Taking back Travel

I had seen photos of Buenos Aires’ El Ateneo Grand Splendid online: friezes lining balconies with dozens of opera lights sparkling onto the books below. Friends who’d seen it commented that it was something to check off your list, an experience made underwhelming by glittering Instagram posts. I decided to go to the theater-turned-bookstore anyway. After snaking my way through its tables and stacks, I sat and watched the people inside.

El Ateneo seemed like a thing to do, rather than a place to be. Tourists rung the mezzanine and upper floors, peering over the brass guardrails at the shelves below. Google said that “people typically spend up to one hour here”, but I suspected the truth was much less. Those lining the two balconies gazed down, then posed for pictures or took photos to post directly online. 

On the ground floor, men and women picked up books, thumbing through pages like a flipbook, then set them down to move on. Occasionally, someone read the back cover or turned to a random page. Mostly, people circled the store, then exited, pausing here and there to look up at the ceiling’s fading fresco. 

Sitting on the theater’s stage/café, sipping overpriced iced coffee and mulling the scene before me, I couldn’t help wondering, “how many of our travels are like that?”. I’ve often heard friends and frequent travelers say, “have you done the Eiffel Tower?” Last time I checked, you can’t do the Eiffel Tower (god forbid). You can see it, touch it, and – perhaps, listen, smell, or taste it. The word vacation originally meant “to be unoccupied” in Latin. How often are we unoccupied when we escape our daily routines?

It is time we take back travel. While strolling the parks of Europe, stop and smell several roses. Savor the sugar and bitterness of a sweetened coffee. Listen even to sounds of traffic and feet shuffling. Touch the ocean’s edge with your toes. And look around you with eyes open wider than before. It’s hard to simply be in this world. But if we take back travel, we just might give ourselves the space to live more beautifully.

More than Haggis

Fluffy eggs whipped and frothed to perfection, a Lazy Susan covered in local preserves, and tray after tray of the smokiest, umami-est, salmon I’ve ever devoured: this was my breakfast for three straight mornings in Scotland and only a nibble of things to come.

Among the foodtopias of the world, Scotland remains forgotten. Its beauty is conjured through images of towering peaks, trains turning bends worthy of the Hogwarts Express, cold rain spitting down, and miles and miles of land to get lost in. I had forgotten the raw beauty of a fresh oyster, of local ingredients deemed low in a world of haute cuisine. After all, when was the last time you heard someone wax rhapsodic about haggis and neeps?

Arriving at Torridon Estate, a centuries-old home and grounds in the Wester Ross village of Torridon, my high school friends and I drove down a gravel path, rhododendron blooming violet on each side. Torridon sits between the River Abhainn Coire Mhicnobaill and Loch Torridon, an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean, and about an hour’s drive west from Inverness. Nearby, Beinn Alligin juts out of the earth to a dizzying 3,235 feet, containing two Munros, or Scottish mountains over 3000 feet high. As I looked out Torridon’s window to Beinn Alligin, its peaks seemed to glint invitingly; I couldn’t wait to climb them.


Mountain, Sea, Sky

The next morning, I woke early, prowling the house as if I were both a Lady of Torridon and a servant downstairs. When breakfast began, I entered the dining room, complete with wide windows, and high, crown molded ceilings. But all of that escaped my notice at first glance. The smell of warm eggs, sausage hot off the griddle, and other things I couldn’t place beckoned. Walking over to the buffet, my eyes bulged, and I hoped my stomach was up to the challenge. I gathered cereal and fruit for my first breakfast. Breakfast two included typical Scottish breakfast sausage, eggs, creamy-soft cheese, and that salmon, quite truthfully, perfection in food form. Breakfast three included more salmon, obviously, and some toast with jam. As I sat nibbling my toast, the lady of the house, Sarah, entered, Scottish fiddle in hand. Her bow flew across the strings as she kept beat with her well-worn boot, and we clapped along in time. The smell of freshly caught Atlantic smoked salmon reached my nostrils and I realized I might know what Heaven is like.

That afternoon, we crossed over a footbridge to walk along Loch Torridon towards the Atlantic. We passed the estate’s old church, now a glass fronted modern cottage. Farther along we saw sheep, and a couple walking their cat, Putin. The ocean glimmered beyond, but we had to turn around when we saw a camper van with a family inside; it felt rude to pass a stirring family.

