I had a vivid dream. I wanted to document it. I used an app called Bazaart to make a digital collage. Welcome to my dream!
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?
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.
In Zhangjiajie, China, I didn’t even notice the silhouette of mountains until a few days into our stay. The smog there is no joke! Maybe that’s why this motorist has a protector.
Thanks, Cee, for the challenge!
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.
One song that I love, despite its ubiquity in mainstream culture, is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I haven’t investigated where that name comes from, but I like to imagine that the highs and the lows, the darkness and the light of the song depict an artistic life lived in the extreme.
In Prague, the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia, visitors can gaze up at a different Bohemian masterpiece. The St. Vitus Cathedral is squeezed into the Prague Castle Complex, and visitors must look up to witness the overly-adorned pillars of Gothis splendor. Light and shadows play upon the faces of gruesome gargoyles. Serene Saints stand high above flying buttresses and art neuvou stained glass windows. It is a rhapsodic piece of work.
Thanks to Cee for the photo challenge!
I have written here about a bit of the traveling I’ve recently been doing with my partner, Andrés. But I haven’t given these stories any context. For those of you who read this blog, you might enjoy hearing about the Grand Plan. So here it is, the thesis to our travel, the overarching theme that will explain our movements for the next few months:
***~A multi-continental trip via land and sea.~***
We plan on traveling from Bulgaria (cheap flight) to Malaysia (friends to visit), without taking any planes. We want to see what the land looks like, what the water looks like, what it all smells like and even what it feels like. So the only airplanes we plan on taking are those into Europe and those out of South East Asia at the end of our trip. That’s it. Beyond those somewhat flexible parameters, our traveling isn’t particularly poetic or practical. We just decided we wanted to do this, planned our lives around it, and here we are, three weeks into the (one of the) trips of our lives.
Since we are on the move, transportation is of interest. We’ve been moved from place to place by cars, buses, boats and trains. I’ve found that the vehicle (and the company) can determine the mood of the landscape: in shared taxis, fellow passengers interact with one another, and their commentary narrates my taking-in of the various terrain and communities we passs through. On trains, my mind is fed by the world rushing by at a pleasant, swaying pace, and the sound of tracks passing underneath give my thoughts structure and drive. On the ferry in Croatia, we rushed along and stopped, rushing past islands and stopping at ports, where tourists stood out on the deck and smoked. We met a storm and cut headlong into whitecapped waves. We have dragged out suitcases, in some way, across every kilometers we’ve passed through, up and down stairs, in and out of over head racks and piles of unguarded luggage. We’re vagabonds… Glamabonds? Like camping with air conditioning, I can’t really compare our movements or accomondations to those of a true transient.
I’ve been trying to think of a lens through which to write about this trip. Traveling with a partner? Traveling without airplanes? The Mongolian empire? So far I seem to be most interested in the nitty-gritty details of getting from point A to B, in true Glamabond style. For the next few weeks, though, we won’t be moving much: we’ve unpacked our bags in a shared apartment in Berlin, and plan on sticking around for a bit. I’ll have more time to write, and spend less time to
Traveling, for me, is a state of heightened vulnerability, especially when the travel is done outside of the reaches of my native tongue. Without a home, without a routine, without words and their elaborate meanings, all I have to rely upon are crude sounds and the blunt signifiers of my body. But the movements of my body are infused with culture, too, and even the basic side-to-side shake of a head that I use as a “no” means a degree of “yes” in Albania.
We’ve been traveling the Balkans for two weeks: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. It took me a week to stop feeling unnerved by the humorless looks of strangers, the stares of the old couple following us as we stroll by their porch in the evening, the moody young mother pushing her chubby baby past us in a stroller. The cafe waiter solemnly asking for our order. In the first towns we visited, where the tourism industry seems to be predominantly a local one, I wondered if our blatantly foreign presence was unwelcome. Where are the smiles?
