About Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
Latest Posts by Robert Schrader
It wasn’t until we pulled away from Bosnia’s border with Croatia that the casual pace at which she redistributed the passports began to wear at me. That, and the fact that her bleached hair and yellowed-white jeans were exactly the same color.
Why is she the one handling this anyway? I thought as our headlights gleamed off the badge of the border guard, who was lighting up a cigarette outside.
Well, I knew why she was the one handling it: She was clearly fucking the bus driver and he, wanting to arrive to our destination on time, decided to let his concubine do the job of government officials. Of course, if he’d focused on driving instead of talking dirty with his mistress, we probably wouldn’t have been as late as we were.
Not that it was any of my business—I was just a scared traveler without his travel documents. That she had no business handling them simply made it easier to heap judgment upon her.
I was deciding when the best time to ask the driver to go back to the border for my lost passport would be when the woman stood in front of me, smiled as sweet as the baklava my seat mate removed from the paper bag he was carrying, handed me my passport, shyly sat down and resumed flirting with her benefactor.
Hillary landed in Bosnia under sniper fire—I rode in thinking I’d gotten scammed by a hooker.
“I live in Texas,” I dropped my bag and sat down next to her. “But I grew up in St. Louis.”
She said something in Bosnian to her husband, then turned back to me. “We know lots of people in St. Louis.”
I wasn’t surprised. The vast majority of Bosnian refugees to the U.S. ended up in St. Louis, to the ire of many St. Louisans, although I didn’t dare mention that part to her.
I also abstained from telling her that one of my first boyfriends had been Bosnian, and how the same small-mindedness that made so many of her countrymen feel unwelcome in St. Louis had also made coming of age as a young, gay man there a war of sorts.
“I had a Bosnian friend growing up,” I took a sip of the Turkish coffee her husband had just brought out to me, reminiscing both on how exotic Eldin had seemed to me when we were both 17, and how much of a refuge we’d been for one another, growing up in equally conservative families. “A very good Bosnian friend.”
She called to her husband, who’d left to chase after their young daughter, then pivoted to another topic. “And how do you like Mostar?”
“It’s astonishing,” I began flipping through my camera to show her some of the photos I’d taken of the bridge and the selfies I’d snapped in front it, explaining my tripod-remote method, much to her fascination.
I continued by extolling the people of Mostar for rebuilding their town into what is probably single most enjoyable tourist destination in Europe, but left out the disappointment—and disgust—I felt upon hearing many of my fellow travelers shit-talk the apparent falseness they saw around them.
But I omitted that from my account of the day, too.
“Perfect,” I beamed to my de-facto Mostar host family upon returning from the short road trip they’d made possible by finding me a cheap car to rent. “An absolutely perfect day.”
Perfect, I reminded myself, except for the fact that you spent three-quarters of the drive dwelling on the road trips you took with your recently estranged boyfriend, and looking back regretfully—and bitterly—on the words and actions that led to him not being here with you.
“You should stay,” she suggested innocuously, calling to mind a refrain Danilo had often used more seriously, pleading with me to stay in Costa Rica prior to his U.S. visa getting approved and him coming to live with me.
She laughed and poured me some local chardonnay. “At least for a glass of wine—I know you have to go Sarajevo tomorrow.”
If only you knew the rest, I cheerfully clinked my glass with hers, feeling embarrassed that I didn’t know how to say “cheers” in Bosnian.
About 15 minutes into my journey to the Bosnian capital, a very large older man walked back to the row where I was sitting and placed his hand on the seat in front of me. His arm was angled such that his elbow was about an inch from my face—and he smelled like sour milk. My anger seethed within me, but I managed to keep my mouth shut until we reached his stop.
My personal space would stay free for another half hour or so, until a different thick-fisted man put his elbow in my face. This one was about half as large—not to mention, only half as old—as the first one, and exuded a much sexier musk, to say nothing of how erotically he gripped the seat. I still didn’t like the elbow, of course, but I can’t say I wouldn’t have liked to snap into that Slim Jim.
In both cases, I’d mindlessly heeded a piece of advice my mother used to give me. Think it, she’d instruct me after each time my big mouth got me into trouble. Don’t say it.
After settling in at my hotel, I headed to a restaurant one of my Instagram followers had recommended for a late lunch. There, I met an Irish tourist named Mandy, who was celebrating her birthday with a trip through the Balkans. She was very friendly (and, I think a little drunk), which made for an interesting conversation that, of course, ended up at my country’s presidential race.
“It’s good that he probably won’t win,” she replied when I explained to her how historically unprecedented it would be for Donald Trump to overcome his polling deficit. “And I don’t agree with anything he says. But I have to admit, I respect him for telling it like it is, or at least how he sees it.”
I quickly changed the subject to avoid spending my lunch in Bosnia talking about an election across an ocean and nearly two months away. But Mandy’s perspective lingered with me throughout the day, as I traipsed through Sarajevo’s Old Town, up to the Yellow Fortress above it and down to the Eternal Flame just outside it.
It lingered hours later, even, when I ended my day at a tucked-away gallery devoted to the Srebrenica Massacre that ultimately led to my country accepting the refugees that ended up in my home city.
I felt somewhat numb during the hour or so I spent inside the small exhibition hall, owing both to the fact that I had immersed myself in Balkan War history just before my trip, as well as the sheer quantity of disaster porn I absorb osmotically on a daily basis.
Indeed, it was a quote I saw on the wall just before exiting the museum that mostly viscerally affected me. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
My last night in Sarajevo, I sat alone on the banks of the Miljacka, a few feet from where Franz Ferdinand was shot. This is where war, as we know it, was born, I realized, as the sky slowly faded from orange to to purple to blue above the eclectic row of buildings—Soviet, Austro-Hungarian, Islamic and then Soviet again—in front of me.
“Where in the U.S. are you from?” a man who was walking past asked me, although I have no idea how he knew I was American.
“St. Louis,” I said, anticipating that he also had family there.
Instead, he said nothing, as if he knew what a crap hand the people who’d been sent there got dealt. “Have a nice night.”
My subtle dig at Hillary Clinton in the intro to this post—and my sanity—notwithstanding, I will absolutely not be voting for Donald Trump in November. I won’t entertain the idea of him as being virtuous at all, not even to the minimal extent that Mandy did.
But one thing I really need to reconcile (more in real life, where as you know I’m totally candid) is the dichotomy between my often judgmental, sometimes disrespectful, occasionally hateful thoughts, and the generally cordial person I outwardly present myself to be.
Perhaps a more open dialogue on racism might’ve prevented the rise of Trump or even Slobodan Milosevic; maybe, if the Austrian ruling class had been more realistic about the powder keg ready to blow in the Balkans, Gavrilo Princip might not have felt compelled to shoot Franz Ferdinand.
Maybe, I sighed. Maybe not.
I stood up and walked toward the Latin Bridge, surprised that the exact spot where the incident occurred wasn’t marked. I turned right and began heading back into the Old Town, then stopped and stood at the edge, listening to the soft trickle of the water as it ran under my feet. And the stream of truth that was running through me.
When all was said and done, after all, the family who had so often been judgmental when I was growing up accepted Danilo with open arms. They’d been on the wrong side in many battles, but were standing by me when the war was over.
It had been in vain, anyway—I’d known, from the day I met him, that our relationship was never going to work. But just like my mother had always advised me, I decided to think it, not say it, until one day, the powder keg we’d been living in blew apart: A single shot destroyed our world.
You can’t end the world’s wars, I stared at the sky as the last blue piece of it turned black. But you can vow to stop fighting your own.
Need help planning your trip to the Balkans? Let’s look at the options.
Croatia has been on my travel radar since about 2008, when my Austin friends and I used to get high and daydream about travel. This was a year before I moved to Shanghai to teach English and two years before I started traveling full-time, although I did have three trips to Europe under my belt, at that point. While the week or so I spent in Croatia wasn’t disappointing, I can’t honestly say it lived up to eight years of expectations.
But speaking of expectations, I did visit Split solely because I thought the number of tourists in Dubrovnik would ruin it—this was dead-wrong. Dubrovnik is significantly more fulfilling than Split, to the extent that I would remove Split from my itinerary entirely if I could do this again, using the extra time to spend more time in the islands and in Zagreb, which was way more beautiful and exciting than I anticipated.
Looking back, Bosnia was really where my trip to the Balkans began. Not only was it here that I began to see the footprints of the empires that have ruled over this region, but the vibe of the people—and their kindness—seemed so separate from anywhere else I’d been in Europe, or in the world.
This started in gorgeous Mostar, which is probably the most satisfying tourist town in the whole world—and not just because it signifies the re-birth of a battered nation. I hadn’t originally planned to visit Sarajevo, but I’m glad the delightful owners of my Mostar guesthouse recommended I did. Sarajevo is eclectic, exciting and extremely easy to explore. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t routinely listed among Europe’s best cities in 5-10 years.
Had traveling to Montenegro not involved such a dramatic detour (and, ultimately, canceling my planned sojourn to Kosovo—more on that in a second), I probably would’ve enjoyed it more. And had the weather been better. And had renting a car not proved so difficult.
To be sure, I’d originally planned to base myself in Kotor and explore other areas of the country—namely, the beach town of Budva and the Albanian border city of Ulcijn—by car. Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned weather and difficulty of renting a car, I simply got stuck in Kotor. Which was lovely, but was also filled with cruise-ship-tourist types, who increased my feeling of being trapped.
You’re probably confused right now. Why, you ask, did I start this article on a note of triumph, then complain about two of the three countries I’ve written about so far? The answer is two-fold.
First, personal triumph and the mechanics of travel are independent of one another. And secondly, while Croatia was disappointing and Montenegro was frustrating, Bosnia—and especially, as you’ll read below, Serbia—were so fucking awesome it almost doesn’t matter.
Belgrade, for its part, is a city I always knew I’d love, although my first visual inspection seemed to suggest the opposite. Eclectic like Sarajevo but lacking the towering minarets that tie together its chaos, Belgrade is about as close to an “ugly city” as I’ve ever visited—yet it still manages to be beautiful and captivating.
Further up the Danube, the city of Novi Sad and the wine town of Sremski Karlovci are actually gorgeous. And I’m legitimately in love with Serbia, which is funny considering that most of the world sees it as having lost the war.
WHAT ABOUT KOSOVO (AND THE REST OF THE BALKANS)?
I had originally planned to visit Kosovo, specifically the city of Prizren. Unfortunately, because buses from neighboring Montenegro are so sparse—and take so damned long!—this wasn’t practical. Then again, if I had known how bored I’d be in Montenegro, I might’ve budgeted my time different in general. Coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Indeed, before I took my trip to the Balkans, I imagined two weeks would be enough not only to do the northern part of the region, as I did, but also to see countries like Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Many factors (namely, bad roads and slow buses) make this impossible. If you plan to travel the entire Balkan region, I recommend spending a minimum of one month in the Balkans.
My original plan for two weeks in the Balkans was:
- Split, Croatia (2 days)
- Plitvice Lakes, Croatia (1 day)
- Mostar, Bosnia (2 days)
- Dubrovnik, Croatia (1 day)
- Kotor, Montenegro (1 day)
- Budva, Montenegro (1 day)
- Kosovo (2 days)
- Serbia (3 days)
- Zagreb, Croatia (1 day)
Unfortunately, due to the infrastructural deficiencies I noted in the essay, this did not come to pass. Instead, I spent my two weeks in the Balkans as follows:
- Split, Croatia (2 days)
- Mostar, Bosnia including Kravice Waterfall (1 day)
- Sarajevo, Bosnia (1 day)
- Dubrovnik, Croatia including island trip (2 days)
- Kotor, Montenegro (3 days)
- Belgrade, Serbia (2 days)
- Novi Sad, Serbia (1 day)
- Sremski Karlovci, Serbia (1 day)
- Zagreb, Croatia (1 day)
If I could go back in time and re-do my two weeks in the Balkans, I would structure it like this:
- Mostar, Bosnia and Kravice Waterfall (2 days)
- Sarajevo, Bosnia (2 days)
- Dubrovnik, Croatia and islands (2 days)
- Zagreb, Croatia (1 day)
- Kosovo (2 days)
- Belgrade, Serbia (3 days)
- Novi Sad, Serbia (1 day)
- Sremski Karlovci, Serbia (1 day)
Image via Flickr user Bryce Edwards
Seattle is one of America’s largest, most ubiquitous, and most exciting cities, which can make it tempting to think that you need to stay entirely within the downtown core on a short trip there, especially if it’s your first one. On the other hand, Seattle is surrounded by some of the most breathtaking scenery in the United States, so if you don’t venture out into it, chances are you’ll regret it. Here are five wonderful trips you can easily do in a day from Seattle.
Hike or Trek at Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier is easily visible on clear Seattle days and looks particularly beautiful when seen just behind the downtown skyline. It’s farther away than it looks (a little under two hours by car) but still close enough that you can travel there, complete one of the amazing hiking trails nearby.
Catch and Cook Crabs in Cama Beach
Many people associate crab with Alaska, and although you won’t find a lot of snow crab swimming in the seas just off Seattle, the Puget Sound is home to large numbers of equally delicious Dungeness crab. You can enjoy them in almost any Seattle restaurant, but for a particularly adventurous day trip, travel about an hour north of Seattle to Cama Beach State Park, where you can catch up to five crabs per day and cook them right on the beach.
Chase Waterfalls at Snowqualmie Falls
90s R&B trio TLC advised all of us not to chase waterfalls, but that’s easier said and done when you arrive at the parking area for Snowqualmie Falls—you’ll be racing toward them, even if they’re not running away from you! Snowqualmie Falls is just 45 minutes east of Seattle on I-90, which means that you could make this into a half-day trip if you don’t have a full 24 hours to devote to it.
Watch Whales in the San Juan Islands
The cold waters just offshore from Seattle aren’t great for swimming if you’re a human. If you’re a whale, however, then they feel like home. Head to the San Juan Islands for a whale watching trip you won’t soon forget. To get there, head north from Seattle to Anacortes, where you can catch one of the regular Washington State Ferries and be on your way.
Go to the Glass Museum in Tacoma
Although Tacoma is an important center of the Seattle metro area (which is, officially, the Seattle-Tacoma metro area), it often sits in the shadow of its big brother. Well, in addition to the fact that Tacoma is less than an hour from Seattle by bus, car or train, another reason you should visit it is its amazing Museum of Glass, which celebrates the art and science of glassmaking as well as its beautiful results.
Of course, these are only a few ideas for day trips to take from Seattle—you could even cross the border into Canada if you’re feeling really adventurous! Can you think of any other Seattle day trips you’d like to take?
“I’m sorry,” the old man who picked me up at the airport in Split, Croatia scratched his head. “But I thought there were going to be two of you.”
I half-smiled and got into the front seat. “Me too.”
By the time we made it onto the highway, and the sky began to striate into layers of orange, purple and pink, a familiar melody replaced the late Yugoslav-era pop-rock that had been on the radio when we departed the airport. Busted flat in Baton Rouge, the voice sang, waitin’ for a train.
Holding it together when the first chorus started took everything I had, so you can imagine how close I was to a complete breakdown when “My Heart Will Go On” came on next. Had we been in the beautiful, historical city center, I would’ve cried, melted and evaporated into nothing right then and there.
Thankfully, we parked in a garage beneath a Soviet-looking apartment block, and the driver switched off the car right before Céline belted out the last verse.
That was traumatic, I sighed as we made our way up to the fifth floor.
“Welcome to your home in Croatia!” He opened the door to his rental property, which was much too big for one person. He cracked a smile as he walked me out onto the balcony, which featured sweeping, romantic views of the Adriatic.
“Panorama?” She clarified, which made me understand immediately that the word she had been saying in the first place—“Marjan,” the name of the viewpoint my poorly-scaled map had made it so impossible to find—was precisely the one I needed to hear.
Maybe that Dalmatian was a good omen, I laughed, and began making my way up the staircase. Or maybe not.
You see, while the directions I received did indeed lead me to where I wanted to go, my short walk up the hill had some unintended consequences. The day before, I’d begun feeling pain in my chest I assumed was heartburn, on account of all the alcohol and fried food I consumed during a celebratory long weekend in Switzerland.
But the continuation of this pain the next day in Split, and the fact that physical activity exacerbated it? Well, that was disconcerting.
This is not how I thought the theme from Titanic would make itself relevant in my life today, I leaned against the stone railing after having finally reached the top. I sure hope my heart goes on.
Now, I’m an extremely headstrong person, and the last way I wanted to spend my first full day in the Balkans was waiting to see a doctor in a public hospital. So I went about my plans as intended, heading down from Marjan and into the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, comforting myself with the fact that if I did kick the bucket, it would be as I wandered through Roman-era alleyways draped in bougainvillea, or as I took in a wide view of the city’s tiled roofs from the Bell Tower of St. Dominus.
“You will survive,” I reassured the terrified woman who, as I made my way down the stairway of the tower, had stopped me to make small talk about my lens in lieu of following her children up. “Go and be a cool Mom.”
Miraculously, I lived long enough to walk along the Riva waterfront at dusk, even to endure being told by some booze-smelling bros whose picture I politely refused to take that they hoped I fell into the water and drowned on my way to where I was going. My newfound health did motivate me to bring my departure to Bosnia forward a day, though. I wondered how my Bobby McGee would’ve felt about that.
I was so bombarded by tour hawkers upon arriving back in Croatia four days later that all I felt compelled to do once safely inside Dubrovnik’s old city walls was eat a pizza. And although the margherita the waiter brought to my table was more than massive enough to suffocate my anxiety, I still felt only partially present at the table.
“Polo bleu,” the charming Frenchman had said to me three years earlier in Nice, as we enjoyed a much more delicious—and Italian—pizza together. “I thought I wouldn’t see you again.”
I took a sip of wine. “Maybe you should’ve been on time tonight, then.”
“I have a feeling I can make it up to you,” Hugo took my hand, and didn’t let go of it until the sun had nearly come up the next morning.
Of course, I was far across the Mediterranean now, the sun setting instead of rising. And Dubrovnik, for all its hustlers and bros and Titanic-looking cruise ships, was more picturesque than any city in the south of France, even if some of that likely had to do with the fact that it was rebuilt after the Balkan War. Yet, even as the wisps of clouds above the city screamed the sort of fuchsia you only see in Photoshop, it’s like I wasn’t even there.
The week after Nice had been a dream, with Hugo having invited me to stay with him in Paris. Lunches in parks, twilight strolls along the Seine, real champagne sipped atop the Eiffel Tower—all the romance I thought I was never entitled to, certainly not when I’d been wearing the blue polo shirt that had caught Hugo’s eye at Le Six nightclub.
I’d so relished the way he adored me that I never stopped to question it, or whether I should do more to reciprocate it than simply being there.
The ironic thing, I reminded myself as I walked back down the hill to Duvrovnik, the sky now darkened a blue-black, was that you cancelled your first trip to the Balkans to spend that week in Paris with Hugo. Do you remember what happened next?
“Is this your subtle way of telling me you don’t want to be here?” I’d fumed, when Hugo came home from work on Thursday and told me he’d immediately be headed to Berlin after he finished at the office on Friday.
He grabbed my hands and pulled me toward his chest, reassuringly. “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want you to leave. I don’t want this to end—but it has to. You are never going to feel enough at home here to be the person I need. The longer you stay and try, the more we’re both going to get hurt.”
I remember sitting under the darkening sky in a sort of haze, getting as drunk as I possibly could at a shitty bar across from Gare de L’Est station as I awaited my night train to Budapest, trying to drown not only my sorrows, but the adult impulse I had, which was to try and actually understand what Hugo had meant instead of taking it so personally.
Three years later and half a sea away, I marveled at the tiny sliver of moon above Dubrovnik and breathed in deeply, the chest pains I’d felt up the coast in Split now a distant memory, but my heart very much still broken, both in past and present.
I understand now, I said under my breath as if Hugo was sitting next to me, both of us reliving our experiences of having to tell men we loved that they needed to go. I completely understand.
I wonder if he knows I haven’t brushed my teeth yet, I chuckled. Or that I don’t want to sleep with him.
I wouldn’t have minded sleeping with him, actually. But truly, I wanted to be him. Here was an extremely good-looking older man, totally capable of living up to the romantic expectations society has set for him, choosing to make his home in the middle of a tourist trap, enjoying a coffee before the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning by his lonesome, looking amazing and, seemingly, as happy as clam. Freedom, for him, meant nothing left to gain.
You’re assuming a lot about him, I conceded, looking back at him as I exited the walls toward the old port. But you’re up to the task, I think.
There was something autumnal in the air as I made my way eastward and upward, heading back to the spot where I’d attempted to take in the previous night’s sunset. A freshness like you feel in Paris in the first week of September, or in the Japanese Alps in early November, when your long-dead dog appears in a dream, as if to warn you. Maybe he even has a Dalmatian at home, I looked down on Dubrovnik, wondering if the dapper 50-something had been anything more than a figment of my imagination, singing the second verse of “Me and Bobby McGee” to myself as the sun came up. And moving forward.
You know, I can’t honestly say I would trade even a single tomorrow for all my yesterdays, as fondly as I remember them.
Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/
The northeastern part of the U.S. is diverse, no doubt, but it has a few common defining characteristics, namely compact states, cities as dense as the forests that populate the rural part of the region. People, too, seem to have an entrenched sense of community, which makes sense considering that European settlers came here before almost anywhere else on the North American continent. There’s no guarantee that you’ll feel like a member of one of these communities before your next trip to the Northeast ends, but these cozy hotel rooms will at least have you feeling at home.
Hartford might not be the first city when you think of when you brainstorm ideas for a New England city trip—it lacks the bigness of Boston and the coastal charm of Providence, for starters. Connecticut’s capital does have its own special charm, however, from historical buildings like the Mark Twain House to relaxing green spaces like Bushnell Park.
New Haven, CT
On the other hand, New Haven has a clear reason most people visit it: Prestigious Yale University, which really needs no introduction. You needn’t be a college co-ed in order to enjoy the town, however, which is peppered with funky vintage boutiques, lively sidewalk cafés and alternative bookstores, among other local businesses. New Haven hotels like New Haven Village Suites Omni and New Haven Hotel at Yale might not get you into classes at Yale, but they’re probably nicer than some of the dorms there.
Speaking of underrated capital cities in the Northeast, Delaware’s definitely one of them. Like Hartford, Dover is overshadowed by other cities and features of the state, specifically the city of Wilmington and the fact that many businesses set up shop in Delaware simply because of its tax laws. Whether you fall into this category, or simply want to explore local sights like the Delaware Legislative Hall or John Dickinson House.
As its name suggests, the Massachusetts city of Revere is named after Paul Revere, although this is not why you’re likely to be here. Revere is also home to the first public beach in the United States, but that’s not the reason, either. Revere happens to sit very near Boston’s Logan International Airport, which is evident in the name of local accommodation like Rodeway Inn Boston Logan Airport and Fairfield Inn Boston Airport North.
Plymouth is also a very recognizable name, although its significance is a bit less obtuse than that of Revere, whose lights are far too bright for an effectively stealth midnight ride. Plymouth is, after all, where the Pilgrims came ashore, and the town still bears a lot of charm and colonial architecture. The traditional element of Plymouth is on display at all levels, including at lodging options such as the John Carver Inn & Spa.
These cities barely scratch the surface! What else have you explored in the area?
To escape those modern first world stresses and for digital nomads, choosing the next destination is all part of the fun of life on the road. Selecting optimal places poses some challenges. Here are two Asian gems to visit and oh so worth adding to your bucket list.
By many different metrics India ranks as the cheapest country to live in, which already makes it a popular travel destination among young adventurers. Factoring in Goa’s famous reputation as the country’s “hippy capital” makes it even more appealing for nomads.
With abundant beaches, cheap food and drink, plus a thriving social scene, it’s the ideal place for remote workers to set up and mingle with like-minded individuals.
India may be known for its spiritualism and vibrant culture, but it’s also a rapidly developing economy, with a flourishing tech industry. For nomadic workers being in the center of this is a great way of networking and collaborating, making Goa a great location for digital nomads.
A sunny paradise, complete with white beaches, pristine lagoons and amazing sunsets, Phuket is also garnering a reputation as a hotspot for food, with its local brand of spicy noodles and seafood attracting increasing attention in the area.
As is the case in many places in Asia, the moped is king in Phuket. While one of the more dangerous forms of transport (especially in this part of the world), cheap petrol means a tank will cost you around $3.50 and last about two weeks.
For the nomadically-inclined who love the beach lifestyle—and are crying out for a serious change of pace— Phuket should definitely be high on your list of destinations.
Guadalajara was a hot mess, at least the portion of it I looked upon as I made my way toward its Spanish Renaissance-style cathedral. For every respectable looking restaurant, there was some garish café selling soft-serve; most every worthwhile edifice was obscured in some way, usually by a crane or construction barriers. It was Sunday, of course, so no work was happening—just the mess left behind.
It was Sunday, and I was already an hour into a 44-hour trip to Mexico’s second city, made possible by the kindness of Volaris, who’d invited me on the inaugural flight of the route they’d launched to my city that very morning. It was Sunday, and most everything I wanted to see was either already closed or had never opened, namely the Instituto Cultural Cabañas and Teatro Degollado, although the steps of the latter made a nice place to take dramatic kissing selfies with Danilo.
Danilo, my boyfriend, who seemed unfazed by the cacophony of the city, at the same time that I was feeling pulverized by it, who with a single tap on the screen of his smartphone managed to capture what we saw better than I could in two dozen clicks of my DSLR shutter. I felt distracted by Guadalajara, even angered by it. I felt jealous of my boyfriend, even a little sad that he seemed to be doing my job so much better than I was.
I wish all the plastic and cheap wood in here would metamorphosize into marble and mahogany, I clasped my hands together inside Parroquia de San Juan de Dios, simultaneously charmed by the mariachi music I could hear coming in, and aghast at how cheap the altar looked compared to the façade of the church. That’s my prayer.
Danilo gasped just moments after having recommended I climb into a tree to get the right angle for my shot, so my first instinct was that the branch I rested on was giving way. But he was walking away from me—backwards—and I was still safely in my perch.
He pointed to the ground and continued backing up.
“I can’t see anything,” I said, noticing how close he was getting to a nearby succulent.
“A scorpion,” he shuddered, stopping just before the first prickly leaf pierced his skin.
Ordinarily, I’d have also been terrified, but I had several fires lit under my ass. We now had less than 24 hours in the Guadalajara area; our driver to Tequila, Flavio Reyes of Sinaloa, was patiently waiting in the car for us as we attempted to document the rolling fields of blue agave, me from several feet above the ground, on our way to the town of Tequila—I’ll buy you a margarita if you can guess why this place is famous.
I hung my tripod inside the tree and dismounted—directly on top of the arachnid, I hoped—then grabbed Danilo’s hand.
“Stand by that plant,” I walked with him toward my focus point, as the first of nine self-timed shots exposed, “and kiss me.”
Having originally been settled in the mid-16th century, Guadalajara existed in five other locations before its current one. From attacks by natives, to drought, to famine, to fire, Guadalajara’s early history had been one tragedy after another—it’s not surprising at all that it’s still a hot mess, or that it’s so filled with religious imagery.
“Are you enjoying yourself yet?” Danilo asked me, and fed me one of the four flautas we’d had delivered to our suite at the colonial Hotel Morales.
“I am,” I bit into it, amused by the fact nearly all of my favorite things about Mexico thus far—kitschy Tequila; five-star hotels at one-star prices; and the fact that Jalisco food just so happens to be what all my favorite Austin taquerias serve—were among the most superficial ones. Amused and disappointed, and not surprised at all.
Danilo paused and savor his own rolled, fried taco before answering. “Today, I am, but I have to be honest: Your jealousy yesterday—and your breakdown because of it—that was tough for me. It was tough for me to stand by your side.”
“But you did,” I began rubbing his shoulder.
“No creo,” I said defiantly as the Uber driver asked me about my religious beliefs during ride to Zapopan, the final place Danilo and I would have the chance to visit during our 44 hours in Guadalajara.
Ordinarily, the conversation would’ve ended there, but two things were different in this case. First, the conversation was mostly one-sided, both because our loquacious chauffeuse couldn’t fucking shut up and because I was as linguistically prohibited from replying as Danilo was by his timidity and reluctant faithfulness.
Secondly, her eyebrows! They were perfectly shaped and dyed the same drugstore-red color as her hair, and the way she looked at me with them through the rearview mirror put the fear of God in me, albeit with her as God.
It was fitting that we were on our way to yet another cathedral as we took this exorcistic diatribe on our chins, zealous Elizabeth smiling the whole way as she shot it toward us.
I don’t believe—never have. I remember taking communion at age 5, repeatedly lying to the catechist at my church’s parish school of religion shortly after that and singing the words to early 90s alternative songs as the rest of the congregation sang hymns, all for the purpose of proving to myself that nobody was going to strike me dead if I disobeyed.
I’ve come to live by my own moral code, of course, and I try to do right by it. But no zombie pseudo-messiah is going to stop me from walking into a church during the middle of mass and exposing a shot for 30 seconds.
“Don’t you think that’s rude?” Danilo asked hours later, as we walked into Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento on our way back to the hotel, dozens of people on their knees inside.
I chuckled, albeit not loud enough to disturb any of the faithful. “I believe it is.”
As Danilo and I walked into Guadalajara Airport for our flight back to Austin, just 44 hours after we arrived, I felt simultaneously amused and disappointed at the thought of my trip, but not surprised at all.
I’d followed the professional-travel-blogger M.O. precisely: Write the story and take the photos before I even get on the plane; arrive and feel devastated that my words and pictures are nowhere to be found; seek out ubiquitous, obvious experiences that allow me to get the photos I need; give up on the story I thought I was going to write and just tell the fucking truth.
