Serendipity

Serendipity! Maybe it’s good fortune or perhaps you could call it good luck. It’s the pure chance of discovering something new that you didn’t even know you were looking for.  However you describe it, you definitely know it when you find it. I wish I could add a bit of serendipity to everybody’s itinerary. Today’s traveler tends to plan, schedule and arrange to the point of leaving absolutely no room for any joyous surprises or discoveries in their journey. Even surprises that seem to be unwelcome at first can often lead to wonderful encounters that you remember and recount for years to come. Other times you set off in search of one thing only to happily find another. This was the case for me.

My first trip to Asia was scheduled to span late September and early October. I had researched local customs, weather conditions, major sightseeing attractions and felt that I was well-prepared to see all that there was to see. I’m sure that I read about but somehow failed to remember something called the “Mid-Autumn Festival”. It is one of the most festive celebrations held in China and is so named because it is always celebrated in the middle of the autumn season. The Chinese people also refer to the day as the Moon Festival as the event is celebrated at the time of the year when the moon is at its roundest. The star of the festival is the full moon and family members will gather to celebrate and admire the bright celestial body. It’s also a festival that has similarities with the American Thanksgiving in that appreciation for home, hearth and family are centric to the occasion. As with any proper celebration, food is also involved. Typical at this time of year are “Moon Cakes”, little and round, full-moon shaped cakes that usually have a red bean paste filling although nuts, meat or egg yolk are also options. The sweet treats are traditionally enjoyed in the evening under the full moon.

On my first evening in Hong Kong my companion and I set out in search of food. We walked for blocks and blocks unable to come to an agreement as to where to try our luck for dinner. I didn’t want to eat American style food while in Asia but I was timid about ordering unfamiliar items. So we searched, looking for an establishment where we might feel comfortable, be able to decipher a menu and if it wasn’t asking too much, enjoy a bit of good local food. The quest for a satisfying meal soon superseded any concern about not being able to find our way back to the hotel. We continued our search and began to notice that the street population was swelling. Taking that as a good sign (safety in numbers, right?) we continued following the crowds. It soon became clear that we had stumbled into a festival. The air was thick with a mix of incense and food being cooked on grills and in large woks. Vendors were offering all types of paper lanterns, colorful masks and something similar to what we in America call pinwheels. All the items were of great fascination to the local children. Beverages and sweet treat stations lined the streets as did carts carrying all sorts of souvenirs and knick knacks. Local street performers were entertaining whatever audience they could attract. We were feeling very pleased with our discovery and enjoying the local festival not realizing that the best was yet to come.

We heard it coming, long before we actually saw it. From the sounds we assumed it was a parade. A crowd of people were coming down the street, many were banging on drums. We could hear people cheering and shouting and we could hear the music. Over 100 feet long and dancing down the street in a serpentine pattern with the help of dozens of brightly costumed performers we were front and center for a traditional exhibition of the Dragon Dance. It’s an amazing piece of performance art where the team must work together to replicate the movements of an “actual” dragon. Each team member is responsible for controlling one part of the large serpent’s body with a stick. All this is done while dancing down the street in front of excited crowds. Local belief is that the longer the dragon the greater the luck but I have to say that the luck was all ours that night. Music, incense, vendors and food made for an interesting experience. The Dragon Dance made it an extraordinary experience. As a Travel Counselor I always encourage people to venture out. To not be afraid to peek around that corner or to take the long way around to your destination. To take safe risks. You never know what you might find.  Your bit of serendipity could be around the next corner. This year The Mid-Autumn Festival will be celebrated September 25th-27th.

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When Good Trips Go Bad

Notice: The names of the following destinations and exact locations have been withheld to protect the innocent or more likely, not to discourage travelers from being adventurous. Not every trip goes as planned and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes a bump in the road becomes an adventure. What matters most is how you handle those bumps. You can let them spoil your fun or you can enjoy the experience and then retelling the tales to friends and family for years to come. I choose the latter. Location #1: There are rainy seasons and then there are what seem like monsoons. No one wishes for rain on their vacation but when you’re traveling to a tropical area replete with rain forests, into each life some rain is definitely going to fall. But when a tropical storm and a hurricane collide, the rain level exceeded “some rain” by torrents.  In an unusual weather pattern a tropical storm was coming from the East and a hurricane was coming from the West. I was traveling with a small group and we were caught in the middle. I had never seen so much rain. Roads not only flooded but in some areas they just plain washed away during the mudslides. The driver of our vehicle attempted to navigate a curved incline and failed. As the bus started to slide backwards you couldn’t help but notice the lack of guard rails on the primitive road. The driver was able to secure the bus and wisely suggested that we all evacuate while we had the chance. I didn’t have to be told twice. Our little group huddled together in the torrents of rain trying our best to stay optimistic.  We worked together as a team and looked out for each other’s comfort and safety. News of our plight reached locals from a nearby village and they all offered to help and quite frankly, multi-handedly kept that bus from sliding into the precipice of eternity. Once the bus was on level ground and we got the “all clear” sign to board, the driver continued on as though this might be a common occurrence and actually, I have no doubt that it was.  Location# 2: It’s been my experience that most people don’t enjoy getting lost even though it can sometimes lead to amazing discoveries. However, I’ve been a front seat eye witness to that stereotype of a man who just won’t ask for directions even during a self-drive tour in a politically challenged area. After consulting a map and choosing a route we believed would be easy to navigate we embarked on our journey. I’m not sure where we went wrong. Maybe we turned left when we should have turned right, maybe the map wasn’t updated when the political winds shifted. Whatever the cause, a seemingly easy ride turned into a tense situation when we got lost in the desert. Seriously, who gets lost in a desert? You can presumably see for miles and yet we found ourselves in an area where Americans might not be part of the popular group. It was a white knuckle experience as we drove in circles through sandy dunes, unable to escape the loop of confusion. We repeatedly drove past a small group of young men in military gear, carrying weapons and attempted to ask for directions. But, they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak their language. We continued driving, completing yet another loop, expecting to see the same young men. However, this time something was different. The group was nowhere to be seen. There didn’t seem to be any side roads, yet there was no sign of them. With thoughts of a potential ambush keeping us on edge, we continued a frantic pace, driving around and around until we came upon a United Nations peace keeping delegation. They looked as surprised to see us as we were relieved to see them. “What are you doing here?” they demanded. We didn’t really have a good answer. So it was that we were led out of the desert by a group of men shaking their heads and pointing automatic weapons in multiple angles to protect us. Location#3: Bed and Breakfasts and local Inns are usually charming, unique accommodations and often an excellent way to get a taste of the local area. After visiting a major tourist site that sits basically in the middle of nowhere, the chilly night came faster than anticipated. Or, to hear my side of the story, poor planning was really to blame. In lieu of driving a long distance in the dark on narrow and unfamiliar roads, a seemingly wise decision was made to spend the night locally. Assumptions were made about the potential charm of a local inn based upon where we were and from previous experiences at inns in the same country.  We shouldn’t have assumed. The small dank room sat atop a seedy bar stocked with questionable looking characters and the noise from the jovial group one floor down was nonstop all night. Among the missing amenities were, television, radio, towels and oh yes, heat. Let me clarify, heat was available, it just wasn’t included in the price of the “room”.  In the first and only time I have ever experienced this, there was a small apparatus that allowed you to insert a quarter (American money referenced to continue to protect the guilty!) for approximately 15 minutes of heat. All was good for the first 14 minutes but eventually turned into a panic as we wondered where to obtain enough coins to last through the night. Also, who would be responsible for feeding the greedy heater? In the end, we slept fully clothed, including coats, yet still shivering. No, we didn’t wait to see what type of breakfast would be served. Epilogue: You can gripe and complain, you can let glitches ruin your vacation, or you can roll with the punches and make the best of a bad situation. If you choose to accept it all as part of the grand experience, in some cases, these aberrations could actually be considered a bonus. But, memory is a funny thing, it’s actually a better editing tool than Photo shop. Intentionally or not, you are able to soften a bad experience with humor, or exaggerate unfortunate details to make a better story. When I wonder if I’m crazy for taking such chances I remember that T.S Eliot said “Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

Bespoke too soon

Not many Americans are familiar with the term “bespoke”. In an off the rack kind of nation such as the U.S., most people get in their car, head to the mall, find something they like in a window or on a mannequin, take it off a shelf and hand it to the cashier. Others just buy whatever is on sale. The word bespoke is often associated with luxury. It can be a special item often custom made and sometimes one of a kind. Bespoke most usually refers to custom made clothing and is of British origin. Well dressed women may have their French haute couture but the well dressed man has a bespoke wardrobe. It’s a label that has spread through much of the world with Savile Row in London being the most prestigious address of all. The hallmark of any great design is that it satisfies both criteria of form and function. These custom creations usually meet and exceed those expectations.

However, much as the nation follows Ohio, thus too as the Englishman goes so goes the bespoke tailor.  It’s common to see the custom shops lining the streets and down the alley ways of Hong Kong, a former British territory. Many of the shops are staffed by transplants from India where custom apparel is also created. The common thread, pun intended, is that British rule was also previously present in India.   And these suits are truly creations. The legendary 24 hour turnaround time may no longer be as common since most truly bespoke articles are stitched by hand, but today’s bespoke tailor has an assistant called a sewing machine and can usually produce a custom garment in 36-48 hours. The upscale bespoke houses may do several fittings before completing a garment thus increasing the delivery time to several weeks.  The process is very personal with your tailor getting to know you on a very physical level. Almost every inch of you is measured to ensure a precise fit. Once you have chosen a style of suit you are then faced with the even larger task of trying to choose your fabric from hundreds of bolts of different colors, weights and patterns. Often there are private little touches such as hidden pockets and my favorite, your name being sewn into the garment. There’s nothing more comfortable than something that is fitted to your unique shape. Let’s just say that I was more into the idea of having one of these suits than the decision making process that went into actually bringing the creation to life. As someone who sometimes has a hard time choosing what to have for lunch, I was overwhelmed by the style options. Like a deer in the headlights, I tried to answer questions such as: did I want full length sleeves or ¾ length or short? Double breasted or single breasted? Hem line above the knee, below the knee or at the knee? Don’t even get me started about the hundreds, possibly even thousands of bolts of cloth, all in different colors, patterns and textures. And buttons! Don’t forget the buttons or the different trim options. So many options, so little time. My travel companion was successful in choosing the fixings for not only a handsome navy blue suit but also a great looking sport coat. He often repeated the cliché of how it fit him like a glove. Somehow or other he also managed to choose a small variety of coordinating bespoke ties to go with that spiffy new suit.   Unable to reach a decision I had all but given up. However, jealousy reared its ugly head, surely wearing a bespoke hat. The desire to actually have a custom made suit outweighed the lack of desire to deal with all of the decisions that would bring the creation to life.  A friend who is also in the travel industry recently visited Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The bespoke market is present in the emerging country but more as an industry of necessity for the locals than to service the still slow tourist trade. She not only managed to choose but succeeded in scoring very unique additions to her wardrobe. Her custom outfits were made of fabric accented with beautiful local touches such as silk covered buttons and matching button hooks. Each piece was a reflection of the local design and culture and sure to stir conversation about its origins whenever she wears the items. They are a pretty yet practical reminder of her journey. In the end I chose a very plain burgundy colored skirt and jacket. I chose plain details and added in plain matching slacks. You could say it was the vanilla of suits.  If I’m being totally honest I have to admit that my foray into custom fashion was less fabulous and more of a flop. The trip wasn’t without its rewards though. Fortunately for me Hong Kong is also known for its many Pearl shops.

WSuit1

Uneasy Rider

The most recent and presumably last deadline to obtain health insurance has come and gone. If all went according to plan, the majority of Americans should now have health coverage. While it’s not my intent to argue for or against the worthiness of insurance, ironically, I find myself, on a daily basis, in the position of strongly encouraging people to consider obtaining travel insurance. This specific insurance is not intended to replace your main coverage but rather to supplement it. I maintain an annual travel policy and once had occasion to use it. A few years back I visited San Juan, Puerto Rico for a Travel Agent’s convention. These conventions aren’t all fun and games as most people would assume. More time than I’d prefer is spent in classrooms gazing out the windows at beaches and swaying palm trees while speakers tell us about the area we’re visiting and the local beaches with the swaying palm trees. Eventually, we’re allowed to go outside and are often give several choices of sightseeing options that are designed to be a microcosm of what the area has to offer to tourists. I’m not sure what I was thinking but my desire to be in the great outdoors must have been particularly strong on the day I accepted an invitation to do a bicycle tour. I’m more of a walker and hadn’t been on a bicycle for an easy 25 years. As a matter of fact, the last time I was on a bicycle was in a little town in Pennsylvania called Lackawaxen and when I failed to correctly negotiate a curve in the road, I plowed directly into 2 oncoming cyclists. The look on their faces was of utter disbelief at my inability to avoid the only 2 people on a long, empty stretch of road. It was almost as if a magnet drew me directly towards them. After that incident I decided that I wasn’t the “bicycle riding type” and avoided cycling completely, for decades, until I went to Puerto Rico. In a decision guided by the proverbial “getting back on the bike” adage, or perhaps just bad judgment, I joined 9 fellow non bicyclists on a pedal tour of San Juan. My decision was also influenced by my travel companion’s interest in bicycling as a new hobby and it seemed like a good opportunity to give it a try. We were required to wear helmets. Less a fashion statement or show of competent athleticism and more of a “this is dangerous for you amateurs and we want to protect your heads and not get sued” sort of statement. We were instructed on the use of our brakes, basic hand signals and traffic laws as they pertained to cyclists. The group started at a very leisurely pace as the out of shape adventurers got used to balancing, pedaling and avoiding swerving into traffic. We slowly wobbled our way to the first stop on the tour, which was The Capitol Building. The guide took a count, we had all arrived, limbs intact. Parking our bikes, we headed for the entrance.  On the outside it looks like almost every Capitol Building you might have visited, Georgian in style with huge white columns and lots of steps. But, the inside, that was a surprise! The interior is filled with gorgeous frescoes and painted ceilings of astonishing beauty that definitely rival the charm of Old San Juan and indeed many European Capitol buildings. I wished we had more time but, it was a quick visit as we had a busy itinerary and completion was dependent upon our energy levels. We continued to the next stop on our journey and I was beginning to feel a little more confident. My travel companion, who was a more experienced rider was kind enough to keep pace with me.  As we pedaled up a slight incline I was balanced enough to be able to stand up, for better leverage. We navigated a busy intersection, traffic waiting for us to pass, and my comfort level rose as my balance improved. I was surprised to realize that I was beginning to enjoy myself. My travel companion was riding directly in front of me and the group was travelling in single file because we were rolling along on a sidewalk due to the congestion in the road. In what seemed like a slow motion video, I watched as a local came racing from the opposite direction, indifferent to the skill level or navigational ability of the tourists on wheels. I watched as the brake lever on his bicycle sliced open the hand of my companion and was stunned as the blood started to flow as the biker raced off. Perhaps he didn’t realize that he had injured someone. Maybe he was just really, really late for wherever he needed to be. The wound was serious and an ambulance was called. In a model of efficiency, or confusion, two ambulances arrived within minutes of each other. The leader of the bicycle tour group stayed behind with us while his assistant continued the tour with our fellow bicyclists. We were taken to a local hospital and I was concerned about the cost because emergency rooms can be very expensive. I called my office and asked that the insurance company be contacted to find out what the process would be and to make sure that the injury would be covered. I had very little cash on me, my credit cards were in the hotel room and I was afraid that without payment, the hospital wouldn’t be able to offer any help. One tetanus shot, a dozen or so stitches later and a return trip in a van that carried our abandoned bikes, we were reunited with our group. They were happy to see us and I was grateful for everyone’s concern. The best part was that because we had purchased travel insurance, the bills were taken care of and all it cost was a little bit of time. Mark Twain once said, “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Words to ride by.