Proposal

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If we could all just have a few more of these… Port Barton, Philippines.

Without a doubt, the four most common questions any traveler gets asked while abroad are (in order):

  1. Where are you from?
  2. What is your name?
  3. Are you married?
  4. Kids?

For me, even Question #1 can be pretty loaded. After all, ethnic minorities are still a rare concept in largely homogeneous-looking societies, and at least once a day, I’ve got some random stranger telling me that I “can’t possibly be American because, well,… you know” Then they put their fingers to the edges of their eyes and pull to show me what my face looks like.

-sigh-

It’s irritating and exhausting, and every few months of travel, I completely freak out, log in to my WordPress, and produce one of these. Honestly, though, my case is pretty unique. For most people, Questions #1 and #2 pass without incident. It’s Questions #3 and #4 that can get really tiresome. Depending on who’s asking, you could get a simple, “Why not?” or you could get a lecherous smile coupled with the sudden, unwelcome sensation of a hand on your thigh. Or, as I came to find out a few years ago, you could get the unsolicited opinion of a man lying under a tree. There are a lot of things I will tolerate when I’m on the road. However, being lectured to about my life’s trajectory by a man who is both shirtless and shoeless by two in the afternoon is not one of them.

Anyone that knows me well can attest to my lifelong aversion to marriage and kids. It’s just not for me- never has been, and unlikely ever to be. I have nothing against either, and know lots of happy people who chose one, the other, or both. That said, once you hit your 30s, it somehow becomes open season for people that barely know you to make distasteful comments about your rapidly decaying eggs. It gets pretty damn tiring being patronized about it all the time, and I’m never entirely sure what the presumptuous ass talking to my face is trying to achieve here. Being constantly reminded that I’m getting older, and that the window for biological parenthood is closing, is a little like being told that I’m getting too old to be a firefighter, or a gymnast, or something else I never said I wanted to be.

Yes. I hear you. And?

Parents are great. I admire their tenacity, patience, and determination. If it wasn’t for good parents, our society would have devolved into a cannibalistic wasteland long ago. I respect them and understand that they are doing something that benefits us all.

Similarly, I like and respect firefighters. I admire their courage and dedication to society. I wish they were funded better and given more support. I acknowledge that we could never live without them (Hell, my entire state would have burned to the ground by now if not for their valiant efforts). But I’ve never wanted to be a firefighter. I don’t have any affection whatsoever for my garden hose, and I don’t subscribe to Firehouse Magazine. I wouldn’t even know where to begin shopping for a pair of overalls.

So, in short, I enjoy smart, cheeky, well-behaved children in the same way that I enjoy my house not being on fire. That is to say, enormously. Doesn’t mean I want to have them.

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It’s a lonely, perfectly paved, well-maintained road out there. On the way to El Nido, Palawan.

I know I’m in the minority, and I’m fine with that. None of my friends at home have ever pushed the issue, and, being from the SF Bay, I often forget that my stance is somewhat uncommon. Maybe once every two years, I’ll encounter someone who has the temerity to challenge my decision (I don’t know why people think that telling a full grown woman that she doesn’t know her own mind is ever OK, but there it is) and I’ve been all too happy to swiftly and resolutely shut them down.

But, travel.

Oh, travel… when “having a husband” keeps truck drivers’ sweaty, lustful hands at bay, dodges old ladies’ pitying lectures, and helps your friends’ long-distance girlfriends sleep at night. It just,… it just makes things so easy.

So, a lot of us will lie about it. I certainly have. After all, my entire first round-the-world trip was spent “on the way to meet my fiance,” a phantom character who I’d artfully named “Boris McHookhand.” Boris had it all- he took out the garbage and talked tennis with my dad. He was gainfully employed and didn’t believe in premarital sex. He was a championship boxer, but also an avid animal lover who brought home stray cats to feed. He was a catch. But, above all, if you needed to know anything about Boris, it’s that he was jealous. Very jealous. That’s why he’s not here, after all. Oh, he will be. Right after he finishes serving time for stabbing the last guy that looked at my rack, that is.

It’s stupid and tiresome, but almost all of us have done it at some point. It saves you a lot of grief and people almost automatically ease up– especially if you have pictures (I’m pretty certain that if Kai Newkirk and I were to ever meet, we’d fall madly in love, so I feel like toting around images of him is OK. It’s kind of like taking out a cash advance on my love life).

But, lately, I’ve been having second thoughts. In a few moments of unchecked annoyance while hitchhiking through South Africa in 2012, I was asked whether or not I was married and I answered with a curt, “No. And I won’t be, if I have any choice in the matter.” I looked over at the driver, expectantly. The response was surprising- “Yeah, me neither.” My ride and I smiled at each other in a moment of understanding, and the conversation moved to something else.

A similar exchange in a backwater Tajik town rapidly evolved into a spirited discussion where a 28-year old librarian eagerly disclosed her wish to travel the world and live free one day. “Both my sisters have gotten married and had children. Why do I have to as well?”

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Unfortunately, living free often means having bugs fly into your eye. Palawan, Philippines.

The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. We, as travelers from industrialized nations, have an almost embarrassing amount of cultural influence on the places we visit. Filipino hairstylists sing to Destiny’s Child at work. Laughing Swazi village children wear shorts with the Union Jack plastered on the butt. Cambodian touts can urge you to buy their postcards in German, or Japanese, or Russian, or Dutch, or Korean, or whatever other language you want to try to avoid them with. Maybe it’s pompous to say, but, in many ways, our presence has a hand in shaping the young people of many developing nations.

We push on, always to lesser-known places, helping out on a farm here, teaching English there, and many return home to work towards improving literacy, health care, and environmental stewardship overseas. And almost all of us do all of this while solo. My female traveler friends fight for gender equality and negotiate aggressively for maternity leave and a fair salary… and yet still lie about marriage and kids to “just make it easier”. Why, when most travelers I know are happy to brave dengue and armed conflict and death-defying chicken bus rides, are we afraid to simply just attest to who we are? Why shouldn’t we proudly reveal our relationship status as well, and be happy to answer the questions that follow? After all, I’m not doing anything wrong, and my choice isn’t hurting anybody else. Why sidestep questions about a choice I’m proud of when the potential impact to a young girl sitting behind me on the bus, or to an eavesdropping student in the internet cafe, may be huge?

And so, my proposal to my single traveler friends is to step out from the veil of secrecy, stand up for your single-dom, and say it loud and proud. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprising discovery, but I’m finding that there are some people (men and women) in those barely-touched corners of the world who maybe don’t want that, either. Maybe they just need someone else to take a stand. Answer the questions. Tell off the presumptuous asses. Maybe they just need to see someone doing it first.

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Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines.


“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” –Steve Jobs

 

On the Art of Living

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Tosor, Kyrgyzstan.

The night before my 32nd birthday, I had a dream. It was a dream about a postcard. The card itself I don’t really remember… I think there may have been flowers or some sort of majestic running animal on it. The point was that, in my dream, I had been trying to send it from multiple successive locations on my trip, but it had been returned to me due to insufficient postage. The stamps were piled on at least a centimeter thick — I guess I’d dutifully added money in the past. I brought it to the “post office” (which, oddly, appeared to be in the women’s changing room of Planet Fitness), where I was told that I’d need to add another $10 of stamps.

$10?!? For a postcard?!?” I exclaimed.

Yes. Why so upset? You’ve already paid $40 for all these stamps here” the mail clerk responded, gesticulating at the exploding mound on the upper right corner.

I woke up at 4am in a cold sweat, snarling and chewing my pillow.

I’d like to say that this feckless assault of my bedding was a one-time event, but it would be a brazen lie. These violent displays happened almost every night, and I awoke on more than one occasion to find my fat little pillow peeping out bitterly from the wall crack where I had ruthlessly ground it in with my knee overnight.

I guess I’ve had a lot of suppressed frustration.

Not for no reason, either. Money has been on my mind almost constantly as the end of my trip draws ever nearer, and the eventual return to all my responsibilities in the US looms colossal. The cheerful haze that has marked the last few months of travel is on the verge of dissipating, and yesterday morning, I even received a probing email from FedLoan Servicing that “just wanted to remind” me that my student loan payments start in December. Ah, yes. Those. Yeah- I DON’T NEED REMINDING. I AM AWARE.

Nevertheless, even though I know that I only have a limited time to go home, get set up, and start making cash before my first bill arrives, I’ve been reluctant to set a date to do so. I’ve hemmed and hawed and come up with all manner of reasons to push back the task of airfare shopping. So I’ve watched as the tickets have inched up in price, and used it as a reason to set my return date even further back.

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I have no idea why I’m putting this here. I just really want people to marvel over the size of this corn! Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Being among the travel community again, feeling like myself again, feeling free for the first time in years,… all this has been contributing to the annihilation of the memory of graduate school and frankly, I have been the happier for it. After all, I’d nearly needed to change into a completely different person to even survive the program. I suddenly became serious and terse. I was reluctant to share any part of myself with my colleagues or classmates, and I think I only genuinely laughed once in all those three years (to a joke regarding pubic hair, which has always been my weakness). I had a group of great girlfriends with whom I could unwind, but more often than not, we were too busy to see much of each other. After my first year, I barely even recognized myself. After all, unlike so many other fields of study, Nursing seeks to break you down to your ankles and build you back up in the form of a compassionate, professional healthcare provider. Even such things as how to question a patient to motivate change are carefully crafted and delivered– a strong departure from my normal reflex of just opening my mouth and seeing what drops out (I’m usually just as surprised as anyone else).

More to the point, I’ve been skittish about going home to start my first real job. While nursing school did the best it could to prepare me for my upcoming career, I was far from being the star pupil of my class. I belly-crawled through exams. My textbooks often served as soy sauce-stained placemats that I began just leaving in the kitchen by my second year (they were more useful there). I once shamelessly professed that NSAIDs were hell for the liver, and Tylenol havoc for the kidneys. On our last exam for the program, I assessed a “real” clinical visit on the fly and ended up sending a little old lady with acute heart failure back to her empty 3rd story flat, stating that I’d “call to check in on her” later (I essentially killed my patient).

Being a nurse practitioner will be the absolute most responsibility I have ever had in my adult life, and I am not sure I am ready for it. It feels almost unreal, like another life that I’d fixed up and filed away for use when travel got tiresome. The “me” that I’d cultivated to navigate that part- the one who was capable of handling the immense responsibility- she felt like a farce: someone I could “put on” for a few hours in clinic to play the role while the “real” me pawed away at my insides, desperate to make a butt joke or absentmindedly pick at my earwax. A part of me worried that spending so much time as this “other Sam” would eventually change or break the “original Sam.” The real one. The one that people who actually knew me liked, and the one that I liked, myself. It’s hard to explain.

So, partly to delay the terrifying new reality I’d crafted for myself, and partly to make good on a promise I’d made to a close friend last year, I found myself in Indonesia again. After leaving Central Asia, I zipped off to South East Asia and entered my first Vipassana course. For two weeks, I said goodbye to the world and shut myself away in a lonely compound in the hills surrounding Bogor, in Java.

I didn’t know what to expect. At best, I thought it might be a great way to get out of the city and seek some peace and quiet somewhere. At worst, I fretted that it would end up being some hippy-dippy commune where I’d be required to wear a track suit and drink dubious-looking punch all day long. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d be learning how to meditate (despite it saying so right in the name). Imagine my surprise when I saw that our daily schedule involved 11 hours of the stuff!

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I’d never really meditated before, and really never thought of myself as being someone who would indulge in such a thing. After all, I have health insurance. I own a TI-83 calculator, and don’t even know the first thing about playing a banjo. People like me don’t meditate.

That said, a good friend of mine had been pushing me to sign up for a course for what seemed like forever. The program was free, and hell, what else was I going to be doing with that time? I signed up and was accepted.

A very basic run-down is that Vipassana is a secular meditation technique meant to help the practitioner develop control over their mind and actions by cultivating equanimity. Throughout the day, as sensations and emotions arise, you are meant to quietly observe them and not react, learning through tangible experience the impermanent nature of everything in life. In this way, you can separate yourself from pleasure (which begets craving) or dislike (which begets aversion), and maintain your inner balance no matter what life throws at you. You seek to master your own mind.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

I should make a note here to all that might want to do a Vipassana course that the center, to support each individual meditator’s practice, enforces some pretty strict rules. These include the “no dinner rule” (I have yet to understand how this would benefit anyone at all), and the practice of “Noble Silence.” I was prepared not to talk for 10 days, but in this case, silence also includes the avoidance of eye contact, written communication, or gestures of any kind. You are also to surrender all your electronics, diary, and all your books. Then you must also keep from killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual behavior, or taking any kind of intoxicant- the five pillars from which all future development is supposed to sprout.

Turns out, when you can’t spend your time swatting at mosquitoes, reading, writing, listening to music, talking to anyone else, or even masturbating (arguably, the most oft-used time killer for a LOT of people), you tune in to things happening in the present. Sometimes, this amounts to nice things, like an overwhelming appreciation for a fuzzy-looking leaf, or a sudden realization that a well done call to prayer is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard. Other times, it results in not-so-nice things, such as noticing that another person’s bone ivory feet just… piss you off. Why do they have to be there looking so damn EAGER all the fucking time?

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It would be a lie if I said I didn’t spend the majority of my time in the meditation center thinking about the pain in my lower back and legs, while wondering what the fuck I was doing sitting on the floor on this Javanese hilltop when I could have been in Bali, drinking 50 cent beers and dancing in a cage. However, the one part of the day I always enjoyed was the hour-long slot in the evenings where S.N. Goenka, our teacher, would explain aspects of the technique, as well as the purpose behind it. Within one of these “Dhamma Talks,” he said this:

“Everything is ephemeral- arising and passing away every moment… But the rapidity and continuity of the process create the illusion of permanence. One may be able to detect the constant change in a flowing river, but how is one to understand that the man who bathes in that river is also changing every moment?”

It remains to be seen whether learning to become a practitioner of Vipassana will ever lead me to nibbana or even improve my quality of life, but these were words I needed to hear at that moment, anyway. Why was I so keen to hold onto the life and to the “me” that I had had and been in my 20s? After all, sometimes it wasn’t all that. I had decided I wanted to be an NP for a reason– the way that things were simply wasn’t cutting it anymore.

I am not the same person I have always been. When I first got sent away to college, I was a spoiled, shallow, helpless brat. If not for the tough love and pluck of my dormmates, I may have remained that way forever (after all, nowadays, I’m just a helpless brat). Why be so vehement to resist change if in all my past experiences, it had helped shape me for the better?

So I’ve bought my flight home. I’ve started sprucing up my resume and brushing up on my knowledge of EKGs and pharmacokinetics. My job search has turned up more than a couple positions that I’d enjoy, and I’ve been reviewing possible interview questions in my head. It’s hard to let go of what I’d known and been for so long, but maybe it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of deal. Maybe a more “serious” and “terse” Sam is what is needed. Maybe that Sam, with a life full of responsibility and carefully thought out responses has something to offer, too.

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This camel has accepted change. I should, too.


“Nothing is a final product; everything is involved in the process of becoming.”

S.N. Goenka

Journey to the Center of Asia

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I took this one while waiting in line for the toilet! Kyrchyn Gorge, Kyrgyzstan.

Like most American teens, I was assigned to read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 in high school. And, like most American teens, instead of actually reading the book, I managed to bullshit my way through Mr Kinavey’s class discussions by haplessly pontificating on observations made by smarter students. When midterms came around, I’d then fabricate whole essays about the novel, cherry-picking quotes to support inane arguments I’d made up. Most teachers simply threw up their hands and decided to pass me even though nobody could tell what any of my papers were on about. After all, here was (the famously brilliant) Courtney Chu’s younger sister. Surely, she can’t actually be this dim? In this way, I belly-slid through English classes in high school and much of college, and even (much to be bewilderment of my colleagues) managed to get a Bachelors of the Arts in the subject.

Anyway, I happily emerged from 4 years of partying and tubing down the American River with an actual degree (from an accredited university, even!) in hand, and proceeded to completely forget about all those heaps of unread novels until they resurfaced on hostel shelves many years later. In fact, I didn’t even think about Slaughterhouse 5 again until I saw it in a paltry book exchange in Bishkek- one of only 4 books in English (one was a dictionary, and the other two featured heavily painted females with bared shoulders in the arms of long-haired men with their shirts inexplicably ripped open). I picked it up and have been reading it in earnest ever since. Following is a quick excerpt. It is from just after the main character gets too drunk at a party, tries to bang someone else’s wife on top of a dryer, and then stumbles to his car.

“… Billy found himself out in his automobile, trying to find the steering wheel.

… At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out. 

He was in the back seat of his car, which is why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.”

I’ve read this part at least 5 times- not only because it’s astonishingly fresh, but because, in the main character’s ill-fated search for the steering wheel, Vonnegut has almost perfectly described my experiences traveling through Central Asia. Years of backpacking in other regions hadn’t much prepared me for travel in the former USSR at all. Despite my methodical attempts at managing my daily affairs in a way that could be nothing but foolproof, I often found myself flustered, with the odd sensation that someone must have taken something from me (often to find out later that I was in completely the wrong place, trying to manage the wrong business, speaking completely the wrong language at people who had no idea what I wanted). On more than one occasion, the only reason why I was able to survive at all is because the locals took it upon themselves to pass me off to each other, like a baton amongst marathoners, until I got to my destination.

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These guys literally took us in off the street. Pamirs, Tajikistan.

I can’t do a detailed report on the region. I’ve been more or less without a computer to blog with for the last month, so although I spent most of that time thinking about different things I wanted to put in this blog and cheeky puns to pepper my newest update with, I just… I just can’t. It’s been too long. That said, here are a few things of note:

Language: Prior to my arrival in Bishkek, my experiences in formerly Soviet countries were limited to a couple months of travel through the Balkans in 2013 and a family trip to China in the summer of 2002. For travel in the Balkans, Russian would’ve been useful, but German would’ve done just fine. The people were grim, but warm, and my pitiful attempts to go grocery shopping with limited Albanian/Serbian/etc. were met with refusals to take my money, laughing shakes of the head, and shopkeepers shooing me away from their merchandise with expressions that can only be read to mean, “Oh go on and get out of here with your tiny carrot!”

For some reason, I thought it’d be much of the same in Central Asia. I may not speak Russian or Kyrgyz or Tajik or Pamiri, but nothing more than a passing knowledge of local languages had been necessary anywhere else. Moreover, I have emotive hands and a button nose that just doesn’t quit. How hard could travel ever really be?

(I’ve made dumb assumptions like this in the past. And I’ve paid. Oh, I’ve paid.)

I won’t go into details here, but I’ll just say that it can be really fucking hard without any Russian. You must come with Russian. ANY Russian. There are precious few parts of the world where English does not reign supreme. Spanish-speaking Latin America is one, Francophone West Africa is another, and the Former Soviet Union is probably the third. Even after taking 2 weeks of Russian lessons in Bishkek (just for shits and giggles, I thought), meals “bis miaso” came with a heaping slab of goat meat on top, marshrutkas that left in “dva chas” peeled down the highway with me only barely getting in on time.

At first it was frustrating, but by the end of my time in the region, I was really pleased that there is at least one more part of the world where not everyone will reply to my attempts at the local tongue in near-fluent English. My halting and limited attempts at conversation were met with huge smiles (and even a bit of clapping, once!). Although I had shied away from Russian in the past- for so many reasons- I have every intention of bringing it into my language stable. Eventually.

 

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One of the Mongol Rally cars that stopped for a chat. Pamir Highway.

People: I’ve often elucidated in past posts about how wonderfully kind the locals in each country are. This really seems to be the rule rather than the exception almost everywhere in the world (and when I say, “Almost,” I’m looking at you, Bulgaria!), and there’s a point when you stop being phased by the kindness, and come to take it for granted.

Enter Central Asia.

  • Teenage boys stopping to help us with directions, then insisting on paying for our shared taxi fare.
  • Tiny children clad in sweaters that were at least 2 sizes too big (and certainly thick enough to be bulletproof) chasing after me to give me a handfuls of sunflower seeds (and then running away, just as fast).
  • Pamiris watching us grimly putting up our tent, then springing forward to help (followed by bringing us hot water to wash with, mats to cushion the ground with, and food… SO MUCH FOOD).
  • Cars that stopped for us on the highway even though they didn’t have any space or were going the wrong way – then plopping enormous bunches of grapes into our surprised hands.
  • A guy that picked us up hitchhiking brought us to his home. His sister stuffed us with soup and hot tea and his father produced a bottle of vodka over which we could chat. They buried us in warm blankets for a night sleeping under the cloudless, starlit sky, and in the morning, our schlep out to the highway was accompanied by a shopping bag packed with vine-ripened tomatoes fresh from their garden.

I don’t even let Couchsurfers stay at my place. Good Lord.

I simply can’t recount all the instances of unbelievable kindness that have peppered travel throughout this region. It almost seems as if the people had gotten together to conspire to be the world’s most hospitable, and there’s something that incredible sweetness does to a person. It really forces you to look at your life and reflect on your own moments of coldness with shame. How is it that a family that lives in a barren wasteland like the Pamirs will foist their hard-churned yak butter and freshly baked bread upon perfect strangers, but someone who was born into utter privilege in nearly every sense doesn’t even stop to pick up hitchhikers if she’s running late?

Fucking hell.

Land: Central Asia is spectacular- soaring mountain peaks, sweet, icy water straight from the earth, and trees so full of organic fruit they pitch and groan with the weight. In some places, even hoards of naughty goats and sheep cannot manage to clean the ground of freshly fallen apples before bedtime. This is especially true of Eastern Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley, where warm and hospitable Pamiris run out to greet you with plump apricots offered up in their outstretched hands, and where ripe cherries linger just above your head on hikes between villages. It’s Paradise on Earth. Shangri-La discovered. Unfortunately, the reason why it took so long to discover this little nook in Southeastern Tajikistan is because travel  through the Pamirs to get there is just a hair short of nightmarish.

Most people get their own car to travel the Pamirs. Lots of them rent a 4-wheel drive in Osh, drive it over the border, then bring it on back when they finish. Others hire shared taxis, and a large portion of others do the Pamir highway by bicycle or motorcycle. Sam (my travel buddy at the time. Confusing, no?) and I decided that we wanted to try to hitchhike most, if not all, of it,… stopping to trek where we pleased.

I had read on Hitchwiki that it was bone-crushingly painful to try to thumb in this part of Central Asia, and that they didn’t recommended it. That said, Hitchwiki has advised against a lot of things that have turned out to be fine. Maybe some people couldn’t find rides, but were they as persistent as I am? Were they as willing to squish into impossible spaces? After all, why hire a private car when we weren’t planning on driving much of it at all? We had trekking food. We had AquaTabs. We had our friendly smiles. We were set. Right?

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A sign we found outside of Murghab. Oh, if you only knew how accurate this is. Murghab, Tajikistan.

So we took off, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, from Sary-Mogol in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and headed down to the Tajik border by thumb. The first ride we caught was easy – less than a 10 minute wait. The next rides we caught weren’t easy, but they weren’t terrible. We made it in 3 cars, and approximately as many hours. We thought we were set. We had wanted to cross the border, and here we were at the Kyrgyz post, with just one foot in the afternoon to boot! Woo hoo! We merrily marched up to the guards, had our passports stamped, and huffed down the highway on our way to the Tajik post.

And we huffed.

And we huffed.

And we looked around and thought, “Where the fuck ARE we?!?” It was astonishing, but the 25-kilometer stretch between border posts was essentially no-mans land. No water. No houses. No cheeky Chinese restaurants (Oh Belize, now I realize just how special you are!). Fucking nothing.

With no choice left, we walked on, and after nearly 2 hours, we finally leapt at our first chance for a ride- a friendly Canadian who just happened to have 2 open seats in his Jeep. He drove us all the way to the Tajik side, and only then did we realize just how far we would have had to go. There is no way we would have made it in one day. We got out and thanked him profusely and Sam and I looked at each other in relief. Finally! We were out of that mess and into Tajikistan! Things were looking up!

We bid the Canadian farewell, and crossed the border separately (for bureaucratic reasons- we fully anticipated catching him for another ride at the other side). The Tajik border guards happily stamped our passports– and even filled up my water juggy!– and we were on our way. We marched out of the office, out from behind the roadblock and found…

 

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More nothingness.

Jesus Christ.

At this point, the wind had picked up, and we were getting flapped around on the barren highway, resolutely struggling to move forward and wondering where the fuck all the cars were. After all, this is the main highway between Osh (Krygyzstan’s second-biggest city), and Murghab, the largest town in Eastern Tajikistan. This is one of only two border crossings that foreigners are permitted to cross. Surely, there had to be SOME traffic between the two?

Then it started to rain.

The globules of water were pounding into us as fast as the (unchecked Pamiri) wind could hurl them. We kept looking behind us, eagerly hoping for a car to pass. After 30 minutes or so of this, Sam spotted a figure in the distance, and we made a run for what looked to be a bus shelter. Finally! Some sort of cover from the relentless wind and rain which was now increasing. We hustled and bustled down the highway, the only two bits of life in this Tajik wasteland, and finally pulled up to…

A fucking yak statue.

GOD DAMN IT.

With no other option, we scurried behind the statue. Sam good-naturedly put together some sort of rock/poncho/ditch arrangement to catch us water (we were almost out), and I cowered under my $3 umbrella, peeping out from behind the statue to keep eyes on the road.

Where the fuck was the Canadian guy?!?

… and then it started to snow.

We were here for perhaps 30 minutes, laughing sullenly at our misfortune (out loud, together) and freaking out about what was to come (silently, in our heads), when a Mongol Rally car finally pulled up… going the other way. The bewildered Frenchmen that disembarked could not have been more empathetic. They bestowed a 5 liter jug of water on us and offered M&Ms. They pulled away with many-a-backward glance at our shivering figures, shaking their heads.

A few minutes after this, we roadblocked the ONLY car going in our direction (a couple of Slovak travelers, who just so happened to have 2 free spots in their car), and made it to Karakol with an hour or two to spare until dusk, counting our lucky stars and inwardly planning to NEVER LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN.

So yeah, come prepared.

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Long waits necessitate an umbrella.

So I’ll just end this blog post with a video that I took outside of Murghab. This is a clip from a game of Kyz Kuumai- a Kyrgyz game whose name roughly translates to mean “girl chasing.” A boy and girl take off, galloping on horses, in the same direction. They race towards a finish line, and the boy’s goal during this part of the game is to steal a kiss from the girl. If he is successful, he wins the game. If they reach the finish line and he has not been successful, then the girl gets to chase him back to the starting line, beating the shit out of him with her whip.


 

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” – Ray Bradbury

 

 

Last Notes on Nepal

This blog is approximately two months old, but I’m going to post it anyway. While Central Asia has fast and plentiful wifi, I haven’t found a decent computer until just now, and this half-written post has been slowly decaying in my draft folder for far too long. I promise that it will be closely followed by a more pertinent Central Asia post… maybe in 2 months or so.

So I’ve been in Nepal for a couple of weeks now, and, truth is, with the constant rain, low visibility, leech-laden trails, and water levels too high for most activities, I’ve spent most of my time here just…. chillin. In fact, after two weeks in the country, my greatest accomplishment thus far has been my spectacularly absurd suntan.

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Exhibit A.

 

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Exhibit B. No- I’m not wearing eyeshadow. That’s just what my face looks like now.

I’m also burned across my nose and forehead, and on the tops of my shoulders as well. From what sun, you ask? Iono. The only thing I know is that I have only ever had a couple of sunburns in my life, and am finding that picking off the dead skin with my nails brings indescribable, addictive pleasure. Unfortunately, this means that I’ve been leaving behind a considerable trail of dried skin flakes- at my favorite momo place- at the internet cafe- in the bookshop… and the locals are beginning to find me just a little bit disgusting.

One such local, a nice man named Tanasul, who lives in a little hut halfway between Pokhara and Sarangkot, took it upon himself to lecture me about Western culture and our love of the indoors. “You work all the hours of your day,” he chided, thoughtfully picking out a few corn kernels from a muslin satchel and popping them in his mouth. “You have no life. Go work, dark. Come work, dark.” He then emphatically spit the kernels onto the ground for his pet chickens, Peter and Lucy (Peter and Lucy, meanwhile, paid no mind to these once-molested kernels, and instead busied themselves with the steady stream of virgin ones flowing, unchecked, from a rip in the bottom of said muslin bag). I couldn’t argue. Fact is, I hadn’t really been-outside been-outside for over two years. Most of my time spent out of doors was transiting from work or school to work or school. All the stress left by such a demanding schedule also meant that I hadn’t purposefully exercised in nearly 7 months. I was soft, white, veiny, and ashamed.

In an effort to shed my idle, shade-loving ways, I woke up early one morning and shouldered all of my belongings for an independent trek up to the small, mountain-top town of Sarangkot. The Wikitravel page had said that the trail was clearly marked, but after 3.5 hours of crawling through waist-high shrubbery, getting chased out of peoples’ backyards, and being led back to the trail by exasperated schoolchildren, I decided to put off the hike back down for another day, and make my way to a guesthouse instead.

Most of my time there, I didn’t do much of anything- since I was the only tourist in town, I pretty much just hung out on the roof of my hostel, blasting Dixie Chicks, reading the latest Palahniuk book, and playing some deranged form of Old Maid with the 8-year old girl who lived downstairs. I took a couple of walks around the village, and even managed to climb up to the viewpoint for sunrise on my last morning in town, but all in all, I relished the opportunity to just sit around and let my mind go blank- for the first time since I started school back in 2013.

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The view advertised on the ticket.

 

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My view.

No, I didn’t do much, but my time here was probably the most memorable of my month in Nepal. At home, there’s such a strong desire to maximize every day- to fill it with tasks and responsibilities, and to make use of every minute. This is quadruply true of my last few years of school. I’m ashamed to say that there were not only a few times that suppered on Doritos while standing in the shower- an act which I had considered to be a grand and masterful use of my ever-scarce “personal time.” Having a few days to sit back, think, and mindlessly pick at my sunburn while breathing in the cool mountain air was just what I needed to shake off the yoke of grad school and remember what had brought me there in the first place. Doing absolutely nothing finally cleared my head. It made me right again.

Anyway, I don’t have a lot else to say. Nepal was lovely, but I never did get any of those classic mountain-top shots that epitomize travel in the region. Instead of hiking the Annapurna trail or rafting the Bagmati, I spent most of my time here finding my way around a plate a of momos and cleaning lint flakes out my belly-button. I suppose I’ll just have to go back.


 

“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” — Virginia Woolf

A Woman’s World: The Trials and Tribulations of Managing an Unruly Uterus on the Road

Disclaimer: For all my guy friends that constantly moan about how I talk about my ovaries too much, here is your fair warning to simply close this, and walk away. I have a more gender-inclusive post coming, but my woman-bits are on my mind, so that’s what this one is about. However, if you don’t scare easy, and want to know a bit more about the woes of the fairer sex, read on. 

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So you don’t feel cheated, here’s a panorama of Pokhara Valley from atop my guesthouse.

Everyone thinks that travel is all fun and play, but really, backpacking involves a fair amount of planning and logistics that ordinary travel typically does not. Shoestring travel means that complex strategies must be worked out to avoid visa fees and costly red tape, maps are poured over to work out feasible ways to reach the most desirable hitching spots, days are spent lolling around many-a-godforsaken port town, waiting for the next public ferry out, etc etc etc. It all takes a lot of time and effort. Most importantly, in order to do all this, it’s essential to keep your bag small, preferably carry-on size, and under the weight limit of most budget airlines (7 kilos for Air Asia, Tiger Airways, Emirates, and Qatar). This calls for ruthless discrimination when packing. You need to cut down to the bare essentials, while still packing enough of the things you know you can’t easily find (tampons!) for your entire journey, which can be difficult if you’re going for a long time.

Over the last few months, I’ve been slowly trying to adopt a reduced-waste lifestyle, after being inspired by Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home. I’m not anywhere close to Zero Waste, yet, but I’ve been trying to make less and less, (much to the annoyance of everyone who has to be around me as I proselytize about the environmental burden of single-use items). I’ve been getting better about refusing what I don’t need, and reusing what I do, and one of the best tools for accomplishing this is my trusty new Diva Cup.

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Meet The DivaCup

There are already lots of ladies in the world who are intimately knowledgeable about this little guy, but for anyone who isn’t sure what it’s all about, the basic run-down is this: It’s a tulip-shaped doodad made out of medical grade silicone. After folding it on itself a couple times, and positioning yourself just so, you push it on up there, where it unfurls and settles in to catch all of your outbound goods. A few hours later (the box says 12, but really more like 3 or 4), you empty it by using your thumb and forefinger to pinch it and pull it out (there’s usually a little bit of digging around involved, but I’ve never had any real trouble here). Rinse and repeat, literally. The first few times I tried this, it was a little awkward. It feels icky, and since it works by suction, you’ll get the odd (and not entirely welcome) sensation of it settling every now and again. Anyway, I got the hang of it after a few tries, and haven’t looked back. Additionally, there’s something really fascinating about coming eye to eye with your own menses. It’s hard to explain.

Anyway, like I said, this is something I’m still getting used to. Moreover, this is my first trip eschewing the classic tampon/pad combo, and just trusting in my little Diva Cup instead. It’s working out OK, but for any ladies who are thinking about making the switch, here is my analysis of the experience so far:

Pro: Not having any tampons or pads in my bag. Normally before a big trip I’ll stuff a regular zip-lock full of OBs, and have around 4-5 pads for backup. Not having the carry all that mess is a huge relief and leaves more room in my bag for the industrial-size medical kit I brought with me this time around (I AM an NP, now, after all!).

Con: Not having any tampons or pads in my bag. Tampons = valid currency on the backpacking trail. In the past, I’ve traded these ever-coveted goodies for paperbacks, internet time, and even beers on occasion. Lady backpackers will haggle over tampons in the hostel common room, yelling like elderly mah-jong players in Golden Gate Park. Not having any tampons to trade in times of emergency is something of a handicap.

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The equivalent of a stack of gold coins. (Pic not mine! Courtesy of ubykotex.com).

Pro: Not making unnecessary waste while abroad. Nepal’s actually surprisingly clean- the highways are practically bare, and I’ve seen not just a few Nepalis plucking garbage off of the sides of hiking trails, cussing about the bastards who would do such a thing. This is unusual. In the land of the developing country, the plastic bag is king. One of my friends from England even laughingly summed up the backpacking experience with a phrase she heard all too often in Jamaica, “Would you like a plastic bag with that?”

In these exquisitely beautiful countries (and it almost seems, the more beautiful the country, the more this is a problem), plastic bags, bottles, styrofoam, and odd particles of packaging clutter all major highways and byways. Locals flippantly hurl Pop Mie containers into the cerulean waters of Komodo National Park. Discarded beer boxes wash up on the shores of La Moskitia. It’s absurd. The worst of all this is the fuckface backpacker who joins in on the mess by hurling his own shit out the window of a bus, with nothing but the threadbare excuse, “Everyone else is doing it.” Disgusting. Anyway, with all this garbage being tossed about everywhere, it’s wonderful to not be a part of the continuous waste-making. At least in this small way.

Con: The need for a particular bathroom layout. First of all, it’s best to have a private bathroom with a nearby sink. This is easy enough in Asia, but in Central and South America, these kinds of amenities come at a premium. Second, in Asia, where the squat-toilet reigns supreme, how is one meant to manage the complicated ritual of applying and extracting, rinsing and reapplying? Using the squat toilet is already a two-handed affair. Consider that the average squat toilet is usually ringed with random urine (and other suspect-looking matter) that some lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to clean up after himself (and that no one else will, out of principle). Keeping your clothes out of this is Priority Number One, and can be more difficult than you think. This is especially true if you are a connoisseur of travel garments  (Thai fisherman pants, Ali-baba pants, djellabas, etc.) It’s usually a coordinated effort between both hands (and chin!) to keep your clothes out of the muck at all. It is almost egregious to even think of adding on any more responsibilities.

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Do you really want to spend any more time than absolutely necessary hanging out above that? (Pic is not mine! Courtesy of layingfallow.com)

Pro: No more buying supplies on the road- you’re all set.

Several years ago, I found myself in a small market in Vilanculos, Mozambique. Mozambique, unlike most countries in Africa, speaks Portuguese. I had been more or less fine in the country speaking Spanish, just with a Portuguese “accent” (talking as if my mouth was full of watermelon, and ending all my sentences mewing like a cat). This worked about 60% of the time. Anyway, I was in the market on that day looking for tampons. As many of you know, markets in most places consist of a bunch of people seated on the ground with their goods spread out on a blanket. The people selling electronic things will congregate in one place, those selling veggies and fruit in another. Generally, if you’ve found on person selling what you’re looking for, then you’ve found the whole section.

Vilanculos is a small town, and that day, there were only two ladies comprising the cosmetics and toiletries section. I asked them, in my Spaniguese, if they had any tampons. They had no idea what I was saying. I asked again, describing what I was looking for, louder. Nothing. I went through the whole explanation again, this time in my most Portuguesey accent. The two ladies looked at me, then at each other, with a look that read, “is this chick fucking meowing at us?” Inevitably, someone sent for a kid to come help translate. A moment later, a young boy- maybe 10 or 11 years old, comes trotting up to help. Big breath- I explain to him, again, what I am looking for. Of course, this kid, being extraordinarily bright, knows exactly what I mean, and, being a 10-year old boy in rural Africa, goes completely red and silent. At this point, the two shopkeepers start yelling at him- thinking that he is just being naughty for not translating. Seeing the public castigation of this kid, other shopkeepers abandon their posts to come have a look. Soon, 14 or 15 different people have come up to see what all the commotion is about. I try to excuse my self at this point, but no- they want to help. They ALL want ot help. It is decided that I should explain, again, to ALL the shopkeepers, and all their 28 individual eyeballs and earballs, what I need. I clear my throat and, again, go into a description fo what I want and what it’s used for.

A single, female voice rises above the crowd, explaining what I had said to the bewildered shopkeepers.

A moment of silence.

Then, “No. No, we don’t have that.”

The shopkeepers disperse. I go back to my hostel, tampon-less.

So, yeah. DivaCup. No more of that.

Pro: No risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome, the creators of the DivaCup boast.

Con: The risk of, well, just about everything else. Thankfully, the water in Nepal has been clear and clean. I have mostly been drinking from the tap with only a couple of tummy-gurgles to show for it. However, this isn’t always the case. I’ve bucket-showered with completely brown water in some places, and one of my showers in Indo had a fully established ant colony in the head. Rinse my DivaCup? In THAT? Then you want me to WHAT? I don’t think so.

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Not sure why I put this pic here, but I like it. So here it is. Pokhara, Nepal.

Pro: No more trying to dispose of tampons in the oddest places. Trekking in the jungle, on a dive boat, in the non-functioning toilet of a local family that has invited you to spend the night, etc. All the ladies reading this know exactly what I mean.

Con: The need to boil the cup monthly. The company recommends boiling your apparatus every month following use, to sanitize and disinfect before storing it away. I imagine some liberties can be taken, but still, it needs to happen at some point. While this is easy enough at home, so many guesthouses in Asia do not have a communal kitchen, and those found elsewhere… well… I imagine that the other backpackers would not take too kindly to your commandeering of the only small pot in the kitchen for this use. Also, the kitchen usually serves as the perfect spot to meet other travelers. Chatting up a cute South African surfer gets a lot more challenging with your menstrual cup popping and simmering at your elbow. Sidenote: Mingling with others and quietly poaching your DivaCup are two mutually exclusive activities.

So, yeah. Not the save-all answer to menstruation abroad that I’d hoped… but not exactly a bad alternative to the established system, either. I imagine that with a little bit more experience and practice, some of the kinks can be ironed out.

Anyway, I’m still in Pokhara at the moment, enjoying the cheap living and chillin’ with a good book while I wait out the rainy days. Like I said, I have a more gender-inclusive post coming about my experience thus far. For now, I’ll leave you with this happy clip of my drive from Kathmandu to Pokhara.

 

“It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.”
―Maya Angelou

Touchdown in Nepal!

Greetings, all!

It’s been a few years since I’ve dusted off this little blog o’mine and tried to piece together an entry, and I imagine that my readership has changed some in that time (aka. from Dan and Amanda to nobody at all). As it’s a travel blog, I haven’t had much to write about these last few years, since I literally spent 95% of my time in my house, at work, or at school or clinical, and I had absolutely no time for anything else*.

That said, I’ll be starting this thingy back up today with a nice little video that sums up my first few days in Pokhara.

Also, my cursory bed bug check (following a 48-hour flight) in Kathmandu missed the mark, and not only did I walk away with legs that resembled bulging tubes of hamburger meat, but I also had to do a full-on de-bugging on my second day in the country. This means that I had to empty out and wash my bag, then send all of my possessions away to be boiled and ironed. I was left with no choice but to buy the only T-shirt I could find at the bus stop.

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“No, no.. I said I’m from the states. NOT from Japan! No! NOT JAPAN. Not… argh!!”

OK, well, I’m off to go get a $3 hair cut out of a lawn chair on the street from an 85-year old man who doesn’t speak any English.

* Nursing school was pretty much the equivalent of having someone kneel on your chest while spitting repeatedly in your face for 3 years… then getting up and realizing that you no longer have any friends, suddenly owe the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, and look a hell of a lot older.

 

“Remember that happiness is a way of travel – not a destination.” – Roy M. Goodman

As off through the waves they roll…

So, this just happened.

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In 2010, when I first got my dive certification, my dad asked me whether or not I was afraid of sharks. I merrily responded with a blithe chirp about how sea creatures only bother with you if you’ve directly provoked them in any way or made them feel threatened (a quote I took almost verbatim from the PADI handbook). And, as the years have worn on, and my logbook has started to fill up, I’ve found this to be pretty true. Happy manta rays, reef sharks, and all numbers of nonchalant creatures have come and gone without so much as a backward glance at my flapping, inefficient body. PADI didn´t lie: unless pushed, most life down there just wants to be left alone.

Except for this guy.

So, I don’t really know anything about marine life. While other divers excitedly snap photos of rare and exotic species, I try to stuff my finned legs into the lotus position and play Buddha. When everyone congregates back at the dive shop to look up the fish that they saw, I race upstairs to be the first in the shower. That being said, when this character showed up, I took him for an cross-eyed shark with a backwards head.

I only noticed him after he’d swum around us a few times, flashed up to the surface, lost interest in the snorkelers, and lapped Sebastian once or twice. 

And then he stopped.

In front of me.

With great interest.

For the couple of seconds or so that we stayed that way, my brain only absorbed 2 things: 1- the fact that his head looked as if someone had sat on it, and 2 – that he had teeth. Big ones.

It´s a strange thing, being regarded by a fish– especially when you aren´t sure what kind it is.  True to my PADI training, I tried to stay perfectly still so that he’d lose interest and move on. He didn’t. I tried to shoo him away with my fin. He came closer. I tried backing away. He followed.

I’m not proud of what happened next. As I frantically wheelbarrowed my arms backwards and howled into my regulator, I became painfully aware that I’ve absolutely no underwater abilities, save for the ability to be there, which is only afforded to me by thousands of dollars worth of equipment. That being understood, I thought it might be in my best interest to flap wildly about and make a spectacle of myself. 

Then, this happened.

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The next few minutes consisted of the dive instructor using air from his secondary regulator to shoo it away, it bounding back and forth between divers and dive groups, and me praying for for a sign that we were good to surface. 

All in all, our visitor turned out to be nothing but a large-ish remora- a suckerfish that looks to attach itself to a bigger host and survive by feeding on that host’s feces (which it apparently mistook my hair for). It was merely trying to figure out whether or not we made good vessels, and whether our feces would be ripe with nutrients. There was no real danger to speak of… but it served as a good wake-up call for me, as Sebastian so unlovingly chided me afterwards, “Every time you step into the water, you’re entering the food chain… and you may not always be at the top.”

So, this is a short post. The only other thing of note is our brief encounter with Belize immigration, where Sebastian found himself to be on the receiving end of a highly irregular inquiry into his personal effects that went something like this:

“Do you have any graphic materials with you?”

“You mean art?”

-snort- “DILDOES!”

The illustritious immigration official then continued to list different kinds of sexual paraphanalia in his strong Caribbean accent (“Vai-breh-tahs!…. Six Tays!”) while we hastily cinched down our packs and tried to disguise our chuckles as respectful “No, sir”s.

Anyway, we´re in Tulum, now… working on our belly tans and waiting for Sebastian´s credit card to turn up. The summer is winding down to a stop and I´m starting to look forward to the beginning of school again. We´ve got about 2 and a half more weeks to go. My last post, (hopefully a meaty one) will be forthcoming!

——————

“Avoiding danger in the long run is no safer than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” – Helen Keller

On a Tourist Town

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I get pretty indignant when my boyfriend decides to settle an argument between us using force.

The indignance is that much more profound when that force is being used to pry an old, saggy, somewhat asymmetrical pair of panties from my clawed hands with a frustrated, “No, Sam! You´ve already worn them once!”

“Inside-out!”

“No.”

“Upside-down!”

“I said no, Sam!”

Unlike our ordinarily skint and thrifty selves, we´ve been trying to spend some money lately, with the intention of supporting (and possibly salvaging) businesses that we have come to know and love. Our hostel has felt like something of a real home for us– our clean, bright, and airy room is a sanctuary for us to retreat to after a hard day at school. Since we´re just about the only people here, and they have given us a steep discount, we have decided to try to spend money here by using their laundry service. It isn´t expensive… about 20 lempiras (1 USD) per pound, but it´s more than we´re used to spending (wearing them into the shower, after all, is free!), so I´ve been trying to offset the cost by using them a few times before plunking them unceremoniously into the communal laundry bag.

For the moment, we´re still in the beautiful town of Copán Ruinas, in Western Honduras. We just finished our second week of Spanish lessons, and Spi is simultaneously making her way through reflexives, preterite, and a rousing game of Two Dots while Sebastian tentatively forms his first complicated sentences– a mere week after his very first class ever. I spend my days trying to trick my teacher into thinking that I remember more than I do so that we spend less time on preterite and imperfect (which I hate), and more time on conditional and subjunctive (which I also hate, but which has come to serve me well as I lapse into fits of unmitigated whining), and spend my nights listening to uninspiring lectures on pareuresis (shy bladder syndrome).

Don´t eat my pulseras!

Don´t eat my pulseras! Copán Ruinas.

Until this morning, Sebastian, Spi and I comprised 3 of the 4 students in the language school. It´s already stressful enough spending 4 hours staring into the eyes of the person who you´ve hired to pick out any and all errors in your speech, without hearing your own trembling voice echo back to you in the stillness of a nearly empty garden. We struggle to meet our teachers´ expectations while struggling to stay awake in the warm afternoon sun, cloaked in air that hangs with the weight of dozens of empty chairs, empty wallets, and the stillness of a town that is dying.

The first time I came to Honduras, 5 years ago, I spent a month here. In the mornings, I marched down to the clinic clad in my most professional attire (a bright yellow T-shirt, and pinstriped pedal-pushers), and clumsily pumped patients with the pads of my ignorant fingers. After 4 hours of exasperating everyone in the office, I would run home to complete my homework, then be off to school for 4 hours of one-on-one instruction in the afternoon. I didn´t have much time to chat with other backpackers, but the town, albeit small, popped with the life that a bustlingtourist industry brings. New faces appeared every evening, and finding space in any of the language schools (never mind finding long-term space in a hostel here), was near impossible.

After a few weeks here, I made the acquaintance of a plucky Israeli girl, and together, we made our way back into Guatemala and down into El Salvador. I had intended to come back after spending a few weeks surfing off the coast of El Tunco, but by that time, a military coup had overtaken San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, and it was the utmost of missions to figure out when and how to get back. Suddenly, access to the country depended upon borders which open and shut unpredictably. With the opportunity to go back swinging in and out of my reach like a tray of eggrolls aboard an out-of-control lazy susan, I eventually tired of waiting and hopped the boat to Nicaragua instead.

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But I never did forget my desire to return to Honduras, and although I ordinarily have a very strict rule about never returning to a place that I´ve loved, especially one that had meant so much to me in my backpacking infancy, I decided to return with Sebastian this summer, mentally prepared to see the tiny pueblocito I had fallen in love with in 2009 turned into the Cancún of Central America.

Some things have changed – they are smoothing down the streets so that the peoples´ tires don´t bust all over the place. The technicolor chicks are nowhere to be seen, and the market has moved caddy-corder to its former location. But more than anything, the clusters of backpackers that used to file down the sidewalks with noses buried in Lonely Planets, the tight knit families walking hand-in-hand toward the ruins, the expats drinking coffee and discussing Honduras´potential,.. they´ve all but disappeared. Friends tell me that it all happened in nary a week after the military coup. Yet still, 5 years later, Copán – one of the most “touristy” spots in Honduras – is ripe with the fading twilight of its passed popularity.

Ultimately, it is not only Copán that has suffered. The positive feedback loop between violence in the cities, the publicity surrounding such violence, the reluctance of travel insurance companies to endorse Honduras as a destination, and the resulting poverty when foreign money stops pouring in has meant that hostels and language schools have closed, buses between cities have stopped running, and Honduran children are being sent, alone, to try for a better life in the US.

While I do often wish that some towns or islands or places that I´ve loved never mutated into the backpacker medusas I´ve seen here and there, it has been crushing to see it come and then go. My teachers´ kids have been pulled out of college. My favorite hostel has shut and reopened under different ownership. The language school which taught me more Spanish in 2 weeks than I learned in 5 years at home, and which set me up with the volunteer opportunity that made me realize that I even wanted to be a nurse, is now on the cusp of shutting down.

Gracias, Honduras. I´m not sure why I´m putting this photo here... but I like it so here it is.

Gracias, Honduras. I´m not sure why I´m putting this photo here… but I like it so here it is.

In a way, backpacking is a two-faced monster. It is a kind of travel that denotes discomfort and clashing with customs that are not your own. It is hot, and sticky, and lumpy, and peppered  with diarrhea. It forces you to make the best of every situation, and to be oh-so-thankful for a mosquito net, or a scrap of toilet paper. It pushes you to your limit and forces changes within you that you could never have anticipated. So, as locations become easier, and more people that are just like you come to see what the fuss is about, and what you ask of yourself as a traveler and as a person becomes less and less, those with the gnawing need to get that same travel high start looking at maps again with what Rolf Potts calls, ¨the narcotic tingle of possibility.¨ And yet, every time we reach out- pushing further and further as mainstream tourism clips at our heels- it exposes and changes places that will never be the same again.

Another traveler in Tulum told me about how, in some parts of Latin America, the young indigenous population is strongly resisting Spanish, and choosing, instead to stick to Ch´orti, or Quechua, or whatever language that their people spoke before, citing that they´d prefer not to speak the language of their oppressors. This traveler insisted that there was no need to learn Spanish for them because, after all, why should they have to learn that language? Everyone in their remote jungle pueblo speaks their native tongue, and making them learn Spanish is… well… it´s unjust.

Except that, as development companies start to eye those parts of the Amazon, and as jobs become more and more inter-related, it´s the kids that speak Spanish that can fight for the rights to their land and chase positions that can buy their parents some security. It´s not fair, and it´s part of the death of culture, but you can´t argue that things can go back to the way that they were anymore. People need to empower themselves with language, and once-tourist towns need to continue being tourist towns. There is no going back. Obama even points this out when he says that, “the idea of poverty had been imported to this place, a new standard of need and want that was carried like measles” by people who had come from outside. Spanish is already the standard, as is the changed way of life in Copán. Places and people do not simply recover and go on as before, like a tide that strikes down a sandcastle and leaves everything smooth and level again (yeah, I know it´s a cheesy metaphor, but I wanted you to get a visual).

Anyway, we can´t spend our whole lives here, taking Spanish classes and having our laundry washed. We´re off to Lago de Yojoa and the Bay Islands soon, and although Copán is even more beautiful now than it was the last time I was here, I, for the first time in my life, I am praying for tourists to come.

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“When suffering knocks at your door and you say that there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he brought his own stool.” –Chinua Achebe

California, Here We Come!

Where´s the shade? Arches NP, UT.

Where´s the shade? Arches NP, UT.

The most remarkable thing about hitching in the States is that you get picked up by REALLY interesting people. Not all the time. But our beloved weirdos are more common in the US than anywhere else I’ve hitched. Regardless of what you think about the States, it’s easily one of the most interesting places to hitchhike, especially if you LIKE adventure.Chael” — Hitchwiki

So it’s been nearly a year since my last contribution to this little blog, and so much has happened since! Luckily for you all, most of what has come to pass has been school related, so I won’t write about it here. This is a travel blog, after all!

For now, I’ll just give you all a quick down ‘n’ dirty about things so far.

The overall plan for our trip this summer was to fly into Denver and make our way back to SF by thumb over the course of about two weeks, taking in national parks and such on our way. Then, we´d spend 2 weeks in California before setting off for Central America for the rest of the summer. It was kind of an ambitous plan, considering our tiny budget and the fact that we were hoping to catch rides in a big country that I didn´t know well, but we´d traveled and hitched together in the past and both of us were keen to see what the elusive states of Colorado and Utah had to offer.

Now, for all the hitching I´d done in other countries, my experiences in the U.S. had been limited to the Tahoe region of Eastern Cali. I´d caught one or two rides up and down the PCH now and again, but I, in general, shied away from hitching in America. In other countries, it is a somewhat reliable means of transport. With lax laws permitting rides in the beds (or on top of the cab, or wherever the hell you happen to fit) of trucks, plus the novelty of picking up a “ferenji,” “bule,” or “chinita,” rides come often and easy, and one can be quite choosey when selecting whom to go with. Dozens of hitchers line the highways of nearly every developing nation on earth, and joining their ranks is easy and, in general, quite safe.

In contrast, I had a car while I lived in California and had only ever seen a handful of hitchers… well, ever. Most of these were Argentinian ski bums or the odd surfer on his or her way back up the PCH. I had yet to see people thumbing on the great stretches between states, and, after my friend Dan jovially pointed out that we´d be taking these distances on our faith in the kindness of Americans… through the desert… in the middle of the hottest month of the year, I began to dread the approach of June 10th. At night, I laid in bed visualizing our desiccated carcasses, lying supine on the shoulder of Highway 70, our right thumbs outstretched, and our left arms cradling a crackling sign reading, “California or Bust!” while the crows deftly plucked out our eyeballs and the sun blazed overhead.

Our trip started out wonderfully. Julia and her lovely boyfriend stuffed us full of BBQ and beer in preparation for our westward flight and hugged us good luck at the Alewife T. Bethany, a friend of Amanda´s and fellow traveler and nurse, took us in on the other side, and we swapped travel stories and ruminated on the best exit point out of the city while munching on dollar tacos and lazily ambling down Denver´s warm streets. We made the acquaintance of one of the most (and I´m not using this term lightly here) AWESOME families I´ve ever known, and got set up for our ride to Breckenridge in the morning, from where we´d begin our adventure.

Yeah, Denver is pretty much awesome. Denver, CO.

Yeah, Denver is pretty much awesome. Denver, CO.

In reality, the next two weeks passed without much incident. To my delight, I found that hitchhiking in the West is relatively straightforward, in spite of the draconian laws and regulations that govern each state. In general, the police left us alone, and although we spent more than one day slowly deep-frying our scalps under the hot American sun waiting for a ride, we never failed to make it to our destination for the day, and, eventually, to our final destination of the trip — home. At the end of it, I have more vivid memories of the people we met in two weeks of thumbing in my own country than I do of most of the rides I´ve caught through the years elsewhere. There were sweet families that let us jump in the backseat with their kids, and other vagabonds that happened to have a car for the moment and wanted to repay their debt to the karma pool. There were some who were willing to pick us up because we just looked so pitiful and hot, and others who stopped for us just because they´d never picked up a hitchhiker before, and hell — why not today? After all, “struggle is REAL, Ma!,” (according to Mason, an off-duty marine who picked us up at the CA-NV border on her way back from Warped Tour). What follows here is a “greatest hits,” if you will, of the best and the worst of the people we met in our two weeks heading westward:

Matt: The very first ride of our trip picked us up in less than 10 minutes’ time from the side of the highway just beyond Breckenridge, CO. His name was Matt, he was 21, and he worked 4 months out of the year (and not at all for the other 8 – the man had it figured out!) as a pro flyfishing instructor. He was taking his first holiday after 40 straight days of work, thinking that he’d go out for a little solitude and fishin’ of his own. He was the top-requested flyfishing instructor of a private resort that catered almost exclusively to billionaires, and upon hearing that we’d never been before, he insisted on taking us out for a day ‘o’ catchin’ an’ releasin’. An hour with him ordinarily cost upwards of $1300. He took us out for free, and not only that, he gave us a lift all the way to our Couchsurfing destination in Grand Junction, all while blasting Pretty Lights and talking about snowsports. He set the bar for the rest of our trip and had me thinking that thumbing in the states might not be so hard after all…

I caught and released 3 trout! The Frying Pan, Western CO.

I caught and released 3 trout! The Frying Pan, Western CO.

Jeff: But I was wrong. The next day found us on the Eastern side of the CO-UT border for the better part of three hours while car after car zoomed past us, not even slowing down enough to notice that we´re harmless and cute and fucking roasting to death for God´s sake. We walked together along the perfectly straight, seemingly endless highway, and my emergency packet of trail mix was reduced to nothing but a few coconut shavings. It felt like we´d hit a wall, and we marched together, mute and solemn, wondering what we were doing wrong.

Enter an old beige jalopy — wheezing onto the shoulder of Route 70 with a completely obscured back window, captained by a shirtless, tousel-haired hippie named Jeff. I´m not even sure we had been sticking out our thumb just then — but he was a hitchhiker himself, and his foot had instinctively hit the brakes once he saw our tiny figures in the distance. This guy was nearly mythological in his coolness. He had the tramping lifestyle down, from Ayahuasca trips in Iquitos to roadtripping across Kazakhstan. He drank water out of a growler and spent a full two minutes hunting around his car for a shirt to put on when we stopped for gas. I´m not sure how old he was — maybe 27, maybe 37 — but he´d just about gone and done everything on my bucket list without having traditional work for at least a decade. He´d supported himself with trimming and busking, and was making his way, guitar-in-trunk, to keep on living the dream through trimming season in Shasta.

Now, there are a million ways to finance a wanderlust. I´ve met schoolteachers taking the summer off, computer programmers working from whatever exotic destination they deem fit, students eking out the last of their school loans, and (mostly) people who work a job that they feel almost no passion for with the diligence that befits a heart surgeon because they´re saving, on the side, to make their dreams come true. I´d always counted myself among the lucky ones because I love nursing and it will pay well. I can have two things that I love, and I can save money quickly… but I always assumed that there was that “travel gestation period,” as Rolf Potts calls it. That point where you have to go home and do some crap you don´t like in order to have the stuff you DO like.

But Jeff didn´t do any of that. He never went “home,” exactly, and he could get by on so little that busking (which he would have done anyway) was all he needed to sustain himself through years of travel. For him, there was no distinction that travelers often make between their “home” life and their “real” life. In the 20 minutes we spent with him, I learned more about sustaining yourself abroad than I had in all of my travel beforehand.

Cuntface McKinley:  Somewhere on Hitchwiki it says that Las Vegas is a bitch to thumb out of. It’s big and hot, and there’s nothing for miles around. Most people fly in and out, and drivers there are, well… kind of pricks. I gritted my teeth in anticipation of our departure. I was also gritting them to keep from throwing up all over the inside of Dan´s car, since our day in Vegas had consisted of free whiskey gingers at the Roulette table, and little more than a couple of hardened chicken lumps from Panda Express (food = more expensive than booze).  Moreover, during our day of drunken shenanigans, we’d managed to misplace Seba’s rucksack, with his moneybelt, camera, and stack of fresh-out-of-the-ATM USD inside (and didn’t even realize it until the next morning, like real pros). Thankfully, everyone in LV is too busy getting robbed by the casinos to do any robbing themselves, so when we skidded in the next morning, wild-eyed and blanketed in anxiety, casino security dropped the pouch, cash and all, into our outstretched arms and went on to pay attention to people who actually had money worth noticing.

This said, we jumped onto an exit point to the city far later than we’d anticipated, when the sun was already high in the sky, and traffic was zooming. We had a frustrating 30 minutes of standing at a piss-poor spot, trying to huddle under the anorexic shadow of a speed limit sign, so when a car finally stopped, we eagerly clambered in, even though the driver gave us both the willies. He was an Indiana transplant who had moved to Oregon to hunt, and in the next few minutes, our gracious host managed to offend the both of us on nearly every level while simultaneously making an attempt on the life of an elderly bicyclist. After all, if there’s one thing he wanted us to know about him, it was that he hated “n*ggers ‘n’ f*gs,” that San Francisco was “nothin’ but a bunch ‘o’ f*gs,” and that Michael Jackson is just a “good n*gger now” (i.e., “the only good n*gger is a dead n*gger”). We hopped out less than a mile uproad, assuring him that this, yes, was our final destination — thanks for stopping! — and miserably exclaimed to each other that that was just about the most awful person either of us had ever met.

Guy on Highway 1 out of Long Beach – So, nearly every shitty story I have about hitching starts off with a disclaimer that I was tired of waiting and just wanted to be on my way already. L.A. is not an easy place to thumb out of. It’s like a vortex for hitchhikers. Just when you think you’re out, you realize that you really haven’t moved at all, you never WILL move, and you will likely die on the street while some plucky entrepreneur tries to fashion a headress out of your contorted limbs. Highway 1 in Southern California is not like Highway 1 in Northern California. NorCal´s curvaceous roads with dramatic cliffs and ocean views turns into a commercial avenue with Sunglass Huts and Wet Seals lining both sides as you head south of Santa Barbara. The 1 is literally crowded with people and buses and gas stations and banks… there´s nowhere to thumb a ride.

So, after waiting on the wrong side of the road for 15 minutes, and the right side of the road for another hour, the maroon sedan with a busted window and thumping bass that pulled up for us seemed like a pretty good idea. And even now, I´m not sure it was a bad one.

We never got the name of our golden-toothed benefactor, but we spent the next 20 minutes or so with guy who was somehow wearing two T-shirts simultaneously without seeming to cover any of his torso. He picked us up, ran a red light, and asked us if we had any pot within our first half-minute in the car. I shook my head politely and motioned to Sebastian to put on his seatbelt. After a minute of silence, he asked if we happened to have a jet printer on us. Again, no. “I could really use a jet printer,” he wistfully sighed.

