Life Skills

Go Fly a Kite

For weeks, I’ve been longing to just do nothing. Many of you think that’s what I’ve been doing for a year, but I believe a scroll through the blog section of my site will disabuse you of that notion. Despite returning to the states, I’m still moving around, and I’m doing it less efficiently than before.

Before, it was me, a big pack, and a day pack. I was a well-oiled traveling machine. These days, it’s me, a little duffle of clothes, a computer bag, a duffel of ‘stuff,’ and the random accoutrement that collects in my car – hiking boots, bathing suit, towel, dog blanket (despite having yet to be reunited with dog), extra quart of oil.  Where before I was home-free, I’m now homeless, carting belongings around the northwest, losing bits by the wayside as I go.

My insides reflect that scattered-belonging appearance. The months I traveled, I experienced everything from the here and the now. I may have been planning the next place, but I did it from a very conscious present. From a courtyard in Bogota, I purchased a plane ticket to Santa Marta, a bus ticket to Cartagena, a plane trip to Bolivia. From a beer garden in Saigon, I reserved hotel rooms in Jordan, sending the details to a friend in Denver. The courtyard was bound in magenta bougainvillea, and the beer garden hosted a Vietnamese singer covering American classic rock. I may have been addressing the logistics of another place and time, but I was doing it from a very present self. A very centered one. It was invigorating.

Now, I am anxious and scattered. I think I am done traveling, but I’ve continued to move. I’ve slept in ten different places since returning from Spain at the end of June. I rotate between a few, on a schedule set usually a week (or less) in advance. While on this merry-go-round of homestays, I’m masterminding where I’ll settle, what I’ll do for work when I get there, whether it’s the right thing to do. I fall asleep fitfully, rearranging schedules and geographies in my head (usually in favor of the calendar with the shortest amount of time between me and a reunion with the dog). I worry I’ve over-stayed my welcome at one place, and another, and another. When daylight meets my open eyes, I make lists of tasks to complete in hopes of wrangling in my wild and blurry future. I’m tired in a place that coffee never touches and sleep never rests.

But this month, I’m on Orcas. A month of doing nothing. Doing nothing is rarely, actually, nothing.  In fact, it’s one of the hardest tasks to accomplish. If you don’t believe me, try it. Put whatever you’re reading this on down, and take deep slow breaths for three full minutes.

Felt like an eternity, didn’t it? Like emptying your mind so you can meditate, doing nothing is actually very, very difficult. So I will work my way there. I started this afternoon by flying a kite in wind that blew up off the ocean. While lying in the grass looking up at it, I noticed the apple tree is in fervent production mode, so I took a picture. Tomorrow I may pick some and make applesauce. IMG_3052

My nothing won’t come all at once. It’s going to come after a couple hikes, the books I checked out of the library today, some kite-flying and some deep, deep breaths. When it comes, as it comes, though, my nothing will be full of wonder, and focus, and rejuvenation. It will be full of vivid, short, present moments that will last an eternity.


Life Skills

Back to School Mug Shots

I woke up yesterday morning to a Facebook feed filled with underage mug shots. Sweet little faces, slightly over-coiffed and equal parts excitement and nerves, proudly holding up home-made signs of their salient details – name, age, date. Then I noticed most of the signs also had the school grade and maybe a teacher name, and I remembered that for many school districts,  Monday was the first day of school.

When I started kindergarten, and first grade (and fourth grade, and Brownies), my mom certainly took pictures. Luckily, I’m nomadic right now, so I’m unable to pull these from storage and provide evidence of their existence. But they never had placards. And the placards I saw yesterday got very specific: some included the height and even weight of the little person holding them.

As a child-free person, I have no emotional connection to your child’s first day of school, so when I saw this mugshot-fest, it reminded me of every conversation I’ve had recently with friends at their wit’s end. Summer is too short for students, but way too long for their parents, who spend the last two weeks of it lamenting the end of camps and day cares and counting down the days until their busy schedules will return to normal and one can get things done without the constant presence and need of a little person. The feeling that one’s children are just little misbehaving criminals-in-the-making is common at this time of year, and maybe that is why they’ve all been paraded around social media mugging as such?

I get it: the first day of school is a big deal for everyone involved, and you want to document it. But to a person without kids, this is a weird montage to wake up with. And as one who watched a Criminal Minds marathon over the weekend, I was certain when I saw these photos that the real purpose of them was to provide current, dated, data to the FBI should a parent’s worst fears come true, and your child fall victim to an abduction. I even called a reliable parent I know to confirm my suspicion, only to learn that I was dead wrong.

And then I remembered what else was happening that day, which actually is a parent’s worst fear – worse than seeing an actual mugshot of their child, or handing over one of these first-day-of-school mugs to the FBI: it was the day that Michael Brown would be memorialized by his family, his friends, and political pundits who never knew him. This was the day some parents bury their child.

Brown’s family didn’t raise a criminal. They didn’t raise a victim. They raised a child. After the focus on Ferguson, and corollary discussions about the things Caucasian moms don’t have to worry about when sending their little people off to school, maybe this parade of little kid mug shots is a reminder that looks can be deceiving, and you can’t determine who is a criminal by the color of his skin, the look on his face, or the badge on his chest.

On a day when we honor the cracking open of new books, we must remember you can’t judge them by their covers.

Life Skills

I Want All the Adventures

  When I was little, I had a book called, “I Do Not Like It When My Friend Comes to Visit.”  The basic plot was that the protagonist hates when her friend comes to visit because she has to share her toys and include her little brother, who gets called cute, and be nice, and not get her way all the time, and she hates it. And when her friend has to leave, she cries because she loves when her friend comes to visit and misses her when she’s gone. In other words, it’s about being selfish. image I’m pretty sure this book was around because I was one of the most anal-retentive, selfish children on the planet. If you don’t believe me, ask one of my sisters about trying to borrow my purple pen, cross the doorway into my room, or, god forbid, sit on my bed. As an adult, I know this was about jealousy and control, but that’s a lot to ask another 7-year-old to live with. I Do Not Like It When My Friend Comes To Visit is the first thing that popped into my mind last week when three of my friends landed in various parts of Brazil to celebrate the World Cup in all its intoxicated, sun-drenched, body-painted glory. Despite my having just completed a loop around the planet and reading their facebook posts from my last-ditch outpost in Sevilla, all I could think was, “I want all the adventures!”

Another boring view in my last ditch adventure outpost: Sevilla

Another boring view in my last ditch adventure outpost: Sevilla

I want all the adventures. Isn’t this the same thing as wanting all the toys? I want all the adventures. It felt like the wrinkle-browed toddler from my childhood fable had suddenly crawled into my skin and taken over my wonderful life. Only the difference was this: I don’t want all the adventures just for myself. I want all the adventures, with, and for, all of you. I don’t want anyone else not to have an adventure. If there is one thing I’ve learned this past year, it’s the reality how many fantastic adventures are out there. Sometimes, the adventure is just figuring out how to cross the street when the traffic keeps coming from the ‘wrong’ direction. You’d be shocked at the thrill of making it safely from one curb to another without getting hit by that surprise coming from the right. Other times, the adventure is jumping out of a plane.  Most of the time, it’s someplace in between.

Sometimes, the adventure is jumping out of a plane.

Sometimes, the adventure is jumping out of a plane.

The intoxication of adventure is the thrill. You aren’t required to defy death to get it; you just have to feel something (a)new. My first morning back in the Pacific Northwest after I returned to the States, I snuggled into my purple beaded Moroccan jelaba and headed into my sister’s kitchen, where I got on the floor and played matchbox-car-closet-soccer with my nephew. Last summer he refused to hug me for two straight months. This day, my heart lept when he not only hugged me hello, he determined I was a worthy-enough playmate to receive two cars. I want all the adventures.

In my purple beaded jelaba.

In my purple beaded jelaba.

I won’t have all the adventures. And that’s ok. I won’t have kids, and I feel good about having made that choice. I won’t be a war correspondent; my feelings are still mixed about that one. When you depart for Asia next week I will ache with memory, and jealousy. And if my friends in Brazil really do go hang-gliding, I may turn green with envy. But despite my round-the-world trip having ended, I believe my adventures have just begun, simply because I’ve started wanting them. All of them.

Europe, Life Skills, Tourist

El Viento

I had been saving a visit to the Alhambra, my only tourism goal of this return to Spain, for the week my Myanmar Travel Companion (MTC) came down from Germany for a visit. Like me, he traveled for an extended time, but he stayed in Southeast Asia, diving and staring at the ocean from Southern Thailand and Malaysia, or partying in Bangkok and Saigon. He left around New Years to return to Germany, and promptly got a string of illnesses clearly caused by post-travel depression, cold weather, and office work.

So when MTC arrived in Sevilla, agitated, irritated, unable to relax or appreciate the sights of Sevilla, I was more than happy to go along with his desire to visit Tarifa, a beach town on the South Coast known for its kite boarding and wind surfing. I would have done anything to uncover the MTC I knew in Myanmar, who gleefully biked through the backroads of Bagan and laughed at the fiasco in which collectors were sent for me on a temple at sunrise . We devised a grand plan: rent a car, head south, spend one night at the beach and then head northeast to Grenada to see the Alhambra.

Of course we got lost driving out of Sevilla, trapped on the ringroad that circles the city, and drove back and forth in a pendulum’s arc around the bottom of the loop before grabbing hold of the road southward. An hour later, down the tollway lined with eucalyptus and divided in the center with oleander, the sides of the road opened. Rows of blooming girasoles tipped their hats to us as we sped by. Above their yellow faces, wind turbines topped rocky hills, turning with increasing fury as we headed south to the sea.


We checked into the hotel and then headed to the water, the approach to which wasn’t obvious. We got tangled behind some apartment buildings, a soccer field, the Chinese ‘everything for a euro (and up)’ store, and crawled out through a parking lot dotted with camper vans from years long gone, missing paint, plastered with peeling stickers. And then, there we were, next to the magnificent Atlantic, which looked like the gentle Carribean for that day only. The water was in turns clear, then turquoise, then increasingly blue as it pulled out to the sea like the tankers we could see, leaving the safety of the Mediterranean for destinations West, and South.


It was still hot, being no later than five and Tarifa at a latitude where, mid-June, the sun sets between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. Tourists baked on the sand, feigning interest in shade with small sombrillas and fading coats of sunblock. Couples played in the water, waves poured in, kids built castles in the sand. We took off our shoes and walked almost an hour up the beach before turning back in search of beer, and food.

For dinner, we headed to the other gem of Tarifa: the medina. This was no Moroccan medina. The buildings were white-washed, storefronts wide, and streets clean. Streets that may have once been cobblestone wove through one another around buildings filled with Moroccan jewelry and textiles priced well above their native prices plus the 70 euro ferry trip to Tangier and back. Some sold clothes, others beachtowels with the toro de Espana, others peddled beer to young tourists from Australia, England, and Italy who were here to surf, or pretend that they could. The streets dumped us out next to the Catedral at the bottom of the hill and we looped around it, looking for a way in before giving up and heading to a vegetarian place with four tables.

Like sports towns everywhere, Tarifa is populated by people whose faces have been carved by the weather, the wind shaping their existence as much as it does the line of the shore. They move with a slowness that, even in Spain, is marked by a lack of urgency, a calm that comes with low wages and high levels of activity in something you love, and a tolerance for tourists you accommodate for your survival. People who live in towns like this know the reasons they are here. They aren’t on the search for something they may never find.

In contrast, the MTC and I spend more than half our conversation time trying to ascertain what magnificent, million-euro idea two pedigreed, intelligent, well-traveled individuals can come up with so that we can travel six months of the year. Before we finish dinner, we decide we are skipping the Alhambra and staying here.

The next day breaks so windy that our morning walk on the beach is a sandblasting the likes of which a good hammam could charge a pretty dirham for. Sand from the dry part of the beach races to the ocean, flying across the wet pack to the waves, which appear to turn in slow motion as the wind pushes spray backward off their tops. The neon orange floats that line offshore fishing nets bounce on the water, as do the boats that yesterday so stoically guarded their fish. Our walk is shorter this morning than it was last night.


We hop in the car and go looking for a beach to sit on. We find perfection ten minutes down the road, at a hotel that is simultaneously expensive and filled with kite boarders and wind surfers. It is tucked into a hillside with a patio partially protected from the wind. We luck into a couple of basket chairs and take them, lounging for hours beneath a partially thatched covering that attempts to shield us from the sun’s heat. Sometimes we are reading, but more than once I catch each of us staring into space, trying to figure it all out. And of course, more than once, I catch each of us checking out a hot Spaniard setting up his board. Eventually the sun burns us out of our seats, and we move to the restaurant where we share tomato salad with salt flakes, and fall asleep on the banquet in the shade.


After a brief siesta back at our hotel, we drop into the grocery for beer and head to the beach for sunset. Of course, the sun doesn’t set until 9:30 and after ten minutes, the pockets of my shorts and the can from my beer are filled with sand, shoved there by a mischievous wind, so we head to the beach bar just before the poprt. After the sun goes down, all we feel is the wind, and suddenly it is cold. We race back to the hotel through the winding streets of the medina, shivering and laughing at the change in ambiente, to shower and go to dinner.


On our last morning, the wind is as fierce as it was the day before. It has roared all night, lulling me into sleep through the open window. We detour up the coast for our return trip, driving along a highway that winds through a state park, where wind-molded pinons umbrella over the land. We stop for lunch on the coast, feasting on grilled vegetables and fish before heading home.


When we return to Sevilla, we leave the car at the train station and grab a cab to my apartment. The heat is heavy here, compared to the coast. Tomorrow, it will be 102. The next day, 104. But we have been scraped clean by the salt, by the sand, by the persistence of our concerns about the future. The wind has carved us, if only slightly, leaving us with our true faces and carrying off the ones we wear to convince the world we are where we need to be.



Europe, Life Skills, South America, Traveling

Nadie Te Quita Lo Bailado

I never realized how much I shop while traveling until I found myself in the sweet little village of Villa de Lleyva, in the Colombian hills. It is a busy weekend destination from Bogota, and I was there during the week, trying to shed The Terror. The shopping was drool-inducing, but my hands were tied: I had an over-full pack, and six months to go before home.

I love giving presents. Though I am famous in my family for hiding one last Christmas present until long after everyone else has finished opening their loot, I’m also known for going a little overboard on the present-giving. It’s not just Christmas. It’s anytime I find something someone I know will like, or has been longing for, or even better will adore even though s/he doesn’t know it’s out there. It’s such a little thing, and the exchange may be material, but the gift is the joy that it brings the recipient, not the object itself.

In the past, I have returned from journeys abroad with presents for my family from the trip, and then gifted them again for their birthdays or holidays with items also bought abroad, socked away until the proper occasion. At some point, I realized I could buy them each just one present on my trip, and gift it at the appropriate occasion, reducing my expenditures and the weight of my pack. My sisters took notice, but a raised eyebrow ended their protest.

Those cobblestone walkways in Villa de Lleyva come back to me now in Sevilla, wanting again to buy a piece of a country and take it home with me. In Colombia, native textiles combined with leather into the most fantastic purses I’d ever seen. Thick, soft wool had been knit into cowl-necked sweaters that could cuddle my sisters through the most vicious of winters. And the jewelry….But it had to be left behind.


When you can’t shop, what are you taking home with you? Memories. What happens when those memories get confused, and begin to fade? Where was I when I kept getting turned around and winding up in the same marketplace block, with heat bearing down on the smell of the wet market, over and over again? I had to think on this one for 30 minutes to recall it was Cartagena.

In what town did I stay briefly where they had a daily market that I kept failing to make it to, only to happen upon its afternoon remnants on my last afternoon in town? I’ve been thinking about it for two days now, and I can’t remember. But I can still see the empty stalls being broken down on a dusty street, cars again pushing through as they cleared.

Where is the fancy Italian paper store that I am so dead -set on finding again here in Sevilla? I was sure it was on Calle Serpientes, but I’ve walked it four times now to no avail. I don’t even need paper; I just loved that place so much, I wanted to go back.

I took 47 planes, six trains, nine boats, four buses, a couple scary 4WD trips and countless bike, subway, taxi and tram rides on my way round the world in 180 days. I was so alert that each of them has a memory attached to it, but the further I get from each, the more I dip into ‘normal’ life (let’s be honest, this life I’m living now is far from normal), the blurrier the memories get. Misty water-colored memories indeed. If I’m not buying things, and the memories get blurred as time goes by, what do I have left of this marvel of a life I’ve adventured through?

It’s a sentiment. It’s a sensation. It’s a sense memory that lingers in body, muscle, mind and heart, the feeling of it all being new, unknown, still ahead. It’s the knowledge of having done it (for the first time, differently than I will do it the next time). It’s the thrill that comes back, if just for a moment, when I remember climbing to the top of the monastery in Petra and looking out over the valley, or biking through rice paddies in Vietnam, or standing at the base of a glacier in Patagonia. Like muscles, the memory must be exercised to remain strong , so I recall it occasionally, with a glimpse at a picture, a pause of breath, a closure of eyes, to pull myself back to that moment that no one can take away. It is just what a friend said to me before I left, when I worried what would happen when I came back. “Nadie te quita lo bailado.” Nobody takes away from you what you’ve danced.

On top of the monastery in Petra

On top of the monastery in Petra