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?

starry night

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!

How to Eat Chicken Foot

  1. Fly (or boat, or swim) to Jamaica

    Flying to Jamaica Photo Credit Stephen

    Flying to Jamaica
    Photo Credit Stephen

  2. Find a family to take you in until at least Saturday.
  3. Wait until Saturday Soup Day.
  4. On Saturday, your host family will make you soup, because Saturday is Soup Day, a day on which Jamaicans let a pot of soup simmer for hours. Make sure you ask for chicken foot in the soup.
  5. Don’t stare at the ominously puckered chicken foot as your soup is set before you. Picturing Chicken-You-One-Chased won’t help either.
  6. Eat the chicken neck if it’s there. You’ll know it’s a neck because it looks like a neck. It’s meaty goodness!

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

    Pumpkin Soup with Chicken Neck & Foot

  7. Do glance at your host family as they eat the chicken foot. They will most likely spoon the foot up to mouth level, from where they will take their fingers, pinch the foot at its widest part, and bite off all three toes in one chomp.
  8. Do what they just did. Bite off the three toes.
  9. Repeat with the part of the chicken foot you pinched. Don’t eat the bone, but the cartilage is edible.
  10. Enjoy eating food some would not deem worthy of the word.
  11. Thank your host family!
  12. Help with the dishes, remembering to ask how to correctly wash dishes in Jamaica so you have content for your next blog post 😉

Keep Calm and Carry On

I knew I had to roll my body away from the oncoming wheels, but my motorbike pinned me to the road.

As my cheek hugged the highway, I saw the numerous front wheels stop spinning as the brakes squealed. “Well, that’s good,” I thought.

The driver slammed his door as he jumped down from what resembled two large white trailers glued together, attached crane dangling above my face. He picked up my Honda Wave, Scarlett, and set her straight. I dusted myself off and surveyed the damage.

Scene of the Crime...If you look closely, you can see the gas spill :D

Scene of the Crime…If you look closely, you can see the gas spill 😀

Aside from some cuts and soon-to-be bruises, nothing felt amiss. Joints bent in the normal way, and I was shaking a bit, but I wasn’t broken. Though I was tempted not to, I had to get back on the bike.

This was my second day driving a motorbike, and not the first time I had fallen into trouble.

The day before, revving up a mountain in rural Vietnam, Scarlett began to drag. I turned around to see my backpack sliding from my loosely bound bungee straps. I stopped to properly load my pack, only to jump back on a bike that wouldn’t start.

Four or five Vietnamese stopped their bikes, tinkered with Scarlett to no avail, then repeatedly pointed down the mountain miming “gas station”, or so I imagined. I called my hostel in Lac Village in the Mai Chau district, who reiterated the good Samaritans’ advice.

View of Lac Village, Mai Chau, Vietnam

View of Lac Village, Mai Chau, Vietnam

Turning Scarlett mountainside down, I shifted her to neutral and silently rolled to Vietnam’s answer to a rest stop. I then mimed pouring Scarlett a nice glass of petrol, to which a smiling Vietnamese woman nodded, gesturing to sit down and eat while someone went to pick up the gas.

Two beige stalks about an inch in diameter and a foot in length lay on the table next to a plate of chicken eggs in various shades of earth. Raising her machete, the woman who worked there grabbed a stalk and cut four or five sides of one almost to the end, sculpting it into a splayed flower framing a milky white tube of what appeared to be rice.

With the Rice Tubes! I wish I could have gotten her name. She saved my mood & stomach!

With the Rice Tubes! I wish I could have gotten her name. She saved my mood & stomach!

She handed me the hacked horn and spiced it with imaginary salt. Pinching the actual dirty brown “red salt” between my thumb and index finger, I let it fall onto the rice tube. I took a bite. Simple as sushi, without the fish.

As I enjoyed my tube-rice and hardboiled eggs, I watched a woman who had just arrived with a cage of chickens on the back of her bike. A man who had arrived around the same time walked over and looked at the birds. The woman then slowly took a hen from her cage, tied her legs, and placed her in a chicken sleeping bag: two plastic bags, handles tied, with a hole out of which popped the hen’s head. Without thrashing or moving her body at all, the chicken looked around her in the jerky way that only birds do. The man gave the chicken seller some money and placed the tied loops of the plastic bags, chicken inside, over his handlebar. He then sped off.

By now, Scarlett had also taken her fill, but before I left I wanted to know the names of the women who had served me food and filled my gas tank. Pointing to myself and saying, “Sarah,” I then pointed to them. After five or more failed attempts, we all laughed at me pointing and not understanding. Fortunately, I knew how to say, “Thank you” in Vietnamese.

Empty tank out of mind, I hopped back on Scarlett, and swerved a bit after kick starting the engine. The women were laughing as I rolled out of sight.

On the Road to Sa Pa,, Vietnam

On the Road to Sa Pa, Vietnam

Follow the Less Travelled Road

As soon as I jumped on the back of his motorbike, my adventure began.

Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia

Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia

 

Wind whipping my hair*, Cambodian faces stuck on mine as their bikes edged forward, I noticed that there were no other white people on the backs of motorbikes, luggage hiding between the driver’s legs. I smiled as their frozen eyes never left mine.

“Dahling, it’s not smart, it’s normal,” the British hotel owner cooed as he explained a quicker, cheaper way to get from Point A (Sihanoukville, Cambodia) to B (Bangkok). Instead of lounging in the luxury of an air-con, tourist-filled 20 hour direct bus to Bangkok, Cambodians segment the trip, driving along the coast, the quickest way via public transport. “When in Rome,” I thought, “take the Cambodian buses”.

Point A

Point A

After strolling across the Cambodian border with Thailand amidst shouts of “I love you!” I asked about public transport to Trat, only to be informed that it had closed for the day. For the cost of 15 Shrimp Head Juice Pad Thai meals, a local bus driver could take me to Trat. I walked on. Along the way to nowhere, I asked again and again about cars/buses/tuk tuks/magic dragons to Trat or Bangkok, to no avail. The only option- private transport- was not an option. So I tried my thumb at hitchhiking.

Walking past the security checkpoint, the first truck I hailed stopped. Ignoring everything I’ve ever been taught about stranger danger, I climbed aboard, and after an amusing quarter hour of hand signaling, map pointing, and English-Thai translation via a helpful friend, we were off!

Pulling into the Trat bus station, my knight-cum-truck driver pointed to the ticket window. After two hours waiting, six hours of drooling/sleeping on the road to Bangkok, I arrived. Well, I still had a hot pink taxi ride to go, but I digress.

Sitting on the Floor, On my Way to Thailand

Sitting on the Floor, On my Way to Thailand

The next day busing back to my hostel**, my phone died. After insta-, tweet-, and snapping pictures all day at a travel blogging conference (TBEX), I grimaced. “My phone hath betrayed me!” I thought. Never unsticking my eyes from Google’s bouncing blue dot, I had planned to follow the bus’s progress to my hostel. How else would I know where to disembark?

Point B: Beautiful Bangkok

Point B: Beautiful Bangkok

I turned to the woman to my left and asked “English?” Her prepubescent daughter studied my hostel supplied map and told me that we were getting off at the same stop. Instant relief from technological difficulties came in human form.

Exhaustion. Anxiety. Hunger. Listlessness. These are a few of the states I enter when I exit my country, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because traveling makes us reliant on our most precious asset: other humans.

After all, smart phones may make travel easier, but they make us dumber. So the next time you find yourself physically or metaphorically lost, put down your phone/tablet/computer/drone and look up. Someone is there to help you. ***

At least I didn't end up on this boat before it sank...

At least I didn’t end up on this boat before it sank…

*never as sexy as portrayed in the movies
**near aforementioned Shrimp Head Juice Pad Thai, referenced here
*** I am not liable if you find yourself lost in the desert, no technology or camels at hand. In that case, ignore my advice. You’re probably screwed 🙂

Blood, Shit, & Beers

“Pppppop! Zzzzzzzz…..zzzz….zz.”

