Category Archives: Travel

MLK

In 2004, my best friend Mindy and I decided to take a trip to drown our sorrows and/or celebrate our good fortune (yes, you can do both simultaneously) following a divorce for each of us.  For reasons I cannot fully explain, we landed on Memphis as our destination of choice.

Although Memphis may not be the dream holiday vacation for most, the trip has turned out to be one of our most cherished and memorable for a variety of reasons.  We ate barbecue, listened to the blues on Beale Street, got freaky-deaky palm readings done, went to Graceland and maybe kissed a boy or two. We still have memories that can spark instantaneous laughter about our foolish ways.  It was truly a charmed trip.

The highlight, however, was unquestionably our visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, which is situated at the site of the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I’ve now been to the museum twice, and I have told everyone I know that if they are ever in Memphis, they must go.  In fact, I would say if you are an activist, a social worker, a teacher, or anyone who is committed to the human race, you must make plans to go.  It’s that good.

As is often the case when Mindy and I go to a museum, we were not moving at the same pace and this particular day was no exception.  This is because I like to take it all in and really absorb it – for about a good solid hour – and then my short attention span starts to kick in and mess with my head.  Mindy, on the other hand, prefers to move at the speed of a glacier (pre-global warming, mind you) and read Every. Single. Word.  (Don’t even get me started on the six hours we once spent at the Smithsonian Holocaust Museum.  Don’t get me wrong – I loved it.  But wow.  Six hours.  Whew.)

About two hours in at the National Civil Rights Museum, I had run out of things to occupy my time and maintain my sanity, and I was ever-so-patiently waiting for Mindy to catch up to me.  (This ever-so-patient waiting probably included a fair amount of sighing, eye rolling, and internal dialogue that sounded a lot like muttering.)  I could see in the corner of my eye that Mindy was engaged in conversation with someone.  Dear Lord, I thought.  Who on earth is she talking to?  

As it turned out, Mindy had been talking to a gentleman by the name of the Reverend Billy Kyles.  She introduced me to him and explained that he knew a thing or two about this museum and had asked us to stick around for a talk he was going to give in a few minutes.  Let me be the first to admit, at that point it seemed that Mindy’s slower museum pace was going to glean some benefits.

What happened next turned out to be one of the more profound experiences of my adult life.  At the outset of Reverend Kyles’ talk, he explained that he is the last living witness to Dr. King’s assassination.  (A note to any fact-checking readers:  Jesse Jackson had been at the Lorraine Motel that day as well, but had left just minutes prior.)  Now a pastor in Memphis, Reverend Kyles considered Dr. King a personal friend and feels a deep commitment to use any opportunity he can to carry his message forward.

Reverend Kyles walked our group over to a replica of the hotel room that Dr. King had stayed in, which was depicted exactly as it was the day that he was assassinated.  He pointed out to each of us there that the room included empty beer cans and a dirty ash tray.  He made it clear that Dr. King was not only a legend, he was a man with weaknesses of his own to overcome.  (He stopped short of mentioning Dr. King’s well-documented philandering, and I imagined at the time he was probably strictly adhering to a “bro code” even 36 years after his death.  There is no statute of limitations on bro code, right?)

Reverend Kyles’ message to all of us there that day was clear and compelling.  It would be easy for all of us to look at the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and to hold him to a higher standard than one we hold for ourselves.  He had a doctorate and a pulpit. He had political connections.  He was one of the greatest orators not only of his own time, but possibly of all time.  But Reverend Kyles cautioned us, to compare ourselves to Dr. King in this way does ourselves or our society no good whatsoever. Rather, he told us, we must all take responsibility for our part in the solution. We all have weaknesses as Dr. King did, and we all have great power within us as well.  Not only must we not engage in overt racism of any sort, we also must not quietly stand by and tolerate racism on the part of others. Reverend Kyles left us with a clear message that above all else, we must be a conduit of compassion to human kind.

Mindy and I left the museum that day with lumps in our throats and a feeling of utter disbelief in our hearts.  How was it that we intersected at that museum at that exact moment to have that precise experience?  It was truly remarkable and at the risk of sounding dramatic, I would say it was life-changing.  It seemed implausible that I – little Jenny Swearingen who grew up on a farm in the middle of Iowa – would have but one degree of separation from a man I’d spent all of my adult life admiring, a man who had died a tragic death before I was even born.

We went back to our hotel room that afternoon and I knew in my heart that the universe works in mysterious and beautiful ways.  All the proof I ever needed had just happened right before my eyes.

Erin Go Braghahaha

I believe that a life well-lived should be a collection of happy memories, and there is no greater way to accumulate these memories than to travel. I consider it my great fortune to have taken many fantastic trips in my lifetime, but none has been so great as my trip to Ireland in 2001.  There were a lot of factors that contributed to this trip’s greatness.  First and foremost, I was with four of my favorite people:  my sister, my then-husband Tim, and my dear friends Kate and Eric.  My life was in a really great place, too:  I had finished my graduate degree a year prior, I had just landed the job of my dreams and my sister was moving to Milwaukee. But aside from all of that, there is something just blissfully, perpetually celebratory about Ireland.  We ran with that sentiment, and made this trip uniquely ours.  The trip was 8 days of unadulterated joy (and 20 minutes of rage).

I love laughing.  Laughing’s my favorite.
Day One: Preparing for Take-off.  This is a picture of me in Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Our flight was going to be leaving in a couple of hours, and we had nothing but time on our hands.  I distinctly remember what we were talking about when someone in the group snapped this not-so-flattering photo of me.  It was a high-brow, very intellectual discussion about … pinworms.  Yes, pinworms. Apparently pinworms are little parasites that can live in your colon and rectum.  And apparently the way you determine if you have pinworms is to put a piece of Scotch tape on your anus.  For some reason, that visual led me into uncontrollable hysterics. Now what I can’t tell you is why we were having this discussion, because I am confident no one among us was suspected of having pinworms. Anyway, this is the kind of laughter I experienced for the next eight days. I loved every minute of it.
Sorry, Tim.  We had to crop you out for obvious reasons.
Day Two:   We Made It!  Look at us.  We have arrived, and we couldn’t be happier.  This was us, about an hour after getting off the plane.  I think it was about 9:00 in the morning, and we stopped for our first beer. There would be many, many more beers to follow.  But this one was special because a) we were drinking Guinness in Ireland for crying out loud, and b) the barkeep made a little imprint of a shamrock in the froth of said Guinness. Shortly after this picture we ate some bad Irish food and rode in a horse carriage.  Then, jet lag and fatigue set in so we checked into a hotel and took a nice, long nap. When we woke up we drank many more beers in a variety of Dublin pubs.  This beer-drinking business would be a recurring theme for us.
Strangely, Finbar has all of his teeth.  He is an Irish anomaly.
Day Three: Exploring Dublin.  Dublin is a fantastic city, and we had an absolute blast turning it upside down.  We did a few traditionally touristy things, including a tour of the Guinness brewery and a visit to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells. After a long day of touring the city, mostly by foot, we decided to treat ourselves to a nice dinner. Tim forgot to pack black socks for the trip, which prompted Eric to note that he was probably the only person to ever step foot in this fancy-schmancy establishment wearing both white socks and a Mickey Mouse watch.  The dinner, in the end, was over-priced and quite underwhelming. We needed to shake it off so we got off the beaten path to find a local pub.  This was our last night in Dublin, and we were ready for some fun.  Also ready for some fun was a group of local soccer fans in the pub we happened upon.  They had just attended a soccer match and were primed for a night of debauchery because the following day was a national holiday, the Queen’s birthday. (They didn’t like the Queen, but they liked the idea of a day off of work.)  We proceeded to have an evening of absolute, unbridled hilarity.  The picture is of me with my new friend, Finbar.  He, like all of his friends, was crazy funny and made me adore everything about this unforgettable night.
Day Four: Heading into Northern Ireland.  We made a decision when planning our trip to go to Northern Ireland.  Mind you, most tourists don’t. But again, we had heard and read many wonderful things, and we wanted to do things our way.  So after our night of Dublin debauchery, we got up the next morning and had a traditional Irish breakfast (they are big on breakfast, I tell ya) where the innkeeper, quite hungover himself, declared, “This bread is not so wonderful.”  It was such a funny and polite way to proclaim his distaste for the bread, that we have continued to use that phrase to this day. We checked out and started to make our way to Belfast.  We weren’t in a hurry, and this ended up being one of my favorite days.  One of our first stops was at this incredible cemetery.  Jess is standing here with a more contemporary gravestone, but there were grave markers from centuries prior.  (You know a date is old when it has “A.D.” after it.)  We continued to make our way up the coast, and stopped for lunch (and, you guessed it, beers) in a small coastal pub where we had the most incredible fish and chips.  It was absolute perfection.  When we got to Belfast, we were acutely aware of the tension – there was no way to miss it.  I will never forget riding through the streets on the way to our hotel, and seeing the curbs of each side of the street – one side painted orange and green, the other painted red, white and blue.  There were men, pacing the streets, armed with AK-47s. There was a helicopter perpetually flying overhead.  It was all a little unnerving, but I’m still glad we did it. About two weeks after we got home, “The Troubles” reportedly kicked up again.  Scary stuff.
If you don’t turn the sound off, I will cut you.
Day Five:  Getting out of Dodge.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sad to leave Belfast. We left and made our way to the Bushmills Distillery, where we mixed things up for our liver a little bit by giving it some hard liquor instead of beer.  This was a beautiful part of the country, with stunning landscape and rolling hills. We stayed at the inn on the Bushmills property.  That night, we made our way into town and had an incredible meal.  In fact, although the Irish aren’t known for their cuisine, we had many incredible meals while there.  That evening was low-key; all this drinking and touring was starting to wear us down.  I vividly remember the depth of my fatigue at this point in the trip. And, much like a toddler, when I haven’t had enough rest I might be prone to get a little cranky.  This particular evening, we were relaxing in the quiet hotel lounge.  Tim and I were playing cribbage, and Jess was writing in her journal. Eric was quietly reading a book.  And Katie? Why Katie had hijacked my Travel Yahtzee game and was playing it over and over…with the sound on. Beep beep, beepbeepbeepbeep! Those who know me well, know that I am very sensitive to noise. This is true ten-fold when I am tired.  I asked Katie to play the game without the sound on, and she politely declined.  I asked again and she pretended she didn’t hear me. Beepbeepbeepbeepbeep for a couple more minutes, and I lost my fool head.  I remember storming up to our hotel room and sobbing because I was so mad. Jess had to do her best to talk me off the proverbial ledge. It’s super funny now, because it was really, really stupid.  But that is the kind of fatigue and stupidity that can happen when you travel.  Especially when you travel with people who know your every button (and aren’t afraid to push it) crammed into a Volkswagen Jetta all day, every day.  The next day, after a good night’s rest, our own version of The Troubles had fully dissipated.  This picture is an airport re-enactment of Katie stubbornly playing Travel Yahtzee…with the sound on.
This is what love looks like.
Day Six: Giant’s Causeway and Other Cool Stuff.  We left Bushmills and made our way to Giant’s Causeway.  It was, in a word, breathtaking. It was the kind of place where you can sit for hours and just look.  Take it all in. Think about your place in this world.  Give thanks.  And that is just what we did.  After a few hours, we made our way out of Northern Ireland and down toward County Sligo. On the way there, I insisted that I needed to see some authentic Irish sheep. As we made our way through the rolling hills of Ireland, we happened upon a sheep farm.  We could see them, maybe a thousand of them, off in the distance.  We pulled to the side of the road and went up to the fence.  Katie had the brilliant idea to try lure the sheep over by pulling some grass and offering it to them. Sheep aren’t known for their high IQ, so they when they saw humans at the fence, they came a runnin’ – all of them.  They made their way over to us, and looked at Katie trying to offer them grass through the fence.  The look on their little sheep faces was as if to say, “Uh, lady…we already got us some grass. About a thousand acres of it back here. Thanks for nothing.” Fearing a full-on angry stampede, we ran back to the car as fast as we could and laughed our fool heads off. It was the funniest moment in Ireland, for sure.
The Queen and her castle.
Eventually we made our way to County Sligo, and when we got there we stayed in a castle.  This is a picture of Katie standing in front of it. It was a once in a lifetime experience, and there was everything to love about it. It was a small establishment, so after another incredible dinner the staff sat and talked (and drank) with us. They admitted that the castle was haunted and they had all kinds of tales to prove it.  I slept with one eye open that night.
“Come on, Major!  Let’s go!”
Day Seven: Horsing Around.  The next morning, we had arranged to go horseback riding on the adjoining grounds of the castle.  What I loved about this is that I would never have chosen this activity on my own – I really only did it because Katie insisted.  I think that is one of the great thing about traveling with others – they convince you to get out of your comfort zone. This is a picture of Jess on her horse, Major. Major was a laid back fella, and he was mostly interested in snacking.  Throughout the whole ride, Jess and Major were about ten paces behind the rest of us, and you would just hear Jess repeatedly say, “Come on, Major, let’s go!  Enough snacking!”  I, on the other hand, did not have an easy-going, snacky horse.  I had a beast named Taz.  Taz was an absolute maniac, and at a few points during the ride I feared for my life. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day when we took off, about 30 minutes into the ride the clouds parted, it started pouring rain and then it started to hail.  We had to gallop at full speed into a forested area until it cleared.  With my heart still racing, we eventually were able to make our way back toward the stable.  The guide warned me of yet another quirk about Taz:  He loves water.  Watch out, he said.  Well, sure enough, when Taz saw the stream along the way he ran full force down into it, stood in the stream and kicked up water at me for a good five minutes.  I was absolutely drenched by the time he was done, and it took everything I had in me to get him to go back up the embankment and out of the stream.  It was funny and kinda scary and another day of memorable bliss.
I am officially over you people.

Day Eight: Winding Down.  We packed up and left the castle with the acute sense that the fun was drawing to a close.  We made our way to Gallway and did a little shopping, a little eating, a little more drinking.  But by this point in the trip, we were slowing down.  Jess had already been nicknamed “Half Pint” a few days prior, and I had sworn off of beer.  I love this picture of Katie, because it depicts how we all felt:  spent, but happily so. Armed with a new collection of happy memories, our hearts were full and we were ready to head home.  Thanks for everything, Ireland…we did it our way, and it totally rocked.

Have Fun, Will Travel

When you lose a parent (or two) at an early age, it either teaches you to be bitter and resentful, or else it teaches you to savor every precious moment of life. Lucky for me, I chose the latter. It also made me want to experience everything I could, as quickly as I could, in case I end up having the same fate as dear old Mom and Pop. The resulting fire in my belly for the last few years has been to travel. Traveling has opened up my life and my world. Guess what!? There is more to this world than Brown Deer, Wisconsin. Who knew? Here are a few things my traveling adventures have taught me:

Every city has something to offer. I work in social services, for crying out loud, so I’m not afforded the vacation time nor the resources to hang out on a yacht in the French Riviera or jet set to the Galapagos Islands. And you know, it really doesn’t matter. I have been to Europe a couple of times, and it was all well and good, but I have had just as much fun spending a three or four day weekend in cities that are hardly known for their tourism industry. Cities like St. Louis and Cedar Rapids. ‘Tis true. Every city has something they are proud of that you should check out, at least one or two great restaurants, and people who are worth getting to know. Just get in your car and go.

Patience is a virtue. My mom used to say this to me all the time as a kid, and it aggravated me to no end every time she said it. Now that I have grown and matured (at least somewhat), I have to agree with her, but I would amend it. Patience is a virtue, especially when you are at the ticket counter. In travel and in life, things don’t always go your way. You can choose to be upset, or you can choose to roll with it. Being upset won’t make the fog go away and alleviate the 13 hour flight delay you experience in Juneau, Alaska. (Yes, that really happened to me.) But choosing to roll with it will mean that, while enduring said 13 hour flight delay, you will find the long-awaited perfect cup of clam chowder in the Juneau, Alasksa airport. Even when things are all f’d up, life can be good. Never lose sight of that.

In life and in travel, picking the right partner matters. A lot. I have had to get to know myself well enough to be able to pick the right partner(s) for travel. (I am still working on picking the right partner for life.) I have friends I adore who do not make good travel partners for me, for one reason or another. I need someone who will do some (but not all) of the planning, who will be spontaneous and inspire me to be so as well, and who will not complain if I want to take a short late afternoon nap before going out for the night. I know these things. I can’t compromise these things if I want to have a great travel experience. And I will not settle for less.

Sometimes you just want to get your Pizza Hut on. So I totally believe in checking out the local cuisine, and in asking the locals where they like to go, and in living life as art by trying new things. I get it. That’s the gold standard. But sometimes, travel can wear you down and you just want the familiar. I will never regret the meal I had at Pizza Hut in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was exactly what my bestie and I needed, exactly at that time. I was going to hurl if I saw another plate of Arroz con Pollo. I was tired. I was hungover. I had been behaving badly. And Pizza Hut purported to cure all that ailed me. You know what? It did. No regrets. I slept like a baby that night.

Don’t waste your money on the hotel. Unless you are on your honeymoon, or you are independently wealthy, an upscale hotel is just not worth it. My sister has taught me the joys of Priceline. It’s like buying the “mystery bag” gift–you never know what you are going to get. We have gotten fantastic hotels for $50 a night, and not-so-fantastic hotels for $50 a night. The point is, it doesn’t matter. As long as it is clean, the bed doesn’t hurt your back, and no one gets shot in the parking lot, it’s all good. Traveling is about seeing. You have a beautiful, comfortable home to return to. So save your pennies for the whale watching tour or the amazing dinner or the carriage ride through Central Park that you might not have had if you had stayed at the Westin. Those are the memories that will last you a lifetime.

Sensible shoes are more important than looking good. I learned this painful lesson–and I do mean painful–in Washington, D.C. The first day there I had on a cute little dress and sandals. Sandals that ripped my feet to a bloody, disgusting, painful pulp. I spent a good portion of the rest of my vacation bandaging my feet, complaining about my feet, and wincing everytime I stepped on my feet. Stupid, stupid, stupid. D.C. is a walking town. My feet were so bad by the time the trip was done that my friend and I took a picture of them. Lesson learned. It is better to feel good than to look good. At least when you are traveling, that is. You can look good when you get home.

Sex in a foreign country doesn’t count. Well that is what someone told me once, anyway. Enough said.

Don’t kiss the Blarney Stone. Sometimes you want to see that thing that everybody else has seen. But other times, it’s just not worth it. My trip to Ireland was one of the best trips of my life. I did a lot of things, but I did not kiss the Blarney Stone. And I don’t care. I walked through a cemetery that had gravestones from 3 A.D. I had fish and chips at the quaintest little pub on the coast in Northern Ireland. I drank beers, a whole lot of ’em, with drunken Irish soccer players who were missing most of their teeth. I fed a flock of sheep some grass through the fence, and laughed so hard I almost wet my pants. So Blarney Stone be damned, I experienced Ireland the way I needed to experience it, and I loved every minute of it. Make your vacation uniquely yours.

Do visit Iowa’s Largest Frying Pan. So in Brandon, Iowa there is what is allegedly Iowa’s largest frying pan. I say allegedly, because how does this sort of thing really get authenticated? It is kind of dumb, and pointless, and really only a photo op and nothing more. But it is damned funny to see. Stopping for the silly is always worth it. And if you don’t know where to find the silly, you can always visit http://www.roadsideamerica.com/.

Pretty much anything can be funny if you look at it through the right lens. If you are in the right mindset, that is. Regular Jen is a pretty fun gal, if I do say so myself. But Vacation Jen is extra fun. She delights in the little and the absurd. How else would I laugh hysterically at noting that our San Diego hotel elevator had a different font for each of the numbered buttons, at the fact that my friend Katie got stains all over her ass while sitting on the carpet of the divey bar we were at in Louisville, at my own monitoring of a ketchup bottle’s fate in Memphis, or at the 3 a.m. fire alarm I endured with my friend Colleen in Sarasota? I know, you are reading this and thinking “that’s not funny at all” but I assure you it was. So funny, that in each instance I laughed so hard I could not breathe or contain myself for long periods of time. Love, love, love, love, love that part of travel. Lose yourself in those moments. They are rare and awesome and what life is all about.

There’s no place like home. People always talk about taking a vacation to relax. That’s all well and good, but I find that a good vacation exhausts me. It exhilarates me too, but the hallmark of a great week of travel is that I am physically and mentally spent. Like when I came home from New Orleans and had not slept for the past 36 hours. That was good stuff. And while the trip home is never as much fun as the trip there, getting home is always a blessing in and of itself. Oh, the bliss of being back with my stuff, my cats, my bed, my shower. It is always good to leave, and it is always good to come back. Maybe that is why I love to travel so much…it gives me just the right amount of perspective that I need and helps me avoid taking for granted that amazing life I have right in front of me.

So all of that being said….get out the map, kids…I think it’s time to plan our next adventure. Where shall we go? And more importantly, what shall we learn along the way?