One meal inspires three months of memories in Thailand

One meal inspires three months of memories in Thailand

I keep mentioning to our students that this phenomenon occurs constantly, with no warning, regarding foods, flavors, experiences, and beyond. All of a sudden, we're okay with what we formerly weren't (and of course, the opposite is always possible). I'm inclined to believe these mini-epiphanies are more perceptible on the road where they can be constantly questioned.

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Hey, Ireland, Nice Craic! Day 75

"Nice craic" Why, thank you!

Just say neigh to the use of puns...

Just say neigh to the use of puns...

This phrase took me some time to understand. This wasn't a severely misspelled compliment towards my derriere but a charming little catch phrase about good times in Ireland. Having a blast at a pub, cheers-ing to good friends, good Guinness, and swaying to the pipe of a Irish folk musician? That's some darn good craic right there.

I assume most travelers come to Ireland to enjoy the scenery and some good ol' fashioned craic. Our white and green bus shot to the west side of the country, down to the south, and around again to Dublin, with every stop centered on the pursuit of lovely views and some lovely good times.

Each time we stopped along the path towards the Atlantic, the more I believed the weather in Ireland is truly confused. Standing in the rain amidst sheep poop on the Hill of Tara, I thought, "This is really lovely. If only my toes weren't wet and ...messy." Walking around the Trim Castle, I thankfully basked in the sun of a surprisingly clear sky while meandering around the massive stone structure. And as the mist that coated my camera lens outside the Locke Distillery had me finally uttering, "I don't get this damn barometric situation! Ah, to hell with it. It's whiskey time."

Every day we flew across the clouds and squeezed our big bus between pasture-lined country roads. Once in a while, the mist would cease, and an opening in the atmosphere would reveal St. Patrick's mountain or a field of white horses. It's hard to let Ireland's weather ruin a trip to Ireland, but when the weather is good, it's gorgeous. Nothing on the trip topped the ultimate vista at the most westerly point of our tour. Atop a cliff covered in purple flowers, I sat and stared at breaking waves and tiny uninhabited islands off the coast. A butterfly landed next to me. I laughed, because it was all so ridiculously poetic.

The cliffs of Moher luckily emerged from an intense cloud cover only a half hour before we got there, and we were able to see where land was sliced by an undulating knife before the Earth popped in the oven. It caused a little existential hiccup to hear we were standing in Ireland's most popular suicide destination, but thankfully we didn't witness any travesties of the sort, only the simple elegance of nature.

And with every evening, whether we tucked into a one horse or 2,000 horse town, it was a mission for Guinness, for three-time distilled Irish whiskey, for a moment's rest from a day of bumping on a bus. And when the mind is filled with the vibrant greens of the day, one can easily conclude Ireland is easy on the senses.

Neon chlorophyll and Guinness...and don't forget the nice craic.

Where are all the Dubliners? Day 70

Photo credit to Mr Din on Flickr

Some Irishmen say Dublin is not a city that reflects the true Irish mentality. "I've lived there for years before, but it's never been a home to me," said one of the Irish ladies I met on the internship. It's definitely got its touristy areas that overcharge and manufacture "authenticity," and these areas can become smokescreens for the actual intimate experience the traveler seeks. I anticipated not liking Dublin for its prices and supposed lack of charm. However, Dublin did not rub the the wrong way at all.

The capital seems to have a lot going for itself. Theaters scatter the city and definitely don't go unnoticed. The local free newspaper detailed cultural events ranging from free music and graffiti festivals outside to basement techno parties. And Dublin appears to attract a large amount of travelers who immediately take on the Irish personable nature upon getting to the little green island.

We arrived in Dublin early in the morning and quickly got to work on intern responsibilities and pressing health issues (Chris had a cough that just wasn't sounding too pretty). I sat in our hostel's common room with my laptop open, firing digital data into the universe. Within the first hour, I met two very interesting people without even trying. Sharing my power cord with a Canadian high school grad led to her recounting why she decided to take a year off to work and live in Ireland. And when the man nearby overheard me explain the details of the World Traveler Internship, we began chatting, and I eventually learned he was a fellow American on an around-the-world trip of his own. Both were incredibly willing to show me what they knew about Dublin and the world of travel.

A group of solo travelers and ourselves decided to make a night of it before the tour started in the morning. We ventured to the pub behind the hostel, which squeezed into the empty space between multiple buildings. And it was here that I tried my first pint of Guinness. I took photos. I told the bartender as if it was a monumentous occasion. I took a sip and sensed the microscopic bubbles flow down my trap. Unfortunately I was still recovering from the flu (still wondering if it was the swine...) and had no functioning taste buds, but I sensed the surprisingly smooth and creamy texture of the classic Irish stout and said, "Hey, not bad at all."

A night out in Dublin sometimes means a night amongst the streets of the Temple Bar area. This is a place I doubt Dubliners frequent, but it provides a large amount of venues for entertainment and debauchery and, most importantly, Guinness consumption. We found a bar with a band and nestled in a nook with the other French, Canadian, German, and American travelers. This was the first time on the trip traveler intermingling felt so organic.

Ireland's Coast

Sometimes I forego the opportunity to submerge in the hostel world or traveler niche when traveling because I'd rather be looking for a gallery where I can chat it up with the owner or a pub where the local bartender has time to tell me the good stuff about where I am and who the locals really are. But there's true merit in speaking to the people you brush your teeth next to. We're all out there feeling like we've got a mission to accomplish, and it helps to hear about others' successes and mishaps. And sharing perceptions of a place can comfort weary bones or stale minds.

I don't think I met a single Dubliner. Maybe the Irish don't find Dublin home-like because its already packed with travelers and foreign workers. Whoever actually resides in the city though makes it an easy, fun place.

The Reason for Red Bull: Day 59

A whole lotta hedonism going on here

The word "Mykonos" causes some people to involuntarily pump their fist and bite their lip with anticipation, knee jerk reactions to the thoughts of staying up until brunch time having cocktails while dancing on flashing platforms in your weekend best. My grandma body sighed at the sound of "Mykonos" knowing fully well it could not handle the pressure to party all night long...but it has to because that's the job. Go, grandma, go! Pump those fists!Our hotel sat about thirty seconds by foot from a curving beach covered in buff bodies. Face to face with the island's ways, it was quite obvious what a person does around here: wakes up for a late lunch, lounges by the beach or pool to perfect that bronze god/goddess sheen, and prepares for a full night amidst overpriced drinks and jazzed up bodies. I decided to give this lifestyle a chance and took my spot in the sun, occasionally taking a dip in the ocean and opening my eyes to watch several young Italian men rub oil on their friends.

Night fell. I emptied my camera bag and refilled it with water bottles and two Red Bulls. I threw a new dress over my head, blew my hair dry, and gave my mirror image a thumbs-up. Let's do this, grandma! Note to all: camera bags insulate nicely, so energy drinks stay nice and cool. Following some dude on stilts through downtown Mykonos Town, we eventually found our way to a big, ol', throbbing club that offered us VIP passes to avoid a hefty cover charge.

It took two hours, but the party started. Bodies filed in and ordered Red Bull and vodkas like fresh robots off the assembly line. Girls with feathers strapped to their glutes swung on poles and fanned themselves to the pulse of the techno. I couldn't help but bring that hand up in a fist and thrust it into the open, flashing air. The music carried me across expanses of time, even though my Red Bulls ran dry and sandals dug into my feet. And at every climax of the beats, the bartenders stood on top of us all and threw handfuls of napkins into beams of light. They scattered on sweaty crowds and mopped up every spilled drink on the ground.

My care pack served me well, and I lasted amongst the most dedicated night-dwellers until 5:30am, when I walked outside to a sunrise...and very afflicted eardrums. Getting back to the hotel at 7am, I passed a runner in my outfit from the night before. Couldn't help but giggle and started jogging myself. I wouldn't do it again for ages, but I truly enjoyed bouncing to ridiculous beats and the repeated scream of "My-Ko-Nos" for that one night only. Grandma pulled it together. And so can you.

Nairobi at Night

I tried one more time. Nairobi at night. This time with the help of two GAP guides, one being my future leader across Tanzania and the game reserves. They escorted me back to Ranalo Foods to educated this rusty mind on eating with your hands in East Africa. Grabbing ugali (corn flour and water boiled down to a squishy solid) by the fingertips, they molded a wad to fit the width of their hands, ending in a spoon-like shape near the thumb. Then, they went for the meat or greens, pinching the food together to the ugali and taking it all in with a large, meaty bite. It took me a few attempts to look as thought I eat like this all the time. Of course, I still got some stares and was probably looking quite silly, but having those guys accompany me gave me the confidence I, for some reason, lacked the night before.

And then we went out for drinks. People were pumped to get on the dance floor, but most of the time, it was a floor full of gyrating men.  The guys explained most men are pretty afraid of girls because the majority of the women surrounding us were quite obviously "ladies of the night." They danced with an eye behind them, seeing who was watching and hoping to entice someone.

The bathroom was for refueling, to smoke and primp among the puddles. Standing in my simple, modest attire, the ladies and I had a moment of pausing to observe the other. All faucets were covered with bags, so a massive tank of water took up the majority of the open space, and a small bucket bobbled in hopes someone would want to be clean. A woman in front of me couldn’t stop moving to the music outside and gyrated by the toilet stalls. I loved it. I wanted to join her. The other woman next to me, one of the few ladies that wasn’t working that night, handed me some toilet paper. I was much obliged.

The curtains by the dance floor parted on a band led by a great Congolese singer, and immediately the place exploded with energy. The music pulsed to a heartbeat or a quick breath, to the natural bounce of the joints, all about the hips, shoulders, and head, which usually looked down to see how the rest of the bod’ was doing.

At one point, a man collapsed "dead" on floor in a game to get money. He rose after the efforts of a few very dedicated and drunken men (giving money and pleading to the gods) and came alive…alive enough to strip down to basically a full spandex onesie and about twelve pairs of colorful or slinky underwear. Once he got down to nothing but a G string over his black shiny get-up, he proceeded to do a headstand fit with impressive hip gyrations.  A couple audience members were quite enthusiastic to have me contribute to his medical school fees or whatever he was dancing for, but my boys had my back and gave me a backbone in the vulnerable situation.

The dancing king of the night, a.k.a. the Masai Matisyahu of sorts, told me to get up and dance. I mimicked the popular moves and fit in nicely. Then he asked me to be at home (that's nice) and feel free (oh ok...) to make another Obama if I felt like it (since I’m an American woman…in Kenya...wait, WHAT?). It was the second time someone said this to me in two days. At first it struck me as hilarious. Then I realized with the inauguration of our new president, the entire country of Kenya had a fresh new joke for the tourists that they all found as comical as they did the first time.

Bottom line: Get a local perspective on Nairobi nightlife, and you'll walk away pleased...and possibly swervin'.

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.