Moving, United States

Digging In

Transition is an amazing thing. An amazing, exhausting, thing. It isn’t a hibernation. It isn’t a caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation. You don’t go into a cocoon and emerge beautiful, powerful, and able to fly. It is a piece-meal business, changing your life. It happens bit by bit, in unnoticeable ways. You dig in. That’s it. You just dig in.

Right now, for me, digging in means settling in. It is the exact opposite, and yet very similar to, digging into traveling. Rather than finding my rhythm in movement and planning, I’m finding rhythm in planning stillness. I’m looking for a home, and a job, and a routine. I speak the national language in Los Angeles (sort of), but it is just as new to me as a foreign country, and even small things are as big an adventure as they would be in a foreign place. And they involve a big adventure’s worth of energy. To buy yogurt and apples, there are ten decisions to be made: grocery store or farmers market? Which grocery? Which farmers’ market? How do I get there? Where do I park? What city am I in and what is their policy on grocery store bags? You make the same exhausting mistakes you may make on a foreign adventure, like accidentally going to Trader Joe’s on a Sunday afternoon. If you’ve seen the Whole Foods Parking Lot video you know what I’m saying. I’m not saying I did this…just….it would be a mistake.  So is buying frozen food on the night of the Hero 6 premier if you happen to live two blocks from the Chinese Theater. I find myself watching an inordinate amount of television and it bores me, and then I realize I need boredom, since I can’t even drive to a grocery store without gps assistance. Boredom can be bliss when newness is exhausting.

I quickly learned to use Waze instead of the map on my iphone. It’s a cross between the blessing of crowdsourcing at its most amazing and a horrendously distracting video game played while driving. I’ve learned that a Prius can take up two lanes, just like a dually, despite also being able to drive underneath one. I’ve felt compassion for people spending money on Panameras, because good god where can you drive that thing the way it’s meant to be driven in a place where traffic never goes more than 65 miles per hour? I’ve absorbed that driving rhythm in LA is: fast as you can (50-60) on a surface street, slower than molasses on the highway. I’ve learned just how long it can take to go 2.1 miles. And I’m disturbed, but not deterred.

Apartment hunting in Los Angeles is like apartment hunting in San Francisco in the mid 90’s. Every place I go has eight people lined up waiting to view it. Spanky being over 15 pounds greatly reduces one’s housing opportunities. I’m glad I started looking at options online in August, because I had two months to train myself not to throw up on the spot when someone tells me a small one-bedroom with no laundry, parking, or upgrades, but in a great neighborhood, goes for over $2000/month. And I’m thankful for all my presentation skills from business school (and for that one a-hole professor who liked to interrupt up in my face with questions during presentations) because I talk a great game around not having a job, yet still feeling sure I can pay rent for the next 12  months.

After showing up 20 minutes early to every apartment in which I was interested and sitting on the stoop, bank statements in hand, I found one by lucking out. I called about an apartment that of course had been rented the prior day, but discovered that its identical twin had just notified the landlord of a January vacation. The owner (who told me he probably liked me better for having quit my job to travel, than asked me what my sign was and was relieved to hear I was a Pisces, because none of his crazy renters had ever been Pisces) approved me for a preview showing, and I took it on the spot. It’s in a quiet neighborhood where I’ve been warned against going to Trader Joe’s on Friday afternoon because the Hasidim are packing it full in preparation for Shabbat, and I can walk less than a mile to a great segment of Melrose, or to some decent bars on Highland. I get keys on the 8th, right after returning from purging my storage unit and turning my remaining belongings over to a mover.

 

Anybody need a chaise?

Anybody need a chaise?

What you are gifted when the prior tenant is a set designer. It comes with an apology because it's not to scale.

What you are gifted when the prior tenant is a set designer. It comes with an apology because it’s not to scale.

