model that allows for sustained impact and lasting development.”

Their formula is People + Passion + Partnership = Enduring Social Impact. The site goes on to state that participants will “work side by side with local residents (my emphasis) in existing programs that focus on improving the lives of children, families and communities.” This interested me, especially the use of the preposition “with” and the focus on collaboration with “existing programs.” There was no mention of “saving,” of “poor people,” and there were no exploitative photographs of people of color being stood over by white people. But who were these local partners and these existing organizations?

On the “Meet Our Partners” page, there are links to the two lead impact partners, Entrena and IDDI, two nonprofit organizations that work exclusively in the Dominican Republic to enhance local well-being and social projects. I looked up both websites, and here’s what I learned:

Fathom’s Partners: Entrena & IDDI

Recently, Entrena, who has been in existence for 25 years, has hosted students from Texas A&M who are working on global heath initiatives, held employment fairs for local youth through the Alerta Joven (At-Risk Youth Project), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), hosted summer camps for young children of refugee and expatriate families in Caribbean nations, and partnered with the Major League Baseball Association to create a program called MLB en la Comunidad that is focused on improving the lives of Dominican youth who hope to become baseball players. Their projects have generated 30 million dollars in sustainable development for the Dominican Republic, a number that seems very impressive to me. I clicked around some more and learned that the organization was started by John Seibel, a Peace Corps volunteer after he spent time living and working in the Dominican Republic in the early 1970s, and that Entrena is now run by both he and his wife, Sobeya. On their staff page, too, I noticed something else I particularly liked: they not only list bios and photos of their office workers, but they also feature their drivers and concierge staff. Too often these critical members of an organization do not get recognized, but on Entrena’s site, their names and bodies are included.

The other main partner, IDDI, el Instituto Dominicano de Desarrollo Integral, only has a website in Spanish, so I’ll sum up what I read for those of you who don’t speak Spanish. The Instituto was started in 1984 as a nonprofit dedicated to “amortiguar la pobreza tanto en las zonas rurales como urbanas,” or, eliminating Dominican poverty in both rural and urban areas. Roughly translated, their mission is similar to Entrena, in that they wish to contribute to the well-being of Dominican society by creating new opportunities, promoting dialogue across constituencies and create long-lasting social change, to identify and tackle not only problems but find their underlying causes, and to create a space where people can live productively and creativity. Their projects and partnerships are generally focused in the areas of public health, climate change, sustainability, biodiversity, youth, and humanitarian aid, and their website highlights plenty of these projects and how they’ve met (or are still working on) their goals.

These are organizations I can get behind. In fact, I’ve already starting thinking: How can I get my students involved in these projects next year, too?

Where We’re Headed

Over the course of a week, we’ll be cruising out from Miami, spending 4 days in the Dominican Republic, and then cruising back. Here’s the map as it appears on Fathom’s website:

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Voyage map – from Miami to the DR to Miami

During the days we’re cruising, we’ll be doing things cruisers do–attending lectures, sunning ourselves, taking yoga classes, and eating…a lot. Fathom serves small servings of local, sustainable food, which makes me happy, as I’ve never been comfortable with the amount of waste generated on the bigger cruise ships. The Adonia holds about 700 people, so it’s still going to be the biggest cruise ship I’ve ever been on.

Projects I’m Signed Up For

Every traveler can sign up for three “impact activities,” or day excursions that are focused on health, education, or business. Since I’m already a teacher, I decided against working with children or volunteering to practice English with students and instead chose activities that I thought would be both thought-provoking to me and helpful to the community.

On their website, they offer a sample itinerary, and it looks a little something like this:

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Here’s what we’ve chosen to do with our mornings:

Cacao and Women’s Chocolate Cooperative

This local women’s cooperative is actively involved in the cultivation of organic chocolate (cacao) plants, an important source of income for the Puerto Plata region. We’ll be spending the day working on the complete production cycle, from planting and cultivating the organic cacao trees, to preparing the raw materials, to producing and packaging the final product for sale. Fathom’s website states that by participating in this project, we can contribute toward helping hire more local women and providing critical income in a region with limited employment opportunities.

Concrete Floors in Community Homes

In the homes of poorer communities, the common basic dirt floors are a genuine health risk. They pick up dust during the dry season and retain dampness and puddles in the rainy season. And they’re impossible to clean, which means that anything spilled on the floor or tracked into the house, however unhygienic, tends to stay put.

Every month, homes in a different small area of a community will be chosen to be upgraded with new concrete floors. There are also plenty of other tasks at hand: painting the house, fixing broken furniture, cleaning and improving the outside surroundings, making improvements to common areas in the community, or planting fruit trees as part of a beautification effort that can also provide long-term nutritional benefits. The overall project will also include the addition of latrines and mosquito screens to reduce the prevalence of waste-borne and mosquito-borne diseases. Fathom’s website states that we’ll be working alongside the homeowners and other members of the surrounding community, including children and teenagers, helping them create surroundings they’ll be proud to maintain and take care of.

Water Filter Production

One solution already being implemented is the production and distribution of clay water filters, which mean far fewer children and adults will miss school or work due to water-borne illnesses. On this day, we will help out with the entire filter-making process: gathering and mixing the raw materials, working the clay, shaping and firing the filters, testing the quality of the finished product, and distributing the finished filters to needy families.

Thoughts So Far?

I’m pretty excited. For one thing, I get to spend a week on a new cruise line and I get to spend a week with one of my best friends. (Though, seriously, we could be hanging out in the kitchen cooking dinner and it would be amazing). We’ll have our afternoons and evenings free to explore, so I’m hoping to squeeze in some city touring, some waterfalls and some hiking, and some local restaurants.

More than that, though, I’ll get to meet some new people, eat some good food, do some interesting work, help out where I can, and see more of Puerto Plata than just those heart-stopping sandy white beaches. I’m hoping to make some lasting connections with the organizations Fathom is working with and set up a service project for my students next year.

Have any of you been to the Dominican Republic? Can you share any tips or must-sees for me?

