Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Right Now in Tirana: Walking in the Rain, Far from Home

I’m in the common room of the hostel, a tourist in my old town, a visitor come to look upon a home that doesn’t exist here anymore. I’m surrounded by off season, odd locale backpackers, a haphazard collection of drifters and penny pinchers and adventurers looking for something off the track of Paris or Venice or Budapest, and so we all find ourselves in the Balkans. The resident cat is pressed, a purring nest of fur and warm, against the side of my leg while I type. It’s been raining for days; it’s that Tirana winter again, a thing that is not so much a festive snowy frosty experience but a damp and dreary situation that isn’t that cold except for the wet, that constant wet.

Since it's not so cold the doors are open to the garden where the mandarins are heavy on the trees, soaked in rain, and I can see the hostel workers huddled in solidarity around a joint, under the eave, watching the same rain slide endlessly over and over the leaves and the mandarins and pound onto the ground. All around me conversations start and stop about this bus or that train or that last trip or the next, do you know how long it takes to get to _________, what currency do they use in _________, do you want to split a load of laundry so we can all enjoy clean socks and underwear for the first time in too long of a time? Syria and refugees and various political and military maneuvers weave in and out of plan making, and the requisite hostel weirdo chimes in with socially inappropriate comments that border on the uncomfortable and often trample right into what the fuck did he just say territories.

Somehow it’s been two and a half weeks since I came to this hostel, with an idea in my head of what I wanted to do with Tirana because I had forgotten that Tirana decides what she does with you, always remember that, and I hadn't. I’ve taken to sleeping in until about 10:00 a.m., crawling out of my warm (comfortable! Strangely so comfortable!) bed in pajamas and knee socks before tramping down the stairs to be fed my breakfast at the kitchen table. I feel like a child, coddled by the adults who cook for me and wash my towels and inquire as to my sleep and ask after my plans and greet me at the door after the day's wanderings like a student come home from school to an expectant mother. Between the rain and the cold and the unexpected turns Tirana has taken, I welcome this situation. I give into long lazy afternoons and unintended surprise naps that sneak up on me when I’m “just going to rest for a second”. I sprawl on bathtubs turned into lounge chairs in the garden and look up through the waxy green of the broad leaves and count the mandarins, listening to birds and feeling the wind on my face, curled up in borrowed blankets and recently purchased thrift store sweaters. I take showers at four p.m., because it seems the best time to get around to it. I’m writing again, something that stopped unexpectedly as it always does and just as regularly slipped back in like an outside cat after a ramble. I climb the precarious ladder up to the roof that is all blues and whites and tile and crisp air, and I look out over the roofs and imagine the people in those houses. The call to prayer winds its way through the eaves up to me sometimes. I always find my old neighborhood and rest my eyes on it for a second. 

People I have met from other countries have trickled in and out of this place, surprise reunions that have been more satisfying than some of the planned reunions I had here in Tirana. I spend time in conversation with them about their journeys but even more than that I spend hours each day, rain or shine, walking. I leave the hostel in the late morning, stepping every time into a swarm of old men and stern faced bartering, the daily pop up market of second hand treasures. The men stand expectantly over their wares, laid out so carefully on dirty white sheets- here, a splay of watches with various ailments, sparkling in the sun if there is any, there a neat long line of battered shoes, worn soft and wrinkled across the toes, the tops flopped over and submissive to the hands that slide over them and make their judgments. The jackets and sweaters hang on swayed ropes pinned to walls; a heaped bin of cell phones overflows beneath them and beyond that old paintings and copper pots and the kind of trinkets one might find in a grandmother's house. I walk through this new to me part of town, through the road called "bicycle street" because it is filled with repair shops and bike stores and more old men on their knees with tools and inner tubes and chains and grease, laughing and doing dirty work for not very much money. I cross the park into more familiar places, to the majority of town that I have tramped across, back down my old streets.

And once I'm in my old places, I somehow feel less sure of where I'm going- I slow down, I certainly wander, I get lost in thought and then I'm just lost, down a random street, getting my bearings. I sometimes stop dead in my tracks, accosted by so many ghosts of memories that I feel I can’t walk through them, so I just stand and let them batter me with an amorphous insistence; they reach in soft fingers and touch even softer parts and I close my eyes and ask for them to please stop. They don’t and then they do, and they slide away and off me and I can walk again. I seek out my old street dog and he is still there and he remembers me but I catch my heart in my throat at how terrible he looks and I think he will probably die soon but maybe I’m just being sentimental. I pet his matted fur and ignore the bones that jut like braille that begs over and over “please take me home please take me home please take me home.” I stand up to walk away and he comes after me a bit, halfheartedly. 

I’ve walked and walked and walked all over this place, retracing my steps and remembering my missteps and I have more than once found myself unable to turn down a street or go back to a place quite yet, but over the past weeks I’ve managed to cover them all. I remember and am grateful that more than anything else Tirana is where I started to learn how to do what I’m doing now- how to live and work overseas and to throw myself into new places and learn new names and routines and find a home and then pick up and leave it again because I want to see as much as I can.

