This Is Not a Travelogue

I have found myself in one of those massive, 5-star condo/resort things that Americans seem to like. I can’t stop marveling at the sheer size of it. Everything is overwhelming. Too big. My “suite” is nearly larger than my actual house back home. There are acres of pools, surrounded by deck chairs and little pods with billowy curtains. Young men run around delivering strong drinks. It takes almost an hour to walk from one side of the grounds to the other.

The sheer decadence astonishes me. I think about things like water use and where are they getting their power, and good lord how much is the utility bill for this place, anyway? There’s a 4-star, gourmet French restaurant onsite. In Mexico. I struggle with this concept.

My room is, well, for want of a better word, tricked out. Four couches, three televisions, two king beds, two oversized bathtubs (one a Jacuzzi, one not). A private balcony with a minipool, which is sort of a dipping pool that is not big enough to swim in.

I can’t say for certain, but I think there are more staff than guests. The place seems vast and empty. Maybe it’s a seasonal lull. It’s like those hotels you hear about in the post-colonial African bush, fully staffed and running, but with no guests because there are no more tourists because of some overthrow or political unrest or something.

That’s what it feels like. This infrastructure…this superstructure, really, running full steam ahead all around us, for what? Ten percent occupancy? Twenty percent?

All the staff say hello or Buenos Dias as they pass by. They’re trained to do so. For our comfort? To make us feel pampered? Or like “Oh, look, honey! A real Mexican just greeted us in the native language. How quaint!” I wonder if they hate us. If so, how much? These pudgy, pasty lardasses from the rich and spoiled north.

The maids were shocked that we did not want them to come in and clean. Change our towels. Make our beds. I don’t think it was just about tips, either. Probably everybody who comes here wants the full treatment, the 5-star service, people waiting on them hand and foot. It’s expected, encouraged even. We are encouraged to be lazy, decadent, entitled assholes. Hmmm.

There are flamingos, real ones, tucked away in a “conservation area.” We walked down to it. There were fewer than I expected. I wonder if the conservation area was put in just to amuse guests? Or, my inner cynic says, because they wiped out a breeding ground when they bulldozed the mangroves to build this place?

People tell you what you want to hear, so it’s not like I can ask. I don’t have a resource.

The UN is holding a huge meeting on climate change not far up the highway. Security is tight. Armed men line the roadways.  And here I am sitting in Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style condos, insulated in a little bubble of entitlement that I don’t really feel entitled to. And even if I were entitled, I don’t think this is what I would choose.

I feel underdressed, even in my room.

Let me reiterate: An actual room is making me feel underdressed.

Of course, it’s not much of a challenge for the room–I am in my sweats and fuzzy slippers, after all. Set the bar low, I say.

The air outside has a little chill to it once the sun goes down. There’s humidity, but it’s not too much. I would prefer more humidity. But the sky and the smells are right. It’s green and beautiful and lush. I can’t bitch about that.

But this is not Mexico. This is not anywhere, as far as I can tell. I am overanalyzing.

Is it possible to understand the appeal of a place while simultaneously being horrified by it? Is this what travel is now, and I’m just a throwback because I think for some masochistic reason that travel should be harder, should be more inconvenient, should involve more personal effort? Maybe it’s now quaint and old school to travel with the expectation that one will learn about a foreign place or culture or people?

I think I hate this place.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Leave a comment

A Country Called “Home”

I’ve always been fascinated by maps. And globes. Atlases. I can lose myself for hours turning pages. I have an old atlas that was a gift when I was a child. I pore over it, looking at the names of exotic places–Mauritius, Timbuktu, Nome, the Cape of Good Hope, Alice Springs. I ponder the faded outlines of countries that no longer exist.

I look at a map of Africa that shows Zaire and Rhodesia, and think about what it’s like for your entire country to be wiped off a map, to cease to exist, to be no longer. To be landless, placeless, homeless. Or to be the takers of that land, establishing (or reestablishing) a homeland on the ashes of a failed nation.

I think of countries that have risen up, punching through the sky, to become independent from colonialism or oppression or homogenization: East Timor, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia. I think of Balkanization, which reminds me of the word vulcanization; I think of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, of Serbia, of Montenegro and Macedonia. I think of earth-shaking explosions and wide debris fields.

I think of places we never even bothered to name. Territories of native people, swept up in revolutions, migrations, land grabs. Place names that never made it onto a map. Or maybe later, after archaeologists insisted: the Mayan Empire.

Most people just think I’m trying to plan my next trip. But sometimes, I think I’m just searching for an answer, hoping to find the country called “home.”

Countries dissolve for many reasons: political, economic, social, sometimes through natural disasters. Borders move, change, are erased, disappear, harden. Cities flood or are engulfed in mud and volcano ash. Troops invade, and heavy black boots are used to scuff away the manmade lines. Maps are often not to scale–so when something looks nearby, and then you try to go to it, you discover it’s farther than you thought.

Sometimes, there’s a revolution. Guns are taken down from the mantles. People are injured. There are protests, marches, shouting. There’s always lots of shouting, flinging of objects, breaking of glassware. Outsiders try to understand. They send money and good wishes. They take sides, make proclamations. Blue helmets appear, smiling and bearing fresh water; and then they go home. Strife remains, usually.

New boundaries are placed, for a time. But they shift. The map never stops changing, even when we wish it would, because somebody’s always dissatisfied with their circumstances.

Every border change creates more dissent down the road.

My country can’t be found anymore. It was a revolution, a natural disaster, and a coup d’etat all at once. Guns were gotten down from the mantle. People were killed. We survivors redrew lines over the top of the old country, learned to speak in different tongues. Allegiances shifted. Blue-helmeted people came and tried to help; they tromped around a bit, did little good. I’m sure baked goods were involved. They left dissatisfied–we hadn’t appreciated them enough. They went elsewhere to help more grateful citizens.

I think of the nation-state of Granny. Our Switzerland–old, wise, calm. Always there, never divulging our secrets. When Switzerland was no more, all the maps shifted again. Other states came in and left, sometimes suddenly–a matter of hours to rearrange the sands. Sometimes the shifts took years.

I look for the independent republics of the aunties. Like the EU, borders are easier to cross. The currency is the same. Things are civilized. You will be welcomed, fed, not yelled at. Dinner, like German trains, appears on schedule. You feel safer.

There are the far-flung provinces of the cousins, declared independent and no longer obeying the old guard. The trains don’t always run on time, and the elections are sometimes rigged, but–by god–they are no longer a “-stan.” I suppose I am one of these, too, technically. The Balkanized. I’d like to be Montenegro, please. I always thought it had the prettiest name. And it’s small: I really don’t want to be a large nation–too complicated, too much effort, I’d be dissatisfied with the borders. Mostly, I just feel like an exile, but I realize the place I came from no longer exists. The return journey is not possible.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Leave a comment

6 Essential Life Hacks for Baby Boomers

Problem: Caps lock is not your friend.

Why is it so difficult to understand this one simple rule of etiquette? You also are not authorized to use text speak.

Solution: Look at the left side of your keyboard. Touch the caps lock button once. Now it’s off. Easy. See?

Problem: Technology.

Figure it out already. In the ’80s, it was sorta cute that you couldn’t program VCRs. Thirty years later, now you’re just being willfully ignorant. And nobody thinks it’s cute anymore. Embrace the Brave New World, learn how to internet, be thine own tech support.

Solution: Each device you purchase comes with a magical little pamphlet called the instructions. Read it. Practice. Nothing is more difficult to operate than a hair dryer anymore. No pamphlet? Try going to http://www.google.com, then enter the device’s name followed by “user manual.” Still confused? Try google again, this time with device name and “help forums.” Crazy simple, huh? Toddlers everywhere are doing it.

Problem: Get out of the fricking doorway.

Honestly, what is it with you? Learn to walk through a doorway and not stop, blocking everyone behind you. You know there are people behind you, right? Same goes for driving: Look in the rearview mirror. Comprehend that there is an entire line of people behind you. You are blocking the road, both literally and figuratively.

Solution: When you approach a doorway, walk through it, then continue walking until you are clear of the doorway in a manner so that others can use it after you. Pretend to be conscious of the fact that there are people behind you.

Problem: Stop picking on the Millennials.

I am impressed with Millennials for the most part. They are such different, fascinating creatures. They are bright and smart, and ridiculously tech-savvy. Not all of them are spoiled, entitled brats who think everyone gets an award for showing up.

Solution: Consider that Gens X, Y, Z, the Millennials, and whatever they’re calling the next one, are not just here to serve you McNuggets and clean your pools (which we can’t afford–thanks for that, by the way). Here’s a few ideas: mentor them, give them a job, watch in awe as they get shit done and creatively problem solve. Retire so they can take your place in the workforce. Everyone wins.

Problem: Mansplaining.

Even the women: Do you not notice our glazed expressions, our patiently nodding heads, our overly indulgent, but distracted “uh-huhs”? You are boring us. You are not imparting wisdom of the ages. There’s a reason you got dubbed the “Me Generation,” and it isn’t flattering.

Solution: STFU* about what little Tommy’s auntie’s mommy said about your gout. STFU about what you think. No one gives a shit anymore. No, really. STFU.

Problem: The Tea Party.

Solution: You made it. You fix it.

 

* This stands for “Shut the fuck up.”

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 8 People I Never Want To Travel With (Again)

I’ve always been comfortable traveling solo, but I’ve had a lot of travel partners over the years, too. My favorite travel buddy of all time went and got married, which is great for him, but royally sucks for me.

For perspective, it’s not that tough to be a good travel buddy. A sense of humor, a relaxed attitude, a little humility, a ton of flexibility, knowledge of first aid and diving emergency protocol…these all go a long way. Here are some types I’ve traveled with or met along the way–people who have made me truly appreciate the value of a good travel partner.

1. The WhinerNothing ever goes right. Life is so unfair!

This type is ubiquitous. I am surprised, although I shouldn’t be. Why do people think that when they travel, everything has to go smoothly? If anything, travel is dicier and more unpredictable than quotidian life. So you get these types who are outraged, outraged, at a flight delay. A bus in a 3rd world country is 6 hours late (pooh: I know countries where that is considered prompt). They got dysentery/malaria/bedbugs. Yes, well. Welcome to the big bad world. It’s not about you out here, babe.

2. The Rude BitchDoesn’t matter where you go, she’ll alienate everyone around you. Then she’ll alienate you.

I had planned a solo, 10-day trip to Paris for my birthday. It was my first trip there, and I was going to visit the usual highlights, walk everywhere, and eat myself into a cheesy, buttery stupor. A friend asked me if she could come along. She’d just had a rough year, including losing her mom. I was dubious, but agreed, thinking that getting out of the country for a bit might help her heal. She’d also been to Paris, so I figured it would be nice to have her knowledge on the trip.

I had a list of my “must see” places, which she immediately dismissed, because she’d seen them already. I realized that, while we’d be sharing a hotel room, that was about all the companionship I’d be getting on this trip. By my calculation, this was still do-able.

But, when we arrived, I learned I was in for much, much worse. Rude Bitch came with a chip on her shoulder. She yelled at the taxi driver. She pissed off the owner of the inn. She was rude to waiters. She was rude to other travelers. She lost her temper with me when the gelato shop she had insisted on going to was busy and the line was too long to suit her. She was relentlessly rude, and remorseless about it. I got tired of following along her wake of destruction, quietly apologizing to her victims.

The nadir of the trip was the night she got drunk and raged at me that she was “tired of having to take care of me all the time.” We talked the next day, when she’d sobered up. I pointed out that she had never actually performed any sort of caretaking activities for me. She agreed, and admitted she’d been transferring anger at her mom to me. I told her she appeared to be transferring anger to a lot of people, not just me. I ended the friendship when we got home.

3. The Selfish AssholeGetting laid is more important than your safety.

I already wrote about the Selfish Asshole here. But to recap: Travel buddy splits with dive master, leaving me alone with his pal–who automatically expects sex because my friend is putting out. Yep. Love being abandoned in dangerous situations in foreign countries. Love it.

4. The NattererThe person in the front seat who just spouts every thought that enters his pea brain.

The Natterer is uncomfortable with an instant of silence–the part where you’re not talking because there’s so much to see and admire. This person comes in both male and female versions. The absolute worst I’ve ever encountered was a male, but I secretly think females are more frequent perpetrators.

I spent several weeks working with a guy, let’s call him David from the Midwest. David couldn’t shut up–he would just rattle off every insipid, banal thought that went through his mind. This had nothing to do with actual conversation. Visions of ball gags were dancing in my head. Because this was a “business trip,” I was trying to be very polite to him, but dropped several million gentle hints that it might be okay to stop talking for one second. Finally, after weeks enduring his cluelessness, one day when he was being particularly obnoxious, I snapped. “If you could stop talking constantly, that would be great. I don’t really care about what you have to say. Nor does anyone else.”

He was silent for the rest of the day. I felt a little bad. But not too bad. That day was heaven. My colleagues thanked me for alleviating their suffering too, but privately, of course.

5. The NarratorSimilar to the Natterer, the Narrator never shuts up, either.

The “Narrator,” like the Natterer, abhors a vacuum. They can’t just quietly take in the scenery. Similarly, they can’t tolerate a moment of silence. They just talk. And talk…And talk. The Narrator, unlike the Natterer, doesn’t express their own thoughts, though. They narrate your trip for you. They read roadside signs. They describe the scenery that you, too, are looking at with your own eyes.

“Look! Trees!”

“Hey, there’s a hill!”

“Gas! It’s $7 a gallon here!”

Dude. I’m not Helen Keller. STFU once in a while.

6. The RubeI didn’t bother learning anything about the history, culture, or language. They should all just speak English anyway.

Okay, I am proud to say I’ve never had to travel with someone like this. I just encounter them on trips. They are not a rare species. My all-time favorite was the couple from Texas in Venice, who ordered a “peppahronee peeezzzah.” And then were infuriated that they got bell peppers. ‘Nuff said.

7. The JingoistNothing’s as good as Amurica! (Close cousin, possibly kissing, of Rube.)

The Jingoist might actually be the worst. I run into these on my travels pretty frequently. They’re obsessed with comparing every little difference, and finding the American way “superior.” Fine, okay, we have some good shit going on, man. But, theoretically, that’s not why we’re here.

The absolute worst ever was a Mormon missionary I had to talk through a literal mental breakdown (grown man sobbing beside a fountain on a patio) because he thought Honduras was too “dirty.” I’m like, “Dude. Look around. Poor people. Chill the fuck out about hand sanitizer.” He went home. (This disappointed me, because I thought the guy had a shot at some actual spiritual growth. Alas, he pussied out.)

8. The Package TouristNothing spontaneous allowed!

Ah, look. This is an entire industry. I’m going to pick on Americans again, because I can…but it’s possible the Japanese may be the worst about this. What is up with the 30-countries-in-7-days trips? People, this gets you nothing. You do not see the country, the culture, the landscape. You spend your days with a guide telling you what to see and what to think. Your ankles swell from spending 8 hours a day in a bus.

Why do you sign up for hell? And, why do you insist on showing me the PowerPoint?

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Breeding and the Single Girl

So, this post is not really about travel, except tangentially. Also, it’s long. Also, pottymouth. You’ve been warned.

Short version: I don’t have children. Here’s why.

Long version:

It all started when a very good friend of mine wrote a blog post that went viral and made the internet angry (which was not entirely fun for her, but it I found it very entertaining). And then she came over for dinner and we talked about it…a lot.

One of the reasons I can choose to travel as much as I do is that I do not have children. My friend does. In fact, she has three. And they’re amazing kids. Her blog post was about how childless people don’t really get what it’s like to have kids. Except it was self-deprecating and sarcastic, and hysterically funny–and totally her. And a whole bunch of people didn’t get it.

She started in about how people without children think people with children are losers, or have lost themselves, or have forgotten how to have adult conversations. I know people say these things, because, frankly, we’re all a bunch of judgmental assholes sometimes. Also (and bear with me here) sometimes those things are true.

Now, for the record, my friend wasn’t writing about me. I don’t think people with children are losers. So, I didn’t get all panties-in-a-wad offended. But what I said to her was that I feel just as judged by society, if not more so, for my lack of offspring. I mean, I get it. I’m basically not performing the precise function that evolution determined for me. What a slacker and weirdo, right?

See, I didn’t choose to have children. Not because I’m some hardcore zero population growth advocate or because I hate children. There are a lot of reasons I didn’t have kids. First and most importantly, I secretly think I am one of those people who simply was not cut out for it. For a lot of really good reasons. (A lot of my female friends had “that moment”–the one where some primal instinct kicked in and they HAD to have a baby NOW. That one? Never happened to me.)

I always said I’d consider having a child under two very exact and nonnegotiable conditions:

  • I had to be with a loving partner in a stable, solid relationship.
  • He had to have the potential to be a good father and he had to want to be a father very, very, very much–enough to convince *me* that this was a good idea.

Sometimes I had condition 1. Sometimes I had condition 2. I never had them both at the same time. There is, of course, a whole lot of other stuff that factored in, but I won’t belabor (ahem) the point here. Mainly, I stand by those two conditions. The fact that they never were met tells me I made the right decision. Am I entirely reconciled with it? No. And that’s okay.

I’m okay with being the auntie/cousin to several kids in my life. I’m okay with having the freedom to sleep in, the freedom to travel when I want, the lack of the stress and expense of children. Am I missing out on the love and joy of raising one’s own kids? Of course I am. Am I okay with that? Mostly. I see that bond, and I know that I will never know it. I have accepted that, but does it mean I don’t get a little wistful sometimes? No, it doesn’t.

So, yeah, just like there are idiots who don’t have children who think parents are hopeless and lost, there are people out there in the world (and too many) who say horrid things to and about us nonparent types. For example, “You couldn’t possibly understand my busy, important life, you don’t have children.” Or worse–“You aren’t raising kids; you don’t have a life.” Or former friends who cut me out of their lives once they had children. Or random strangers who assume I’m a socially inept crazy cat lady because I neglected to breed. Or the woman who, at a recent birthday party for my niece: “So, you’re the token child-free adult here?” I mean, come on, WTF?

You know what I want to say? I get it. It’s a different path. You’re right, I can’t “understand” what you’re going through, but I am a sensitive, intelligent person who is also a damn good friend. You’re busy? Let me drive to you. Let me cook you dinner. Let me change a diaper or two. I’m living a different lifestyle from you, but if you make the tiniest effort to keep me in your life (and I’ve had several friends who simply did not want to make this effort because I no longer “fit”), I think you’ll like what happens.

Does this mean I’m some magnanimous hippy aunt who loves all kids? Good christ, no… it does not.

Total stranger in a restaurant? I don’t love your children. I certainly don’t have any desire to enjoy your child’s company while I’m dining. And, by the way, clean up after yourself, you lazy sod. Waitresses work hard enough as it is.

Total stranger who is allowing their child to run rampant, screaming in public/on an airplane/in a meditation area (yes, this actually happened)? No. I do not love your child. But, actually, I love you much less. Because the problem is you. Your undeserved sense of entitlement that society must adapt to (nay, embrace!) your poor parenting, your shitty attitude, your utter lack of basic consideration for those around you. Deal with your own child. The world does not owe you babysitting.

And finally–here’s the giant shocker–your kids are beautiful and precious and perfect. Except only to you. To the rest of the planet, not so much.

See me, over here? Living my quiet life that completely does not intrude on yours, like ever? Part of that is I’m just that fucking considerate. Ponder that for a moment while your offspring are shrieking as if they’re being dismembered. Yes, yes, kids will be kids. But you know what? It’s never too early to teach manners. It’s never too early to understand that the world doesn’t actually revolve around you, and public spaces don’t actually mean “free-for-all.”

On the flip side, if you are my friend…you know what? You want free child care? Call me. You want somebody to hold your kid so you can have two seconds to yourself while you gather one shred of what’s left of your sanity? Call me. You want somebody to come change a dirty diaper because if you have to change one more, you are going to have a meltdown? Call me. Need to have a conversation that involves polysyllabic words? I am all yours.

You want someone to come take you out for a fricking cocktail, even though you’re not supposed to drink because you are nursing? Call me. You can have *one* and then I will cut you off, take you home safely to your kids and husband, and give you a giant hug. If they misbehave, have bad manners, or otherwise act like little shits, I will correct them lovingly and gently. They will have love from me, but I will also take no shit (because, like I’d take it from you?). Husband working that very *last nerve*? Call me, and let me talk you out of…or in to…the divorce (hey, whatever’s appropriate! I’m your friend, goddamit).

And by the way, you know that part about how you have children and a husband to come home to, and I don’t?

Pause for just a moment on that.

And how nice it must be sometimes to simply have that. Because some of us don’t, can’t, never managed it or whatever the fuck happened that we’re not really sure why, but it did. And the world did its little spinny thing and the music stopped, and some of us weren’t in the right goddamned seat for whatever karmic reason. And be grateful for what you have. And don’t tell the rest of us all the time about how lucky and blessed you are. Just say it quietly, to yourself, every night as you tuck in those little midgets.

So to those people who judge me and the other 20% of the population who don’t have kids: I am not *less* than you because I have not had children. I am different from you. My life has ended up on a different path from yours. I did not have the same options or make the same choices as you. I respect that difference. I still love you for exactly who you are. Can you say the same? Do you?

I never intended to end up without having children. Please do not speak to me as if I’ve never thought about this, and thought about it with a certain amount of self-doubt. Do not treat me as if I am broken (or worse, an alien species). Do not brag about your children constantly to everyone. Many people have wanted children and could not have them. Or had them and lost them to some tragedy. While I am not one of those people, I occupy that gray area in the middle–and I also can empathize with their pain. That faux brag-complaining isn’t fooling anyone. Too many people take having children for granted–or think it makes them some kind of saint or hero (quick answer: no)–and never give more than  condescension to those of us who don’t, or who can’t.

Many people actively do not believe in having children. I am also not one of those people. But I get them, too. I am guilty of rolling my eyes at the family with 5 children pulling out the food stamps at the grocery store. To me, these people (often poor, often uneducated) are perpetuating a cycle. They are caught in it and can’t get out. I also feel sympathy for them. I do not choose their path. I believe their path is an endless cycle of poverty. But I believe that path will go on pretty much forever, and it is exactly how the world works. I will not be marching in the streets to promote the “child-free” agenda (in fact, I only just heard there was one recently, and I could give a rat’s ass about those people and their agenda).

As for me. I am here. I am just me. I cannot say that I have no regrets. I can only say I’ve lived my life in the only way I know how, and that it has not always turned out the way I hoped, imagined, or was raised to believe it would. I know the generic “society” judges me negatively for what I am.

When I am 90 years old, will I regret not having a child? Possibly. Very likely. I hope that the community of people I have cultivated and loved throughout the years will be my village. I don’t know. None of us can possibly know.

However, I have a couple friends whose offspring I am planning on moving in with in my later years–the crazy auntie in the attic, so to speak. I am totally looking forward to that.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Serendipity, Part 3

In Georgia, I arranged for a driver, Zura, to take me to a little farm in the countryside, famous for its biodynamic gardens. I would spend one night on my own with the family, and then meet up with some work colleagues to go winetasting the next day. Arranging all of this was a feat. Although I knew the driver from other trips, we’d always had my friend Kara doing all the talking and translating. The Georgian driver did not speak English, but I knew he was trustworthy and that my basic Russian skills could at least get us by.

He dropped me at the inn, after a decent-ish conversation during the 2-hour drive (oh, who am I kidding? Awkward, half-assed conversation and then 1:45 mins of silence). I had figured out he knew the family, and he’d confirmed the son spoke fluent English, but the parents did not.

At the family farm, the elderly father gave me a tour. He explained his son was away for the weekend at a wine conference. So, there we were: Russian was now our common language and I was about to be a huge letdown, conversationally. I said I was a writer, which he assumed meant journalist, which I could not unexplain. He treated me with respect and deference, and I felt awful and fraudulent.

Turns out, I was the only guest at the inn. After an awkward tour, and an equally awkward (but interesting) demonstration of the traditional Georgian technique for making bread in a wood-fired oven, I got tired of being looked at like the village idiot. I went for a long walk around the town, finding food and water, at least. Feeling rather stupid that, here I was, all interested in these people and their biodynamic farm, and I had about 5 minutes of conversational ability on me. So here is an earlier article by someone who, ya know, actually managed to talk to this family.

I walked back to the inn, dreading the long evening before me, and thankful I at least had a book to read. I sat in the garden, reading and wishing I had a glass of wine and some other people around to chat with.

Finally, out of sheer boredom, I went to my room and took a little nap. I knew dinner was at 8 or so, and was appalled that they were cooking dinner just for me. I could hear a bustle in the kitchen, with the wife and a friend cooking up a storm. The husband said “supra,” which I understood to be a Georgian feast. But, wait, there’s clearly no one here.

Two men were setting up a long table in the garden.  It could seat at least 20. Oh, dear lord–are they going to all this trouble for me? I couldn’t ask. Food started coming out of the kitchen, mountains of food. Caucasus Ranges of food. This cannot possibly all be for me, so what in the hell is up?

Two large vans pull into the yard, and disgorge about 20 people. People! I rejoice!

The people are all…all…men people. All men people speaking Russian. I realize, I am now sharing a small inn, with shared toilets, with 20 Russian-speaking men. Large carafes of wine are being placed on the table. Twenty Russian-speaking, drunken men. This cannot possibly get any worse. I look at the flimsy door to my room, with its flimsy lock, and begin pondering barricade techniques.

The men begin taking their seats around the table, and another car arrives with four men (yay, more dudes!) in traditional Georgian dress. The owner of the inn comes over to me, accompanied by a blond man and says, in Russian, “Here is my good friend who will sit with you tonight.” The man smiles at me, extends a hand, and says, in English (blessed, blessed English), “Hello, I am Ivan. I will be translating for you. Will you join us for the supra?”

Why, things might just be looking up…

I sit, the only female at the table, while the inn owner’s wife and another woman bring out plates and plates of delicious food. Ivan pours me a glass of the sweet white wine. The men in traditional Georgian dress are the tamada–the leader of the supra–and his accompanists, who will be leading the toasting and celebration for the evening.

Holy shit…I am at a real Georgian supra! I feel like I’ve found a unicorn.

The tamada begins with the traditional prayers and invocations, which take a phenomenally long time. I learn that all the men are businessmen from either Russia or Georgia on a joint, dual-nation business trip, and they’ve spent the day winetasting in the Kakheti region. This is the highlight of their day too. Even better? The vans are waiting to drive them back to Tbilisi after the supra.

Ivan explains that after each toast, we must drain our wineglasses. However, because I am female, I am excused from that tradition. I politely fake a sip after each toast, knowing I need to pace myself.

The tamada sings and recites poetry–long, epic poems and stories. I do not understand the words, but I understand the tradition. It doesn’t need translation–it is beautiful. We are toasting to God, for creating this beautiful country and bequeathing it to the Georgian people. We are toasting the inimitable mountain ranges, the ineffable beauty of the forests, the blueness of the sky, etc. etc. The accompanists play guitars that complement the tamada’s spoken word–think, old school slam poetry. Ivan translates some, until I tell him he doesn’t need to any more. I can tell he is getting tired of translating, and I need him for just one more thing.

After all the drinking, the men’s tongues have loosened and a surprising majority are quite fluent in English, but reluctant to admit it. One of the younger Russian men is introduced to me, but refuses to shake my hand, saying (in decent English) how much Americans disgust him. I do not take this personally. I smile at him and say, “We’re not all what you think.”

Other guests have joined in the toasting–the tamada controls who can toast. You must ask permission, and he must allow it. I ask Ivan to tell the tamada that I would like to offer a toast. Ivan looks alarmed–understandably. A woman and a foreigner–recipe for absolute disaster in his book. I tell him it is okay, I know how to do it. He is trying to be polite, but he clearly doesn’t believe me. He’s nice about it and asks anyway.

The tamada is surprised, too, but allows me my turn. Ivan translates for me.

I toast, first, to the tamada, as is traditional. Thanking him for allowing me to speak–and thanking the group for indulging me for addressing them in English rather than in Georgian or Russian. Thanking him for the toasts and songs that were so beautiful and poetic that translation was not necessary. Then I toast the men of the group, for accepting a woman and a foreigner at their dinner. The table becomes silent. I toast our hosts, the Nikolaishvilis are renowned as generous hosts–but I also toast the women who have worked so hard to provide us with this delicious feast. Ivan is translating his butt off, quite well. We make a good team. I speak, pause; he translates. I speak.

I offer thanks for the privilege–along with the other visitors at the table–of being here in Georgia, this incomparable country, the privilege of enjoying its hospitality, its food, the kindness of its people.

I deliberately save my ace in the hole for last. I surprise them all by finishing with the traditional Georgian toast: Sakartvelos Gamarjos!

Ivan looks at me like I had just parted the Red Sea. I may have milked it a bit. But, damn, it was good. I got applause. And then the band began to play a song in my honor: Home, Home on the Range. And they sang, in English.

Ivan tells me he is impressed, that my toast was better than any American politician he’s ever heard. The men begin coming over to shake my hand. The tamada, through Ivan, expresses his approval. A Georgian man from Tbilisi explains to me that he is a widower with three sons, and offers to marry me, saying he needs a good woman like me to help raise them. The young Russian man who hates Americans comes and sheepishly shakes my hand. He says, “I still hate Americans.” And I say, “Maybe you can say you don’t hate just one.” He nods his head thoughtfully and retreats.

Finally, the men pile into the vans and head back to Tbilisi. I reel to my room, dizzy and headachy from the sweet, sweet wine. And the sweet, sweet taste of victory. Americans, represent, baby.

Even better? I don’t have to share the fucking bathroom with anyone.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Serendipity, Part 2

My trip to Thailand held a similar surprise. I was there for a research trip, and had planned to trek around on my own for a couple of weeks tacked on at the end. I was headed to Koh Tao for some diving. A ferry  would drop me on Koh Phangan overnight first. I chose a little inn using my trusty Lonely Planet.

Up to this point, I’d been with two professors and a translator. Transport and accommodation had been prearranged. The translator took care of the language barrier, and my hand was, effectively, held. But now I was on my own. I was supposed to call the inn from the ferry dock, and they would come and get me. This was accomplished through an odd, very loud conversation, where a woman was yelling “dock! dock!” into the phone, and I was yelling “yes! yes!” back. About an hour later, I was still sitting on the dock, and it had begun to rain.

Finally, a pickup truck with about 5 people in the cab pulled up. A middle-aged woman yelled at me and waved her arms, indicating I should get in. I tossed my suitcase in the back of the truck and realized that, like any proper commodity, the tourist was riding steerage, too.

Mind you, I’d selected this place to stay because (like the parador in Puerto Rico) it was “centrally located.” (Side note: I still have trust issues with this phrase.) Since I was only there for one night, and wanted to explore the little port town, location had been my main selection criteria.

Twenty long, damp minutes later, we arrived at the end of a dirt road, far from a town, a store, a restaurant. I was stranded again. I was hungry. I was thirsty AND out of bottled water. I figured I’d get cleaned up, then walk down the highway until I found something to eat and drink. It was dark, and the inn was deserted.

I went to my room, which was filthy. Sand was everywhere. The bed was unmade (and clearly used); there was no goddamn toilet paper. The place smelled like a small animal or large crustacean had died in it.

I had had enough of this rude, yelling bitch and her shitty inn. I went to find her.

I found the office and said my room was out of toilet paper. She unceremoniously handed me a roll. I spotted a padlocked refrigerator, and asked if I could buy a couple of bottles of water. And a beer. Please, god, anything slightly numbing at this point would be welcome.

She was actually warming up. I dared to ask where I could walk to for some food. She broke into a broad smile.

“Food! We have food here!”

I recoiled in horror, of course.

She yelled down the muddy road, toward some outbuildings. Then hopped up and opened a door that led to a small kitchen, with a room of tables beyond. She switched on the lights and propped open several shutters to let the night breeze in. She pointed me, and my beer and water and roll of toilet paper, to a table in the empty room.

Awesome. Solo, miserable dinner with food poisoning for dessert.

A chubby, kindly looking Thai woman arrived and began bustling about in the kitchen, pans clattering, gas burners lighting, oils sizzling. So far, no one had asked what I wanted to eat, but delicious smells start coming out of the kitchen. Now I’m feeling guilty that they’ve opened the restaurant…just for me?

The owner brings over another beer, on the house. Her English magically improves and decreases in volume–she’s suddenly friendly and chatty.

A group of Brits, hungry and damp, arrive and tell me they haven’t seen this place open in the 3 days they’ve been here. Some Americans trickle in. Someone fires up the karaoke machine, and suddenly we have a party. It’s warm, filled with good smells and the camaraderie of travelers. It’s…magic. It’s that moment every sodden, bedraggled, cranky, hungry, achy traveler lives for. I sneak the roll of toilet paper back to my room, and quickly return to the little restaurant.

The food emerges from the kitchen–plates and plates of it. Steaming hot, smelling so good I want to cry. It is the most delicious cooking I had in Thailand. The Brits and Yanks entertained each other with awful renditions of 80s pop songs for several hours.

The owner of the inn took me to the dock in the morning, and gave me a big hug before she left. I got on the ferry slightly dazed and somewhat hungover, but at least not hungry.

Click here for part 3.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Leave a comment

Serendipity, Part 1

All travelers eventually find themselves in a particular boat: the boat of No Hope At All.

Everything has gone wrong, a series of poor choices has collided with fickle fate, you missed your flight, the cab driver drove off with your purse and passport, the sun has burned out, whatever…you find yourself simply screwed.

The only option that is available is to take a very deep breath. (Try not to scream on the exhale–it’s poor form.) Take stock. Assess the damage. Ponder your next steps (likely options: bank, hotel, embassy, hospital, nearest orphanage), and figure out how to get yourself out of the current mess. Sometimes, you realize you must simply submit to the whims of the universe, suck up whatever misfortune has befallen, and live to fight another day. Count your blessings–the miracles of modern overnight freight, the internet, and international toll-free calling have reduced many travel emergencies to the “inconvenient” level.

I’ve been on the boat of No Hope at All so many times, I should be considered honorary crew. Missed flights and luggage missing for 9 days in Honduras, 24 hours of travel time to Georgia with no hotel or pickup details (or money or ability to contact my colleagues), jumped by a devious Italian in Rimini…but, generally, everything turns out alright after the discomfort and inconvenience and fright have passed.

But sometimes, you get a little something special. Your entire world goes to shit, and then the universe rewards you with something you never expected. Something you might not even have suspected you deserved: Serendipity.

Before the internet made travel a lot easier, a friend and I planned a dive trip to Puerto Rico that involved circumnavigating the island, staying in a string of paradores–small, family-run inns. The inns all worked together to coordinate travelers’ reservations and routes, so we could essentially have one inn call ahead to the next to arrange our stay. They were all certified by a government agency to uphold certain standards of cleanliness and amenities, while being a low-key, local alternative to big chain hotels.

At the third parador, we ran into a difficulty. It was described as being “centrally located, close to everything.” We’d hired a driver to get us to the small town, where the diving was said to be excellent. We couldn’t find the inn on our map, nor could we figure out where it was in relation to the town or dive shops, but we figured all would be fine.

Turns out, it was, indeed, centrally located: Equidistant from every fucking thing we could possibly want–groceries, restaurants, diving, ANYTHING resembling human habitation. We needed a rental car, we decided. We had not wanted to rent a car, but when the dive shop, the town, and anything resembling food was 5 miles away, we didn’t have a choice.  We talked to the front desk–they called around. No cars were available. We were stranded for an unspecified period of time. We wouldn’t be able to dive. We wouldn’t be able to eat. We walked around a bit, and found an ugly strip mall a couple of miles away. We also found a payphone, and decided to make some calls.

The next valley over had a high-end, 5-star resort. Surely they must have a car rental desk? We called them. No, sorry…nothing available.

As we cursed our shitty luck, we simultaneously ran out of coins for the phone.

My travel buddy asked a nearby man–a nearby, shady-looking man–if he had change. He did. Then he asked what was wrong. She told him the whole story, while I cringed, thinking he was up to something no good, and she was giving out way too much information.

Then the man says his “friend” works at the resort, in the car rental section. You don’t say, said my inner cynic, wondering how the scam worked, exactly. AND it turns out he’s a taxi driver, who happens to be off-duty, and he’ll take us to the resort to pick up the car.

Yeah, right.

I reluctantly get in his taxi with my friend, assuming we should probably live or die together. She is aghast at my suspicion, my lack of talking, my narrowed/untrusting eyes. She sits in the front seat, chatting up our “savior,” while I glower in the backseat. Bad cop to her good cop.

We arrive at the super-fancy 5-star resort and walk up to the rental counter. Where we encounter the taxi driver’s dear friend, who whispers to us secretively: there’s really only one car left and it just got returned and hasn’t been checked in yet.  We wouldn’t have gotten it if she and Raul weren’t the closest of friends. We go out to see the car. It is the only one in the rental area. The taxi driver and the rental agent hug warmly and say goodbye. The taxi driver turns to us, and, with a huge smile, says “Enjoy your stay in Puerto Rico.” He drives off.

I, of course, feel like an asshole. A blessed asshole.

We now have wheels, can go diving, and–most vitally–don’t get stranded again for the rest of the trip.

Click here for part 2.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Leave a comment

Gratitude

I confess: I’m a bit cynical at times. I’m sure that comes as a shock.

But I’ve been feeling pretty low lately–a sort of low-grade, general malaise that I can’t seem to shake off. And *that* isn’t normal for me. So, I keep looking at that, and wondering why–why I feel this way, and why this feeling doesn’t seem to pass.

I feel like I’ve stepped off the world, somehow. And it keeps doing its spinny thing, but I’m not in sync with it. Or I feel like the music stopped, and everybody grabbed a chair, and I’m just standing here, feeling bewildered and left out (of what precisely, I’m not exactly sure).

Recently, I was telling a friend that part of the problem is I don’t want anything. I don’t want material things. I don’t really want to be in the city where I am, but I can’t think of anywhere else that would be better, either. I would like to be traveling, but I don’t want to go anywhere specific. (For someone who always, always has the next trip on the horizon, this is truly unsettling.)

Every morning when I wake up, I wonder WTF is wrong with me, anyway? (Please don’t answer that, I’m feeling a little delicate, if you hadn’t already noticed.)

So, clearly, it is time to take stock. Pause and have a look around this cobwebby attic and figure out where the broom is going to do the most good.

And I have no answers right now, but I have found a lot of things to be grateful for, even if nothing…not one goddamned thing (except my lovely, pointy little dog-beast) is “perfect.” Some days, if it weren’t for her, I would probably stay in bed. But I look around and I can’t actually complain, either.

I have brilliant, beautiful, intelligent friends…people who I am not only grateful for, but who are truly some of the most fucking awesome people walking planet Earth at this moment (this is *not* subjective, by the way).

I have a job that I actually like, unexpectedly, that not only pays the bills, but gives me an extraordinary amount of freedom and flexibility. And is the last place I expected to find this, and is the only place I can actually see myself working and maintaining at least partial sanity.

I see beauty everywhere I go. There is so much–Golden Gate fog across the early-risen moon, the American River flowing serenely past its human-made prison of levees, a valley oak nestled in the nook of a rolling hillside. A squirrel burying its winter provisions in a concealed corner of my yard. A yoga inversion that makes the blood rush to my head. A glass of bordeaux with a charming man who sometimes makes me feel like a complete moron. (Perhaps that could be the title of my autobiography someday: Diary of a Complete Moron.)

I walk down smooth sidewalks, to a temperature-controlled building, transported there in the luxury of my own vehicle (also climate-controlled), listening to NPR or anything else I might choose, on well-paved roads, in a city with a high quality of life. I shop at stores where I can afford what is on the shelves (note: I am not in like, say, a Coach store or Tiffany’s, here, people).

Honestly, there is no fucking excuse for malaise, now, is there? And I can’t shake it.

But even so, I’m looking around, doing the doggy paddle. Head above water. Happy to be breathing air rather than water, I suppose.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Guns, Sweat, and Fears

Like a lot of people who are not gun owners, I don’t know much about them, don’t like them, and pretty much wish they didn’t exist.

See, I grew up around guns. My grandparents were hunters and competitive skeet shooters; my stepfather, uncles, and many family friends hunted regularly. As a 7-year-old, I was allowed to shoot BB guns and small-gauge shotguns at cans and squirrels, except I liked squirrels and thought they were cute–so I never actually shot one. My family teased me mercilessly about my shooting style–left eye scrunched shut, tongue poking out the side of my mouth, but I had pretty decent aim.

I went on the hunting trips with the grownups. In our house was a large glass case filled with rifles and shotguns–at least a dozen, probably more–that I walked by every day. I didn’t fear guns; the adults in my life had stressed safety and instilled in me a healthy respect for the danger of guns.

But, of course, they never prepared me for what would happen the year I turned 10.

That year, three people in my immediate family died of bullet wounds. Two were self-inflicted. One was a wrong place, wrong time. This isn’t something I talk about a lot.

Perhaps this explains why, for more than 3 decades, I have had a distinct phobia about guns. In my early 20s, two friends took me to a gun range and I shot a handgun for the first time. I wanted to throw up. I put the gun down and walked out after firing a single shot.

So, all these years, I’ve just hated guns. Hated being around them. Hated the culture that surrounds them. Hated reading the news about another mass killing, another child being accidentally shot, another suicide who blew their brains out. I did not want to see them, touch them, or even be in the same room as them. My phobia was that the gun would go off and kill me all by itself. Like a family curse or something. (Not logical, but that’s why they call it a phobia.)

But my phobia goes a little deeper than even that; I feared that by somehow being near a gun, I would be overtaken by the same darkness and violence that took my family members. That moment when they reached the deepest, darkest place in their existence, and there was a gun nearby, and the answer seemed to be to use it. I feared finding myself in that place more than anything else.

In all the political debate about guns and gun control in this country, I remained essentially ignorant about them by choice. I didn’t care about policies or nuances. If someone else wanted one, fine–just keep it away from me and I won’t complain.

But I hate ignorance even more than I hate guns. Particularly if it happens to be my own ignorance. So that, along with the desire to actually know how to unload a gun if I happened to be around one and needed to know I was safe, inspired me to take a handgun safety class at a local range.

As it turned out, a friend of mine wanted to come along and learn about guns, too. And I’m very glad she came, because I wanted to walk out from the moment I got to the parking lot for about the first 2 hours of the 4-hour class. Having a buddy was the only thing that made it tolerable.

As I pulled into the small, cramped lot, I saw a woman driving a large Cadillac, having a difficult time parking. Since she was blocking most of the driveway, I waited and watched as she made no less than eight attempts to park her car between two lines. I laughed–surely, surely, she could not be in my class.

Alas.

She also was one of several people who brought their own guns. Now, since this class was called Introduction to Handguns, it seemed to me they probably should have taken it before they ran out and bought guns. You know, being sensible before buying the deadly weapon. I realize this is a lot to ask. In fact, about half the class had their own guns. Of those, two of the students seemed very competent and careful about being safe with their guns. The rest behaved, in general, like morons.

So, for 1 1/2 hours, I sat in a classroom, with several people who had about my skill level, who were waving their guns around. Including Parking Lot Lady, who sat behind me with her gun pointed at the back of my head for most of the class. Fucking awesome.

First, we were treated to a discussion about how “revolvers are good for women because they’re simple to use.” Which is just one example of how gun culture is steeped in sexism. (Here’s another: Stay armed and fabulous, ladies! And don’t forget to Bedazzle your camo!)

But I had to admit, for most of the women in the class, as simple as possible would be best. My friend and I rolled our eyes at the instructor. An older woman mentioned her husband wanted her to come, but had warned her not to break her nails while loading. She was not being ironic.

As we passed around different handguns, I briefly wondered what caliber my stepfather used, my cousin used, my grandmother used. I mentally list the people in my family I could ask. But realize it’s not that important to know. I can’t do this without picturing bodies on floors, blood on walls, brains on brown leather couches. I remember how you learn things that no one, really, should ever know: For example, the best way to kill yourself with a gun is not to point it at your temple or put it in your mouth. You might just fuck up your brain and not die and end up a vegetable or permanently disfigured. Right under the chin is most effective. I wish I did not know these things; rather, I wish I could un-know them. I shut down the ghoulish thoughts and try to pay attention to the safety lecture.

Feeling like quite the little ladies, we proceeded to learn proper stances and did dry fire exercises before heading out onto the range.

With gunfire going off all around me, I became immediately tense and uncomfortable. We had to wait our turn to shoot because there were only 5 bays for our class of 12. So we waited, and my anxiety just kept rising. I thought about leaving without firing the gun. I didn’t want to do it. But I’d invested the time already and I was still curious.

It was my turn. I stepped up and fired a Glock 9mm. It doesn’t have a strong kick, but the moment the gun fired was startling. The bang was louder and stronger than I’d expected, and the little burst of fire out of the muzzle freaked me out a bit.

I fired several times, always hitting a bit high. The instructor came over and showed me what I was doing wrong. Then I switched to a small, .22 revolver–something I briefly imagined tucking into my thigh-highs at the brothel in 1885. After the 9 mm, it felt like a popgun. A creepy popgun. I tried two more guns–another 9mm and another .22.

I peeked down the range to see Parking Lot Lady’s target. True to form, her shooting was wild–barely in the white areas around the silhouette. I wondered about ricochet danger. The instructors took turns trying to help her aim, but she was simply unable to do so. I thought, this is the type of person who gets out the gun to shoot an intruder and winds up murdering her entire family and a couple of sleeping neighbors with stray bullets. In other words, someone who, statistically, is the poster child for people who shouldn’t ever own a gun. But of course, the instructor, the range…the entire gun industry…will never tell the poor old fool that.

Reminds me of the line in King Lear: Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.

At this point, my friend had had enough. I stayed because we had about 20 bullets left and I was actually enjoying myself on some level. Go ahead and judge. I’ve come to terms with it.

I got a fresh target and used the rest of the ammo, still scrunching my left eye but managing to keep my tongue in my mouth like a big girl. The instructor told me I’d done a good job (I still heard “little lady” after every sentence). He was encouraging some of the students to look at and buy guns, but oddly enough he didn’t breathe a word to me. So I’m guessing he got my lefty vibe and let it be. Or he got a “she’s insane” vibe, perhaps. I’ll never know.

In my quest to educate myself about guns, I have talked to friends who own them. I’ve read the NRA’s website (not recommended). And my thoughts about guns are in a state of evolution. After taking this class, I am more convinced than ever that it is unacceptable for people with a skill level of absofuckinglutely ZERO to own something so deadly. I mean, even cops and Navy SEALS accidentally shoot their own fucking legs sometimes–why in the world do we allow utter novices to walk around brandishing this shit? Here’s an interesting Tumblr about accidental shootings. Instead, we have untrained idiots who can get a concealed carry permit with less effort than it takes to get a driver’s license. Then, we have the macho, John Wayne, good old boy gun culture. Which, now that it’s evolved, includes the little ladies, even…as long as they are “Armed and Fabulous.”

I believe that–statistically–a gun is a foolish choice. If it’s handled properly, it’s locked in a gun safe. This means it would do you absolutely no good in the case of robbery/home invasion/sudden assault. If you do manage to pull it out of the safe, the statistics still say it is likely to be used against you.

And then we have the NRA, which probably started out as not such a bad organization (although I really don’t know because they’ve been such dicks my entire adult life). And they are putting themselves in this ridiculous and destructive position of NOT HELPING to end the problems. Even if they are justified in fighting bad/ineffective/knee-jerk legislation (and, frankly, I find myself semi-agreeing with them, sometimes, from this angle only), they are dancing on little, minced feet around actual solutions to gun violence and gun accidents.

And, for the love of all that is holy, I don’t even want to hear the Second Amendment argument about stopping “tyranny”–give me a fucking break. Your bunker and stockpiled MREs and AK-47s are simply not going to help you, all Red Dawn-ish, in the event the government goes for all-out tyranny.

Or in the words of Katherine Dunn (from Geek Love): Obvious horseshit.

After all this–sitting through videos I wish I could unsee, having a dangerously stupid woman waving a gun at my skull, and still managing to get a slight thrill from shooting a handgun–at the end of it all, I still wish guns didn’t exist. I wish I could say I learned how to handle one safely–but really a few hours in a class isn’t going to stick for long. I also learned, unnervingly, I still have good aim left over from when I was a pre-teen.

And I still don’t have any answers about that dark place.

Posted in Traveling Tales | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment