Wander, Seek, & Find

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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 😀

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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.

​Sharing Stories

“I exist in two places, here and where you are”. – Margaret Atwood

So much of our life seems to happen in moments of waiting: sweating while a bus fills with passengers, nervously going over what you want to say before your big presentation, looking out the window as the raindrops fall, knowing your plans will be canceled before they even occur. But in these moments of waiting, we reflect, strengthening our self-awareness so that we can go out into the world and share our story with others. Reflection makes possible connection.

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Relaxing at “hilltop” above my house. This is not a promotional Peace Corps picture (but maybe it should be) 😛

On the ride to church, I quietly look out upon the open vista of clouds playing tag with the mountains below. I put up my hair and lean my face towards the window to catch a breeze as I sit on the hot, gray fabric. I wait to arrive at church, to sing, to pray, to listen, and to have my thoughts wander lazily like a desultory conversation among old friends. On the ride back, however, I talk to my family, joke, and discuss the sermon or songs sung. As I play with my hair, I listen as my family kisses their teeth* or tells me, “Yu nah easy” which I generally take to mean that I’m willful. Continue reading

beauty is dirt caked fingernails

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

“Beauty is fleeting.”

Red lips pouting at me from the mirror, highlighter catching the fluorescent light and making my cheekbones shimmer subtly, a highly arched eyebrow raised in scrutiny, I gave myself the once-over, attempting to leave no detail unnoticed.

Growing up in a world where beauty is often touted as the ultimate achievement, especially for women, I find it difficult not to care about what I look like, at least to a certain point.

Fortunately, there’s a different narrative.

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Red-ripe Tomatoes…Guess who’s makin’ pizza Friday?!

Continue reading

Starry Night

I wonder what Van Gogh would have thought about seeing his Starry Night on the insides of umbrellas, twinkling on the wall above college frat parties, and hidden underneath plates at dinner. Would he have picked that painting to canvas the world?

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Van Gogh’s The Starry Night

Standing in front of said masterpiece at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, I walked as close as possible to the painting, looking at the meaty, brusque brushstrokes, wavy trees and sky, and fairy tale village cradled in the hills below. The many blues calmed me as the yellow stars popped out, a macaroni and cheese colored moon promising serenity and hope.

The little village, nestled beneath the light-filled expanse of night sky, captured my attention. What were the villagers doing? Had this always been their home? How did they know that it was the right home for them?

A few years later…

I arrived in Port Morant, Jamaica last Sunday. My host mom, Herma told me they were going out to Morant Bay and Seaforth; would I like to join?

On the pot hole filled, narrow road, cars and trucks zoomed toward us, letting us know of their presence just around the corner with many a loud, “HOOOONK!” There weren’t any seat belts in the back seat- I think I checked five or six times- instead, I maintained a death grip on the passenger door handle.

As we sped down the road, I stretched my head and neck out the window, observing the fading outlines of mountains, a twilight beach and a purple-streaked sky.

On the way back, I chanced another peek. As I craned my neck upwards, more constellations filled Jamaica’s sky than I had seen in months. I ducked my head back in as a truck passed, only to stick it out again, and again.

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Port Morant, Jamaica

Something about that sky seemed to simultaneously comfort and encourage, as if you could lay in the grass looking up at it, sharing stories about the past and hopes for the future with a loved one, knowing that everything would turn out OK.

I felt the prickly sensation of déjà vu on the back of my neck as I pictured myself at the MOMA in front of Van Gogh’s star-filled night. That oil painted canvas elicited feelings of home and warm fuzziness.  As I gazed up at Jamaica’s night sky, my eyes began to water and I realized how the villagers of Van Gogh’s tiny town felt, how something as ordinary as stars could make you feel that finally you found home.

What does the Food Say?

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Here’s to you, birdie

Midnight blue curtains tickle my arm as the early morning breeze blows in. The curtain’s silver sequined flowers sparkle iridescently as they catch the predawn glow, coaxing my eyes to break their fast.

I walk into the living room, where I hear the sizzling, spitting, sputter of the fry pan announcing breakfast. Minutes later, I smell fried dumplings, a softly sweet aroma that puts to mind N’awlins, beignets, and powdered sugar down my front.

My host mom sets my plate before me. I savor the stir-fry of pepper, onions, and seasoning, then cut into the smooth plantains. The banana-like fruit tastes like it’s been dipped in maple syrup, then fried in Heaven. I close my eyes and enjoy that honeyed bite, my rapture catalyzed knowing the sweetness is innate.

As I walk to training, I begin to sweat. I feel as if I’m in a sauna, but wearing too many clothes for the health benefits to kick in. Once I climb the stairs to our veranda training grounds, the sea breeze whips and stirs my hair into Medusa-like frenzy.

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SPLASH

When I get home, I feel like someone tried to cram the contents of Moby Dick and War and Peace into my bleary eyed brain. Then, I smell pumpkin cooking in the kitchen. Something else mixes with the summer squash- I later learn it’s pimento.

At the table, my host mom, joined by her mother and daughter, talks of cinnamon chocolate tea, ginger, sorrel root (it makes good beer), ackee, naseberries, June plums, at least four kinds of mangoes, star apple, and an aptly named fruit called stinky toe cheese. Her arms waving, and brow sweating as my host mom tells me of another foreign fruit, I imagine trying all these foods and drinks, stinky toe cheese included.

Watching three generations of women talk over each other in a rush to discuss the past and present of Jamaica’s fruits and food exotica, I realize all my conversations include food. I remember learning to love wine in France, always asking my host mom and dad for “un petit peu” more, making cheese over cow paddy fueled fires in Mongolia, and sharing baked macaroni and cheese with my ostrich farm family in Bulgaria. Now I sit at a table talking about a future filled with stinky toe cheese and ginger.

Coming together over food is not an esoteric cultural rite. Something about seeing people close their eyes and “mmmmm” while chewing food I have prepared sends warm flutters through my body. Sipping my host mom’s Jamaican Saturday soup, I feel grateful that someone includes me in their culture, and wants me to understand it. Since before Proust bit into his madeleine, humanity has embraced the nostalgic, intimate, historical stories food tells, for through them, we begin to understand the people behind the food.

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I’m glad my camera made this mistake, but I wish I knew how to recreate it!