musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Ode to First Ladies & the New Normal

As often happens, dinner with friends last week got me thinking...

Being as it was the week of Barry O's second inauguration and I was sitting at a table of unabashed liberals, spirits were high. And since a very vocal half of the table was women, it was natural that a Michelle Obama love fest ensued.

Yes, she is a style icon. Yes, "Michelle Obama arms" is a thing. Yes, we all love J Crew too! And the bangs are... well... you can't win 'em all I guess.

But it was the rest of the conversation that really got me thinking.

Since moving to the US in 2000, I've only had the chance to 'get to know' two ladies in the White House: Laura and Michelle. I always liked Laura and will continue to do so. Even at the lowest points of her husband's popularity, America agreed - we liked Laura. A sweet, genuine mother of two daughters my age, a librarian dedicated to improving educational opportunities for all, and a devoted wife. She's safe. She's caring. She's a UT grad. Honestly, in a lot of ways she reminds me of my own mother and I'll always look to her with motherly affection.

But I can't help but think, for young women in 2013, that Laura represents the end of a largely bygone era and Michelle the beginning of tomorrow. To our parents and their parents, the societal (and sometimes institutional) limits to what a woman could and could not do were ever-present. A woman was expected to do X, Y, and Z in support of her family and in line with societal expectations. Some did buck this trend and blazed the trail for women's equality. They were labeled pioneers, hippies, revolutionaries, feminists, etc. Anything but 'normal'.

Maybe it's a result of my recent time as a 'house fiancee' (cooking, cleaning and doing laundry while Lauren studies), but I feel like times, they are a changin'.

Sure, women still don't get equal pay for equal work in a lot of cases. Young women undoubtedly face more obstacles than do young men when entering certain professions. Whether women should be allowed to fight in combat is still an issue. A glass ceiling of sorts may indeed still exist. However, for my friends at least (which, admittedly, my friends in DC and Cambridge probably aren't representative of the broader US), it's less a matter of empowerment/women's liberation and more a new societal norm.

Enter Michelle Obama. She was Barry's boss back when he was still going by Barry. She's a dominating figure, and I'm not just talking about her physique. She could very easily be the breadwinner in the family but has chosen to let her husband do what's best for the country, thus putting her own career on hold. Doing so was obviously her decision in equal partnership with... well... her partner (i.e. husband). She's well-educated, incredibly smart and the only thing (probably) holding her back from entering elected life herself is her brutal honesty and inability to disguise her true feelings for the sake of political gain. She's a tough but loving parent and perhaps the only person able to bring the leader of the free world back down to earth at dinner time.

Michelle is an inspiration to a generation of women (one of whom I'm proud to call my fiancee) who expect and deserve an equal role in a relationship. She has set a new standard not only for future first ladies but for what it means to be a woman in the 21st century. She's an inspiration not only to women, but to men... including me.

On a side note... here's hoping that the next 'First' in the White House will be a gentleman?!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Antarctica the Beautiful

There's something intoxicating about the open ocean. Or maybe that's just the Dramamine talking... Either way, crossing Sir Francis Drake's Passage meant being a small speck of existence traipsing through a vast, never-ending ocean of bone-chilling water for two days. An awe-inspiring, and simultaneously terrifying, thought.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being capsize worthy waves), we were told by the crew that our passage warranted a zero. "Drake Lake" they called it, seemingly savoring the break from normally choppy seas. No complaints, and more importantly no sea-sickness, from our side!

In less than two days, the South Shetland Islands (part of or not part of "Antarctica" depending on who you ask) was visible off the bow. After a year of (literally) circumnavigating the globe with Lauren, we were in reach of the ever-elusive seventh continent. A dream of mine for as long as I can remember, we were about to have completed all seven in just ten months... I'm getting jet-lagged just thinking about it.

"So... how was Antarctica?" seems to be the common question upon our return; to which "amazing" seems to be our standard response. We could also say unbelievable, extraordinary, outstanding, and any other superlative you can think of. Sadly, for those of you wishing to live vicariously through us on this one, the vistas, wildlife, and indeed smells are wholly indescribable.

To their credit, G Adventures did a stellar job of keeping us entertained with history and wildlife lessons during our time in the Drake, but they (nor anyone else for that matter) could not have prepared us for what we were about to experience.

I might as well get this out of the way since it's probably all you want to know anyways: yes, penguins are even more fascinating and cute than you currently think. Besides their stench (whenever I smell sewage back in civilization I look around for penguins), their habits, lifestyle and utter disregard for humans is wonderfully awesome. Awkward on land and graceful in the water, they seem interested in, but not bothered by, our carefully controlled/coordinated human contact. After my 1000th picture of a nesting Gentoo, I forced myself to put the camera down and simply observe my new friends. Waddling up to me, Freddy the Penguin would look up, then down, then over his shoulder as if giving the nod to his friends...

"This one's ok. Smells a bit, but he's cool." If you think you like penguins now, you'll like them more after meeting them on their turf. I might or might not have tried to sneak one back with me in my carry-on...

Besides Freddy and his friends, the whales, the seals, the clouds, the mountains, the vast expanses of frozen nothingness, and the periodic bone-chilling winds all literally took my breath away. In a challenging photographic environment (bright whites and harsh contrasts), it was all I could do to keep up. Could I really capture the amazing teal of that iceberg, or the vastness of the scenery, or the thoughts of a leopard seal, or the feel of the Antarctic sun on my face? Can I adequately answer the 'how was Antarctica' question in this blog without trivializing it and minimizing its grandeur?

Alas, the answer to both questions is simply 'no'. Photos don't do it justice and words place finality on the infinite. Nothing would really do Antarctica justice. Except, of course, experiencing it yourself.

Antarctica in it's current form may not be around forever. So you might want to get on that...

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

How to Travel to Antarctica

This post discusses the mechanics of getting to Antarctica the way we did it, offering recommendations, tips, general thoughts, etc. For photos, click here. For my impressions of our trip, click here... 

With Lauren in grad school studying an obnoxious amount of hours each week, I was in charge of finding how we could get to Antarctica. Plus it’s been my dream to go so I was happy to oblige.

So, as any self-respecting person under the age of 70 would do, I started by googling “how to travel to Antarctica” and ended up selecting Expedition Trips to book the journey. They were very helpful and pleasant, essentially making the process pretty easy and straightforward. But there were a few things that I wished I knew before we booked.

Our ship was the M/S Expedition, a recently converted ferry owned by another (rival) tourism group: G Adventures. A company that generally specializes in on-land adventures (i.e. Machu Piccu), the Expedition is the only cruise ship owned by G. And it’s obviously their pride and joy. The boat staff is a friendly mix of seasoned expedition-ists and energetic young people, a demographic mirrored by the passengers. When I think cruise I generally think wheel chairs and walkers; not the case on the Expedition. Plenty of mid-20 to mid-40 ish type folks and a few friends our age we’ll keep up with in the future for sure.

Although this isn’t usually how we roll (i.e. we usually practice 'shoot from the hip' tourism), we may look into G Adventures for our next adventure. Apparently the company tries to fill the gap (they used to be called "Gap Adventures" but apparently had to change due to some lawsuit or something) between plush all-inclusive tours and backpacking; thus making far-flung, previously unattainably expensive journeys... well... attainable. Plus, they pride themselves on quirkiness and I'm a sucker for anything that makes life a bit more interesting.

What I didn’t know is that we could have (and arguably should have) booked directly through G Adventures. Their online marketing folks aren’t as good as Expedition Trips apparently because I don’t ever remember seeing them on the Google search results, travel blogs, etc. They might want to get on that. In addition to it being potentially cheaper, by not booking with G we missed out on a few things (like not having a welcome packet when we arrived in Ushuaia - our port of embarkation) initially.

Angel on one shoulder: "Expedition Trips helped us book other things like horseback riding, hotels and flights if we needed them to..."
Devil on other shoulder: "Yeah, but if I'm going to be booking my own flights/hotels, why go with a middle man if you can book directly from the source?"

It's a fair point, especially for 'shoot from the hip'-pers like us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Very Merry 'Vest'mas...

...otherwise known as 'Erol Meets the Future In-Laws'. All of them. The full Vest clan. In rare form.

Lauren’s mother (maiden/code name Vest) has one sister and three brothers, all of whom have children and planned to be at a rented Texas beach house at one point or another in between Christmas and New Years. There were also the ‘plus ones’ (of which I am a member) helping bring the total participation to somewhere around thirty. I tried to do a physical count at one time but failed. Ever try to count ants hovering around something sugary?

Our stilted home away from home was in Surfside Beach, a corner of Texas somewhere between Galveston and nowhere. It’s a place for massive refineries in view of offshore platforms burning hundred meter flames high into the night sky. It’s a place for hurricanes eager to wreak havoc. It’s a place for washed-up hippie dudes who find Jesus and own a surf shop. And, for one week, it’s a place for the Vests.

A little apprehension goes a long way towards managing expectations. I was slightly worried about being bored or voicing some of those thoughts that are best left in one’s head (you know what I’m talking about). I had been told to prepare for practical jokes, contentious politics, philosophizing, and perhaps even a few relatives wondering “who is this random Turkish guy that stole a cousin away?”

Thankfully for me, Lauren hasn’t brought many of her significant others home in the past and I don’t have any facial tattoos… though I do have an unpronounceable last name. This was going to be tough.

Turns out my apprehension was as ill-founded as it was helpful in my expectation-setting mental process. Not only did the Vest clan embrace me with open arms, I immediately felt at home in the Monet-like (‘good from far but far from good’) rental, chatting up this aunt or that cousin or that uncle as if I’d known them for years.

There were the occasional dalliances into politics. There was so much talk about baseball I felt like I needed a hotdog. There were Texas accents that couldn’t have been real… except they were real. There was the pursuit of a better joke or jab, a constant game of one-uppance I repeatedly lost.

And of course there was the irony-filled two-hour debate on who should be considered the most competitive person in the family. Epic.

But above all there was singing, dancing, and laughter. They’ve been through tragedy and celebration. They’ve rejoiced and wept. They’ve gone away and come home. But they’ve always done it together. As a family.

If you’re looking for a recipe for a successful family reunion-style vacation, look no further than the Vests: a strong, loving and unconditionally awesome family I can now call my own.

And while you’re looking, you might even be lucky enough to witness a cousin vs. cousin dance-off...!