I can hear the tennis-racquet-fly-killing-machine murdering too few of the legions of flies rooms away. The wings of one in my room stop moving as he is unable to uproot his legs from the twirl of sticky, slow, sure death tape hanging from the ceiling. I resort to a constant, slow swaying during meals outside to prevent the incessant beasts from using me as a landing pad; I imagine I resemble an interpretive dancer on weed.

My smell lingers, though I only notice some hours after a shower when my hair still slips through my fingers and smells of pine. If my odor were a perfume, it would have notes of B.O., shit (specifically cow, horse, goat, and sheep), zucchini, and occasionally some piney-grassy weed that grows everywhere on the ranch.

If I looked in the mirror, I would see dirt on 1/3 of my exposed skin, peachy-white sunscreen on hot days (earning me the nickname “lobster with hollandaise sauce”), freckles where snow white skin used to be, and scratches and bruises from I’m not really sure what.

Less Flies on a Rainy Day!

Less Flies on a Rainy Day!

Sweating, cursing flies, and digging my nails into cow shit to build fires has become part of my daily routine, and while this description could easily fit someone in summer camp detention, I chose this. I chose to live without air conditioning, Wi-Fi, or running water to see how a working horse ranch works.

How does it work?

Take a horse, a big stick, shout “CHAAAA!” as many times as necessary, until the goats trod the way you mapped out for them. You might even try calling them “Fucktards!” if they go into someone else’s vegetable patch.

Life at Anak Ranch

Life at Anak Ranch

As you leave the ranch, the grass hits your knees, the mountains grow higher, and the sound of cows chewing reaches your ears. The slow, seemingly methodical “ssccchhh”, like someone peeling a giant potato slowly, accompanies the “hoooo” of the wind, the sharper, staccato “chchut” of goats ripping off grass, and the soft “zzzz” of the steppe flies.

Hearing this, you close your eyes and breathe in the dry grass, the sandy earth, and the slightly sweet smell of animal dung. As the wind blows away the flies and your hair, the sun’s rays reach you like the first warm day after winter. Then, a fly lands on your arm.

This time, their millimeter legs feel like a feather grazing your skin. This time, you don’t kill the fly, or tell him to “Fuck off!” This time, when the fly lands on your arm, you smile, enjoying the infinitesimal massage.

In Defense of GPS

As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I love paper: the touch, the smell, the je ne sais quoi that bubbles up as I walk into a new library. So when a close friend and I had to decide whether to rent GPS or use a map on a road trip through Romania, I was a bit surprised at my eagerness to rent the GPS. I had to remind myself that, contrary to what Arthur Weasley thinks, you can trust an object even if you can’t see its brain.

Bran Castle Photo Credit: Maija Butler

Bran Castle
Photo Credit: Maija Butler

GPS installed, we began our road trip. On our way to Sibiu, we drove to Bran Castle (made famous by Bram Stoker’s tome Dracula), then hung a left at Highway 7C, also known as Transfăgărășan, the most beautiful road in the world, according to Top Gear.

Thankfully, I drove on the way up; I’m not completely convinced I’ve conquered my vertigo. Every other turn brought us to the edge of the mountain, trees and certain death below. We made it to the top far faster than we’d assumed given the mountain’s height.

Snakeskin Road

Snakeskin Road Photo Credit: Maija Butler

We got out of the car and looked around. To my right, a snowboarder hopped onto the railing of a staircase, then back onto the snow, slowly slowing to a stop. In front of me bikers of the vroom-vroom kind drove one by one through a small opening in a tunnel. Nearby a stream began, thickening as more and more snow began to melt. Behind me the Transfăgărășan looped down the Carpathian Mountains through poianas– or glades- and forests, reminding me of an unbroken snake skin shed for the coming Midsummer.

Me wearing summer clothes in winter weather Photo Credit: Maija Butler

Me wearing summer clothes in winter weather Photo Credit: Maija Butler

As I crossed the path of a glacial stream, the water swam over the bottom of my leather sandals, icing my insoles. My friend and I were relatively quiet, a considerable feat for us. Something about a view like that shuts you up.

The silence at the top of the mountain contrasted with Poiana’s chatty drive down. “Shut up, Poiana” became a favorite saying on the road. But despite, or perhaps because of Poiana’s pickiness, her awful British pronunciation of Romanian, and needless updates, we had grown fond of our navigator. 1/3 of a very competent travel team, Poiana led us to our espresso machine-sauna-pool filled Bed & Breakfast, to a new apartment block we didn’t trust to be our destination, and to one of the most beautiful roads I’ve traversed.

Though paper maps work even when their batteries die, they’ll never voice the words you’ve been longing to hear: “You have arrived at your destination”.

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 ❤

Parks and Recreation

As I leave Europe and enter Asia, I reflect upon the places I’ve felt happiest. With the exception of cities in which I met unforgettable people, the places that come to mind recall rolling hills more than flashing lights: the air here smells as green as a freshly mown lawn, as wet as an afternoon before the storm sets in, as unpredictably fresh as a city park can be. It is easy to go back to these places. I just need to close my eyes and breathe.

I remember watching the purple-pink-orange sunsets splay across the sky at the ostrich farm in Bulgaria.

I remember tipsily looking over Chateau Vartely’s terrace to the storm clouds marching toward us across the valley.

Łazienki Palace

Łazienki Palace

I remember serendipitously finding myself lost in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park, six story trees blocking the city beyond and rain above.

The Bogs of Lahemaa

The Bogs of Lahemaa

I remember paddling through the bogs of Estonia’s Lahemaa National Park, smirking at my Oompa Loompa orange skin, stained by the peaty water.

I remember Peter the Great watching over me in Moscow’s Gorky Park, where I spotted rollerbladers rolling, ping-pong players whacking, and BMXers doing whatever it is that they do, all amidst fairy-lit cafes and reflecting lily ponds.

I remember much more than the airy moments I lingered in these parks and valleys. I remember how I smiled, my up-turned mouth holding its pose for long after.

The Baltics Broke Me

Cēsis Castle, Latvia

Cēsis Castle, Latvia

Gripping a candlelit lantern in my right hand and the ladder in my left, I squeezed into the dungeon. I thought I might fall to the stone below, but I arrived unscathed.

Bemused by my success, I realized that to figure out my limits, I had to test them. What better way to test limits than through travel?

In the Baltics, I tested various limits and in the process, broke. But all my pieces came back together again. Here’s what the Baltics broke:

View of the Ladder into the Cēsis Castle Dungeon

View of the Ladder into the Cēsis Castle Dungeon

  1. As I climbed up the ladder at the Castle in Cēsis, Latvia, I noticed an eraser-sized whole in the crotch of my jeans. I hope the couple beneath me didn’t see anything. If they did, at least I was wearing cute underwear.
  2. Waking up a few days ago, I heard a squeaky, hoarse pubescent boy speak when I opened my mouth. Horrified by my husky timbre, I nevertheless continued talking. Hey, it made people laugh 🙂
  3. Many cultures claim pride in their unbeatable drinking abilities. I haven’t been to Russia or Ireland, but I have witnessed Australians drink beer like camels prepping for a trek through the Sahara. Expect them to outdrink you. Expect to be hungover or drunk when you wake up the next morning. And expect the Aussies to keep drinking throughout the day to ward off hangovers (It works!).
  4. My jeans, voice, and liver all survived these events. Tragically, my favorite leather cross body purse did not. I hear they can fix anything in Hoi An. Here’s hoping.

    Deconstructing Subway in Riga, Latvia -Photo Credit: Crazy Aussie

    Deconstructing Subway in Riga, Latvia- Photo Credit: Crazy Aussie

  5. Drinking at party hostels like The Naughty Squirrel in Riga and Jimmy Jumps in Vilnius inevitably leads to potentially embarrassing situations, especially when you add single, cute 20 somethings traveling the world. But whether you shout that you’re “King of the World” like Leo or deconstruct a sandwich from Subway before eating it, most of the time, your dignity remains intact. Plus, at the next party you go to, your stories will have people snorting out their drink. Mission accomplished!