Wander, Seek, & Find

IMG_20171224_064744333.jpg

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?

IMG_20171223_174628.jpg

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.

IMG_20171223_111014590.jpg

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.

IMG_20171231_100310114.jpg

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 😀

Scuba Sense

IMG_20170527_233342

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.

IMG_20170209_094715

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!

IMG_20170528_175627

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…

Why I Joined Peace Corps

“Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall.” Alain De Botton. The Art of Travel

A couple of years ago, a study emerged claiming there are 2 types of people: those born with a certain “wanderlust” gene, one that would spur its owner on to risk-prone behaviors like boarding aircrafts for hard to pronounce locales, or putting too much wasabi on a particularly pungent piece of sushi, and those born without it. I implicitly distrust these types of studies; how could a piece of my DNA inform my desire to ride on a train for seemingly endless days over seemingly endless swathes of Siberian landscape, punctuated by stops on platforms hawking hard boiled eggs, ice cream on a stick, and those fuzzy-furry Russian hats we all secretly want to wear?

Beach house in Treasure Beach

Beach house in Treasure Beach

DNA aside, upon reading the book whose quotation introduced this post, I decided to uncover why it is I joined Peace Corps, beyond the reasons I stated in my application essay. If I figured this out, perhaps a piece of me would begin to unravel like a bit of loose string on an old shirt, and once pulled out, I would understand myself more fully. Continue reading

Hit the Road, Jack

Footsteps in the sand dunes at  Khongoryn Els

Footsteps in the sand dunes at Khongoryn Els

“You know, I told you how I have been translating the Odyssey. I always read it as a tragic tale of Odysseus’s struggle to find his way home. Now I understand more and more what Dante and Tennyson wrote about it, that he wasn’t lost, but that after the wonders he had seen, Odysseus couldn’t, perhaps didn’t want to, return home.” The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

“We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.” “The Charm Of 5:30” by David Berman

The Van

The Van

Peeling my thighs from the seat of our Soviet Russian van, I slipped on my sandals, straps and buckles dangling and dinging like wind chimes, and hopped out. Sam had his Frisbee ready as I walked into place some meters away. Several 3-5 year-olds joined our catch-and-throw, Sam slapping his hands together like a crocodile chomping to demonstrate a proper catch. Whether or not the kids improved, we had to leave after a few minutes. Kicking off my sandals in the van, straps dusty from the sandy clay ground, I fell asleep once more.

“Do you have Backstreet Boys?” Another Gobi-ready van with blinking neon lights blasted Western and Mongolian pop music through the valley. After our first shaman ceremony, we celebrated the normalcy of dancing to catchy tunes. As “I Want it That Way” began, Petra, Sam, and I jumped around like toddlers after a lollipop. Taking the children’s hands, our Mongolian saturnalia continued until the moon rose high enough to wash away the starlight. I hadn’t seen stars like that in decades (excepting the few previous nights), but I was too busy singing and laughing to notice the moon and stars.

The Sky in the Gobi

The Sky in the Gobi

The last night, we slept outside, three S Shaped Sleeping bags spooning closer together for warmth. When I shimmied back into my bag after a predawn pee, I could feel Sam and Petra inching towards me once more, their bodies yearning for the heat of their friend.

“Whoa, did you see that one?!” Even after seeing ten shooting stars blaze across the sky, I couldn’t keep my giddiness to myself. Petra or Sam would nod or let out an “Ooooooh!” to accompany mine, the other having missed it. Then we returned to our puzzle. “A man goes into a pub in the desert, orders his meal, eats it, then walks out onto the path of an oncoming train. Why?” We hopped from question to question, uncovering more of the story until we could finally tell it ourselves. Our story told, we arched our necks backward and watched the sky’s play out until we were too tired to keep our lids open.

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

The Making of Shot of Petra Jumping and Sam Capturing

One last riddle: What do you get when you add a van, a reliable driver, a gracious guide, a Slovenian-Swiss girl who uses floss to repair tents and falls out of her seat as often as I do, a German guy who throws Frisbee by day and dances rumba by night, and me? Team Tao: Five humans traveling across Central Mongolia and the Gobi Desert singing, dancing, solving riddles, throwing Frisbees, farting (and yelling “Tallyho!” afterwards) eating, drinking, laughing, star-gazing, story-telling, being together ❤

LIEBSTER AWARD!

A HUGE THANKS to Not Lost Wanderer and Hobo In High Heels for nominating me for the Liebster Award: a chance for bloggers to support and congratulate other writers and photographers! It took me a bit to write this post, so I got nominated twice, which is why there are two sets of answers. Have fun learning about little ole me 😛

It works like this (thanks again to Not Lost Wanderer for spelling out the rules so succinctly! I copied yours below):

  1. Link back to the person that nominated you
  2. Answer the questions given by the nominator (find mine below my responses)
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers with less than 200 followers
  4. Create 11 questions for the nominees
  5. Notify all nominees via social media/blogs

My Responses Part One

1. Who is your one inspiration in life and why?
My Mom. I really don’t know how she works so hard, supports my whole family, and still manages to be the most empathetic person I’ve ever met. And all with a smile that rarely leaves her face!

