I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It begins like this…
I’ve just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
When I visit a new place, I like to know a few words or phrases: hello, thank you, please, how are you, where is…(the train, loo, exit), excuse me, help!
I’m lucky that my first language is English. I’m also unlucky. Because here, in this insular island-esque not-island, attached top and bottom to countries that speak languages other than ours, we’ve decidedly decided that we need not know more than one language to get by in the world.
Tidbit: Did you know that 58% of Americans do not hold a passport? (and that’s up markedly, mostly because passports are now required to get to the Caribbean and Canada)
I studied French in Junior High. Hated it, then switched to Spanish in High School. American Sign Language in college (because at that time nobody suggested it might be a good idea to have a 2nd language, so I thought this might be good to have in my back pocket if the tinnitus ever worsened 🙄).
I’ve been to Central America 9 or 10 times. The Spanish has come in handy (assuming a Duolingo brush-up before the trip): I can get by in broken Español.
I’m envious of my multilingual friends, my half-Brazilian/half-American niece (who can prattle in 4 languages before breakfast), those to whom another tongue is not a big deal to idly pick up and put on, as one does a new shirt.
Nearly 3-1/2 years ago, my most polyglot copain asked me, “how’s your French?” Horrors of 8th grade flashed on so many levels as I realised my answer was, “horrible.” In any language.
Since that day, I’ve studied 5, 10, 30 minutes of French pretty much every night. My longest Duolingo streak is well over 100 days. I’ve got a Babbel subscription. I’m able to read a newspaper article, understand (and tentatively participate in) adult conversation…J’ai lu Le Petit Prince (en Français!). Social media headlines baffle me, yet I went to Paris for my birthday last year and didn’t completely flounder. I had an interesting dinner with a Swiss couple and my B&B hosts in The Seychelles in May and wasn’t entirely underwater. It feels good but not nearly enough… My English-speaking brain is still trying to convert the other language into English as it comes in, then convert that into something French-like as it goes out. In the process, the time it takes to create conversation seems interminable. And I’m left, literally, speechless.
And so as I’m preparing to leave for my next adventure to Scandinavia (favourite Swedish interpreter literally in tow), I’m trying to learn some Swedish words. If to impress no one but myself.
Quickly the problems mount: There are now 3 new letters to learn and not mangle [ä, å and ö] while simultaneously trying to not sound like the Swedish chef (whose gobbledygook, I’m told, rings closer to Norsk than Svenska).
Hur mår du. snälla. hejdå. How are you? Please. Goodbye. And I’m trying to configure lips that are clearly inte Scandinavian. I almost instantaneously become a parody of myself…Bork. Bork. Bork.
It continues: Duolingo gives me jordgubbe (strawberry! I can do this!). And frukost (a girl needs to eat…brekkie!). And then this happens: skärp(bork. bork. bork.), which is not at all the same as en scarf or en halsduk. (or is it ett?) And kött. And fläskkött (use the ä, or else it’s bottle meat vs. pork!). But those are okay since I’m nearly veg. But at frukost we need to use a sked(no, really, try to pronounce that word with an American mouth). And we’ll be in the forest so we may encounter en sköldpaddaor en groda, which is not the same as en fråga. Numbers: I should know there are sjudagar in en vecka. Health: what if I get hurt and need en sjuksköterska?! I have a “k” problem. F*ck. (this one is global)
So on one hand, I’m lucky: that most of the Western world speaks English. I’m lucky, because I get to travel to Sweden with a real-live Swedish interpreter (who cringes in horror as I contort my mouth to form the simplest of words without laughing). But I feel quite opposite: I’d like to participate and explore and learn about a place with a partial understanding of what makes it tick. Food and words and history and people…it’s all connected.
And so, if you see me walking down the street these next couple of weeks, earphones on, talking to myself and making strange faces: this is why.
And if you encounter my terrible Swedish in Stockholm, humour me? I’m just hoping to embarrass myself as little as possible on this trip.
Ursäkta. Förlåt. Tack så mycket.
CLICK HERE for the full and very beautiful language diagram by illustrator Minna Sundberg I used in the header photo.
Towards the end of 2016 I sat, dumbfounded, unable to cobble together thoughts that weren’t alternately angry and helpless, or weren’t internal pleas for relief from who-knows-where. A certain level of resigned what-the-f*ck-ness filled and somehow glued me to my spot, writing blocked, spirit dampened.
In December, hoping to move some energy, release some creative something…hoping to get my body out of a place where my mind sat traumatized, I planned two trips to Africa. If there were any hopes of surviving the next 6-12 months (let alone the next 4 years) in this new version of the land I call home, this year would require open spaces, breathtaking nature, empathy, awe, wonder and adventure…
But first, we marched. We marched, some wearing pink hats and some carrying rainbow flags; some hoisting signs and balloons and banners… I didn’t want to go; because a Women’s March seemed exclusionary to me (little did I know what was to come in the following months), but a small-yet-persuasive band of male friends, gay and straight, helped change my mind. I was marching for freedom of speech and body; for the rights of my friends near and far; for equal pay and equal respect and equal human-ness, regardless of colour, accent, sexual preference… I marched because in some ways I felt guilty to be among the privileged whose marriage or healthcare or way of life wasn’t immediately threatened by the disease now infecting the White House. I marched in solidarity. I marched to say f*ck you to the orange disaster.
And for a few weeks, it felt good to be outspoken about politics. And it felt okay to write some things and get some of the crushing inertia off my chest. And, slowly, like an ice floe might creep up on you to encase your ankles in its bone-chilling grasp, it became horrifying to read the news. Because Russia and misogyny and pee tapes and climate deniers and North Korea and Access Hollywood and lies and propaganda and golf outings in lieu of job responsibilities and resignations and firings and more lies…Look! Squirrel!
I lament that we’re in a time where one must be a carefully-crafted brand to get noticed; when quantity (of likes) wins over quality (of most everything); how the president of my country governs rules in 140-word gibberish, his sycophants eating up the doublespeak and rhetoric.
So, when January came and went, then February, and planning was in full gear for Africa trip #1 and Turkish Airlines changed my return flight to include a 2-day layover in Istanbul, I considered it a bonus. More-so in hindsight, now that my passport is worthless there. For the record, Turkey is gorgeous.
Despite the political climate, I was determined to squeeze the most from this year. 2016’s angst would not become 2017’s tumour, if I had anything to do with it. And so 2017 was dubbed Year of Africa (tho only 2-1/2 weeks were spent there in total) …a series of adventures designed to escape a weirdening world and celebrate a half-century on it.
Milestones: I visited 7 countries, stepped foot on 3 foreign continents, experienced myriad cultures; I saw wild elephants, lions, zebras, ostriches, warthogs and more birds than I can name; I restocked my spice cabinet with Zanzibari cardamom (fantastic) and Turkish tea (not so much), cumin from Qatar, cloves from Pemba Island. I spent my 50thbirthday in Paris with a favourite human. I named a spirit animal. There’s always an elephant.
A couple of years ago, a friend asked me what I thought my spirit animal was. I didn’t have a good answer. Turtle, I wondered. I feel most free when diving. Turtles are remarkable creatures; humble and curious, diligent and persistent. Eagle? I am mesmerised by birds of prey, bald eagles most profoundly. Eagles represent freedom and power and keenness and precision. But the elephant has been a guiding light throughout my life and a recurring theme these last several years. Ganesha, my Hindu patron saint, represents the light of new beginnings; he’s the remover of obstacles. In other cultures, the elephant stands for power and strength; empathy, loyalty, wisdom… I had not seen one in the wild until this summer, yet only recently have I begun to notice the overriding ele theme in my flat. My last day in Botswana burned into my heart an experience I won’t soon forget. And so it’s now more than ever that I am humbled by the magic of elephants.
The doing part of this year was good. My hard work has paid off, duly rewarded with more work. Tho procrastination has paid off as well, rewarded with inner frustration and a book yet-to-be discovered (anyone know a good literary agent…or someone famous?). I gave my Nikon D80 to my niece and I’m excited that she’s got the camera bug too. I put more of my photography out in the world. Some of it, I’d even venture to consider decent. I feel more like a writer and a photographer than I have in ages, and with that comes responsibility: to have integrity, to resist publishing crap for popularity’s sake, to learn the difference between constructive criticism and trolling (and how to respond to each), to find my niche…
I’m ending this year feeling more vulnerable than I started. Like I’ve opened doors I need to walk through or be forever disgusted with my own inability to follow-through on something that has a 50/50 chance to end in disaster. Mind churns:What if I’m wrong? …But what if I’m right?
I’m ending this year feeling conflicted. I’m afraid that the future of intimacy might be at stake. I wonder whether all the good men are walking on eggshells each day, not knowing what to say (or what to do with their hands), lest they be branded a predator. I wonder if we’re overreacting, and in the same breath or thought, I wonder if we’re not reacting loudlyenough. Yes, #metoo. And, yes, many of the most fantastic people in my world are men. Yet there are so many assholes in power who still think the rules don’t apply to them, it’s unfathomable. It’s not really all that hard, is it? No means no. Permission must be granted. Call me daft, but most women still don’t like unsolicited dick pix or catcalls or when you talk to our boobs or grab our ass on the subway or use your power to make us feel like we haven’t got any. The men I’ve got in my world already subscribe to this, yet I fear they’re the ones who will pay for #metoo exposing pervasive asshat behaviour.
And I’m ending this year more dedicated than ever to bring what I learn on the mat, off it. To think and feel and do in equal measure; balancing the head and the heart and the body to stay sane in a time where each day’s news bulletins are more absurd and frightening than the previous. To not let equanimity cancel out passion, and let iccha guide the fork-in-the-road decisions: What feels right, usually is. Right isn’t always easy. Easy isn’t always the most fun. The most fun isn’t always the right path. The right path will make itself known if you allow it. Then the journey becomes brighter…
Who’s with me in calling for peace and love and compassion and empathy and fairness and kindness and humility and integrity to be the prevailing tendencies in 2018?
It’s Earth Day, 2017. This morning, I felt like writing a rant about the things we’ve done to fuck up this beloved planet of ours, and to complain about the egomaniacal, thing-filled greed that fuels the raping and pillaging of Planet Earth and the butchering of its wild animals, the slow execution of our reef systems, and the rampant willful ignorance that paralyses a government from acting to save ourselves from ourselves.
This will continue for as long as corporations keep the heroin needle of constant consumption in our arms, necessitating individually wrapped everything; ubiquitous use of convenient, single-use plastic bottles and wrappers and bags and cups; easy, convenient, processed consumables, disguised as food, laced with deforesting palm oil; absurdly low gas prices, “disposable” electronics, a government-subsidized diabetes epidemic, funded in part by a corn syrup industry and a PAC-funded government denial of the merits of real food. Corporate pockets will get deeper in direct correlation with the width of our waistlines; they will grow richer in inverse proportion to the level of natural resources remaining; they will get more resolute and change their doublespeak as our majestic wildlife, our tropical fauna, dwindles and fades into mere memory… paradise paved to put up a parking lot (or office park or housing tract), as it were; they will point fingers as coral reefs bleach, then die, and watch as the base of our planet’s ecosystem fails in an ignorant dismissal of science at all costs.
I wanted to rant about all this, but then got sidetracked by a quest for beauty this afternoon. A self-posed question of what I love about Planet Earth. What have I seen that has taken my breath away? If the only will or want I can control is my own: what can I share that might change someone else’s?
So on this Earth Day, I share some photos of the things on Planet Earth I’ve seen in my near half-century, as ocean temperatures rise and carbon levels increase and sugar-induced disease becomes endemic; these are the things that give me pause every day to stop and appreciate the Wonder that is inherent in this magnificent ball of rock that we inhabit, for as long as she will have us.
Last year, I wrote an article called On Messing Up the Bed and Other Things I’ve Learnt From My Dog. Having an aging companion, we begin to reflect upon the things they add to our lives and the things we learn as our days with them become of the numbered variety. And so, on January 1st I tasked myself with a project. Seemingly simple, I was going to take one picture of my dog each day and post on Instagram. Lest I become boring or, gods forbid, that crazy dog lady, I began to add anecdotes and, as the weeks marched on, Dog Wisdom. And so began the #instagus project.
Against a backdrop of fear, name-calling, hate-mongering, loss (So. Many. Untimely. Deaths.), frustration, exhaustion, disbelief, anger, resentment, uncertainty, instability (…) this year, I was determined to focus on the simple truths of what was known, the realities of what lay in front of me and the notion that I am only able to change myself, how I view the world and how I interact with it each day. Dog wisdom channels Yogic wisdom, and one wonders where each begins and ends. Perhaps dogs are, in fact, the ultimate yogis.
During the year, what emanated from the posts were pleas for introspection, for kindness, for an adherence to values. Dogs teach us that there is magic in simplicity, that a methodical butt-sniff tells us if we’re dealing with friend or foe (regardless of breed or gender or silly dog attire), that kindness exists regardless of pedigree or socioeconomic status. And in this surreal year, a year in which humans tried to teach us that we must deceive and humiliate and pimp out our values in order to win; that a book should not be read, and moreover, should be judged by its cover; that some lives are more important than others; that money trumps pretty much everything, I’ve been compelled to live by Dog Wisdom rather than emulate these human actions. If I’m frank, humans have not been good for humanity this year.
I thought it fitting to wrap up this chaotic, merciless, infamous 2016 with a some of my favourite Dog Wisdom posts and reflections on how this galumphing, snoring, sometimes smelly-headed, fart machine helped me get through this year…
While uncertainty reigns, hold fast to the values of truth, integrity, humanity, kindness; appreciate natural beauty. Satya. Ahimsa. Asteya. Bramacharya. Aparigraha.
Dogs don’t see uncertainty around them, the world is just what it is. We humans project our fears, biases and ignorance on the world we encounter each day, while dogs see (and seek) love, food, shelter and kindness. Yoga teaches us 5 Yamas — Satya (truth); Ahimsa (non-harming); Asteya (non-stealing); Bramacharya (restraint); Aparigraha (non-grasping) — I’ve found these to be powerfully simple guides to help get through the overwhelming barrage of negativity that 2016 flung at us.
Dogs help us see that happiness is a good stick, a walk in the woods on a perfectly crisp fall day, and a warm place to sleep. They teach us to cherish the little things and seek adventure (or at least the spirit of it) in the everyday routine. 2016 sucked in countless ways. But there were highlights, too. There were parties and friends coming to visit; faraway holidays and European chocolates; neighbors helping neighbors and free concerts; hiking and kayaking and swimming in the ocean and beautiful sunrises…
Set intention, allow for the unknown, and the Universe responds in interesting ways.
Ever notice that when you stop fighting and yearning for something very specific, if you really identify what it is you’d like to see realised and stop making things so complicated, that opportunities and ideas and resources make themselves available? Dogs seem to go at their days with the intention of a nice romp or a long walk or simply earning a treat. The chased squirrels and found tennis balls and random dogish interactions are part of the journey. Canines show us that it’s our job to conjure up a willingness to explore every day, and embrace a belief that there’s just a little bit of magic left in the Universe to help things work out.
Focus intently on that which is in front of you. Expect bumps because there are no perfectly smooth paths; in doing so, distractions won’t warrant that much attention when they arise.
Yoga sutra 1.30 says that there are several kinds of obstacles that can be expected (doubt, carelessness, laziness, failure to detach from want, ungroundedness, illness, etc.) that distract us and get in the way of our path. By focusing on the immediate, the real, the stuff going on in front of our eyes, we can live less mired by the “what-ifs” that usually don’t come to fruition unless we let them. By paying attention, we can get more out of what we’ve got instead of attaching expectation (or anticipation of failure) to what may never come to pass. In this way, we don’t take for granted the good, we can let go of what isn’t serving us, and most of all, we can appreciate the cosmic humour in daily life.
Dog Wisdom: 99% of car rides result in an adventure. Our minds get mired in the “what-ifs” of misadventure that detract from the possibility of great adventures ahead.
This is the important stuff: Taking time to sniff out the truth. Listening to the heart. Letting go of what keeps us small and fearful. Surrounding yourself with those who care about your imperfect self. Giving to, or doing for, those who need it more than you do. Laughing at, and learning from, your mistakes. Sharing what makes you feel strong. Spending an afternoon in the forest. Listening to the soft snoring of a woods-weary pup…
Happy 2017, my friends… here’s to a new year full of possibility and new adventures.
And to 2016: You’ve been unceremoniously unfriended. Please don’t write.
Two years ago today, I set off on the trip that would become the one to which I compare most others. After a whirlwind stopover in London, I was officially en route to Delhi, which was start and end to an almost 3-week adventure in Rajasthan.
I didn’t climb K2 or bathe in the Ganges; nor did I do yoga or a meditative retreat in an ashram in Rishikesh. Instead, I did sun salutations on the marble floor of a renovated haveli in Jodhpur on Christmas morning, to the sounds of a goat bleating to be let into the hotel’s lobby. I drank hand-brewed chai from a terra cotta cup on a dirt road in a dusty village market in Jojawar. I drank Kingfishers and danced to Bollywood music wearing a kurta (and a bindi) on New Year’s Eve in Jaipur. I walked the market streets of Pushkar before the bustling day began, to be blessed by a Brahmin priest by the magical Pushkar Lake. I got lost coming home from a mind-bending trip the Swaminarayan Akshardam in Delhi. I rode a camel; haggled for deals in markets; visited forts built in the middle ages; saw new puppies and starving dogs; smiled and shared tea with strangers; travelled on an overnight train; inhaled the aromas of amazing street food as well as those of the human condition; saw Delhi’s famed smog as well as its blue skies; tasted the best jalebi and samosas and aubergine curry and lassi and dosas I’ve ever had…and, yes, I saw the Taj Mahal. The toilet story was the best of that day, tho.
India was an experience for every physical sense, plus some senses I didn’t know how to tap into until I came home and began reflecting.
As I think about the coming year and begin to plan the shells of future wanders and adventures I wanted to share India Day 1, my first blog post and in it, the words that fail to adequately depict the shell shock that is one’s first contact with the entity that is India. [I hope you enjoy reading that post as much as I did writing it.]
As I was walking my dog on a dreary, rainy, cold early December morning, I noticed some haphazard shoots growing out from under the rickety wooden steps of a multi-family house. I pass this house daily, sometimes multiple times a day, on my walks. It’s an unimpressive front lawn, arbitrarily sprouting ornaments in the form of random trash or the occasional creepy garden gnome. Shoots noted, I walked on.
The thought occurred to me then, that if it were an underwater common-as-anything porch (coral outcropping, if you will) sprouting tendrils from a dark place, not only would I have stopped, but I would have circled back, pulled out my camera and strobe and stuck head (and/or hand) into the unknown, full of hopeful wonder.
I’ve been a scuba diver for two decades. In the deep blue, magic lurks in the crevices, sea life sparkling and undulating with the current. Above water, magic barely splutters, remaining hopeful like un-popped corn, that it might get a chance to fly before the heat is switched off.*
What diving has taught me is patience and observation and wonder and marvel… it has taught me to notice small things that look just a hair out of place. It has taught me to appreciate the fragility of our ecosystem. Diving has taught me the subtleties of breath and to believe that there is subtle magic in what we encounter every day, depending how we look at things.
Sure, it would be peculiar here on dry land, poking around under strangers’ porches, rooting around in their garden beds, standing uninvited in backyards looking for critters… But let’s take Poseidon’s teachings to dry land and see if they work.
1. Pay attention to the natural world.
Look and listen. What is it trying to say? What is unique about today? Are we missing everyday beauty by walking too quickly, looking down at our phones, avoiding eye contact with strangers?
2. Observe one exceptional thing every day.
Think about its place in the Universe…contemplate yours. I saw a pileated woodpecker in the woods last weekend, watched as it flitted tree-to-tree. I spent ten minutes watching this amazing creature. It wasn’t the first one I’d ever seen, but each time I do brings out a swell of wonder that is hard to quantify.
Divers know that underwater we never hold our breath. We know that slow, deep and steady breathing helps conserve air. We know that small inhalations and exhalations manage buoyancy. We know that bubbles are our friends.
On land, observing our breath helps us be present — it helps us relax and evaluate the cacophonous chaos unfurling around us. Breathing consciously and not always just mechanically makes a world of difference. Nature sometimes makes us hold our breath, awaiting the cool thing that comes next… on dry land, seek that feeling out. Underwater, we learn to breathe in harmony with our surroundings.
4. Anticipate…don’t just wait.
There is a sense of entitlement in the act of waiting. I am a firm believer that we are not entitled to anything, and that we must appreciate each day, each sunrise, each kind person that enters our lives, each small treasure and each creature comfort. As we walk (drive, ride, run, jog, swim…) through our very fortunate Western lives, we plan well into the future, we think about the next thing to consume, we save for the unexpected, focusing on ourselves and taking for granted today. Instead of simply waiting and wanting more, let’s relish the anticipation, appreciate and delight in what’s to come, find joy in the planning, all without neglecting the small wonders of the sometimes unremarkable Now.
5. Believe in magic.
Not hocus-pocus trickery, but the marvel and the spectacular that is inherent in everyday life. Someone shares a secret; the silly thing a pet does to make you smile when you’re sad; a child’s discovery that made you grin from ear to ear; the blooming flowers where you least expect them; a call from an old friend out of the blue just when you’re thinking about them; pieces of a plan, like synchronicity, falling into place; the shoot growing, just peeking out from underneath a porch…
With daily headlines that border on the absurd, the darkness of winter closing its ranks, the chaos of the holidays bearing down on us, I invite non-divers to share in the spirit of Poseidon, Neptune, Varuna, Njord or the myriad other sea deities and borrow ocean wisdom from a diver on dry land.
*Alternate wisdom on the decline of magic, courtesy ChrisGoja: Above water, magic has become scarce, faltering like embers about to die, merely winking at us at times, as if to attract that one morsel that might nurture it back to life… 💜