Travel to developing countries?

My last post explored impressions from a recent family trip to Guatemala. I talked about confronting my experience of travel at midlife, as well as external factors that contributed to a sense I probably won’t return to this beautiful country. Although I loved traveling there with my younger son and husband, I nevertheless felt discouraged about the enormity of the issues that Guatemala and Central America overall are facing. In general, I wonder how much more travel to developing countries I will do.

Travel+developing+countries+Guatemala8

Busy marketplace in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My reaction to Guatemala’s economic problem

My most troubling issue with travel to places like Guatemala lies within myself. I find it tiring to be always saying “No, gracias” to the scores of people who approach tourists, trying to sell them something. These entrepreneurs are just doing what they can to try and feed their families, but their sheer number at times can overwhelm.  My heart went out to a woman who hadn’t made many, maybe not any, sales one day — sometimes I would buy, or simply give a vendor money. And yet there were too many salespeople for a single tourist to make much of an impact. As a result, I felt discouraged. Admittedly, mine was a “first world” reaction, but I didn’t like feeling depressed while on vacation.

Furthermore, conversations with locals about Guatemalan industries like rose-growing and candle-making, where once-thriving businesses had been shuttered due to competition from lower-wage countries, gave me little cause to hope for future growth in their economy. Guatemala has more than 15 million people, but most of them lack the technical skills needed to thrive in the modern economy. Like similar countries, corruption is pervasive, but infrastructure and investment are lacking. Micro-enterprise loans and grants can address poverty on an individual level, but system-wide, the standard of living remains low.

Travel+developing+countries+Guatemala7

Mayan woman selling flowers outside church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

My travel time is finite

It is a strange feeling to be in a place, feel grateful and happy to be there, but also to recognize you probably won’t be back. I felt this way a few years ago when our family went to Machu Picchu. I didn’t have this perspective when I was younger, when I ventured alone to Michoacán, Mexico, or took a midnight ferry across the Adriatic to then-Yugoslavia. It didn’t cross my mind as a twenty-something to wonder whether I would go back to these places, or what they might be like in the future. But from where I stand now, time for traveling seems finite, and some places are lost to me forever.

But maybe I shouldn’t give up yet

There are still some developing regions of the world I’d love to visit. However, I’ll need to reconcile my desire to change people’s living standards with appreciation for life “in the here and now.” Just because my personal impact might be limited to people whom I encounter, just because I feel frustrated or despondent that their lives seem so “uncomfortable” compared to mine — this is not a reason to give up my appreciation for the beauty of life as it is right now.

This insight, in fact, might be what I’ve been lacking all along. Moreover, it’s a significant element in why it remains worthwhile to travel to places that aren’t so comfortable. Whether we are at home or abroad, ultimately all we have is the present. Maybe this is what I was supposed to see, and why I need to continue traveling to places like Guatemala.

Travel+developing+countries+Guatemala10

The sun rises over the jungle of Tikal, Guatemala

 

Travel+developing+countries+Guatemala11

Iconic Mayan temple in Tikal, Guatemala

Last vacation in Guatemala

We vacationed in Guatemala this year. It was my second trip to the country — our entire family had visited in 2005. While I enjoyed both trips a great deal, this time was likely my last visit to Guatemala. At least it was my last visit for the purpose of vacation — perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do community service there, but I’ve realized I’m nearing an end to my long-held interest in travel to developing countries where they speak Spanish.

Last+vacation+Guatemala+5

With my husband at Lago de Atitlán, a volcano-rimmed lake

Why? In large part, my tastes have changed as I’ve grown older. It isn’t a question of safety: at no time did I feel unsafe in Guatemala. We took the usual precautions one would take anywhere in the world. But as much as I hate to admit it, I like being comfortable when I’m on vacation. While it’s perfectly possible to find nice hotels and restaurants in a developing country, the “comfortable tourist” cannot help but come face to face with the uncomfortable reality of life for that country’s people. I know it’s good to have a broader world view and not to remain ensconced in my cozy suburban life. At the same time, I’m not sure this type of experience, for me, makes for a “vacation” in the usual sense.

In this and the next post, I’ll explore my thoughts on our recent trip.

Developing country travel is harder at midlife

Traveling to Guatemala made me admit I’d grown older. Partly this acknowledgment had to do with expectations based on the easy life I have at home, and partly my body just doesn’t work as well as it used to. But I appreciate a firm bed, a nice shower, a good cup of coffee and clean bathrooms. I found most of these things during my trip, even the good cup of coffee — thanks to following the advice of my older son to take along an Aeropress and hand coffee grinder. Still, by most measures, it was far from luxury travel.

Last+vacation+Guatemala+CSA

With my CSA teacher in 2005 and then again in 2014

My younger son and I spent a wonderful week studying Spanish — each with our personal tutor at the Christian Spanish Academy in Antigua Guatemala. We loved Antigua. It’s an excellent tourist destination with numerous hotels and restaurants, and it’s small enough to negotiate on foot. However, I found wandering around there more difficult this time than nine years ago. Antigua is an old colonial town where all the streets are cobblestone, and the curbs are uneven. Cars might slow down as they approach an intersection, but no one has bothered to install stop signs — presumably because they would go unheeded. I turned my ankle and fell at a street corner when I wasn’t paying attention. Furthermore, many streets weren’t marked, so it was easy to become confused about where we were going.

Last+vacation+Guatemala+9

Antigua’s cobblestone streets

Don’t they want to attract well-off tourists?

Second, for a country such as Guatemala where tourism is one of its principal industries, it seems odd that they aren’t trying to encourage affluent travelers to visit by making sure they provide world-class accommodations and food.

The hotels where we stayed in Antigua and Guatemala City seemed more run-down than they had in 2005, and it struck me that management efforts to cut operations costs may have detracted from guests’ experience while not actually saving much money. For example, our room on the lower level of the Antigua hotel smelled dank, and they had fewer tropical flower arrangements and candles in the hallways this time around than had impressed me nine years ago. In Guatemala City, our business-class hotel still had not replaced a burnt-out light bulb two days after we requested it. Likewise, shops and market stalls seemed stuck in the previous century, with little evidence of innovation in their product offerings. And don’t even get me started on the restaurants! If you want more of my opinions, check out my Trip Advisor reviews.

Most travelers to Guatemala today are students studying Spanish, or they’re budget-conscious couples (and occasionally families) who aren’t staying in the nicer (meaning “more expensive”) hotels, or eating in fine restaurants. They also aren’t buying many souvenirs. I’m glad they’re there. But attracting more affluent travelers also would help Guatemala’s tourism industry overall. It’s an excellent destination with natural beauty, culture and friendly people. Yet broadening their base of travelers involves improving all aspects of the hospitality industry — not just upgrading an occasional hotel or restaurant. Given the country’s economic and political woes, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

The next post will continue my thoughts on this specific trip and vacationing in developing countries generally. In the meantime, enjoy some travel photos!

Last+vacation+Guatemala+12

Lunch with a view at Café Sky in Antigua

 

Last+vacation+Guatemala+4

Mayan men in the church courtyard, Santiago de Atitlán

 

Last+vacation+Guatemala+3

Girls in traditional Mayan attire

 

Last+vacation+Guatemala+1

Women preparing a float for church festival

 

Last+vacation+Guatemala+2

Mayan woman fastens blooms to festival float

 

US Open tennis fashion: the men

My last post highlighted a number of female players tennis fashion at the US Open. While men’s tennis fashion is rarely as interesting as women’s, this year shows some innovative patterns and, notably, more bright colors than we typically see in a single tournament.

Tennis fashion goes green

The most prominent color for men this year is green. Bright green. Neon green. It showed up on Milos Raonic, although I noticed his haircut as much as his shirt color.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+raonic

Milos Raonic, US Open Round 1

 

Crazy green works for Gael Monfils. Not only does it complement his dark skin, but also goes along with his unorthodox, acrobatic style that fans love so much.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+Monfils

Gael Monfils, US Open Round 1

 

In addition to Raonic and Monfils, many more male players are sporting a similar color green, across a variety of labels. They include Jack Sock (also with a haircut), Marinko Matosevic, Juan Monaco, Lleyton Hewitt and Sam Querrey.