Yours in travel,

Kristin

Come join me in the DR! Booking a Fathom cruise is super easy and they’re offering amazing deals for their inaugural season. I don’t get a commission or anything if you book with them, but I thought I’d include the link in case you were interested, too!

How I Packed for Two Weeks in Eastern Europe in a Carry-On

This post is inspired by a lively discussion I had on Facebook the other day after telling my friends that I’d challenged myself to pack for a two-week Eastern European Viking river cruise in nothing but my 19-inch Delsey Chatelet carry-on. In the spirit of sharing, here’s exactly how I did it.

In other words, here’s how to cram 52 items into a carry-on that’s about the size of my cat (photo evidence below).

The Items

To begin with, I needed to actually think through my itinerary, something I rarely do when I travel (I know, I know…). My usual process is to dump a bunch of clothes I like wearing into a suitcase and then sit on the poor overstuffed thing to try and zip it up. Anyone who knows me personally knows this to be true.

So for this trip, I looked at the average weather in each country I’d be visiting – Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary – and then thought about what I’d actually be doing there. Temps would be ranging from a chilly 55 to a balmy 89. Because I was traveling with Viking, I knew I’d be doing a lot of walking on the city tours, so I knew I’d need some city-appropriate clothes with sleeves (for cathedrals, synagogues, and the like). I’d also signed up for a couple of excursions to the Croatian and Bulgarian countrysides, too, so I knew I’d need some comfortable, warm-weather clothes with good hiking shoes. From past experience, I also knew I wouldn’t need a lot of formal clothes or high heels, as the dress code tends to be incredibly informal on river cruises.

I perused my closet and decided on a color scheme: monochromatic with a splash of pink. Why pink? Who knows…I pulled out a pink top with polka dots and thought it’d be cute for a city walk, so I decided to base things around that.

Then, the hard part: anything that didn’t match this color scheme didn’t make the cut. Here’s everything, laid out, so you can see exactly how everything fit together. As you can see, I could pair any shirt with any pair of pants and any pair of shoes. Four splashes of pink helped to “lighten up” the greys, blacks, and blues.

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This was my master list:

  • 2 jackets – one jean and one faux leather
  • 2 pairs of pants – blue jeans & light khakis
  • 1 pair of yoga pants
  • 2 pairs of shorts – blue jeans & khakis
  • 3 dresses – one cocktail dress, one sundress, one t-shirt dress
  • 2 cotton cardigans – black & blue
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • 1 sweater
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt
  • 6 short-sleeved shirts
  • 2 spaghetti-strap undershirts
  • 1 silk bathrobe
  • 1 infinity scarf
  • 1 romper
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 4 pairs of shoes – ballet flats, nice sandals, hiking sandals, flat tennis shoes
  • 13 pairs of underwear
  • 5 pairs of socks
  • 3 bras – 2 regular, one sports

And here’s how I got it all into a 19-inch carry-on.

The Process

The first thing I did was use a small packing cube (thanks to my friend Molly who let me borrow one of hers!) to roll up all my t-shirts:

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Then, I folded my shorts in half and put them on top of the t-shirts:

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The next step was to start putting items into my actual suitcase. I folded my dresses in half and laid them in the bottom of the flat side of the suitcase and put the packing cube on top. Then, I filled the rest of the space up with black ballet flats and the two undershirts:

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Then, I moved over to the other side. Because there’s a locking mechanism and two poles running down the length of the suitcase, this side is a little trickier. I started by rolling up my pants and cardigans and lined the sides with those. In the middle, I folded my sweaters. On the outer edges, I rolled up the romper and the bathrobe. Once everything was in, I peppered the socks around the edges wherever there was room.

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Then, I folded up the jean jacket and laid it flat on top of everything. All the underwear, bras, and bathing suit went into the zipper pouch on the other side. I left out the other jacket, the scarf, the yoga pants, a black t-shirt, and the tennis shoes–I wore all of this stuff on the plane.

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The last step was to toss in my hairbrush, makeup bag, and toiletry kit. I knew from sailing with Viking before that I wouldn’t need a hair dryer (thank goodness, as I have no idea how I would have fit that in here), so I found it pretty easy to cram all the bathroom stuff in there.

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Then, all I had to do was zip it up.

Voila!

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The End Result?

Overall?

AMAZING. I NEVER, EVER thought that 1) I could be so discerning and well-planned with my packing, or 2) that I could pack that much stuff into one tiny suitcase. I used almost everything–the romper never made it out, sadly–and I was really happy that I’d brought two jackets and a couple different kinds of tops. Because Viking is a really casual cruise, I knew I wouldn’t need a lot of fancy clothes, so I really cut back on the “nice stuff” this time around. As I suspected, I only needed one nice cocktail dress for my aloha dinner with Ryan in Budapest.

Was it a perfect list?

Not completely. I would do a couple of things differently next time. For one thing, I’d bring an extra pair of jeans, as it was cooler than I thought it would be and ended up wearing those jeans probably eight or nine out of twelve days. I’d also bring more underwear, just so I’d have a few extra pairs, and would probably leave the bathrobe at home (I only wore it a couple of times on lazy mornings in our cabin). Also, I’d probably take out one cardigan and add in two more t-shirts to give a little more variety to what I wore on top. Things were feeling a little repetitive by day ten….

Anyway, thanks to Delsey, I think it’s safe to say I’ve changed the way I pack forever. No more cramming a million clothes that I think I *might* need into a giant suitcase that will almost always weigh more than 50 pounds, leaving me tossing out items at the last minute at the airport. Those days are SO over. From now on, it’s lightweight traveling for me!

(Here’s me at the Hilton Budapest, wearing the same outfit I flew over in!)

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Also, as a side note, I think two little furry guys in my life were pretty happy to see me get home yesterday. This is Giuseppe and Luigi 😀

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Do you have any packing tips that have worked for you? I’d love to hear them!!