Both traveling and while at home, I smile a lot. I greet strangers with a smile, I smile at my loved ones. I smile at waiters and the workers at offices I resent having to visit. When I’m alone I practice making my eyes twinkle a little, because I like to cultivate a friendly look. Usually people smile back at me, and if they don’t, I understand it as a message: “I’m not interested in interacting with you”. Which is fine. I don’t want to interact extensively with most strangers. My indiscriminate smiling is simply to establish a general good will. My good will, it turns out, is nothing special. It doesn’t actually run that deep.
I’ve realized that here, in these lands of carefully distributed smiles. I might interpret the faces as closed, but the truth is we’ve encountered nothing but generosity and open hospitality. We’ve met strangers who want to spend time with us, who are interested in wrestling with our mismatched languages to learn something about one another. The old couple made endless phone calls at 11:00 pm to help us find a taxi. The young mother laughed as her baby giggled at the silly faces we made. The waiter’s face broke open with a smile when we tried our Albanian phrases on him, and he shared his mulberry rakija with us. Sometimes it even unsettles my jaded sensibility how endless this generosity appears to be: where is the limit? I’m the first to smile, but my limit for friendliness usually comes first. Once again, traveling teaches me that my fascinating (for me) and rapid judgements of strangers are usually dead wrong. Happily, I’m open to revision.
1) Tie on the boots, Fatos
Andrés and I walked into Albania. A driver, lacking proper papers to cross the border, left us with the Macedonian immigration agent after receiving half of our agreed payment. It was a sleepy Sunday, and few cars passed us as we rolled our bags along the countryless mountain road high above shining Lake Ohrid. In Albania, the agents looked at our passports but we received no stamps. It’s as though we were never there.
2) Share a taxi, Megi
The morning we left Pogradec for Albania’s capital Tiranë, we packed our bags and planned on waiting in the grape-strewn garden until 10:30, when we would walk to the bus station. I was stuffing my hairbrush into an outer pocket when Luli, our host, bustled into the room. “You go now! Taxi outside. Ready? You. Go. Now!” He grabbed my heavy suitcase and rolled it outside, past Amy the matted dog and the neat rows of potted flowers. In the street a dusty car was parked next to the public spring. A small old man in faded black sat in the back, and a blond teenager sat in the front seat with her iPhone. Flora and Luli kissed us goodbye and we were off, the hot wind blowing on my neck and the old man wedged into the middle seat, his hot panted leg digging into my own. Whenever we passed the crumbling ruins of factories and train tracks, he would poke me and say, gravely, “comunismi.”
3) Rent a car, Bujar
August is high season in Albania. In every city, the hotels double booked us and we tried again and again to find lodging that would stick. We finally found a hotel down south, on the Ionian Sea and across the border from Greece, but how to get there? Every car in the city had already been rented…but no: our Tiranë host (who had also double booked the room we were planing on sleeping in, and gave us the living room couch instead) knew a guy who knew a guy. We drove out of town on Wednesday morning in a dusty blue Ford Focus, no gas, no AC and no rear mirror. I hoped that the evil eye/ horseshoe talisman hanging from where the mirror used to be would protect us.
4) Travel in style, Bardhyl
Our dusty blue Ford did the trick: we saw it all, and after two 5-hour longhauls and a few day trips, we had the car back in Tiranë, gasless and parked against the same shady wall we found it on. It was time to move on. A gleaming white vehicle with Montenegro plates waited for us, ready to bring us to our next destination. With Momo the driver’s expertise, the 2-hour wait at the Albania/Montenegro border didn’t seem that bad. He expertly handled the winding decent into Kotor along a 200 year road, dropping us off with another patiently waiting host.
I’m expecting to take a lot of photos on this trip, so I’m grateful to the bloggers behind the Lens Artist weekly photo challenge for coming up with a way for photographers to share their work with each other. This week’s theme is blue. I think immediately of the languid blue shades that emerge at sunset near large bodies of water, especially still lakes. The Albanian side of Lake Ohrid gave me this blue vista last night:
Similarly languid was the water of Lake Michigan last May: