Category: travel

on the nature of maps

Marfa Texas

The skies of Marfa, Texas

A space “without” seems strange: in today’s world, we are so accustomed to more rather than less. More buildings, more cars, more people, more things. Things everywhere.

The desert and open skies expand something in the heart; the apparent endlessness feels both intensely personal and coolly insouciant. Empty yet simultaneously so full of possibility. I referenced a friend’s tattoo once: a Chinese character that means “emptiness” but is idiomatic because it connotes “a space waiting to be filled,” which is arguably different from emptiness. There is a beauty in the waiting, in the pause in between. Sometimes when we see or feel emptiness we feel rushed or anxious to put something in it, rather than exploring the space. Stillness and space are necessary for us to find ourselves. Pico Iyer says, “I began to think how much we need space in those we love, space enough to accommodate growth and possibility.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to embrace the uncertainty of the future despite a past that is laden with preconceived notions of how things will go. I stumble a lot, take a lot of wrong turns in life. I try to preempt disappointment and protect myself by following the maps I’ve already made, but in staying in the harbor, I may pass up that one turn that will take me to the view I’ve been searching for; the one that will change everything that the past has programmed in me. I worry a lot about knowing the right path ahead of time, when really we are still the explorers of the path. Not everything is known, and that is ok. Epiphanies rarely repeat themselves. Rolf Faste’s “On the Nature of Maps” can be interpreted as double entendre, a metaphor of how to charter the new; he acknowledges the usefulness of the maps we already have, while also recognizing the space beyond that which is familiar.

  1. Maps are useful.
  2. Maps are useful in inverse proportion to their completeness.
  3. “The map is not the territory” – Korzybski
  4. Maps of known territories can be purchased.
  5. You can’t buy maps for unknown territories.
  6. Explorers go into unknown territories.
  7. In the absence of maps, explorers outfit themselves in other ways.
  8. The future is an unknown territory.

“And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

— Pico Iyer

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Hiking the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland

As promised in a previous post, here’s a guide to help you prepare for hiking the Laugavegur trail (or Laugavegurinn) in Iceland. National Geographic named this trek one of the Top 20 World’s Best Hiking Trails, and for good reason. WSJ also featured the trail in an article from 2014. We had bought our plane tickets to Reykjavik and had to decide if we were going to drive around Iceland’s Ring Road or walk the Laugavegur. We chose walking, of course.

“Walking… is how the body measures itself against the earth.”  — Rebecca Solnit

Rose Kuo Laugavegur Hike in Iceland

Me, traveling to other worlds to find you.

At about 34 miles (55km) long, Iceland’s Laugavegur trek takes you through everything you could have dreamed that Middle Earth would have looked like. Most travelers start in Landmannalaugar and end in Þórsmörk (Thorsmork), although you can also opt to trek the other way. Who wouldn’t want to visit a place called “Thor’s Wood”? The scenery is incredible. I previously wrote: just when you think the last landscape you crossed *had* to be the MOST-BEAUTIFUL-and-best-thing-on-this-earth and there is no way anything can top it — a new one comes into view and takes your breath away.

Laugavegur lake flowers

On the banks of the lake

I would suggest allocating 4-5 days for the Laugavegur trail. There is an optional final leg from Þórsmörk to Skógar, which we skipped because we were limited on time (and we heard that the terrain is much more difficult). There are only 2-3 months out of the year during which it is possible to hike the Laugavegur trail (another reason to reserve accommodation ahead of time, since it will be in demand during the hiking months). Outside of mid-June through mid-September, the roads leading to and from the trail are impassible and buses do not run. Residual snow may make this trek difficult even in June. We played it safe by planning our trip towards the end of July/beginning of August. Definitely research snow/weather conditions before your hike to ensure a safe trip!

(I have included a complete gear list later in this post.)

Laugavegur mountains

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“A Little Life” (or, more straightforwardly: “Taiwan”)

“You couldn’t relive your life, skipping the awful parts, without losing what made it worthwhile. You had to accept it as a whole–like the world, or the person you loved.”

— Stewart O’Nan

It’s amazing how a little tomorrow can make up for a whole lot of yesterday.

— John Guare

阿姨 sits down next to me and notes admiringly that I have been glued to my book the entire trip. “You’re so studious,” she said. I’ve always loved to read, I confessed. My parents would scold me at breakfast and dinner and in the car. “Stop reading at meals, pay attention, your eyes will go bad if you read while the car is moving.”

I told her I am currently reading an excruciatingly sad novel. “Doesn’t it color your mood?” she asked. “Of course,” I responded.

“Why don’t you only read happy things then?” I laughed and shrugged. I’m reminded so much that I am too emotional anyway, why not face it head on? Someone once told me that the world is wrong to frown upon emotion and vulnerability. So many people deem it weak, but perhaps it can be considered bravery that one opens herself to feeling. I admit I probably also want reassurance that writing about sad things doesn’t preclude becoming a good writer.

I know I will always be a person who thinks about feelings too much, but there are worse things to be in this world (as we are reminded daily by the news). The sad literature and events in life are what provide contrast for us to know what contentment is. The adversity we face is what prepares us for what we need to do to attain peace.

I guess the thing about the sad novel is that it reminds me of the obscure details, the tiny things that make waves. The tiny obstacles that can turn ships, but also the tiny miracles that can turn tides.

***

For months after I bought the plane ticket, I was anxious. I was convinced that my family in Taiwan would scold me:
1. Tell me that I’ve gained weight (which is senseless to say since: of course I was going to look different. The last time I was there was over a decade ago).
2. Comment with dismay about how I am “still single” and childless.

The way I’ve learned Asian families do.

My mom insisted that my arrival to be a total surprise to everyone. I was concerned about this, too. What if grandmother is out somewhere else when we arrive? What if I give her a scare? My mom reassured me. “Don’t worry, grandmother is always there. Where would she go? And don’t worry, her heart is very healthy.”

***

Grandmother was sitting in the yard with her friend when my father and I first walked up. She did not see me at first. When it became clear the visitors were here for her, the friend helped her to stand up. Her face was cloudy, her eyes squinting through the distance to see. I called out “Grandmother, it’s me, 樂樂.”

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What else could go right?

We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero’s shoulders and the gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.

— Excerpts from “Snow and Dirty Rain” by Richard Siken

I’m sitting in the sunlight in a tiny town in Portugal with someone who is terrible at sitting still.

We are (attempting) to read our books while stretched out in front of the Mondego river. It’s been a day of driving with the top down singing loudly to Travis Scott and my hair is tangled, scented with sea. There’s this fountain that’s rising and falling in all directions almost comically, teasing us against the backdrop of the sun stubbornly continuing to set in one direction against the mountains.


“How do Europeans do absolutely nothing all day?” he asks me when looking up from his book.

I laugh and shake my head at my you’re-such-a-typical-New-Yorker friend. “Because maybe they are the ones that really know how to live.”

In New York City, I’m always writing things feverishly while walking up subway steps. There’s always such urgency, never enough time to sit still and do nothing. I think to myself: god, I could trip and fall and die. And there’s that part of me that thinks: writing is one of those few things that would make me fold my hands in my lap in the afterlife and say, “Well. Good thing it was worth it.”

A few months ago my friend came to visit, all memories and lines and bait — like a good fisherman. I talked like he was going to move back here, and he said quietly, “Man, New York City takes so much effort though. You seem like you love it. Is it really worth it?”

The good things are worth the effort. This past year, we’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies, relationships — everything — on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. But let’s remember: there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, not just this year. So many of my friends have faltered this year at the absurdity of fighting for what we believe in. Or what we love. We’d all like to lose ourselves in something big, gigantic; but more unfortunately, it seems, something we are absolutely certain we can win at.

We are here now. Even if the odds are (obviously) that we can’t win every time, struggling in our convictions for what is good and right seems to be a worthy cause.

I could go on about 2016, but I think everyone else pretty much has the negative side covered. Every blog post and tweet sums it up: “2016 was shit. Good riddance.” I thought about the posts I could write: summarizing the books I read, new jobs, new loves, my travels, how it felt to meet my goal of writing in my Day One journal every day, the number of steps I’ve taken since getting a Fitbit; while they are all things I’d like to expand upon, nothing seemed to fit for the final entry of the year. I thought about writing nothing at all. Or just quoting from the greats. There are endless relevant quotes from James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Hannah Arendt, Margaret Mead, W.E.B. Dubois, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maya Angelou, Junot Díaz, and on and on.

 I don’t think I’m the only person who has been paralyzed about what to write (or what not to write) — what if people get angry with me because I leave out important issues? What if people get angry with me when I do write about important issues? Is it worse to be silent than to write incompletely? Is it frivolous to write about love and hope in a time of terror and despair? Is it ok to quote poetry instead of more politically-relevant works? (Many of the same questions I asked myself last year.) It took a lot of courage to act on the thought I had: What any of us writes will always be incomplete. Write anyway.

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the importance of being Iceland

It feels like everyone’s been (quietly) going to Iceland. Maybe we’re tired of the rage and confusion and polemics. All the heartbreak and controversy.

of course there are rainbows and waterfalls in iceland

Maybe we just want a place that feels neutral, a place that turns off the street lamps so that you can see the northern lights, a place that looks like we’ve arrived on another planet and yet in some ways we know exactly what to expect.

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