 

The weight that comes off from knowing I have a home is amazing. I’m light as air. It gives me energy to rework my resume and find an internship, where, because it’s California, they insist on paying me minimum wage so they don’t get sued over my slave labor. I was concerned this would hurt any unemployment I would potentially take in the near future, until I remembered that I haven’t had a job in 18 months, so my unemployment check would have been $0. Minimum wage is a step up.

The internship is with the production company for an awards show. I will keep my lips sealed on any luscious details except to say that a 9:30 start time, two kitchens stocked with everything from fruit to candy, and a bathroom so pristine that more than once I’ve been the first person to use it in a day are a far cry from my former (and likely future) life.

Here’s a visual aid of what I’m up to for the next couple months. Details to follow as life gets interesting, and my address gets permanent.

oscar

 

 

 

On the Road, United States

Vernita Falls

There are no pictures, because you are driving and you have to keep going. No pictures but what will burn itself in the memory centers of your brain, just like light burns onto the chemicals of film, the chemicals of photo paper, for you to pull out at a later date and remember. No pictures but what you make on your mind, and what you recall from it because something you see now, through the windshield, tickles something you saw before, in a picture, in a museum, through an airplane window.

90 takes you over the first set of mountains, into the fog, by the sleeping ski slopes, and out the other side. Past Vernita Falls, Dallas Road, Coffin Road, the famous (who knew) Teapot Dome Gas Station. Out past the vineyards, the apple groves in the process of being harvested – apples so big and ripe you can see them from the highway – past the wind turbines and burned fields. Frequently, you want to stop, take a photo. Frequently, you wonder who names these places, and how.

My maternal grandmother’s name was Vernita. She died two weeks, almost to the hour, before I was born. In her honor, my middle name is her first name – because my mother didn’t think Vernita was a nice thing to do to a girl in the 70s. But who, out here, in Eastern Washington State, who knows when, had this same uncommon name, and gave it to a waterfall I don’t have time to stop and see?

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Onto 84, crossing the gorge into Oregon, you travel behind a truck filled with sweet onions, their papery skins flying off behind and a waft of onion scent trailing you both over the border. The land dries, the wind flies, dirt dances up into whirling dervishes of land, lost in its own silent prayer.

Occasionally, an ancient barn will crumble by the roadside. Next to it, the new one, the house built in the years between the two. Occasionally, next to it, nothing but land, nothing but the hills, and the freeway, nothing but these dilapidated remnants of America’s agricultural past. Sometimes, the remains are of a cabin, no town near, no river, no….nothing, but the skeletal remains of Manifest Destiny’s westward expansion and the casualties that came with it. Dead dreams by the side of the road. Road kill of a different kind.

And then a car on fire, fully engulfed in flames. And then a strip mall: Kohl’s, Best Buy, Starbucks, Target. You could be anywhere, but you are here, wherever it is. Soon it is southern, eastern Idaho, northern Utah, the Snake River cutting deep through high dry mesas, creating a fertile green farming valley. Somewhere, the rock is volcanic, black and sharp, and then everything is red, rust-colored. Out 80, into the mountains, the snow fences begin, lined up and waiting for the weather to come like a farm of solar panels waiting for the sun.

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And then Wyoming. Wild, wonderful, heart-breakingly gorgeous, with the green aspen turning gold and the black trunk of cottonwoods striking out behind yellowing leaves, along the riverbeds, up the valleys between hills. Trains snake through the canyons, hug the red-rock cliffs, slither low on the prairie behind the scrub brush and sage, carrying the loot of virgin land. They fade into the distance the same way Vernita Falls faded behind you, the same way the distance fades into fall – nostalgic, fogged over, waiting for weather to come.

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Life Skills, Moving, Traveling, United States

The Unfamiliar Familiar

Before returning to the states, I spent a decent amount of time contemplating how to keep my love affair with the world going, even after I returned “home.” I remain loathe to give up the joy of new sights, tastes, and sounds. Mostly, I crave the feeling of openness and curiosity that being surrounded by the unfamiliar breeds in me.

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

My global love affair, as posted to FaceBook on the day I visited Wadi Rum

 

A million self help books and the magazine rack at your local grocery will tell you that the key to any good love affair is to make the familiar new and exciting. Since the only thing I loathe more than giving up my travels is a self help book, I’m challenged with viewing this amazing island that covers under 58 square miles, on which I’ve been spending time for 38 years, with new eyes. It’s the equivalent of a being 40 years in to an uneventful marriage with the world’s most peaceful, beautiful spouse, whose calm can lull you into doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

Doing. Absolutely. Nothing.

While contemplating this (which, you may have figured out by now if you are following me on Facebook, resulted in buying a plane ticket to Spain for a month), I remembered a time when I created something totally unfamiliar out of my favorite hiking spot on the island, almost by accident. Sort of.

 

On Thanksgiving weekend 2007,  I ran away from Texas to refamiliarize myself with the smell of trees and the feel of air that hasn’t been sucking cement. My second day on Orcas, I headed to Mountain Lake, a four-mile trail I know like the back of my hand, since I’ve been traveling it almost as long as I’ve known how to walk.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

Top of the switchback hill on a nice hiking day.

It was 4:30 when I parked my car and headed out on the pine-covered path. Just over one mile later, I realized how quickly I was losing light. I took a moment to think about what I was doing. The brook that runs down from Twin Lakes in the wet seasons, barely trickling by August, poured vigorously beneath the little wooden bridge on which I stood. While contemplating the pros and cons of continuing in the fading light, I inhaled air that froze the hair inside my nostrils. The weather forecasted an early snow.

 

On the pro side: completing the lake loop. I hate not finishing things. In the last 25 years, I’ve failed to finish only one book. Actually, I didn’t fail; I refused to finish it because it was so unbearably bad it constantly made me think of all the other books I could be reading. The disappointment – by an author whose work I had devoured voraciously for years – was so depressing, I donated the book to the library so I wouldn’t have to look at it on my shelf.

 

Also on the pro side: No predators (unless the squirrels had gone rabid since summer). Trail I know blindfolded. How cold could it REALLY get near a lake that doesn’t freeze? Potential for adventure.

 

The cons? Potential for frostbite, but a finger or pinky-toe lost for the sake of adventure seems a small price to pay.

 

Note to self: creating an adventure of the familiar should take place within bounds of reason. Like any adventure, there is a risk-reward equation at play. When the territory is this familiar and the adventure seems this….risky, the equation may be out of balance. Dark +potential for snow + no headlamp….

 

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Giant trees that whine against each other in the wind at Mountain Lake

Not surprisingly, something went awry. Another mile or two down the path, my pace slowing to a shuffle as I became unable to see my feet, I suddenly found myself off the trail and trapped in place by a fallen tree trunk that appeared out of nowhere. I started to panic, almost peed my pants, and came back to my senses quickly enough to remember how blissfully short my cons list had been. I would be safe enough by daylight, as long as I didn’t get bored to insanity, since it was pitch black, freezing cold, and more than twelve hours until the sun rose again.

 

In one of the more embarrassing and least adventuresome episodes of my life, I committed to two hard and fast rules of being lost in cold, dark woods: (1) don’t wander (it makes you harder to find) and (2) move constantly to keep your blood flowing. For the visually oriented, picture Jane Fonda aerobic warm up steps in fleece pants, long-sleeved shirt, gortex shell, and running shoes.

 

To these rules, I added a Hail Mary: I yelled for help. Meekly at first, and then with more force, though I felt ridiculous since I wasn’t injured or near death. I modified my cry by turning it into a request, addressing the recipient as, “Mr Park Ranger,” and adding, “please,” to the plea that he come to my assistance. It sounded completely bizarre – almost as if I were hearing someone else doing it, and I wanted to go to her aid.

 

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Mountain Lake from the south end dam. Not that I could see this in the dark.

