Hunger

I vowed that today would be the day I got back to writing. I reminded myself of this goal as I went through the routines of my morning: I tramped through the slush leftover from last night’s storm and thought “I will write today”; I squeezed in next to the furiously sketching man on the crowded metro and reminded myself, “I will write today” ; “Today is the day”, I promised myself, and disregarded the passive aggressive complaints of my art classmates as we jostled for a spot near the model.

And now I’ve made it home. I’m in front of my computer. But all I can think about is how hungry I am.

Oh, it’s a trope, the hunger of pregnancy. There are countless internet forums where women describe their hunger: ravenous, midnight snacking women doubled over from the early contractions of hunger pains. I read them looking for a description of my own hunger, as though hunger were a new sensation. Of course, it isn’t. But, as a woman who spent some of my young adulthood curating a taste for the empty satisfaction of restraint, it has been illuminating to be so relentlessly reduced to the most basic needs of my organism.

I can’t find a description of my hunger on the internet, because my body only became a cliche when I decided not to listen to it anymore. Now I’m listening: for me, being pregnant has been an insistent invitation to feel again all the things that I learned long ago to numb. My hunger is a pile of hot coals in the bowl of my pelvis, covered with grey ash. The coals draw energy from my limbs, creating a draft and blowing the ash fall away until they burn bright. When my hunger is strong I feel weak and sick. Eating can smother the coals for a little while. That’s what my hunger is like. Even though it sucks, I am glad to finally know it.

When pregnancy gets in the way of plans

Our boat is beyond the palm tree and the island.

All kinds of ships haunt the seas beyond Singapore’s artificially sandy southern shores. On my birthday, the last day of our 5-month journey around part of the world, Andrés and I wanted to take advantage of one more day in the tropics. Tomorrow we would haul ourselves back to wintery New York City, though not the way we had planned. Up the beach, a group of people on an employee retreat tumbled onto the sand, hooting with forced workplace jolly. A lifeguard sounded the whistle at a group of British men who had climbed the craggy rocks of a nearby island. From behind the island, a massive blue ship slid into view and began docking further up the shore. Its hull was stacked high with red, yellow and white containers, and blocked white letters gave us the boats name: the Thames. It was our ship, scheduled to leave Singapore the next day. But we wouldn’t be on it. I was pregnant, and this trip was over.

In another universe where I’m not pregnant, Andres and I are on the Thames right now, riding the 35 foot waves of the winter Atlantic. With the help a few mysterious security personnel joining us in Colombo, we would have navigated the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden. After passing through the Suez Canal with our questionable “Yellow Fever Exempt” documents, and drifting by the whales and rocks of Gibraltar, we would have chased storms across the cold open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, New York just across the way. We would be writing prose and music in our cozy stateroom. The sailors would tell us tales of adventure over delicious dinners in the mess hall. I wouldn’t feel sick for any reason. Mine was a romantic idealization of cargo-ship travel, but I still mourn the adventure a little.

It wasn’t to be, at least not this time. A doctor confirmed the pregnancy two days before my birthday, and laughed when we said that it probably happened in China. “Made in China!” she cheered. Yes, yes, but what we really wanted to know was if a month-long ride across half of the world on a doctor-less cargo ship (under no circumstances would a pregnant woman be allowed to sail, stated the contract we had signed months earlier) was still in our stars. “Not a good idea,” she informed us somberly. It didn’t seem like a great idea to me either. I admire mothers-to-be who defy the myths and realities of pregnancy’s discomfort. Serena Williams won the Australian Open when she was in the queasy first trimester of pregnancy, and Olympian Alysia Montano competed in an 800-meter race at 8 1/2 months pregnant. Some women rock climb even when their bellies have become big and round. Andrés and I considered taking the cargo ship home up to the last minute. We really wanted to go, and now that I was pregnant I saw the decision as a bell-weather for the rest of parenthood. Would we be the kinds of parents who blindly follow whatever advise comes our way? Would we become adverse to risk, huddling our family inside of an apocolypse-proof yurt, isolated from the dangers of the world? Defying convention by taking that ship would be a statement: I make the choices here! Being a mother won’t get in the way of my life!

In the end, I realized that defiance is not a good basis for decision. Unlike Serena Williams, I had no doctor, no job. In the best circumstances, the internet-less boat would drop us off at some dark dock in New York in the middle of February, four-months pregnant and possibly a little panicked. Our decision to give up one plan for another means we are beginning parenthood with a flexibility and spontaneity, and even a touch of responsibility. Being a mother won’t get in the way of my life. It will be my life. JUST JOKING that is not the moral of the story here. I just don’t know how to end this. Any suggestions?

Every woman is a nymph: Insecurities at the Japanese onsen

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Imagine Artemis, goddess of the hunt and chastity, bathing in the water of a forest spring, accompanied by a group of nymphs. She lies back and the warmth of the water kneads away the tension in her strong back and shoulders. Around her, the sounds of water splash and drip as other women bathe themselves and their children. A magnificent tree arches over the bath, a cool breeze drifts by, and a single golden leaf drops into the peaceful water.

Two months ago, I went to my first Japanese onsen. It was an inexpensive one in Yonago, with a utilitarian locker room and the same musty light of a high school gymnasium. As I tried to covertly observe how the other woman handled their bathes, I felt less like Artemis and more like a large naked foreigner in the midst of a YMCA full of Japanese nymphs.

In the myth, Artemis’s bath is interrupted by an intruding hunter. Her relaxed body seizes up, tense muscles protecting…what? In her case, her honor and her body. After all, she was the goddess of chastity. In my case, the intruder was a thought, and the only thing I needed protection from was myself. As I lay back in the water, I worried that I had messed up the pre-bath ritual. I imagined that the other women avoided the bath that I chose. Did they think I was dirty? The experience of applying relaxing remedies to my body while my mind got all tangled up in its insecurities was enlightening: Where do my insecurities live? I learned a bit about that at the onsen.

I am interested in my body. I feel a steady appreciation for it as a vehicle. My satisfaction fluctuates when it comes to my appearance, and that attention borders on unjustified worry when it is internal health that I’m thinking about. My brain is often sending messages downwards: “Thanks!” “Yuck!” “Oh well.” “What’s wrong?” In Japan, as I returned to onsen after onsen, getting used to the experience of relaxing, naked and different, with a bunch of uninterested women, I became sensitive to how those messages feel, physically, in my layers of my skin and in my organs. In turn, I started to notice how my brain responds to the feelings my body communicates. If left unexamined, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings breed each other.

At the fancier onsen that I visited, I sometimes found myself alone. On those occasions, I was able to go through the ritual of cleaning my body at the faucets to the side without worrying about being watched. In the steamy room, I would walk to the bath with nothing but a small towel folded on top of my head and, goddesslike, descend into the water. The sound of water running off a rock into the pool, the sight of steam rising to the wooden ceiling, and the shadow of Japanese maple in the garden outside created a wonderfully calm atmosphere. My muscles release tension reluctantly though, and in the hot mineral water I had to tell them, with a thought, to let everything melt away. It took many minutes before I could lie back, truly at ease.

Then, I would hear the slide of the door and another woman would walk into the room. My heartbeat quickened. My skin tightened. My stomach might give a little flip and my hair follicles a little twist. These are the feelings of my body getting ready to defend. All because a small naked grandmother had started bathing in my vicinity! There had hardly been time for a thought to form around the insecurity. It existed as a purely physical response, until my mind started rationalizing the feeling. She must be annoyed to see me here. Perhaps Artemis overreacted when she turned the intruding hunter into a stag. I certainly overreact to the presence of another person, something I was not aware of until I had practiced reducing myself to an inert puddle at the Japanese onsen.

We visited many onsen during our twenty days in Japan, and eventually I became accustomed to the ritual, even talking to the other women in the bath. The last onsen we visited was in Kyoto. It was a large one offering many services, so many that I became overwhelmed by the many rooms and towels and urns of salt. Two women noticed my confusion and came over to help me understand the sauna, and later, when I was cooling down in a shower, they rushed over to tell me, “It’s time to have your back scrubbed!” They led me to the bathing faucets where an attendant waited. I sat naked on a stool while the woman vigerously scrubbed my back with sugar, my two new friends looking on as they waited their turns. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t worry about doing it wrong. In the onsen, every woman is a nymph, and every thought is a hunter. It’s best just to let those thoughts go away, unnoticed, as you slide into the bliss of the bath.

Getting ready to walk in our wooden sandals to the onsen in Yamanouichi.

Finding Spontaneity in Laos

How can two travelers soak up as much of the world as possible, while keeping their bodies and relationship intact? When Andrés and I started to dream up our adventure, we wanted to find a balance between the assurance of plans and the beauty of spontaneity. To create structure, we chose a direction. We made lists of places we wanted to visit. We researched which tickets and visas needed to be arranged in advance. We figured spontaneity would take care of itself, so we made a few reservations, secured one visa, and felt pretty proud of ourselves.

Now, as the trip sputters towards its last great hurrah, I am finding that spontaneity takes effort, especially when it’s a constant option. Since leaving Russia, our plans have been slapped together by navigating the trains, boats and buses that go to the far-flung consulates where we chase down visas. Most recently, we spent a few days in Vientiane, the sleepy capitol of Laos, where thousands of ex-pats living in Thailand on tourist visas swarm on a weekly basis to renew their stamps at the consulate. A few days became a few more days when we discovered that we’d chosen a week of holiday closures to seek the visa. It was a stuffy, stagnant ordeal, and once it was over, we were ready to get out of town. The local Avis had a truck available at a discounted rate. We picked it up from the temple next door, prayed to the Buddha for a safe trip, and drove north into the dusty red of broken roads and sunset, headed to Vang Vieng.

The reviews for that Avis rental agency were atrocious. The internet said driving after dark would be dangerous. Invariably, the worst laid plans are the most fun.

As a driver, I woudn’t have been able to negotiate the challenges of that 4-hour drive, but Andrés attacked the potholes and the dark, populated villages of the road with grace. The next day, I woke up excited to see what more our truck and its driver could do, but I still hadn’t learned my lesson in spontaneity. Over breakfast, I consulted Google maps to see what attractions were nearby. I looked at Trip Advisor’s list of top things to do in Vang Vieng. I asked the owner of the hotel for her opinion. From all of these sources, we chose a destination and set forth in the trusty dusty Mazda.

Steep mountains jutted out of the fields, and a dirt buggy wizzed by, its driver’s face covered with a handkerchief. A turn-off to the left was announced with a tantalizing sign: Swimming! Caving! Hiking!

“It’s not the Blue Lagoon, though. Let’s just keep going to the one we saw on Trip Advisor.”

We passed another sign, this one promising a beautiful look-out. But it hadn’t been vouched for, so we ignored it as well.

When a third sign became visible around the red bend of road, we finally came to our senses. The handwritten sign was multicolored and bilingual, boasting with loopy letters an ancient cave with “too many stalactites” and a swimming hole. Andrés slowed the truck. I hesitated. A group of boys playing with a spinning top stopped to watch us and we made or decision, turning onto the narrow road and driving towards the unknown.

Everything on this trip is unknown to us. Why do I trust a bunch of dorky foreigners writing reviews on-line more than a painstakingly written sign on the side of the road?

A little ways down what had now deteriorated into a gully, the road ended and we found a hut with two young women. A board on a post indicated that it would cost 10,000 kip…for what, we didn’t know. One of the women held a dangling handful of headlamps. She told us that she would show us a cave. Explore a cave with this young stranger, in the middle of the Lao countryside? The stiff, passive part of my brain said, “It might not be safe! We don’t know anything about this place or this person!” and then, heroically, the pliable part asserted itself and said, “We’d be a fool not to go!”

The path was broken with precarious bridges made of round bamboo stalks, tied together into slippery bundles. In our flip-flops, we scrambled to keep up with the agile young woman who so gracefully led us deeper into the fields. “Lemon,” she broke off a stalk of wild lemongrass for us to smell. “Look,” she said as she touched a sensitive fern, its leaves folding up with timidity. To one side, a group of cows picked at the ground, and their dull bells clanged pointlessly.

No one was at the swimming hole, and its water was clear and blue and rushed around a beautiful pock-marked rock that had fallen from the hanging cliff above. “You swim later, cave first,” our guide told us, handing us each a headlamp. “Be careful,” she said as our feet slid across the clay steps carved to reach the cave’s opening.

“Careful,” she told us again, and she shined her light on a rock jutting out of the low ceiling. “You like spiders?”

It only got darker, and slipperier, and hotter, and smaller as we walked deep into the cave. Clang clang clang. Our guide knocked a lighter against a trio of stalagmites, and each had a different tone. She shined her headlamp on the ceiling, where ribbons of rock had formed over the centuries. “It’s sparkle,” she said as she illuminated a mound of purplish crystal.

The ground was squishy with mud, and it was becoming harder to breath the damp cave air. My headlamp had broken into a hand lamp, and our guide kept saying, “A little further, it is the best.” Finally, we didn’t want to go any further, and to my relief, our guide agreed to lead us back. At the swimming hole, we returned our lamps, and thanked the young woman. “Tip for the guide?” she insisted. Our first offer was insufficient, so we gave her a little more. “I leave you now,” she promised, and we were alone.

The water was full of fish, and they nibbled at my feet while I guarded the backpack and Andres swam. It had been a strange experience, wandering around that cave with a stranger. I didn’t totally trust her, nor did I trust the man at the rental car agency, nor did I trust our bus drivers or the tuk-tuk drivers who charged us too much money. But despite that lack of trust, and the unknowns that people and situations represent, Andrés and I are still physically intact, and better friends than ever. It turns out that the tuk-tuks and the Mazda truck and the hot slippery cave in the middle of a cow field in Laos were all some of the best decisions we’ve made on this trip. With a little structure, and a lot of luck, even two tired travelers can achieve the beauty of a spontaneous decision.

Border Crossings

Two days ago, Andrés and I, along with a handful of tourists, Vietnamese merchants, and several bushels of cilantro, crossed an imaginary line together. The line wasn’t visible, nor was it tangible, but nevertheless it held a bit of that tension that zips along the lines defining countries. On a forested mountain, we waited on the Vietnamese side for our broken bus to be mended enough to cross over to Laos, taking the opportunity to stretch our legs outside with a cup of instant coffee from a ramshackle restaurant catering to a clientele with nothing but time.

International border crossings are serious affairs, requiring preparation and a degree of respectful watchfulness. Ever since I was quite invasively interrogated at the Port of Spain airport I have known that the zone between countries, whether imaginary or spatial, is a place where simple rights can slip away. To make the land crossing from Vietnam into Laos, we had prepared by researching visa requirements for each of our nationalities, and methods of payment. We had investigated the most viable checkpoint for our itinerary. We knew when the border opened, and what towns were nearby. We were prepared for every aspect of the (admittedly, easy) crossing into Laos. Unfortunately, we there was no way for us to prepare for the bus that brought us there.

I knew we were in for it when a man on a scooter met us at the hotel door to pick us up. We had no tickets for the 24-hour bus trip, but the man recognized the travel agency that we had booked the trip through, and soon we were following him down the busy streets of old-quarter Hanoi. It was impossible to steer our suitcases around the parked scooters and small tables that cover the sidewalks, so we walked in the street, trying to follow the man on the scooter with our eyes, already blocks ahead. When we finally caught up, he told us to wait, and swerved away to join the traffic of the city.

He came back a half hour later with more tourists. We were bundle into a van and brought to the bus station. The bus we met there was a double decker, but the bottom half was already full to the ceiling with boxes. We climbed up the stairs, taking off our shoes at the top, and found it almost as full as the bottom, not of people but of cargo: boxes, food, and building supplies stacked high on top of the seats. The cracked windows were held together with opaque advertisements, making it impossible to see outside. A few reclining chairs were available, and more below: the seats were also double deckers, and we were packed together, excuse the cliche, like sardines. I’ve never felt more like a sardine: salty with sweat, squished against my seat neighbor (luckily that happened to be my boyfriend) and somewhat horizontal.

And that was my position for 26 hours. “Somewhat horizontal” is very uncomfortable after only a few hours. A Vietnamese travel agent who was on the bus to research a potential contract with the bus company (not happening after this trip) told me that international buses in Vietnam make most of their money through shipping cargo. Having a few tourists on board has the duel benefit of letting them operate without a commercial license, and also ensuring a more lenient customs process, making it easier to smuggle in a few things. He said there isn’t really a better option for traveling via land to Laos, and that’s why his agency doesn’t handle trips to that country.

All things considered, the trip went very well. We made it to Vientiane in 28 hours, not too much longer than the estimate. The dust from the red dirt road that filled the bus’s air seemed pristine and unpolluted. No one lost their passport, and my preparedness meant that an unprepared young backpacker was able to pay his visa fee despite having no money on him. Compared to many border experiences, this was a piece of cake. But I hope to never ride another bus like that again.

Humidity

We chugged into Hanoi at 5:00 this morning. Though the night’s sleep was interrupted by a midnight border crossing, I feel rested enough to forgo any nap. From the balcony of our hotel room, the sounds of motor engines below lend me a bit of the energy I might naturally lack.

We crossed an interesting border today. Somewhere in the darkness outside of our train window, in the humid night masked by the cigarette smoke of other passengers, the feeling of this trip changed again. Traveling in the tropics: I experience it through my olfactory glands, with the full fresh smell of plants that grow above rot and the tickle of smoke in my nostrils. The sounds of engines and people’s voices mingle, the melody of street hawking and a piercing notes of a birthday song sung in the hotel lobby. I have lived in humid places where bougainvillea claws concrete buildings, and the sensation of being somewhere hot always fills me with the past, a past that didn’t necessarily belong to me, but that I went out and found. Usually I step into this wet heat from the airless cavity of an airplane. Today, the heat grew around me, slowly pushing my traveling feeling into a new (final?) realm.

Boats

Andrés and I didn’t plan our trip to be part of a movement. Nevertheless, our airplane-less sojourn around the world could be considered an extended exercise in “slow travel,” and I am enjoying the benefits that this kind of exploration offers: getting off the beaten path, getting into the rhythm of a place, keeping our tourist dollars local, that sort of thing

We have crossed continents on trains, but getting on a train will never be as exciting as embarking on a long boat ride. It’s still unbelievable to me that you can take a boat from Russia to Japan, even though I’ve been on that very boat. The passage between two strange countries on a ferry is a swaying, sooty affair. On the water, everyone is a traveler, and we’ve celebrated that status with whatever culture we are accompanying: most passengers left the boat to Norway inebriated; between Sweden and Finland the Fins let loose on the dance floor to a live band; and the Russia/South Korea/Japan boat was complete international cross-culture madness. We’ve taken 5 international ferries so far, each with their unique charms, all utilitarian, shabby, and fun.

Passengers enjoying a smoke on the Stena Ferry from Denmark to Norway.

The ferry between Stokholm, Sweden and Finland takes a stunning route through the tiny islands that make up these Nordic coastlines.

The Eastern Dream stops in Vladivostok, Russia; Donghae, South Korea; and Sakaiminato, Japan. At each departure, the ship is brought out to sea by the harbormaster. He then turns the ship back over to the captain and bravely leaps onto a hovering pilot ship.

The boat from Osaka, Japan to Busan, South Korea was full of teenagers who immediately put on pajamas for the big boat slumber party.

As our boat from South Korea neared China, the famous air pollution became visible.

We won’t take any more international ships for a while: it’s over land from now on. These fun trips have left their mark, though, and I’ll be sure to favor boat travel in the future, whenever I have the time for it.

Street Food in Busan: You are what you eat

Some experiences happen behind the eyes, and a little downwards. I recently had an experience whose astounding visual impact was surpassed by its mouthfeel.

The day we arrived in South Korea, we were very tired. The boat from Japan had traversed a rocky sea, and I had been too frightened to sleep very well. Still, we had only one day in Busan so we decided to plow through the fatigue and hit the streets.

A friend recommended the Jagalchi area for seafood, so we headed there. We emerged from the subway onto a narrow sidewalk, the road illuminated by neon signs. The pedestrian walkway was crammed with foot stalls, each consisting of a stove and a small counter, tented over with clear plastic. We saw customers eating oysters and snails, stir fries with meat and vegetables, and soup. We found a stall that smelled good and sat down, displacing a grumpy woman’s purse.

“Move your purse,” I imagine the stall’s proprietor, a stout woman with smart eyes, said in Korean.

“Ah, but those smelly tourists have plenty of room!” The grumpy woman might have replied. We sat down in the space her purse vacated.

There were empty snail shells and oysters covering the counter. We couldn’t understand the lines and circles of the handwritten menu, so we decided to look around and point at what looked good. Before we could do that, though, the chef held up a plastic bag filled with water. Looking more closely, we could make out a mauve octopus drifting around. It’s head was about the size of my fist, and its muscular arms explored the limits of its transparent cage.

“Ok!” Andres approved. Fresh octopus, pan fried and served up with some chives, maybe. That could be delicious!

The chef put the writhing octopus on her cutting board and with a few swift chops cut it to pieces. She swiped the disassembled mollusk onto a plate, sprinkled it with sesame seeds, and placed the plate in front of us.

Immediately, a tentacle started trying to crawl off of the plate. Others waved around and knotted together. Our meal was shaking hands with itself on the plate in front of us. Maybe it was my fatigue, or the soju we had been sipping, but it seemed at that moment that the only possible plan was to pick up some chopsticks and start eating, before the whole meal escaped.

The tentacle did not want to be eaten and put up a fight. They gripped the plate with their suction cups. It was impossible to pry one off of the plate, instead it had to be slid sideways to the edge. The tentacle squirmed in my chopsticks, and in my mouth. It sucked onto my teeth and onto the inside of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. I chewed many times to ensure the octopus wouldn’t suck onto my throat and choke me from within. A man across the stall lifted his arm and made his biceps pop. The octopus is strong, and I am strong for eating it.