Life Skills, On the Road, Traveling

About a Girl

It will shock no one to know that the blog essay, “Don’t Date a Girl Who Travels,”  (originally posted in May 2013 and recently picked up by Huffington Post and Thought Catalog, among others) has been sent my way a number of times in the last few weeks. Always, the sender noted that s/he was thinking of me, out here wandering the world, living  out my own wildest dreams, and a few of theirs as well.

I kept it to myself that I find the essay totally offensive. After all, I was in Africa when it began arriving. Who cares about bad writing and publicity politics when there are cheetahs to track?

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Cheetahs that were tracked

Then I  was tagged in someone’s Facebook share of the article and a commenter included a link to a response that upgraded the original to something more than drivel. By that time, I was in a riad in Fes, only mildly interested to discover a hullabaloo on the internet about the original post, and a number of responses, many of which are equally superficial. Since the subject, via link, or comment, or email, has continued to come my way, I will take a solitary Madrid afternoon minute to tell you what I think.

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

How can I care about silly HuffPost politics when my riad room looks like this?!

If poor writing were the crux of the issue, I would snark and move on. But it isn’t, though that certainly led readers astray. Weak structure fails the satirical tone of the piece and readers are left unable to determine whether the author seriously thinks that a girl who travels, “doesn’t plan or have a permanent address…Chances are she can’t hold a steady job.” Or, as I think is her intent, does the author mean that someone who travels is independent, craves new experience, and prioritizes a travel opportunity over security?

Stephabroad.com addressed this in her rewrite, which took the original premise and turned it proactive, returning some ownership of the girl and her desires to the girl herself. Rather than focus on aging skin and instability, or try to convince a guy that it’s ok the traveler won’t go clubbing with him, Stephabroad notes how diligently the traveler seeks the world and what there is to learn in it, and how compatible that makes her with someone who shares these values, if not her habits. Written as it is, this version gives the girl credit for volition and experience.

And yet I still take umbrage:

This is not a girl about whom we speak. It is a woman. And we should all be less afraid of calling her such. She deserves it. In all versions of the piece, this protagonist makes her own money. She makes her own reservations. She carries her own pack and walks home at night down unfamiliar streets.

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A sort of dark and very unfamiliar street in Marrakech

On a regular basis, she makes decisions of calculated risk that would make a wall street trader cower. Her life is a gamble of safety and adventure, joy and sorrow, experience, loss, and gain. She who has hugged a foreign and likely filthy toilet bowl for a long night of purging the wrong market stall of food from her system, and survived to hop the next bus is no  longer a girl, she is a woman. She who holds her head high while a carpet dealer discusses the sharmouta who won’t buy, and lets that not dampen her opinion of the country she explores is not a girl, she is a woman. And she deserves the respect of being called such.

The semantic error – and our constant fear of addressing it – underlies a larger cultural issue with the piece: even when heralding the independence of a woman, the author can’t think of anything more original than a traditional gender paradigm (dating) to evaluate the worth of her gender. She is trying to convince men not to be afraid of her, and her ‘shortcomings’ which may make her slightly less palatable in traditional roles.

Are you kidding me with this?

Here’s a piece of news for you: the chick who travels doesn’t give a shit whether you want to date her. You don’t get to make this choice on her behalf. She already knows that, if you need convincing, you aren’t the one she wants. This life she lives is about the choices she makes, the work she puts in, the desires she chases. It’s not about convincing a traditional world to figure out how to accept her. The original writer knows this – she is a former corporate employee who took a career break and is now a surfer and yoga teacher. She just isn’t able to write it.

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The chick who travels, chasing her desires above the cloud cover in the High Atlas (photo credit: Paul Allen)

Unlike that original writer, I don’t speak for all women who travel. I speak for no one but myself, and here is my response: I am a woman, and I don’t want to be dated. I want to be adventured with. I want a man who can see the way the blue of an iceberg nuzzling against the shore of a lake in Torres del Paine thrills me to wondered stillness, and respect that being my moment of reflection. Sometimes, we will share these moments of awe. And sometimes, we will mutually appreciate them afterwards, in a warm pub over beer, and they will be no less valued. Awe, travel experience, and love can all be separate and equal.

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Iceberg blue in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

This article fails to recognize that part of the impetus to explore the world stems in part from dissatisfaction with the roles available to one at home. It isn’t just in countries where shariah prevails over women to wrap their hair in scarves that opportunity lacks. In the US and in many developed countries, social paradigms and their resulting power structures fail to recognize that women aren’t paperdoll cut-outs. Women who travel refuse to be tab-folded and dressed in outfits suitable for a  given occasion. (Although, like a paper doll, I have about six outfits in my wardrobe right now…) And so we take a chance to look around the world first-hand and see what our other options may be.

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Looking around (and under) the world for options (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

When I was young, my father used to tell me, “a girl without freckles is like a night without stars.” It is a sweet sentiment, when you are young. Now that I am on the night side of 40, I am endeared to the saying out of nostalgia, but the language, like that article, is problematic, because I am not a girl, and I don’t want to be evaluated on the basis of my face. My aged face, full of freckles, is in fact like a night sky full of stars, lit from within by a fire that started burning long ago, both fed and drained by travel across time and space. Its origin may be long gone, may be darkened by forces we won’t see in this lifetime, but in its present, it is brilliant and magical and strong enough to navigate oceans.

I am a woman, and this fact is more than just the failed semantics of a Huffpost article. It is a lifetime in the making. A lifetime of experience, of love, of adventure and heartbreak and bruises and bad train rides and good break ups and difficult jobs and random rewarding encounters. It is hard work and joyful leisure to be a woman, and regardless of who may or may not want to date me, regardless of who wants my journey for his own, I have my soul full of fires, lit over a lifetime. You can take that, or leave it, you decide. I’ll decide whether you are worth dating – or reading. Right now, I have a plane to catch.

Creating bruises

Creating a day of adventure and bruises.

On the Road, South America, Tourist, Traveling

How to Have an Adventure: The Final Chapter

Here is what I learn from the Salar: grown ups need to climb stuff more. It starts six minutes out of town, when we go to the Train Cemetery. It is swarmed with people from other tour jeeps. The light isn’t great for photos, so I’m glad I was here 16 hours ago on my own. Instantly, people of otherwise respectable age are atop broken locomotives, walking their lengths, posing against the slick blue sky, and swinging from a swing shaped like two dog bones suspended from the ribs of an old train car. It doesn’t stop there, and most of the time, I’m happily in the mix.

The dog-bone swing.

The dog-bone swing.

The first climb of the trip

The first climb of the trip

The salt flats are amazing, as you can see from the picturesWalking on the salt field is like walking on slushy snow, only more compact, and not slippery. So basically, nothing like slushy snow, except for its appearance.

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Salt – Very similar to and yet totally different from slushy snow

The air is hot and whipping with wind, and all you can see is a vast, flat, field of white, bordered in the distance by hills rising from nowhere. There is no road – only a ‘path’ of diesel dirt left by the million other tours around you, and followed by those who come behind.

We're on a road to nowhere....

We’re on a road to nowhere….

After a photo shoot on the flats, we stop off in a town that harvests salt. Which means this is where the truck that is manually loaded is manually dumped, and then, manually, the salt is loaded onto a pan above a remedial wood-burning oven and sifted by shovel so that it dries out.  It is then (manually, of course) mixed with iodine and bagged into small plastic sacks that are heat-sealed with a propane burner, and stacked for sale.

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Heat-sealing salt bags with a propane burner. Watch your fingers.

After the salt flats, our three-day, two-night tour goes to what is referred to as ‘la isla,’ so I assume we are taking a boat to an island in a lake somewhere. I’m forgetting, of course, that we are driving across what used to be the lake. ‘La isla’ is a cactus-covered red-rock out cropping in the middle of nowhere, rising from the salt flats with a completely independent vegetation zone.

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Cactus Island, in a sea of salt

You can climb on top of it, hike its perimeter,  take pictures, and, if you are me, lead Travel Companion mistakenly off the proper trail so that by the time you eat lunch and leave, she has lost her iphone and will never find it again. If you are more touristy and have money to burn, you can pay the roving land-cruiser some extra bolivianos to go parasailing behind his car. I stick to climbing on things and leading others astray.

Me, on top of a rock, making Seanna nervous

Me, on top of a rock, making Travel Companion nervous

At the end of day one, we drive to the edge of the salt flats, stopping for more photo opportunities, in which our group learns that (1) it’s very hard to take a picture of two people simultaneously off the ground and (2) it’s physically impossible to get off the ground without opening your mouth.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

The success ratio of getting both parties off the ground in these shots is actually 2:17.

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We land for the night in a hostel with salt-brick walls and a floor made purely of salt, and since it is well insulated with…well, salt, and we’re terrified of freezing, we’re just fine with it all, even the spare hairs on the bed.  Outside, the wind howls across the the landscape, brushing a herd of vicuna into the low hills and lulling us to sleep.

I have no idea what day two has in store, since we are on a salt tour, and I’ve been told we’re at the end of the salt. I do know that somewhere in the next 48 hours, I’m going to get to see some flamingos, which I keep calling penguins. By the time they’ve known me for 24 hours, though, my tour team is unphased by my behavior. They know that when I say penguin, I mean flamingo.

Day two starts with rocks, and moves on to volcanoes, with a train track or two thrown in for good measure. Just to be safe, I climb on everything I possibly can, including in and out of the third row of the car, which Travel Companion has advised me to stop doing in one stretch at the risk of pulling a groin muscle. I do not climb the volcano, which is disappointingly far in the distance.

Climbing.

Climbing.

I am not alone in climbing. I am alone when I lie down on the train track to have my picture taken like a damsel in distress, minus the distress and the damsel-ness. Minus also an oncoming train and a wily cowboy to rescue me. I will blame this on sugar snacks before ten a.m. (I have a much better understanding of Cookie Crisp cereal after my Salar tour.)

Non-damsel in non-distress

Non-damsel in non-distress

At this point, it has become abundantly clear that any fear we have of our driver irresponsibly abandoning us in the middle of nowhere carries no muster. At almost every stop, Garcia wanders off to help another driver with a bad tire, leaky oil, or a jeep that plain won’t start. Aside from him being a skilled mechanic, we will never be alone. At every stop, there are at least four, and usually six to ten, other groups stopping to take the same pictures, and climb on the same rocks. Lack of solitude in the middle of nowhere makes for very indiscrete natural bathroom opportunities, which Travel Companion and I discover the hard way.

From salt and rocks we move on to a series of Lagunas. I forget the order of them but most are named after colors (Laguna Verde, Laguna Blanca – this one was the very last, Laguna Colorado).  Many appear to have great salt crusting on their banks, but this turns out to be borax. Each of them is home to some naturally occurring mineral that changes the color of the water. In the case of Laguna Colorado, sun and heat during the day bloom a red algae that, just for a few hours, turns great parts of the lake red.

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Laguna Colorado, with it’s red algae

All of the lagunas save one have flamingos, and my camera finger goes into autopilot, shooting everything in sight, knowing that maybe five of these will ultimately be worth the time. Bless digital photography: for all its weaknesses and the people it’s put out of work, it sure makes being an amateur a lot less expensive.

We eat lunch next to a large, full lake of pink and white birds, and are accompanied by some Andean gulls, which are seagulls with black heads. There is a little café and hotel with a sign advertising wifi, so the lone Brazilian gets very excited, and then is dismayed to learn that, ‘it is only turned on at night.’ The rest of us doubt there are even lights here at night, and the smell of the chemical toilet is so overwhelming you can’t breathe and pee at the same time, so I’m pretty sure that wifi thing is a ruse.

The Brazilian couple cuts up pieces of food and throws them into the air near the table so that the Andean gulls will fly up and form the perfect picture, and the rest of us find this highly amusing. It is so windy that we have dirt as a spice on our food (which isn’t hot dogs, but could use a little spice), but it is not cold. Garcia moves the car to try and make a wind block, but the effort is futile.

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Black-headed Andean gull, with lunch (ironically, I think it’s chicken)

A couple arrives on bikes. Reiteration: there are no actual roads. We have been driving through salt and sand for more than a day. Partly because yes, it’s fun, but mostly because THERE ARE NO ROADS.  They are not the first cyclists we’ve seen, but these have a sign on the back of one bike that says, “luna de miel,” – honeymoon – at which point I add this particular gentleman to the very long list of people I’ve decided I can never marry. I go stick my nose in their business and discover they’ve biked from Mexico and are headed to Patagonia.

We are astounded by these two and comment on them off and on for the next two hours until we stop at an unnamed rock outcropping (we haven’t climbed anything since this morning, and the natives are getting restless), where we meet a Swiss couple with two of the dirtiest children I’ve ever seen, one of whom is still wearing diapers, that have been cycling for three months and are also headed very far south.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

This restless native on rocks. Swiss Family Robinson may be visible in background.

If you haven’t read Part II  of this adventure, you may have missed the part where Travel Companion and I take a cab five blocks mostly because of the weight of water. If you are skimming, you may have missed multiple references to the constant velocity of wind, and the sand that is providing texture for everything from our hair to our food. I am in awe of the adventure this family is on. I forgive them for letting their five year old run around with a pacifier in her mouth. When she starts climbing up the rock face with us, both Travel Companion and I are unsure whether to encourage her or tell her parents. When she gets about six feet above ground, her father comes over and coaxes her down. Awe.

Tonight, we sleep together, our little jeep family in a large hostel room, each in his or her own bed with 14 layers of clothing. The howling wind comes in through the cracks near the window frame and threatens to lift the roof off the hostel. We are waking at 5 a.m. to see some geysers at sunrise, so we go to bed at 8:30.

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Little Jeep Family, all snug in our beds

The geysers are worth the wake-up call (which all of us heed except Garcia, who is nowhere to be found). The sun is up, but barely, gleaming on the horizon and powering through sulpheric steam…

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The sun coming up through sulpheric steam

while great hordes of tourists roam dangerously close to craters of bubbling mud that gurgle, then blast into the air.

Mud blasts off.

Mud blasts off.

There is a sign that says not to get too close, but nothing to prevent you from doing so. We ask Garcia when people have last fallen in. It was three years ago, and the man suffered severe burns on much of his body.

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Bolivian safety measures

The tour could end here. We are happy, cold, and done with the car. But there are more lakes to see, and despite having told us basically nothing about any of our locations except what they are called, Garcia would not feel he were doing his job if we were to bypass anything. So we head to the first lake we’ve seen with absolutely no flamingos. Why? Well, because the naturally occurring mineral here is arsenic.

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

Travel Companion and I at Arsenic Lake

I rename this one Arsenic Lake. It may actually be Asbestos Lake but it is lacking penguins and honestly not the best one we’ve seen so, whatever. The last is Laguna Blanca, which has such a smooth surface that it reflects the mountains of Bolivia like a mirror at the beginning of the day.

Laguna Blanca - the blank slate of lakes

Laguna Blanca – the blank slate of lakes

And then, we are done. Thirty minutes later, we are at the border. Travel Companion, Irish and I offload and go to the migration hut for exit stamps and then await the bus for San Pedro, where we hope Chile will bring a little less dirt and a lot less hair. The Brazilians change jeeps for a full-day drive back to Uyuni. Garcia drives off to upload another group of six and do the whole thing over again, and again.

On the Road, South America, Tourist

Cementerio de Trenes

There are really only two reasons to go to Uyuni: because you are sent there to work for a mine, or because you are touring the Salar and associated sights (see pictures here) and this is your jumping off point. It’s a shock to the system to land there unprepared. Sand is everywhere. A wind blows from far away and has no intention of stopping. It’s hot and dry in the sun and cold and dry in the shade. The food is blah, the scenery is sand-beige (except for the colorful skirts and mantels of women in traditional Aymara dress), and everything is overpriced, because everyone is trapped.

But Uyuni has a saving grace: the train cemetery.

IMG_4393While I appreciate that not everyone shares my love of a good cemetery, and maybe not my untested, purely nostalgic adoration of trains (we’ll see if I get over that in Vietnam, Morocco, or Europe…), surely most of you must agree that a train cemetery is a sight behold . If for no other reason than because it is like an adult playground for the tetanus-saavy.

Depending on to whom you speak, the origin of the cemetery is different, and I don’t know who holds the truth. Lonely Planet says the rusty, lopsided, off-track steam engines and boxcars date back to the 18th century, when there was a steam car factory in Uyuni. Wikipedia notes the name of the town itself, which wasn’t founded until the late 19th century, means, ‘the one with the pen/cemetery,” and holds to the more likely explanation for the train junkyard: Uyuni served as a distribution center for trains carrying minerals from Bolivia to the coast, starting in the late 1880s and collapsing suddenly in the 1940s due to mineral depletion.  Train cars and their engines, no longer used and suffering from exposure to, among other things, the massive amount of salt that is still harvested locally, were pulled away from the town to rot in this glorious, colorful, ghostly pile.

I had planned on walking out to the cementerio in the late afternoon, but quickly realized that, other than about four main routes in town covered in cobblestone, the rest of the roads – and I use that term loosely – in Uyuni are unpaved sand trails. Sometimes, they are nothing more than tire-worn ruts in the desert. It was completely unclear to me which way I should go, so I grabbed a cab and asked it to take me there and wait fifteen minutes, while I explored.

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Needless to say, I feel instantly in love. I had the place to myself, and late afternoon light added to the eerie beauty of this bizarre hallmark of a history potentially repeating. Uyuni is the closest city to one of the largest lithium fields on earth, which is actively being mined to charge our cell phones, cameras, and computers. It may only be a matter of time before trains are once again pulling minerals to the coast.

My cab driver thought I was a bit nuts for liking this. He doesn’t understand why tourists, many of whom showed up on their way back from Salar tours while I was still exploring, would want to see ‘junk.’ I don’t know if I explained it to him in any rational way. I told him in the US, we can’t do this; we are prevented by fences and wires and alarms. And fear. But as the days of our tour went on, I realized part of it is that as people, we just like to climb on things, and as adults, we do it far too seldom.

If traveling by train is more your style than climbing on one, you can still hop on board and make it as far as Oruro, or head toward Chile. But the truth is, wherever you take the train from here, you are likely to need to follow up with a bus or a plane, so I stuck to playing around these great spirits of a former life.

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Dallas, Goodbye, Life Skills, Moving, On the Road, Preparing, Tourist, Traveling

Dallas in My Rearview Mirror

Tomorrow, I will pack my car and watch Dallas fade in my rearview mirror for the last time as a resident. As excited as I am about the beginnings this end represents, I find myself more mixed than I expected about the ‘no-mores’ and ‘haven’t-yets’ that come with it.

Foggy Day in Dallas

Foggy Day in Dallas

This isn’t an ‘I left my heart in San Francisco,’ kind of moment; Dallas and I have never had that kind of relationship. I came for a job and brought an attitude with me, assuming I’d be here two years, and leave. I never actually checked in, so I’m not sure you could call my approach checked-out. But it definitely was disengaged.

My sweet hundred-year-old home in a rare snowfall

And then a few things happened that kept me here. I liked my job. I could afford to buy a house on my own.I fell in love with the house – and then with the convenience of living in Dallas. I ignored that part of me that wasn’t actually doing any actual ‘living’ – an ignorance that is easy to come by when you do yard work, house work, and burglary prevention, get a dog to play with, and watch too much t.v.

After years of returning to San Francisco and Seattle on vacation and wondering how to respond to questions like, “when are you going to get out of there,” I started getting defensive. “It’s not so bad. It has it’s good points,” I’d respond. And then I’d try to list them, and realize my list was short. ‘No state income tax’ is a weak argument in Seattle, which also has no state income tax, in addition to Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Peninsula, and public transportation that actually gets you somewhere. So I realized I needed to augment my list. I started getting engaged.

I actually liked what I found. Dallas has great music venues, many of them in cool old theaters with no such thing as a bad seat in the house. It has Big Tex, the Texas Star and a handful of good dive bars. In the last couple years, I’ve heard speakers from Junot Diaz to Madeline Albright, watched a taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, seen Hair, West Side Story, and Alvin Ailey (among others), and heard bands from Metric to Loretta Lynn. I’ve seen Gordon Parks and Cindy Sherman exhibits. I’ve watched the arts district grow by one theater, then another, then an amazing public park the draws people outside for food trucks and chess games and yoga class. And when I tire of Dallas, when I crave some lefty funk, I head to Fort Worth for an afternoon at the Amon Carter or a night at Billy Bob’s. My time is here is ending, but my opportunities to explore are far from over.

Relentless Reunion Tower

Relentless Reunion Tower

I haven’t yet made it to the Canton flea market, or another Chef DAT dinner. I haven’t learned to love the Cowboys, or even how to talk about football, no matter how good it may be for my social life or career. I haven’t learned to two-step, though I have the boots to do it. I haven’t yet eaten at Nazca, that new place at 75 and Walnut Hill – someone go and let me know how it is.

Despite all I haven’t done, my life here has much familiarity that I will miss: driving by the 1-2-3 Divorce storefront on Fitzhugh, which always makes me smile; brunch at la Duni; morning dog walks on Swiss Ave, watching old, neglected houses come back to life during a loving restoration. I’ll miss Taco Joint migas tacos to start the day. Pizza, wine and writing Wednesdays at Times Ten. Nights at the Granada, or the Kessler, falling in love with music I’ve never heard before, or moving on from music I thought I loved. I’ll miss frontage roads to anywhere, and valets to park you everywhere (actually, I won’t – I HATE valet). And of course, I will miss my friends.
In truth, what I will miss most about Dallas is the one thing so obvious to those who know me here, and so foreign to those who know me elsewhere. Even as a resident Dallas, I am an intellectual tourist. The joy, frustration, challenge, and growth that have come from being unable to assume the people around me, even close friends, agree with my outlook (political, social, economic, artistic, what-have-you), are unlike anything I have experienced in any of the other wonderful cities I’ve been lucky to call home. At home in Dallas, I travel regularly through a place so foreign, I could likely stay forever and never have it feel like home. And there is some benefit to that, as I’m sure I will find on the road.

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Dallas, Life Skills, Preparing, Traveling

Packing It In

The problem with packing is this: it forces you to consider every item or habit you’ve stuffed away in the dark corners of your literal and figurative closets. It starts as a logistical puzzle (why do wine racks not fit in any normal sized box?) and inevitably (d)evolves into a psychological review at the worst possible time. What’s better than a personality assessment in the middle of a giant change?  Packing is the process of taking stock: Who are you? What have you done? What are you neglecting?

Forensically, here’s what one could deduce about me from the items that have now been pulled from my apartment and packed away in a climate-controlled 9’x23’ storage unit:

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