a new passport and 10 years of travel memories

yesterday, my new passport arrived. along with it was enclosed the old one, holes punched in the cover. that one was issued in 2005, and by late 2008, i had taken so many trips that i had to apply to the us embassy in dublin, where i was working on my masters degree, for additional pages.

uspassport-with-stamps
sweet old passport, bit tattered.

seeing these two passports side-by-side, one with crisp, forlornly empty pages and one battered and filled with faded colours and shapes, handwriting and splotchy dates, has made me, well, a bit nostalgic. so, in honour of that dusty old passport, i though i’d recall ten of my favourite travel memories from the past decade.

us-passport-old-new
new passport, new life

10. being wind-battered atop the mingsha dune

mingsha-dune
see how the sand appears smooth? that’s crazy 200mph wind blowing it upwards.

the setting is gansu province, which is north and west in china. it’s largely desert and it’s beautiful. the little oasis town of dunhuang sits right on the edge of the taklamakan desert, which has sand dunes that – according to my travel companion at the time, who’d lived in egypt – were huge by comparison. we trekked to the top – a feat unto itself – where views of dune upon dune stretched as far as my eyes would take me. it was windy. real windy. sand was blowing everywhere and my hair was straight out on one end. somehow – the locals call it magic – the oasis below never gets covered in sand, despite all this wind.

9. battling banshees on a windy connemara night

exploring killary earlier that day - not so creepy.
exploring killary earlier that day – not so creepy.

my first solo trip was to ireland and it wasn’t my choice. well, the trip was my choice but the solo part, not so much. my would-be travel companion had failed to apply for his passport in time and only told me two days before (thanks ben! 😉 ).

it was saint patrick’s day and i’d found the only village in ireland that didn’t have some sort of parade (leenane – it remains to this day one of my favourite places). i was alone in my hostel save for a curly-haired canadian and a huge group of scuba divers from a college in dublin, all of whom play integral parts in a semi-fictional book i have been off-and-on penning pretty much since then.

paddy’s day was freezing, rainy and extremely windy and the hostel was out on the edge of ireland’s only fjord, killary. the divers arranged a minivan into the village pub, and after we were all suitably locked, myself and two new pals (one of which remains a dear friend to this day) took a creepy walk through the late-night. just as the wind picked up a particularly shuddersome howl across the barren connemara hills, the irish among us gave a chilling description of banshees – or mythical celtic fairies whose wails were an omen of death.

8. almost getting stranded on putuoshan (and the night ferry)

the anji foreign legion, out for a night of karaoke in 2006.
the anji foreign legion, out for a night of karaoke in 2006.

in 2006, i was resident in eastern china and working as an english teacher. some english teacher friends of mine and i (all of us foreigners) decided to take a little weekend trip from our town (anji) to putuoshan, an island off the zhejiang coast known for its buddhist monasteries. the crossing from ningbo wasn’t particularly smooth sailing, but we got to the island and spent the day exploring its 12.5 kilometres from end-to-end before heading back to ningbo, where we’d a hotel booked for the night. or so we thought.

during the day, the wind had picked up, making the crossing impassable for the small passenger ferry we’d come across on. instead, we were rerouted to zhoushan, a larger island nearby. fine, we thought. we’ll just grab a bus across the bridge to ningbo.

then, as things tend to happen in china, it all went terribly wrong. no, it turns out, there were no more buses to ningbo that night and, no, there was no passenger ferry. as panic started to set in, one of our lot called a student of hers who she knew to be from the area. a car was arranged for us to a port some ways out of the main town, and tickets were bought (not by us) for a huge, slow, night ferry to ningbo – the kind that carries cars and lorries.

the passage was slow and the four of us sat on the outdoor deck, watching ships in the night, wondering where exactly we were lost in the east china sea.

7. fearing for my life on the roads of montreal

last year, bill and i went to montreal in a car we hired in boston. if you have ever driven in montreal, you know what i am talking about. and if you haven’t, well, let’s just say you should keep an eye out for buses coming up the wrong lanes on huge, scary bridges.

6. a first trip up the eiffel tower (and maybe the last)

not a complete waste - we got this nice squeeze shot!
not a complete waste – we got this nice squeeze shot!

i will be honest and say i didn’t love my eiffel tower experience. i waited quite a long time to pop my paris cherry and, when bill finally swept me off to france, it was an amazing time (much better than i ever expected paris to be). but the eiffel tower? ehhhhhh. we sprang for the tickets all the way to the top, which if you’ve ever been up there, you’ll know is basically like a horrible, circular corrugated steel room with high-up windows like some sort of terrorist boat, where people shuffle along, the tallest straining for views out the manholes like hungry giraffes. the tower’s better from the bottom, but then again, you will never have that first trip up, or that first eiffel tower smooch.

5. wine tasting in central otago

relaxation in a glass in central otago.
relaxation in a glass in central otago.

counted among my most relaxing travel memories was a 2012 drive through the south island of new zealand in springtime. buds were starting to bloom in central otago, where several lazy afternoons were spent straining for the last rays of spring sun on winery patios, gazing at the aptly-named remarkables mountains over endless glasses of lush pinot noir. can i go back now?

4. moving to prague, sight unseen

despite my misgivings, i never got over prague's beauty.
despite my misgivings, i never got over prague’s beauty.

my feelings about living in prague are pretty well-documented on this blog. prague did not turn out to be ‘my place’ in this world, but it is not 13 months of my life i regret, either. quite the opposite. sometimes living somewhere you really don’t get on with can be the most instructive of experiences, and if anything you walk away knowing what you don’t want out of life.

but those first few weeks in prague were ecstatic. the feeling of moving sight-unseen to a new place – one you’ve literally never set foot in nor eyes on – is exhilarating beyond belief. you are there for the good and the bad, no matter the outcome, it’s a commitment and an undertaking.

3. fleeing belfast’s egg hostel

this is the egg hostel. you can see why i remembered it.
this is the egg hostel. you can see why i remembered it.

oh god. this story is such an ‘in joke’ but it still represents one of my most-favourite-ever-top-of-the-heap-hilarious travel experiences. i was living in dublin. my friend ken had come to visit and we hired a car for a bit of a driving trip. it was great! we saw snow and tractors and connemara hills and giggled in hostels about snoring frenchmen.

then we got to belfast. before i continue, i should say that i have patched things up with belfast – we quite get on now (thanks kristen!), but if left to this one experience i’d never have returned. in fact, i wrote an entire post about it at the time, which may or may not be worth a read, but will at any rate explain the in-joke subhead here.

2. drunk driving a police car through rural zhejiang

my favourite party story is this one and i will tell it to you now, but if you ever want to hear it properly, stop reading and buy me a beer and i will give you the goods as they should be told in person.

it was late spring 2006 and i was very new to living in china. my chinese colleague was friends with a local, well-to-do family who desperately wanted to hire me to basically au pair for their daughter over the summer to improve her english. as is the chinese way, they threw me a banquet at their home to ‘show their friendship’ (aka try to woo me). my colleague – a chinese english teacher – and her boyfriend – a local policeman – came along. as is custom in these situations, there was a lot (a LOT) of toasting. mostly this was bubbly lager out of shot-glass sized cups. and there was a buttload of food. in my inexperience, i was sipping on beer in between toasts. if you ever find yourself in this situation in china here is some advice: do not drink UNLESS you are being toasted.

well, i got full on beer. quite full on beer bubbles, actually. but shots of 3% lager on top of mountains of rural chinese fare was never going to get me dead drunk. what it did do, though, was get everyone else wildly intoxicated. the wife/mom was reeling around and, when i refused a toast, she drunkenly tried to beckon me into the toilet to vomit so i could go on with another round. i didn’t vomit but i did keep drinking. somehow.

by the end of the night, my colleague’s boyfriend was pretty much dead to the world. but his cop car was out front and my colleague had come on her scooter and didn’t know how to drive a car. so here we had a dilemma: we couldn’t get three people home on a scooter and the policeman couldn’t sit up straight.

hey, guess what! i can drive! so in we got, with my colleague promising to direct me home from the passenger’s seat while the policeman conked out in the back seat. but not before turning on the cruiser’s lights.

home i drove us, gently intoxicated, red and blues flashing down the dark chinese back roads, wondering how i’d ever, ever top this memory. mostly i still haven’t.

1. falling in love on the streets of dublin

most glam pic of us ever. snapped by paul o'flynn on the isle of man.
most glam pic of us ever. snapped by paul o’flynn on the isle of man.

i always said i was going to move to ireland and find a sexy irishman to marry, but i never thought it would really happen. then i met bill and, on our third date, after seeing the somewhat racy nora, about the life of nora barnacle, we were walking the wet, dark streets of dublin talking about pubs and life and some other stuff that is all pretty much a blur. and then he quoted james joyce and kissed me at the top of o’connell street and my heart left my chest, never to return.

i have to thank my dear dirty passport, for this fine memory and all the ones that followed would never have happened without it.

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