 

Murray’s tennis fashion: light on the green

Andy Murray wears just a touch of green on his wristbands and hat. Given all the other green shirts, his mostly-grey ensemble is refreshing.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+murray

Andy Murray US Open Round 1

More bright colors in US Open tennis fashion

Green isn’t the only bright color showing up around the grounds in Flushing Meadows. Nick Kyrgios wore a particularly colorful shirt in his defeat of Mikhail Youhzny. Kyrgios is a relatively unknown Australian whose principal achievement since turning pro in 2013 was defeating Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. Although the pinkish-orange purplish-blue shirt by Nike is hard to describe, it works well on him.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios, US Open Round 1

 

Another player who can wear bright colors is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. His orange shirt, sweatband and shoes look sharp against the white socks, shorts and hat.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+tsonga

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, US Open Round 1

 

Federer’s timeless tennis fashion

Contrasting with all these bright colors was Roger Federer’s all-black “evening” ensemble. Perhaps he’ll have a different outfit for daytime, but being the star that he is, Roger is playing his first and second round matches during primetime on Ashe.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+federer+night

Roger Federer US Open Round 1 (Evening)

 

Djokovic’s tennis fashion: boring!

You may have noticed that so far I haven’t mentioned the top-seeded male player at the US Open, Novak Djokovic. That’s because, even though his game is impressive, his tennis fashion is not. Sponsored by Uniqlo, Nole wears basic-looking outfits. No special colors — just red, white, blue and black. Always the same style of polo shirt. For this tournament, he’s going with red and black, and his shoes go with the theme. I suppose he opts to make his mark with tennis pure and simple, not with tennis fashion.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+Djokovic

Novak Djokovic – US Open Round 1

 

There’s lots more tennis to be played, and if the early rounds are any indication, things are going to continue to be exciting on the courts. Enjoy the matches, and keep your eye out for new tennis fashion trends!

 

 

Image credits: various photographers via usopen.org

US Open tennis fashion: the women

Almost as much fun as watching the matches is checking out the US Open tennis fashion. This year continues a trend towards variety of colors — not only in women’s clothes, but also in their shoes. Here are some ladies tennis fashions I’ve noticed so far during the tournament.

Sharapova tennis fashion: Day and Night

US+Open+tennis+fashion+sharapova+day

Maria by day

Tennis diva Maria Sharapova is looking glam as usual. Nike has furnished her with a daytime tunic as well as an evening dress.

 

US+Open+tennis+fashion+sharapova+night

Maria by night

 

Serena tennis fashion: the Big Cat

US+Open+tennis+fashion+serena

Serena by Night: the Snow Leopard

Serena always stands out: not only for her dominant play, but also for her short skirts that emphasize the size and strength of her quads, hamstrings and glutes. This year she’s wearing an animal print dress. For her first round (evening) match, her dress was a more “formal” black and white — a snow leopard pattern. But then for her day match vs. Vania King, she sported the same print in pink and red.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+Serena+day

Serena by day: spotted pink panther?

Tennis fashion in blue, who knew?

Blue is a popular color this year. Azarenka looks cute in her blue and white tennis shorts and matching top. The young Canadian phenom Eugenie Bouchard shows athleticism and elegance in her slim-fitting blue dress.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+azarenka

Vika shows her flexibility (and contrasting soles)

 

US+Open+tennis+fashion+bouchard

Genie Bouchard stretches for a ball

Jelena Jankovic is also wearing blue, but she combines it with purple hexagonal spots.  Sponsored by Fila, Jankovic wears a simply styled dress that attracts attention with its bold print.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+jankovic

Fila’s blue and purple print for Jankovic

In yet another take on the traditional blue color, Venus Williams is wearing one of her own EleVen designs, in a lady-like white and blue floral with a square opening across the shoulder blades. In her after-match interview, she indicated that this design includes some red — to make it red, white and blue for the US Open. Maybe she’ll add something red for the next round!

US+Open+tennis+fashion+venus

Venus wins her second round match

Tennis fashion new color: blush

An often-seen color in early round women’s matches has been blush, or light peach. While blue, black and white are tennis fashion staples, this blush color is fresh and different. One Adidas top in particular has been worn by several players. Who wore it better, in your opinion: Andrea Petkovic, Kimiko Date-Krumm or Maria Kirilenko?

Caroline Wozniacki gets her own version of the Adidas blush. It has a contrasting panel down the front with a kind of flap that comes in two colors, berry and beige. Personally I’m not sure how this “flap” would work on many women’s figures. But on Caroline, of course it looks terrific.

US+Open+tennis+fashion+wozniacki1

Caroline Wozniacki – US Open First Round

US+Open+tennis+fashion+Wozniacki2

Caroline Wozniacki – US Open Second Round

 

The next post will highlight men’s fashions from the US Open Tennis Tournament. Stay tuned!

 

Image credits: various photographers via usopen.org, zimbio.com

Back to school, back to anxiety

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s exciting to enter a new year at school, meet new friends, learn new things. But many back-to-school experiences are infused with anxiety — both for students and their parents.

school-anxiety1

Student anxiety

Students of all ages are nervous as well as excited, whether they’re in elementary, middle, high school, college or beyond. Their questions vary on similar themes: will I get a “good” teacher? How will I find something I like to do and people I like to do it with? How can I make good grades without working too hard?

For students moving away to college, the thrill of living on their own is often matched by a latent fear of whether they’ll be happy. Whether they will find people who accept them for who they are, or whether they should “try on” new personalities in order to fit in.

Even going back to college after a summer away brings worries: will I still like my friends from last year? Will they like me? What am I going to major in? How am I going to juggle all my responsibilities?

Parents are anxious for our kids

We parents may try to hide our anxiety, but it runs high. We’re worried about how our younger children are going to choose friends, make good grades, excel at sports, get their homework done. Anxiety builds as they start high school. We fear that even tiny missteps will limit their options for college.

Clearing the college hurdle brings on new worries. As parents of college students, we have to content ourselves with what our kids choose to tell us. Even if we had tried to guide kids’ choices in the past, they’re out of our reach now.

We worry about ourselves, too

Those are the worries we have for our kids. What about the anxiety we feel for ourselves? For example, how can I volunteer at my child’s school while still leaving time for my job or other commitments? Are the other parents going to accept me as one of them? Now that my kids have moved on to college, what should I do? Should I change jobs, start working again, go back to school, take up a new interest? How will my spouse and I get along with each other, now that the kids have left home? How can I meet new friends, now that the interactions with parents I used to see at school or sports are more random?

Relationship anxiety

So we worry about our relationships with other adults, and also about how we will relate to our children who are becoming adults. But deep down, both parents and students want to know the same things:

  • How do I separate?
  • How do I stay connected?

 

school-anxiety2

Letting go of anxiety

Vague advice for anxious parents or kids like, “Just chill out!” may be well meant, but it’s not particularly helpful. Of course we know that worrying doesn’t do any good! Various religious traditions (not to mention common sense) admonish us to let go of anxiety. For example, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Which one of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?(Matthew 6:27 ESV)

For those of us who are prone to anxiety, however, it’s not so easy. As a near-professional worrier myself, I struggle with letting go. But my own experience suggests starting small can help. For example:

  • Commit time to take a “worry break.” Go for a walk or sit outside and breathe slowly. Get a pedicure or massage. See if you can think about something else for thirty minutes, maybe even an hour. Block the time out on your calendar.
  • Let go of one thing: Figure out something you’re worried about that logically, you know you can’t control. Don’t try to let go of all worries at once — just this one.
  • Turn the camera around: notice what’s going on in the lives of people you encounter every day. The cashier, receptionist, school janitor, or homeless person. Sometimes the simple act of focusing on another’s problems, even briefly, can give you perspective on your own concerns.

Letting go of anxiety, even temporarily, is something we can train ourselves to do. Not unlike learning to hit a slice serve or sink a four-foot putt, this training requires us to practice and build on small successes. But even little improvements will start to add up.

OK, it’s time for me to walk my dog. Likewise, go on your own “worry break!”

school-anxiety3

 

 

Images licensed under CC BY via Flickr: Mari Z., T. Goskar, P. Nouhailler

Patrick Nouhaill