“Of the places you’ve been, what’s your favorite?”
I hate hate HATE this question. Trips are like snowflakes – unique, beautiful, fleeting; there are no favorites. Each of my trips has been an irreplicable combination of place, time, and companionship. Why not just ask me to pick my favorite child? (Except, don’t ask because I don’t have kids.)
Answering the dreaded question
I finally decided that I should come up with an answer, however. It’s more polite to just go along with the question than to rant about children and snowflakes and the utter impossibility of responding. (What?!)
Once I forced myself to think about it, I actually found the reflection helpful in understanding myself, what I get out of travel, and, broadly, what to aim for in future trips. Each of the trips in this list stands out markedly on one or two of these key factors:
- A combination of planned and serendipitous experiences
- A sense of accomplishment or having earned what I experienced
- Strengthened bonds between companions through shared experience
- Impossibly beautiful places and people
So, without further ado, here are my faves–to-date in chronological order (it’s the only fair way). I plan to give each of these its own post someday, but this at least provides a high-level summary.
After a busy year freelancing, I found myself with a small gap between projects into which I could squeeze in a last-minute trip. I enlisted my mom as a travel companion and drinking buddy; in exchange for taking her to visit relatives in the England, she’d go to Belgium and drink beer with me.
I loved this trip for the simplicity of the accomplishment. I didn’t have too much time to agonize over the details, but I had a fantastic time letting loose with my mom and got to visit the source of one of my early favorite beers (Saint Bernardus Brewery in Watou), not to mention the beautiful Belgian cities and other tasty Belgian treats (mussels, frites, and chocolate, anyone?).
Quote of the trip: in the middle of a small city square in Bruges, after our third beer stop, my mom grabbed my arm, grinned at me and said, “Jean! I like being drunk better than I like not being drunk!” I responded, “Let’s get you some frites.” Priceless.
MACHU PICCHU 2011
Friends from several different parts of my life (grad school, hockey, work) came together in Peru to visit Lima and Cusco and do a four-day Inca Trail hike. A bus will take you to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes in about half an hour, providing instant gratification of one of the world’s most amazing (IMHO) archaeological sites. Hiking, however, makes you earn it and you get to see lots more amazing Inca architecture along the way,
Passing through the Sun Gate, even on a day when the mountain is shrouded in clouds yields a sense of awe and pride. We made it, and this wonder of the ancient world is our reward. Sharing that experience with a disparate group that became a tight-knit band of travelers over the course of the trip made it even better.
Highlight of the trip: suppressing my fear of (falling from) heights long enough to make it to the top of Huayna Picchu, where we were rewarded with a chance to look down on Machu Picchu, miniaturized by the height of our vantage point. (The soup made on the trail by our camp cook came in a close second.)
Much like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat had been calling to my inner Indiana Jones / Tomb Raider for some time. Thus, when I got an invitation to a wedding in Bangkok, I decided to take a side trip over to Siem Reap. The original plan was for a group of us to go, but that didn’t work out.
I’ve historically been a very reluctant solo traveler (I like to share!), but sometimes I just want to go where I want to go, so going alone is what I have to do. I booked a room at a $15-a-night guest house (fancy!), which hooked me up with a guide and tuk tuk driver, explored the temple complexes, and ate as much fried fish and green mango relish as I could for a couple days.
In absolute measures of adventurousness, this was a baby step, but I did what I wanted and had a great time, so I’m counting it as a win. Plus, Angkor Wat and the surrounding complexes are beyond stunning at sunrise, sunset, and anytime in between.
Not long after the revolution, I spent ten days visiting a friend who was teaching at an American school near Tunis. Given the media coverage and political volatility at the time, I might not have gone there on my own, but with my friend’s reassurances, I decided to jump on the opportunity.
The thing that struck me most about Tunisia was how the locals lived among their archaeology and antiquities, as well the many layers of civilizations represented there, from the ancient Phoenicians to modern-day Tunisians. Carthage, where my friend lived, felt like an open-air archaeological site, with in situ mosaics visible for up-close inspection in the parks and pieces of broken columns used as doorstops in residents’ homes.
I feel lucky to have been able to take advantage of the window of relative calm and to have a friend on the ground. It makes me sad to know that today, terrorism and travel advisories are taking a huge toll on Tunisians who depend on tourism for their livelihoods, and that this beautiful country, with its warm, friendly people and fascinating history, is inaccessible to so many who would enjoy visiting. Do your research and go in with your eyes open, but when you get the chance, definitely go to Tunisia.
Sometimes, all it takes to shoot a place to the top of my “To Go” list is a single picture. One look at Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), and I couldn’t get Norway out of my head. I’m hardly an adrenaline junkie, but for some reason a 1000 meter drop with no railings beckoned me onward. All those fjords looked kinda nice, too.
I mentioned Norway at a party one day, and two of my friends signed on to the adventure immediately, happily turning all planning duties over to me. Editing Norway down to a manageable itinerary became an obsession; I actually created three different plans.
We eventually settled on the one we called “Climbing Trifecta” – hiking up to Preikestolen and the equally precipitous Trolltunga and Kjeragbolten. Focusing on southern Norway, our 8-day road trip took us from Oslo to Stavanger and back. Aided and energized by nearly 19 hours of daylight, we crammed what seemed like 3 days’ worth of hiking, stave churches, unplanned photo stops, and beer sampling into each day.
This was a feat of planning and flexibility. Norway serves up something breathtaking and pause-worthy around every bend in its roads. By the end of the trip we felt like we had added more items to do there than we had checked off. I am definitely going to be using those other two itineraries I made.
Check out my other Norway posts.
In the end, I found this exercise illuminating, but also frustrating to some degree. This list is not likely to remain static as I intend to keep traveling and having new experiences. So next time I pause to reflect, I will unavoidably be evaluating trips in comparison to those listed here. Will I be disappointed if the trip doesn’t surpass these, or will overthinking it somehow diminish the value of these trips? The answer to both of these should be “no,” of course. Analysis does have its perils, however. (And spoiler alert, my recent trip to Iceland may have blown these all away).
So what about you? How would you answer the dreaded question:
“Of the places you’ve been, what’s your favorite?”
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