The Accidental Finds Manifesto

Here it is, the Accidental Finds Travel Manifesto. Some tips for planning your trip the AF way!

1. Don’t overplan your trip. Yes, you want to know what you should see while you’re there, but be sure to leave time to discover new places, visit someplace twice, or to take a break by sitting in the town square one afternoon or enjoying a long lunch.

2. Be open to everything. Food, people, places, you name it, give it shot. You’re traveling to get out of your comfort zone, so try to best to get yourself out of it.

3. Be smart about being open to anything. You probably already do this, but use common sense and protect yourself. Everything doesn’t mean absolutely everything.

4. Don’t be afraid to pick a random place and go there. It will probably be awesome, and if not, you still got to see a new place and you know where not to go next time. As you can tell by this blog, I’ve had some of my best trips this way.

5. Make time see parts of the city where tourists normally don’t go. Talk to people who have been to the place, research blogs by people who live in your destination, etc. to find out what the must-see spots are that go beyond the standard guide book stuff.

6. Look for accidental finds near your home. You don’t have to go far to create a great travel story!

What else would you add to this list?

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Finds in your own city

I’ve mentioned before that even though I live in the DC metro area, I hardly make it into downtown DC. I’ve lived in this area on and off since 2002, and there are still some places I haven’t visited, or haven’t visited in a long time. (However, I am moving into the city this week so hopefully I will at least have fewer excuses about why I can’t be bothered to go places in DC!)

Yesterday, I finally made it to one of those places: Eastern Market in southeast DC. I had actually been to the “ballroom” (I didn’t feel it quite lived up to that name) one evening for a dance event, but I had never visited when the market itself was open. In my defense, the friend I went with has lived here longer than me and hadn’t been either. I think the irony often is that when you live in a city and can visit these amazing spots whenever you want, you get complacent about visiting them.

I really enjoyed my trip to Eastern Market. First off, I was able to find a parking spot nearby (that’s always the first challenge in DC, or any city for that matter). Second, it wasn’t too cold, although it did start snowing a little in the early afternoon. Third, and most importantly, I saw plenty of interesting things and tasted some delicious food.

Eastern Market DC

It would be very easy to spend way too much money at a market like this. I especially wanted to avoid accumulating any new things since I’m moving this week. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely successful, but the things I bought (mostly) weren’t for me.

There are some great artisans at Eastern Market – selling jewelry, stuffed animals, purses, paintings, etc. At one booth I found the perfect present for my mother, which I went ahead and bought even though her birthday isn’t until April. The artist makes wooden racks that you can hang up to keep your keys, coat, purse, etc., out of reclaimed materials. The one that made me break my promise of not buying anything was made out of an old board game, which my mom collects. As the woman checked me out on her iPhone, I couldn’t help but think how much easier selling your art must be in settings like this nowadays than back in the days of cash or checks.

Eastern Market DC

And the free food samples! Those always make me happy. I tried some delicious aged gouda, some fresh sliced apple, goat milk caramel (I had no idea that was even a thing), and different kinds of hummus. I did buy myself one container of hummus (white bean with artichoke and capers – yum!), but believe me, it will be gone before I move so it doesn’t really break my rule about accumulating things.

Eastern Market DC

Some beautiful reclaimed panels and tin ceilings. Wish I had a big house where I could put them all!

I’m glad I finally went to Eastern Market, and while it’s not some place I’ll have reason to go regularly, I think it will be good for Christmas shopping, etc. Definitely a must see place when you visit DC (or even if you live here!)

Eastern Market DC

I’ve never seen a building this stuffed with books!

Here’s a challenge: Think of a place in the city you live in that you’ve been meaning to go, or rethink visiting some place you’ve previously written off as not worth your time, and actually go there! And be sure to let me know how it goes!

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Using hobbies to connect abroad

Whether you are living in another country or just visiting, finding ways to engage in your favorite hobbies and activities abroad can be a great way to meet new people and to ease the transition into the new culture.

When I was living in Edinburgh, one of my friends convinced me to try taking swing dancing lessons with her through the student swing dance club. I had never danced at all, but I gave it a shot, especially since it only cost the equivalent of about $10 for a school year’s worth of weekly lessons. I fell in love with it, and ended up participating in the end of the year dance performance. When I moved back to DC, I found an organization that gave swing lessons (for much more than $10 a year, of course) and took lessons for another two years. I also quickly realized that the swing dance community was huge – I could go to a dance somewhere in the DC every night if I wanted to.

And that community extends internationally. One of my friends from those lessons found swing dances to attend while he was on trips in Germany, Italy, and England. Cross-cultural events like that are a great way to enter into a new country or community, and to feel more comfortable in a new place. (I tried to find a swing dance while I was in Santiago, Chile, but could only find a place that gave lessons but not dances. Dances probably exist, I just couldn’t find out about them via Google). Not everything will translate, of course, but it’s always good to look into the possibility of finding an extension of your activity or community abroad. Those activities can be used as a launching pad into new activities that you would never be able to participate in at home.

Similarly, when I was studying in St Andrews, I took my interest in writing and publications to work on the literary magazine and newspaper, just as I did at my home institution. I also extended it by joining the news team for the university radio station, which my tiny liberal arts college didn’t have.

What sort of hobbies and activities have you engaged in to ease the transition abroad? Or what will you plan to participate in in the future?

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Inauguration Day at home and abroad

Even though I live just a few miles away from DC in northern Virginia, I watched the inauguration today from the comfort and warmth of my living room. I think many people grow complacent when they live someplace that attracts a lot of tourists. I know that I only head to the National Mall when someone comes to visit, and watching the ceremonies today, I realized I haven’t been out there since the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial was unveiled. And any major holiday or big event like the inauguration, I avoid DC like the plague. Thousands of people crammed into a small space, hours to make it home via the metro? No thanks.

But even watching the swearing-in from home got me thinking. Thinking about the future possibilities of American politics, about my experiences as an American abroad, and what exactly all of those things mean.

Events like the inauguration are meant to pull at your patriotic heartstrings, make your heart swell up with pride to be an American. And watching these sorts of things, as the same songs that are always sung are belted out one more time, does make me feel proud. As I listened to Obama’s speech, checking off his goals for this term (thinking, good, he clearly mentioned gay rights as a necessary step, yes, we need to work to lower health care costs and figure out immigration reform and gun control), I certainly felt that pride, that hope. But then the tickle of reality works itself into the back of my mind. This is all great, but how will it ever get done? It’s one thing to say we will all work together, but can it really happen? And even if it does, that doesn’t even begin to solve all of the issues we have at home and abroad.

Of course, every country has its own issues that it must grapple with (and really, in certain ways, America’s are very minor). But America’s issues are at the center (more or less) of the world stage, because what happens here often reverberates around the globe. And that has always made me a little uncomfortable, especially when traveling abroad.

I’m certainly no expert on world politics (I need to do better on this), but I’m not a novice either. But it has always amazed me how much people abroad know about U.S. politics and history compared to how little I know about theirs. Of course, what they think isn’t always complimentary – I’ve spoken with Brits, Germans, and Italians who laugh at how little our country provides for its people, and at some of the very conservative positions that are given voice in our politics. But, good and bad, there is always a certain fascination about what’s going on here.

The first time I went abroad was during the Bush administration. I was warned by various people to be prepared to experience negativity against me as an American, and not to take it personally. Now, I realize that where I have traveled certainly isn’t representative of the entire world (I’ve only covered Europe and some of South America so far), but I was surprised at how little negativity there really was, or at least at how it was expressed. Sure, people joked about Bush or railed against his policies (as some people now do about Obama), but I think especially as I wasn’t particularly inclined to defend those policies, it never seemed negative against America generally to me. That fascination was always still there.

People always had questions about American culture, and knew things that, if you think about it, there’s really no reason for them to know. I met a Scot once who wanted to spend the evening being quizzed about state capitals. During the 2008 election, our student union in Edinburgh held an all-night party to watch the results come in, and everyone attended, not just Americans missing home. And watching a movie with a friend from Taiwan once, I asked him if he knew was in the portrait on a classroom wall. He looked at me like I was an idiot. “It’s Abraham Lincoln,” he said. I guess at that point I still hadn’t grasped quite how far we’ve (perhaps forced, or at least spread) our culture around the world. Because really, why does someone from Taiwan need to recognize the picture of a president from the 1860s, albeit a very famous one? I couldn’t pick out a picture of any Taiwanese politician, ever. Aside from a vague knowledge of Chiang Kai-Shek, I’m pretty much lost on Taiwanese history.

All of that is to say, I’ve often felt a little odd as an American abroad. As an object of fascination, perhaps occasionally ire, sometimes feeling a little out of touch with what the rest of the world knows, I’m not always sure how to act. Plus, I’m not always sure how I feel as an American – on days like today I feel extremely proud, but some days reading the news I feel truly ashamed. Yet I think traveling gives me much more perspective than anything else ever will.

Hopefully as I travel more I will figure more things out. But for today, here’s to four more years of President Obama, and to the hope that things will be accomplished that will better the lives of Americans and the lives of those that our policies affect around the world. Happy inauguration day!

How do you feel when you travel abroad? I’m interested to hear how both Americans and others deal with their competing identities as citizens of their particular country. What sort of encounters have you had with Americans and others abroad? And what did you think of the inauguration ceremony today?

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Anastenaria Fire Festival

Check out my new article at The Circumference on the Anastenaria Fire Festival in Greece and Bulgaria. It’s interesting how this specific practice has moved between the two countries. If I ever make it over there, I’m definitely going! 

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The world of Chilean arts and crafts at Los Dominicos

One of the things I noticed walking around Santiago, Chile, is how little the city catered to tourists. In major tourist destinations, the main attractions downtown are surrounded by shops selling you all sorts of cheap trinkets. In Santiago, these stores by and large didn’t exist. In a way this was refreshing, but at the same it left me wondering, where was I going to buy souvenirs for everyone? I found the answer at Pueblito Los Dominicos.

Los Dominicos is a handicrafts village in Santiago. Dozens of artists and craftsmen have shops in a picturesque setting outside of the downtown area.

To get to the village, you have to take Line 1 on the metro all the way to the end, to the stop aptly named Los Dominicos. After crossing a large park ringed by the mountains, you’ll arrive at some long, low, white-washed buildings. One of these is a church, and you have to walk around and behind the church to find the entrance to the shops – there’s very little in the way of signage.

Los Dominicos in Santiago Chile

One thing that makes Los Dominicos so interesting is that pains have been taken to make it so attractive, rather than just leaving it as rows of storefronts, which would have drawn tourists on their own. There is plenty of foliage guarding the walkways, a fountain at the front entrance, and somewhat strangely and arbitrarily, cages full of birds, including peacocks. (This last seemed an awfully small space to keep so many birds, but I tried not to judge too much).

Los Dominicos in Santiago Chile

The shops at Los Dominicos sell everything from cheap souvenirs to expensive jewelry, leather, and dishware, and more unique items, like hand-painted wooden shopfronts to hang on the wall. Chile is known for its lapis lazuli, and the stores sell lapis made into jewelry, dishes, and even little penguin figurines (I definitely bought one of those). There are many other stones that jewelry is made from, and I saw some amazing pieces there (though I couldn’t afford the nicest ones).

Los Dominicos in Santiago Chile

The shopkeepers are very friendly, without being too pushy about sales, and some of them speak English. One woman I bought a painted wooden box from for my mom let me take a picture of her shop. She had set up a cute, intricate display on one wall of her store, so clearly she’s been selling her work out of this shop for a long time.

Los Dominicos in Santiago Chile

You can spend several hours wandering through the shops at Los Dominicos, and it really is the best place that I found to purchase quality souvenirs for yourself and everyone back home. Plus, with it being metro accessible, there’s no reason not to go the next time you’re in Santiago, Chile.

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A walking tour of Valparaiso, Chile

Valparaiso, Chile is an instantly recognizable city. The colorful buildings climbing up the hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean have made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a travel destination for thousands of tourists each year. I had the opportunity to visit Valparaiso in December. Walk with me through the city and see the beauty for yourself.

Start at the top of the city and work your way down. One popular tourist site here is Pablo Neruda’s house, which overlooks the entire area.

Pablo Neruda's house in Valparaiso, Chile

valparaiso (2)

Then start walking down the winding streets. It’s amazing how steep some of them are – that’s why you want to make sure you do your walking tour going downhill! I would be scared to drive up and down some of these steep roads, but cars and buses alike speed along them.

valparaiso chile

valparaiso chile

valparaiso chile

Make sure to stop halfway down the city to capture the views of the port and other parts of the city.

valparaiso chile

valparaiso chile

Take one of the city’s funiculars down the mountainside to cut down on the walk (try not to be too surprised at how fast they slide down the hill!). Finally you will be at Valparaiso’s main square.

valparaiso chile

Finally, don’t forget to keep taking pictures of the sea as you drive out of the city, even though they don’t turn out that well!

valparaiso chile

valparaiso chile

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