Chance encounters make travel memorable. At Mapusa market in Goa, where local residents shop for dried fish and red chilies, I looked up from photographing spices to find this woman staring at me.
I really need to clone myself. Three or four of me would be about right.
You see, I just made a list of all the places—some familiar, some not—that I’d like to visit in, oh, the next year or two.
On the one hand, I’m dying to return to my favorite cities—Bangkok, Buenos Aires, Cochin, Florence, London, Paris and Venice—and to see more of Morocco and Bhutan.
But I’m also attracted to all the places I’ve yet to visit. In Japan I want to wander the streets of Kyoto, soak in volcanically hot mineral springs, and visit Tokyo’s famous fish market. I dream of shopping for cloves in the markets of Zanzibar, turning prayer wheels at the Jokhang in Lhasa, slurping pho on a street corner in Hanoi, gathering wild peppercorns in the rain forests of Madagascar.
The truth is, the world is still a very big place. I may never get to half the destinations I long to see, but for the ones I do visit, there’s a pressing question: How to travel to an unfamiliar place in a way that puts me into the flow of real life?
What do you think?
Suddenly everyone’s writing about “authentic travel.” In “Choose Your Own Food Adventure,” (The Wall Street Journal, February 2-3, 2013, pp. D1 and D2), Katy McLaughlin says: “Watching Alice Waters shop at a farmers’ market on the Food Network is old news; now we want to browse the stalls and scrutinize the organic cardoons with her.” She adds that “authenticity has replaced luxury as a culinary watchword…”
Vayable offers 80 London "experiences" led by residents, including market walks that show you how to shop for food like a local. Most last just a few hours. Photo: Vayable
Personally I love both. But is it possible to buy an authentic adventure? I could easily skip If Only’s $10,000 lunch at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters, Cecelia Chang and Margrit Mondavi, but I did flirt with the idea of Jetsetter’s “live-as-a-local experiences like milking a goat and making your own cheese in Abruzzo, Italy.”
Then there’s Vayable’s $49 tour of London’s Borough Market with a journalist who’ll steer you to “the best food stalls in the market where real Londoners hang out.” Vayable, incidentally, has “insiders” in over 500 cities around the globe, ready to take you drinking in the Marais for a few hours or on a 10-day Egyptian camel trek replete with “unplanned encounters.”
One thing is clear: We—or, at least, I—have a craving for real experiences when traveling. To get that, you first need unstructured time. I would never splurge on an around-the-world-in-12-days trip—breakfast in Nairobi, dinner in Hanoi—just to tick off the countries on my list. And I’ve had it with most tours (though cooking trips put together by a knowledgeable person can provide access you might not be able to arrange for yourself).
But I want to go slow. Watch the sun rise from the Indian Ocean, wander through a down and dirty market teeming with silvery fish and mysterious fruit, have a feast in an olive grove with the people who make the oil, visit Argentine wineries with the sister of a friend (and meet her friend who owns a patisserie), sip homemade mescal while dancing under a glitter ball….
In all this there’s the hope that somehow this real world experience will transport you, turn you upside down or inside out, give you a new way of being, at least for a little while.
In this vein the award winning travel magazine Afar has devoted its March 2013 issue to “Travel That Changes You.” One possibility caught my eye: Sri Lanka, an island I’ve longed to visit ever since reading a line from a Dutch captain’s log. He wrote: "When one is downwind of the island, one can still smell cinnamon eight leagues out to sea.”
A view of Lunuganga by night. Travelers can stay at the late architect Geoffrey Bawa's Sri Lanka estate, a labor of love which took him 40 years to complete. Photo: Lunuganga.
In “Ceylon’s Second Coming” (Jennifer Chen, p. 30), I was captivated by the idea of staying in a house belonging to the late architect, Geoffrey Bawa. Bawa launched Tropical Modernism, a design movement that blended the most seductive features of traditional Sri Lankan and British Colonial architecture—“reflecting pools, colonnaded passages, and terracotta tiled roofs”— to create an open air building style that took full advantage of the island’s “balmy climate.”
In Colombo one can visit Bawa’s in-town house at No. 11 33rd Lane and his former office at 2 Alfred House Road (now The Gallery Cafe), but two hours away, there’s Lunuganga, his slightly ramshackle country estate with a 15-acre tropical garden and lagoon views. I’ve always dreamed of living in a Bawa-designed abode, so I’d probably camp in the Glass Room, up in the tree tops, for a few days. Then head back to Columbo for “fresh crustaceans in peppery sauces” at Ministry of Crab (love the name!) and for cardamom and cinnamon-scented lotions at Spa Ceylon.
But wait. Maybe there’s an easier way of visiting Sri Lanka, at least for an evening. “In Clay Pots, a Taste of Home,” (The New York Times, January 30, 2013, p. D6), dining critic Pete Wells describes the Sri Lankan restaurant Lakruwana, located on Staten Island, as "a small, charming museum of Sri Lankan arts and crafts" : “I know of no other place in town that goes quite so far to summon up the world where the owners were born,” he writes. A mural featuring gaily painted elephants and “turbaned drummers,” walls of “rough pink stones set in stucco,” wooden shutters, painted masks, sets of spears: I might have the illusion I’d traveled 30 hours instead of 30 minutes from the city.
Among the “authentic” delicacies on the menu: “hoppers”—a “batter of coconut and rice flour…fried into a wafer and shaped while still warm into crisp, edible bowls”—eaten with “nuanced, gingery Ceylon chicken” curry or “Wadiya squid seasoned with toasted coriander and cumin;” “sticks of pineapple in a lightly hot curry paste soured with tamarind;” and “fat yellow lentils stewed in coconut milk with the warming flavors of mustard seeds, curry leaves and cinnamon sticks.” Water is served in pottery cups. At $12 to $13 for entrees, a quick trip to Lakruwana might sate the travel yen for a few hours.
Off the grid at Scarabeo Stone Camp: According to the website, the stillness that "envelops the camp is broken only by the sound of voices and the clink from a copper basin." Photo: Sven Laurent for Scarabeo-Camp.
Even luxury-loving girls like me enjoy getting off the grid from time to time. In “Finding Stillness in a Roving Retreat” (The Wall Street Journal, February 2-3, 2013, p. D4), Darrell Hartman writes about a fantastically casual Belgian tented camp in “the desert highlands of Morocco.” His driver, Mustafa, got lost trying to find the encampment, which moves around depending on the season. Once there, he discovered that Scarabeo Stone Camp had composting toilets, no electricity and décor that was “a rough and ready take on French country chic, accent on the rough.” But there was chicken tagine and hot mint tea served by candlelight, a chance encounter with a Berber shepherd on a hike through the deserted valley, and above all, “soothing desert silence.“
(You could also take a Paris to Dakar dune buggy driving class, attend a Moroccan cooking workshop or fly kites on the dunes. Personally I love the idea of arranging for an astronomy professor to bring his telescope for star gazing.)
Hartman didn’t have enough cash to pay his bill, but he and the owner agreed that they’d rendezvous in Marrakech after he visited an ATM. Sounds like heaven to me.
Bahama mailboats ship food, building supplies and vehicles to the Out Islands. For a $45 ticket, passengers can get a taste of "authentic Bahamanian culture." Photo: Bahamas4u
But for a truly real world adventure, it would be hard to top Porter Fox.
In “Off the Tourist Grid in the Bahamas” (The New York Times, February 3, 2013), Fox, editor of Nowhere, a literary travel journal, took three small freighters, actually government mail boats, on a six-day, 350-mile trip to the Out Islands, “exploring the Bahamas the way the Bahamanians do. “ Travel was slow and schedules erratic, and there were a few rough moments—one night he shared a cabin with “a giant man named ‘Jolly’ whose snore matched his frame”—but the compensations were many. White sand beaches glowing in the moonlight, eating the “best” conch salad in the Bahamas at a stall on Potter’s Cay, and a “tour” of Eleuthera with Tiffany Johnson, manager of Daddy Joe’s Hotel, who took him to “secret places” like the Queen’s Bath, “a set of natural stone pools cut into the island’s Atlantic coastline,” and a hippie commune with geodesic domes.
You see what I mean about “authentic” travel? Lots of time, local “friends” and a willingness to cut loose from the comforts of home will make it happen.