2. If you could be any animal what would it be?
A dragon. I realize that’s a mythical animal, but dragons are pretty much kick-butt dinosaurs that fly and shoot fire FROM THEIR MOUTHS, so why not? Plus, I was born in the year of the dragon.

3. What one character would you want to be from any film and why?
Rose from Titanic. Because I would save space on that door for Jack.

4. What is the one destination you’ve always wanted to visit?
Mongolia. Because of Marco Polo, Genghis and Kublai Khan, all the Queens of Mongolia, the Eternal Blue Sky, fermented mare’s milk, and above all, the disruption and honesty of living a nomadic life.

5. What’s your favourite quote?
“It is our choices… that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” ~J.K. Rowling (via Dumbledore)

6.  Cats or Dogs?
Both? OK, dogs. They win because you don’t have to earn their love.

7. What is your dream job?
Travel show hostess. I would either be super weird or super fun to watch, but either way, would have a blast.

8. Why Blogging?
Because I love to write, and this is a more democratic platform from which to share my writing. Also, I love traveling and this is the easiest way to let people know what I’m up to.

9. Winter or Summer?
Winter because of the ending to The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

IMG_20150214_233322

Winter in Boston, 2015

 

10. Star Wars or Star Trek?
Star Wars, but only because I haven’t really seen Star Trek. Sorry, Dad, it’s on my list.

11. What song best represents you and why?
“Go the Distance” from my favorite animated Disney movie Hercules. The song talks about traveling to find who you are: “I would go most anywhere to feel like I belong”. I should note that I am a confident young woman, and feel that I belong in many places. Perhaps I’m just searching for lots of places to belong ❤

10295711_349020328638038_1060304614630749410_n

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” ~Thoreau

 

Part Two, Or Sarah Should Post her Posts Sooner

1. What does a normal day in your life look like?
Right NOW, a normal day includes working part-time at two jobs in different cities, commuting, reading on said commute, and blogging when I can. I also eat, sleep, and hang out with my friends. And I talk to my mom most days. LOVE YOU MOM!

IMG_20150417_185101

A Room with a View of Boston (my life right now)

 

2. What is your coolest travel story?
There was a day in Épernay, France earlier this year in which I drank several champagne flights. I met all the local old men, made friends with Brazilians, walked a poodle with my scarf, and even made it back on the train. It ended up being the wrong train, but that didn’t really matter. Delicious memories!

IMG_20150104_135155382_HDR

“I could not live without Champagne – in victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it” ~Napoleon, supposedly

 

3. What are three things on your bucket list?
~Horseback riding in Mongolia
~Trans-Siberian (technically I’m going on the Trans-Mongolian in a couple months…I’m counting it)
~ALL THE FOOD in SE Asia, but specifically Thailand and Vietnam

4. What is your least favorite travel destination?
This isn’t a destination, but I hate ferries. Truly, completely, and with vitriol usually reserved for Ryanair. It all began with a ferry from Athens to Santorini on which I insisted that tuna in a can is raw. I blame that ferry ride for my lapse in judgment, since all ferries lead to the River Styx.

5.What place have you always dreamed of visiting?
Mongolia. Because of everything said above!

6.What is your ultimate guilty pleasure?
The problem with the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ is that you’re supposed to feel shame in your adoration of said pleasure. I have no shame in my love for Britney, fart jokes, and hooooooorrible puns.

7. What is one of your most embarrassing moments?
I once complained for about ten minutes about having to play in a wedding. The bride’s mother was in the room…OOPS!

8. What is your favorite thing about traveling?
I learn so much about others- and myself- while traveling. I usually forget most of the history tidbits I glean from city tours, but I always remember the people I meet, and the stories surrounding their culture. This coupled with gained self-knowledge is my favorite part of traveling.

9. What is the best thing anyone has said about your blog?

Someone said it made them want to travel. Job. Done.

10. Tell me about one of the best meals you’ve ever had!
Walking down a street in Brussels, myself and a fellow traveler noticed a life-size taxidermied cow staring down a short line of hungry, hungry humans. They were waiting to enter Amadeus, which has the best ribs I’ve ever had by far. My face was covered in sauce by the end of the meal.

11. What makes you happy?
The sky. My friends. Dropping my earbud in a glass of milk and realizing how ridiculous that sounds. All the little things, and some of the big ones too 🙂 (Also traveling 😉 )

IMG_20141229_172902203

Opera Garnier, Paris makes me happy

 

My Questions

  1. If you could be one food or beverage, what would it be and why?
  2. What is the funniest thing that’s happened on your travels?
  3. What is your ultimate guilty pleasure?
  4. What is your favorite travel book and/or film?
  5. What is the worst food/drink you’ve ever tried?
  6. What  character would you be from any film and why?
  7. What place have you always dreamed of visiting?
  8. What was your last post about?
  9. What is the dirtiest place you’ve ever been? (Choose to answer how you will)
  10. What inspires you to travel?
  11. What makes you happy?

The Nominees 

Julia from Small World This Is
Elin from Wanderlusting
Flat Tires and Slow Boats
From PC to PC
Janna from Janna Jetsets
Claire from Accidentalism
Circle to Circle
Dixie from Life’s Loose Threads
Jane & Steve from Travel Vicariously with Jane & Steve
Rekha from Oh! Fernweh
Danielle from Travels of a Broke Girl

Traveling Solo: The World’s Longest Slumber Party

Everyone: “Don’t you get lonely traveling by yourself?”
Me: “HAIL NO!”

I recently returned from a long-term trip (journey? junket? vacation? trek? odyssey? 😉 ) only to purchase a cheap one-way ticket OUT a few months later. But while I’m here, stuck in trip limbo, everyone asks me the same questions. One of the most recurring aims to discover if I become lonely or tired of traveling by myself when abroad. In fact, I find the reverse to be true.

I don’t stay in hotels when I travel. I rarely have the money. Hotels happen when either a) I splurge for a holiday or b) I miss my train and am haplessly wandering, wondering where I will lay my head next (or possibly c) someone else is paying….but let’s be real). Instead, I stay in hostels, I couchsurf, I WWOOF, I (will) housesit, and, ever so fitfully, I sleep in airports. I lay my head next to other people’s. Because for me, traveling is one long slumber party.

CHEESE PARIS FROMAGE O LA LA!

You shouldn’t have to ask why this picture is here. Cheese is always relevant.

 

So it makes sense that I’m never lonely while on the road. Sleeping in communal spaces forces you to be sociable, whether you are naturally or not. This I quickly discovered on my trip, when, early one morning (or late one night?…) my bunkmate arrived, proclaiming “I think I’m underneath you”, much to my dismay. Whether you like it or not, and chances are it will be a mixed bag, sleeping communally is not a lonely enterprise.

Though I may have highlighted some of the awkwarder circumstances of life in hostels etc., I wouldn’t travel any other way. How else would I have met an Indian with whom I could discuss the idiosyncratic intimacies of our intricate lives, or the Germans that kept me dancing all night, or the Ozzies with whom I had SO many inspired conversations (and beers)?

You simply don’t meet the people I met at hotels. Those empty simulacra of lived travel consist merely of cubes with beds; they are devoid of the excitement, energy, and purpose bubbling up in the hostels of the world. There’s a reason the song’s not called Heartbreak Hostel. You fall in, not out, of love at hostels.

Paris Amour

The City of Love….and Lights

 

There were even times when I spent a day entirely to myself, to recharge my battery, and avoid burning out on too much talk. Those days, I appreciated my return to the hostel (or courchsurf, etc.) even more, as I knew I was coming back to a community with a similar agenda. I’m not saying people at hostels are all the same. Far from it! But there is an ethos of solidarity at the most timid of hostels. I’ve even heard of hostel owners forbidding guitars because of too much good spirit (though that may have been the result of one too many Jack Johnson songs).

So, no, I am most definitely not lonely when I travel. I’ve got a whole world to explore, with others on their own odyssey to share it with.

One Perfect Night

Palais Garnier

A view of the chandelier and Chagall-painted ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris

I wish I could have seen my face as I stepped inside Paris’ Palais Garnier. I could feel my eyes growing larger, my neck tilting to catch every last detail, and my cheeks tensing because I couldn’t stop smiling. I saw women in floor-length dresses, wrapped in furs, arm-in-arm with their tux-clad lovers. I saw young girls similarly awed by the Opéra’s majesty, running about and pointing emphatically.

I walked up the grand staircase cut from Italian marble, soft light reflecting off each step. Every time I see a staircase like this, I can’t help but think that people just look sexier on staircases. Why else would Jack have that awed grin on his face as Rose descends the Titanic’s grand staircase?

I walked up and up, and entered my box. It had a place for coats, a little bench, and individual chairs overlooking the stage. I imagined myself in the nineteenth century, waiting as my friends and admirers came to my box during intermission to gossip about everyone else.

I leaned over the edge of the box, holding the column with an iron grip, straining my neck to see every last detail of Chagall’s colorful explosion on the ceiling. He painted scenes from various operas, from Carmen to L’oiseau de feu to The Magic Flute, indicating to which composer each opera belonged.  Some may think the newer ceiling clashes with the late-nineteenth century building, but I thought the ceiling balanced the auditorium in a way that paintings of nymphs and goddesses from antiquity never could.

When the curtains raised, dancers in Christian Lacroix-designed costumes sprung about on stage, telling the story of La Source, in which a beautiful water nymph sacrifices herself so that a hunter she falls in love with can be with the woman he loves. As the dancers moved, light would catch the Swarovski crystals adorning their costumes, splashing glittery light across the stage.

I felt my eyes become watery as the water nymph sacrificed herself and the two lovers embraced. I didn’t want the night to end! Descending the grand staircase and watching again as the spectators glided down the steps in their fancy dress, I beamed.  There are certain moments in life you think of and recall exactly how ebulliently happy you were. When I think of my night at the Palais Garnier, I smile, that sense of awe and inextinguishable curiosity coursing through me. A la prochaine!