I have about 6-ish uncertain weeks to go before this visa on my new job comes through, and with seven weeks and where I currently am in the Balkans I should theoretically be able to see places I’ve never been and explore into Bulgaria and Romania, see more of Serbia, volunteer, explore. But right now, all I want is to stay in this safe warm place with cold wooden floors and an endless parade of strangers and familiars and stories coming in and out, with conversations in the garden and mornings on the roof and coffee in the park, late night Skype dates and early morning English lessons and books in an afternoon bed.  

Dear reader, I have been officially and wholeheartedly taking a rest. This traveler has earned the adjective weary, not forever but finally for right now. On the horizon is Sweden and a new job and another chance to take up the challenge of starting over and building from scratch, but right now in Tirana I am just waiting for the motivation to move to come upon me. It always does. 

I was walking far from home
Where the names were not burned along the wall
Saw a building, high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small

I saw sickness bloom in fruit trees
I saw blood and a bit of it was mine

I was walking far from home
And I found your face mingled in the crowd

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hunting on Forking Paths

I ended up in Russia the same way I ended up everywhere else I have lived and worked overseas- by lucky coincidence and random chance. I also have to give props to graduate school end of term work for being so onerous that I finally gave in one night and accepted an invitation to happy hour (eating delicious things hour for me) so I could see the friends whose faces I had almost forgotten, since it had been so long since I had seen anything other than the inside of my school or the screen of my laptop or endless educational journals.

That night I caught up on the comings and goings and social issues of Vientiane’s finest. As it was getting towards the end of term and so many contracts finishing up, much of the talk revolved around who was going where and when. I had already committed to stray cat summer but had made no plans other than “somewhere in Europe”. Joe casually mentioned that Sarah wasn’t able to do her summer teaching job in Russia.

I’m sorry, what?

The unassuming start to my trip- the Russian embassy in Laos. 

Sometimes when I’m making these moves I think of all the choices and luck that have led me to where I am now. Had I not met Joe and Sarah, of course none of this would have happened. But more than that, had I not avoided grad school, or had Joe not shown up, or had he not thought to talk to me about it- all of these things lined up to get me to Russia, which got me to Europe, which set off all of the things that have happened to me this summer. I can walk this back further, to how I ended up in Laos, because big parts of this summer revolved around people I met in Laos- Roman and Maike and Tobias and James. Even further back, I’m on this side of the planet just in time to reunite with Tiara, who’s now in Laos; Sven and Sam, two close friends from Laos, are mere hours away from me at the moment, where they are visiting Andrew, my old co-worker from Laos, who is now living in Albania and working at the same school where Tiara and I worked. It makes me wonder what inconsequential daily choices I’m making right now that will add up to some huge turn of events in my life- meeting someone at a hostel, applying for a random job, making friends on the bus, staying an extra year __________ or going home early instead…

Right now I have a lot of balls in the air for future opportunities of where to go and what to do next, a list of possibly maybes that are all appealing to me. I feel lucky to have had the luxury of turning down several jobs in June/July/August because they weren’t the right fit for me. I’m grateful that I have a profession I love that allows me to work anywhere and pick up work almost any time of the year. I’ve recently hit my “don’t freak out, but start being mildly concerned” number on my savings (I confided in a friend what my threshold was; he admitted that if he were me he would definitely be freaking out). I’m excited to see what kind of choices come out of the position I’m putting myself in right now. I have no idea where I will end up. I have no plans. I just know I want to teach and I want to travel. With those two desires literally the entire world is up for grabs.

The person I was even six months ago could not have handled this. At all. Not one bit. I remember that my greatest fear about going without a contract, walking into summer without a plan for next year, was what if something terrible happened medically and I had to use my savings and couldn’t travel. And that is exactly what happened. When I was diagnosed I was so angry. I couldn’t believe that after all these years of playing it safe, of planning, of being careful, the one time I threw caution to the wind my biggest fear happened.

But here I am, writing this at the border of Montenegro on an old rumbling bus while I wait for my passport. My biggest fear happened. It was the best thing that could have happened. Nothing fell apart. I’m fine. I’m still doing what I wanted to do. I have made decisions others in my place would not have made; I have willfully decided to be financially precarious and hold out until my next job before I pick up the mantle of being a Fully Financially Responsible Person again. I think my diagnosis at the beginning of this summer was the greatest test I could have had. I could not have dealt so graciously with this before my two years in Laos or the year before that in Albania. It changed me. It changed the way I see the world, the way I see myself, the way I view what I’m capable of. Finishing my time in S.E. Asia with that last final blow of a medical mishap was the final step in the process I didn’t know I had started, which was unwinding so much of my fear and anxiety about life and how I was living it.

The fact that so many random coincidences and quite a bit of lucky interventions have landed me right here on this bus seat gives me the freedom to just kind of throw up my hands in peaceful submission. I’ll bring my best, do what I need to do, and the rest is up to whatever mix of people and places and events conspire around me, which is all out of my control. I have a narrowly defined boundary of decision making impact- it’s approximately within the lines of my bone and skin, perhaps stretching out of me into a field into which others can venture and take what they want, but then there goes my choice and control. I can’t even control what my body does at this point, the whys and hows of veins and legs- even this is beyond me. My own body has a mind of its own. This final knowledge made me realize that nothing is guaranteed, and if nowhere is safe, not even my own body, I can be terrified or I can accept that there is an overwhelming freedom in that.

