Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Brighter Side of Spanish Vocabulary

After much smoking, we decided to make Mexican food for dinner. Since I was the only one who had ever been to Mexico and had in fact lived there, I was elected to cook. I threw some onions and peppers in with some hamburger meat, made fresh salsa and guacamole and heated some tortillas on the stove one by one, like my Mexican friends had taught me. We had a jar of jalapeños, of which only four of the ten of us were even brave enough to try, and I was the only one who could actually chew one of the dime-sized wheels up without crying. Just to prove my worth, I fished out two of the bigger wheels with a little juice and a lot of seeds, and popped them in my mouth without blinking an eye. My friends went nuts. You’d have thought I tried to slit my own throat, and their swearing fits became extra colorful as they exclaimed over my guts. Although a direct translation holds little light to the actual meaning, it is nevertheless hilarious to share some of the spicy remarks that make up the Andalucian language hurtled at me as their mouths burned at the thought of the sacrilege I had just committed on my own tongue.
“Fuck, aunt, you’re crazy.”
“I shit on the milk, uncle, this gringa’s gonna kill herself.”
“It’s going to hurt like the Host tomorrow, uncle.”
“To take it in the ass, that’s why she did it!”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Day of the Dead in Mexico

In October, I went with a group of American expats to Patzquaro, a small town with a strong Day of the Dead tradition. We spent all afternoon building an altar to honor our dead, a long and painful endeavor that included cutting millions of squares of tissue paper like you would do a snowflake, folding bright shiny paper into fans for a wreath to take to the cemetery at midnight, and stringing flowers into necklaces. After about four hours, we finally finished, and had a beautiful altar as a result. We then went around looking at everyone else's altars, and trying without success to not eat the food they kept bringing to us. One woman continued to ask stupid questions and repeat everything over and over again, and talked to a 12-year-old and me as if we were both five years old. “OOOHHHHH!” she would shriek loudly, her voice high-pitched and whining. “Isn’t that FABulous?” As we were sitting down to dinner, she asked a question for the 50th time, and the lady next to me said, only slightly under her breath, ¨I wish we could sew her damn lips shut. ¨ I thought it was the best idea I’d heard all day.
Aside from that minor setback, it was great. The Day of the Dead is a tradition dating back to before the Spanish conquistadors and Catholicism in Latin America, and the church has accepted it and added its own nuances. There's as much praying as there is chanting, and it's a fascinating mix of the two cultures. The altars are built to honor and remember the dead, and all their favorite foods are put on it so they can eat after their long journey, but most have pictures of Jesus or Mary as well. The chant they sing to bring back the dead refers to God and Jesus, and they pray Hail Mary’s and Our Fathers before and after singing. At midnight, they carry candles to the graveyards and sing together before going to their family graves to leave food and wreaths. It doesn't compare at all with Halloween, which has much more to do with candy and being afraid of death and ghouls. Mexicans can stand in a graveyard at midnight, singing to bring back the dead, and not even flinch.
What an amazing place.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sometimes, it just doesn’t get any better.

It’s the small things that get me. I realize that most people’s best days are the ones that are full of people – weddings, births, engagements, etc., but that’s never really been my style. I realize what that says about me, and I’m okay with it. There are a couple days that I do remember that included my friends and are among my most memorable, but the times that stick out most for me, with the best feeling attached, are the ones where I am alone.
Right now, for instance. The fire is going out and I can hear the rain on the roof – it’s been coming down all day. I’m not usually a fan of rain, but it’s different in the mountains, when it’s not a normal occurrence. I’ve noticed that the pine needles take on a lighter hue – the color of sage – when they’re covered in raindrops. With the window open I can smell the pines, a faint tinge of smoke, and wet earth. I am not doing anything very important, simply sitting, working on what I want to work on, perusing the internet for information about writing, publishing, cookbooks and my friends. It’s heaven.
There are two other moments like this that have stopped to give me pause. One was on a German mountaintop where I spent the summer. I walked to the summit one early morning from the hut where I worked, and looked down on the clouds that covered the valley floor. The peaks were all snow-capped around me and the sun shone brightly, and I was only one of very few people who could see it, up here among the chamois and above the tree line. I sat, dangling my feet over oblivion, and just stared, a silly grin on my face.
The other time was coming up from a night dive on the Great Barrier Reef. I had snorkeled and dove during the day and the colors were amazing. The night dive was scary and I couldn’t get over the sound of my own breathing in my ears. I ran low on air early, and the dive master sent me to the surface. I should have been disappointed, but as I slowly emerged from the dark, I saw a huge golden orb above me, and found myself staring straight into the moon as it rose above the horizon. There was a sailboat in front of it, its skeletal outline glistening in the moonlight, and the water was warm and comforting around me. I realized that I was the luckiest person in the world, because I was here, and now, and there was no other place or time like this on earth that I would experience in quite this way again.
It’s easy to forget what a wonder life can be. We slog through our daily tasks, worried about our jobs, our friends, our families, our lives, what we don’t have, what we have too much of, and we forget. Sometimes the days run together and we don’t remember what brought us here in the first place, why we made the choices we did, why we haven’t made different plans. But sometimes – and unfortunately it’s just sometimes – all that other crap falls away and we can just sit, stark naked in ourselves, and remember what a wonder life can be. It’s at those moments that we realize that we have it all, and it doesn’t need to get any better.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mexican Cooking Tour

After spending only two weeks as the lowest of the low as a starting intern journalist, they sent me away. I hope they do it again.
I had mentioned early on that I was interested in food and travel writing, and it just so happened that Jim, a fine food lover, and Isabel, a tour guide and translator, arrange cooking tours for the retired English-speaking expatriates that have made their home on the shores of nearby Lake Chapala, the biggest freshwater lake in Mexico located about an hour from Guadalajara.
They made some room for me and away I went, the night before we left, to stay in Ajijic. Ajijic is a small village on Lake Chapala, about an hour away from Guadalajara. One of my coworkers lent me the key to the house he housesits on the weekends, and I arrived at about 8 p.m. I went to a local restaurant for dinner and ate with a retired guy from the States. He introduced me to two older Spanish men who insisted on welcoming me by offering me beer and their fine company. When I say older, I mean about 65. I was out of there early and off to bed.
The next morning, we took off in two vans and headed northwest out of town, away from the lake and toward the Pacific coast. Immediately the houses gave way to lush green fields, mountains and trees. We stopped at a small town with a church dating back to the Inquisition and a museum of tools dating from even before that. Later we stopped at a little roadside restaurant for lunch, where they made us fresh tortillas from corn they ground themselves. Next we moved on to Talpa, one of the religious centers of Jalisco and the end of a pilgrimage people make to pay homage to the Virgin Mary. Her statue is only about a foot tall, and she's made of corn cane, but the museum is full of ornate outfits people have made for her out of gratitude for her miracles. Talpa is a small town, but aside from being famous for the Virgin, it is also well known for rollos de guayaba, a sweet made of fruit paste (mostly guava) and rolled in sugar. Even more fascinating are the four women in their eighties who are the only ones left making handicrafts of the gum from a chitle tree. The gum is harvested, soaked in water with dyes to color and soften it, then beaten into flat rolls of a waxy paper material. These women, one of whom told me she had been doing her craft since she was six years old, buy the rolls and shape them into baskets of fruit and vegetables or flowers, statues of the Virgin and intricate churches. The details, such as the eyes in the tiny potatoes or the scales on the miniscule fish, are made with scissors, tweezers or fingernails. The pieces, which will not be produced with such detail or care after these women die, sell for about seven dollars.
After Talpa, we drove to the Hacienda Ahuacatepec, nestled into a valley surrounded by mountains. One of these mountains – well, a hill really – lies close to the earth behind the hacienda and looks like the fruit that gives the hacienda its name: place of the avocado. The land and villages nearby belonged to the hacienda at one point, but now are merely its neighbors, as its lands have diminished to the area that immediately surrounds the house. The house! The 390-year-old beauty has been reconstructed but maintained the same theme as it probably had 150 years ago. Its walls are peach-colored adobe, with simple stenciled vines around the windows and old pictures on the wall. The furniture is made of stretched animal hide and sturdy wood, the floors are tile to keep the house cool, the ceilings are higher than the rooms are wide and the doors are solid wood. There are no hallways: you cut through the kitchen to get to the dining room and the first bedroom to get to the next ones. The covered back terrace looks out at an overgrown cutting garden speckled with beautifully colored flowers, with a low brick wall that gives a view of the avocado-shaped hill and the larger mountains in the background. I learned the hard way to watch where I walked in the garden after stepping into a mountain full of angry biting red ants. I quickly returned to the terrace, where everyone else was gazing out at the setting sun and eating fresh cheese made that day on the premises.
Alicia, the cook, served us a noodle soup in a tomato and chicken broth base as our first course for dinner that night. The soup is a common dietary staple for children, much like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the U.S. Next came the tamale pie, a delectable dish made with sweet corn meal, mild chiles and topped with tomato and strong aged cheese. Dessert was gorditas de nata, a sweet tortilla made with flour, sugar and the film that forms on the top of boiled milk. The whole dinner was washed down with lemongrass tea, cut from the garden minutes before and steeped in hot water.
The next morning our first breakfast was available at 8 a.m.: coffee, fruit and leftover gorditas. At 11, the brunch came out: fresh tortillas, chilaquiles (fried tortilla strips cooked in tomato sauce) fried or Mexican scrambled eggs with peppers, and sopes, small cooked boats of tortilla dough filled with fresh cream, sprinkled with sea salt and great with a little bit of salsa.
To burn off the two breakfasts, some walked and some drove to the nearby village of Volcanes to visit a hacienda that had originally been built to help the Ahuacatepec Hacienda with its land and cattle. The hacienda, recently crippled by an earthquake in January of 2003, will turn 307 in October. Devoid of its front arches, the outside does not call as much attention as inside, where all the inner patio’s wood is original, carved with axes long before electric tools. We were greeted by the dueña, a regal woman with a kind smile whose family history was etched into the walls. She showed us old black and white pictures of her ancestors, and brought out clothing they used to wear. Her daughter and son-in-law lived on one side of the courtyard in a few rooms, as she had when she married. Haciendas were meant to house whole extended families in rooms built around a central area, with shaded walkways and bright sunny gardens. I could only imagine the arches that graced the exterior before the earthquake. Their outline was still visible on the brick walls, now bare and unable to inspire the awe they were meant to.
Back at Ahuacatepec in the afternoon, Alicia showed us how to make a fresh salsa. She roasted a tomato on the comal, a flat griddle mainly used to cook tortillas. The skin blackened and peeled off, leaving the flesh with a smoky flavor. She then got into the more complex process of making the sauce for Pollo con pepian mole, a chicken dish in a nutty sauce made of ground pumpkin seeds, onions, garlic, and corn. After the lesson, fresh guacamole accompanied the fresh cheese for appetizers and dinner was served at 7 p.m., after an extensive cocktail hour.
Dinner was buffet style, as the dishes were too large and heavy to carry around the table. The chicken in its pepián sauce slipped off the bone and the sauce pooled around refried beans and Mexican rice covered in fried bananas, making it hard to eat with anything less than a fork and a tortilla. Dessert, though there was barely room, was homemade rice pudding with a molasses aftertaste from the sweet sticky Mexican brown sugar.
The next morning, the first breakfast was once again fresh mango, papaya and granola before the larger brunch, this time with cubed potatoes grilled with tomatoes and peppers, scrambled eggs, tortillas and sopes.
Whew! No wonder I decided to join a spinning class when I got back!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Not Every Hotel Has a Doorman

The flight to New Orleans was relatively painless. When we got past the clouds and the snowy landscape further north, the view out the window showed brown soggy ground laced with branching rivers and streams. It was so flat! And muddy! And brown!
I landed and called my hotel to ask them the best way to get to and from the airport. They recommended I catch the airport shuttle outside the baggage claim that will take you to any hotel in New Orleans, for a fee of course. The driver nearly fell over himself trying to help me, and I soon figured out why. Our first stop was at a hotel with a French name, a granite column façade, and a doorman with a top hat. I soon ceased to be impressed with the doormen, however, because the next four hotels had them too. I sank further and further down in my seat with each stop: Marriott, Sheraton, Marriott. And of course the stop right before mine, the hotel I had found on the Internet for $20 a night, was the Ritz Carleton. Momentarily, I felt a little better. We were already on Canal Street, which was where my hotel was. I could only be a few blocks from the Ritz – how bad could it be? We stopped.
Oh God. I couldn’t even see the entrance. There it was, overshadowed by the beauty supply shop next door and invisible because there was no doorman to help me out. The canvas over the door was worn and ragged and it looked more like the entrance to a cheap lawyer’s building. I thought about making a show of giving the driver a 5-cent tip, especially since he’d just received a $20 from Mr. Ritz Carleton, but thought better of it.
After checking in, I made my way up to the third floor. I noticed the smell when I stepped off the elevator, but it didn’t really get to me until I was in my room with the door shut and felt like I was in the middle of a smoker’s convention. The room was small but cute, with a sink, TV with a remote, fridge, double bed and old-fashioned striped wallpaper. The furniture was dark polished wood and the little window looked out onto the street. I tried to ignore the smell that reminded me of what it would be like if I were ever stuck in a smoke stack, but I couldn’t do it. I went back downstairs to ask if they could change my room. Yes, Ebony said, but I would be on the second floor, and there wasn’t a women’s bathroom on that floor. Was that okay? Sure, I said, then went back to the chimney to wait for my new quarters. In just 10 minutes I felt sick enough to die. I wondered if the room had been tested for other noxious gasses. Was there a hose hooked up to a car somewhere?
My new room was probably specially designated for goody-two-shoes Northerners that whine about the smoking rooms. My new TV had no remote, was probably built in the late ‘70s and had an attached clock radio. This could have been considered a plus, except only one channel came in, and the damn thing turned on by itself at midnight. There was no fridge, and this time the view was a brick wall. When I sat on the bed it protested loudly and sank a couple inches. Hmmm…too much chocolate. The walls were the same cloth wallpaper as upstairs, except for the wall behind the bed’s headboard, which they had covered after they ran out of pink striped wallpaper, so they used blush pink carpet instead. The door looked termite-riddled, but thankfully the rest of the room was clear of vermin and lacked any sort of smoky smell. I leaned against the sink and it almost came out of the wall.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Finding What You Aren't Looking For

“Help,” I felt like saying as he rambled on, “I need your help.”
Instead, I sat and listened as he quoted home prices.
“The houses across the street are nice, and they cost a little more – two twelve, maybe two fifteen.”
As Brad inhaled his Marlboro Red, I stifled my words. I realized that he didn’t’ want to talk about it – what I wanted to talk about. He wasn’t interested in what I wanted to say; that I was afraid, felt alone, had taken an entire road trip based on the idea that that there was hope out there somewhere for me, if I could only find it. What did my hope look like? I think I imagined it to be an old friend telling me that he was impressed with where I had been and what I had done. Maybe, just maybe, I was looking for some reassurance that my life had not been wasted traipsing all over the world instead of aiming for the normal route – job, husband, family, in that order.
Instead, I found Brad, eight years after I first met him in Spain, with a 24-year-old wife and a two-and-a-half-year-old son who screamed for attention and was constantly praised for being a good boy.
Whatever I was looking for, it wasn’t this. It wasn’t suburbia, with a house in a development with 500+ homes in seven different styles. It wasn’t living in the middle of Montana, making a lot of money but having no friends and moving around every six months following the promotions. Whatever hope I was looking for, it wasn’t here.
What was here was my past. Even that had been marred.
“Man, I didn’t imagine you to be the one who would keep traveling,” Brad said when I first arrived. His pretty blonde wife was chasing their son around in the other room. Considering they had a two-year-old, the place was clean and well decorated.
“Oh yeah?” I asked, “What did you think I would do?”
“I don’t know…get your masters in writing or something.”
“Ah.” I paused, stuck at what to say. “Who did you think would do the traveling, then?”
Brad thought it over.
“I don’t know,” he said, “It wasn’t going to be Mary…not Tim…I guess I would have said me, at that point. I might have done it – gotten myself lost in South America or Africa or somewhere, if I hadn’t met Ashley.”
There it was. Suddenly he’d lost me.
If I hadn’t met Ashley.
A boyfriend once asked me – assumed of me, in fact – whether I would stop traveling when we got married. Perhaps I haven’t found that sort of love yet. Perhaps this is naïve of me, but damn it if I hope I never find that kind of love.
Brad made me feel like I could have made something more of myself if I had only gone to get more schooling. Perhaps, maybe, I could have had a different life if I had only chosen differently. But you know what? I didn’t choose differently. I chose to run across the world every chance I got, take every opportunity offered to me, and do my best to live it up while I could. Yes, I’ve gotten to the point where I see nominations of currency in the amount of days it could sustain me in a foreign country, but I will carry those memories with me and with more pride for a damn sight longer than Brad remembers his first house. Have your prerogatives, but don’t make them mine.
The happiest I’ve ever felt was on the open road with the window down and my foot on the gas; on the edge of a mountain with the clouds below me and the sun beating down; naked in a river with only the sounds of the water in my ears; surfacing from a night dive on the Great Barrier Reef with my breath as my only company. Is there something wrong with me because these moments were alone? Maybe. Do I give a shit? Not at all.

Love and fed up kisses

The Addiction Takes Hold, Again

There’s a drink called Adios Motherfucker; it was named after me.
This morning I woke up sweaty and feeling suffocated in my sheets. Suddenly, an idea that had been rolling around in my head from awhile took hold and shook me.
So I did what I had to do, what I usually do when this happens: I obeyed.
And here I am, 300 miles from home, sitting on a lakeshore in Canada. I have no idea what time it is, but the light is fading and a city to the north of me – Summerland, I learned later – is starting to emerge, one star-speck of light at a time. There’s a breeze that is bringing the waves lapping to the shore, and it almost hides the sound of the highway on the hill behind me.
When I finally pressed my foot to the gas pedal in my old beat up Subaru after hours of prep and forgetting things, I felt a relief and a buoyancy that I haven’t felt in a long time. I rolled down the window and screamed. It too was something I’d needed for awhile, but I had been afraid to disturb the neighbors.
I don’t think it says anything good about me that I feel the most real when I am alone. I nearly cried at the joy of seeing nothing in front of me but the open road; nothing next to me but some jerky and my laptop; nothing to do but see how far north I could make it before dark. Suddenly, words that had been locked inside me started to spill out, and I felt waves of inspiration hitting me as palpably as I feel the water of this Canadian lake around my feet.
I am made for this. If it weren’t for the knowledge that I am a European mutt, I would swear that I am from a long-lost nomadic tribe. I feel safer with the wind at my back and the unknown ahead than I do in a bed that I can call my own. I can’t find a part of me that fits in a house. I can’t find a part of me that is willing to give up my freedom for a home. I fight this urge, this addiction, this need, but somehow I can never conquer it, and I’m not sure I want to. What I want is a way to sustain it, to live off it, to bleed it dry, then milk it for more. I want property in third world countries, to know the names of the locals, to explain to others the shape and size of a country they’ve never heard of that I now call my own. I want to be able to scream from the tops of the mountains without wondering if people can hear me. I want to wake up in the morning without feeling like the sheets are trying to strangle me – because I don’t belong to them, they belong to me.

Love and addicted kisses

Friday, August 21, 2009

Nostril Plugs, Anyone?

So these are a couple ideas I've had for new inventions, designed especially to help new ski instructors run their classes in a more efficient manner:
The headband helmet: made especially for little girls in beginning ski school whose parent's don't seem to think about the fact that it will be much harder for their princesses to ski if their hair freezes in a veil over their face. This new helmet will come in pretty girlie colors and have a built-in headband to keep their hair out of their face and mouth. This will also help the instructor because she will know if they are even looking in her general direction when she's explaining some of the rudimentary of skiing.
The yapper trapper: a device like a muzzle to keep children from shrieking about how they want their mommy, that their feet are cold, that they can't move, and that they hate their wonderful instructor.
The kiddie stopper: a big rubber thing that you can stick in the ground that the kids can ski down and run into when they can't stop on the bunny hill (which, by the way, has the vertical incline of a grassy knoll, but they can still manage to start going mach 5 and ramming into the fence and/or the snowboard class at the bottom) that will give just enough that they stop going forward, but will save the poor instructor, whose main job seems to be a stopper for said out of control children, especially the ones that weigh as much as poor instructor.
And finally, the nostril plug: for all ages and in a variety of colors, this hand device is rammed into the nostrils to prevent big snot bubbles and excess drippage that completely gross out the ever-patient instructor, who even if she has Kleenex will inevitably have to put the used ones in her pocket, where they freeze into big green balls.

Night Diving on the Great Barrier Reef

I sit uncomfortably in inky blackness, trying not to fall onto Linton, who patiently bears my weight as I struggle to put on my fins. I'm the last one ready, and probably the most nervous, but I take a deep breath, let it out, and readjust my mask.
"Ready," I say. I put the regulator in my mouth and try to breathe through the tube that snakes to the tank on my back. It's heavy and trying to pull me backward into the water.
"One, two, three, GO!" someone yells, and I surrender to the tank, letting it pull me in. My flashlight points straight into the sky, before becoming obscured by the dark water. I do a flip and end up upright next to the dinghy, held afloat by my vest. There are six others with me, and we're at Bait Reef, an outer layer of the Great Barrier Reef off the Whitsunday Islands. It's my first night dive ever, and I try to control a part of me that's trying to panic. For the moment I succeed, and soon we're descending in invisible elevators into the void below us.
This is different than the experience I had earlier today, in the daylight. Now the water is obscured by tiny particles, like snowflakes that absorb the light. Earlier, the sunlight was caught by schools of hand-sized fish, throwing rainbows everywhere in a shower of prisms. The coral was only slightly blurred by the depth, giving it a dusty appearance: pale rose, chalky blue, smudged green. There were giant clams with pursed disapproving lips in neon colored patterns, like 80's clothing.
Now, the same trip is completely different. What we can see is only what we ourselves illuminate, and it has the appearance of a watery bone yard. The coral has gone pale, and looks like jumbled piles of deer antlers at one point, a huge brain at another. The fish are curious and follow us, using our flashlight beams to find their prey.
I struggle with staying on the bottom, and for a while I have to purposely swim toward the ocean floor, wasting energy and air that I'll want later. I finally realize my vest still has air in it. Once I release it, I sink to within inches of the coral for a better view.
We wander through a chasm between the coral columns, and I am under a dark shelf. When I look up, the coral beckons, pulsating, trying to capture food brought toward it on the current. I know it makes a noise, I can tell, but all I can hear is the sound of my own raspy breathing. It comforts me, because it means that I am alive and this isn't a dream. I am underwater in the darkness of the Great Barrier Reef.
Even though I'm more comfortable now, my initial panic uses up my air, and I have to surface with my buddy before the rest of the group. We look up, and the water is lit above us; you can see our air bubbles illuminated from the flashlights below, and from another source of light above them in the dark night. When I clear the surface, I am looking right into the source: a golden honey-colored moon has just risen, right behind the masts of a sailboat. I look straight up into a smattering of stars, and around me to the lights of the other boats on their moorings. When I look down again, I'm over the coral, and it glows in the moonlight, beckoning me, waving in the current.
I let a whoop, and my salty lips stretch into a smile that takes up my whole face. My after-dive euphoria is the only buoyancy I need, and I will float on it for years to come.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Venetian Glass and a Dumbass

After my overpriced and wholly American meal near Piazza San Marcos in Venice, I continued on through the rain, hearing much more English than Italian. I discovered that, despite the confined space of the narrow streets, the Italians weren’t anything like the Spaniards and almost hugged the foul-smelling walls to keep from running into me. Despite my hobo appearance and the fact that I had been carrying everything I had on my back from the last seven weeks, I had made sure to wash almost daily with soap and water, and at first was puzzled at their preference to the musty wet brick. Then I noticed they were doing it to other tourists as well, and as an American I was supposed to enjoy having my space, a fact I had obviously forgotten in my short time away from home. Since I assumed the Venetians weren’t skirting us out of cultural deference, I deduced that they probably found us to be a vermin-like race whose mannerisms were contagious through direct contact.
I wandered around some more until I made it to the boat stop that took me straight to Murano, home of the Venetian glass shops that gave all the local shop owners something to arrange when they weren’t blatantly watching you browse. I was directed to what I assume was just one of many glass factories on the island and stood with a mixed group of tourists as a narrator tried his best to explain the process in five languages as the glassblowers silently ignored us. Although there really seemed to be no method to their madness, they moved around their workshop with quiet efficiency, seemingly oblivious to the gawkers standing 20 feet away. They were toting around metal rods with red-hot globules on one end, rolling the rod constantly to keep the liquid glass from dipping off onto the floor. The maestro and his helpers knew just how fast to roll the rods to keep the shape of the glass uniform as they blew air through the rod and into the glass bubble, creating a hot balloon on the end of a stick. Slowly, the glass cooled and was decorated with colorful beads and stripes before a stand, neck and handles were added to make a one-of-a-kind vase. The maestro actually looked more like he should have been serving a prison sentence than blowing intricate glass shapes. He had tattooed arms, silver looped earrings, a Mr. Clean bald head and smoked constantly. He could have been hammering out license plates for all the fervor he was putting into it. Nevertheless, I had never seen anything like it and was disappointed when I was shooed into the showroom so other people could watch.
I was looking at jewelry when I was noticed and latched onto by one of the salesmen, a 20-something Italian with curly hair, green half-lidded eyes and a swaggering insolence that made me want to whop him upside the head with a piece of heavy and sharp-edged Venetian glass. He informed me that the jewelry was half off, then proceeded to belt out songs in various languages until he noticed I was actually a lot more interested in the glass than what he had to say. Then he said something along the lines of putta matre, which sounds a lot like the Spanish puta madre, which in turn translates into something like “mother bitch.” In Spain at least, it is used as a generic term, like son of a bitch, to swear under your breath when you’re tired, bored, frustrated, or just for something to say. The thing is, he didn’t mumble it under his breath. He practically yelled it, which is probably why I understood it. I chuckled, and he looked up.
“Do I…crack you up?” he asked, without the least bit of warmth and a triple dose of sarcasm. I moved away, toward some cheap glass animals at the other end of the store. But he didn’t get the hint. Mr. Insolent followed me and waited while I picked out a small green swan. I asked if they had a way to package things to make sure they wouldn’t break.
“We wrap them in bubble paper and you can play football with them if you like,” he responded.
If anyone else had been speaking, this comment would have seemed funny and perhaps even charming, but Mr. Insolent was so very insincere that it seemed someone had coached him on what to say without bothering to tell him how to say it so it would work. I picked out a gondola to go with my swan and two necklaces. Mr. Insolent charged me 10 Euros instead of 14 Euros, he said, because he was such a nice guy.
“Do I make you happy? Do you want to kiss me?”
I didn’t answer, hoping it was an offhanded comment he wouldn’t repeat. He raised his half-lidded eyes and looked into mine.
“Do you want to kiss me? Do you want to kiss me, for an hour?” he probed, smirking impudently.
“Yeah, just like everyone else who gives me a discount,” I said dryly, not wanting him to take back his generosity but having to resist the urge to throw up all over him.
He made a gesture like he was going to kiss my hand as I took my package from him.
“Ciao, bella.”
“Putta matre,” I mumbled.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Never Again, I Swear

We got to London at 7 a.m., after jostling all night through England. I spent about 30 minutes in the bus station, smoothing out the wrinkles left in my face from the bus seat, then tried to figure out how much I could see of the city in very little time. In truth, I was so exhausted that there was nothing I saw that I later remembered.
By late afternoon, I just wanted to lay down and fall asleep anywhere that would have me. I decided to get my bags and head to the airport, hoping they would let me on the evening flight to Málaga, since my current flight was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Once I factored in tromping through the streets in the wee hours of the morning from the hostel to the bus stop, the hour-plus bus ride to the airport and the requirement of having to check in an hour and a half before departure, it wasn’t worth paying 20 pounds for three hours of sleep in London proper.
The help desk was more than helpful once they heard my predicament.
“Oh, sure you could get on a flight tonight, but you have to pay the difference in cost, which would be about £140.”
Considering I had paid about £30 for the ticket, this was outrageous to me.
“Even if the seat would be empty anyway?” I asked.
“Yep. Sorry.”
Ever so helpful people.
So I sat down for a 12-hour wait. I decided I didn’t want to try and curl myself into a wholly unnatural position in one of the chair banks with its annoying armrests until fewer people were around to watch me snore and twitch. I brought a book out and started to read instead. Soon an elderly grandmother came and sat down next to me with a cartful of luggage.
“They wanted to charge me £80 to take an earlier flight to Belfast,” she said indignantly.
And that was how it started. I was stuck talking to Irish Granny for three hours while she waited for her flight to Belfast, and all the while she was tut-tut ting over how much this cost, or how many black people were working at the airport, or how her children lived so far from home, or how America was a country of the devil (though she had never actually been there to witness our devil-worshipping) or how the British added an “r” to the end of all the words that ended in vowels. Despite her constant wrinkled nose and the huge mole on her eyelid that flapped when she blinked, I found her to be comforting in a grandmotherly sort of way. You know: old, wrinkled, set in her ways, and wondering just what kind of devil-worshipping parents I had who let me go traipsing all over the world alone.
Eventually I said goodbye to Irish Granny and settled as comfortably as I could into a carpet-covered chair with my luggage as a footrest and my inflatable airplane pillow. I may as well have been trying to get comfortable sleeping in a tree. I twisted and turned and at one point hung my legs over the armrest. All this accomplished was turning my legs blue and waking me up with nightmares that they had been cut off and a metal rod put in my back.
Finally, I was released from my tortured state by someone else’s pure genius: he stretched out on the floor. Even though it was hard, cold tile, I was relieved, because I was lying down and my legs were still intact. I folded my sheet in half and crawled inside. Although it was a fitful sleep interrupted constantly by a British voice reminding me to never leave my luggage unattended and that the pay-park machine accepted credit cards, it was, nevertheless, sleep.
From that moment on, I had nothing but flights with 24-hour layovers in between. I went back to my chain-smoking companions in Málaga and bought wine and olive oil with them to take home with me. To make room for my purchases, I gave away a towel, clothes and shoes and shared one last night of second-hand smoke and chocolate with my old friends. The best part of getting there, however, was the shower. I had gone so long without bathing that I felt I had been dipped in body coating candle wax.
The next morning, I boarded a flight back to London. The plane left an hour late, causing me to run like a frightened deer from my gate through the halls, impatiently plod through security, onto a bus, and through another terminal, only to arrive with ten minutes to spare. I wasn’t too surprised when I reached New York and my bag wasn’t on the conveyor belt, the first time I had actually checked it during my whole time abroad. I was out of luck, though, because the only shirt I had with me was the one I was wearing, which I had managed to decorate with a huge dollop of braised beef on the plane.
After an extremely restless night of sleep in the same hostel where I had begun my adventures nearly two months before, I was struck with jet lag and nowhere to rest until my flight took off at 9 p.m. I had arrived at about midnight, and the only room left was right next to the common room, which was full of yuck-yuck laughers until 3 a.m. I woke up too early and packed my purse to see what I could see before my flight left. I gave in and bought an “I  NY” T-shirt that almost looked worse than the braised beef decoration. I was so tired and fed up that I ended up in the airport extremely early, without a bag and having finished my book. When I finally climbed on my flight back to Washington, I vowed to stay out of airports for as long as humanly possible. Or at least until the travel bug bit me again. Then, when I was tired of my job and inspecting my backpack and airfare prices, I would have forgotten all about the braised beef shirt and how uncomfortable it is to sleep on airport floors.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Calamities With Stripes

Though it didn't seem like it until I looked back on the past few weeks that I had been living in Mexico, really I had been through a series of calamities that were trying, but nonetheless must have made me stronger. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason to suffer through them.
Calamity number one: Montezuma’s revenge hit me upside the head with a double-edged ax. Well, actually, it was in the stomach, and for those that don’t know what Montezuma’s revenge is, you've had the luck of never having it. Basically, there are all sorts of very enthusiastic stomach bugs that the Mexicans put in the food here to slowly but surely kill off the gringos that have infiltrated their country. Symptoms include diarrhea, lack of appetite, the urge to vomit, and doubling over in pain and whining for mommy, all in the middle of watching the dubbed version of Bad Boys in a movie theater. Treatment is finding a Mexican doctor that does not have his own office but will meet you at the nearest hospital, where he'll examine you in an extra examination room, give you a shot of antibiotics in the ass, charge you $40, give you a prescription and a list of foods you can't eat, including chocolate even though it's your birthday, and send you on your way.
Calamity number two: the rain. It does not rain. It waterfalls on top of you. It does. Constantly. It never stops. Actually, it does. The rain stops long enough for you to go outside, look carefully around as if trying to spot a waiting predator, get through the front gate and make it a couple of blocks. BAM! Thunder, lightning and dark clouds scoot in at ¨lightning speed¨ and you're drenched and stepping in puddles up to your neck.
Calamity number three: I am being sucked bloodless by the mosquitoes. The house I live in has a back garden with a fountain that is never on but has plenty of standing water where the little bloodsuckers breed. They somehow make it from there upstairs into my room and are slowly killing me while I sleep, which is the only time I wear shorts. My legs look like a minefield. It doesn't help that Mexican mosquitoes don't have the whining approach like their U.S. relatives, so they can sneak up on you undetected. It also doesn't help that when I am asleep, I don't notice that I am scratching my legs until I awake in a bloody frenzy. I showed my landlord my wounds, and she looked genuinely confused. How strange, she said, standing in front of the open sliding glass door that leads out to the garden and waving away some bug that flew too close to her. Because the mosquitoes rarely come in the house, and we never leave the doors open. I stood there in front of her, my legs trickling blood, and thought of all the days I had come home and found the sliding doors open. Actually, I didn't even have to think of all the days, because it was every day! Then she gave me a real zinger: maybe it's just your exotic blood. Ha! She just called a white, redheaded freckled girl from Washington exotic! THAT is a calamity! What an insult the really exotic people of the world!
Calamity number four: my job. I knew this was going to happen, but that didn't stop it from happening. As part of my job as an intern for an English language newspaper, I wrote a story about all the nasty things you can find in the tap water here and why you shouldn't drink it. I gave it to the editor on a Tuesday (the paper is finished on Thursdays) and asked him to look it over to see what else it needed. He lost it and didn't ask for it again until Thursday morning. I gave it back, he told me to change the lead, then I had it proofed by the copy editor and turned it in. It didn't come out in the paper that week. He called me in on the next Tuesday and gave me something that I am sure was once my article, but it was really impossible to tell because it was covered in teal and black ink. He went through it with me, telling me things I needed to change, some of which made a lot of sense, and others that I think changed the whole meaning of the damn thing. This, I have discovered, is because when I talk to the editor about an article, he has already decided what's going to be in it before he sees it. I could tell him I'm writing a story about the zoo, and if he decides he wants to hear about the monkeys and I write about the zebras, he'll tell me I am all wrong in saying the monkeys have stripes.
Anyway, I make the corrections, and hand it over to the copy editor, who gives me back a paper that, as he fondly put it, was a bloodbath (he uses a red pen). By this point I am fed up. He too thinks I am trying to paint stripes on the monkeys and refuses to listen when I try to explain that they are ZEBRAS. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried angry bitter tears and was afraid to wash my face afterward for fear that I would inhale something dangerous from the tap water. I finished all the corrections and turned the thing in yet again. Once again, it doesn't come out in the paper. Moreover, I find another article that I had originally written where the editor took all the information I gave him and wrote his own article. So I decided to talk to him about this. As I sat there trying my best to keep from acting like a leaky faucet, he told me in no uncertain terms that he was usually being nice to me just because I was an intern, that I obviously didn't know enough about water quality or how the water gets through the pipes to write a story about it, that he has the right to change my articles without telling me, especially when I turn them in 20 minutes before deadline (which, by the way, I have NEVER done unless it's given to me right before deadline. I turn most of them in a day early.) He also said that I am not good enough at translating to get the full context of a conversation and write it again in perfect English, and oh, by the way, don't get discouraged, because you're by far the best intern we've ever had. Apparently the others were trying to paint stripes on buildings or something.
In response, I went home, waved away the buzzing mosquitoes, and consoled myself by eating my way through the rest of a chocolate pudding pie.
The lesson? They are monkeys, regardless of the stripes, and chocolate really is a cure-all.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Polite Pole Vaulter

His name was Mitchell. He was 8 years old, from Texas, and called me ma'am. He and another kid from Texas, Brady, were my only charges that day, and both had kind of gotten to the point where they could wedge themselves to a stop, so I decided to take them up to the beginner chair up on the hill via another chairlift. Despite my extensive explanations, they both biffed it trying to get off, but really this is nothing new. I tried to get them to ski down a hill about as steep as a table top, trying to teach them to stop on their own without falling, turn maybe, and God forbid they be able to get up by themselves. Brady could stop, about 50 feet ahead of where I was at any given time, but Mitchell was having problems with even that. Near the bottom of the hill, I was hot from lifting them, tired and frustrated and threw off my coat as they mewed in little heaps of snot around me. Right then a seasoned instructor and his row of perfectly skiing ducklings slid to a stop behind me. As the kids began to push each other, Tom asked me if I was all right. "How do you,” I gasped, trying to focus on something productive. It didn’t work. “WHAAA!"
Okay, so maybe that's a little melodramatic, but I felt like a fool trying to stop crying like my 8-year-olds. Tom took me by the shoulders and made me look at him.
"Don't let them see that they're getting to you, or it will all be over." I felt like I was stuck in a kennel with rabid dogs that I had to keep from seeing my fear.
I pulled myself together and put my goggles back on before we parted ways, them down the hill in a perfect line and I leading my group to the chair lift. It is our policy that the instructor go up the chair first so that someone could help them off at the top, and after I got on I turned around and watched Mitchell keep walking instead of stopping at the line to get on the chairlift, his little snot-encrusted face staring up at me as he walked right off the front of the loading platform. The lift operator sideswiped Brady before he could be whacked in the head by the chair he was supposed to sit on. I sat on the non-moving chair for five minutes watching the liftie take my kids' skis off, move them out of the way, help them put the skis back on and stand them on the line with the explicit instructions to stay put. When they got to the top, I was waiting for them, but the liftie wasn't watching, and neither of them made any move to get off. I lifted them down after they tripped the safety gate, then pointed to a distant spot across the hill where we would meet. Too bad they couldn't make it to that distant spot. Right at that moment, like a bad horror movie, I saw my boss incognito in a baseball cap because it was his day off,, and before I could stop them, both my kids tried to go across the hill, but they were pulled DOWN the hill in a gravity riptide into a hole with a big pole sticking out of it, inconveniently placed below the offloading ramp. Brady, the better stopper, managed to fall down with one of his skies halfway into the hole, as I'm screaming in slow motion to Mitchell to fall down, FALL DOWN MITCHELL! before I watch his little frame pick up speed, launch over the hole and literally wrap himself momentarily around the pole before I hear the thud of his helmet whacking into the cold metal. Then he is a crumpled heap at the bottom of the hole. I almost fainted. I ran over, unclicked my skies, and touched his arm. "Are you alright, Mitchell?" I am on the point of hysterics. "Yes," came his muffled reply, since his face way half-hidden in his coat and halfway into the snow. When I had established that nothing hurt and I could lift him out without doing him any harm, I did so and sat with him in my lap.
"Are you sure you're alright?"
His little snow-covered eyes blinked at me.
"Yes, ma'am."

Monday, June 15, 2009

Paris Laundry

After I checked in to my hotel in Paris I hauled my stuff up to my room. There were three single beds and a bathroom done completely in a peachy pink plastic. The shower was about the size of a casket, and the whole bathroom was about double that. Nevertheless, it was the first private peeing place I had had. I immediately marked it as my territory by throwing all of my toiletry items sporadically on its peachy plastic shelves and counter, emptied out my backpack, refilled it with my dirty clothes (all of them) and raced back out to the Laundromat I had seen nearby.
I studied the machines with distrust and the box that looked like an old-fashioned nuclear reactor control console with fascination. I finally managed to figure out that you put the money into a rusty slot, push the button with the number corresponding to the machine you want to use, and voila! clean clothes, here I come. There were three different sizes of washers, and I chose the second biggest, since I was washing nearly everything I had brought with me. I then needed change, and my first experience with French customer service was a positive one: I bought a yogurt and the kind woman threw in a blueberry muffin at no extra charge. She used gestures right along with mine, instead of trying to see how much French I understood, since obviously I didn’t speak any. She even knew what I wanted when I held out the five-Euro bill she had given me, a desperate look on my face. If I were she, I might have feigned ignorance and kept it as a tip.
I went back to the Laundromat with my newly acquired wad of change and loaded them one by one into the console. As soon as I hit the button for the washer, I realized that after all this time, after all my travels, I still managed to make some incredibly stupid mistakes. I heard a lock slide into place, echoing with finality as it would in a prison, and the washer started up. I screeched and ran over to try to yank the door open, only stopping momentarily to drop my backpack, which was still jammed full of my dirty clothes. I stared in pain through the front window of the empty washer as it filled with water, preparing to go through the cycle I had just paid 5.50 Euros for without having had the sense to load the damn thing first. Of course, being that it was a public Laundromat, of course the door would lock once activated so people could do errands while their clothes were being cleaned without having to worry about someone rifling through their undergarments in the middle of a cycle. I hung my head and sighed a deep, frustrated sigh. I only had enough change left for a smaller washer and I wasn’t about to go back to that nice old woman and have her wonder if I had a gambling problem or if I only paid for drugs in change. I loaded up a smaller washer, and much to my consternation everything fit without any sort of problem. I then realized, ten minutes into the cycle, that I had put the laundry soap in the wrong side of the soap compartment. I switched it over, not hard because they were soap tablets, but when I checked again they still weren’t dissolving. So there I was, mashing soap tablets with a pen in a dirty public laundry mat that was costing me 9 Euros due to my own stupidity. It was snowing outside and a cold wind was turning me to ice where I stood, in the least protective of all my clothing because it was the only thing I had that didn’t need to be washed and sandals because all my socks were dirty. It didn’t help that there were two men in the Laundromat who had witnessed the entire scene, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I looked up and saw the directions written in English on a huge sign right in front of me. Really, it took up the whole wall. I wanted to climb into a washer and never come out. I could just imagine these men going home to their families, sitting around drinking wine and eating French bread and telling about the stupid American at the Laundromat. It just proves, they would say, that Americans never wash their clothes.
Forty-five minutes later, I hauled all of my clothes back to my room, sopping wet sopping because I didn’t have enough change to dry them. I hung them around the room, cranked up the heater and sat in a rainforest.
After a shower, I furthered my own shame when I started to apply some lotion I had bought in Venice. I remembered finding it to have a very strange texture – like rubbery mucus – and had amused myself for quite awhile during the first application, making designs on my legs that resembled sand ripples in a changing wind. It wasn’t until putting it on after that first shower in Paris, however, that I noticed it bubbling when I applied it. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it was bubbling because it was not lotion, but body wash. I had simply been looking for the word crema, which is both Spanish and Italian for lotion, but if I had taken five minutes to think about doccia, the word that accompanied crema on the bottle that could have been any cream from soap to shampoo to car polish, I would have realized that the Italian pronunciation made the word sound a lot like the Spanish word for shower: ducha.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

In Italy without any Italian

Most people ask me at some point how I get around without speaking the language of whatever country I'm in. In Italy, I had decided early on to use my Spanish and my five-word Italian vocabulary instead of relying on English, and that got me absolutely nowhere. Either they would take pity on me or despise me for mussing up their language, or in many cases they would rapid fire sentences back to me, and the few words I understood made me wonder why all the others were necessary. It happened repeatedly, but one time stands out more than others. I was searching for an Internet cafe in Levanto, one town north of Cinque Terre, and I was in a hurry because I had to find it, check my email and catch the last train before the two-hour lunch break. I wandered around for about 20 minutes before I finally asked a nice older woman on the street.
“Café internet?”
“No. Blahblah, blahablahabblah blah.”
I think I may have gathered that she never uses them, so she would have no idea where one is. But maybe, just maybe, she said something like this:
“I know of one, but you have to be inducted through a ritualistic sheep killing. Hail Satan.”
Next I wandered into a camera shop.
“Café internet?”
“No.” I think she may have thought that I thought I was in one. Then she pointed one way down the street she was on, blabbered on for a minute, then made a movement that told me I should take a left.
“Straight? Then left? When? How far?” I asked.
She shrugged. Maybe, just maybe, this is what she said:
“No, I will not take you to my leader, but if you go straight down this road, it eventually turns left right in front of the train station, and you can get on the train and go back where you came from, you moronic giant of a red head.”
After having made it back to the train station on her directions, I tried one more time at a fruit stand. The man took pity on me and used what little English he knew to tell me how to get to the one Internet café that was right down the street from the photography shop. Nevertheless, I think he may have said, “Go back to your home planet,” as I gratefully waved goodbye.

May the gods of irony smile upon you

Why, oh why does irony play such an essential role in our lives? Why am I always stuck next to a boring middle-aged woman or old man or families on airplane rides? Or rather, why does it always happen except for this once? This was the one time I forewent any attempt to look presentable and wore a 6-year-old purple T-shirt, my glasses, scraggly uncared-for and uncut hair, having been in airports or on planes all day, fresh from New Orleans with a rattling cough that makes people back away slowly and a gushing runny nose. Why does all this happen to me when I am sharing my row on a seven-hour flight to London with an attractive, probably single 20-something with a book and a water bottle, just like me? Why did he have to walk in and sit down right as I stuffed the last of a chocolate chip cookie in my mouth, just in time to hear my rasping attempt to swallow with a plugged up nose that made me feel like I was trying to breathe through wet cotton? Oh God of attractiveness and perfect timing, WHY do you forsake me?
I tried to come up with something to say to the-man-I-would-have-married-if-I-had-only-planned-better to save face, but my ideas seemed as addled as my congested sinuses. I picked through possible conversation topics in my head:
“Gee, this pressurized weather sure is great, isn’t it?”
“Well, if you need any Kleenex, I’ve got some, har har.”
“Want some hand sanitizer? It’ll keep you from getting my cold.”
“Want some Tylenol PM? That way I won’t be the only one who sleeps through my needing to blow my nose.”
But it was useless. He’d already seen me unpack my arsenal of medication, water, chocolate, sappy Western romance novel and a toilet paper roll I would inevitably use up on my nose before the flight was over. To prove my point, he got up and moved. Only across the aisle, mind you, where he could spread out and sleep on four empty middle seats. But it’s obvious why he really left, I thought forlornly, and I couldn’t really blame him. I wouldn’t want to sit next to me either.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Worst Hostel Roommates Ever

Sometimes all you want is your own room
I wandered rosy-cheeked up to my room at the Florence Youth Hostel, where I met my roommate from South Carolina. She had the drawl to prove it. She was studying in England and on a six-week break, taking time to go through Italy (“agin, Ah’ve already bin here wonce,”) and told me she found my accent “real harsh” in comparison to British English. “Even them snobby upper class Brits sound better than an American accent raght now,” Needless to say, we did not keep in touch.
She was not even close to the worst roommate I’ve ever had in a hostel. In New York I had one roommate –waiting for her apartment to be finished – who would get off work, crawl into bed and call everyone she knew, talking about nothing long into the night while the rest of us tried to sleep and even after we’d tried to give her a hint by turning off the light. In Belgium two years prior, I had met two girls from Nebraska who took two hours getting ready for a 30-minute dinner, then got tired and refused to check out the town. I once showed up in Barcelona and got the only remaining bed, in the men’s dormitory. I curled up into a ball, pretending I was asleep as they all came in and undressed, and tried not to think about the whitish-greenish-purplish stain under my rented sheets. The worst roommate, however, was at a hostel in Munich, a few blocks from the train station in what were also the very last beds available in the whole place.
He was about 50 years old, and had brought his own miniature TV that was always on and perched on his big hairy belly. He had a gristly graying beard where he collected leftover food, greasy long gray hair and a hole-riddled gray sweat suit. Mr. Gray had a large potbelly that made it impossible for him to keep his pants hiked up, displaying for all to see that he wore no underwear and the rest of his body was covered in gristly gray hair, too. My friend Tara and I never figured out what language he spoke, unless it was Mumble Tongue, and he constantly burped, snorted and snored, making it all the more horrifying when it woke you out of a dead sleep induced by too much German beer and saw his naked, gristly-gray-hair covered body cast in the light of some late-night show.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


My name is Morgan, and I am an addict. You see, I have a problem: I love to travel. Other people spend their money on cars, stereos, houses, clothes, shoes, maybe food. Me? I live in a cardboard box when I'm not abroad.
That may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but not by much. Every time I travel I come home exhausted. All of my clothes are so well worn I throw most of them away. I've slept more on airport floors than I have in beds, eaten more meals consisting of bread and whatever local spread is cheapest, and walked more miles to save bus fare than can possibly be healthy.
Each time I come back, I bury my backpack in the closet, throw some domestic goods on top of it, and say to myself and everyone else, "Good riddance. I'm done. I want to be able to eat real food, buy nice things for my house and have a job I like and want to stay in. No more traveling for awhile."
I'm lying.
I don't do this purposely. It's not like I don't believe myself. I come back and scramble to find a job, any job that will help me pay the bills. I can't afford to wait for the one I want. Once there, I find myself a cheap place to live after spending at least a week on someone's couch. I move all my stuff in and set it up like a home, like I'm going to stay.
Within a short amount of time, there's a positive number in my bank account. It starts to grow, even though I've begun to splurge just a little: I start buying vegetables again, or go out to eat every now and then with my friends. I go to the movies. I might even buy some new clothes if they're on sale.
At whatever job I have, I get settled. I start to get to know the people. I develop a routine. And slowly but surely, I begin to hate it.
The change is almost imperceptible. Gradually I become irritated at work, I find my routine mundane, and I can't bring myself to stay still. I start taking long drives on the weekends, and all of a sudden I decide I spend too much money on food. I cut down to frozen vegetables and Top Ramen. I check my bank account, then airline fares. I start thinking about where I want to go next, and cutting my expenses to a minimum. I rifle through my closet and find my backpack. I look it over and put it back, but in the front of the closet, where it can greet me every time I open the door.
At work, some small thing sets me off, and that's it! I'm done! I bide my time for just a little while, then I quit, move out of my house, put everything in storage, and I'm gone.
“Where are you going next, Morgan?”
I hear this a lot. And a lot of times, like this time, I say, “Well, I found some really cheap tickets and I’m heading to New York, New Orleans, then to Europe. Should be fun.”
I know. It’s a lame thing to say. But what do you say? Inevitably, the next part of the conversation is the one that I hate the most.
“Are you going with anyone?”
“Nope. Just me. But I will see some people I know while I’m there. Besides, I’m sure I’ll meet people along the way.”
“How are you paying for this?”
“Well…ummm…I sold my car/stocks/soul and I’ve been surviving on cheap food for the past six months.”
“Wow. What are you going for?”
“No special reason. I just want to go.”
“I wish I could do that.”
No, actually you don’t. I have a very unfair belief that most people can do what I do, they just don’t really want to. I am not referring to people who barely have enough money to eat. I am referring to most people I know whose priorities are different than mine. They drive nice cars that aren’t 25 years old, perhaps live in nice houses or apartments, like to drink expensive concoctions at the bar, and eat at sit-down restaurants where there’s a waiter you have to tip. These are all priorities that I don’t share when I’m going abroad. My travel habits force me to forgo these daily pleasures with the idea that I will do them later in a foreign country, even if it’s not the case.
So why do I do it? Because I love to travel. I love the high I get landing somewhere totally new and trying to find a place to sleep and having no idea where my next meal will come from. I love meeting people who know absolutely nothing about me except what I choose to tell them. I love finding out why these people are here and realizing it is either nothing like my own story, or mirroring my thoughts exactly. I love listening to all the accents and dialects and different ways of saying the exact same thing.
My travel lust really began after returning to Washington State University after studying abroad in Spain. I was incredibly excited to go home after the year abroad. On my flight home I wrote down all the things I had missed on an airplane napkin:
Dryer sheets
Free water
No siesta
My pillow
My bed
Starbucks coffee
Cold milk
Fresh fruit
Breakfast cookies
Customer service
Chai tea
Movies in English
Chocolate banana milkshakes
Deli sandwiches
My computer/internet
Gum (American brands)
The radio
Thai food
Japanese food
Mexican food
Vietnamese food
Choice between non-fat, 2%, whole milk
Toilet seats and seat protectors in public bathrooms
More clothes
Teriyaki sauce
My dog
I found this list later tucked into 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which I hadn’t finished. I couldn’t believe it. These were the reasons I wanted to come home? They were ridiculous. They meant nothing to me after about a week of being back in the States. After a week, counter-culture shock hit me full-force.
Few people talk about counter-culture shock, or even know what it is. Counter-culture shock is what you experience returning home after an extended period abroad. You are disillusioned because the place you couldn’t wait to get back to, the place that has represented comfort and home, doesn’t feel the same. It’s not that the place has changed; you have changed and it didn’t change with you.
My counter-culture shock was especially acute because of September 11. I arrived in Spain on August 30, 2001 and didn’t step foot on American soil until 11 months later. During that time my primary news sources were European. Their point of view, while similar to the U.S.’s at the beginning, was dramatically different by the time I left. I got home and there were American flags on every moving vehicle, and the fight against terrorism was in full swing. I was in Prague the day President Bush told the world that there was no middle ground and that you were either “with us or against us” in the battle against tyranny and evil as we defined it. I was walking across Northern Spain on a pilgrimage on the Fourth of July, and I was astounded when an American woman I met said that no one agreed with what Bush was doing, but they followed him because he was the president. Because of this day in history, the life I wanted to return to was no longer there, and the U.S. was feeling a cohesiveness that I was unable to understand or be part of.
As hard as a year in a foreign country and foreign culture was, it was nothing compared to the depression I felt returning to a country that had changed so drastically while I was gone. I was unwilling to state my point of view on what we were doing abroad because it was still considered un-American, but frustrated at my lack of courage and angry at what I was hearing around me. It took me a long time to realize that people’s views – including my own – are based on their personal experiences, and I had completely missed out on this one and the mentality it had produced.
Soon after returning to the States, I realized that I wanted to leave again. I felt confined, misunderstood, and that everything was too easy. After a year of struggling to speak the language, of trying to understand and be understood, college classes in my native language didn’t seem like much of a challenge. After a year of seeing pictures of the dead children killed by American bombs in Afghanistan on the front page of Spanish newspapers, I couldn’t fathom the light-hearted fun of grinding on fraternity boys at sticky-floored bars just because I was now 21.
So I started planning my next trip abroad. After this academic year, I would be able to wrap up my two degrees in Spanish and journalism with one six-month internship at a newspaper, provided that I wrote in English, but could somehow incorporate Spanish into the mix. Fortunately, I was close friends with one of the international programs advisors, and there just happened to be a program through Oregon State University where I could work at an English-language newspaper in a Latin-American country. My first choice – and the one I got – was for the Guadalajara Colony Reporter, a weekly newspaper that has written for the mostly American expatriates in Mexico for more than 30 years. I was working on an article at the Colony Reporter about cheap airfares when I decided that I wanted to go back to Europe via New York and New Orleans.
To understand why I decided to go to partake in this adventure, you first have to understand my time in Mexico. So that is where the story begins: in the cramped old house that holds the makings of the Colony Reporter in the city of Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco.