On windmills and cheese: A trepidatious foray back into the world.

579 days ago I stepped off a flight from Burma, via Thailand, through Hong Kong, and into a new world order. In that many days, I have spent face-to-face time with fewer people than I have digits on my left hand. This morning was the first meal I have eaten indoors, in a restaurant, in 18 months.

Anxiety, social awkwardness, uncertainty, stranger-danger, general uneasiness… all feelings that have been percolating these last months. And with that also brewing was a weird claustrophobia, leaving me feeling stranded on some desert island. Sans desert…or palm trees…or anything remotely resembling bright blue seas.

So about a month ago, when the EU opened its gates to blue passport holders with that magic little card, I felt like I was holding not a vaccination certificate, but something of a golden ticket. I found myself clicking “purchase” on a round-trip flight to Amsterdam with a long window of unknown in the middle.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a hotel in a little city just north of A’dam, having spent the afternoon amongst canals lined with storybook architecture and meticulously cobbled streets, marshy canals teeming with European waterfoul, and centuries-old windmills looking, even in their retirement, as impressive as the day they were commissioned.

Alkmaar windmill. Yes, this is real.

Welcome to Amsterdam.

I’ll back up a few days to Sunday morning, when I landed in Amsterdam, met a friend at my hotel, and began a whirlwind couple of days traipsing back and forth across the city. Me: masked; the rest of A’dam: much less-so!

My first impression is that travel has changed not least because there are more things to worry about: standing too close to someone in a queue; whether there is outdoor seating at a restaurant; putting on a mask, taking it off, putting it on again, then wondering if it’s ever okay to maybe not wear a mask for a bit; Borders! Did I fill out the right entry form? Can I even enter, or have the rules changed again? It is quite honestly a little stressful. And so I’ve arrived on the other side of the proverbial pond, but have arrived also quite apprehensive. I’m feeling a bit shell-shocked by the amount of “outness” in more than a year and a half. We introverts were able to spend this time mega-introverting…this is hard. And a bit weird. And I’m not entirely sure I want to go back to the old verison of normal.

That said, the architecture is lovely, and I managed to also try many of the local delicacies on offer: stroopwafel, frietjes, and broodje haring. Note: unlike the stroopwafel, broodje haring is definitely a subjective taste: it’s salt-cured herring with pickles and onions on bread, like a cross between pickled herring and a oniony, jello sandwich. Or something. I gave it a thumbs-up! Ditto to the fresh stroop wafels, hand-made using the secret family recipe!

Onwards. Holland, Part II: Windmills and cheese.

Did I mention the trains? Coming from Boston where the T works when it feels like working, and the Commuter Rail takes one far enough as to be only semi-convenient, the trains in Holland are like magic. Take Dutch perfectionism and overlay that onto a web of trains and trams and metro lines, sprinkle in speed and cleanliness, and one gets from point A to point B quickly, conveniently and hassle-free.

As such, it took about 1/2 an hour to go roughly 40km, and like that I was literally transported to that little city north of A’dam: Alkmaar for Part II of my Holland experience: Windmills and cheese.

My first day in Alkmaar was a train ride and a wander about the town, where I stumbled upon a busy-ish main shopping street (bleh) and a load of tourists (no masks: bleh x2), and a local park where I found a windmill and some very strange outdoor art (flanked by a sign in Dutch that read pas op loslopende mensen” which loosely translates to “watch out for stray people” – this, I found amusing!). I went to bed that first night a little disappointed and wondering where had all the windmills gone? (and maybe a little about the stray people)

So it was to my very pleasant surprise the next morning, when I got into a conversation with a local college student out walking her dog, and she offered to show me her city. We ended up at a nature reserve on the other side of town (that I’d never have found on my own!) where there are 4 intact-but-dormant windmills. I learnt that the town had a castle in medieval times, and although the town sat higher than some of its surrounding area, these windmills (there were originally 6) helped ensure that the water flowed away from the castle and the town. From there we looked at the Grote Kerk (literally, big church; more formally Grote Sint-Laurenskerk), wandered about some more, and found possibly the best cheese shop I’ve ever been in.

Windmills and cheese, sorted.

A simple conversation with a stranger led to a serendipitous afternoon and a mini-adventure I’d never have known about otherwise. These are the things I’ve missed during lockdown: small kindnesses, chance encounters, simple but new experiences, cultural connection, situational spontaneity, small wonders with old (and new) friends…


And, so, the short sojourn in Holland ended with my getting on another train… this one to Antwerp for the next leg of the journey: Adventures in Belgium: Castles and forests.

Birb-spotting: adventures in Covidville.

Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.

But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.

The waiting is the hardest part.


So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).

So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.

Once again, Nature as antidote.

In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.

Osprey in predator mode © Lesli Woodruff 2020

Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.

The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.

Hummingbird © Lesli Woodruff 2020
Hummingbird

Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….

With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.

And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.

One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.

Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!

My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.

Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!

And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.

I digress.

Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.

The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!


It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.

So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:

  • Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
  • Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
  • Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
  • After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
  • Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!

Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.

An introvert’s guide to solo travel: 5 rules to a successful adventure

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.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE POST!

Ett språkproblem

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.

It begins easily enough: hej. tack. ja. nej. Hello. Thank you. Yes. No.

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 sköldpadda or en groda, which is not the same as en fråga. Numbers: I should know there are sju dagar 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.

 

 

Year of Africa: On wrapping up the year, elephants, and what comes next.

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.

DSC_3027-1

Blue Mosque

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 50th birthday in Paris with a favourite human. I named a spirit animal. There’s always an elephant.

D72_5250A 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 loudly enough. 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?