After our day tramping about, we spoke to Sarah, who owns the estate with her husband Felix. She asked us how long we were staying and when we told her we’d be there three nights, she replied, “That’s good. Most people stay one night and then fuck off.” We had chosen the exact perfect place to hole up in the Highlands.

Our first formal foray into Scottish cuisine began at 1887, the Torridon Hotel’s fine dining restaurant. My friends and I arrived and were guided to a parlor resplendent with 20s glamour. We took their “which whisky are you?” quiz and looked at a map of Scotland marked with whisky distilleries and their styles. More unsure of our choice, we each ordered a whisky. I ordered the Balvenie 12 Year, a distillery owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own neighboring Glenfiddich. I brought the Balvenie to my nose and was instantly transported to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, which I associate with sugary, rich honey. I tipped the glass to my mouth and the sweet, languorous taste of honey flowed down my throat. Later, when my Dad asked if I brought home any whisky, I promised him only the best: Balvenie 12 year.

One bottle of wine, two whiskies, and seven courses later, we arrived back at Torridon Estate. Sarah’s husband, Felix was telling his visiting friends goodnight and asked if we wanted some wine. Never to turn away a free drink, we slumped down on the vermilion couch by the fire to tipple some more.

“That’s Donald Trump’s couch, you know.” My friends and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised in confusion. Quite apart from being taken dramatically out of our holiday mindset, we weren’t sure we’d heard correctly. Felix went on to explain that Trump, having got rid of a hotel in Scotland, needed to sell its furniture, and quickly. Felix proceeded to buy several chairs and couches, and 100 pendant lights for about 10% of their retail price. Pouring us each another glass of red, Felix gallantly responded to our questions about Brexit and Scottish independence; he avoided these topics by deftly switching to praise of Angela Merkel, Germany’s progressive chancellor. Some say politics and wine don’t mix, but with the right host, and the right couch, they just might.


Highland Games, Scotland

The next day promised a hike as the weather looked comfortable (meaning gray and 60s). Our directions from Sarah went along the lines of “stay on this side of the river and follow the path as far as it goes.” Her instructions were easy to follow; I proved less successful in convincing my friends to turn left for a climb up the mountain. Instead, we followed the straight and narrow through a valley, two imposing Munros on either side. About an hour and a half into the hike, we met two women in their 60s walking with their dogs, two charmingly bread loaf sized terriers that I’m sure would have outstripped us all. We stopped shortly for lunch, my best friend soaking her butt in a small puddle on the rock where she had chosen to roost. Although we had shed layer after layer on our slow, steady climb, the wind proved too strong for us once seated. So back we went, butt-wet and tummy-full.

As I looked at the mountains surrounding us, I had to remember to watch my step so I wouldn’t break an ankle. Moss covered every rock, slick from recent rain or the passing river. The sky changed from a faint white to raincloud gray, to palest blue, and when we could see it, the loch shimmered as the sun sparkled above. The mountains rose straight up from the sea on either side of us, looking like sleeping trolls cursed to stone forevermore.

After a few hours of “hiking”, my friends and I needed more nourishment. We drove ten minutes down the coastal road to Sheldaig Bar & Coastal Kitchen, another recommendation from Sarah. Upon entering, we noticed a Viszla dozing on the floor while a terrier sat on its owner’s lap, waiting for a stray crumb. The dogs and owners alike seemed content, talking with the bartender, and eating fries and fresh seafood. After a quick pet, we sat and perused the menu. I asked for oysters, fresh beer, and a dish of grilled goat cheese with pine nuts. Looking out at the loch beyond, feeling the cold hard pattern of the oyster shell, smelling the salt as I brought it to my nose, it was pure joy to sip it down. What more could a girl want? Another pint, of course.


Bliss (in the form of fresh Atlantic oysters)

Our last evening at Torridon, we relaxed and dreamed about our next stop on this Gaelic culinary tour. Sitting opposite the hearth on that Trump-red couch, we talked about a doctoral dissertation, court trials, and baroque gowns, things worth working towards, in other words. Sarah, Torridon’s owner extraordinaire and femme insouciante, told of the many types of people that were coming to the area: moneyed drivers of Maseratis, a Big Pharma executive and his wife who turned the estate’s kirk into a floor-to-ceiling glass-walled marvel. It left me wondering where I fit in, with dreams of an itinerant life waylaid by the realities of bills and debt, at least temporarily. Sarah’s brash words and joyful music gave an aura of hope; if she could cast aside other demands for a life full of travellers, music, and sweet smoked salmon, why not me?

After the unexpected musings and epicurean wonders of Torridon, we headed east to Speyside- whisky country, for the uninitiated. Rather than sleeping inside old Auchinroath House, we tested the elements as we glamped. True to the name, the tents included heaters and full-size beds. Drifting off to the changing rhythm of dripping rain, comforter pulled tight around my chin, I slept for hours. I woke around four am to dawn’s dim light and a melody of birds, so I decided to explore. Walking uphill behind our tents, I came to the top of a small knoll which looked out at the rolling land all around. I could see sheep and cattle grazing for miles up and down the countless hills. Back down and around the polytunnel greenhouse, I passed four or five calves in spotted fawn to reddish-brown. They stopped and we stared at each other for a time, until I walked away announcing to their mothers, “Just taking a walk! Enjoy the grass.”

For dinner that night, we went to The Highlander Inn, a hotel, pub and restaurant local to Craigellachie- pronounced Craig-AL-icky in the local brogue. They had whisky flights, which I naively assumed would be small pours. I’m partial to whisky that tastes like it swam in a peat bog, but I wanted a whisky tasting with a bit more diversity. So, I chose the Alternative Highland Flight, and substituted one of the Scotch whiskies for a Japanese whisky. The bottle was pretty and that’s the best I can say. Six whiskies and a dinner later, we found ourselves tipsy, warm, and ready for bed. We wound our way back to our glamping tents, sure to sleep soundly under the cloud-covered stars.


99 barrels of Scotch on the wall….

The next day, after lunch at Glenfiddich, we drove to Johnston’s of Elgin, a two-hundred-year-old wool mill with a warrant as manufacturers of estate tweed from Prince Charles. I had left the US dreaming of a soft wool blanket, a green and blue tartan to match my family’s heritage. At Johnston’s, my friend found a deeply discounted wool blanket that raised my hopes immoderately. As I sifted through utility wool blankets that scratched a bit too much, and softest cashmere that cost hundreds, I felt my hopes sink. In the next room, I passed my hand over blanket after blanket, quickly turning over price tags to find my diamond in the rough Scottish wool. I finally felt something soft but not so delicate that a spill wouldn’t ruin. I looked at the price tag and exhaled a sigh of relief. The wool was a seafoam chevron, with two patches of color-blocked light blue and creamy moss- colors of the Scottish beach.

Not long after our purchases were wrapped up with a bow, we drove to the village of Cullen. The town is famous in Scotland and beyond for its Cullen Skink, a dish made not from the slippery salamander-like reptile, but cold-smoked haddock in a rich potato-filled chowder. It was a typical Scottish day, cesious sky with rain always imminent. The drizzle came down softly, but the cold stayed in my bones as the wind from the ocean blew through me. Cullen sits on a cliff above Cullen Bay, white waves crashing into rocks that have endured its onslaught for centuries. It made for a romantic picture, but not one we wanted to experience outdoors. We headed for the nearest pub, finding one that looked like my grandmother’s living room in the 90s, framed applique included. When I went to use the bathroom, I noticed a picture of Tony the Tiger on the wood-panelled wall. I smiled at the thought of someone’s grandma sewing him onto a throw pillow.

After a pint, we had worked up an appetite, so we decided to stay in Cullen for dinner. At the Royal Oak Hotel, we ordered Cullen Skink. It came, hot in its cream ceramic bowl, ready to be indulged. Putting spoon to mouth, I sipped, then bit into some haddock and potato. The chowder tasted of ocean and bacon, the rich broth mixing it all together magically; Cullen Skink did not disappoint.

We rounded out our tour of the Highlands with a visit to the city- Glasgow, where students and hipsters mingle with dog lovers and joggers. I had read somewhere that the best haggis in Scotland could be found at The Ubiquitous Chip (so named for Scotland’s supposed chip on its shoulder). Walking from our hideaway in West Glasgow, we trotted down leafy paths with urban gardens. As we turned into the alleyway to our destination, a mingling of whitewashed buildings awaited. The restaurant itself is part greenhouse, part 1920s Paris salon, with huge skylights bathing all its plants in sun and warmth. As advised, we ordered the haggis, a Scottish dish usually made from a sheep’s internal organs, mixed with oats, seasoning, and traditionally cooked in the animal’s stomach (if that doesn’t make your mouth water, then you are completely normal). On a platter with traditional neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), the spiced venison haggis tasted slightly of anise and rich game. We returned the plate, sparkling white, in a matter of minutes.


Pigeon, far right

We noticed another, weirder item alongside the haggis starter: pigeon salad. Never one to refuse an unorthodox meal, I asked the waitress about it. “It’s my favorite thing on the menu. I’d order it every time if I could.” I wished my stomach were emptier, so I had room for pigeon. Unable to resist, we returned the next day for late lunch and a pigeon. Dark like duck, fatty like goose, the small strips of pigeon nestled among the greens, melted on the tongue. Pigeon, rat of the air, is indeed fine dining.

Rarely do trips turn out as I expect. From fine pigeon to missed hikes, the unexpected frames how I live while away. But I also travel to escape my expectations, or at least let them drift behind while I soak in the present. An easy romp and rainy sky are perfect reasons to cozy up next to a fire, whisky in hand and slàinte mhath on my lips.

Returning home, I sat at my desk and tapped out responses in Outlook, dreaming of Scottish peaks and wild salmon. On a whim, I checked prices to Inverness for a long weekend and saw a sale on tickets from the West Coast. I set a tracker for September, hoping against hope, that sale would get me back to Torridon, where Beinn Alligin’s two Munros waited and watched, ready for me to test my luck.

The Circle of Life

The Great Rift Valley, Masai Mara, Kakamega, and Lake Victoria – all these names spurred images of gambling giraffes, crocodiles in wait as thousands of wildebeest poured down a bank, and elephants trudging across grasslands marked by red dirt and green acacia. Despite, and perhaps because of these brochure-ready pictures, I bought my ticket to Kenya, ready for a proper adventure.


A lost giraffe trying to cross the busy road from Masai Mara to Narok

When I was little, I remember receiving stock cards in the mail, each card with a picture of a different animal and accompanying facts about their habitat, diet, and behavior. I collected them like baseball cards, studying them and doubtlessly annoying my parents with useless factoids (did you know a group of cheetahs is called a coalition?). A few years later, I went to a summer camp at the zoo where I held Capuchin monkeys and pet snakes. When Steve Irwin died, it was the hardest loss I had encountered up to that point. Coming to Kenya was, in a way, a homecoming.

The day after I arrived I hopped on a bus to the Masai Mara, where southern Kenya and Tanzania’s Serengeti meet, and fertile land provides habitats for ostriches, warthogs, and many more. As we hugged a tight curve, the Great Rift Valley opened, spreading down and across, miles of grass and thorny trees jutting up to a high plateau that stretches across Kenya, from Lebanon to Mozambique. We reached the Mara later that day. The sun fused my pants to my legs despite my best attempts to siphon the air rushing through the open window.

I was hoping I’d arrived in time for an afternoon game drive. Geoffrey, my guide in Masai red, acted as driver and local encyclopedia, teaching me Swahili and Masai words, and answering every one of the countless questions I threw his way.


The Masia and their colorful blankets

Upon entering the Mara, we bumped and lurched our way to a flowering tree brimming with life and death. I watched as an impala carcass fell at least four feet landing on a lower branch of the tree. A leopard panted as she gazed down, not quite ready to drag her meal back out of reach. Before the other vehicles arrived, it was just Nzuri the leopard, Geoffrey, and I, plus the dead impala.

Soon the clouds became grey and the wind quickened. I lay the neon green Masai blanket across my lap as the pressure dropped and rain began to fall. The animals took cover as well, hiding under trees and thorny bushes But, at a certain point, the trees became saturated. The rain dripped onto a cheetah’s feline head, trickling down before he quickly blinked it away. His four brothers sat and waited, and when the sun’s rays edged beyond the clouds, the Fast Five stood up to gaze in every direction, one thing on their mind.


The Fast Five, the largest coalition of cheetahs in the world

Moving toward the herd of impala and antelope beyond, the cheetahs sauntered past, reminding me of models on a catwalk. They passed within feet of the car, almost close enough to touch. Though they looked fluffy, I decided not to test it.

Upon arriving back at the camp, I was convinced that I’d seen enough to fill an episode of Planet Earth, David Attenborough’s voice narrating my thoughts as I drifted to sleep.

The next day I joined a friend and his classmates as we set off at sunrise, once more into the Mara. After only minutes of driving, we stopped. A full-grown black rhinoceros was browsing – a term used to describe the eating of leaves rather than grass. His ears twitted back and forth to ward off flies, reminding me of the funny protrusions sprouting from Shrek’s greener head.

We spent the whole day outside in the grassland our guide explaining everything from how lions mate (quickly and often) to the territorial nature of male hippos (they will attack and kill baby hippos). I lay resting after lunch staring up at the outreached arms of a giant fig tree. She offered me shade and ease; I left her cookie crumbs and gratitude.


Lion and Acacia

A few days later, after a joyously uneventful trip west to Kisumu, I went on a hike in the Kakamega Rainforest, the eastern-most reach of the Guineo-Congolian rainforest which begins at West Africa’s Atlantic coast. I met Abraham who took me through Kakamega, pointing out myriad plants and trees, rattling off the medicinal qualities of each, and how to use them. We saw rare birds that exist only there, and memorably, a fight between two groups of red-tailed monkeys. Their screeching was loud enough to be heard far into the dense thickets of ferns, bushes, and trees.

We walked twelve and a half miles up hills with panoramic vistas, through caves with bats covered in soft fuzz, and past fig trees 650 years old. The immensity of it all struck me as I bounced back to Kisumu on a motorbike later that day. In one comparably small corner of the world, I saw all the animals you long to see on safari. I saw the black marble eyes of a hippopotamus peeping above the waterline, ready to attack. I smelled the heady aroma of a rainforest, that life-giving decay filling me with ease. I heard a pair of lions roaring post-coitus and the thudding hooves of a moving herd. I felt the breeze and the rain, the sun and my sweat, nature at her sweetest and trickiest. I’d like to say I walked away from the trip wiser, with renewed purpose. But, as the motorbike jumped over potholes and zoomed past running children, I didn’t philosophize. I was too awestruck.

Wander, Seek, & Find


Double Rainbow on Christmas Eve

Every morning the last few weeks, I’ve eaten cornflakes for breakfast. And suddenly the world seems less troublesome…

People often travel to find themselves, though why or how they lose themselves remained a mystery to me until recently. Instead I imagine bodiless souls ordained by some holy ascetic to wander the countryside, Will-o’-the-wisps gliding down a path in order to recommune with their weak, dependent bodies.

And it’s hard to argue with that logic; check any Instagram travel account and you’ll doubtless find a quote about how travel is the only thing you shell out dough for that will make you richer, or how travel changes you, broadening your mind and transforming you into Wander Woman, complete with money belt rather than Lasso of Truth. Then why are so many of us so incredibly lost while everyone else seems to find their way?


My Jamaican Home

I have thought, read, and written about the concept of home and travel so much, you would think I have all these answers. Yet even after shirking work to travel for a year, I have no more answers than a three-year-old eating his own boogers.

So how did I lose myself when Peace Corps is supposed to be all about finding yourself? How did I become so mired in purposelessness, apathy, and despair when there are people whom I can help literally at my doorstep?

While pondering these puzzles, I realized a couple of things:

  1. People like to learn more about themselves, and then share that with the world. Case in point- While reading Eat, Pray, Love, I came across a section where a medicine man, Ketut, describes children born on Thursdays.

The official tree of children born on Thursday is the banyan. The official bird is the peacock. A person born on Thursday is always talking first, interrupting everyone else, can be a little aggressive, tends to be handsome (“a playboy or playgirl,” in Ketut’s words”) but has a decent overall character, with an excellent memory and a desire to help other people.

The point is, I was born on a Thursday.* And this quote is basically my Tinder bio. Which brings me to Point

  1. There’s nothing like a lived experience to teach you about yourself, and you cannot avoid them while traveling. After cussing out a taxi driver in Cambodia for not opening his trunk so I could get my backpack, I realized where my patience ends. After ten days of Burmese food, I learned it does nor pair well with extra cheesy pizza and margaritas.

Like Shrek said, life is like an onion, a layered, stinky, brings-tears-to-the-eyes affair that, when cooked correctly, is quite satisfying. And traveling is the most visceral, immediate way of learning about the life and self you’ve become.


Moss Filtered Light on the Hike Up Blue Mountain Peak

In short, we find ourselves everywhere we go, between the pages of our favorite book, in the scent of a blossoming flower, or in the touch of a lover. There is no life experience that doesn’t imprint on us in some way, whether or not we acknowledge it. And perhaps this is why the kookier of us careen down life searching, grabbing at every passing token that offers us an explanation of life’s greatest mystery: ourselves. Travel is just the medium I choose to unlock these mysteries, a slow ex-pat odyssey as full of questions as answers, and often not the ones you were seeking.

So maybe it doesn’t matter why I felt so purposeless, in need of finding me. Perhaps what matters more is that I know how to find me, to read in another’s pages feelings I heard as my own, to drift from whence I came in order to come back fuller, wiser, to  tell cheese puns no one wants to hear.**

Returning home from weeks on the road, I saw a box of cornflakes on the table. They were the same brand I had purchased during my trip and I smiled as I recognized the label, the same my host mom always buys. I might travel endeavoring to find myself, but when I crossed the threshold, that box reminded me I had been there the whole time. Sometimes it just takes a trip to notice a box of cornflakes.


Cornflakes ton UP

*My favorite tree is the banyan tree. I don’t have a favorite bird, but it might as well be the peacock, because that is, in essence, what I am: a loud, gregarious, bawdy young woman that likes to dress in finest feathers, but wants to help people too. As for the playgirl, you’ll have to ask my boyfriends…

**Did you hear about the cheese factory explosion in France? There was deBrie everywhere 😀

Loneliness Unplugged

I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing?

Loneliness eats away at the tissue of your heart, isolating you quickly, fully, suffocatingly. When you’re at the bottom of the well, despair shuts out the light creeping in from the top, so that the darkness blinds you to the sun’s rays reaching down to warm you.

And when you’re at that point, where is the catalyst to shake you awake, to remind you that your friends and family have been there the whole time, hard as it might be to see them through the lens of an increasingly lonely iWorld?

Peace Corps work is hard work, as is any that demands not just your mind, but your heart, self-worth, and every last nerve. When you reach your breaking point, you want to shut down and build walls to hide behind. That’s when the loneliness wins, when it settles in your bones, crippling you from the inside out.

I’ve felt that way, escaping into a world of Netflix and pretend that all your problems don’t matter. In a world where we shut off when we tune in, loneliness is cheap and ubiquitous. It’s as inescapable as afternoon rain in the tropics, but colder, subtler, and more insidious.

I try to always have an answer, to see the world as a child would, with the curious eyes of one that hasn’t been jaded by politics or hate, but answers to problems like loneliness must be felt. This is a wall that cannot be climbed except by standing on the shoulders of loved ones.

In that way, the answer is obvious. Unplug, reflect, tune in to each other, and ignore the vibrating notifications that don’t notify you how your soul is. Remember that we are meant to be outside, to get dirt underneath our fingernails, to hold hands with one another while walking side by side.

After a Netflix binge that lasted too long, I got up one day and walked outside, talked to my neighbors, got rained on, goosebumps forming in the fog of a raincloud enveloping me, followed by a hot walk up a steep hill, sweat beading down my back. And it was so good. The answer to my loneliness had been waiting for me just outside my door. I just needed to turn the knob.

Love Without Borders

A single moment can explode your consciousness, forcing you to rethink your every move, word, and intention. Travelling amplifies these explosions. Strolling the beach in Australia, you realize a fifty year marriage should be celebrated, not scorned. A ten year friendship that started with all-nighters and strawberry wine grows stronger at a reggae dancehall in Bali. The people you meet as you explore the world force you to look inward and understand that love takes many shapes and scents, intoxicating and stirring every time.

I noticed a dark eyed wanderer on the opposing couch at my hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania. James had the kind of hair that exists for fantasizing, and a resemblance to an Irish bad boy that had my eyes frequently locked onto him.

That night, we started talking over beer and local vodka. We met a fifty-something Australian man who explained his passion for travel and two women back home. James then described how he had met and fallen in love with his girlfriend in New Zealand. I raised my eyebrows and nodded my head, taking a swig of beer to mask my feelings as I listened to him wax poetic about finding love on the road. Our Australian friend then asked me for my story. I hesitated, then mentioned a past love that had made me doubt myself. Could I find love while traveling?

After the Australian went to bed, James and I stayed up talking for hours in the hostel’s basement, curled up on bean bags philosophizing about love lost and found. I fell asleep as he asked me about my ribald humor, which has long gushed from my unfiltered, unfaltering tongue, making me both popular and notorious.

The next day we explored Vilnius and our mutual passions. Sitting at a café sipping beer and eating Lithuanian fare, we spotted at least four couples in wedding processions. Looking at the long lacy trains and veils, I remarked “I don’t think I’ll find love during my travels.” “You will,” James replied, raising his beer as we drank in unison. I left Vilnius a few hours before he did. As I hugged him goodbye, I wondered if his prediction would come true.

One month later in Mongolia, I set out in a Soviet era van-cum-sandblaster to spend eight days exploring Mongolia’s steppes and deserts. I traveled with Petra, a girl I met on the Trans-Siberian who repaired tents with floss, and Sam, a German who taught me to fire a Frisbee and dance the Rumba. As our van bounced along, I flew out of my seat missing Sam’s lap by inches. My shoulders shook in silent laughter as tears streamed from my eyes, and my butt cheeks jostled on the van’s floor. I looked up to Sam and Petra, their speech paralyzed with mirth, as they shook with me in silent joy.

Days later, we arrived at the campsite where our shaman was to commune with the spirit world, and let his body be a vehicle for centuries’ old wisdom. Petra, Sam, and I decided to take a hike before the ceremony. The climb up the steep, craggy mountains surrounding our campsite had been quick, but left us unable to talk or sing. Nonetheless, I wanted to shake it off. As Taylor Swift’s diabetically sweet lyrics belted from my smartphone, Petra, Sam, and I spun and flailed with the vigor of a toddler in a tantrum, Mongolia’s Eternal Blue Sky smiling down on us.

On the last night of our Gobi trek, we huddled close to watch shooting stars, more than I’d ever seen blaze across the sky. I can’t even begin to remember all the wishes I made, but as we lay snuggled together in our sleeping bags that night, I can’t imagine needing anything but the warmth of Sam and Petra.

A few more months passed as I rode motorbikes, busses, and trains through Southeast Asia to reach Da Lat, Vietnam. My last evening before flying to Bali, I plopped down on our hostel’s common room banquettes, sipping Vietnamese beer and checking out my neighbor’s long dark lashes and blue-green marbled eyes. Shoulder to shoulder, Nils and I sat talking about the Swiss Alps and Bond Girls, as I noticed those lashes flickering down to my lips; my eyes often fluttered to glance at his mouth, searching for the second that would lead to…

Frisson filled beers in Da Lat, heady with stolen glances and bad timing, make any night end too soon. Before running to catch my minibus, I felt nerves and excitement mingle as I wished I had one more day to spend with Nils, or one moment to pull him close.

From the mountains of Vietnam to the sands of Mongolia, I danced, cried, and laughed with people from around the world. I realized that even if I had only known someone for twenty-four hours, I could feel like a nervous teenager on her first date, hoping he’d lean in for that first kiss. I could look into my friend’s eyes as she talked of failed relationships while ricocheting down the road in a Jeep worthy van, though I would never live or work with her. I could sit at a café overlooking a manmade lake, musing on the relationships I had formed as I sucked passion fruit juice through a straw and felt the sultry breeze graze my cheek.

My home is anywhere I belong. My lovers and friends are anyone I feel drawn to, and who are drawn back to me. Life challenges me to tell the best story I can; with travel, encountering the new allows me to tell it more mindfully. Moments of ebullient luminescence expand my consciousness, so that I can more fully understand my story, and the stories around me. I doubted I would find love on the road, only to realize how it thrived in furtive glances and snorts of laughter, platonic hugs and flirtatious nights. As I travel, my passport fills with colorful stamps as the indelible marks of love open me to a world I love right back.

Scuba Sense


Port Antonio Pier by Night

Driving along Jamaica’s North Coast, I squinted across the cerulean seas of the Atlantic, daydreams of a nearby Cuba playing through my mind. Interrupting my tobacco scented reverie, a hawker approached our sardine-packed coaster bus* yelling, “Sweetie mangoes! Sweetie mangoes!” I didn’t buy any, assuming the small mangoes would be nowhere near as flavorful as my favorite variety: East Indian.

Pulling into the marina of Port Antonio, known locally as Portie, I smiled. The sea whipped up a breeze that cooled the sweat on the back of my neck as I picked up my mask and fins, hauling them to the dock for the first of my Advanced Certification dives.

A year and half had passed since my last dive, and though I remembered the freedom and ease life beneath the waves promised, I needed a few reminders on how to get there. For instance, when diving, it is necessary to put the regulator- the thing that helps you breathe- into your mouth. Who’da thunk? These minor hiccups aside, I quite literally jumped back in, finding my groove once more.


Snorkel Face is the New Duck Face 😛

The color and size of objects appear differently underwater (because science); a fish looks smaller and brighter on land. Swimming above a few damselfish, I couldn’t help wondering how perfect everything down here seemed to be, how unfettered by human touch and thought. A yellowtail damselfish is a small, solitary fish that lives close to shore, with diamond-like stars glimmering against their midnight sky coloring. I paused, fins slowly pedaling to stop me from drifting on, in awe of the tiny dots of blue splashed across their dorsal fin, as light as a brilliant summer day, and more promising. They reminded me of Swarovski crystals, of women in gowns dancing with the rest of their glitterati, of Christmas trees twinkling in snow-flecked towns whose light, caught by the numerous icicles and snowdrifts glimmered and shone like a million minuscule diamonds. But here I was, dozens of feet and meters down, looking at the fin of a fish not much bigger than my hand.

Flipping my fins away from my sparkly friend, I came across eight spiny lobster. Sitting fairly still, their long whiskery antennae floating feebly in the current, I imagined a lobster vending machine, though these weren’t animals I intended to eat.

Under the sea, time seems to stand still. Pirouetting, swimming upside down, sideways, all ways, I felt freed of the gravitational chains that bind me on land. Looking to my left, right, up, down, a complete 360° view that eclipses you on Earth, I felt that anything was possible. In a world where breathing in water is left to those with gills and flying to those with wings, scuba offers an escape, an exception to God’s rules. Below, I can fly, I can breathe, and with ease, with a mindfulness I unthinkingly eschew as I plod the concrete jungle we call home. Perhaps that is what truly draws me below: the chance to live against the rules, like a child out of Peter Pan, knowing without a doubt that one day, no matter the obstacles, I can fly!


Folly Lighthouse, Port Antonio

The chance to break free from the limits our nature imposes on us is a rare feeling, one I can only experience conscientiously. Like a child learning to walk, the world unfolds in ways previously unthought-of. To the crawling toddler, stairs are the Pyramids at Giza, but when foot connects to ground, a plethora of possibilities awaits. Though I cannot take the reality of an underwater world with me, I strive to imagine our earthly reality as a limitless plane, opportunities stretching out as far as the mind can fathom. With that scuba sense of wonder, what isn’t possible?

*How can a bus that bounces, thumps, and thuds be called a coaster?! It does everything but coast…

​Jamaican Lessons III

As of this weekend, I’ve officially lived in my community for one year. I’m not sure this is a significant milestone in terms of anything other than the earth’s rotation around the sun, but it does force a certain comparison. Specifically, how is the Sarah today different from the Sarah one year ago? Here’s some self-reflection for you, Jamaican tested and approved.

Pelicans & Palm Trees

Continue reading

​A Rainy Day in Jamaica

Sitting in my bed, door opened to the gray, shrouded vista of Kingston below, tumbleweeds of mist rolled through my room, making my toes curl, and my smile light up; in that moment I knew I’d found my Jamaican home.

Kingston at twilight

Almost a year later, and one rainy Saturday got me thinking: since Jamaicans stay a yaad* when it rains, what do I do? Sense by sense, I’ll take you through my rainy day in Jamaica. Continue reading

Battle of the Bees: A Guide to Jamaican Honey

Our three contenders, from left-right: St. Thomas, St. Andrew, St. Elizabeth

Every morning I wake up to a chilly breeze silently, invisibly, invading my room. I curl my toes and shrug the blankets up to my chin. I stretch out my body, and think of my awaiting bowl of steaming oatmeal. Like clockwork, I fill up the kettle with water, flick my thumb across the lighter so the flames catch and the water boils, and add cinnamon to my bowl of instant oats. Before the kettle’s shrill cry alerts me to add the water, I pause. Bending down to grab the rum sized bottle of honey, I tip it so the golden liquid eases onto my spoon, forming an amber pool that gleams when it catches the sun. Without honey, my oatmeal would be an insipid mush.

After learning one year ago that I could get honey from local beekeepers, I vowed to get it nowhere else, and that has been one of the easiest promises to keep in Jamaica. More difficult has been deciding which honey to buy. Should I buy the esteemed logwood honey from St. Elizabeth, supposedly sweeter and more coveted than the others? Should I buy uber-local honey, from the woman across the hill in St. Andrew whose bees could very well pollinate my host family’s coffee blossoms? Or should I buy honey from the first place I purchased it in Jamaica in St. Thomas, where I trained to become a Peace Corps Volunteer? Decisions, decisions.

So like any lusty glutton, I decided to purchase all three bottles and conduct a taste test. Continue reading