Yours in travel,

Kristin

 

A Year in Review: The 9 Most Beautiful Places My Feet Went in 2015

DSC_4874It’s been a weird year, to say the least. My family has this ongoing mantra that 2016 better be our year of calm, as 2015 was unusually unlucky in some ways and unusually wonderful in others. We had the usual suspects so typical of difficulties in a family life: my mom’s unexpected bronchitis that landed her in the hospital for a week and resulted in her missing my graduation…and then her persistent cancer coming back for the fourth time in eight years just a month after we returned from Russia. My husband Ryan’s uncle’s unexpected death. My sister’s toxic job environment that nearly and almost literally unraveled her. My 92-year-old grandma’s quickening dementia. Car accidents, hospital visits, decisions that became missteps. Things like that. We’ve survived them all, but I have to say, health and wellness can be damn tiring.

We had beautiful moments, too, of course. For one thing, I just returned from 10 days in Atlanta for the holidays, where my family and I crammed our week full of get-togethers, long walks, good restaurants, day trips, and late-night conversations–all the accoutrements connected with quality family moments. I reconnected with the stark beauty of the Appalachian forests. I breathed in the crisp, cool air in the early mornings and looked for abandoned birds’ nests in the trees that had lost their leaves. These are beautiful moments.

The year also marked a lot of changes for me. For one thing, my life went into upheaval in May when I finally finished the dissertation on feminist approaches to digital travel writing that I’d been writing for the past two years. Though it was one of the proudest moments of my life–nearly 300 pages of well-researched, painstakingly revised discourse on my favorite topic–it also meant that a huge stage, a transformative, difficult, and beautiful stage, of my life was over. That stage where, although I was poor as dirt and living off $15,000 a year as a graduate student, I finally had to face the hard reality that the degree I’d been working on for five years didn’t have a resulting job for me in our sweet desert home in Tucson. That if I wanted to put my degree into practice, it meant moving away. It meant that Ryan would have to leave his student job as a writer for the President’s Office and bring his dissertation along with him, wherever we went. It meant I’d take a job that would hopefully lead to professional fulfillment and spiritual growth and that would also still afford me the time to travel and to pepper my year with the occasional press trip or international voyage. It meant facing the reality that I had to do things like sign up for health insurance and a retirement plan for the first time in my adult life.

As I sit here today, in front of my computer screen, just three blocks from the beach (something I thought would bring me a permanent sense of happiness but which, in fact, has been a mere backdrop to the difficulties we’ve had here so far), I can’t help but feel a little bit cynical. I miss our desert home more than I ever thought I possibly could: the striking sunsets, the walks Ryan and I would take around our neighborhood as we learned to identify the strange plants of the Sonoran Desert, the mountainous hikes we took so often and their surprising streams and unusual flowering cacti, the community of writers I’d come to see as family (and still do!), the dear friends we had to leave behind, the students who worked diligently with our nonprofit community partners and the difference I felt I was making by bridging writing and advocacy work. By August, when we’d packed up our house on the dreams of a good life in California, I still felt unsure that moving was what I wanted. Today, on December 29th, five months after we left, I still feel that way.

But that’s for another story for another time.

New writing topics, too, entered into my life: I wrote about Rasputin’s man parts, which are supposedly preserved in an itty-bitty erotica museum in the middle of downtown St. Petersburg (verdict’s still out on whether or not it’s a horse organ or the poor man’s 11-inch member, but still.) The piece was picked up by Jezebel Magazine, which still strikes me as unbelievable but amazingly awesome. I also wrote about a museum of still-functional Soviet-Era arcade games and the whole thing went viral–I learned what it meant to have a piece of writing truly go public, and I had more emails and comments from readers than I could have ever imagined. I covered the story of a child behavioral therapist-turned-chef in a tiny hummus kiosk in Tel Aviv, and I wrote about impromptu New Orleans street music. I wrote about my usual suspects, too–odd and quirky objects, feminist approaches to travel writing, and I took a lot of pictures. In fact, at last count, I’ve taken over 10,000 this year alone (I know, I know, where am I going to put all those photos?!). I started doing more on social media, reaching out and commenting on other people’s work, and I went from 0 followers on Instagram at the beginning of the year to 3,000. My column in En Voyage magazine all the way over in Taiwan is still going strong, and I’m moving away from more advice-heavy pieces and branching out into more narrative memoir-driven pieces. I’m still writing creatively in those few spare moments.

And, I just had a birthday, one that seems particularly odd because it doesn’t really mean anything except that I definitely can’t claim I’m still in my 20s and I can’t claim that I just turned 30. What happens, really, when someone turns 32? Or 33? Or onward from there? I don’t know what life has in store for me (I mean, who does?!), but I know that I’m going to be facing some big decisions in the next year or two as I grace through the early part of this new decade: where (and if I want) to set roots, whether or not to have a family, how to finish my book, where to place my professional energies, my time, and my emotions, how to keep myself in balance mentally, spiritually, and physically, how to fit travel into my life in a way that doesn’t zap me of my passion but that keeps the little wanderlust who sits on my shoulder, like a tiny angel and devil wrapped into one, happy and playful.

Though those questions are certainly for another time, here’s a metaphorical celebratory toast to the incredible people and places I met in nine very awesome places in 2015. In and amongst everything, I still found time to set my feet aloft, and here are just a few of the places they landed.

Victoria, B.C., Canada

Victoria Canada 1

My first trip of the year this year was to Vancouver, Canada, and let me tell you: What a gorgeous place to be in the wintertime. I had the wonderful pleasure of working with Tourism Victoria while I was there, and they kept me–and my writing fingers–very busy! I hopped a sea plane at dawn from Vancouver to Victoria (on Vancouver Island), and spent the day visiting the Royal B.C. Museum, where I arranged a private tour with a docent there so I could see two incredible artifacts: enormous Chinese freemason masks and one of the world’s only remaining tapa cloth books compiled by Captain Cook on his last voyage to the Pacific. From there, we walked over to the Grand Pacific Hotel and had a three-hour long West Coast high tea session. Before the sea plane took off for our sunset ride back to Vancouver, we took a quick jaunt to Victoria’s Chinatown and a lovely walk around some of the pretty tree-lined, European-style neighborhoods. I could absolutely see myself falling in love with Victoria and living here, very, very happily.

Boston, Massachusetts

WITS15 Boston

In March, I held my first creative workshop for professional travel bloggers at the 2nd annual Women in Travel Summit in Boston. It was the perfect city for a get-to-know-you networking event, as it was small enough to walk around with new friends and full of things to do. I’d never been to Boston before, and though I only had a little less than a week to explore it, what I found–quirky cafes, cobblestone alleys, tons of amazing Chinese dumpling shops, a million universities, and more Italian restaurants than I could count–filled my heart and spirit with joy.

I even stayed with 5 women I’d never met before in one room filled with bunk beds at the super cool Hostelling International Boston. It was delightfully throwback to my years as a hostel-goer but trendy (and clean) enough to feel like a funky loft apartment. Totally a do-again.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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In May, I visited another American city that I’d never been to before: gritty, spunky, sweaty New Orleans. Two of our friends had decided on New Orleans for their destination wedding, so, as you can imagine, their entire day was completely destination-driven. From their sweet ceremony at the Irish Cultural Center to the mile-long second line parade down the streets of the French Quarter (led by, of course, a three-piece brass band and over 100 guests waving white handkerchiefs) to the shrimp and grits on the wedding menu and the reception in a loft-style warehouse, I felt completely and utterly taken by the city. As part of my ongoing work with the New Orleans CVB, Ryan and I stayed in a garret room–aka, a room with no windows–in the famous Degas House, where generations of artists and writers have come to find solitude and inspiration from the city.

I loved it. The trees with huge swaths of moss hanging from them, as if suspended in time, the white wraparound porches, the humid, thick air, the delectable gumbo, the rebuilding and resistance of the city and its people in the wake of Katrina, the fact that so much of the city still needs care, the kind people with their particular New Orleans lilt, the musicians with their dreadlocks, mismatched clothes, coin buckets, and joyful faces….it all felt, so, surreal and yet entirely natural, like the whole history of one place was wrapped up in one moment, existing unilaterally.

St. Petersburg, Russia

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May held the magic of Russia. This trip was truly the trip of a lifetime, because 1) I was lucky enough to travel with Viking River Cruises on their Waterways of the Tsars outreach and 2) I got to take my mom, who, before May had never had a passport, with me. You really have to see St. Petersburg to understand its undeniable magic and its complicated history, and you’ll never meet prouder people. It’s a city of canals, of world-renowned art, of cafes and restaurants featuring global cuisine, of winding streets, of onion-domed cathedrals painted in brilliant candy colors, of street markets, a mishmash of Renaissance architecture, Communist-Era blocs, and modern Western-style apartments. It’s also a weirdly quiet city by day, making it perfect for leisurely strolls and long conversations over cappuccinos. Our three days here were three of the most unforgettable days I’ve ever had, as so much of what I thought about Russia got flipped upside-down, turned on its head, and refined. St. Petersburg reminded me why travel is so critical to our lives.

Chandler, Arizona

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In late spring of this year, I was invited to attend the Wild Horse Pass Resort and Spa’s grand re-opening of its restaurant, Ko’Sin. In the Pima language, which is the native language of the people who historically lived on the river here, ko’sin simply means kitchen. At the Ko’Sin restaurant inside the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa just outside Phoenix, Arizona, where veh pug means beginning, hai chu hugimeans main course, and wamichtha means fry bread, food takes on whole new meanings here. As homage to the magnificent Sonoran desert landscape and the decadent restaurant menu, the Wild Horse resort is committed to local culture and preservation. Not only was the entire resort designed to be a place of honor and respect for the Gila River Indian heritage and culture, the architecture, design, art, and stories of the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh tribes were celebrated in every detail imaginable, indoors and out.

A small group of bloggers, writers, and PR people joined the culinary team and the rest of the Wild Horse Pass staff for a lovely night of sample dishes, marshmallows and singing by the fire, and a hauntingly stunning sunset over the Sierra Estrella Mountain Range. As we sat and talked to the flute player, a many-generations old member of the Pima tribe and a man who makes all his own instruments, I realized that in my seven years in Tucson, I’d never really given Phoenix a chance. I’m so glad I did.

Puerto Penasco, Mexico

Blog Posts

When people think of going to Mexico for holiday, most people don’t think of this tiny border town on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, just three hours from Tucson, but I’ll tell you something: I absolutely adore this dusty, abrasive, desert town. It’s sandy, relatively poor, and looks like it’s been sitting still since the 1990s when problems with the border halted nearly all construction, and yet, I love it. It’s unbelievably quiet, its beaches are long, wide, and flat, its water is clean and clear, and its downtown bustles with locals buying fruits and fish and tourists buying trinkets and souvenirs. There are some delicious restaurants, too, serving up all kinds of tamales, quesadillas, and, of course, Sonoran burros (our word for the burrito out here).

Though we’ve been to this Arizona-dweller’s seaside paradise many times before, this summer’s trip was extra-special, because it would be the last time my friends and I would all drive down together before Ryan and I moved to California. The weekend held a kind of joyful magic in the air–we drank a ton of margaritas, we talked about our lives, our friendships, our writing, and our futures, we danced on the rooftop of our two-story Airbnb rental, overlooking the sea, and we cried. Against the sandy desert backdrop of modest Puerto Penasco, it was the most perfect weekend I could have imagined.

The tequila-induced late-night dancing on the beach to 1990s hip hop music didn’t hurt, either.

Long Beach, California

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The one place I didn’t really travel to, so to speak. I’ve been living here since mid-August, after having taken a job just up the hill at a small college in Palos Verdes. Long Beach itself is equal parts the funkiness of Tucson with the elegance of L.A., so I’m still trying to figure out how I fit in here. I always dreamed of living the beach life, of waking up to sea smells and blustery breezes, of coming home with sandy feet and sun-kissed shoulders after a long day of paddleboarding, of hosting the many guests and friends who would come and stay with us.

Things are, of course, a little bit different than that. I’m still getting used to the fact that houses are crammed together and that rent for a two-bedroom apartment is prohibitively expensive, that people don’t really ever say hello to me on the street and look at me in terror when I wave at them, and that our two cats Giuseppe and Luigi no longer have a yard to go out in during the long, lazy mornings. Of course, it’s stunningly beautiful here–the weather is magnificent, the beach is beautiful, the sunsets are lovely, and the restaurants, bars, and shops all walking distance from me are fantastic and represent all walks of life and cuisine from all over the world. We’ve hosted some dear friends and look forward to hosting more, and we take daily jogs on the beach. So far, Long Beach has been both kind and overwhelming, a study in contrasts.

Jerusalem, Israel

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2015 was the year I went to two of the most fascinating and complicated countries in the entire world. In October, I had the rare and incredible opportunity to visit Israel, the tiny sliver in the Middle East that seems to hold the history of the world in its small, oblong shape, along with tourism marketing organization Geoffrey Weill, the Israel Ministry of Tourism, and four other amazing bloggers and writers. We happened to go at a particularly difficult time: in the days leading up to our visit, headlines like “Is This the Third Intifada?” and “Tensions Mount in Jerusalem” captured the public’s attention and were the first hits on Google searches about Israel. The violence was real, and I went to this country in the thick of murders and heightened disagreements between the Israelis and Palestinians. And yet, in Jerusalem, I only felt a sense of serenity, a calmness that I can’t quite replicate, yet, in words, even knowing that just around the corner were violent acts, stabbings, and people afraid for what would come. Luckily, in December, we still aren’t facing another intifada yet, and one can only hope that the tensions don’t ever escalate that far again.

One thing that’s particularly worth noting about this trip, more than the memories I have that will last me my lifetime, is that it was the first trip I’ve been on in which I completely filled up my notebook–every. single. page. Exploring ancient cities, unearthed cobblestone streets dating thousands of years, boats brought up out of the Sea of Galilee from Jesus’ time….Israel will upend you, make you question everything, make you understand the depth of the world’s monotheistic religions, make you fall in love, over and over again, with hummus. It’s all there.

Dahlonega, Georgia

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My hometown of Atlanta is definitely worth visiting, but what a lot of people don’t do when they come to my home state is drive up north to some of the adorable little towns near the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Dahlonega, a town of only 5,000 people with one of the cutest downtowns I’ve seen in small-town America and some of the best wineries in the Southeast, is one of these places. While my dear friend Magda, who I met in Malta nearly 11 years ago, was visiting me last week from Amsterdam, I decided to take her up there for the day to show her a bit of the south she hadn’t seen before. We ate a buffet of chicken-fried steak and collard greens at the Smith House, a historic house near downtown, shopped the cute little boutiques, stopped at The Crimson Moon and struck up a two-hour conversation with the two bartenders there, and tried a new recipe from Sweetwater, a local Atlanta brewery. We didn’t leave quietly, either: People were even waving to us as we pulled away in our quirky little rental car, an itty-bitty bright-red Chevrolet Spark.

I’d say, all in all, I had a pretty lucky year. As always, life is complicated, full of the good, the bad, and either the things we don’t want to face or the things we’ve long ignored. Travel doesn’t relieve us of our troubles, cure our demons, or make our lives easier, but it has always helped me find perspective, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

May 2016 be your year of light, with promises fulfilled, strength and patience to get through the difficult times, and lots of joy and beautiful travels!

Yours in travel,

Kristin

One Week in Israel

I’m sitting next to an Israeli-American college student named Edan who has just told me two very different things. “There’s just this vibe in Israel,” he said first, an electric wistfulness in his deep brown eyes. Then, he hesitates and smiles in the way that someone smiles when they’re about to say something they can’t believe they’re about to say. “But, you really picked a hell of a time to come here.”

I know what he means—I’m not immune to the media headlines, the sensationalized rhetoric, the news stories from CNN and the BBC capitalizing on the mounting events that some news personalities have started calling the stirrings of The Third Intifada. I’ve been hearing it because I can’t not hear it—it’s literally everywhere, every time I open my internet browser. Palestinian-Israeli Tensions Mount in Jerusalem. Jerusalem Abandoned After Two Israelis Shot in City Center. Rocks Thrown at Innocent Bystanders in the Streets.

My friend Yolanda, who lives outside of Tel Aviv, has sent me the news articles from The Jerusalem Post—articles whose headlines are no less sensational—and has told me that, although she’s never said this to anyone before, we should avoid the Old City completely, because the situation there is just too unstable. I ask my seatmate about “the state of things,” what he thinks about these undeniable and interminable tensions that have become a daily part of life in this tortured little country, this complex, sacred space, in the heart of the Mediterranean. He shrugs and tells me this: “It’s just a part of who we are. It’s like, at some time or another, everybody is either oppressing or the oppressed.” His comment, though meant to be exasperated, tells me more about the way 20-somethings feel about Israel than anything else I’ve read.

Edan and I spend the next hour talking about what Israel is really like. As an American whose grandparents still live in Haifa, he is intimately connected to both cultures, and he decided to attend university in Israel so he could finally have the chance to see what life was really like for him, an American Jew with tangible roots to his homeland. As a budding entrepreneur, he is going to business school in Israel because he wanted to meet other young Israelis and he wanted to get a multinational education. Eventually, he wants to start a line of fashion jeans for hipsters with stores in both L.A. and Tel Aviv, the two most magnetic, sensual, misunderstood cities in the world.

So, here we are. I’m on an airplane to Rome, sailing once again over the Atlantic Ocean, to a place I’ve only imagined in my dreams. To a place that, until recently, I only knew as a country where my dear friends Alison and Joel took their birthright trips, as a legendary place that was mentioned in my Sunday school stories, as a nativity scene on my parents’ bookshelf during the winter holidays. I also knew, somewhere in this mix, that it was also a place as inextricably tied to occupation and political tension as the word Bethlehem is to the Christmas play we used to enact at school each year with white kids wearing brown leather sandals with straps and tunics too big for their child-sized bodies.

I’m on an airplane to Rome, and then to Tel Aviv, to a place that, yes, reminds me that this chosen passion of mine, to journey, to experience, to write, to capture scenes as best I can with a lens, often comes with a price. It requires me to face trauma, to face insecurity and cultural uncertainties, to open myself up to the possibility that yes, life is not perfect, not elsewhere, and not at home; it is not without political strife; it is not without raced, gendered, and socio-economic realities. I think that this is one of the first lessons that Israel can teach me—that living with uncertainty is as undeniable a part of life as getting out of bed in the morning. It’s a way of life, it’s a reality of life, it’s a daily part of life.

But I also know that I am a better person for having had the chance to learn these things. And I’m not afraid—I’m electrified. I can’t wait. I want to understand more fully the lives the Israelis and the Palestinians live and experience every day. I hope, that even though I will be a temporary visitor in their home, that they will allow me to ask, and that they will tell me. What we see in the media is never, ever the full story, and I am so utterly grateful for this opportunity to learn what that actually means. I’ve been to places recovering from war before, places like Medellín, Ciudad Juarez, and Malta, but I’ve never been to a place that fears a new war is on the horizon.

Map of Where We’re Going

So, let’s see what our week in Israel looks like. Of course, our itinerary might—and almost certainly will—change depending on the current political situation, road traffic, and/or time and crowd constraints, but here’s what the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has planned for us.

Imagine a circle, starting at Ben Gurion International Airport (the blue airplane icon). Travel up and around in a clockwise circle from there and keep going until you get back to Ben Gurion. Because I could only figure out how to put pins on a Google map and not numbers, envisioning them as pins in a clockwise circle is about the best we’re going to get. That being said, I’ve read that flexibility and adaptability are as much a way of life as anything else around here, so in the spirit of our upcoming journey, let’s just use this as a starting point.

If anything, it’s nice to see an up-close map of Israel, a country no larger than the state of New Jersey.

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Day 1 – Weds. – Haifa, Old Acre, Beit She’an

After the million hours it’s going to take us to actually get to Israel, we have to get in a bus and ride from the airport up to Haifa, where we’re spending our first night (and at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a place I am hoping has beautiful pillows and comfortable mattresses….). When we wake up on Wednesday morning, we’re going to start our day touring Haifa, Israel’s third-largest port city (and the name of the dog who lives next door to the Winet cabin in Idaho). We’ll visit the Bahai Shrine and Gardens, which, though I know little about it, seems to be the world’s center for the Bahai faith.

Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism

From there, we’re going to drive across the Galilee to Old Acre, an Ottoman seaport designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we’ll get to see the fishermen at work, shop at a street bazaar, and visit an Israeli bathhouse. After our afternoon in Old Acre, it looks like we’ll head back and check in at the En Gev Holiday Resort kibbutz, where we’ll have what is rumored to be St. Peter’s fish….or descendants of the fish St. Peter used to harvest on the Sea of Galillee two thousand years ago.

Day 2 – Thurs. – Kibbutz En Gev, Caesarea, Jerusalem

We’ll be waking up early Thursday morning for a tour of the kibbutz (commune) before we drive over to Caesarea, a coastal Mediterranean resort town and former Roman capital. We’ll spend some time wandering around the ruins and the ancient theater before heading to the Israel Museum where I will get to see, with these own two blue eyes of mine, the actual Dead Sea Scrolls. For those of you who don’t know what the Dead Sea Scrolls actually are, let me say this: they are the oldest remaining biblical texts in existence. No matter what your beliefs are (or if you even have any), there is something immaculately sacred about these books.

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Flickr/Neta Bartal
Flickr/Neta Bartal
Flickr/bachmont
Flickr/bachmont

Thursday night, we’ll check in to the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem and get to meet Chef Moshe Bason, a local farm-to-table phenom in Jerusalem whose entire repertoire of recipes is based off of references to foods and cooking techniques mentioned in the Bible. This, too, sounds extraordinary….I’m hoping to steal him away for an interview!

Day 3 – Fri. – City of David, Western Wall, Mt. Zion (Jerusalem)

If everything goes as planned, Friday will be the kind of day that I know I will remember for the rest of my life. It will be that kind of day, the one and only chance I might ever have to walk through, on my own two feet, the world I only know from my Methodist Sunday school classes as a child, the world I know only through books, and stories, and the sermons of my childhood ministers. I will get to see the City of David. I will get to touch the Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred place on Earth and I will get to walk through the Western Wall Tunnels. I will get to stroll down the cobblestoned alleys of the Cardo, the Roman-Byzantine streets that were once trod by people thousands of years older than me.

Flickr/Andrew Kalat
Flickr/Andrew Kalat
Flickr/momo
Flickr/momo

I will visit Mt. Zion, and I will see the room of Jesus’ Last Supper. I will dine in the old city center, and I will see the streets light up with life. Or so I’ve heard.

I hope, hope, hope with all of my heart that the Old City is reopened to the public and is safe by Friday. A precarious time, but in Israel, always a precarious time.

Day 4 – Sat. – Dead Sea, Judean Desert

Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism

And today, I will float on water. And we will visit the absolute lowest point on the planet. I think we’re also supposed to take a Jeep safari to Mout Sedom, a place comprised entirely of salt.

We will bathe in the sea and, according to my itinerary, put on the black mud. I have no idea what this black mud of which they speak actually is, but I guess we’ll find out together.

Tonight, we’ll spend our last night at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.

Day 5 – Sun. – Tel Aviv

In the morning, we’ll hit the road again and head to the National Musem of the Holocaust in Yad Vashem. From there, we’ll drive to the city of Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural, financial, commercial, and entertainment center. We’ll walk through Neve Tzekek, Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood from the 1800s, and we’ll get to stop in some art galleries, cafes, and boutiques.

Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism
Flickr/Israeltourism

From the city center, we head to Old Jaffa, an ancient seaport on the coast that has (so I’ve heard) been transformed into a vibrant vacation spot for Israelis and international visitors. We’ll visit some museums, walk around, have dinner at Wilhemina, a restaurant in a former German colony, and hit the Tel Aviv nightlife, a nightlife I’ve heard is like nowhere else on earth.

Day 6 – Mon. – Tel Aviv

And then, just like that, our last day. Our plan, as of now, is to visit the Carmel open-air market, to travel to the White City, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique whitewashed, modern architecture, and to take a swim in the Mediterranean and reflect on our voyage.

We will have a special bon voyage dinner with the Ministry of Tourism at a local restaurant called, interestingly, Dr. Shakshuka. We will sleep a few hours, check out of our hotel at 1:30 in the morning, and leave for the airport.

I will be home, in the insanity of flights, time changes, and the weirdness of the Circadian rhythm, by 11:45 a.m.

So, without further ado, shalom Israel!

Yours in travel,

Kristin

All photographs from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I thank them for their generosity and I hope my photos turn out just as beautifully!

I’m excited to be traveling to Israel and exploring this magnificent holy land with the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

Down the Moscow: Reflections on a Russian River Cruise, Part 3

From May 29th to June 11th, my mom, Kay Mock, and I joined Viking River Cruises on their enigmatic and incredibly special Waterways of the Tsars cruise, an experience that changed both of us in unexpected ways. Neither of us had ever been to Russia before, and what made this trip even more special was that it was my mom’s first international voyage. That, along with getting to know Russia much more deeply than I expected, are what made this trip one of the best of my life. In this special three-part series, my mom and I share our experiences as a baby boomer and a millennial—women with two very different perspectives on a country that, above all else, is full of surprises.

MOSCOW

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Kristin: Nearly two weeks after we started our journey in St. Petersburg, we woke up one morning in Moscow. We had been wondering what a Russian city of 15,000,000 people might look like—if it would resemble tiny St. Petersburg, if it would have the sprawling Communist blocs from one side of the horizon to the other, if (since we learned in one of our on-board lectures than there are more billionaires living in Moscow than anywhere else on earth) it would be peppered with first-class yachts and mansions. According to our lecture, though collective living is still common and most people now rent from private owners, real estate in Moscow is as expensive as (if not sometimes more so) than Hollywood in California, so I had a sneaking suspicion that we’d see quite an impressive mish-mash. We put on our walking shoes and boarded the bus for our “Moscow Up-Close and Personal” tour.

In fact, I was right: it was all of these things.

And that doesn’t even begin to describe Moscow’s architecture, which is characterized by a delicate artisanship I’ve never quite seen anywhere else in my travels. For one thing, Moscow is one of those places whose zoning makes absolutely no sense to me, a girl who grew up on grid systems in Western cities: it has buildings built as early as 900 A.D. (talk about longevity!) a few streets away from mansions built during Imperial Russia just a few streets away from modern apartment buildings that look like they were lifted from an American suburb and plopped down in Russia.

Kay: There are two impressions that struck me as being an important part of my realization and appreciation of this marvelous country. First, artisanship is beyond anything we can see in the US, and rivals anything in Europe or Asia, at least in my opinion.  In the cities, it becomes clear that Russia is forcefully and actively working to preserve her architecture, some dating from the 11th century and before, her art, her history, her soul.  Almost everywhere, especially in Moscow, a huge city of 15,000,000, there is refurbishment and restoration and construction wherever you look. The second impression is that there is an important contrast between the old and the new.  Moscow boasts many new skyscrapers off in the distance, reminders of the 21st century and the future.  But Moscow is, more importantly, a beautiful city, begun in 1147, that still contains over 2,500 historical and architectural monuments, 70 museums, 50 theaters,4,500 libraries, and 540 colleges and research institutes.

THE RED SQUARE

Kristin: And, of course, there is something about seeing Moscow’s Red Square, that kind of iconic mecca that draws all travelers to Russia. There was something almost ephemeral about seeing it in person, as though I couldn’t make sense of the fact that I was actually standing in the middle of it, battling tourists, feeling the sun on my shoulders, seeing the peaks of St. Basil’s onion domes peeping over the horizon line while waiting in line at the Square’s grand entryway.

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What happened next will stay with me for the rest of my life: as we crossed through the brick-red arches and touched ground on the cobblestones, it occurred to me that I had made it not only to a country that had been a mystery to me my entire life, and I was there with my mom, a woman who, too, had spent two weeks getting to know a place she’d been terrified of as a child and that continues to be constructed by the media as a place diametrically opposed to our own home. Everything—all those tangled emotions that happen in travel—culminated in that one moment, stepping through that archway.

I realized then, that I’d also been nearly brought to tears.

The Red Square is not just an architectural beauty—it is divine. The jagged walls of the Kremlin line one side (with Vladimir Lenin’s mausoleum in front of it, a sight I’ve heard is both reverent and disturbing—reverent because we’re talking about witnessing the remains of a world figure, disturbing because, well, Lenin is not the freshest-looking of corpses); Goom’s Department Store lines another, St. Basil’s Cathedral on yet another, and the magnificent archway on the other. We were literally surrounded by four kinds of Russia—she who governs, she who shops, she who worships, and she who now allows guests to enter.

“History doesn’t know the subjunctive mood. We can’t really ask ourselves ‘what if?’” – Andrey, our tour guide, on Russia’s difficult history

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Just….go. I hope you’ll see what I mean.

THE METRO

Kay: You know what we haven’t mentioned? How we got there! To be honest, a trip to Moscow would not be complete without a ride on the Metro.  While most of us have ridden or commuted on subways in various cities, there is none like this. It is more than 180 miles long with daily ridership exceeding 7,000,000.  It is also the deepest of any, one station resting at 243 feet underground, with over 190 stations overall.

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Kay: The stations are like nothing we have ever seen; they are works of art. Stalin caused this incredible monument to socialism to be begun in 1932 where it became a collective work of art, showcasing themes of communist ideology and history. It is also the fastest subway train I have ever experienced. If you want to see some of this incredible Metro, go here: http://twistedsifter.com/2014/11/beautiful-stations-of-the-moscow-metro/

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Kay: As we exited the metro stop near Red Square, were initially astonished to see a man who at first glance appeared to be Putin, outside the Resurrection Gate, the entrance to Red Square.  Perhaps a welcoming committee of one?  At closer look, however, he was an entrepreneur of sorts, an almost duplicate of the President of Russia himself. Dressed in a suit, starched white shirt and tie, he had on offer pictures of himself with unwitting tourists, all for a sum of 1000 rubles (about $20).

Kristin: He was hilarious! And kind of a bad entrepreneur, truly, as he wouldn’t even consider bartering with us on the price. $20 for a photo with a Putin imposter? That’s a $5 purchase at most. Too bad we couldn’t fool dad with a picture of us and faux-Putin…..

Kay: A high point of this day was the classical folklore concert, played expertly on traditional Russian folk instruments such as balalaikas and bayans.

TREYTAKOV GALLERY & THEATER

Kristin: To be honest, the folklore concert at the Tretyakov Theater was actually one of my absolute favorite activities in Moscow. For one, if you’ve never been to a classical folklore concert, it’s one of the most unusual—and wonderfully bizarre—symphonic experiences you can imagine. The stage is set up in a half-moon shape, reminiscent of a classical symphonic orchestra; the musicians are dressed in long black dresses and classic black-tie attire; the maestro stands, feet together, on a pedestal in front of his orchestra, his baton delicately poised in one hand.

But….then the maestro waves his baton, the musicians pick up their instruments, and what comes out is a riotous, playful, strummed-and-plucked explosion, the likes of which you’ve probably never heard before (or at least not quite in this way!). Everyone is smiling—the young musicians clearly love what they do!—and the domras, gooselys, and balalaikas (similar to violins, harps, and guitars, respectively) take their audience into the sounds of Russia’s interiors, where her wooden folk instruments still fill the silences.

ST. BASIL’S CATHEDRAL

Kay: The next day, we had some free time and so we went back to Red Square to properly tour St Basil’s. We ate at a café in the Square, walked around, and just took in the sights. It was so nice to have a relaxing morning and then to just spend the rest of the day enjoying ourselves on the boat!

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The inside of St. Basil's is just as colorful as its outside :)

You can see how difficult it must be to restore these 17th century ceilings once they've crumbled...but oh, look how lovely it's going to look!

There are details everywhere you look :)

THE KREMLIN

Then, the next morning, we met back with our group to take our tour of the Kremlin. Kremlin means “fortress inside a city”; it is indeed, and is nothing like ever will see again. We also noted the site of Putin’s helicopter landing pad where he arrives and departs from work.  It still seems unreal that we were inside the Kremlin, a place so long surrounded with secrecy and mystery. It took me a couple of days to get my mind around this alone, especially given all the other experiences we had on this incredible trip.

“If we tried to only stick to the facts, the tour would be this: Hello, good morning, the church was built in 1714. Goodbye.” – Micha, our tour guide, on the mystery of Russia’s history

Kristin: The Kremlin tour, though crowded, was SO INTERESTING. The entire place is akin to a compound, with tall red walls surrounding it on all sides (much like what you’d expect), but the inside of it is another story. There are winding gardens, fresh flowers, exquisite medieval churches pristinely restored, Renaissance-style government office buildings, and men and women in suits, clutching their briefcases and wearing sunglasses as they walk to and from their meetings.

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As we walked around, I tried to imagine the same kind of world on our side of the globe, wondering what radically different kinds of conversations were happening inside those walls.

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Oh yes, and there are hundreds of tourists. Go early.

Kay: Our second to last evening, we enjoyed a small boat tour along the waterways to see “Moscow by Night”. The entire city, small and large buildings alike, is lit with street lights, floodlights, and fairy lights.  It is a magical sight with, for my daughter and I, a travel story attached, but that is for another time.

FAREWELL TO RUSSIA, AND A LITTLE ADDENDUM…..

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Kristin: I’d like to mention, too, how throughout our trip, and throughout this three-part series in which we wove our stories together, it’s what happened in-between those sights, those magnificent, haunting places, that will remain with me for the rest of my life. There is nothing quite like seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral, the St. Petersburg Hermitage, the Kremlin, of course; nothing quite like it in the world. But even more than that, there is nothing quite like the experience of opening my eyes to another culture, one whose world had been closed to us for so long, with my mom by my side.

Because I live in California and Kay–along with the rest of my family–lives in Georgia, I don’t get to see her all that often, a reality of my wandering roots that is sometimes very difficult for me. We Skype, of course, and when we’re missing each other, we cook dinners together over the phone, we shop for shoes by sending picture texts back and forth of our feet, and we decorate my apartments together by shopping on websites at the same time. We share our stories with each other, and I still look to her for advice on nearly everything, from what to wear on my first day of teaching to what kinds of curtains I should put in my new living room. Having recently turned 30, her involvement in my life has become ever more important to me, especially as our family has faced difficult health issues, cancer, and remissions, and cancer, and remissions (so goes the cycle), and financial worries, and I’ve begun to recognize how precious our time is together. As I write this on the heels of the news that Kay will soon have to undergo chemotherapy again, our trip seems even more precious, and I hope she holds onto it during the more difficult days.

Being able to share this with her, seeing her light up, take copious notes in her journal, stay up late and laugh with me, drink vodka with me, examine world-renowned pieces of art with me, sit on the skydeck of our Viking ship and watch the forested landscape pass by….

What a treasure it’s been.

Mom, where shall we go next?

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A very special thanks to Viking River Cruises and the team on the Viking Truvor for hosting my mom and me on our unforgettable first river cruise. If you’d like to see the full itinerary, you can see it on Viking’s site or in my previous blog post!