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.

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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

Asia, Middle East and Africa

Wadi Wadi, We Like to Party

Everybody’s got to make a living. It’s a simple fact that breeds an annoying amount of value-less interactions between total strangers in countries around the world. Tourists have needs, and anyone looking to make a buck will try to fill them. In the developing world, the volume of these interactions multiplies – but so does their value.

In Nepal, in India, in Bolivia, Colombia, Vietnam– you can’t get out of an airport without a taxi tout offering you a ride. He isn’t the driver – he’s the guy that gets the driver who only speaks the local language situated with a client. He gets the address of your destination, does the bargaining, puts you in a car, but then, he’s gone. You can repeat this with any mode of transport – the boat tours in Inle, the bike rentals in Hoi An, the motos in Phnom Penh – it’s the universal system of transport bargaining when a language barrier is involved.

In Myanmar, in Cambodia, in Thailand – walk near any monument, temple, or attraction and someone will be there to sell to you – postcards, sir? Sandals, buddhas, hand-made paper, bamboo wallets, souvenir t-shirts, sand paintings, Chinese waving happy cats? You need change money? Anything they can find that might interest you in the very least will be there. “Just for looking,” they invite. “No have to buy.” Don’t bother climbing a temple at sunrise to try to escape; a good salesperson knows exactly where the tourists are, and will be there with his paintings before the light clears the horizon.

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Money changing booth at the temple in Mandalay (just in case you need to buy something)

Restaurant owners place their touts in the doorways. “Mingalaba,” they call in Bagan, as you try to bike by without crashing into them. “Massage? Pedicure,” they suggest outside spas on the streets of Saigon, handing a brochure across your path while you walk. The same tout from the same spa will come at you multiple times in a day. You are anonymous potential.  In Hanoi, try not to touch anything you aren’t 100 percent sure you’d like to buy – they say ‘just looking’ but they mean just buying, and dirty looks (or worse words) may be thrown in your direction.  But in Jordan….in Jordan, things are different.

In Jordan, all of it – the touts, the bargaining, the day to day crap of life that must be negotiated in a fashion fit to exhaust those of us who are accustomed to set prices and developed logistics – in Jordan, all of it is a joy. You will not offend by saying no. You will just elicit an escalating entertainment of pitches.

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No, thank you, I don’t want to ride through Petra on your donkey. “Why not?” I like to walk. I’ll use my legs.

“Four legs, madam. Donkey have four legs. Better than two.”

“Walk? You not so fat you need to lose weight.”

“You worry about money? Happy hour price!”

“Taxi, madam?”

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You keep walking down the Siq, past the Treasury, to see the tombs. “You drop something, madam,” a kid will call. In Central and South America, be very wary – this is the beginning of a ploy to distract you while someone else steals your camera, your money. In Jordan, in Petra in particular, it’s the beginning of a joke.

“Madam, you drop something!”

“Me?”

“You, madam,” the child will respond, pointing toward the ground behind you. At some point, despite your better traveler judgment, you will turn around and look. The child will giggle, his friends will join in, and someone will call, “your smile, madam! You dropped your smile!” It makes no sense. It isn’t even that funny, and yet they have so much fun doing it, you have to laugh with them. You also have to laugh because they will remember you.

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Don’t think for one minute that you are an anonymous tourist in Petra. Don’t think that just because it gets over 600,000 each year, you can’t be identified. That kid who speaks to you, who asks you, “where you from, Madam,” on your way into the site in the morning, he could have asked you the same in Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, Portuguese. But he sees you, sizes you up, nationality included, and when you leave later on, he will say goodbye in the language that is yours. He will recall a joke he told you, or an exchange you shared, earlier in the day.

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Feel free to get a little cheeky – the kids enjoy it. If you respond to “where you from,” with the same question back, “and you, my friend, where YOU from,” the answer will not be ”Jordan,” or, “Wadi Musa,” or, “the Bedouin village.”  The answer will be, smiling, “from my mother!”

Don’t misunderstand, you are economic potential. But in Petra – maybe in much of Jordan – the rapport is a prerequisite. Tea first – tea with so much sugar it’s almost a syrup – Bedouin whiskey, they joke – tea is first. A chat. And then – then whatever is coming will come.  “We have tea, then maybe you look at my shop. If you like something, you buy it.” Or it will be time to haggle over the price of a camel ride, or a jeep trip through Wadi Rum, or the aba you see the ladies wearing and think you may want to take home with you.  But first the tea, the talking, the laughter. Because in the wadis, life may be hard (living in a cave, or the desert – it isn’t easy, even if it is full of beauty), but it is also full of joy. And if you come to see the scenery, you must take in the joy as well. And that, for free, you may take home.

For more pictures of my time in Jordan, click here.

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