RTW

Q&A: The truth about Semester at Sea

Q&A: The truth about Semester at Sea

Hi Lindsay,

I have just been accepted by SAS for the Spring 2011 voyage, and I randomly chanced upon your website. I am currently having a hard time trying to decide between a Semester at Sea program and a study abroad program in Berlin.

I know they sound very different, but I think they appeal to different parts of me, which makes it even harder to decide. Hence, I have some questions about your experience if you don't mind answering:

1. When you were traveling around the ports, did you feel they were too touristy? I don't want to limit myself to only exploring typical tourist destinations.

2. How strong were the academics? I know that the main experience comes from the ports, but I still want to learn and enjoy my classes. Did most people take classes seriously?

3. I wanted to clarify this with you. I heard that SAS had a reputation of being a "booze cruise" or a "party boat" in the past. How did you feel about that from your experience?

I just thought that it would be good to consult with someone who has been through the experience. Best, Alyssa

Read More

Q&A: Easing parental worries about travel

Q&A is a series that uses questions posed by readers and commentators to address topics of travel, alternative lifestyle design, blogging, and other interests. You can expect to see this series one or two Saturdays a month right here on Nomadderwhere.com. To send in your questions, contact me! This summer I was planning on doing a study abroad program, and now I'm waiting to hear back for responses.

I love how you encourage going somewhere if that's of utmost desire. I would die to do something like that, but how do parental worries factor into that?

Not to intrude, but do you happen to have lax parents who are chill with that? -Natalia

That's funny. You're funny, Natalia.

When it comes to my travels, my parents started off as anything but go-with-the-flow kind of people. It was very hard for my mom to come to terms with my travel desires, and she barely slept when I took off on my own in Vietnam (my first time solo in a foreign city).

Why All The Fear?

Saying goodbye to parents

Saying goodbye to parents

I've got all sorts of dramatic stories of parting from my parents for the road. And from the sounds of those stories, I seem like a terrible offspring - leaving my mother on her birthday for the next 187 days. I think parents really dread those moments of departure, feeling the weight of the lonely and troubled days in-between your safe arrival home. Of course, it's not without due cause - and, heck, I'm no parent - but I do think that's normal and temporary.

All parents are skeptical at first, fear the worst constantly, but eventually get used to you going solo the more you come back with reassuring statements about your experience. It's normal to want to take their fears into strong consideration, but my advice is to do your research yourself and not listen only to what your parents are concerned about from news and media exposure, as well as comments from their friends. Not everyone travels or sees the world the same way. Talk to other travelers who move and see the world the same way you do, and read books about the place; that will tell you whether you should be worried or not about your experience in a destination.

Curb Their Lack of Enthusiasm

pw3

pw3

Be sure to include your parents' concerns into your evaluation of future travels - doing otherwise will make you seem rebellious or immature - and be sure to follow it up with all the solid facts, research, and advice from experienced travelers/writers. The more they know you have your head on straight, the more they will trust your intuition as you fly solo.

It's also important to think about your track record and how it relates to your street smarts, travel savvy, and ability to take care of yourself. Your parents will probably always see you as a green 16 year-old, but as long as you've proven in the past you're not easily pushed over or taken advantage of, you can reason with them that you're prepared for what the world is ready to throw at you.

My parents still aren't cheerleaders for my non-professional travels, but at least they understand that I want to do it. When I had doubts about traveling around the world alone in 2008, my mom was surprisingly the voice that encouraged me to do what I want, which was against what she wanted for me. They tolerate my leisure travels these days, but my paid travel makes much more sense. It's a generational thing, as well.

Communication Makes the Difference

As a graduation present, my parents were kind enough to get me a World Edition Blackberry, which enabled constant communication via e-mail to my parents from wherever I was in the world - excluding Malawi, Cambodia, Kashmir, and Zambia, which weren't set up at the time for data usage.

While overlanding in Africa, I would wake up to the alarm on my phone and immediately receive an e-mail from my mom about the weather outside my tent flap. She was six hours behind me but still knew the weather I would experience that morning. This was certainly a way to placate her worries, because when I didn't respond to her e-mails for twelve days in a row (in Kashmir), nerves nearly sent my dad on a plane to find me.

It may be inconvenient to pay a phone bill or constantly find internet cafes to correspond from, but a quick e-mail affirming your happiness and safety are great ways to facilitate your parents' sleeping patterns.

A Mother's Perspective

It seemed only fitting to ask my mother her opinion on my travels, safety, and her feelings toward my independent travel lifestyle.

The summer before I entered sixth grade, I asked my parents if I could attend a military camp an hour north of our town, a camp my brother attended the previous two summers. Though his camp sessions were only two weeks at a time, I decided I wanted to experience the six week, intensive summer camp, which involved three different sessions of learning new skills, bunking with fifteen other girls in a log cabin, and all things military: general inspections, personal inspections, marching, etc. I went to this camp knowing no one previously.

Most ten year-olds don't normally ask for such experiences, and my mom noted this as major characteristic difference between myself and my peers. My independence was obvious at a young age.

Goodbyes at airports

Goodbyes at airports

When I wanted to travel alone for seven months through dangerous African cities and over-populated, crime-ridden regions in Asia, my mom was unnerved but also comforted by looking at my track record. According to her, I had proven myself, through my voluntary college responsibilities, multiple situations that exhibited my leadership, my friend choices, previous trip motivations, and a track record of wise decisions in life.

I've always been a passionate person, but that didn't stop me from analyzing my decisions carefully in the context of my life. Because I conducted myself well in high school, used my free time thoughtfully, dealt well with other people, I seemed like I could handle the road.

One thing that made my travels much easier on my parents, especially my mom, was the steady progression of my trips from easy to advanced: family trips, solo domestic trips, static study abroads, global study abroad, and finally solo global travel. I was weened slowly from my bubble life in northern Indiana and given the gift of time to slowly make mistakes and learn from them.

Mom Recommends...

To the hopeful world travelers in easing parental worries:

Showed maturity in what you do with your time and the people you chose to be with.

To the freaked out parents/mothers of world travelers:

We all want the best for our children and for them to do what makes them happy. If what they do to make themselves happy doesn't do the same for you, know the strong character they've always exhibited will carry over to the streets of India and help them deal with the world they encounter (hopefully they've researched!).

And don't believe, for one second, that one trip will get the bug out of their system. It never leaves their system. Trust your child, and don't make yourself sick. Bad things can happen anywhere. Living in fear is a choice.

The Bottom Line

We can't force our parents to feel the same way we do about the world and traveling through it. If it matters to you how your parents and family feel about your travels, approach the idea of changing their minds with as much fact, reason, and sensitivity as you can gather. Parents know better than anyone that college isn't the end of the learning experience. Hopefully we are all striving to be lifelong learners, and the fast track to learning is often located far from anyone's comfort zone.

World travelers aren't running from family, they're pulled by two worlds, both of which can't be ignored. To deny the movement impulse would be just as difficult as disregarding the friends and family that make us solid. Parents, we're going to be okay, and travelers...be sure you remain okay. People are hoping you come back home.

My Family

My Family

Was this post helpful to you as a traveler or as a parent? Do you have any comments or anything to add? Please don't hesitate to comment below or contact me personally!

Nomadderwhere is on GoBackpacking.com

Nomadderwhere is a wee, yet passionate, travel website for those looking for inspiration, advice or conversation. However, today marks the day 2 of spreading the NMW love across the internet via a fantastic resource called:

GoBackpacking.com

Nomadderwhere on GoBackpacking.com

Nomadderwhere on GoBackpacking.com

David Lee, editor and long-term independent traveler, will be posting some of my travel stories in the coming weeks, including my couchsurfing experience in Uganda and a tricky Indian visa situation in Zambia. Subscribe to his addictive feed to keep up with all these guest postings and more, a series perhaps, surely to come!

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 experiences..men 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 lot...er'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).

The Transition to Useful: Day 187

IMG_0385

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.

DSC_0583

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..."

DSC_0568

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."

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."
"BUS STATION? TRAIN STATION? I TAKE YOU! 100 RUPEES, CHEAP CHEAP!"
"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.

This is Why I Travel: Day 174

BANG! POW! CRACK!

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।

When It’s Right, Let it Simmer: Day 172

Alice Villa and her crew kicked me out with a smile and a tear. My beloved guesthouse was overbooked, and my sorry load needed to relocate for the remainder of my mountain adventure. It was a bittersweet parting with an establishment that saved me from extreme bowel distress, gave me food and impeccable shelter, and created an inexplicable feeling of comfort and acceptance that sped up bodily recovery time and revitalized my withering appreciation for the Indian nation. The desk clerk and bellhops appeared regretful to see me toting my earthly possessions out of their gates, and I left without an idea as to where I would go next. I knew Darjeeling and I clicked. More wilderness trekking opportunities announced themselves around every corner of this town. And Sikkim, a.k.a. Shangri-La, was only a short, albeit treacherous, ride away. However, I couldn't ignore that I had finally tapped into something really rare here, in this nook of the world.

When experiencing the world in quantitative form, maximizing the number of locales and tight-wad tendencies but risking pinnacles of quality, seldom does one develop a connection with the people, the local mentality, or the offerings of the destination. My Lonely Planet runneth over with restaurant recommendations and beautiful ways to spend an afternoon. I saw few tourists, none of which represented the toxic species I hated from Varanasi, and the prospect of having another high altitude sunrise grace my retinas kept me lingering for more from the legendary hilltop station.

$15 was the new $2.50 in my spending habits for shelter. After such a satisfying three nights in a joint that merited even one star, I stuck with my new standards of living (e.g. not squalor) and searched for anything that had a personal bathroom, moments of warm water, a TV, and bedding. Hotel New Vaisali did the trick. To illustrate the ease of this search, I'll paint an experiential picture. Imagine all hotel options being within a three minute walk of each other and your favorite spots in town. Picture yourself staring at a sign for a few seconds, working on your Nepali translations, then being approached by a helpful man with a Gorkha hat atop his noggin. Pretend said helpful sir decides to inquire about your requirements and acts as translator/negotiator for each establishment you both enter. When attempt #3 is successful, you find yourself uttering, "Thank you, India. I take note of your incredible hospitality."

A comfy king size bed, a shower head, functioning cable TV and a wall length window with a view of the mountain range; these are a few of my favorite things. I broke a rule within the first five minutes and did some laundry inside my room, hanging the dripping clothes on the glass to billow in the thin, fresh breeze. Performing this act at home is a monotonous chore that requires no elbow grease. However, on the road, I was someone who wore clothes until they rotted off the body and needed to be quarantined inside a backpack; any chance to launder my wardrobe relieved numerous troubles and tripled my daily clothing choices, amounting to three options. Using my shampoo to generate lather for not only my hair and body but the clothing still hanging from my frame made shower time not so relaxing, but, boy, was I gettin' everything clean! And I'd probably round the number up to 750 for the amount of people around the world who have seen my undies flapping in the wind outside out of my various domiciles.

Only in Darjeeling… …do boys carry two different love letters in their back pockets…one in Nepali and another in English. …does the train get caught in a traffic jam. …do you walk through the town once and meet the same people ten times. …can you jump off the train, take a leak, and catch the train again. …do people sit in the fog and watch an entire soccer match, without knowing what the hell is going on on the field. …do the unemployed dress better than the employed. …do you find distances in kilometers and places in miles.

I found the following adorable list on my menu at a bakery in town. This wasn't a spot on the typical Lonely Planet trail, but it had a menu in English with humor to delight the foreign masses. I read the long list and smiled, pulling out my notebook to copy the most location-specific and oh-so true phrases. Writing them down brought flashbacks of all the hopeless romantic boys that work in Alice Villa and New Vaisali, the ridiculous train track that braids itself with the road on the route up to Darjeeling, the little boy on the observation deck that would sneak up on me multiple times a day to scare me and make the local elderly laugh at me, and the road signs in kilometers I desperately searched for when my body was in deep digestive distress on the ride up. Darjeeling and I seemed to grow more and more alike, our interests unmistakably tied with a humorous string.

Alain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, covers a vast array of topics not commonly discussed in guidebooks or Samantha Brown specials, topics which speak straight to the one half of my soul that is eternally nomadic. One of his chapters brings up the connections between people and their beloved destinations, those places that bring people to life even though they may be thousands of miles from their home soil. De Botton develops on the idea that there are inexplicable reasons why I love the city of Florence, why Anthony Bourdain is at times persuaded to move to Indonesia, and why the world's travelers feel compelled to hit certain places over and over again. I was born in Wabash, Indiana, and though my childhood friends are the coolest people on the planet and my other half is all about small town values, my birthplace does not satiate my soul.

I don't know if this idea falls under the jurisdiction of reincarnation or the mystical, but I think people don’t just have "soul mates" but soul cities. This relationship cannot be determined by how good of a time one has at a destination. I met some fantastic people in Delhi, but that crap hole and I are not an item. I enjoyed some fantastic wine and thermal bath sessions in Hungary, but I, for some reason, loathed that place. Florence, Italy and I have had a multi-faceted history, one filled with complete immersion and dreams becoming occurrences but also rejection and sorrowful, emotional pain. I don't know if it's the colors, the landscape, the smells, her age and past, the art, the possibilities, the wine, the gastro-pleasures, or the fact that I know her secret gems. All I know is she has a spirit that I can see, feel, taste, and sense even when my eyes are closed in sleep.

After this trip, I realized that I cannot be exclusive with the cities I court. Florence and I aren't meant to be legally bound. On this big journey, I got around, saw a few different cities, and realized my soul connected with many places for different reasons. Along with Florence, Jinja, Zanzibar, Krakow, and to some extent Srinagar, Darjeeling and I fit. It's the sense that these cities or islands WANT me to be there, and even if there are massive problems, physical hardships, or money issues, I know something is right in our close physical proximity. I knew this as I sat once again on the observation deck for Kangchenjunga, delighting in the sensory overload that coated my consciousness.

Prayer flags and drying clothes flapping on lines Palm trees and cedars intertwining their phalanges The smell of wax, trash bonfires, dirty cement, incense and body soil All mixed with sweet mountain air.

This place wasn't a bucket of fries, it was a stew. It had to simmer in the bowl of my mind and get better with each hour and each bubble of thought. I planned to satiate another sense the next day and follow the need for a hot cup of honest tea.

The Best Part of Wakin' Up: Day 171

COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE

Smile and decline.

COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE COFFEE CHAAAAAAAI

I wasn't tired. Yes, I woke up at 3:30am and ran through the echoing city of Darjeeling in the bare cold of her film noir-esque pre-dawn. Yes, I jumped in a stranger's jeep, gave him two dollars, and squashed against four other foreigners on a bumpy half hour ride. And at 8,500 feet, it is true that the wind and the chill on Tiger Hill are hard to endure without a blanket, an adequate jacket, or a warm body to lean against. However, anticipation is a more effective stimulant than anything that can be brewed or smuggled in a dirty balloon. I declined the back-to-back offers for a drink and waited, shivering. The horizon was turning blood red, and I could faintly see her lines in the distance.

At this height, we were face to face, Kangchenjunga and I. The sky was nearly opaque, but the jags marking her presence cut through the miles between. Cameras were poised at the sunrise and bodies huddled against a steel barrier looking eastward. I didn't get that. I have seen the world turn slowly towards the luminous star countless times before. It's beautiful, until the bright ball emerges and burrows into your retinas. I stood alone to the west. I was waiting for the big climax. I was waiting for nature's most incredible billboard of light and color.

On one side of Tiger Hill, a layer cake of slate blue, cream-sicle orange and crimson changed the sky, casting a subtle glow on the floating castle to the west. Below this spectacle, the foothills wore the blanket of night's darkness. Bhutan was just seeing its sunrise, and, now, so were the peaks of Nepal, the sun skipping over Darjeeling and all of the West Bengali hills until a more reasonable hour.

The mist caught the ambient light and illuminated the edges of each tea plantation and rolling bubble of land. The air below looked wet and heavy, slowly becoming the color of a glacial lake. Prayer flags flapped their silhouettes against a mystical backdrop. Suddenly, the world was pastel and wearing a tiara. I whispered.

"Wow."

It's not easy to upstage Kangchenjunga from this vista, but Everest made a stab at it. I could see her from behind the curtain of haze in the twilight's glow. I saw the Earth's crown from 107 miles away. She hid between two other 8000+ meter beasts and winked at me as if to lean around the curtain and say, "Get ready for my big entrance."

Meanwhile, the tiara alit as if the snow caught fire and burned from head to toe. It was an orange I've only witnessed on buildings during Italian sunsets in summertime. Nothing else mattered in the world, an impressive beauty that occurs every day over the grime of human existence. We gasped and held our breath until the tingles subsided, fingers poised over the shutter. The summit and its radiating edges looked jagged and razor sharp, as if the sky or the wind would suddenly snag and bleed from a cosmic gash.

Two minutes after the mountain fire, Planet Earth had its ultimate daily idea. Its principal light bulb turned on as steadily as a wave's advance. Somewhere, in the middle of Nepal, Everest grabbed sunlight an hour before her foothills would know night was over. It was a sight capable of buckling knees. I propped myself against a jeep and called home. They were all in a movie theater, enjoying a Heartland Film Festival specialty, and messaged they would call me later. What does one do after beholding their dream sight? Stare in disbelief and laugh at modern-day advances in global communication; that's what.

Still vibrating, I returned to Darjeeling and climbed the hill to Alice Villa Guesthouse. The stray dogs were sleeping across main square in any patch of light that warmed the cement. Arriving back to my room, I crawled into the bed, opened my novel, and savored the last of my Tibetan dumplings from the night before. Occasionally, I let out a "Ha!" upon every flashback to the morning's thrill. In the fall of 2007, I read my first book on these mountains and made the initial steps of my pilgrimage. Approximately one year later, I reached fulfillment.

The developed world spends so much time pitying the lifestyles of those on the other side, which makes ignoring these realities more possible. However, I will forever applaud any man, woman, or child who has enabled themselves to start every morning like this, with a sunrise so majestic it blurs the line between reality and ultimate fantasy. A view like that just doesn't seem real. Actually, it's completely ludicrous that I am from a place that appears eternally colored by the gray scale. My old concept of a great landscape was a luscious Indiana field of corn without a massive power line going through it. This is why I told my travel agent to send me to northern India. I needed to see nature exhibit her "Best in Show."

A Dumpling with a View: Day 170

I wrote these thoughts while on the "road"..."A nervous dog pacing for a good, sunny, uncrowded spot to bathe and relax A little boy snorting and scaring girls (including me) to impress his buddy between swings on the monkey bars Old women with elephant wrinkles thumbing 109 prayer beads"

This "road" could have be anywhere. And then... "School boys and older men standing right in my sightline of the 8000m high mountains, staring hard back at me or posing with nonchalance Faces beam, evident of an eclectic mix, where the South, East, and Southeast become a passionate blend The world's chimneys billow the breath of the skies"

I was in a fascinating nook of the world, a nook I used to dream about being tucked into. And then I got there…the West Bengali Hills of India.

The Way back to Enlightening Elevations It took a sixteen hour train ride, filled with traveling bands, beggars, and more chai salesmen than one could shake a stick at, until I felt a cool breeze once more. Befriending the Germans below my sleeper bed gave me an always-appreciated price cut on the $1 rickshaw ride from New Jaipalguri station to the Siliguri bus terminal, and knowing far too well the antics of the transportation biz in India, I anticipated and enjoyed a small fight with our driver, who claimed sudden inflation by the time we reached our destination.

It was a battle fought with smiles and a constant handshake, and the Germans watched patiently. I saw the driver rack his brain quickly for a way to get more money from our pockets, and an audience began to form, though they were relatively uninterested with this common scammer occurrence. A tip to those who encounter this situation with annoyance: write the agreed price on your hand in front of the driver and proceed to strike a creepy pose towards him or her, smiling for the entire ride until he caves in hopelessness, knowing you are a rupee-pincher 'til you D.I.E.

If I feel anything towards policemen in my own country, it's fear, even when I'm not doing anything wrong. Must be a Pavlovian dog response from years of conditioning. However, in any other country, it seems police are hired to just stand on street corners and chew unknown substances along with the "every man," except the "every man" doesn't carry a big stick. I use these statuesque resources for help around town, though they are almost always the ones who cannot speak English. There's always that lingering obligation, though, that causes these civil servants to help you, and this is how I was introduced to two travelers in desperate need of a ride to Darjeeling.

All buses had stopped service, no trains could rise into the mountains, and all jeeps were seemingly hired. Down the road, we saw a sign for the last ride of the day, jumped into a Jeep after about seven seconds of thought, paid $2, and settled our minds and bags into the already packed vehicle. Enter two or three more bodies and a second driver hanging onto the spare tire rack in the rear, and we're off. The driver stopped the Jeep to place some kind of sailor hat on his head and then booked it up the switchbacks into the Himalayas. It was such flavor for a simple three hour car ride. This is how it always is in India.

With a Chinese man sitting on my left leg, an Israeli's knees pressed against mine making sweat sandwiches, a greasy head laying on my right elbow, and a backpack compacting my stomach, I could do nothing but submit to my discomfort. Not only was I in a clown car, rising in altitude, and bumping from pothole to crumbling pothole, I hadn't gone to the bathroom in 26 hours. I didn't trust anyone with my bags in the sleeper car, nor did I want to experience the sum of the food poisoning + rocking Indian train equation. My body was not amused, and it slowly began to drain me of all vivacity and life to the point of being an empty shell by the time we hit Darjeeling.

For the first time, I wasn't bombarded, or even approached, when I walked around the town. It was dark, shops were still ablaze and selling assorted wares, and I wandered nearly unconscious by my distressed bowels. I stood outside a parked taxi and stared at the relaxing driver like a beaten puppy, hoping he would give me quick and easy directions to a hotel I heard of but hadn't booked ahead. He insisted on taking me at a ridiculous price ($2.50), refused to cave because I wore my vulnerability on my sweaty sleeve, and I flopped into the vehicle in resignation.

It was as if a friend or family member from home popped out from around a corner and came running to me, embracing my weary soul in a monster hug. Alice Villa Guesthouse opened their gates to my taxi, and the head boy in a bellhop's uniform took me in with a smile to the front desk. Every employee at this establishment treated me with the utmost care and concern, showed me a luxurious room with two beds, a fireplace, a personal bathroom, and cable television, and walked me into town to make sure I knew where to get a good meal. This hotel experience surpassed virtually every other one I had on the entire journey (minus the Kashmiri houseboat), and it all ran me a total of $15 a night.

"So you are traveling alone?" "Yes." "No one is with you or meeting you?" "No." "What are you going to do here?" "Hang out." "You really are alone?" "Unless I'm being followed." "And you're American…" "Indeed."

I can imagine what it's like to be a celebrity, or notorious, or a notorious celebrity. Being a spectacle for just being oneself can be amusing or quite unsettling. Who ever heard of a typical Midwestern American girl being considered "exotic?"

After bringing a close to my bathroom record, completely unpacking my smelly bag, grabbing a noodle meal to eat in bed with my hands, and watching numerous episodes of Seinfeld and Friends, I passed out in between some clean padding and a blanket. Simple pleasures.

The following morning I emerged slowly to shiver in the new air and see what the mountains looked like. The blank canvas of sky the night before gave me no smidgeon of an idea as to how gargantuan the landscape was, and I could only get a sneak peek by viewing the photographs adorning the guesthouse walls.

The first step outdoors brought me fresh air, with a hint of trash and incense, and a view of the tea hills. They undulated like a heart beat or the bathwater from a rowdy tub session, and the green kiss of chlorophyll in my eyes made me feel natural again. I crawled up a hill to the main square and found the fork in the road that leads to the town's best observation deck. Strings of prayer flags decorated or replaced power lines. Stray dogs walked past me as if they were running errands and checking off their "to do" lists. The road was seemingly endless as it snaked around the tip of Darjeeling, until I saw some benches and a turn ahead. The Himalayas appeared.

I thought they were clouds billowing and blowing across the hills. But these clouds were too pointy and shaded to be clouds; these were rocks. There was such a gap between the feet of the range and the snowcapped beasts themselves. Just looking at the mountains from hundreds of miles away, I could hear the winds at the summits, imagine the bite in the air and the number that could be done to my lips and fingers.

The observation decks were littered with more stray dogs, all looking almost pet-able and serene, and I looked at them, looked at the mountains in the background, and wondered if they sensed any inspiration from their daily majestic sights. It certai nly seemed as though the local inhabitants appreciated these visual luxuries, kids coming straight from school to the outlooks to chat or older couples enjoying an afternoon with sun on their backs and amazement in their pupils. I tried to blend in, but a little boy pestered me every time I looked away from him, sneaking up behind me to poke my sides, making startling sounds. I would scream like Lucille Ball, laugh in awe, and look around to see that everybody around was grinning, too. Innocent harassment felt like a big community handshake. Being picked on made me feel welcome.

"Altering my geographic placement upon which to reflect The audacity of the gesture and the potential for more as the main thrill and focus Making that presence truly felt by interacting and letting my personality subtly mark someone from that place Leaving an unconscious and feather mark legacy that seems greater and more romantic than a momentary dent and an activity list It's enough to mark a pin on a map or put it at the bottom of a running list Since I'm young and think I've got abundance in the future, I take it all in as a global pupu platter But this could also be it, and I could only know the skin at most, but I do know the fuzzy, ugly, stale, comforting, brown, flat, giggling realities of a small town that feeds the material of my most frequent dreams"

These are the sorts of thoughts that flow from a mind high on the Himalayas. I was tingling at my proximity to such grandeur and slapping myself for having this desire to see them. I couldn’t tell whether such a thirst came from soul searching depths or just the need to do something laudable and not have to fight anymore for a legitimate voice. My traveling mind always conflicted, it was impossible to ever feel pure emotions. Some day, I sincerely hope I acquire that ability once more.

After peeling my eyes away from the craggy range and getting harassed again by the comedic little boy, I just started walking. I followed every snaking road lined with street markets, tea shops, and Indian-style convenience stores. The grade of the roads varied from semi-flat to 45 degree angles. Thank you, Merrell Sports Shoes, for your adequate development of sole traction. It felt so wonderful to wear a scarf and a fleece, comfortable shoes and socks, layers and jeans, and not sweat profusely or accumulate visible, tangible filth on my legs and toes.

At the bottom of one hill, I found myself in a small neighborhood and amongst tens of school girls playing games like "Ring around the Rosy." My vision was cut slim by the surrounding buildings to only see an extreme vertical image of children under towering homes clinging to a hillside. I almost ran through their human tunnel, clapping and giggling all the way, but the sight was too perfect to disturb. It took me back to the days when the idea of "playing" gave me the six-cups-of-coffee jitters and my partners-in-crime were all I needed to be happy, back when I wasn't ruled by insatiable desires and nonsensical world missions. They looked at me once, I smiled, and then we all continued on with our days, I ascending the hill again and they sending the next girl through the tunnel of hands.

Branching off the main square at the top of Darjeeling was a road designated for foot traffic and booth browsing. Shops selling winter accessories, Kashmiri goods, and anything tourists or locals could ever need were abundant. A puppy the size of a lemon slept without bother next to 90 year-old saleswomen and her wares. The universal mission in this community to be content was palpable. After six months on the road, the only take-home items I purchased were a Masai bracelet and a few clothing items. It seemed as perfect a time as any to do a little shopping. Withholding until India gave me thrilling backpack space to work with, so I walked into the only shop that appeared remotely unique and just stood still inside.

DSC_0312

The owners smiled and stared in anticipation of a big sale, but I remained rather motionless, my eyes scanning the big paintings of mountainous landscapes around the room. The "fixed price" sign drained a little fun out of the moment, but instead I let the right piece yodel down to me, asking me to take it home. As a Californian hippie in Brazil, a.k.a. the "Vege-Nazi," once told me, "If something calls to you, just buy it. If it doesn't, move on." One large painting worked its magic on me, and I walked away smiling, envisioning the blank wall in my future abode the painting just filled.

One very early and quite frigid morning in China, I experienced the delight of real Tibetan dumplings, the chewy yet crisp sensations almost as comforting as the salty, homemade quality of the flavors. It was one of the best meals I can ever remember having, and the ambiance of sitting on a deck overlooking an historically preserved Southern China town with my best friend pumped the moment up to perfection. This lingering memory of great veggie-filled dough balls led my nose to a place with "Tibet" on the window and one woman by a stove.

Steam from a vegetable broth condensating on my face. Perfect noodles splashing trickles on top of my nose and around my cheeks. Hand-crafted lumps soaking up soy sauce and spices, layering the dumplings' flavors with extreme contrasts. I scanned my Lonely Planet for the next best thing to do, but all I wanted was to have this meal again and again. Soul food for the feeble and relaxed.

Darjeeling, in one day, had become a place where I could talk to no one and feel I was amongst friends. I still felt completely independent, but I was lifted up by a community that wanted me to be there. With a pair of fingerless gloves and a notepad, this is the perfect town to be a writer.

I stayed for a week.

Finding melodies in malady: Day 168

Finding melodies in malady: Day 168

I barely slept on the night train and eventually took a seat at the window, once the sleeper car had become alive again. The atmosphere outside infiltrated my senses with green, cool, and an absence of the decay of Delhi and Agra. In those few early moments, I had a breakfast of rural fulfillment. I sat bearing witness to the dawn activity of farmers, their wives, and their vivacious offspring. The women never ceased carrying heavy loads of sloshing mud, fire wood, or other awkwardly-carried weight around. Had the train been going slow enough, I would have considered the tuck and roll, careful to guard my packet of crackers. I was, somewhat regrettably, rolling into Varanasi.

Read More