On the Road

Bessie

Yesterday, I hit the 100-day mark since returning to the States. It’s a completely arbitrary milestone, especially since I left the country again less than two months after I returned, but I’m back now, for real, and reality is setting in. With decisions to be made (where to live? what to do?), bills to be paid, and responsibilities to attend to, my attention has refocused to my trusty steed, Bessie, a beloved 2000 VW station-wagon.

Bessie, clean and pretty at the beginning of the road

Bessie, clean and pretty at the beginning of the road…

And dirty and well loved at the end.

And dirty and well loved at the end.

Bessie and I have been on many adventures – 185,053 miles worth. Together, we have lived in four cities, driven cross-country at least twice horizontally and four times vertically, and tolerated more than our share of derogatory comments about station wagons and child-free soccer moms. Last summer, we survived no fewer than 9,000 miles together, though the heat and a two tires didn’t make it the whole way.

Among the places she's taken me is the Middle Fork of the Crazy Woman River.

Among the places she’s taken me is the Middle Fork of the Crazy Woman River.

It is possible Bessie has been better to me than I have to her, though she’s gotten me back with her fair share of expenses. It will be a sad, though much awaited day, when I have been re-employed long enough to replace her with a vehicle that has, oh, I don’t know, decent cupholders and someplace to plug in my phone.

Guarantee: when the heat is gone, the snow comes early. On the pass outside Bozeman during an early snow fall. Bessie makes an excellent tripod.

Guarantee: when the heat is gone, the snow comes early. On the pass outside Bozeman during an early snow fall. Bessie makes an excellent tripod.

This morning, as a matter of routine maintenance, I took Bessie in to get her tires rotated. (Don’t be impressed – it’s probably the first time ever.) When I handed over my key, the tech at Discount Tire asked me if there was a special lock required to get the tires off. Without pausing I looked at him and replied, “Hell no. It doesn’t take more than one midnight tire-change on the streets of DC for me to get rid of the locking lug nuts.”

Don't be impressed by tire rotation; this mirror was cracked for two years before i replaced it.

Don’t be impressed by tire rotation; this mirror was cracked for two years before i replaced it.

After 14 years, it is easy to forget some of the incidents Bessie and I have shared, but that simple question – is there a special lock on the tires – was enough to take me back ten years, to a time I lived in DC right after grad school, and en-route to meeting a friend for dinner, turned a corner too tightly and hit my tire on the metal gutter-guard on the sidewalk edge. My right rear tire went from full to flat in half a block, and I limped Bessie around the corner and into a blissfully available parking spot.

My dad taught me to change a tire early on because he considers it, along with proper use of duct tape and WD40, one of life’s essential skills. But after loosening four of the lug nuts on this tire, then struggling with the fifth for an extended period of time, I remembered being told about the lug nut key when I bought tires five months earlier. The tech made a big point to inform me I better not to lose it. And then, apparently, he never put it back in the tire-changing kit.

Bessie in the Tetons, on a happier adventure.

Bessie in the Tetons, on a happier adventure.

It took a good two hours for AAA to send a tow to Georgetown on Saturday night, but it was worth the wait for Ulysses, a wanderer of the Southern States with five children and a ‘good woman,’ this one, finally, after the other three. He seemed aptly named and he ferried Bessie and me into the far east side of Capitol Hill, to an all-night tire drive-through garage with cars lined out the roll-up store-front and partway down the street, waiting to buy used tires that were stacked as high as the garage roof.

Ulysses refused to drop me off, alone and conspicuous, so late at night, and so we sat in the idling cab of the tow truck for 30 minutes while he regaled me with stories of his travels, until it was our turn to pull in to the shop, where people without cars walked up to the pay window and left with paper sandwich bags of something other than tire parts. We had a store like that where I went to college; a Snapple cost $25 and came in a bag with a fun surprise, if you catch my drift.

The mechanic seemed tempted to file locking lug nuts under “white people problems,” and I can’t say I blamed him. After confirming multiple times that I understood he may strip the nut and I may need to buy another, he went at it, first with a compressed air impact wrench and then with a variety of other tools I have no ability to name. I’m not 100% positive one of them wasn’t a crow bar. At last, it came off, and Ulysses insisted on changing my tire for me, since that’s what AAA paid him for. Tire changed, spare on, Bessie was ready to go. I tipped Ulysses $20 and paid the mechanic his $35, and figured it was a cheap price to pay for such an adventure.

 

Through rain and sleet and snow (and the windshield, which has been replaced at least once).

Through rain and sleet and snow (and the windshield, which has been replaced at least once).

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

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.

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

Where I’m From

Three months before I turned 40, I spent a month obsessively looking at new cars on craigslist. When I realized I was perfectly happy with my 12 year-old stick shift station wagon, I left the cars behind and decided just to pierce my nose, like I’d wanted to do since I was 14. Suddenly, I was freed from the socially-acceptable expectations of mid-life, and welcomed into the decade that would allow me to just be me. Midlife crisis narrowly averted.

Not even a full state from Texas, a crisis of an entirely different order arose. I took refuge from a torrential downpour at a café on the Taos plaza, and got to talking to a woman about her dog. Naturally, she asked me where I was from. A normally chatty human being who can carry on a conversation with anyone from the Pope to a wall, I was struck silent. I didn’t even stutter; I just couldn’t answer. I was faced with a geographic identity crisis.

For the eight, mostly uncomfortable years I lived in Dallas, I told people, “I live in Dallas, but I’m from California.” This is the technical truth – I was born in San Francisco, and consider myself a Californian – but it isn’t the whole story. I arrived in Dallas a full seven locations after I originally left my home state. As a result, I’m a committed recycler with aggressive driving skills, a very northeastern way of flipping the bird, a New Yorker’s style of walking through a crowded urban center ignoring everyone around me, a Northwestern desire to be outside even when the weather fills with rain and wind, and a Texan belief that my boots and a good buckle should work for any occasion. When I say, “I’m going home,” I could be referring to Seattle, San Francisco, or Dallas. But I don’t know how to tell someone where I’m from, because choosing one place feels like a lie.

I hoped this issue would resolve itself when I left the country, but it got worse. Complete strangers took a kind-hearted interest in the specifics of my personal history, and weren’t satisfied when I told them simply, “I’m from the United States.” People in other countries know a surprising number of US states; they also watch a lot of bad tv. Texas is on the map for Dallas (the original), Walker Texas Ranger, and George Bush. Telling people I’m from California garnered a lot of, “I’ll be back,” “oh…Ah-nald,” and, “California?…Hollywood?” So I tried Washington.

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Cold, beautiful west coast

Understandably, it’s confusing to foreigners that the state of apples, Starbucks, and the Olympic peninsula is both not the same as the capital city that shares its name, and is located on the other side of the country. I didn’t bother correcting people who responded to Washington with, “ah! Obama’s house,” until the questions about DC got too involved, and I would confess that I was actually from an entirely different place (though I’ve lived in both).

Washington State

Washington State

The irony of all this is that it actually doesn’t matter. In earlier eras, outside of Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, and great migrations, people rarely moved far from home. Now, we’re in a shrinking global community, where constant population flux consistently alters cultures, blending them across geographic boundaries, until good barbeque isn’t just found in the south and good bagels aren’t held captive in New York. The San Francisco of 2013, with its dot com billionaires and microapartments for a million dollars, isn’t the San Francisco of 1993, with its distinct neighborhoods, affordable housing, and hippy funk. (When people ask me if I’m moving back to San Francisco, I feel compelled to point out that San Francisco isn’t there anymore.)

And yet, for all this movement, for all this homogeneity of culture, place matters. When I go out for coffee, place matters. Am I walking there, biking there, driving there, or taking public transportation? Is it Dunkin’s coffee, Starbucks coffee, local coffee, organically sourced and priced up coffee? Or maybe it’s Turkish, Thai, or Vietnamese white coffee? Is it hot or cold? Is it smooth roasted, or bitter? Am I standing at the coffee bar chatting with neighbors, sitting at an outdoor café under a heat lamp, or grabbing it to go while I drive off someplace?

Place matters for the most simple things, because it’s the simple things that form who we are. The personality of a place shapes our approach to the world; it demonstrates for us how we absorb information, how we respond to stimuli around us, and how we view what we see moving forward. Thirty years ago, when I moved from the Bay area to Boston, this mattered a hundred times more.

I left a place of cold oceans with rough surf and foggy-day picnics on the beach, of yoga and recycling and home-made peanut butter, and went to the land of green pants with blue whales, classmates related to passengers on the Mayflower, and ‘one if by land two if by sea.’ As a result, though I longed regularly for the west coast of my childhood, I was raised using the T, rooting for the Celtics, watching my first baseball game from the Fenway bleachers, and busing out to Great Woods for one concert after another. There is no mistaking that these experiences gave me some of the independence that I enjoy when I travel, and that the longing to get back to the other coast, to see what was beneath me when I flew from one to another, gave me my desire to actually buy a plane ticket and do it.

New York subway

New York subway

So when I tell people I’m from California, I feel like I’m disrespecting half of my roots. And I feel like my roots have more than two halves. Didn’t summers on a small island in Puget Sound teach me to love reading, staring at the water, and the smell of fresh wind? Didn’t college in New York help me understand that I can only do cities  for a moment before I shut down? Don’t we continue to grow, to absorb place and its personality, and to change as a result, throughout our lives? I didn’t move to Texas until I was 30, but didn’t it warm me a bit, teach me a about expressing myself respectfully to people with opposing viewpoints, and help me understand myself better? Isn’t growth and absorption of place the only thing that explains Madonna’s fake British accent?

For all the shrinking of the world, place still matters. The more we create these hybrid humans who herald from multiple cultures, possibly without much leaving their own, the more confusing the question ‘where are you from’ will become. I, for one, am looking forward to it, so I’m not the only one suffering from a geographic identity crisis.

Crazy Dallas weather

Crazy Dallas weather

Africa, Tourist, Traveling

In Love For All the Wrong Reasons

It is possible that no one has ever landed in Kenya as completely ignorant as I. I had a reservation for one night in Nairobi, a vague idea of what a taxi should cost to get to the hotel, and a plane ticket to Mombasa the next day. I met my original Travel Companion (you may have read about TC here) for the Mombasa flight; once we landed, I threw myself at the mercy of a local.  And I loved it.

Here are the right reasons to love Kenya:

The water – even from the faucet – is salty and reminds you of earth. The earth is red and rich and reminds you of life blood. The ocean is vital and as vibrant as the birds, which are colorful and loud.

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Everyone greets you with, “jambo,” and though it feels touristy, you say it back. They greet one another with “mambo,” a handshake and words to catch up. Rules are made on the spot. Once, they were written, by someone, somewhere, who has no bearing on the situation you may be in, and so there is improvisation. You are patient. You move slowly. You work it out. You finish with ‘sawa, sawa,’ and then you move on. It is the interaction that is the rule, not the rule itself.

Get in a fender bender, and you'll find out how fast the rules change from one police station to the next...

Get in a fender bender, and you’ll find out how fast the rules change from one police station to the next…

The air is hot and carries the smell of burning rubbish. But it is moist, and turns the plants green, keeps the clothes you wash by hand damp on the line. The chickens peck the yard; don’t forget to close the kitchen door when you go out to do the laundry, or you will find the counters covered in hens when you return.

In Tsavo, there has been rain: good for the land, bad for the animal spotting. The cheetah can slink through the golden grasses almost unseen. Dik dik, impala, buffalo move slowly against green brush, under trees. Superb starlings and lilac-breasted rollers flit above them, racing from power line to tree branch and back again. Giraffe necks rise above the horizon. Elephants cover themselves in red dirt to protect their skin from the sun and stand out in the open. Hippos slide low in the water, hiding all but their eyes. The zebra….the zebra have no hope of camouflage.

The zebra have no where to hide.

The zebra have no hope of camouflage

In the pickup truck, it is hot with the windows up and dusty with them down. But it is quiet, except for the toto, Evelyn, who entertains herself by playing angry birds and finding Waldo in the back seat. She has made Travel Companion her personal mascot, and goes nowhere without her. You are merely a divining rod for TC’s location in her eyes.

The toto surveying the waterhole.

The toto surveying the waterhole.

In the evening, looking out over the watering hole, there are cokes and conversation, maybe a beer. You are hoping for a lion. You do not need a shirt that announces you saw ‘the Big Five;’ you will take in everything available and cherish it. But that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like to see them.

When night falls, when most have gone to sleep and you sit by the fire and talk to the night guard about the lion who comes into camp after the day is finished, the air pulling in moisture before a hot day rises again, you make him promise to wake you, no matter what time, if the beast comes back. And when he comes for you, you will be thrilled with terror, wrapped in a kikoi on the porch of your tent, listening to the chortle of the beast’s breath pacing the outskirts of the tent line. The king sounds like a stallion heaving off a heated race, but all he does is seek, and leave. You never see him, but you feel the sound of his breath imprinted in your memory.

After, south down the coast, the air still and heavy until the afternoon moves the water hurridly toward the shore, your mind swimming with the bodies and colors of Tsavo, the whydahs and kingfishers and weavers and bee-eaters and hornbills, your body goes swimming down with the fish.

Swimming with fishes (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

Swimming with fishes (photo credit: Sander den Haring)

Between dives, you float on the dhow or watch dolphins swim. These are the right reasons to love Kenya.

Dolphins of dhow bow.

Dolphins off dhow bow.

Here are the wrong ones:

  • The twelve days I spent in and around Mombasa were the longest I’ve gone without getting on a plane since I left the states on October 16th. Instead, our fantastic hosts delivered us from one amazing experience to another, with the help of friends and family. For twelve days, I knew no strangers; only new friends. I was allowed to yield all logistical decision making to someone who knew what he was doing. My mind has not known such rest in quite some time.
  • Kenya was a land for firsts. My first scuba dive – a momentous event as I have found the idea of trying to breathe underwater so disturbing I long ago negated the possibility of such activity ever occurring with me involved. But in Kenya, I looked up to see the sun break through the surface of salt water. Kenya was also the home of my first left-side-of-the-road, right-side-of-the-car (left-handed stick-shift) driving adventure.
    About to set out on a right-side of the car, left-side of the road driving adventure.

    About to set out on a right-side of the car, left-side of the road driving adventure.

    Despite the trip involving a disturbing number of wrong-direction rotaries (excuse me – roundabouts), TC and I successfully survived to tell the tale (and post a video).

  • We all know the Dutch just jumbled German, French, and English and called it something new. As its own language, it’s a jumbled mess, but a native Dutch speaker communicating in something other than Dutch makes a sount of equal and opposite beauty. An accented, calm, “sawa, sawa,” or little Evelyn’s sing-song as she calls your name to ask, ”where is TC’”– is something with which my ears fell instantly in love. (The jury is still out on the word “lekker,” which is along the lines of, “tasty,” but sounds like something bad is about to occur.)
  • Swahili. I went to throw something out one day and found that the word for trash is “Taka taka”How can you not love that? Or “toto” for the little ones? So foreign to my ears, but such a smooth sound, even rapid fire, with consonants.

    One person's trash is another person's takataka

    One person’s trash is another person’s takataka

These are the wrong reasons to love a place, because these are reasons this place was easy. Kenya isn’t easy. It is full of struggle – for water, for livelihood, for a very small piece of the pie. It is a place of matatus with names like “Love Bomb,” “Delta Force,” and “Dreamz of Money,” driving between you, at you, around you while riders hop on and off. It is a place where Friday mornings are reserved for riots, and Europeans still fly straight in to four star resorts where first the shower doesn’t drain, then the door doesn’t lock, then the toilet doesn’t flush, for a week away from winter.  And still, they never leave the compound. Kenya is a place where boys stand in traffic to sell you oranges, and if you are stuck too long, they may just steal your luggage from the trunk. It is a place of wonder, of amazement and awe, and of hard work, brutality and beauty. I loved Kenya for mostly the wrong reasons, but I will return for the right ones.

 

For more pictures of my trip to Kenya, click HERE

 

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