I’ve made a joke out of this being my stray cat summer. To take that further, I know I’ll land on my feet. I don’t when or where or how, but at this point I have made it out of enough that I know I can make it work. I want to push this as far as I can to see what I’ll do. I’m so curious about all of these things inside of me that are unknown, and won’t be activated or brought out until a new experience, or place, or person, or challenge illuminates it, triggers it, opens it up, spills it out. It’s a moment that flips something on inside like a switch, and suddenly there is a great big expanse that you never would have imagined you had waiting inside of you. I want to be open to being opened up like that.

I will probably always get anxious in certain situations- it’s who I’ve been as long as I can remember. I still sometimes have panic attacks that send me into quiet corners to whisper to myself that I’ll be fine, to breathe, to affirm the things I need to say to get out of that swirling falling feeling. I have doubts and get scared. I think of what if____________. That is usually when I know that I’m moving in the right direction. From my earliest memories I have tried to avoid anxiety and pain and fear, and gave myself a lot of anxiety and fear and pain about wanting to be so so careful and clean and quiet and neat and responsible and good, but this was an illusion of security. Bad things would and will still happen, and I was insane enough to think I just needed to be even more careful, as though the universe would tally my concern and correspond my suffering in ratio to it. I’m changing the game into something I can actually win, something that isn't rigged against me from the start. I’m following my fear instead of trying to avoid it; I hunt it down. I make this chase now: I seek it out, I dig it up, I call its name and tell it to show me its face, and then I let it lead me where I need to go, to places I never planned in this world. In my indecision and rootlessness I feel more decisive and focused than I ever did when making plans.

If travel is searching
and home has been found

I'm not stopping 

I'm going hunting
I'm the hunter
I'll bring back the goods
but I don't know when

Friday, October 16, 2015

How a Norwegian Stranger Took Me to Russia from Bangkok

Why do you ask?

The night I left the hospital in tears and compression socks I fumbled back to my friends’ hostel crying in the street, on the train, and back on the street.  I just couldn’t imagine getting on that plane the next morning- my mind was in a million different places, I had to pack, I had to say goodbye to my friends, I had only one pair of these socks, I barely knew what I had just found out. It was too much. I wasn’t going to Russia.

By the time I got to the hostel I had finished up the tears (or at least this first shocked round of them, there were many more to come that month). I told my friends and then went straight to my dorm room and had an addled conversation with my father, who promptly told me that the worst thing I could do was give up a job and a purpose in order to focus full time on the negative project of worrying about what ifs and whys. Over dinner my friends all co-signed my father’s wisdom. I still didn’t want to go, I still had moments of “Seriously, WHAT IS MY LIFE” when I would look down at the beige bandages on my legs, but in spite of myself I realized that I was in no position to make big, rash decisions like quitting a much looked forward to job that would give me the funds I needed to travel when I was finished. So I was going to Russia.

With that I desperately needed to get out and find some distractions from the fact that I would be heading to the airport the next morning at 6 a.m., which was not very far away at that point. On my way out the door I met a boy from Norway in the stairs. I was a frazzled mess, he was all smiles and laid back how’s it going? We talked in the hall, exchanged polite hostel talk, I declined an invitation to go out with him and his friends. Why, he asked? I have to get up early I hedged, wanting to get out as soon as possible, definitely not wanting to talk to a stranger about it. He told me had to fly to Russia the next morning, and also had to be up early, and that was no excuse. Plus, he had to fly alone, which would suck. It was then that we realized we were on the same flight, and within 5 minutes of meeting we pledged to one another we would be sure the other was awake and ready for what would be our shared ride to the airport. I left with a shout over my shoulder to be sure to set your alarm.

The painfully early next morning (dear reader, I did not sleep, I needed to not sleep at the time, but afterwards oh I wanted to be sleeping) he was nowhere to be found. I lurked around the silent bar and reception, the air sticky, the time creeping by. I pestered the receptionist twice to wake him up to no avail. Finally I made her give me the keys and tell me where he was. She took me up and found him sleeping. He dashed out of bed, threw his things together, and then we hustled down the street to find a taxi. Both sleep deprived, we collapsed on each other in the back of the taxi without saying a word and then it was onto the local train and finally the airport train. We stood learning against each other, my forehead on his chest, his arm around me, both of us onto the next legs of our respective trips, quiet and reflective, balancing on the swaying floor with our bags crowded around and under our feet. None of this was strange or awkward- it was just comfortable. We were bone tired travelers who had gone from thinking we had a long, boring trip ahead of us to having a person to suffer with, to help grab bags and open doors, to ask about ________ while the other asked about ________.  You forget what a luxury it is to have a traveling companion until you have one again after a long stretch of solo wandering. Considering the state I was in, I felt unbelievably lucky that we had bumped into each other the night before. He kept saying he didn’t know what he would have done if he had missed his flight, and I was realizing that part of what helped me deal with my flight was that we had decided to travel together.

At the airport it was a quick check-in and we were able to get seats next to one another. I had an aisle seat; he let me put my legs up on him. We promptly fell asleep on each other like tired kids. We woke up to turbulence and he got nervous; I had been a nervous flyer for years and had finally gotten over my phobias so I reassured him with all sorts of nerdy information about what turbulence is and why it happens. We ate our terrible lunch and then talked for a few hours. I told him about the diagnosis I got the night before. He said he was sorry and pet my hair and held my hand and told me a story of his own. Then it was sleep again for him, anxious rumination for me as he leaned on my shoulder. At the end of the flight my legs were so swollen I could barely bend them, and he rubbed my calves for me and assured me everything would be fine. I cried. He was a stranger and didn’t make me feel bad about the fact that he was taking care of me. I cried more out of gratitude, frustration, and pain. The last two hours of the flight I spent in the back by the bathrooms, performing all manner of exercises to move the fluid out of my legs. I went to the toilet to lay on the ground and put my feet up and within two minutes the stewardess was knocking on the door asking who was in there. I went back to my seat to find this new friend in knitted brow concern over me, asking if I had enough water, did I need anything else, don’t worry, we’re almost there. I kept apologizing for being a mess, he kept saying he wouldn’t have made his flight without me and I saved him, so please don’t worry.

We landed in Moscow and almost immediately had to part ways- he was going on home to Norway to surprise his parents and needed to dash across the airport, I had to go through customs and find my way to the driver of the family for whom I would be working. A quick exchange of Facebook contacts, a hug, goodbye, we turned away and were gone as quickly as we had been together that day. I stumbled through customs on numb feet and swollen legs, and it wasn’t until I was home that night at the family’s apartment in Moscow that it really hit me just what an absolute and total blessing it was to cross paths with him.

We kept in touch on and off, and later this summer I mailed him a care package to the army base where he was completing training for his mandatory service. I put it together in Dresden, spending an afternoon heading to a few different places for random things that might be needed or wanted. It felt really good to be able to return the favor of providing comfort and support. When I handed the box over to the woman at the post office tears immediately came to my eyes.

I have historically been the worst, and I mean the worst, at being vulnerable and accepting help. I hate feeling like a burden; I don’t like feeling weak; I like to feel independent and capable. The last three years of living overseas I have found myself in the most uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in with other humans, often strangers or brand new friends, and I was forced to just let it be and accept their help and trust that it would be all right. The relief and gratitude that I felt in trusting and accepting makes me even more eager to offer help whenever I can, because I know how much it can ease another person’s suffering.

I am going to keep crying in front of strangers if I need to. I’m going to tell people I can’t anymore, and I’m going to trust my friends and family and strangers on the street when they say they can for a while since I can’t.  I’m going to give up needing to be the one taking care all the time and allow myself to accept care. And I’m going to continue offering as much care and comfort as I can, from a place of gratitude to those who allow me to help them. There is nothing noble in suffering for no other reason than you think you deserve to suffer, or that you don’t deserve help when it is kindly offered, or that you need to prove something by doing it alone. Some of my most satisfying moments in this life have been when I have selflessly helped someone else, and I never regretted offering that help. Forget your ego. If you’re in a position where you need help, and people want to give it, let them. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

When Are You Coming Home?

It's been three months since my last day of work in Laos. On Saturday morning I woke up in Czech Republic. Saturday afternoon I arrived in Munich to make my final stop in Germany. Monday afternoon I said farewell to the friend I met in Berlin and traveled with in Prague; we missed each other in Vienna and after Munich he was heading to (still undecided at the time of this writing) and I was on the way back to Switzerland. Tuesday morning I got on the bus from Munich to Zurich, and now, Wednesday morning, I am on the train bound for Milan. Five days, four countries- not my usual style, but it sounds more hectic than it really was.

Home sweet home on my back

Even as I sit here on this train and type that paragraph, and even though I have been doing this for three years now, it still seems totally surreal. I never dreamed of doing this when I was growing up. I can’t say that, as a high school student in Brookesmith, Texas, I had these plans of working overseas and backpacking and conscious homelessness and owning only what I could carry and taking whatever jobs came my way in whichever country happened to offer them. I had no idea that this kind of thing was even possible. Even when I went to Japan, 22 years old, just graduated, wanting a bit of adventure after not being able to study abroad during university, I saw it as My Year Abroad- that one time I did that one thing. Sure, I sold or gave away all my things except keepsakes and clothes, I had no car or pans or sofa to return to, but I knew I was going to return. The year in Japan I collected souvenirs so I could decorate the apartment I would get when I was finished with Japan. Everything I did held the importance of being the first and last time I would have that kind of experience. Or at least that’s how it started.

Up in the air, about an hour from my apartment in Toyama

As the months racked up, I started thinking, somewhere in the back of my brain, that I wanted to stay. Not in Japan, necessarily, but I wanted to stay out. I wanted to keep traveling. I had bumped into backpackers that year here and there, had met people in hostels, had talked to co-workers who were saving up to travel Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia after our contract. I really liked teaching; maybe I would keep doing it? My best girl, Jess, was living in Tokyo and had already started her side business of private tutoring. She had an apartment, and did I want to come at the end of my contract and live with her? Yes, yes I did. My last two months in Japan I was tortured with two conflicting desires: the wish to see my family, to go home, to reunite, to not be gone so long and be so guilty for it, and the wish to move to Tokyo with Jess, work, save, and travel. I applied to programs in Thailand and was accepted. I researched volunteering in India and had more than enough money to do it. South Korea looked nice, Singapore maybe? I applied for a job in Tokyo and the next day it was offered to me- $45 an hour, 25 hours a week. I was 23 years old, no kids/mortgage/marriage, nothing to keep me from saying yes, I wanted to say yes, and instead, I said no to all of it and came home.

Goodbye, land of udon and print club photo booths

The reason? I had this idea that Japan wasn’t my Real Life. And I had the expectation that I needed to start my Real Life, and staying in Japan would somehow be cheating, deferring, stepping out. After years and years of working to get things like school clothes and cheerleading uniforms and my first car and to pay my way through college, working full time and going to school full time, keeping scholarships and three jobs, things in Japan felt too easy. I was only working full time- nothing else. I was making more money than I knew what to do with, even servicing debt back home and saving while traveling. I had never planned on being a teacher, I just happened to become one, and I liked it- and something about how easy, how unplanned, how smooth it all was felt so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to just accept it. The guilt I felt at living overseas, so far away from my family, was another factor. And finally, I had no template for the reality that it was actually a viable life plan to live and work overseas just because you could and you wanted to, so you should. So instead I came home.

I know I wasn’t the best person to be around when I returned home from Japan. My family and friends graciously put up with my reverse culture shock and what I am sure might have seemed like ridiculous homesickness for a place I had only lived for one year, but they seemed to understand that it was more than Japan, it was about wanting to get back out and do more traveling like that. I was unemployed, living with my father, living off of the bonus I got at the end of my contract, feeling simultaneously ecstatic to reunite with family and friends and miserable every time I talked to Jess and heard stories about Tokyo. I knew as soon as I got home that I should have stayed, but at that point I was also stubborn- I was going to make this work.

I made a plan to pay off my debt, get my master’s degree, save up some money, and leave in 2-3 years. I ended up staying double that before I left again, and I have no regrets at all looking back on the 6 years I spent in America before going back overseas. I would never have reconciled with my sister, or spent as much time with my Great Granny, before both of them died. I know that a part of me would have been irrevocably damaged had I not had that time with my sister- the conversations and experiences we shared after I came home were sometimes the only thing that could get me through those first few months without her. Thinking of going through that without the peace of our understanding is something I can’t imagine. I met some of my best friends in those 6 years, and reinforced my relationships with people I had known in college and high school. I met Bobby, who was there for me through the hardest times I’ve ever had and who also supported me in achieving so much, and who is still a great friend to me to this day. I volunteered on political campaigns, served as an elected official, and was a delegate to the state convention. I picked up yoga and became a much healthier person. I started writing much more. I earned two master’s degrees, I became a licensed teacher and discovered a career I love. I traveled all over the U.S., and I made countless memories and connections with my family and with friends.

No complaints about stateside travel here

But the fact still remains that when I came home from Japan I was absolutely, not in any way, finished with working and living overseas. It felt cut short, because it was. The break gave me so much, and I wouldn’t change it. It does mean, however, that I do still have all of this in me that wants to, and needs to, keep going. So that’s why I am where I am at the moment. I spent a summer backpacking to get to Albania, lived a year there, spent a summer backpacking to get to Laos, lived two years there, and now I’m spending a very long summer (I mean, it’s not even summer anymore, let’s be real) backpacking to get to somewhere I don’t know I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be there when I get there. I just know, for sure, I’m not finished yet.

I for sure need to make a return trip to Mongolia...

And Estonian islands desperately need more exploring

As a child, a teenager, and even a young adult, I didn’t have the imagination to know that living and working and traveling this way was even possible- I didn’t know anyone who had done it. American culture doesn’t have gap years like European countries, we have loads of student loan debt and very little vacation and a huge country bordered by only two other countries and two enormous oceans. Traveling and working overseas the last three years I have met people between 18-65 who are doing outrageous things on very little money, simply because they saved up, they wanted it, and they are doing it. Growing up in America we have so little contact with this kind of travel, and we don’t know that it’s possible- we aren’t aware of just how cheap it is, how heartbreakingly cheap it can be, to pack a bag and go. If we do want to travel, still, we get locked into our student loans, and then jobs right after college, or car payments, or mortgages, or any other manner of other things. I keep wishing that the gap year culture would take root in America. I can’t think of anything better than telling a teenager to save up during high school so that he or she can spend awhile wandering, exploring, backpacking, maybe working odd jobs, and just seeing the world without having to cram it into the two weeks of vacation we are lucky to get if that.

This little Cortney could have benefited from a year or two of wandering before college

If anyone is reading this and they take nothing else from it, I hope they take this- it’s never too late to do this if you want to do it, people are doing it at every age, and you can do it for as long or as short as you want. It’s also understandable if the thought of living out of a backpack for three months sounds like a really shitty plan and you’d prefer to have your house and garden and family nearby.
In the end you have to choose. I am choosing, for the moment, to be transient. I feel secure in this choice, however, because I built such strong connections and roots back home in the states. I have my family in Texas, the place where I lived almost all of the first 29 years of my life. I have friends I have had since my childhood still living in Texas. There is a whole new crop of kids coming up around me, the babies of loved ones, with whom I am working on keeping a relationship by sending home postcards and visiting when I can. I keep this blog, I keep a google voice number, I write e-mails and FB messages and post pictures and stalk my family members on social media- I spend a lot of my free time and energy committed to maintaining these relationships, even while working and going to school and traveling and doing whatever else I’m doing. I think of people doing this back in the day when all they had was letters or telegraphs, and here I am with FB and blogs and free internet phones and Skype and international mail that takes a mere week- I can’t complain. Nowadays staying in contact is as easy as just deciding that you are going to do it, and I make that decision as often as I possibly can.

Writing postcards in a freezing ger in Mongolia

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family and friends back home and around the world. I want to return home eventually, but I want to return home happy and fulfilled, not wistfully thinking of how I wished I had done _______ or gone _________ or seen__________. 

I’m an hour away from Milan, and who knows how many weeks or months from my next home, but I know I have more homes than I can count all over this world with family and friends who would welcome me back the instant I called or messaged or Skyped them. I really can’t emphasize enough how much that helps me to know when I’m roaming. For all of you who have opened up your homes and hearts to me over the years, for everyone who wrote me at the beginning of this stray cat summer with enthusiastic invitations and possible plans and suggestions for travel or meeting up, for every message and voice mail and Skype call, I’m reminded that being rootless doesn’t have to mean being without connection, love, support, understanding, and help. I appreciate you all for putting up with me, and for understanding why I have to keep leaving, for now. 

The train is winding through some staggering mountains at the moment, with green at the base and the hillsides as far as I can see and tiny cottages dotting the valleys. A woman is making an announcement in Italian… now French… English will be next. I have the row to myself, a laptop to bang out what’s in my brain, and a good friend to meet up with in Italy. I miss you all, and I hope you know how much, even as I make my plans to head to the next place. I will be home, eventually. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Prague, or, Things Were Stolen and Things Were Found

I’m on a bus, leaving Prague, heading to Munich, where I will wrap up my north to south Eastern Germany tour (that makes more sense in my head/geographically than it does typed out like that). I thought I would spend five nights in Prague, but really I should have learned by now that I always end up wanting more time in a city, and in the end I stayed for a solid week.

I'll take door number one.

Prague was damned near perfect for me in terms of what I like in a destination. For starters, it’s gorgeous, with effortlessly stunning buildings serving mundane purposes like being banks or exchange offices or shopping centers. You can pretty much stop anywhere, look around, and be impressed. Statues that are beautiful and detailed enough to be in a museum are just hanging out on the tops of these buildings, and underneath your feet are endless cobblestones (I tripped, a lot). 

All of this can be enjoyed for very, very cheap prices, from food to metro to hostels. Speaking of hostels, Prague gave me one of the best in which I have ever stayed, and that’s related to another travel bonus- the hostel was recommended by a friend I met in Berlin, with whom I met up in Prague. And since this is me, and y’all know what I like, yes, the nightlife was fantastic. The music, the venues, the bar hopping, staying open until sunrise- it was all there.

A sculpture suspended above the entrance to my hostel

I hate to be the one to say it, but clearly they were sleeping on the guardian job that night...

My first day in town I stayed out all night dancing with my friend and the girls I met in my hostel, my phone and a good chunk of money plus all my keys were stolen, and I ended the night the next morning catching the sunrise on Charles Bridge. I came home and slept about 45 minutes before joining the morning walking tour, where I powered through three deliriously informative sleep deprived hours. The guide grabbed some tea with me afterwards and filled me in on Czech politics and culture and anything else that came up, from Russian and American relations to freedom of speech to good clubs to check out in the area. We parted ways and I spent some time wandering the streets until I came back to my hostel the wrong way and in so doing found what would end up being my daily coffeeshop.

60 euro poorer, phoneless, lockless, freezing, tired, and super happy to see that sunrise.

Portraits of Exhaustion: Reflections on Prague

I ended up back at my hostel for much needed sleep, which I didn’t get. Eight Welsh guys joined the group and they may have embodied the most concentrated versions of asshatted drunken male traveler behavior I have ever encountered in any hostel anywhere in the world. The good thing is they were so outrageously inconsiderate they gave us all lots of good stories which were recounted a few times and worked into shorthand inside jokes mocking them relentlessly, so for that, thanks Welsh 8, you were great. I am still haunted by the sad fact that they ordered themselves into a Lord of the Flies-esque hierarchy that included a leader called Golden Boy and a bottom called number seven, but the peculiarities of hyper-masculine backpacker groups are not something I care to get all Jane Goodall about, so I’m going to let it go. I saw them the last morning, backpacks akimbo, hair devoid of Pretty Boy Grease, bleary eyes all ‘round, and asked if they were leaving. To their “Yes” I simply said “GREAT!” with over the top enthusiasm and a tight smile that communicated I just could not anymore with this. They looked at each other, confused that I was immune to what their mothers had probably always assured them was their boundless charm, went silent (a rarity for them, since they generally preferred drunken singing and loud banter at all hours of the morning), and left. Dear reader, I promise you this- after sunrise on Charles Bridge their departure was definitely my favorite morning in Prague.

Other than the Welsh Invasion of 2015, the hostel was a constant stream of interesting, social people who were down to explore and party together, with many of us staying 4 to 5 days together. We had a kitchen that became the hub of the house for comings and goings and cake sharings and whiskey drinking, as well as salsa dancing and party planning. On the other end of the spectrum I spent almost a full day wandering the streets alone, and I had a couple of lazy late breakfast mornings to catch up on writing and e-mails and job searching. It’s nice to just be alone in a new place, without always having to do something.

Blurry late nights, working hard on the club circuit

Cross cultural sharing- the joy of breakfast burritos has been spread to two more people.

It was also shockingly cold, so I broke down and finally purchased some Winter Clothes. I capitalized that because, for the amount of space they take up and the amount of money they required, I feel it’s necessary to communicate their importance. I haven’t had clothes this thick in over two years, and I already resent them for not being flimsy little things I can buy for $3 on a riverbank in Laos and roll up into something about the size of a deck of cards. Of course, after shivering through five days in Prague, the day after I bought my Winter Clothes the sun popped out, perhaps just to reinforce my trepidation that maybe I was jumping the gun on buying them at all. Thanks, weather, for making me doubt myself and my life decisions…

Probably time to work on winterizing the lower half, but the Converse will serve for now.

When I hit Munich I’ll be there for three days (and I mean it this time, because I have a train to catch and a date to make) before returning to Zurich to regroup, repack, hopefully get rid of half of my things again (whittle whittle whittle) and then hop that train to head to Italy for 10 days. This will be my third reunion of the summer so far, and I have two more planned for certain and a few others I am trying my best to work in. It’s been nice to balance out new places and faces and hostels with catching up at friends’ houses and seeing where they live and work. Having a reunion tour of the people I met while living in SE Asia brings a bit of my Laos life back into the mix periodically, and it feels like a little piece of home is here in Europe.

I still have good daily doses of fear about what I’m doing (I’ve been turning down jobs left and right, medical bills are something I’m just telling myself I’ll pay off when I do get a job, and I need to figure out where the hell I’ll be come Christmas) but I’m still happy to be doing exactly what I am doing. I posted this on my FB right before I headed to Prague, and it still sums up best exactly where I am at the moment:

I've never been one for image crafting, so just to be crystal clear: there truly has not been since I left Laos where I did not have at least one all consuming and fairly terrifying moment of "WHAT THE F**K AM I DOING?" I am 32, with no home, no job, no health insurance, fairly laughable savings, and I am gallivanting around Europe for no other reason than I saved up and planned on doing it this summer and I refused to let medical curveballs get in my way. I absolutely know that plowing ahead was not the most *responsible* decision, especially financially in light of my medical bills, but I am also sure that it was the best decision for me, given the circumstances. I wanted to give up and go home, and I am so glad I did not.
I'm definitely not sure where I'll end up, but right now I know that I need to be walking through the terror moments of "Oh, man, am I really screwing up by doing this?" because I am trying to move into a place where I am radically opposed to making any decisions based on fear. Even before the medical complications, I wanted to do this as an exercise in breaking my super type A, planning obsessed, security blanket ways.
So yeah, real talk, I absolutely have anxiety, fear, and stress about what I am doing and how I am living now (it's been almost 3 months of being on the road with no place of my own), but that is only about 15% of the time. The rest of the time I am having profoundly happy and satisfying experiences and thinking of how unbelievably grateful I am that I refused to let anxiety, fear and stress make my decisions for me.
So with that, I will say Czech Republic, you're up next.”

There is no shame in fear- fear is normal- it’s what you do with the fear that matters. 

Train station walls are pretty philosophical in Prague, as it turns out.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Part Three, Three Years Later

Here is Saranda Part I 
And here is Saranda Part II

Welcome to off season

We came down out of the mountains to find Saranda flatly deserted. That a beach town would be tranquil in late October is no surprise, but it was more than that- it felt vacated.

After passing the end of the short boardwalk we found ourselves in the land of forgotten real estate dreams- a boulevard of multi-story buildings in various stages of construction. Some had been abandoned as soon as the frame had been raised, naked concrete skeletons showing the general idea of what was meant to be, complete with staircases dutifully zig-zagging between the floors filled with nothing but bright sky. Half painted walls and gravel- littered first floors merged into impossibly steep dirt driveways jutting up towards yet another level of interrupted construction. Power lines wove in and out of the open floors before sliding down the outer walls, ending anti-climatically in frazzled ends swinging in the breeze, pointless and empty. This went on for a stretch of about 3 miles- a silent parade of potential businesses, homes, and hotels, all of which seemed to have been left in a fit of collective regret that the projects had ever been started. There was no traffic, and we saw perhaps three people walking down the sidewalk or standing in front of shops.

Ksamil, where we were told to look for the best beach in Saranda, was easily found on the edge of town; the seaside paradise we were expecting was not. There was one sign that pointed to the direction of water and hinted at access, but it was misleading. After driving back and forth a few times we finally just took the first turn that went in the direction of the beach. This led us down a narrow strip lined with muted off season night clubs and darkened restaurants, until the road stopped abruptly for no reason and without any warning in a grassy field.

It seemed like as good a place as any to park the car so we got out and started our way along a stone promenade which, like the road, abruptly ended in the field. The promenade was pock marked by broken tiles and pot holes. Weeds cropped up along the cracks, and ornate lamp posts suffered from chipped paint and broken lights. Despite this, it was still beautiful in an end of the world kind of way. We were alone with the coast and the sky, with no plan other than “keep heading towards the water”.  That in itself made it special for a traveler.

Soon enough we found ourselves in a little cove, the coastline dotted inconspicuously with one or two wooden restaurants perched right on the water’s edge. And it was here, in that moment, that we received what had been promised- this was why we had come to Saranda. Everything slid into focus, sharpened, slowed down. Yes. This was it. We all felt it at the same time, turning and grinning, standing in one spot and making slow circles to take it all in.

 I’m absolutely certain that there are more beautiful beaches, or more isolated beaches, or more peculiar and exotic beaches, but Ksamili is gorgeous and on top of that, it was absolutely empty of tourists. We were alone save two other people- a man working further downshore, watching over a little boy playing with a boat. When we asked the man if we could swim, he just shrugged his shoulders as if to say “Why are you even asking?” and then promptly ignored us.

All of the creature comforts of vacation spots were there, but just barely- there were no over the top, gleaming beach chairs, or swanky docks, just a simple wooden platform with thatched umbrellas and a few tables. A pebbly beach gave way to a cove ringed by rocks on one side, with water so clear you could walk out to the end of the dock and look far down and still make out the landscape on the bottom. It was like a playground for adults, and that turned us into giddy children.  

There are moments in my life that  make me think that when I’m an old woman, I’m going to look back on them and remember being young and healthy, feeling an experience go through my body and knit itself into permanent pieces of me,  parts that age and time don’t touch. That afternoon was a moment knit, created for nostalgia. We piled our things on the dock and leapt off the end over and over. When we had our fill of swimming we floated to another dock down shore and pulled up onto the warm wood to stretch and talk. Sun on our bellies and faces, we took naps and pictures and long moments to sit in silence or wander off by ourselves. It was decadent that we should have so much all to ourselves to enjoy, and it was doubly enjoyable because we weren’t expecting it- we just stumbled upon it, looked around, and made it ours for the day. So it was.

As the sun wound itself down I slid into the sea to have one last slice of that isolated afternoon before we left. I could feel, as I so often did in those days, the persistence of guilt I had when I was somewhere enjoying myself, when I would forget, for a moment, the sorrow of my sister, who had so recently left us. I went into the water to be alone with her.

I stretched out on my back, the entire world replaced by nothing but sky and the sound of my heartbeat as the water rushed into my ears. The air, my blood, the sea -three fine lines of being- and my body the intersection of the whole of it. I was enmeshed, held in the salt, washed in the last flickers of the day. I thought of my sister there with me. I imagined her as the water, in my blood, falling on me as a beam of light, coursing through my lungs. It was yet another place where I slowly unraveled a length of tangled grief and let it fall away. I left a part of that pain on the bottom of the sea in Saranda, and when I pulled myself out, I had a new space inside of me. The memory of my sister and I in the water together rushed in to fill it. I experienced again, as I had many times before, and as I have many times since, the peculiar grafting of emotion that is the patchwork process of mourning.

I moved to Albania only a month after my sister died, and I cannot even count all the times I mourned her, physically, to the point where I could feel that grafting, the pain of it, and the release and the replacement. The ashes of my grief for my sister are scattered all over that country, and it took them, over and over again, in the most beautiful and unlikely of places. I said goodbye to her there so I could receive all the joy of our shared memories, our sisterhood, our lives together. I had a year of laying my sister to rest, and I had a year of rediscovering all the things about her that would never leave me. I was startled to find that in remembering her in those places we made new memories together. It took that year to show me, in a way I could never deny, that I take her with me wherever I go. 

maggie and milly and molly and may
E. E. Cummings, 1894 - 1962

maggie and milly and molly and may
went down to the beach(to play one day)

and maggie discovered a shell that sang
so sweetly she couldn’t remember her troubles,and

milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were;

and molly was chased by a horrible thing
which raced sideways while blowing bubbles:and

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea