Big Journey

The Triple Importance of Cinco de Mayo

There are three reasons why I really love this day on the calendar, and aren't the final reasons in these sort of lists always the best?

First Meal in Florence Alone

Reason #1

Four years ago today, I flew solo across the Atlantic for the first time in my life...solo meaning without family or friends, not Amelia Earhart-style. After having studied abroad in Italy during high school, I found it absolutely necessary to return to Florence, my favorite city in "the boot," and study that which inspired me: art and the Italian language.

What began with that memorable flight was a sequence of events that eventually propelled me toward Semester at Sea and the lifestyle I now call my own. Living in Florence, I took the constant inspiration and my favored style of impromptu prose writing and created a travel voice for myself. The world and its elements became the ingredients of my artistic movement. I became an aspiring travel writer. That was May 5th, 2006.

Reason #2

Two years ago today, I boarded yet another plane to Italy; however, this ticket wasn't round-trip, unless you count round-the-world as such.

I suffered yet another travel-induced bout of insomnia, vibrated with anxiety, and took off on my solo venture toward self-understanding and global experiences. May 5th, 2008 marked the day I started my Big Journey, when only two days prior I moved a tassel to the side and earned my college degree.

Reason #3

Today, I'm not flying to Italy, nor am I bound for the boot anytime in the foreseeable future. Instead, this year marks the first time I understand what the holiday is about. Because the classroom wasn't my optimal learning environment (and my memory stinks), I never really grasped the holiday until that it's my job to know all things Mexico.

I recently revealed how I landed my next travel endeavor, and now it's time to explain this dream job in a little more detail.

I'm going to Mexico in June, not because I decided to spend all my money again or because I got a free trip somehow. ProjectExplorer has deemed me worthy, thanks to my various venues for my travel documentation, of being a traveling producer, shooter, and photographer for their online educational programming for children.

I'll be one unit in a team of five, all collaborating skills and passions to create dynamic and innovative media that will educate classrooms around the world about the country of Mexico. Why Mexico? Because they invited us, silly!

Prior to take-off, I've been studying Mexico's many facets: its pre-Columbian civilizations, the grand capital of Mexico City, its legendary revolutionaries, and all things contemporary south of the border. Because of this duty, I know that Cinco de Mayo marks the day 148 years ago when:

Mexico drew its forces before the city of Puebla and began their assault on the French. The battle, lasting from daybreak to early evening, ended with a French retreat at their loss of nearly 500 soldiers, while Mexico saw less than 100 killed. The win represented a great moral victory for the Mexican government and her resistance to oppressive powers. case you wanted to know.


I've been frantically reading narratives on Mexico, such as David Lida's First Stop in the New World, as well as chatting with friends who would call Mexico their home tomorrow if they could. My training in academic research paid off for the job thus far, and soon I'll be applying my other learned skills in videography and education to the creative side of this gig.

Through our 80+ short films, hundreds of photographs, and numerous blogs on Mexico (see example site page here from the Jordan project), we're hoping children understand better the culture, history, and people of Mexico, and with that kind of education, we all know what awesome things can result. I dare say world peace, but world citizens also works.

And so, on this Cinco de Mayo, I may just learn how to make mole poblano (the classic meal of the holiday) or dumb it down to a simple celebration of Mexico with a cerveza in hand. Regardless, this year's holiday is a thrilling reminder of my immediate future with ProjectExplorer and our first trip together - to Mexico.

If you'd like to be a part of ProjectExplorer, participate in the Good Global Citizen campaign (the one that eventually landed me the gig) by making a video answering the question: What does it mean to you to be a good global citizen? You'll join the ranks of Ziggy Marley and Desmond Tutu if you do!


Consume & Update: Air Traffic, Hatred and Two Days To Go

Soak it in, boys and girls. This is the last dose for a while! This week's good news...

World Air Traffic in 24 Hours

Really Going Rogue

Numbers 15 and 31 on my Life List mention an inexplicable draw towards countries not easily accessible to foreigners (or just Americans). Well, maybe not so inexplicable...

  • Pakistan = mountains

  • Afghanistan = rural landscapes

  • Cuba = culture and salsa

Digging into the archives a bit, I found Chris Guillebeau's How to Travel to Rogue States, which of course got me salivating for Cuba again. Who knows when my next new country will be blazed and if it could be one of these massive non-trail destinations. Any plans for a trip like this in your future?

When To Put The Camera Away

Visiting orphanages for 30 minutes?

Visiting orphanages for 30 minutes?

I've been checking out the Acumen Fund this week and found a compelling blurb on travel and documentation called When To Put The Camera Away. Marc Manara makes a comment on our intentions for taking photographs and how they come off to the subject of the moment.

Though the desire to snap a telling shot of reality may seem harmless for the sake of your own memories or appear a good move for the sake of informing others of what you've may be bruising someone's dignity or making them feel like a mystery species on a game drive.

There are times when I truly wish I could have secretly snapped the photo, but I also think that frequent inner turmoil - when these opportunities present themselves - has a lot of truth and validity. I think spending more time with the people/potential subject matter of the photograph(s) helps smooth over many of the worries one has with taking vulnerable photographs of others.

I get upset when people stare at me, and I get especially testy when people photograph me without my consent (e.g. in Doha, Qatar). I definitely don't want to make others feel the same way, especially when there could appear to be a socio-economic difference and a stress on personal dignity.

Travel and Hate

What has often been a companion of my culture shock is something akin to hatred, an ugly emotion that has the ability to take hold of my soul even against protest. I've come home angry at many things, and though it's not the way I actively choose to be, Joel Carrilet gives me a little comfort in knowing it's not just a massive character flaw. It happens with due cause.

Travel frequently introduces us to beauty, but it shows us other things too. As we lay eyes on situations and listen to voices in places we previously knew little about, our love for the world and its people will deepen. The flipside of this, however, is that our hatred—of attitudes, ideologies, and policies that take advantage of others and harm—will also deepen. For if we love with all our might, we will also be bound to hate some things with all our might.

Read Joel's article on How Travel Teaches Us To Hate, and let me know if you find travel's combined effects of love and hate in yourself.

Other Discoveries

Chris Guillebeau's new site for Unconventional Guides

Rolf Potts' interview with new writer and former English teacher in the Marshall Islands

Join in the conversation about Women Hitchhikers over at Vagablogging

Don't forget to have quiet time on the road

28 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling

Update on Nomadderwhere

In the coming months, I'm going to be a bad consumer. This will be the last weekly Consume & Update as you've know it until I return to reliable internet coverage, constant electricity and a life not centered in a remote village. However, I will still attempt to keep updates coming on a weekly basis or as often as I can.

The last steps in preparation:

Emptying out the piggy bank

Emptying out the piggy bank

1. Buy mosquito net: check. All supplies in bag: also check. Empty the piggy bank and cash in for dough: oh geez check. The village knows we're coming, and we have two days until departure! Nothing left to do but document every step and meet Garrett at LAX! Our sponsors are stacking up and sending their contributions. We're so grateful for all the people finding this project relevant.

2. I threw a Michael Jackson Dance Party in my basement to fundraise for the project. It involved Dirty Diana martinis, trivia and prizes, black and white food and a chronological ordered playlist with every great hit by MJ ever created. I also dressed up as MJ throughout the decades: the Jackson 5 era, the Bad/Thriller era...yeah, I get carried away. I'll let you know how the event went and how much was raised at a later date.

3. BJB Challenge: Remember this? I wanted to write 20,000 words in my narrative on the Big Journey. This challenge began a month ago, before I had booked the tickets for Fiji. Needless to say I was preoccupied this month to keep up with my own, self-imposed deadline for writing. It was sad, as I continue to grow away from these experiences from 2008. But among other things in Fiji, I hope to find time to write about this experience in the detail it deserves. I'll be a word machine before you know it.

My Final Solo Hour: Day 203

Ready to finally rest

The following rant was produced during a final purging session in the Honolulu airport. These are quite raw thoughts from a mind coming down from a solo RTW at a very early and confused age... It's been far too easy to accept being around people I know, spending money that's not mine in amounts unjustified, sleeping on mattresses and wearing clean clothes, letting someone else fend for my safety and entertainment, letting myself forget about what I just did.  I was so anxious to get off the plane in Maui and see people who would release so many burdens for me and make me finally feel comfortable.  I received the treatment that comes with money at no cost to me.  And I had the luxury of ears that would listen to my stories, and my mouth wouldn't stop.  I wanted to pull out every shirt and bag of tea I bought to display, telling stories of their capture and the game I had to play to pay the right price.

We immediately went into recovery mode, sending me to the spa to cleanse my craggy face.  Laying in that perfect bed with someone treating my face to sublime perfection only had me adding the costs and realizing I was spending so many families' yearly incomes on something for myself…that I could do to myself.

I came to the realization that the world is not fair, and I was born in a prosperous and privileged society.  I cannot be mad at that.  I cannot be mad that people don't know what's out there when it's so hard to penetrate that bubble around America and find the truth of billions of lives.  The greenbacks have so little value here, though I was spending them with no problems in worlds that treasured their worth like golden tickets.

And I was once a spectacle with my white skin, my fine hair, a massive German-built backpack and real trekking shoes.  I had to hide the location where I stashed my $1 bills and never pulled out my phone unless I could hide it in a corner or feel the comfort of a two-star hotel.  I stare at the shoulder of the road, in awe of the space available, and wish there were snack, merchandise, and restaurant stands where I could spend my cents on a cultural gem.

I'm still among oceans and volcanoes, neon sunsets and an international crowd, so I imagine something profound will hit me when I return home to a bleak and misty hometown.  I'll be wearing scarves to shield low temperatures instead of covering my shoulders for temples or my hair in Muslim cultures.  A coat will be worn more often than a t-shirt, and I'll have a choice of clothing that will make the matter between my ears ache.  I'll be tempted by and probably often succumb to the vices of alcohol and club nights more than I will sleep on public transportation and pull out my camera.

I never have to change money.  I will have vast quantities of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soap, hot water, clean water, make-up, light, clean towels, towels with any nip at all, floor surfaces that don't stick or require flip-flops, clean sheets, mattresses with springs and without stains, AC blowing from all angles, air that doesn't have the hint of watered down urine, and I could go on.

There are postcards available through Dragoman Overland that showcase posed pictures of people making the rough transition back home from their overlanding squatting in their manicured front lawns while reading the Times and using toilet paper that hovers from an isolated wire…or a person prepared with fork and knife looking at the live guinea pig in front of them, unsure of where to go from here.  I plan on being confused again for a long time, and hopefully this time around I will combine that feeling with a little more happiness.

I know that traveling is something that challenges me like a social, gastronomic, survival, monetary, cultural, geographic game of strategy, but I yearn for something other than what I can do for myself.  I have taken to heart the advice of a selected few I met on the trail, and whether they were reliable sources of wisdom, I believe there was a fated reason I heard those words trickle from their lips. From their knowledge, I have learned that I think too much, that my imagination has stood in the way of my realized life, and that maybe…I am not happy.

That last statement hurt me the most.

How is it possible to be successful at motivating others, pulsing life into parties, making others and yourself laugh, and listening to your inner most desires without honestly knowing whether happiness is something you truly possess.  I have family and some friends that complete my heart's need for company and love, and I have the ability to do things only a tiny fraction of the world's population can share with me.  How can I live with an Italian family, cost free, weekend at a Tuscan villa, drink top notch Limoncello, and slice through the world's best pizza without feeling the satisfaction the majority of the world would treasure?  I cried at their lunch table because they told me I was unhappy.  I started asking people I didn't know if they could sense my Happy Meter.

There could be some merit in the fact that I've done something so magnificent that, now, the thing I want to do the most is what is normally expected of me, at this age, in this culture, in this family, and in this millennium.

It is so important to me to stay in touch with the most primitive side of myself, peeing in the grass, drinking river water, grabbing soil and sleeping undisturbed with the crickets, but I have such a problem following suit in the effort to find the other half that humans have decided is necessary.  I've grown so much.  I know this has to be true.  I've learned recipes and have talked to people in historic societies.  I've had a distant perspective on a huge event in my own country and seen how the world reacts to our words.  I've been secluded from people who think like me and have found a hidden sense of nationalism that never existed in the consciousness before.  I've been without my crutches and my companions for so long that I've become a ready-to-punch, survival-minded Neanderthal that talks to itself for amusement.

This is my mind on overpriced beer, teetering on the edge of a big life landmark.  I just traveled around the world and am boarding my 22nd plane of the year. I've maxed out a persons allotted superlatives at the age of 23, and I could brag, I am compelled to unknowingly brag, but I don't want to. I want to seal my lips and hold those thoughts inside.  I want to write a novel of secrets and leave the publication the gift of surprise on those I know.  So the trip has come to a close.  I feel like the world around me should be fuzzy…give me another beer and I think that could happen.

This is a piece I will read at a later date, edit and add to, and suck on like a sweet nostalgic candy.  This is a big moment in my life.  203 days of scouring the Earth for happiness and the meaning of life.  It was a noble quest that makes me pretend to believe I connect with the greats of history.  And now I wish to relate to the greats of my radio, my toted books, the personas on the screens, the withered wrinkles of a past generation I admire.  The only thing that matters at this point of time is the word behind the cursor.

I want to make money in some way.  I wish I could paint and write and sing dollars into my account while enlightening others to Van Gogh their lives instantly.  I'll set such goals lofty high in order to give my life meaning I can be proud of.  However, what is very likely is that I will get a job that sets me in a nice place and find myself a few years down the line reminiscing too much about a trip I took one year.

My hope and rock lies in the fact that I've had this thought before, and I squashed it by the conception of my Big Journey.  I became a nomad after dreaming about being one.  I had a highlight that depressed me, knowing it would soon be in my wake.  But a new highlight bubbled into my biography, and I made it happen with desire, dollars, and the knowledge that it was envied.  I used to have so much confidence in the person that was myself, that I had never let go of my values, even when they changed, and let the microphone of my consciousness' decisions always resonate the voice of my being…but now I think I am more complicated than I ever let myself acknowledge.  I want someone to probe me for information that uncovers layers I've never allowed the light of day.  Maybe that's the information that tingles when I have epiphanies, when the broom sweeps the matter I keep piling for comfort and leaves me to feel the rush of wind that combines with a peaceful moment.

I hope that even an ounce of this purge is true.  I cannot truly be confident in that fact anymore.  I'm just following the ranks of Mrs. Dalloway.   Today I wondered why the shuttle driver was so chatty.  You ask one question and they ramble like they're the prime time attraction on the latest late night show.  And then it came to me, from my father's knowing mouth…they want a tip.  Blasted!

America!  I forgot your sneaky ways!  Welcome home, me.  Enjoy your cat.  She probably hates you.  Begin your life as it was predicted to be.  But keep your new knowledge close by.  And go pee for Pete's sake! You've had a liter already!

And with this, my Big Journey comes to a close.

Back on Home Turf: Day 202

Maui Sunset on New Year's Eve

Maui Sunset on New Year's Eve

I left Tokyo in the evening of November 17th...and then I arrived on the morning of November 17th after flying halfway across the world's most expansive ocean. Time travel can really trip you out, if you allow those thoughts to infiltrate your over-stimulated senses. I landed and immediately started making phone calls, thanks to the ridiculous concept that Hawai'i is a part of America (a concept I'll happily accept since it's ballin'.) Oh, the joys of making domestic calls and not worry about accessing the value of your phone call since each minute steals from you $3.00. For the first time since I found out about her engagement in September, I talked to my best friend about her upcoming wedding. It was grand.

Something that developed from this solo trip abroad was an intense willingness to chit-chat with anyone I could come in contact with: customs officers, check-in personnel, and the guy who arranges the pylons in the parking'body. I find great joy in identifying these things that have changed in me from May to November, and talking to strangers as if we're chums is one of them.

I hung out in the Honolulu airport for a few hours, smiling from ear to ear every time I could speak to an airport employee or grace my optics on a gawdy, hilarious Hawaiian shirt. And I was anxiously anticipating the coming reunion, that with my parents after six months apart. Not that I'm a Mama's girl or anything, but that length of time can certainly make you miss your parentals. It was only a 15 minute flight, flying with the trade winds and grazing over blue waters and white feathered waves, but it was hard to appreciate the beauty of my last lone flight on this journey because of my knocking knees and chattering choppers.

Descending the escalator of the terminal to see Mom's dancing feet was a thrill. There were a few double pulsed hugs and the adornment of the obligatory lei. I willingly soaked up every moment when someone wanted to do something for me. Usually I demand to carry my own weight and open my own doors, but I let Dad be the white knight to his heart's content.

I rode in the seat of honor, up front in a blinding white convertible, regurgitating stories non-stop and watching the street shoulders, amazed there were no entrepreneurs out selling their food and wares. I played my CDs purchased from the streets of Bangkok and showed off what finger and toe nails I was able to salvage from my fungal issue (delicious, eh?).

I looked around to observe the entire island of Maui. We weren't driving on a skyway or even at a high elevation, but as we looped around towards Maui's northwest coast, I could see the looming volcano and wrapping beaches for miles. Each time we drove throw a cut, fences and nets held back the settling crumbles of volcanic rock wanting to go with gravity. The drive reminded me of my bucket list plans to live on a beach for a year and solidified the idea that Hawai'i might have to be the place for such a beach-front lifestyle.

We had a time share condo in a building by the Kanapali beach where I took great pleasure in seeing the Clark household staples food groups: red wine, skim milk, chocolate, pretzels/nuts, and whole wheat bread. My mom didn't waste a second in making me a welcome back Bloody Mary, not that I enjoy this drink especially but because she was proud of her ever-so delicious Zing-Zang mix. After setting up my office on the patio with my computer my parents brought from home, I began showing photos from the most recent experiences. I could not organize my thoughts into digestible stories nor could I even stay with one photo album but jumped from safari shots in Africa to people poses in India. How does one start retelling a tale of epic proportions?

I kid you not, and I apologize for being graphic, but I had a beard of acne upon getting back to American soil. I was disgusted with myself, and Mom was more than willing to help me out with this issue by sending me on my way to the in-house spa. After briefly discussing my trip and recent trans-Pacific flight with the woman performing my intense facial, I completely passed out, unfortunately not feeling the soothing effects of the work but definitely benefiting from the extraction of African dust and sweat from Asia. It was a job that desperately needed to be done. Ick.

I lounged by the pool, read issues of my high school magazine, and called every friend I missed hearing. I adorned new clothing for the first time since...who knows when. And we hit up every type of food I had missed while out and about. Mexican was a speedy first stop, although, being out of the habit of carrying around my ID, I lacked adequate proof I was of age to imbibe any cold ones from Mexico. This happened not just once but just about every time we went out. Fortunately we stopped getting so adventurous and just started eating at the hotel, within running distance from the ID in our room.

Now, the Clark family isn't the most adventurous or active family. We have trouble doing anything that doesn't involve a tennis racquet, walking shoes, or a beach chair while on vacation. But one thing Mom organized for us to do, initiated by her own desire, was ziplining across the valleys of the volcano. And let me tell you, watching those two fling themselves around from ledge to ledge was entertaining to the point of stomach cramps. Each time one of them landed at the end point of one zipline, their feet would struggle to grab the landing, often resulting in a butt slide or Fred Flintstone twinkle toe moment. I video taped everything to laugh at time and time again. Our group loved the hilarity and couldn't believe this was all Mom's idea to fly around a volcano on wires.

The drive to and from the ziplines was reminiscent of the drive to the Serengeti in Tanzania, corrugated and highly pocked, which made the middle-agers wince and make one-liner jokes to their adventure companions. I love how people bond on these afternoon excursions; everyone wanting to prove they aren't the group party-pooper or dry spirit. It's hilarious. I volunteered to sit in the back, knowing from experience I don't normally spew when deprived of good air and sent airborne in the back of a motor vehicle.

The consensus of this Hawaiian experience in my mind was that it was surprisingly NOT hard to get back to the luxurious side of life. True, this fact shocked and actually scared me, that I had not be completely slanted towards the simple ways after four months of hard living (in Africa and Asia). However, I think this time coming home, I understood all too well that the world really is unfair, and that I've lived like this lushly since birth. Not that we lose Benjamins in the couch cushions and buy caviar for our Ritz crackers or anything, but we are comfortable in the American eye. I guess I looked at this change in lifestyle as a cultural experience. Just one more stop on the itinerary, and I looked at our family traditions with a fresh glance.

I awoke very late in the mornings due to jetlag, and I often felt uneasy as I opened my eyelids. Many times in Maui, I had the unsettling dream that I, along with my family and all who knew me, forgot what I had just accomplished: seven months of solo RTW travel. In these nightmares, I would have brief recollections of my experiences but would soon lose lucidity and go on living like I used to. I think I felt this because we stopped talking in such detail and with interest about my trip, but I battled those nightmares off by pulling out my computer yet again to reconnect with the images of my traveling past. Apparently, my subconscious never wants to forget my 2008 voyage. I don't blame it.

The Sweet Old Men of Tokyo: Day 197

The gardens in Tokyo

One of the things I feared most about this trip was the transition from away to returned. One world to another. I'm talking culture shock, my friends. That nasty bugger has gotten me once in a nasty way, and I really didn't want it to happen again. This feeling of anger towards one's home and all things luxurious, familiar, or technical was sure to be compounded by the doubled amount of time away from home on this journey. And the part I feared above all was this moment between Southeast Asia and the most civilized, organized, developed country in the world. The Uni- - -I'm kidding. It's Japan.

I had been to Japan before, only briefly on Semester at Sea, and already had an idea of social etiquette, my favorite candies, and some buzz words to throw out as though I were local. I even had a friend I was meeting on the evening of my arrival. But going from one extreme to the other, essentially Phnom Penh to Tokyo, has potential for causing an emotional stir in the mind of a weary traveler.

Short Digression for Background's Sake: During college, I had the pleasure of meeting a fellow art history lover/Northern Hoosier/giggle-fest by the name of Bryan Lufkin. Our first meeting was actually when we were photographer and model, I being the camera clicker working on a charity calendar and he being the studly student leader for the month of September. Our friendship solidified with a mutual interest in Italian, Amy Sedaris, Japan, and all things travel…or funny. And after I returned from Semester at Sea feeling at a loss for honest connections with some of my friends, he seemed to pull into a clear spot as someone who understood the mind of Lindsay Clark, post-circumnavigation.

Bryan continues to teach himself Japanese and educate himself on their mystic culture, except instead of quizzing himself with flash cards at the IU Auditorium, he works as an English teacher at the base of Mt. Fuji. The JET program was smart to take this kid in. And so I had a friend in Japan to meet and revel with on my three day lay-over in Tokyo.

I managed to find our hostel with his directions in good time before our meeting at the bus terminal. Still feeling the wrath of a stuffy nose and sickness, I took to the showers and had what some may call a "religious experience."

The door to the shower created a seal to not allow a vapor of steam out while the shower was in use. I put my 100 yen in the machine to send 10 minutes of scorching falls thunder on the mat. Hot water. An illuminated shower. No cockroaches. Provided soaps and a ledge for a razor. Unfathomable. And with this utter state of contentment, I began the act of purging my body of every morsel of foreign substance.

I scrubbed my pores raw. I brushed my teeth and tongue until I gagged. I turned the heat to scalding and steamed my body like a dumpling. And I began hawking up everything in my system that didn’t belong there.

Had I had a lick of food in me, I surely would have sent it back up and out. After two or three different shampoo and rinse cycles, I was literally squeaking and my body weak from the uneventful wretches. I felt like I had been in a personal, physical war.

It was grotesque. It was wonderful.

I emerged from the shower a new woman, a healthy woman. I no longer had the sniffles. You may be wondering why I chose to write in such vivid explicit detail above, but the end result has since convinced me I've found the cure for the common cold. Do this, and you shall be free of the nasal drip. Do this, and feel oddly refreshed. Do this, and find strength in your own ability to cure yourself.

I recognized Bryan's shag and shirt instantly in the midst of hundreds of commuters and within seconds of reuniting told him all about my awesome shower discovery. All the talking and walking led us in circles around the metro stations, since it takes an aware one to navigate Tokyo's tied-up underground tubes. Eventually we landed at our hostel with bags of 7/11 dinner sustenance and caught up with months of discussion on the top floor couches until much past the midnight hour.

We awoke from our pods the next morning to a city calling our names. To the nerd quarter! To a maid café! The park! Tokyo Tower! Shibuya! Shipoopie! Bryan was an awesome guide and translator. We had a lunch at a joint that catered to the creepy miniature dog lovers (the creepy is directed at the owners, if that wasn't clear), which would have fit perfectly in Indy's Broad Ripple.

And a dinner of heavy appetizers at the Hip Hop Café led to passionate rants about Northern Indiana and shared shots with the partiers at the next table. With our cheap-o budgets and dwindling energies, we ended up at our hostel top floor once again, buying beers out of the vending machine and slowly sinking into the plush couches across from each other. I saw and did more that day than I had in two weeks in Cambodia.

Understandably, we moved slowly the next day. Finally breathing at the crack of noon, we traversed wet and soggy streets for the art museums that enliven our souls. Since both of us thrive on taking in brush strokes and compositions, it was a fitting place to mosey as the rain beat the city.

In the park surrounding the museums, I suddenly became aware of the nature wrapping around me, genuine Japanese-style gardens and flora that became dramatic with their moist and darkened bark. There's something about taking in intentional or natural art that makes me feel like I've eaten; a fulfillment I wish would be more convincing. Man, what a diet that would be!

On one of our rides back to the hostel, we sat side-by-side, looking in opposite directions, in a momentary conversation lull, waiting for the doors to close from the current station. I felt a nudge in my side from Bryan and looked to see a man I had just earlier admired and wondered about. "He's got awesome eyebrows. I wonder if he has to maintain them because they grow like weeds. I wish he would grow them out and brush them aside like a Kung Fu master would his dangling mustache." The adorable man was face down in the woman's lap beside him, drooling and unconscious.

Once again, at this moment of split-second decisions and action vs. inaction, I froze like I always seem to and watched with eyes like saucers. The woman whose lap was invaded began giggling and looking at her friend. I thought it an odd reaction, but Bryan later informed me that's how many Japanese deal with very uncomfortable situations.

One man lunged to hit the big red button no one normally dares to touch in the subway. Another man, a bilingual American, came over with a quick but uneven gait from his crutch. He tried to bring the man back upright and into consciousness. His eyes flickered as though he was taking in his surroundings, but when the American pulled his hand away from the man's forehead, his head wobbled like a lifeless marionette's. I wished at that moment I had a dictionary to look up "Stroke".

The conductors came running from the previous cars and the platforms to find the ones or situation responsible for the Emergency Alarm. The man began speaking to the sharp uniforms as though he had come to, but once the conductors left to discuss the matter minutes later, his head dropped just as dramatically as the first time into the woman's lap.

He was carried out on a stretcher, staring at the illuminated ceiling while rubbing his bristly eyebrows. I imagined his thoughts being something like, "When did I get to be this old?" I imagined a little lady as cute as he getting a phone call from a medic downtown or some grandchildren with invisible weights on their chests from worry. I know it's very "Lifetime Network" of me to think of such sap, but that's all that passed through my mind, my unhelpful, frozen mind when an old man across from me on a subway passed out.

Bryan, being the employed person that he was, had to catch a bus back to his small town on that Sunday afternoon, and I continued to wander the streets of Shinjuku, feeling the timer tick away my minutes of adventure and seeing no point in spending wads of Yen on a few moments that wouldn't outweigh seven months of fantastical reality. I would soon see my parents, my home soil, and the American dollar.

I accepted my imminent fate and gathered food from a 7/11, bargain shopped for my favorite Japanese candies, and put in the first season of Arrested Development in the hostel's top floor entertainment center. Every following minute involved me putting my pen to paper and purging my mind of all the thoughts and moments still left hanging in my memory closet. Hours spent in my sleeping pod alit by headlamp, half a day in a coffee shop before my flight, I wrote down my history.

It felt in a sense like cheating on valued international time, but I have a way of justifying pretty much anything that makes me happy, anytime and anywhere. Besides, I saw an old man wearing a propeller hat outside the café as I took a sip of my coffee. I snapped a picture, giggled silently and thought, "This will be my lasting memory from my major journey abroad."

An old man getting a pebble out of his shoe on the street in Japan…in a propeller hat.

Goodbye, World. Exit Stage Right.

Healing the Sniffles in Bangkok: Day 194

A cold front came through my immune system, and I felt an incredible amount of "build-up" form in my throat and nose. Delicious. Throughout the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, I attempted to sleep off the imminent sickness, knowing I wouldn't get to shut my eyes until at least 6 or 7am the following morning. Transit days…there's nothing like 'em.

It took a solid day, and a border crossing on foot, to make the overland jaunt to the Southeast Asian hub of economy, excitement, shopping, etcetera. I planned on finding a place to throw my bag for a couple hours and enjoying the backpacker alley known as Khao San Road to the best of my sickly ability.

The street was a pedestrian strip akin to a lively Spring Break destination or a modest Hong Kong/Las Vegas stretch. Overstimulation, indeed.

Thanks to some quick guide book perusal the night before, I knew where to eat if I wanted something authentic, albeit established. Sitting on the floor of Mama Something-or-Other's, I blew my nasal brains out while waiting for a hot bowl of broth and a cold lassi. The comfortable ambiance of sitting on floor cushions made me feel welcome enough to camp out here all night, updating blogs on the once-again functioning Blackberry and developing Christmas lists for family and friends, the items on which to be purchased on the streets below. I resisted the temptation to hang for a little adventure.

I had four or five hours to wander and roam, and so I committed massive chunks of time pushing through racks of locally made punk t-shirts, finding the perfect patch vendor and picking his brain for advice on taxi-to-airport scams, and indulging in a Thai massage.

For roughly $12, I received a wow-inducing foot rub and Thai body massage that nearly knocked me into a state of sub-consciousness. My head rolled to the side and jerked back up into reality while my feet received powerful knuckles of pressure release. Upon going upstairs to a communal quiet room for body cracking and loosening, my nose became a gushing falls during wet season. It was all I could do to avoid making a mess on the cushions or create a nasty nasal symphony in this place of meditation. I got by with a monster handful of napkins from my dinner joint.

I continued to wander well into the wee hours and kept my wits about me, often looking back to make sure no one was following me or going to peek out from a nook in the alley. However, I felt incredibly safe in this atmosphere, regardless of the lingering teens around hotels and bars, the constant police sweeps, and certain extra attention given to me by a healer on the street.

A man with a flashy belt buckle, a Robin Hood hat, a cut off slim t-shirt, and the tightest denim shorts I'd ever seen sat gawking at the passersby from his perch on a self-brought folding chair in the road. He was roughly 60, and his comments often involved the "F" word, some mentioning of an individual's energy or chi, and a loud cry guessing what embarrassing thing that person was off to do. I'd quote him now to give you an idea, but I think I was in shock of this crazy man.

He called to me as I passed by, telling me I should smile more and to come sit down by him for a while. He wants to talk to me, help me out…F this F that I don't want to take your money. Who do you think I am?

He seemed fun. I sat down.

As he continued to watch the people going about their nightly business, he discussed with me why he thought I was upset and full of acid (not acid the drug, mind you). Two liters of acid I had in me; that's what he said. He was a tantric healer, and since he had already made his day's pay, he would give me a cleansing for free. Only 45 minute.

Naturally, I was skeptical and shook my head "no" every time he offered.

Another woman walked by, a Croatian, who remembered this man from nights previous, heard his calls to her and came over. He began telling her all the things he remembered of her since she had come to Khao San Road. He'd seen her walking with friends, boys and girls, and asked about all things personal and shameful. After concluding that she had even more liters of acid than I had, the much more courageous woman allowed him to heal her there on the street. It was 2:45am.

I won't give you a play-by-play of his techniques, but the one that made me want to cry, scream, and vomit simultaneously needs to be mentioned. The tantric healer sealed his mouth over her nostrils and blew as hard as he could into her sinuses. Her face turned a purple beyond red. Her mouth open, she immediately began coughing up a storm and spitting beside her chair. I believe she even let him do it one more time.

For one brief moment, I sniffed up the build-up still in my nose and considered getting a quick purge from Mr. Chi here, but before that idea became a thought bubble he could possibly detect, I shivered at the thought and held tight to my "no" head shake.

His explanations of what was wrong with me went on, and I guess I like to think there's some mystical Eastern power that presides in the gifted few that make this their profession because I found myself almost believing him. I was not about to let him make out with my runny nose, though, or perform any number of the tricks that happen off the main thoroughfare in his "studio"; I left him to his work and went for noodles.

Bangkok was a quick excursion and one that instilled in me an intense longing to return to Thailand for at least months. There were beaches and mountains and jungles and alleyways to soak in. This country would be a quick escape I would plot in the back of my mind while working in a gray cubicle on the 10th floor of an art deco building in Somewhereville, USA.

That is…if I could survive the ride to the airport.

I used my recently obtained knowledge to get the right price on a cab to the airport, a newly-built facility that measures almost a kilometer in length. The driver asked if I wanted to take the city streets or the highway. I said, honestly, "Whatever's cheaper. I only have this much." I had the perfect amount that would account for a fair fare and a decent tip. He proceeded to book it on not just the highway but the roads leading to the on-ramp.

I kid you not, we were approaching stop lights going 80 mph.

Our top speed was around 100 mph on the highway. The speed limit was around 60, to accommodate the scattered waves in the pavement that sent my stomach into my bowels.

He traversed the straight, multi-lane highway like it was a winding road, making sure he wouldn't get behind a car crawling at speeds of 50 and 60 mph. This would have been the moment where you and your travel buddy exchange looks that say, "We may die tonight." Instead, I sat alone in the back middle seat, grasping my seat belt with white knuckles, and staring into the rear view mirror with saucer-like eyes.

This was the last night of my solo journey before boarding the flight that eventually took me to all sorts of home. Home with a layover to see familiar faces, home with a layover to reconnect with my bloodline, and home to my actual geographic region of birth. I was jones-ing for morsels of the familiar, but with such a homecoming comes the complete termination of my fantasy world no one from home knows about: my travels.

I accepted this sad reality, reluctantly, with heavy eyelids and a massive sigh into slumber, stretched across four seats on my flight to Tokyo.

Hey, That's My Leg You Ran Over: Day 192

Five Guys, One Motorbike. Get Comfy.

On this final night in Cambodia, I adorned my trekking shoes for the first time in weeks and chaperoned an excursion to Phnom Penh's Water Festival near the river. I missed the main events of boating and races during the day, but the locals spoke of crowds that would stop traffic, which I was eager and willing to miss. Instead, I decided to take in the excitement with the older kids by foot in the evening. Evan, Zan (the other volunteer), and I stomped along the mile or two of road in between the orphanage and the riverbank, passing the vehicles alit on the road like we were reenacting Office Space. There was lots of hand holding, and people switched up often to grab my hand or Evan's or their close friend's in front. We were a group stepping in tune with each other and finding joy in being in the others' presences. It was another one of those moments when I was stunned how comfortable I was far away from my home bubble.

The water festival is timed to occur with a full moon, and this moon cast a glow over the city that rivaled the sun. As I write about this evening six months later, I write now knowing every full moon I've seen since reminds me of Cambodia's water festival and the evening amidst the nighttime light.

The streets went from scattered to bustling to impenetrable. We held hands like we were preparing for a round of Crack the Whip, but had we not, we were sure to lose a soul or two.

At one point, I actually had a motorbike advance up the back of my leg, impatient to wait for the hundred or so people standing in his way. I think I tried to give this man a "Hey, pardon me, but you just ran your motor vehicle over my calf" perturbed look but couldn't rotate my body or even head in his direction to make the gaze. I may or may not still have the tire mark on my pants.

We found ourselves within a block of the water but couldn't dare move in that direction for fear of getting our bodies crushed under the pressure of thousands more. Evan and the older boys turned towards the city and led us back the way we had come. Hours of walking got us to the heart of the traffic and nothing more.

We were bummed and opted for rickshaws back to the compound. But such an outing had to include some radical behavior, so we made the way back a ride to remember. I sat with six girls screaming at the top of their lungs to strangers on the road. Easily amused; my kind of people.

The youngins were still up and romping in the near daylight of midnight. I pulled out my camera and let them go to town with their photographic skills. Evan rode a two foot bike around with little girls shrieking in his wake. I sat in constantly shifting human piles of little kids and saw spots from all the camera flashes.

Litho, one of my strongest bonds in Palm Tree, sat cross-legged next to me as I tried to describe where I was going and what I was doing the next day onward. I gave up soon after starting and just focused on laughing at nothing but the sweetness around us. My last hugs were sad as some boys uttered the word "sister" in my direction; it became official, I was returning some day, hopefully soon.

I awoke at roughly 4:30am the next morning to a slowly warming sky and air damp with that morning anticipation I rarely get to witness personally. The cook was already awake and spooning out plates of breakfast, a few girls at her side on their turns to help the kitchen.

I knocked on Evan's door quietly at 5am to say my goodbyes to a guy that will forever be in my mind. I gave him a small sheet of paper with my number, e-mail, and home address, hoping he would be in touch with ground level news of Palm Tree on a regular basis. I also looked forward to a reunion in Chicago upon his return in July of 2009. I handed him my recently completed copy of Shantaram as he exchanged it for Mountains Beyond Mountains.

It was a pleasure to know that kid, and I'm still in shock of his sudden celestial departure. This, of course, was not something I was thinking about while we embraced that final traveler's embrace. I instead was thinking of time's little tricks and wondering when I would next be grasping this same man's shoulders; on what continent, after what amazing accomplishments on both sides have occurred? This bittersweet moment seemed sweet in real time and in hindsight should have been bitter to the last drop.

I found a way to finally get passed the gates of Palm Tree to the street beyond, hopped on a motorbike after an effortless haggle, and zoomed past Thai Chi demonstration after Thai Chi demonstration in the brisk morning air of sunrises. A hand slowly grasped and still continues to hold my arm in the direction of that city and that country; it was a tangible and evocative goodbye to Cambodia.

Chicken and Clams, Partying Khmer Style: Day 191

Palm Tree Hoodlums

Palm Tree Hoodlums

After seeing a film about orphans in northern Uganda, my parents felt moved to donate funds for the kids at Palm Tree. For about two weeks, I asked the administrators, teachers, and Evan what was lacking there or what needed additional funding to occur on the ground level. As the days passed, my interest in their nutrition fed a desire to hook them up with a big ol' feast of protein. I had one of the older kids translate my intentions to the head cook, a sweet lady who seems to do little else but clean dishes and boil more rice. She looked at me with the softest face and hugged me, nearly made me cry.

We soon hopped into a rickshaw with three or four older kids in tow and headed to the local version of a super Kroger. Open air, piles of food lining every walking path and lane, not one foreigner in sight.

The older kids held my hand or hooked elbows, making it a bit difficult to navigate over the trash rivers and around coasting motorbikes. I wasn't sure what compelled them to stay so close, whether a cultural habit, sign of appreciation or friendship, or fear of getting run over. Whatever the reasoning was, I was slowly feeling my American citizenship seep from every sweating and content pore.

Every wet step concerned me with thoughts of the substances now on my feet. Innards hung from the umbrellas in the open market, and I had to watch my head for fear of slapping it into a cow face. The cook decided upon a vendor and began weighing out chickens with their bare hands.

I couldn't bare to watch the food handling methods: grab the yellow skins to be weighed, drop it in a sack, wipe the brow, handle some money, shake hands, grab another chicken and whack its wings off with an effortless cleave. I handed the money to one of the kids and stepped back to avoid the flying bits. I guess I have my limits. What a nancy of a carnivore, I am.

We picked up some oil, seasoning and veggies and found our rickshaw waiting for us on the madhouse of a street. I reminded the cook on our drive back that I wanted all the food to go to the kids and none to reach the volunteer pagoda. This wasn't a meal for us. This obviously hit silent refusal as she was already conjuring an elaborate image in her head of our meal for later. I assume she thought it insulting to not make us food in appreciation, and she surely wanted to express her cooking abilities now that she had something more exciting to work with.

The meal was delicious, and the kids thanked me again with incredible formality. And the we threw that formality out the window.

The administrators pulled out and stacked speakers that reached heights above my head, and the kids began dancing on tables to versions of "Beautiful Girls" dubbed in Khmer. Their moves were awesome: sometimes organic, always repetitive, and often a duplication of a previous volunteer's dance routine.

I, for some reason, didn't feel like dancing much, which was probably because all eyes were on me, ready to mirror my image. I busted a few moves, a quick robot and wave sequence, which stunned some and caused them to practice for the remainder of the evening.

Soon into the event, Evan pulled me aside and brought me to the area of the compound where some teachers and admins live. One of the resident ladies had a baby that week and was now having a welcome home party with family and much of the Palm Tree staff. Tables were littered with beer cans and all the clams one could hope for.

I forget if I spoke much or even what was said around the table. I graciously accepted a little boxed wine from Evan and tried to psych myself out enough to try a marinated clam in front of me. The surrounding men were popping them like Orville Redenbacher.

The Grown-Up Party

And with each cheers, everyone was required to chug whatever drink sat in front of them. Cambodians sure love to drink; unfortunately, not many can hold their alcohol well. This resulted in some hilarious and awkward encounters with men who stared and smiled in my direction for lengths too long to be casual.

I couldn't handle the late hours the kids were willing and ready to reach with their dance party antics. The volume the speakers hit made it very evident there was no neighborly rule or law stating loud noises and music weren't tolerated. The windows and doors in my room reverberated with every bump of the base.

I retired early to finish reading my Shantaram novel and prepare myself for the everyday early wake-up. Within minutes of a full blown dance party, speakers shut off and returned to their storage areas while women and children hung their mosquito nets and fell into deep sleeps on their wooden platform or the cool linoleum floor.

The Cheap Battle Against Scurvy: Day 190

After ten days of teaching in classrooms, drawing cartoons, tutoring English, pushing swings, riding bikes too small for me, picking up from school, playing in the rain and watching TV while intertwined in a human pile, I finally felt comfortable taking my camera out of my room and clicking photographs of the kids I lived with. I guess I had the luxury of time on this leg to experience first and document later, but there were so many moments I wished I had captured digitally up until this point. But that was not the point. With only two days remaining in my Palm Tree experience, my place at the orphanage had solidified as much as it could in that span of time. I prioritized the friendships above the visual memories and even the written records because that was the sole reason for making this detour to Cambodia. It wasn't to be a white knight and put up a barrier between the kids and myself.

I didn't want to muddy my intentions for being at Palm Tree by pulling out my wallet and strutting the streets like Daddy Warbucks. There's no doubt I have enough personally to donate, but the trick is finding the right time and purpose that reflects my heart's place. All this travel made me ultra-sensitive in the act of gift-giving and honoring the dignity of the gift-receiver.

Spending multiple days eating next to these kids, filling up with rice and anchovy-sized fish on occasion, I realized my concern centered on their basic needs, like nutrition. One day, while walking outside the orphanage's salmon walls, I passed a small mart that sold apples. It took a lot of gestures, poor attempts at speaking Khmer, the involvement of passing Palm Tree children, and smiles to make the vendor understand what I wanted: 100 apples at her best price for the kids down the street.

The cost was $12.

I wanted the act of distribution to be as anti-climactic as possible and asked the cook to put them on their dinner plates. Of course, Cambodians cannot help but be grateful, appreciative and polite, and every child approached our little pagoda during dinner to thank me with a bow that displayed a sense of formality so easy and natural to them.

Evan reminded me of a market down the street that would offer a better selection of fruit and possibly better prices. I took three or four little boys with me the next day (and by took, I mean as I walked towards the orphanage gate, they ran up to see if they could tag along on the mini-adventure, skipping and holding my hand the whole way). As I took every step with such care as to avoid mud and piles of trash, the boys romped around without shoes (as they preferred to be) like we were in a field of marshmallows.

A lady with a heaping pile of green oranges caught my eye, and I sent young Vishna to discuss a sale of 100 juicy orbs. After getting a price quote, he came over to ask for roughly $10, and I gave him the equivalent in Cambodian riel. The vendor began packing her massive bag full and a few nearby ladies offered her their hands in the counting.

A few minutes passed, and Vishna came back with three more dollars because she realized she overcharged. One look at the vendor, and I felt this subtle moment of sweetness and good standing in their community. It was an honest view into a seemingly rough city most foreigners can only hope to glimpse.

$7 for 100 oranges. And to think I've bought a cocktail for more than that.

One Year Ago Today

One year ago today, this began.

I'm thinking back to the all-nighter I pulled before I guzzled a glass of micro-nutrient drink, piled my bags into the car, and left out of the old (and now non-existent) Indianapolis Airport for Milan, Italy. I'm sad and happy and all sorts of amazed.

How on Earth did I wrangle another RTW experience while still in the wake of the last one. And though I've been battling this concept for the last month (oh gosh, I don't deserve this...wait, maybe I do...naw, I'm un-deserv--O.K. I earned this...and so on), I've landed on grateful, humbled, numb, and overwhelmed.

The last 365 days have been nothing but travel-soaked and incredibly productive. I've grown astronomic amounts with the embarkment, every day of overstimulation, and the decompression in America where I've chewed on my global experiences with fermented values and beliefs. With all the many ladies who have asked me for advice and inspiration to do their own solo RTW, I surely hope I convinced even one to make the dream happen ASAP for the sake of their own development. Not that I believe I've grown as much as I ever will from one year, but at times I feel as though I skipped a year or two in the maturing process and came out a solid individual.

And so tonight, on this Cinco de Mayo, I'll treat myself to a beer or three (domestic unfortunately) and cheers to personal dreams being accomplished and the growth of the individual thanks to travel and experience.

Side note: As it is the end of the month, I am in the process of gathering contributions to the charities I've been moved by. This has been a sad month with the passing of Evan Witty, my friend and fellow volunteer with Cambodia's Hope, and I want to make it easy and convenient for anyone to offer something for his initiatives and passionate endeavors. If you are interested in sending a donation, get it to me and I'll send it off (or give you information on how to do so).

My Brush with Controversial Cambodia: Day 189

There's such a thing as a hostess bar in Cambodia. It's an establishment that offers libations, snacks, and the most salient feature of spry, young Cambodian women, available for modest companionship and eye candy. With such a gag-evoking reality of child prostitution and sex tourism in this country already scarred with unfathomable [recent] history, I was very careful to approach the idea of nightlife in Phnom Penh. It had been a long time since I participated in after hour activities, especially with anyone resembling a travel buddy or friend, and with two weeks in this relative hub of excitement, I thought it was a necessary experience. I also had to see what this hostess situation was about. Evan understood and shared my outlook on Cambodian nightlife and offered to introduce me to this unique experience. The ride to the bar occurred after an incredible downpour that flooded the streets to levels beyond my comprehension. Our tuk-tuk driver had to get off his seat and push his vehicle (with us still in the back, lifting our legs from the incoming water, because he wouldn't allow us to get out and push with him) until he passed through a thigh-high water situation at the intersection of two roads.

I was stunned this amount of water could puddle together with buildings and storefronts lining the streets, as if the water level displayed the correct ground level and the driver walked in some sort of quicksand below. Evan kept his feet elevated, hoping any minor cuts wouldn't get infected as one had the previous week (which he had to keep soaked in bright purple iodine). The moment was surreal and simply hilarious. I'm disappointed the lighting didn't lend to some telling pictures.

I was already quite sauced before we entered the first watering hole, a hostess bar that was vouched for and legitimate by standards unbeknownst to me. I said "yay" to a Long Island Iced Tea and sat at a U-shaped couched where Evan and I were soon thronged by women of high school age or older.

With daily gigs of encouraging consumption and making witty conversation with travelers, these hostesses were skilled in language. They understood the complexities of humor, based in languages and cultures foreign to them (a laudable skill, as I learned in Italy). I guess in a sense they were the Cambodian equivalent of geishas.

The awkward feeling in my gut led me to act oblivious and just start ordering food while throwing out jokes and anecdotes to anyone listening. Eventually I loosened up and began chatting with the girl next to me (who was only nearby because she, along with the others, was enamored with Evan and his care for the Palm Tree kids).

She had a son who suffered from elephantitis of the testicles. He was roughly two or three years of age. She flashed a picture out from her pocket and showed me his face and worn frame. This woman had no reason to tell me this sad truth of her life, as she knew I wasn't there for special companionship or to buy her drinks. She wasn't even the one who brought the topic into conversation.

Looking around at the other tables in the bar, I realized we were monopolizing about 80% of the hostesses on duty. They flocked to our table in hopes of hearing Evan's attempt at speaking in Khmer and chatting as friends. The rest of the tables were occupied by twos, one traveler to one woman, and the game at play was flirting. It was like we made it to the backstage party and bypassed the controversial showing of "You Like Me. You Buy Drink."

Approaching this outing like a foreigner made it easy to judge, but I then took my own understanding of nightlife in College Town, USA and applied the same eye. Aside from the drink incentives and hourly wages paid by the bars, the social scene in both countries seemed eerily similar. Girls go to bars. Boys go to bars to find girls. Girls try to get guys to buy them drinks. Guys buy girls drinks to encourage further conversation and companionship. And at the end of the night, if two people like each other, they can choose to exchange numbers and stay in contact with one another. And some day, when feelings blossom, who knows?

The next morning I awoke in an empty hotel room, shivering from the billowing AC and listening to the MTV channel I had fallen asleep to. Since we weren't planning to be back from our night out before 9pm or after 5am (when the gate would be locked), we rented a $10 room each with all the essentials (TV, AC, personal bathrooms and soap). Lying in that bed, I listened to the newest works by Keane and Lil Jon and began to anticipate the boat loads of new music I would encounter once back stateside.

Evan and I waltzed back to the orphanage in time for a double fried egg lunch with the kids, and their looks of confusion as to why we were just returning from the evening were refreshing. Luckily, the Palm Tree kids are among the few in Phnom Penh (and Cambodia) who see the world with fairly innocent eyes. Most were never exposed to the professions of the night and had trouble understanding why we went out on the town the night before. Even though our evening activities weren't scandalous and were for the pursuit a unique cultural experience, it made me happy to know they were protected from the burdens of their demographic.

Except for one new girl.

Srey Nith arrived at Palm Tree only a few days before I had, and her patchy English and mysterious personality made it difficult to see where her mind would lead her actions. Word on the playground was she had been taken from the despicable child sex tourism game. Her brown eyes and toothy smile conjured mischief, and I wished terribly that we could speak a common language. But instead we spent many minutes and hours drawing pictures and saying simple English and Khmer phrases to enable some better communication.

She often mentioned her boyfriend or a boy she liked, pointing off to a group of older guys and saying a name I wasn't familiar with. I'd question what she meant and upon hearing her insinuate actions and thoughts above her maturity, I immediately shut them down with friendly disapproval. I wanted her to know, if she was saying those things for acceptance, it wouldn't work for me. Instead, I showed enthusiasm with each new statement she learned in English, and her constant quizzing of Khmer phrases helped my skills immensely. She sang for me with English lyrics she didn't understand, and I wrote them out on a whiteboard, during an impromptu tutoring lesson, so she could realize what she was indeed singing about.

She had a do-good heart hidden in a battered shell, and I found her to be one of my most intriguing friends at the orphanage. It pained me to hear when trouble went down by her doing. With the "physical education" and mature lectures she received in her short lifetime thus far, I can imagine her thoughts of entering a new place filled with men she had to seek approval from. And seek it she did, but in a way neither she nor the young boys she touched were aware and ready for.

The next week, five boys at the orphanage were a bit quieter; one of which was my self-proclaimed "little brother" who used to climb up my torso like a tree to hug and kiss me on the cheek but now shied from my taps on the shoulder. I spent the next days slowing building the boys' trust back in females and solidifying their beliefs that I was there to do no harm or embarrassment to them. It was a slow process, but thankfully, I got the smiles and the hugs once more.

For all the good we do or think we do in the United States, I hope citizens are aware of, thoroughly disgusted by, and prepared to flog any of the Americans that makes up the quarter of the child sex tourism industry around the world (and 40% of Cambodia's red-light market).

My Friend, Evan Witty

There are a couple reasons why I've chosen to live my life the way that I do. The unpredictable coming of death is a major determining factor that leaves me feeling helpless to the forces of nature. When traveling to distant lands and seeking adventure make us more vulnerable to risk and danger, but statistics claim most accidents and fatal situations happen close to home, I can't help but believe in living like you have no control over your own time; so I've stopped living a comfortable life that lends to such a mentality. By doing so, I hope to improve my quality of life to a measure that cannot be surpassed, one that doesn't stop sopping up beautiful moments while leaving nothing but good things in the wake, making my time of death a welcome occurrence when it arrives as I've deferred nothing for that non-existent future. I say all this because I lost a friend today, someone I knew 12 days in total but held dear nonetheless. And though 12 days is but an infantile blip in the timeline of my existence, this friendship began and proceeded as the best ones do: as a traveler friendship.

Arriving in July to a city, country, and continent he'd never visited, Evan Witty began his time as a long-term volunteer at the Palm Tree Orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When I met him in November, he had become a staple figure on the grounds, knew every one of the 100+ children by name (names not easily absorbed by a Western mind), understood their personalities and tendencies, and had grasped an incredible take on Cambodian culture from both an outsider's and an insider's eyes. He revealed a lot to me about a country I was ignorant of and welcomed me along in his own experiences both at Palm Tree and around town.

Though many times as a volunteer we were confused as to our part in the grand scheme of Palm Tree, it was understood that Evan was there to become inexplicably linked to the kids and make wonderful things happen, both tangible and emotional. He had goals for his fundraising efforts and knew his place there. As a result, he was deeply respected and sought after for guidance on a wide range of issues.

Evan and I

Evan and I

I needed him dearly to break the barrier that had formed around me in India. I hadn't been exposed to the familiar in so long and hadn't felt a hug from home since July, but when he told me he was a Midwestern boy, whom had experienced the wonders of Indiana University's Little 500, knew mutual friends, held leadership positions in his greek organization, and loved being away from the comfort of the United States, I felt at ease, finally. And with traveler friendships and the ever-present expiration date, we got to know each other fast and in ways that sidetracked the common small talk of two ships passing. He showed me how to call home for an hour for less than a US Dollar, enabled my experience of the  Cambodian nightlife, and acted himself in a way that compounded my sense of purpose and possibility for the things I hope to accomplish in life.

Since Evan was lousy at correspondence, and thankfully made that known to me before I left, we didn't get to speak after I left at 5:00am on the morning of November 13th, 2008. He made sure I woke him up to say goodbye, exchange contacts, and promise to meet again once we were both stateside. And honestly, I was still very much looking forward to that meeting after his summer flight back to Chicago; I thought about it many times, imagining conversations over beers or a baseball game where we discussed the kids and his future plans for probable humanitarian work (since he was meant to care for others).

I made a CD with my videos and pictures of the kids I thought he would appreciate. I wrote him a letter, hoping to help him in whatever task he was working on. Those were only just being delivered this week with the arrival of Terry Kellogg, one of the founders of Cambodia's Hope, and I'm sad I won't get the chance to further any initiatives he started or had dreamed up.

I awoke with a shock when I rolled to my side to look at my phone; one e-mail from Marvel Kellogg stating Evan had passed in his sleep. It's hard to shake that confusion off when a friend never wakes, especially at the ripe age of youth, and I am bitter that this has happened to friends of mine more than once.

There’s a certain awe I feel toward Evan Witty and his now legendary heart and determination to do good for the kids at the Palm Tree orphanage in Cambodia. As a guy with a great deal of education, charisma, and experience, he could have moved into a powerful job path and made monetary success his mission. But he found more appeal in living with 100+ kids in a country he had no ties to. He wanted to move people and make physical and emotional necessities available to anyone. With that desire and an experience such as the one he had at Palm Tree, his life work was destined to be hugely impacting and awe-inspiring, and I'm so sorry we don't get to witness his next steps. But he passed with people who loved him and he loved in return, in his sleep on the beach in Cambodia. As unfair as this whole situation is, that irreversible fact has a peace that adequately reflects the dignity Evan deserves to receive.

I will continue to think of his dreams for the Palm Tree orphanage and stay a part of the children's lives, keeping in mind Evan's work and what he would want to happen for the future. If you knew Evan or were moved by his humanity, please check out his cause on my page documenting Cambodia's Hope. Those kids are deserving of more devout workers like Evan, so if you are looking for a way to impact something wonderful with your time or funds, this would be the place and the cause. And if you do decide to become a volunteer for Palm Tree, I'd love to pass on the tips I remember from Evan that will make your experience complete.

The Transition to Useful: Day 187


As often as one would see a road sign or a mailbox on the highway in America, in Cambodia, one sees the reoccurrence of signage displaying political loyalty: Cambodian People's Party, Funcinpec, and oodles others adorning the mouths of people's driveways. Besides these brilliant blue beacons, all the world is green. Families construct roadside eateries and offer a good meal to any motorist en route. On this stretch of road connecting Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, the world looks to be a cross-pollination between tropical farm villages and elegant stretches of undisturbed patty fields. The TV on board the vocal little bus resonated melodious Khmer tunes along with karaoke music videos, which everybody seemed to love. I couldn't bother looking much at the screen with such a wonderland going by. It was a beautiful ride, aside from the sporadic, nonsensical horn usage, but I happily sat back and crunched on over-flavored Pringles and roadside spiral pineapple, enjoying strong tastes for the first time since the wicked gastro-spell.

Upon reaching the capital of Cambodia, I sat waiting in the misty spray of the open-air bus station. For the first time in seemingly ages, I was expecting someone. The relentless taxi drivers attempted to snatch me up for business and take me to a location I had vague and confusing directions to; however, I trusted the warnings of volunteer coordinator, Jennifer, and stayed put until they eventually came to find me.


Evan, Zan, a Palm Tree worker, and a Palm Tree child (both with names I'd rather not butcher by wrongfully spelling here) found me negotiating with a motor bike driver, and I was relieved to see my name printed on a sheet in their hands and hear the American twang in their voices. We rode to the orphanage and exchanged the initial conversation points (I being incredibly excited to be around people who spoke English and they looking forward to a new volunteer to enlighten the dynamic) before finally rolling up to the salmon-colored walls of the oasis.

The immediate hugs upon reaching the Palm Tree Orphanage warmed more than just my arms and legs. That kind of human contact was something my body and mind felt deprived of, without me being consciously aware of it. This establishment is often visited by Americans and Western volunteers, and the kids have learned what to expect from some of these visits. Some bring mad amounts of gifts to be distributed to those they connect with most. Others are there for the long haul to make a real impact in their lives, and vice versa. I came to make some friends, get a feel for the place (Palm Tree and Cambodia), and offer up my skills and services for the greatest amount of good. It was interesting to see how my relationships with the kids evolved after that first meeting.

I don’t believe in traveling the world to kiss babies. And I don’t immediately pity and coddle kids just because they are kids or because they are “less fortunate” than I. When I meet someone, I hold them to the same standards as I do any new acquaintance; if they have a good soul, they are a part of my circle. And even if they hide their character behind real angst, the gut instinct detects the good nature that allows humans to connect beyond language and cultural barriers.

Upon getting to my beautiful shared room with a bed and AC, there was an immediate concern to wash some clothing, seeing as I had absolutely no items ready for wear that wouldn't require a Hazmat crew to unfold. The ladies at the orphanage insisted that I fill a laundry basket and let them do the work. I refuted it a little before realizing it would probably be offensive to do it myself when they offered.

Our first meal in the little pagoda was a chance for Evan and Zan (real name Susannah, but none of the kids could swing that name around regularly) to explain how this place works. Out of the corner of my eye, I checked out the kids as they simultaneously gave me the once over. There was a definite dynamic and strong, preexisting relationships between the orphanage, the kids, and the American vagabonds, and I had to figure out how I would mesh into it without disturbing the "chi".

That night, as the sun set hard over the city, a busload of SASers pulled up to the gates. The fall voyage of Semester at Sea had docked in Saigon, Vietnam that week, and a select few students made the jaunt to Cambodia on a school-sponsored trip to see Angkor and the Palm Tree. My voyage (Spring 2007) was the first to frequent Palm Tree as an experience, which is how I came to find out about this place, and the odd sense of deja vu that swept over me upon seeing the next generation of globetrotters was more like time-travel than anything else. As most of the students came charging into the mob of children blowing kazoos and spraying silly string, one girl approached me as I stood to the side, under an overhang out of the rain, and asked if this was my orphanage. I laughed and told her I got here about four hours before she did. "I'm just getting into the swing here."

"You look so familiar! Have you been on Semester at Sea before?" "Yeah, Spring 2007. It's so weird to see you guys coming through here; I was you over a year ago!" "I SAW YOUR VIDEOS! I knew I wanted to do Semester at Sea a year before we left, and I did intense YouTube research on all the ports. I watched all your videos and remember you had two good friends: a really cute boy and a really tall girl." "Ha, wow, I just traveled with them in June in Europe! That's Alexis and Garrett. This is so odd that you know who the are..."


It's encounters like this, and the experience of actually going around the Earth's circumference ever so slowly, that constantly and continually inspire me to say, "It really is a freaking small world."

Upon day one, my purpose at Palm Tree was tested. The volunteer setup is completely based around what you want and are willing to do by your own initiative. I began by just hanging out with some kids and becoming a part of their dynamic. I sprawled across a table and started coloring something that would get them interested in me, but when my buddy, Sal, tested me in an effort to apprehend the community crayons for himself, I had to take the first-day-babysitter stance and show them I saw past the cute eyes and teardrops. I knew he was aiming to see how far he could go with my naivety to get what he wanted. I stood firm, and he wandered around the grounds crying to everyone that he “really loved crayons.” Later that evening before bed, he emerged from the depths of his dorm to sit by me, timidly before snuggling up to my side. He was my boy for the rest of the stay.

Scars and quiet faces. Burn marks and troubled pasts. One would never know what happened to these kids before they came to Palm Tree unless one of the administrators opened up the filing cabinet. These children don’t exude pity or anguish. They fall down, scrap their knees and get back up to laugh some more. They crawl up your leg as if you were a tree in order to give you the biggest hug and kiss they can muster. They play in the monsoon rains with their bikes, metal lids, and each other, and even though their diets don't consist of protein shakes or much calorie-packed sustenance, the energy levels never die from 5am when they rise to 9pm when their final giggles disappear in the air of Phnom Penh.

My arrival coincided with a major switch in the academic regimen, one that made me do an Austin Powers ankle-flicking jump when I realized the massive teaching manual I lugged around the world would come to good use. Cambodian children attend half-day government school, where they wear uniforms and speak in their local language of Khmer. The lucky kids at Palm Tree are also provided supplemental education for the other half of the day, where they attend classes on the grounds with teachers employed by the foundation.

These classes, once conducted in Khmer, were now being changed to an American school system and taught in English. Middle/high school textbooks printed in Kansas and the Great Plains were photocopied and dispersed to the children, the younger ones receiving the earlier chapters with the older students only getting the latter chapters of the book, without the introductions to vocabulary they didn't know. The teachers also understandably had a rough transition ahead of them, now challenged to teach subjects like math and history in a language they may or may not be fluent in. Evan, Zan, and I spent our days trying to offer as much support as we could possible give.

On the first day of the new system, Evan and I walked into a classroom filled with kids and lacking a teacher for that session. Seeing that their schedule said “Chemistry” and the textbooks went far above their heads, we created a dynamic lesson off the cuff by pouring water on the floor, knocking everything solid in the room, and squeezing ice cubes until they melted on their hands. While I tried to draw a propane tank on the whiteboard, Evan ran out to buy supplies on the street: powder for orange drink, a chunk of ice, a balloon, water bottles, and other teaching essentials.

By the end of the class, the kids learned that chemistry was about liquids, solids, and gases, and Evan and I were pooped, yet invigorated by the idea that we taught kids about science in a language they didn’t know. Those little successes every day, every hour made me feel so alive and needed in this world. I attended every class I could, eight a day, until the kids went on vacation.

Angkor Thoughts Anchor Awe: Day 180

Angkor Wat Temple Hallway

My hair fluttered in the wind on the back of the hired tuk-tuk. Driving twelve kilometers into the Angkor jungles, the amazing Cambodian air was cool and luscious, yet upon stopping it instantly created a "stick" factor that made me look freshly emerged from a pool. I even wore my Bayern Munchen soccer jersey in order to avoid the unfriendly cling and sag of wet cotton. I loved it. My driver friend and I were on a quest to see massive, ancient temples and wander the jungles littered with hidden landmines. I didn’t care how terrible my entry photo looked on my ticket stub or that I had a "moistache". The earth was red, the leaves were electric, and stone towers were on the horizon. Every explorer wishes to discover amazing locations themselves without the help of a guide book or treading an already "beaten path." But the reality is that we often travel because we've heard things from previous travelers and want to see for ourselves the wonder they witnessed upon discovery. The real trick is trying to blind yourself to the ambiance created by word of mouth and imagine that first moment of awe that shakes the timeless traveler to the core.

There are many UNESCO World Heritage sites and major city landmarks that receive a lot of hype, yet never surpass their reputation, in my eyes, when experienced in person. I was let down by such structures as the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, the main tourist drag of the Great Wall (until I illegally branched off and went along the crumbles), the "romantic" canals and piazzas of Venice, the Forbidden City, and more.

But not the Angkor temples.

Virtuosity. The human capacity for perfection. We as people are obsessed with seeing, feeling, hearing and tasting the best accomplishments of mankind. It's one of the main pulls on us to look elsewhere from our home bases to find something better or different than what we know. Child prodigies in music, gorgeous cathedrals in Italy, or practiced chefs that write the book on their specialty, we know how to measure the rest in a genre if we know what to compare it with. And when one dips their senses into an ambiance orchestrated by many virtuosos simultaneously, enlightenment is almost within reach.

"Fly on little wing." Jimi sang my favorite melody through the buds in my ears, as I placed my bottom atop a mound of elephant-lain stones. Pulling out my journal, I jotted the things that elevated my spirits to the status of "inspired."

Some time in the early 1000s, the people in this part of the world wrangled wild elephants into hauling massive chunks of the Earth's crust together and chiseled their mark with great cultural and artistic pride, displaying a skill level hardly matched one thousand years later. The expanse is vast; the design incredible. Even the bite of the slow "cattle herd" atmosphere isn't strong enough to deter from Angkor Wat's isolated magnitude.

I was in the presence of greatness, evident by sight and the tactile touch of its elephant skin-like surface. The dampening rain or the dew-filled air revealed colors reminiscent of a riverbed cross-section: murky olive greens, smears of light rust, cold tint-less gray, thin browns and streaked tan. The stones were earth-toned rainbows, and between the stone corridors and colonnades wove the solemn monks, decorating the steaming enterprise like half-melted popsicles.

Like mountains, these elaborate religious complexes take what mankind and Mother Nature dish out, and they come out more resilient on the other end. I saw the main temple of Angkor Wat as having a face, one so wrinkled, jaded and too old to even roll its eyes at the shutter-happy, grouping tourists in matching hats.

And when all the tourists got in close to squint and contemplate a bundle of Angkor-inspired questions, I thought to myself, "Are we all trying to look like we discern what we see?" Have we all read the history and the books on ancient architecture? Have we all decided to pretend like we look amused, even though the humidity is directing us to take the obligatory shots and evacuate ASAP? There's a reason we all trek out into the personally unknown to see for ourselves the things of this physical world.

Why do I do it? Understanding others and the path of humanity helps me understand myself and the next inch of my path. Some times I'm barely aware of where I am, but one look sends my internal thoughts a-spinning.

Those who were able to delight in the wonders of Cambodia while on Semester at Sea all brought home a t-shirt from the roads of Angkor that I envied. I left my earbuds in, sunk my hands in my pockets, and moseyed the stretch of vendors outside Angkor Wat to peruse their goods in search of such a find. One woman sitting in a lone chair called out to me saying she liked my style, maybe not so much my clothing choices but my nature as I strolled the local "strip mall," and we began chatting. I told her friend I wanted to buy some t-shirts in bulk for a good price and proceeded to get 8 shirts for roughly $10, while showing off our grins to each other and enjoying the game of the haggle. I had a little posse of women in my periphery all there to giggle at something or offer their own brand of souvenir. I took one up on a sweaty bottle of water and walked away content with all my purchases.

The relentless saleschildren tried to coax me into other painting stands, but only one man summoned real appreciation and praise. I found a guy that not only took his art seriously but was selling the work of his master, both artists finally breaking the molds of the mass-produced Angkor artwork. With all the cash I had left, I invested in the master and had the piece quickly rolled for transport to avoid the heavy showers that soon lacquered my hair to my face.

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and a jungle filled with rock piles; I wandered like I was a very damp Lara Croft in the very structures that inspired the movie's plotline and destination. I stepped from stone to stone to the grand pathway in front of a monkey temple and time traveled to the moments when the buildings' grandeur was at their pinnacle.

While my toes baked in my cracking flip-flops, I was mesmerized by the ringing I couldn't place. Looking around for a row of monks with little clinking bells, I thought I was a little bit crazy for hearing things so foreign in the middle of nature. After asking my driver, busy chowing at his favorite open air restaurant, what they were, he enlightened me by spelling out the word he had trouble pronouncing, "C-I-C-A-D-A-S."

I joined my driver for lunch of Khmer soup at the restaurant/trivia zone for the wandering saleskids. "What is the capital of Madagascar? Do you know the population of your own country? If I know, then you buy something from me!" Many of us were made fools of based on the knowledge we lacked in our own world geography and by children who were skipping school in order to profit from these impromptu quizzes. I sat in the back, very torn by how I felt about these kids and their daily routine, hoping this wasn't evidence of their necessity-imposed priorities but that they just didn't have school in the afternoons.

When my stomach churned, letting me know it would soon be quite aggravated, I climbed on top of a pile that marked the site of a dilapidated temple and sat for one last experience before I bid the jungle farewell. It was atop this mound that I finally could form the descriptions I was feeling of a place so enlightened. I began to sing under my breath the song I paired with this leg of the journey in a video: Lauryn Hill's "Miseducation". The cicadas provided the starting note fittingly in the key of "C".

The driver and I burned diesel as we flew out of the jungle. He offered me the name of his brother in Phnom Penh if I ever needed a ride anywhere, and I thanked him for the comfort he provided every time I turned to the parked taxis in search of my kind chauffeur and saw his easy smile.

That was all I wanted to see. That's the only other thing I wanted to do in this country besides hang out with some kids. I booked a bus for the next morning, recovered in my room and took to an empty Thai restaurant for some grade A service and tasty fare. The boys served every glass or dish with an outstretched right hand and a gesture of respect with the left, presenting me with two extra treats I didn't even order in the name of hospitality. When a personal fan materialized to waft a calming breeze in my direction, my mind solidified, "Siem Reap is stellar, clean and homey, from the initial breath to the ride out of town."

Soulja Boy in Cambodi'ya: Day 180

I sat watching a Champions League soccer game on the restaurant's TV, dangling my flip flop from a shaking foot and hoping a Cambodian beer was in my immediate future. No one waited on me, and I look around to see that every frat boy backpacker had been served and content for seemingly hours. After waiting about five minutes, the slate of my mind was wiped clean, and I stood up rather robot-like and walked towards the street, much like Forrest Gump before his cross-country running spree. I said to myself, "I sure hope this city is safe."

I walked with a notebook in hand, clasping it nonchalantly, yet tight enough to keep my dollar bills and Cambodian riel lodged within the pages. Taking a left, I passed by some roadside eateries still blazing their lamps for business. I held my pant legs above my ankles to avoid the slowly disappearing rain rivers that earlier washed a layer of sand across the pavement. I couldn't get over the purity of the air. I felt comfortable, instantly at home.

Walking by many restaurants and bars, I found an illuminated chalk sign that said: Happy Hour 5pm - 10pm. My kind of business. I barely looked both ways to cross the street and landed in the doorway of my new favorite establishment. I quickly ordered a pint of Angkor for less than a dollar, and the ecstatic young barkeep ran across the street to fetch the brew. I guess this bar wasn't stocked with the local beer of choice. Odd.

When I first walked in, the young man at the counter smiled without hesitation and showed me to the closest chair to the street for public viewing. He muted the Arsenal game and turned on his mix CD of popular American hip-hop. Soulja Boy's unmistakable "YOUUUUU" resonated throughout the bar. One look at his face, and you knew he was deejaying to impress. I felt incredibly compelled to stand up and teach him the dance, a bit of a cultural exchange, if you will; however, something compelled me to stay seated and continue to laugh to myself, writing down the things I was experiencing while sipping on the frosty mug.

The restaurant across the street closed up, and workers flocked to the sounds of Usher and Lil Wayne coming from our watering hole. A young woman sat alone on a barstool, sipping her drink with a smile plastered on her face. Being in Cambodia as a newbie, I immediately believed she was there to get free drinks, make a new friend, and cash out in the morning after making a load from a local or foreign businessman. Chances are she was a neighborhood teenager in need of a wet whistle, and I'll stick with that interpretation until I reach cold cut proof of the other.

I bade my new friends adieu and returned to my $10 a night luxury suite for some light-hearted merriment. Cambodian TV is an insomniac's paradise. Never have I laughed so hard at the tube than when I delighted in the fashion, karaoke, and Thai soap opera channels at the Green Lantern Guesthouse. There is great fascination in those parts with watching uneventful music videos about a boy and a girl longing for each other and singing along to it, karaoke-style. It's entertainment for the worldwide masses. I burst into laughter (audible from two rooms away, at least) at the melodrama of the soap operas I couldn't even understand. And fashion TV transported me from my guesthouse in Cambodia to a sorority common room or a Californian cocktail bar.

Lying there on my stomach with a pillow propping my gaze and a remote poised, the experience seemed a somewhat lazy, albeit fulfilling, approach to the act of cultural osmosis. The programs' hilarity and fuzzy reception were constant reminders that values, geography, technology, tastes, and desires can and do space worlds apart, meanwhile giving travelers a reason to keep going. What is mainstream at home is a delightful import elsewhere, and those treasured pastimes of distant lands are our special windows to other worlds with a dash of foreign charm.

Anyone coming to the United States looking for culture will either be smacked by it or have to whip out a magnifying glass to find it, but as a techno-centric society, all a traveler would have to do to see our values and humor would be to turn on the TV. Does that mean my experience in a different country could be enlightened by observing their local tube offerings? And at a time when so much is accessible from a simple hotel room or a satellite receiver, the question of why one should go and spend and weather and endure on location never ceases to probe.

As evident by my ramble, it can be very hard to describe even the most subtle realities of traveling abroad to those who are back in the solid mindset of home and the familiar. The nomad's world is an academic one, and with every hour comes a challenge to the things already known or believed. There is no rest for the mind and its running list of values, which is why one becomes wiser and fulfilled but less happy and wearier while wandering without fail for months on end.

I fell asleep to the sounds of a downpour outside my open window. The world was being flushed clean. Cambodia was a clean pipe when I awoke the next morning.

Luxu-Reverse Culture Shock: Also Day 179

Individual TVs with touch screen features, jam-packed with the latest Hollywood hits. A Thai meal paired with real silverware, a cloth napkin matching the pattern of the place mat, and true customer satisfaction. I just described the experience of flying with an Indian airline. Surprised? My eyes were slathered with awe once I left the Kolkata airport, having not seen high quality anything since coffee hour in Qatar. I flew Jet Airways. My standards for air travel are now exponentially higher. I wandered the new Bangkok airport. I now know the super-human extent of modern architecture. I walked onto the tarmac at the Siem Reap airport in Cambodia. I could smell rain and the pure air of a tropical haven. I finally remembered what air could smell like. I was officially out of India.

Rain. Rain! Warm rain that recalls the vast memories of beach vacations on Caribbean islands. I looked for the ocean, knowing we were hundreds of miles from one. It was astonishing, the amount of water the air could hold, and all of it was fresh and without evidence of trash or dung-fueled bonfires. Though I've never used an oxygen tank, I imagine the sensation is something like what I felt in my lungs as I descended the stairs of the plane: wet velvet coating the tubes and filling all alveoli with down feathers, without the supposed suffocation side-effects.

I smiled as my shoestrings licked the tropical rain puddles. The sounds of the engine were muted by the winds. My country count ticker clicked: 39.

Life returned to being slow and understandable. It was without any trouble at all that I found a taxi driver whom would not only charge a reasonable cost but didn't exude a shady air, openly chatted about Khmer culture, and drove me around town in search of a suitable guesthouse within my limited budget.

Five star hotels rocketed out of the earth on all sides, and my eyes flickered with the light of a dreamer. This place was nice. This place was clean! I would have gladly walked barefoot or had dinner on the curb of the main thoroughfare. Rith, my new friend, laughed and continued to navigate the flooded streets without a blink, follow the rules of the road, and go the speed limit. Heck, there were speed limits again!

Rith (which is pronounced in no way like it appears) took care to inquire at each guesthouse for vacancies and keep looking when the inn turned me away. Once an open room revealed itself, he remained on the ground level to make sure I was satisfied then gave me his card for future service and parted into the night. The glistening teeth of his smile as he left reminded me; the unprovoked smiles from Africa were back. The Midwestern girl in my nomadic shell rejoiced.

There was a moment before I left my room in Darjeeling, when my bag was packed and strapped to my resting frame, that I took a deep breath and realized the transit days ahead of me. I knew I wouldn't be comfortable until my room in Siem Reap materialized and my proximity offered chances for Angkor temple explorations. Flopping my bag onto the floor and landing on one of my two queen sized beds covered in comfortable bedding, that moment reoccurred to me. A deep sigh left my unburdened being, signifying the other bookend to the journey between. I was finally put.

A One Day Exhausting Encore, and I'm Still Clapping: Day 179

I'm a firm believer that so much of your lasting memory of a location depends on how you entered it. When I arrive in the dark of night to a new locale, it's as if I wear a chiffon blindfold that begets a hazy concept of the city. All you have are the smells, the view from the headlights, and the deceiving cool of the nighttime climate. And in the morning, all previously formed ideas of the surroundings are challenged as you finally see the buildings, the ground, and the people who inhabit the place. The mode of transportation also has a very defining effect on the experience. Dropping into Uganda by plane at night and then having a pre-scheduled ride upon arrival put me in a trance or dreamlike state. I didn't know where I was and thought the hundreds of people in the streets were ghosts. For this reason, I like to come in with the dawn and just start walking. Kolkata had the pulse of most heavily concentrated Indian cities and the pushy nature that never releases its stranglehold. I avoided all persistent taxi drivers and rickshaws of all forms in the early morning bustle and wove into the back streets to relieve the pressure. The buildings rising up around me were the perfect, obvious blend of English Colonial and Indian, classic and colorful, structured and chaotic. The alleys made no logical sense in their layout, but in my attempt to aimlessly wander for the area known as Sudder Street, I encountered the real city.

The neighborhood Starbucks were replaced with scattered men boiling chai on the street. Men turned frothy white from soap lather splashed their bathing water across the asphalt. Not one wheeled vehicle rolled by. Evidence of holiday celebrations materialized over every other alley, giving me the opportunity to pass through temporary temples for tens of Hindu gods. In a way, the activity on the streets and the palpable character of the city reminded me of Florence, Italy, if she were covered in garbage heaps or would allow public bathing in this century.

I didn't bear witness to the intense suffering Kolkata was notorious for; I suppose that sort of dark tourism was concentrated in Chinatown or displayed across from the high-end shopping strips. I believe I dropped into the Indian lower-middle class, where the taxi drivers, shop workers, and food industry entrepreneurs built their community. The sun was still hiding, and the air was still tolerable (for someone used to inland tropics). I took great pride in knowing I made the right decision to walk and look straight into the eye of Kolkata, knowing her for an instant while darting through on this transit journey.

One man equipped with a blue tooth earpiece ran towards me as he watched my descent into yet another alley. He offered some direction towards Sudder Street, which I greatly appreciated and utilized, while still steering clear of the main thoroughfares. The massive buses and trolley cars that passed in frenzies nearly clipped my bag, and since he/she was my only companion, I took great care in safeguarding her existence.

I came within blocks of my destination, and upon turning a corner towards the backpacker district, I came across a massive covered market. Since it was still the wee-hour timeframe, the stalls were still being set up; however, the meat market was in full (cleaver) swing. I held my breath past the stale and decrepit stench of death to emerge on the other side, onto a street so perfectly named it had to be fate.

Lindsay Street. Spelled correctly and everything. I winked as I walked over her paved face, like a Mafioso sauntering into his own Italian trattoria, claiming ownership of a street I had never seen before.

The sun took its throne of power over the city by 8am, when I retired to dine on the Lonely Planet trail. Banana pancakes to my left. Muesli to my right. I had a hard-boiled egg and a cup of no-joke tea. Sitting in foreigner oasis, I made a game plan for the next 24 hours, up to the moment my plane closed its cabin for take-off. It was a day to take advantage of the outstanding prices and innumerable commodities offered. Here's what I accomplished without the help of the unyielding tourist hawkers or transportation:

Found an acceptable hostel for $2.50

Sold my India Lonely Planet and bought one for Cambodia (strictly for knowledge to avoid the local scams), while haggling relentlessly for a great deal

Affirmed my flights for the following day without spending a rupee

Shopped around like a price hawk and purchased 100 pencils, 30+ toothbrushes, paint sets, underwear and other assorted goods for the Palm Tree Orphanage I was about to visit

Found Grandpa 100 stamps from around the world

Discovered a bootleg copy of the mystery movie Alexis and I watched on the sleeper bus in China

Delighted in a meal of Indian BBQ

Got my picture taken for a passport photo to go on my Cambodian visa

Checked out the massive covered market I saw before and bought the cardamom and cinnamon needed to recreate real Kashmiri tea

Read the entire history of Cambodia's Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge regime

Took a cold water bucket shower without waking the ten other people in my room

Slept with my head bent at a 90 degree angle (not an easy task)

Every activity was thoroughly planned out, down to the route I took around town and the choice of lunching location. I even shopped around for the best quality bootleg DVD at the many illegal vendors.

A man followed me through the big marketplace, trying to force upon me a guided tour, and I (barely) tolerated his talking as long as he knew good and well I neither wanted a tour nor would compensate him for his time. Scam was written across his forehead, and he knew I knew it. When these business attempts approach me, I normally soak them in a little, in order to see if a new friend can be made. I don't mind helping the local tourism industry if they have a good heart or make an honest attempt to improve my time in a location. I didn't like his approach nor his inability to listen. I don't like that kind of business at all, and I won't stand for it.

Investigating the taxi "biz" the entire day before, I woke up at the crack of dawn on the day of my departure, 30 days after landing in the Subcontinent, and found my taxi driver waiting at the entrance of the hostel. Windows down, we flew through urban traffic at speeds up to nearly 65 miles per hour in a yellow Ambassador. The rustic, dilapidated, English-style cab was relatively luxurious in the grand scheme of my Indian adventures, and driving at that speed made the rapidly gusting wind pass my face with a lying scent of cleanliness.

I was raring and anxious to leave the country that at times stripped me of all desires to travel and be solo. Cooler temperatures, a different culture, massive ancient temples found within jungles, and fellow American travelers waited for me at my next stop. However, India is not kind when it comes to her bittersweet kiss on the cheek, one that is abrasive and addictive, one that you cringe away from and continue to think about months later. She is a fatal temptress. I lost gallons of sweat through dirty, microscopic pores, developed multiple ailments and had years taken off my life by means of pollution inhalation and personal battery. But I will never stop thinking about India and how much I would like to return. On paper, the relationship seems masochistic on my part, but so much of backpacker travel involves the reaping of pleasure from doing miserable, physically draining, and "never to be repeated" acts of travel. Truthfully, I morphed into the traveler and person I am today because of that month.

India, your poison is the elixir of humanity. I shall sip with caution and sip often. Thank you.

Diwali in Transit: Day 178

From Darjeeling to Kolkata, Diwali erupted in my wake.

Descending the staircase of Hotel New Vaisali, my working boys were in the process of hanging strands of orange and yellow flowers over the entrance to the lobby, taking as much care in the presentation as they would placing a fallen baby bird back in its nest. I paid the bill to the main clerk while standing next to the big eyes of the youngest employee. Five days of my Western habits weren't enough to shake their culture shock, and I left their confused gazes with a wave and a thank you, once again feeling the weight of a bittersweet departure and my ever-growing rucksack.

I wandered on the snaking main road and simply lifted my eyes to tens of jeeps that all wanted my business. Cramming into a jeep for three hours this time was by far superior as I didn't have the burden of 26-hours-sans-bathroom issues. One thing I love about these sorts of tight quarters is the smashing of bodies that relieves the muscles of all their tension. No one needs to worry about keeping their legs from touching another's or remaining perpendicular to the road when pressure from all sides keeps you in place. It's hilarious, though, that even while sharing armpits and leg sweat, two people physically forced together are embarrassed to make eye contact or share pleasantries.

"RIDE? YOU NEED RIDE? MISS, RIDE? I TAKE YOU! MY RICKSHAW!" Ten men spit clumpy red liquid.
"No guys, thanks, I don't need a ride. I'm just wandering down this road."
"Guys, I'm walking to find dinner. No thanks on rides." I repeat my mime of the act of walking and point to the street I want to wander.

Ten men proceeded to watch me change from my fleece covering into a sweaty, stretched-out, white shirt. Privacy is a luxury in a country of a billion.

I certainly gave myself time in Siliguri before catching my train a few minutes away from town. Overland travel, or all travel, in India can be predictably unpredictable and often unapologetic. I used the down time to get some grub at a nondescript thali joint, where I simply said "veg" and got a meal for $0.20. The man delivered my meal and accompanied it with a spoon, looking at me with either disinterest or grandfatherly sympathy. I was a little hurt as I had already rolled my right sleeve up, ready to plow in with a bare hand. As much as I think I can mimic the ways, I'm a Westie. I need utensil help.

I chowed; I moved on and found an open-air market where I stuck out like a sore, curry-stained thumb. Already sweaty and uncomfortable, I entered another restaurant in which to rest and sit by a window, watching parades of personal floats go by in honor of different gods. How Indians are able to haul massive shrines on the back of their motorbikes is a skill unbeknownst to me.

I crossed a firewall of candles out the front door and met an old man, thin in stature and expressionless in visage, who would take me via cycle-rickshaw to the bus station a mile or so away. This ride was surreal. It was something so subtly tremendous it would be easy to daydream through or forget about. Darkness descended, and the world passed by at about 4 miles an hour. He took me across city streets clogged with celebrations, past speakers projecting stories and music, beside temporary shrines and flamboyant structures, and over firework displays. And by over, I mean over. He steered towards some little boys setting off explosives and rode over a Roman candle ignited in spitting flames. It was a slow realization on my part, and once I saw where he had gone, I began to giggle and be completely consumed in the joys of the passing merriment I joined for split-seconds.

I left a city smelling of burned sulfur and charcoal, surefire olfactory evidence of a party atmosphere, and boarded a train in the plush luxury of a third class train car. Thanks to another young foreign girl who wanted to sit with her boyfriend, I was pushed up to second class. It was unfathomable. The planets aligned, and I got to sleep with a thick blanket and air conditioning. I welcomed the frigid air with all-night shivers, but I still remain a believer in fresh air while in India. The shock to the system of going from AC to boiling hot B.O. is too much for one body to handle.

I awoke to a stopped train, commotion, and an empty car. Asking the passing train employee where we were, I jumped towards my bag and hit the bright sun and ominous air like a crash dummy to a brick wall. My transit almost complete, the only thing between me and my final resting place for the night was the city of Kolkata and a paucity of knowledge in how to get from A to B. I actually had no B., no decided-upon destination other than the region of town for backpackers. I had things to get done here, all which required being within reach of tourist resources.

It was 6:00am. I started walking. I joined a mass crowd of locals half my size in the struggle to not get hit by cars, avoid stepping on sewage, and navigate the active alleyways. I have no idea why I did this.

Snubs and Grub, Why Eating Alone is Gangster: Day 176

To seek out mental exhaustionTo be stranded with nothing but my mind To be shoved completely out of my bubble and to let the one that covers me burst into tears on occasion To see things I read about To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten To prove I can return alive

Traveling is tough, and those who travel don't always love the loner chapter of the book. At times I hear people say they follow my blog and love to read the stories, some like to think they are experiencing the adventures with me, and others wish they could come along the next time. Some, like my mom, are just proud I'm able to do such things but would never partake in the quests.

The solo traveler lifestyle is a bit of an acquired mindset and may only be at the mercy of one's innate nature. I used to request a seat away from my parents on a flight, stare out the window, eat my peanuts, and imagine what I would do if I were alone. A wild concept, to be without guardians or help, left to tap my own resources and make something happen; my first solo flight to Florida and connection dash across the Atlanta airport gave me a taste of the adrenaline that comes from fending for yourself when no one is around.

During my final Spring Break in college, instead of wearing wet shirts and dancing in strobe, I sat in my basement and schemed. I used a laptop to plot a personal journey around the world, taking the same eastward route of my previous voyage, to see if I could hack it independently. And when my travel agent asked for the dates of each onward flight, I took no arbitrary approach. I counted out the amount of days needed to see the sights, get a feel for things in that country or region…and then doubled it.


To seek out mental exhaustion; I wanted to curse myself for making a trip so lengthy and difficult. To be stranded with nothing but my mind; I anticipated epic novels billowing out of the journey's memories. To be shoved completely out of my bubble; utter vulnerability was the name of the game. Let the bubble that covers me burst into tears on occasion; even though I am an expressionist, I bottle up a lot. This bottle explodes under extreme pressure, like a bottle of Aqua-net in a bonfire. To see things I read about; I'd rather not leave some things up to the imagination. To have a more enlightened mind and know, from experience, things never to be forgotten; it's either my poor reading comprehension gene or my decision to imbibe, but I cannot seem to remember things, unless of course I experience it (Thank you, Confucius). Finally, to prove I can return alive; I wanted to get in touch with the original human purpose: survival.

I'm supposed to be describing Darjeeling, but why the lengthy digression on going solo? It has to do with the need to eat while traveling. It has to do with trying new cuisines and enjoying a leisurely meal in a good ambiance. It has to do with the look of pity across the restaurant, the confusion exhibited and exclusion maintained by other travelers who don't get the weird ones who go alone.

Darjeeling, being an eclectic mix of cultures and a secluded town in the hills, had a fantastic selection of places to break my trend of mediocre food consumption after the stomach woes. I ate fancy-pants grub at a tablecloth joint, had Thai food that hugged me from the inside, and slowly eased back into the difficult tastes of post-body battle Indian dishes. Not one meal ever exceeded $3. Since I became a hermit in the hills to enjoy the serenity of writing and non-hostel culture, I had met no one in town, besides the anxious hotel boys, and normally ate alone. It does not send me into an existential episode when I eat a meal in public by myself; I usually used the time to stare out a window and envision the next thing or read a page of my novel on a Bombay gangster.

As I took a forkful of rice or a gulp of Indian beer, I often saw the glance of pity that all single women hate. A little blonde British woman with a clean French braid, looking past her male travel comrade's head, trying to understand in a split-second why I am so undesirable. Usually, I am too focused or tired to notice, but spending the entire day in a hotel room can make one ultra-sensitive to interactions with humankind.

These moments of misunderstanding don't make me angry but cause me to be stable in myself, sorry for others, feel mysterious to onlookers, and be a keeper of unknowns. I wish I could share with some of these shifty eyes the joys of wandering aimlessly on my own accord, and seldom do I get the chance to do so effectively. Never was I sent away from an inn because they didn't have enough spots open for my whole group, nor did I have to settle for an undesirable location in a compromise with my travel clan. Instead, I settled with whispering to myself while taking a bite or turn a page in my book, "Pansies."

Eating in Darjeeling was not always a big display of my travel situation in seemingly unflattering terms, but at times, I felt downright gangster. People really wonder about your abilities to get around and your strong determination when you hold your own shield and saber, so to speak. Often, less harassment comes your way as a loner because people think you've got a lot more know-how or power than meets the eye. It's like steering clear of the runt or the mute one in a one wants to question the crazy stuff they did for respect in their world.

Speaking of gangster, my last meal in Darjeeling was the Asian version of a scene from Casino. Walking by a Bhutanese restaurant every day bred much intrigue in what the ambiance would be like and what foods would run down my trap. I hid my massive novel and notebook under my slicker and ran through the kind of rain that only happens when you live inside a cloud.

The seemingly tiny establishment doubled in size with an upper floor, separated into rooms with encircling booth seating and central tables. The walls had a dusty cover of memorabilia often replicated in the corporate chains of Applebee's and Buca di Beppo; the accumulation of real artifacts from the lives of those working in the building: portraits of kings from the Motherland, dated notices on the wall of restaurant policies and sweeping landscapes adorned with pristine monasteries. I sat in a big room by myself, placed my book on the table covered with kitchen linoleum, and gazed out the opened window surrounded by twinkle lights that provided all the lighting in the room. I browsed a menu I was unable to read and mimed for suggestions from the one careful man who waited on me with complete attention. His folding of my napkins in a jazzy manner was laudable and his water refill intervals worthy of a standing ovation. I was taken care of.

The rain dripped slowly. The water trickled down the mountainside in a sweet delivery of ambiance. It was mountaintop gangster.

This is Why I Travel: Day 174


These are not the captions of a Marvel comic but the sounds that reverberated off the walls in my all-marble hotel. They were unexpected, oddly timed during the day, and seemingly arbitrary in the grand scheme of normal life in Darjeeling, India. I had no idea why the boys that worked in my hotel were setting off fireworks INSIDE the building where I slept.

And then I realized…Diwali; a Hindu holiday I had never heard of until July when my Italian hosts got me amped about being on location during a major celebration. The memory must have slipped by me, what with all the gastro-intestinal fireworks of the last week, and the only evidence of this special time of year was the spontaneous explosion during dinner that would send my hard-boiled egg sliding across the table.

There must be something in the water, or maybe it's the air at 8,000 feet, but the boys in Darjeeling who work in hotels are ever so special. Hotel New Vaisali was staffed by some pre-adolescent and full-grown teens who all expressed intrigue in my lone American quest. While reading or relaxing in my room, I would get knocks at the door by three or four anxious boys wanting to steep a nice pot of tea for me. I often took up their offers because: A. they found me to be an exotic species of human whose every move was worth watching, and B. I was in the process of documenting my African memories and felt drinking steaming tea and eating biscuits while writing instantly produced Pulitzers.

One day during my five night stay, I went nowhere and did absolutely nothing of note. I took a shower, watched TV, read my novel and wrote extensively. The boys came looking for me, worried/utterly riveted by my unusual habits. When I told them I was just resting and reading, you would have thought I said, "I'm on the phone with Mother Teresa, shaving the TV, and trying to slingshot a cookie at Kangchenjunga Mountain." I smiled at their confusion, closed the door with a wink, and let the intrigue beget a little more mystery. When you have a view of the world's third tallest mountain out your $15 per night hotel room, sometimes there's little reason to actually go outside. Plus, I was almost caught up with my sleep, my laundry, my book, and my journey notes. Cha-ching!

Every one of these Darjeeling boys, whether hotel worker, waiter, or bracelet maker, passionately possesses a belief in a common community denominator. Whether its exhibition is in the military hat atop their head, the simple sign on the shop window, or their participation in a demonstration that occurred outside my room window, they believe in their birthright of an independent nation called Gorkhaland. The original inhabitants of the West Bengali hills have made some bloody attempts in history to retake the land of the Nepali/Lepcha/Bhutia-blend people, but India, just as it does with its top hat of Kashmir, claims ownership. Not only were these boys universally hooked on romance but also on the impassioned game of politics there in the clouds.

The legendary hilltop train station, a rolling tea plantation, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute; all things I wanted to experience before the calendar sent me running to Kolkata for a flight eastward. I hit three of the city's major points of interest in one afternoon by way of my Merrell trekker shoes. Most taxi drivers charge over $20 for transportation to these hot spots, but it seemed unnatural and akin to defacing a world wonder to ride in a car when you could instead witness every inch of this city on foot. I dodged overstuffed taxis and walked by kitchen windows wafting relatively unpleasant smells, which always seemed to make my stomach gurgle in hunger. An hour or more later, all I could see was tea.

Happy Valley Tea Company is an old establishment that sells their products to visitors at the factory or in wholesale only to the retail giant, Harrod's. The snaking path down into the plantation from the street was a good place to sprain an ankle from all the necessary rock-hopping. But I landed at the bottom to find a woman with two teeth and beautiful skin grinning at me. She worked for the tea pickers, ladies who have yet to be replaced by machines or even primitive shears of any kind. The woman spoke English in staccato but quite well and offered to give me a lesson on Darjeeling tea.

I was plucked like a lucky little leaf to be chosen into the tea workers rest house. Not everyone gets the pleasure of seeing this woman first, sometimes only after spending loads in the factory and learning little. She brought me in and gave me a test, one-on-one, to see if I knew good tea from swill. I think I got two out of three correct, and she proceeded to describe picking seasons, leaf quality, steeping instructions, and impress further with the big Kahona of the tea world, Flowery Golden Tippy Orange Pekoe One. This ultra-high grade tea sat next to me, bulging like bags of Sam's Club kitty litter. My tutor grabbed a handful out of the bag, dragged me into the adjacent room with rolling hot water on the stove, and threw the leaves in for a grand total of five seconds.

With America as the birthplace of Starbucks and, as a result, constantly wired, we aren't big on tea. After going to the Boh tea plantation in Malaysia last year, I grew to appreciate a good cup and began to prefer it against its harsh opponent. I still cannot distinguish the good from the marginally bad, but this tea, FGTOP1 as they call it, was superb. Colors seemed brighter, my cushion seemed more welcoming, and the two-toothed woman and I became a little more chummy. She told me her beauty secrets and how she was able to have the skin of a forty year-old when she was sixty. I was shocked to hear her age, but when I considered her forty year-old skin and ninety year-old teeth, it all seemed to average out.

I walked away from my new friend with two bags of high grade FGTOP1, and the best part was her supply came from the tea pickers' ration. The factory pays them dismally but supplements their salary with weekly amounts of the tea that causes their carpal tunnel. Instead, they sell what they receive to make monetary compensation and make this monotonous life of slowly scaling hillsides worth it.

Mountains? (long pause) Wabash, Indiana. (long pause) Yup.

I guess it makes sense why I like the craggy, snow-covered beasts of the world and maybe even more sense why I am intrigued by those who climb them. Meandering up a hill and past oodles of street-side restaurants, I emerged from the foothills to the gates of the Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Tenzing Norgay presides over each day from his tomb above the Institute, and I went to give him a bit ofmy time. India's pride and joy, the second (according the Sir Edmund Hillary) person to summit Everest, is the celeb of the century in the West Bengali Hills as his 'hood was in the surrounding area. I snuck around the halls of the low-key museum and shivered at the thought of wearing the animal hides and tin cans they used in the early attempts at mountaineering. I searched for a tribute to the expedition with Jon Krakauer that inspired the book Into Thin Air in order to make myself feel somewhat "in the know," but alas, I saw none.

Even though I had numerous teachers in high school and college tell me I should pursue dance as a career, I knew I didn't have the build of a waif under this shell, nor the catty, competitive edge. And even though I am drawn to peaks like a moth to a very cold and dangerous light, I know I cannot pursue anything serious with mountaineering when my heart burns from lifting weights or running in place. Darn you, mitral-valve regurgitation and lousy cardio fitness, darn you to hell.

However, I think to a more subtle extent I am an adrenaline junkie. I go to unknown and risky places regardless of my hesitations. I embarrass myself or expose my most vulnerable thoughts because it's invigorating to be honest. And I like a steady climb below the tree level, when my hips feel as though they will dislodge, my scarf is icing over, and a blizzard is blowing past me on the right. I take on mini-mountains regularly in hopes all this effort will get me to a more informed self-realization. Because if I die without knowing the real me, my last moments will be the definition of depression. This is why I travel.

दार्जिलिंग इंडिया। अ मिड-लेवल मक्का।