Since the very beginning of our time traveling together, Jake and I have adopted a slower approach to tourism (mainly because we are photographers and travel blogger and we need to take our time). We have avoided the whirlwind pace that some vacationers seem to love, in favor of living in one place for a month at a time, getting to know our temporary home before continuing on our journey. But our slow paced journey had fast paced inspiration. Back when I was pregnant with Lisa, Jake and I would relax on the couch at night, watching episodes of The Amazing Race as we wound down for the evening (I know, not a great winding down show, is it?). We already knew that we wanted to see more of the world, but watching the show kept reminding us how much there was to see. And the thought of sharing that world with the little girl in my belly just made travel feel more magical.
We had a good time laughing at the misadventures of the contestants, and their goofy (or angry) reactions to the obstacles they encountered and cultures or customs they saw for the first time. Of course it’s easy to laugh at people you’ve never met and whose experience you only see on the most superficial level. So to be fair, here’s a tribute to The Amazing Race, and some of the ways we’ve come to empathize with their frustrations (and their joys) as we continue on our own, less stressful adventure.
Language Barriers: One consistent theme on the show was a pair of racers bursting out of an airport and yelling “English! English!” as they hurried to be the first to find an English speaking cab driver. We’re seldom in a big rush to get anywhere. Even when we have to make it to a photo shoot location before sunrise or sunset, we have planned ahead enough to know we’ll make it. But getting around – or even buying groceries – can become a frustrating ordeal when we can’t communicate with the locals.
Luckily, we have a number of tools available that the racers did not. Google Translate comes to mind. More importantly, we (usually) have time to spare. When we get frustrated, we just remind ourselves that people in other countries have no obligation to be our guides, and that they have been much more helpful to us than we would be to them if our positions were reversed ( I can’t speak French, Italian, Croatian, or any other language we’ve come across!).
I’ve been struck by the number of times a store clerk has apologized for their limited English. That being said, if every foreign city wanted to put English translations on their bus schedules, I wouldn’t mind one bit!
Stressful Travel Days: One of the main reasons we try to stay put most of the time is that travel is stressful. I don’t mean the experience of being in a new place, but the actual movement between places. Watching the Amazing Race contestants panicking over canceled flights, crowded trains or confusing maps was always good for a laugh. It’s not so funny when you’re standing in their shoes. This is especially true when you have three suitcases and a baby who gets motion sickness.
Our very first leg of travel (back in January), was a nightmare. Getting from Florida to Dubrovnik took three days because of bad weather in Croatia. Our flights were repeatedly delayed and canceled, when we finally arrived at Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) after a stomach turning flight, we were told to process paper work for a night in the hotel (which took till midnight in the cold snowy little airport). When we finally arrived at Dubrovnik it was already dark out. It was the coldest day the city had seen in fifty years, and we found ourselves struggling to push our luggage down bumpy cobblestone streets while attempting (in vain) to shield Lisa from the wind.
But for every horrible travel story we’ve had, there have also been moments of great comfort and relief. That very night in Dubrovnik, after about one hundred yards of struggling through the cold and dark, a man stopped us and said he was certain that we were the ones he was looking for. Our AirBnb host had been waiting in the cold (for how long I don’t know) to lead us to our apartment and help us carry our bags. Seeing him, and knowing that we’d soon be climbing into a comfortable bed, was so sweet that we almost cried.
Florida to Dubrovnik aside, plane travel has still been the easiest for us, just because we get to check our bags and we don’t have to worry about figuring out complicated maps and schedules on our own. Long bus rides have been the hardest, mostly because of the aforementioned motion sick baby.
Food Adventures: Ok, so we are never forced to complete any contrived challenges like eating bugs or five pounds of noodles like on the show. But food has occasionally been a challenge. It’s especially true in restaurants where different countries have differing customs (like when you pay, whether you tip, or how long you wait for service), not to mention differing definitions of the word vegetarian. Our best strategy has been making sure that we always rent an apartment with a kitchen and do most of our own cooking.
Even then, there can be challenges. Not every kitchen has the utensils we are accustomed to having, and when we have tried to stay close to major tourist attractions, a decent, one stop grocery store has been all but impossible to find. It sounds romantic to go to a bakery for bread, a produce market for vegetables and a fromagerie for cheese. But it turns out it can get old after a week or two, especially when the weather isn’t so great … and that’s when Jake comes in handy.
Representing: The stereotype of the “Ugly American” is one that tended to shine through on the Amazing Race. We try our best to comport ourselves with dignity and grace, respecting the culture, customs and privacy of the inhabitants of our destination cities. For the most part I’m pretty sure we do alright. But I know that if we were on a show, some editor would have no problem creating a highlight reel of Jake, Lisa and I being truly obnoxious. Have we yelled to one another during an early morning photo shoot? Have we changed Lisa’s diaper in completely inappropriate places? Have we argued in public? Have we cursed out loud? Have we complained about the quirks of a place that have proven in inconvenient? You bet we have! No one is perfect. All we can do is try hard every day to be the kind of guests we would want in our own homes.
Just yesterday, when Jake and I visited the Fairy Pools, I blurted out “I hate this place.” I know, you’re probably wondering what could cause stress at a place called the “Fairy Pools.” We were there to take some photos of Lisa and me exploring the beautiful scenery (it was a magical place). We had been warned about the infamous Scottish midges, but this was the first time we’d encountered them in their full ferociousness. Nothing strips down your will to be nice and kind like swarms of biting insects enveloping you and your baby girl. Jake and I were yelling, swearing, and just generally running around in a panic as we struggled to get our shots while trying to protect Lisa (who wants to stop and pick up every single pebble) from all the bugs . It was easy to judge The Amazing Race contestants from the comfort of our couch, but now that it’s our turn we understand. Sometimes it’s not the scenery or the culture that “sucks” but the elements of stress caused by travel.
Amazing Adventures: Of course, The Amazing Race didn’t inspire us to travel because it looked stressful or embarrassing for the contestants. What inspired us was the experience of climbing to great heights, immersing ourselves in the cultures of foreign cities, and showing our daughter that there is much, much more to the world than the town where she spent the first year of her life. Every once in a while the racers would slow down, take a look at where they were, or reflect on what they had accomplished. The moments of awe. The glimpses of solemn introspection. The opening of eyes and of hearts. Those are the moments from the show we have related to the most.
I’ve overcome my fear of heights to stand in front of amazing mountain vistas, and my fear of water by walking into the bay of Kotor. In creating our personal project, Jake rediscovered his love of nature and landscape photography, and even advanced his skills by masterfully incorporating fashion into his scenery shots (something that’s not easily achieved, it require knowledge of landscape, portrait and editorial photography). And Lisa has learned a few words of every language we’ve encountered. She says “fin” whenever she finishes her drink, or “Ciao” when Italian is spoken to her. I’m grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to do these things at our own pace and on our own terms. Even though there might not be a million dollar prize waiting for us at the end of the journey, it’s a journey that has transformed us in ways that I can’t put a price on. I hope we never reach the finish line.