Miraculously, the state park service had funded a ranger this particular winter, and when he came back from town, he saw my car and came after me with a flashlight and headlamp. He was none-too-happy about it, and I couldn’t have been more the opposite, which made for a chirpy monologue on the way back to my car, and a one-sided hug once I arrived.

 

So I can’t advocate adventure in the familiar, but even in the ‘know-em-like-the-back-of-your-hand’ places, there is endless possibility for the unfamiliar. Rather than stick with the same lake loop, last week I hiked on a trail I haven’t touched in ten years. I went to dinner at a brew pub that’s been around for two years, and I’ve yet to set foot in it. It isn’t simple familiarity that ruins us – it’s invariable patterning of our lives that blinds us to things that may be always here, and never noticed.  If we just change our trail, we can open our minds and hearts as widely as if we traveled the world.

 

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

After a day of fear-conquering adventure

Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Traveling, United States

On the Road Again

It is mildly unsettling how relieved I felt when I walked through the glass doors of Seattle Tacoma International Airport last week. The slick floor and high ceiling; the hustle of people not wholly sure where they should go; the easy pace of check in, ID check, electronics removal and body scan – they all felt oddly like coming home, even though I was heading out.

Humping my pack through my last couple weeks in Turkey with a sinus infection in tow, I wanted nothing more than eight consecutive nights in a familiar bed. But once in Washington (State) half-unpacked and settling in, I was uncomfortable with my….stability. And cold. So I’m setting out on a wander again, one last hurrah through the East Coast and then a month in Sevilla, Spain, which I was loathe to leave back in February.

I first remember flying through SeaTac when I was 8. My best friend had moved from the Bay Area up to the San Juan islands, and my parents gave me a birthday present that, in retrospect, probably made me part of who I am today: a plane ticket to fly alone up the coast to see her for a week. I remember nothing of the flight from Oakland to Seattle. What I remember is the layover.

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

The friend I was going to visit, and I, in a very important stage of dental development, circa 1978

Back in the day when solo child travelers were few and far between, I was something of a curiosity, like tropical fruit brought from far-off lands to the cold recesses of England way, way back when. For three hours, I sat on a stool behind the counter of the small regional airline that flew from SeaTac to the islands in twin prop planes of fewer than 10 seats. Flight attendants and counter agents came to visit from the center section of the departures hall, where big airlines had multiple personnel at the counter, way, way down to the far end of small airlines and cargo companies. While I may have been the attraction for them, I couldn’t be bothered with their kindness, because I was entranced by the desk agent checking in flights before mine, entering secret codes in green type onto the black screen of the computer, and radioing down to the tarmac, an underground tram ride away at the north satellite, where the small planes arrived and departed.

Some people hate small planes and find them terrifying. I couldn’t be more the opposite: I never get over the thrill of them. My father flew one when I was younger.  I’m sure it wasn’t 100 percent cake and roses, but I remember loving flying with him, a hop to Bakersfield to check on a hospital he was managing, or all the way up to the San Juans, a long day of counting swimming pools by the houses below, watching urban areas change to trees, and mountains, and at last, Puget Sound. I love no small plane more than the float plane, and it seemed appropriate that I took my first of 47 flight legs of my around-the-world trip on one of these, from the San Juans into Seattle.

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My favorite mode of travel (thanks Kenmore Air)

My week away didn’t end as well as it started: on the ferry back to the mainland, my friend’s mom asked me where my ticket was. I have no idea what I said in response to her, but inside, my gut sank south as she frantically searched the car, because I could clearly see that plane ticket, its flimsy paper layers backed in red carbon ink, sitting on the bedside table next to the bunkbeds a ferry-ride away. A new ticket had to be purchased, though this was back in the day when the old one could be redeemed for the proper value once it was turned in.

Regardless, that trip was the first of many I have taken to visit this same friend, who has lived in Korea, Japan, and many states, and recently returned to the San Juans with her husband and kids. And it was the first I remember of passing through SeaTac, which has changed considerably with the times.

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

Same friend and I, on the Great Wall of China, circa 2001

SeaTac is a good airport to call home. It’s modernized – clean and light, it continues to remake itself to keep up with the pace of air traffic and the demanding needs of the modern traveler. Taking a cue from Austin, the main terminal now features local musical artists playing acoustic entrées to accompany whatever you grab from Ivars, or the brewery, or the competing coffee trio of Starbucks, Seattle’s Best, and Dilletante. Like SFO, SeaTac has started installing water-bottle refill stations near the drinking fountains for those of us who fear that reef of plastic bottles taking over the world’s oceans, and multiple recycling containers throughout the terminals.

Recycling in SeaTac

Recycling in SeaTac

Exhibits focused on local artists are sprinkled throughout the terminals in case you have time to stop and look a little.

 

Among Seattle's favorite native sons....

Among Seattle’s favorite native sons: Jimi Hendrix, on whose life as an artist there is a current exhibit in SeaTac

If not, most of them have a bar code you can scan with your smartphone for more detail later on. The shopping is a dangerous combo of items you may actually need (a jacket from ExOfficio, perhaps?) to crafty arts in Firefly or local souvenirs from the newly opened Sub Pop store (though one could argue Sub Pop merchandizing in SeaTac marks the moment when Sub Pop jumps the shark).

imageThough these creature comforts are more meaningful to me now than they were when I was eight, what I loved about SeaTac on this particular trip may just be the same thing I love about traveling in general: that feeling of camaraderie, of complete familiarity with total strangers. In this case, on a gorgeous Seattle day of sun after four days of rain, it is the people who pass through the gate area in SeaTac for a DFW flight – their LSU shirts and Longhorn gear, their well-crafted look (except for me, and the skaters who clearly are from the PNW), and the slightly southern air of it all that reminds you where you land it will be…well, warm and familiar in a different way, even if you don’t know where you’re going.

Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Preparing, South America, Tourist, Traveling, United States

Money Matters: the new New Math

For the last six months, with the exception of one week in March, I have moved every three to four days. I haven’t slept in the same bed for more than a week since last September. While I didn’t change countries every  time I moved, I did manage to make it to 17 of them, only three of which use the same currency. So while everyone thinks I’ve been off on vacation, I’ve in fact been doing some rather intense money math.

Money math should be easy, but it takes quite a bit of preparation. The longer you do it, the quicker the preparation gets, but the harder the math becomes to perform on the fly, an essential skill for effective bargaining –itself an essential skill in almost every country in South America, Asia, Africa, and the Near East. Here’s how it works:

Crisp, clean US dollars

Crisp, clean US dollars

  1. Carry some crisp, new, $100 US bills, and try never to use (or lose) them. (Even if you are from the Euro zone, you should carry US dollars. Your money may be worth more than ours, but people don’t actually want it more.)
  2. Before arriving in a country, go online and determine how many ‘whatevers’ there are to the US dollar.
  3. Remember this rate. If you are bored, practice multiplying and dividing by it so you are acclimated before you arrive at your next destination.
  4. Avoid currency exchange windows, especially at the airport. Instead, make withdrawals from a cash machine in amounts sizeable enough that your improved exchange rate and lack of service fee offset whatever your bank may charge you for daring to make it interact with a foreign country. Careful not to withdraw so much money as to be left with unused bills upon your departure. The rate to sell these back will invariably screw you.
  5. Because the ATM will undoubtedly give you bills of a denomination large enough to render them useless, go directly to the nearest bank or large, busy establishment (or sometimes your hotel desk) and break large bills for ones that won’t encourage the average taxi driver to pull the “I don’t have change” routine.
  6. Rinse, repeat.

It seems simple. But do it three times in a month. I guarantee that at least once, you’ll forget to check the exchange rate before you land somewhere, and find yourself negotiating for a taxi without knowing whether you are arguing over 100 dollars or 100 cents. By time four or five, you will likely forget to take one of your prior currencies out of your wallet, and will find yourself attempting to pay for your pad thai with pho money. Somewhere in this timeframe, you will also realize it’s started to seem completely normal to carry three currencies simultaneously: dollars, currency of current country, and remnants of a country you’re still too close to to miss.

Colombian Pesos

Colombian Pesos

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Bolivian Bolivianos

Chilean Pesos - note the pretty window in some of the bills

Chilean Pesos – note the pretty window in some of the bills

Suppress the temptation to buy one of those lovely leather travel folios that fit your tickets and passport and itinerary, unless you are on the kind of trip where someone else is creating the lovely itinerary for you and handling most of your logistics. Opt instead for something plastic or vinyl, because at some point, you will find yourself in a country with the dirtiest, moldiest, wimpiest, most ripped bills you have ever seen, and you will likely have a lot of them. For me, this country was Myanmar. For you, this will also likely be the country in which you pull out your precious clean US dollars to exchange them on the black market for a rate up to 100 times that you would receive at a bank. If they aren’t pristine, they will be discounted to only 95 times the bank rate – or less.

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

The fake Burberry pouch I bought to be my moldy Myanmese kyat wallet

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Due to the exchange rate, I bought this plastic pouch to carry the the hundreds of notes that make up $100 USD

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using.

Until I found this wallet in Cambodia, which I am still using. It has the added benefits of water resistance and multiple currency pockets.

If you have chosen to skip step (1), above, you will find yourself doing things like going to a bank machine in Bangkok to pull out baht and take them to the exchange window to buy dollars, just so that you can carry them (new, unbent, untorn) to Myanmar to buy flimsy, delicate kyat. In other words, even your lovely new dollar bills will be double-discounted by your own disregard for the international exchange scheme of tourism.

By the time you’ve been through this rigmarole four times, the preparation part becomes old hat. You are much less likely to forget to look up the exchange rate and land someplace unprepared. (Don’t bother with cash in any country where you’re laying over in the airport. Just use a credit card, or you’ll be left with 30 random Australian dollars and nothing to show for them.)

Australian dollars - for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

Australian dollars – for the 15 hours I spent in the Sydney airport

 

Note to self: when you find yourself taking money out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m., chances are you don't need it, and you should find an empty chair and go to sleep.

Note to self: chances are you don’t need those rupees you’re taking out of the ATM in the Colombo airport at 3 a.m. Resist the temptation, find the nearest prayer room, and go to sleep.

What becomes more difficult as time goes on is adjusting to the mental money math that accompanies these exchanges. In one week, you may transition from dividing all prices in kyat by 971 to figure out actual cost, to dividing by 3,954 riel to dividing by 21,097 dong. Give or take some zeros depending on how recently a country has revalued its own currency, or whether it has recalled its former currency from circulation and bothered to print up something new. In addition to a language barrier, you are now facing an economic translation grey zone in which you and your provider may be using two different bases on which to settle your accounts, and they differ by a factor of 100.

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, "here."

I shared a cab with a woman in Santiago. She took out bills completely unfamiliar to me, despite my having been in the country for almost two weeks. I asked her where they were from, and she looked at me oddly and said, “here.”

Now start bargaining. You aren’t used to that in your home country? That’s a shame, because it’s fun. It’s friendly, and vigorous, and slightly different everywhere you go. The whole process will start to seem like a game, in part because the money feels fake: it’s a different color, or size, or weight than you are used to. It has unfamiliar pictures and in some cases doesn’t even use European numerals, so you can’t be sure what numbers you are looking at when you at last agree on a price and pull out your Monopoly bills to pay for things. It will make you long for expensive Europe, where you will be astounded at what it costs to buy coffee but are willing to pay anything just to multiply by 1.4 instead of dividing by 758. Money Matters: the new New Math.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can't for my life tell how much money this is.

Dear Jordan: I love your country, and I can’t for my life tell how much money this is.

 

For the fun of it, more pictures of some foreign currency are below. They are mangled and messy in real life so the pictures aren’t the clearest, but you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to have carried about 15 currencies in six months: