Tuesday, April 26: Often while home in Virginia, I wander in daydreams through exotic parts of the world. I run tedious errands in my car or take my daily 3-mile walks, mesmerized by a playlist of music that takes me back to places I’ve loved. I peruse Instagram pictures of foreign places and make lists of where I want to go next. I flip dreamily through travel magazines and watch foreign movies. I eat out at ethnic restaurants to savor foreign flavors. I read my favorite bloggers who live abroad, and keep in touch with my friends abroad. I live in a parallel world that is currently out of my reach; therefore, I’m not fully alive in my life HERE & NOW.
I will always yearn to be abroad again, not only to travel, but to live and work in a place, to immerse myself in a culture. Doing such is a deeper, more satisfying, and often challenging, experience than travel, which feels to me like skimming the surface. It is part of my make-up, I think, to be a nomad, a wanderer, and I don’t doubt that if there are such things as previous lives, I was once a semi-nomadic Bedouin, or a peripatetic nomad, offering my skills to the settled populations among whom I traveled. The only skills I have to offer to foreigners in this life are my English language skills, though it’s far-fetched to call them skills. After all, I grew up naturally speaking English. I’m thankful for that: my native language enables me to wander. (Of course, I have a Master’s degree in International Commerce & Policy, but no employer has ever been able to recognize the skills I offer in that area!)
I agree wholeheartedly with a quote by my heroine, Freya Stark: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” I love mornings in new locales, where a whole day of experiences lies in wait for me, full of delightful surprises.
In Northern Virginia, and in Virginia at large, I often walk around with blinders on, not noticing, or even caring, what my homeland has to offer in the way of natural beauty, history, and culinary and cultural experiences. Being abroad is the high that we adventure junkies crave, and when we’re home, we often find life excruciatingly boring. This is, of course, a fallacy of my mind, a lazy way of thinking. Life is only as boring as I allow it to be. I’m finding that if I open my eyes and continue to throw myself out into the world, even my constricted world on the east coast of the United States, I can indeed find mini-adventures. I just need to be open to possibilities. I need to get up and go.
On this day in April, after a long spell of dry weather, and going quietly crazy in a house full of contractors and deconstruction, pounding and loud music, I venture out to Burnside Farms, a cutting garden where one can pick flowers. I’ve heard the tulips and daffodils are in bloom. I’ve never been to this place before, so I drive out west about a half-hour to Haymarket, Virginia. Here I find some pretty scenes, even though the fields are quite dry and the tulips are past their prime. My first inclination is to write it off as disappointing. But with my camera, I’m able to find bits of loveliness, bits of the exotic. What lends beauty to the scene are dramatic clouds moving across an azure sky, colorful flags, close-up details of the tulips that are still blooming, and the garden’s Dutch theme, with its windmill and wooden shoes. Even the baskets for picking flowers and the colorful jars and vases sold for making flower arrangements are inviting and fascinating, if one pays attention.
As a person who seeks stimulation in life, who is always eager to discover new places and experiences, I’ve been giving thought to how I can go treasure-seeking at home. How can I open my eyes to find the exotic in my backyard? Here are fifteen ideas:
- Look for inspiration everywhere. I find inspiration in Virginia is For Lovers: Virginia’s Travel Blog, local Welcome Centers and tourist information centers, photos people post on Instagram and Facebook, Moon Handbooks from Virginia, D.C., Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and the other surrounding states. I pick up brochures everywhere I go. I talk with friends about places they’ve been and loved. Virginia is a state of lush greenery, mountains, beaches, rivers and forests, not to mention history. Also, as northern Virginia is a suburb of Washington, D.C. there are plenty of cultural activities and ethnic restaurants and I can find multitudes of ideas in the Washington Post Going Out Guide. I also belong to Meetup.com photography and wine-tasting groups, and though I don’t go out often with the groups, I do borrow from their ideas for outings. There is also the fabulous Virginia Wine, which lists all Virginia wineries, Cideries and Meaderies.
2. Seek out something that is unique about a place. Rejoice in defining features. In today’s outing, I find a display of jumbled wooden Dutch shoes, suggestive of the Netherlands. In my foreign travels, I always manage to find something unique about a place that distinguishes it from any other. In Oman, frankincense and silver jewelry, camels and souqs, and abandoned ruins. In Kathmandu, Buddhist chants wafting out of every shop. In Vietnam, abundant offerings of fruits and flowers to the Buddha. In Cambodia, cheap but enjoyable massages on every corner and ruins overtaken by nature.
3. Seek out the wonders of nature. Observe them up close and at different angles. Here, I find tulips and daffodils. I go often to local gardens, national and state parks and arboretums. In California’s Joshua Tree National Park, I found the jagged leaves and wild-armed silhouettes of the trees for which the park is named. In Oman, the rocks and date palms and wadis. In Korea, tea plantations. In Lake Langano, Ethiopia, the acacia trees, big skies and pumice stone shores. In China, pinnacles of rocks and rice terraces.
4. Marvel in grand landscapes. There are plenty of grand landscapes to be found in Virginia, from mountains to beaches to rivers, forests, and meadows. Here, at Burnside Farms, is a landscape found commonly throughout the western part of the state: rolling farmland bordered by stands of trees. Whenever I drive west from the suburbs, I marvel in Virginia’s green undulating fields often bordered by white fences or dotted with cows. In Oman, I found stark moon-like mountain landscapes, endless sand deserts, the ocean along the rocky east coast of the country. In China, it was the karst formations along the Li River. In Korea, it was the wetlands of Suncheon Bay. In Jordan, magnificent Petra, which seems to go on for an eternity.
5. Observe the clothing people wear. In America, I love fashion because anything goes. I of course favor Anthropologie but there are many choices everywhere. Wherever I go, I look at what women wear, because I’m a textile lover and I adore a kind of loose, bohemian fashion. I’ve never been a fan of high fashion; it bores me. In China, I loved looking at the fashionable Chinese girls, though the clothes were always too tiny for me. In Oman, I loved the scarves and abayas of the Omani girls. In Myanmar, I loved the fabric skirts worn by local women, the longyi. I couldn’t stop looking at the boldly colorful saris in India.
5. Look for man-made monuments and memorials, ruins and museums, and historical buildings and battlefields. Today, I find a windmill on the grounds of Burnside Farms. In Philadelphia recently, we found the buildings marking the birth of our nation, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We recently spent two days wandering around the battlefields of Antietam, where I learned much about that fateful day of battle during the Civil War. There are plenty of these places everywhere, and I’m surprised by how well-done most of them are. In Paris: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre. The Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alhambra in Granada. The ruins, abandoned and beckoning, in Oman. In Greece, Delphi and the Meteora monasteries.
6. Take note of forms of shelter: houses, tents, huts, treehouses. Here at Burnside Gardens, the only shelter is a tent. As the garden closes when things aren’t in bloom, it doesn’t make sense to have permanent shelter. In Ethiopia, I found tukul huts and enjoyed drinks in a treehouse bar. In Oman, buildings were made of concrete to keep cool air in and hot air out, often behind a large concrete gate for privacy. In Rethymno, Crete, the pretty little apartments lining alleys, each with potted plants and window boxes outside. In Dallas, many homes are built with beautiful local stone, or simply faced with it. In the western part of Virginia, I can find log homes and old country wooden houses with big front porches. I love how houses vary with the materials that nature provides.
7. Take note of the myriad creative ways people display foods, flowers and other items. Here, tulips are charmingly displayed in a wheelbarrow. I love to visit markets to see how fruits and vegetables are displayed, or how dry goods are displayed in shop windows. I love wandering the streets of small town America, looking into shops. There’s Eastern Market in D.C., and then there are the Chinese and Japanese markets, the Turkish Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo, the Mercat de la Boqueria in Barcelona. I love the displays of textiles and souvenirs by locals at Bagan’s temples in Myanmar. Even when you think you’ve seen it all, you can find someone’s uniquely creative display that makes you smile.
8. Notice how people carry things. What kinds of bags, baskets, suitcases, purses are the norm? Here, there are baskets provided for picking flowers. In Ethiopia, people carried baskets on their heads. In China, people devised all kinds of imaginable ways to carry huge loads, either with slings on their backs or on rickshaws or overloaded bicycles. In India, every animal imaginable was put into service to carry commercial goods. Colorful cloth bags are carried by women from Mexico to Vietnam. Women in Myanmar and Ethiopia carry long bundles of sticks on their backs.
9. Seek out the ways people try to make beauty of their surroundings. Here at Burnside Gardens, I find colorful jars and pots and a pretty display of flowers. Enjoy gardens, trees, window boxes, potted plants, furnishings, paint colors. Look for bonsai or topiary or water gardens. Do people paint their homes colorfully, as in Nepal or India or San Juan, Puerto Rico, or do they put Azulejos, ceramic tiles, on their buildings as in Portugal? Do they put fancy wrought iron gates at the entrance to their properties? Do they display paintings or photographs on their walls? Check out street art, or urban murals, displayed on walls to bring beauty to otherwise blighted areas.
10. Try out every mode of transportation. Here in America, I mostly drive my car as our public transportation is not great; however, I’ve often taken metro or taxis. One of the best things to do in the USA is take a road trip (Road Trip America). I’ve taken horse-drawn carriages in Savannah, Georgia, tuk-tuks in India, motorbikes in China, rickety buses in Egypt and Cambodia. I’ve ridden bicycles all over China. I’ve been pulled by an ox in Myanmar and ridden a donkey in Jordan, as well as strolled atop camels in Egypt. It’s always fun to take some kind of boat when possible, sailboats or motorboats in Annapolis, Maryland; ferries in Greece or China; long-tail boats on Inle Lake in Myanmar.
11. Check out sidewalk vignettes. I often like to check out window displays on sidewalks, as well as people gathering in small groups. In China, I found groups of old people on sidewalks, either playing games such as mahjong, or doing exercises to music on the street. In Pokhara, Nepal, I found people lounging in chairs reading newspapers or children studying on the street near their parents’ shops. While driving through small Indian villages, we saw men asleep on platforms covered in red spittle from betel leaf or women asleep on the concrete floors outside of a train station while rats scrounged around them. Street performers are in abundance on sidewalks in European towns, as well as in American cities. I love to look at newspaper and book kiosks in any city.
12. Try local cuisines, bakeries, wineries and craft breweries. Though there isn’t much to eat at Burnside Farms today, I do help myself to a Coke Zero and a Reese’s Cup. We have so many ethnic restaurants in northern Virginia, being a suburb of cosmopolitan Washington, D.C. I love to try Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Lebanese food, as well as farm-to-table restaurants that offer fresh foods right off of local farms. I love eating at small locally owned restaurants in all my travels, and I’ve enjoyed wonderful meals in Nepal, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar, and especially Greece, Turkey, Spain and Portugal. Besides ethnic and locally grown food, there are plenty of wineries and craft beer places where we can take tasting tours, seeing the countryside and enjoying a bit of a high while we’re at it. Sometimes it’s fun to eat a light dinner in and go out just for dessert.
13. Seek out cultural events. We’ve gone to see numerous plays at D.C. theaters. We also like to attend music by local bands at Friday Night Live! in Herndon. I’ve been to Jazz in the Garden at the National Gallery of Art. There are cultural events every weekend around Washington, but we don’t often venture out to them. Maybe we’ll try to do that more. In Portugal, I loved seeing Fado; in Spain, Spanish guitar and flamenco, as well as local dancers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Kathmandu, Nepal.
14. Anything looks good at sunrise and sunset. Go anywhere during this time, and enjoy the view!
15. Walk. Get out of any vehicle and use your two feet to take you through a place in an up close and personal way. Hike in nature, in forests, wetlands, or in the mountains. Do an urban hike, just starting at some point in a city and seeing where you end up. I’ve done this in Washington, D.C. and in Toledo and Barcelona, Spain; Evora and Lisbon, Portugal. This is where you really notice the unique and interesting things a place has to offer, always on your feet. 🙂
I don’t know how long I’ll stay at the home-front before deciding to venture off again into unknown territories. But for the time being, I’ll try to make the best of being at home, by seeking out the treasures that are here in abundance, if only I open my eyes. 🙂
On the side, of course, I’ll still be planning my next adventure abroad. Coming up soon: Iceland. 🙂