This trip, of course, was different from almost all my others, because Danilo was with me. It isn’t easy to be the partner of a professional travel blogger, let alone one whose success has largely hinged on his ability to spend all his time and energy on blogging, and for whom that success remains at least as great a priority as said partner’s contentment.
And it isn’t easy to be a travel blogger with a partner, at least not when you spend the first six years of your travel blogging career as a travel blogger without one. It is a lot happier, though, for you if not for your partner—in pictures and, sometimes, when you tell the truth.
Danilo and I have made a habit of assessing the state of the ruellia we planted together, upon coming home from the three trips we’ve now taken together thus far, starting with the one to New Mexico a couple weeks ago. That time, the most robust of our four plants was flowering for the first time, which was serendipitous given where we were in our relationship.
We kept an eye on the plants even when we weren’t traveling, of course, and quickly realized that the flowers of ruellia, which is also known as “Mexican petunia,” go even more quickly than they come—often, the same day they appear.
To be sure, while we counted more than 10 flowers the afternoon of our return to Austin, every single one of them had fallen off by the time the sun rose again. Our relationship, too, had been stripped of its plumage.
(I don’t happen to think these occurrences were coincidental, as agnostic as I claimed to be under the watchful, painted eye of Elizabeth Rocio, although I do imagine their synchronicity is more biological than beatific.)
“And what does this mean for us?” Danilo asked, and picked up a wilted blossom from the concrete.
“That if we wait long enough,” I said, “probably just until tomorrow, it will bloom again.”
He smiled, but then looked wistfully out the window at the plants. “They’ll fall off again tomorrow, too.”
“And the next day,” I reminded him, “there’ll be more flowers—the cycle will continue. I mean, even Guadalajara had to be built six times.”
A big thanks to Volaris, who currently operates Austin’s only year-round, nonstop service to Mexico, for inviting me to participate in the inauguration of their flight.
Typically, when I offer travel photography advice, it’s creative in nature. On the other hand, today’s tips are just as much about making your life easier as making your travel photography better. Although some of these may seem obvious for frequent photographers, other might feel counterintuitive, or even wrong. But trust me—this works!
Shoot in RAW—But Only Store JPEGs
I’ve recently become a big advocate for shooting in RAW, a format that allows you to make big edits to your pictures with only a small change in their quality. Unfortunately, the edits you can make to RAW files aren’t the only thing “big” about them: They can easily exceed 50 MB in size, each. (By contrast, average JPEGs tend to come out of the camera around 5 MB or so.)
Unless you carry an extra hard drive with you (more on that in a second), these files will overload your computer extremely fast, so delete them from your machine after you’re done editing. Reduce the burden of your travel photos on your hard drive even further by using an image resizer, which doesn’t necessarily reduce their physical dimensions, but removes unnecessary information within the file and, thus, reduces the file size, optimizing them for online sharing.
Back-up Your Photos in Multiple Places
Of course, deleting your RAW files outright precludes you from going back, in the future, and re-editing them if necessary. Instead, delete them from your computer itself only after you’ve backed them (and the JPEGs themselves) up to an external hard drive or even an auxiliary memory card. Additionally, back the contents of your computer up to the cloud so that you have your travel photos in three places, decreasing the likelihood that they’ll ever be “gone for good.”
Go Through Your Photos Daily
Speaking of memory cards, you’ve probably noticed that you can store tens of thousands of images on them, slightly less if you shoot in RAW. Although this feature of modern digital storage is attractive on paper, it can be disastrous for your sanity—can you imagine getting back from two weeks in Cuba and suddenly having 20,000 photos to edit? Go through your photos as you take them.
And Delete Your Memory Card Every Day, Too
Remember how I promised this post would be more practical in nature than esoteric? Well, I just can’t keep myself from going all New-Agey. Indeed, deleting your memory card every day might seem counterintuitive, practically-speaking, unless of course you’ve taken my back-up advice above. But I find that deleting old images, and in particular those who didn’t make the “final cut” onto your computer, frees you up creatively, allowing each day to truly embody a unique expression.
Remember That Less is More
Yes, I did just suggest that only a certain percentage of your photos should ever make it onto your computer. And I do believe that only a certain percentage of those should be seen by other people. In fact, although I advocate taking as many photos as possible during a given trip, I would say that realistically, only about 1-2% of them should ever see the light of day. Harsh? Maybe. But it’s downright humane compared to how it would’ve been back in the film days.
What about you? Can you think of any additional travel photography tips? If so, share them in the “Comments” section.