To this day, I am still not sure where exactly he was headed. We whipped and careened around the neighborhoods of Long Beach, flying through reds, chasing down pedestrians (“Naw, I´m just playin´ with him a little bit!”), heading in the opposite direction at some points, and making lanes for ourselves where Caltrans had not thought to designate any. At our departure point, we staggered and swayed out of the car, waving goodbye to our driver as he merrily gunned it down a residential street, and kissed each other with the kind of passion that befits a bonding experience.

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So, I can´t post about everyone we met on our trip here. There´s no room for the retired blackjack dealer who gave us all the ins and outs of Vegas while dropping free passes and tickets into our incredulous laps, or the three Dutch girls who were roadtripping across the US with the intention of picking up every hitchhiker they saw along the way (they were hitchers themselves), or the seemingly stereotypical “redneck” who saw us on his way to the liquor store and took us all the way to the next town because he worried that we wouldn´t get a ride where we were (while filling our ears with mouthwatering stories about Texas BBQ — MmmmMM!).

It feels strange to rate my own country, but overall, I found Americans to be a bit more varied, a bit more nuts, and as a whole, a bit more wiling to try something new just for the chance to stuff a cool new story into their utility belts. Yeah, there were some douchewads who gave us the obnoxious thumb while they sped by us, but there were a lot of people — families, frat boys on holiday, Mormon schoolteachers — who just saw an opportunity to help someone out and jumped out of their comfort zones to do it.

Anyway, we´re in Honduras again, Copan Ruinas hasn´t changed one bit since the last time I was here, and we´re getting ready to settle in for a couple of weeks of language school. There are more posts forthcoming, and I´m quite excited to get this little blog back into the swing of things. Here is a cool video of me being all capable and shit:

 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/samonella/14538648024

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“People say you have to travel to see the world. Sometimes I think that if you just stay in one place and keep your eyes open, you´re going to see just about all that you can handle.” — Paul Auster, Smoke

Where Anglo-Saxons Fear to Tread

Ah! To pee over the sea!

Ah! To pee over the sea!

When people think of Papua New Guinea, they often conjure up images of the violence in Port Moresby and giant saltwater crocodiles. Sometimes they think of wild, barefoot natives that’ve eluded “progress” by murdering all those who would impose it on them, eating their bodies, and taking a shit on their heads from out the bottom of their grass skirts. Sometimes they imagine the wild, barefoot natives spearing people in the head while riding on TOP of giant saltwater crocodiles.

It varies.

I’ll admit I was skittish about going. There was almost no information online outside of the emphatic plea NOT to go. It was made out to be a country filled with people that were carrying on the same way they’d been doing for thousands of years, and that even money (in the silly, government-regulated paper form we’re used to) had yet to gain any real momentum,… which sounds charming and all until you consider that they gained social prestige by instead chopping off and collecting people’s heads.

Any information that wasn’t about the aggressive and flesh-hungry nature of the people was instead concerned with monstrous, this-island-only, multi-legged horrors. At the end of my research, I was left supposing that my plane was likely to be snatched out of the air by a giant octopus and dragged into the sea long before I even got to Immigration.

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As a traveler, you get used to fending off the concerns of people who love you. My mother often worries about me getting sick in some jungle outpost somewhere and dying alone without ever getting the opportunity to tell her that she was right. My father, the more reserved type, just silently sends along articles about natural disasters, pirates, terrorists, and hippos (which are not, according to Mike Birbiglia, harmless marblevores, like participation in the tabletop board game “Hungry Hungry Hippos” would lead you to believe). Even friends who have been abroad themselves have sat me down and sternly given me a what’s-what about the difference between flip freedom and stupidity.

However, unless you plan to limit your travel to the developed world and a handful of other “safe” destinations, you get pretty good at both comforting others and ignoring them a little bit. Everywhere is dangerous, at least a little. It doesn’t mean you should stay home. You just need to know where you’re going and do some research. Be a good little traveler, and don’t make a spectacle of yourself. Meet local people and stay informed. Most of all, avoid crowds, and get as far out into the countryside as you can.

After all, when was the last time you heard of a terrorist attack on a sleepy fishing village in Vanuatu?

Fucking never, that’s when.

Many of the most rewarding destinations I’ve been to have come with a folderful of bad press: Sri Lanka, South Africa, Indonesia, Venezuela, Bosnia. They were the bad boys of the 90s, stealing headlines and leaving behind a trail of broken promises (usually regarding peacekeeping efforts) to the UN. They were unique, and I walked away from them all with incredible experiences and impressions of warm people who were keen to teach me about the other side of their country- the part BBC and CNN didn’t carve out time for.

And yet, Papua New Guinea gave me a case of the willies.

But why? After all, nobody I’d met had sat me down and warned me against it. Nobody was sending me seismograph readings and nobody was telling me about how they’d gotten robbed there. In fact, nobody was saying anything about it. Nobody knew anything. Nobody had been there, and nobody was going. It was as if somebody had accidentally punctured a hole in the map and cut out the world’s second-biggest island. Where was all the info?

Cave of skulls. East Cape, PNG.

Cave of skulls. East Cape, PNG.

Prior to boarding my Denpasar => Port Moresby flight (the very first one ever!), I buddied up to a few of my fellow passengers, hoping to extract some tips on the culture and some advice on where to go.

“You have someone to pick you up?”

“No.”

“You have a booking at a hotel?”

“No.”

Muttering amongst themselves, they clustered into a tight ball, discussing logistics.

“She’ll never survive!” A 286-year old Australian nun’s voice floated shrilly out of the mass.

At the end of their meager conference, a kindly man told me that the only advice he could give was to cancel my trip.

“I’m already at the gate.”

“Well…”

These people really were very nice. One of them tried to give me money, and nearly all of them stuffed business cards into my hands with directions to call if anything at all went wrong. But in the end, all they did was freak me out.

But whatever. I was going. After reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, I had promised to see this place for myself. I had dreamed of experiencing the unique landscape and sampling the local cuisine. I had been itching to dispel all the myths.

I had also bought a non-refundable one-way ticket from Port Moresby to Vancouver that had cost me close to $2,000.

I was going, god dammit.

So yeah, PNG has a bad reputation in the South Pacific. Everyone is terrified of the capital, Port Moresby, just like Guatemala City in Guatemala, or Johannesburg in South Africa. Just like every capital in every developing country. In fact, the only big, safe city I’ve ever visited is Vientiane, and that’s because it’s so hot, everybody’s asleep. No one has the energy to murder anyone.

Well, PNG is mountainous and cool. The people have energy and they move about. They’re not exactly busy and distracted all the time, either, as you see groups of them sitting on the street drinking Squash. They’re mobile and they’re attentive, and they’re all staring at you. You with your cadaverous skin and flaccid hair. And what the hell are you doing carrying around that huge bundle on your back? Don’t you know to put it on your head?

So what do they do? They come up and help you with your bag. They get you to have a cool drink out of the sun while they find someone to walk you where you’re going. They speak perfect English and not only get every joke that you’ve made, they take the piss right out of you in return.

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I spent all of my time there in the company of Papua New Guineans. I walked down to the shop with them. I drank (much to my pucker-mouthed chagrin) copious amounts of Squash with them. I talked about politics, and love, and women’s rights with them while a gang of overly-enthusiastic third graders plucked at my roots and attached flowers and bits of garbage to my hair.

I helped out at the elementary school, and went hiking with the children. I asked them to explain their country’s history to me, and I hesitatingly attempted to sing (what I knew of) the Star Spangled Banner for them. They had never heard it before.

When I left, the friends I had made helped me attempt to wrap up all the various gifts I’d received in the last few days: a small wooden canoe from one of the kids at the school, a handmade shell necklace from one of the teachers, a painting from a friend, a bag,… and stow them away in my groaning Gregory 40-Liter. I hugged them all good-bye and was genuinely sad to go, knowing that in their little village, they would not hear of me again, even if I sent a dozen emails to the poorly articulated address (which contained no “at” symbol, even when I pointed it out and they wrote it for me again) that they folded neatly and packed with care inside my new handwoven purse.

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It’s amazing how easy it is to get caught up in headlines and your own fear of the unknown, even if you’ve faced it a million times before and come out fine on every occasion. It’s unbelievable how quickly one can forget the humanity of people they don’t know and saturate their mind with apprehension and anxiety instead.

Thankfully, I was in a country where they’re not having any of that. No time to be afraid of the “natives.” They’ve invited you to dinner, and their friends have already all introduced themselves– signaling their good intentions by pressing small, oval-shaped beetle nuts into your hand. A chicken has been slaughtered, and their daughter is already making a bracelet for you out of a piece of her own shoe.

The sun has gone down, and there are no generators. Someone has located a guitar, but a 2-year old has fallen asleep with her arms wrapped around it. Both of them are laying forgotten on top of a heap of rubber bands. The family has brought their one solar-powered lantern to your hut. Everyone in town is there, and they want to hear all about you.

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“The sky was clear – remarkably clear – and the twinkling of all the stars seemed to be but throbs of one body, timed by a common pulse.” — Thomas Hardy