Recall

This morning, while wandering around my online neighborhood, I came across a post on The Wide Wide World reflecting on Obama’s first inauguration and experiencing it from abroad. It made me pause and try to remember where we were, seeing as we were also on our big trip at the time. I let my mind slide through memories, but I couldn’t find the one I was looking for. I could clearly remember election night—sitting on the couch in a hostel in Managua, one we’d searched out specifically because they had a television; being the only Americans there, but not the only ones watching and waiting for the race to be called; the nervousness as the results started to come in, followed by the amazement of realizing that what we had hoped for was happening;┬áthe bottle of champagne—but I couldn’t summon the inauguration. I knew we were in South America, but that’s as far as I could get.

So I stood up from my desk, stepped over to my bookshelf, and pulled down the bulging Moleskine where I’d chronicled our days. I flipped to January 20, 2009. Next to the date, I’d written “Cuenca, Ecuador.” My musings on the day were a mere half of a page. I had recorded only the facts: Except for breakfast, we didn’t leave the room all morning, instead watching the inauguration on CNN Espanol. We got lunch at a set menu place. We went to a site where ancient ruins were being excavated. We bought our tickets for a bus on to Quito. Description was left to a bare minimum.

Cuenca Cathedral

Yet that’s all it took, and I was there again. I was in Cuenca, with its cobbled streets and its colonial architecture and its enormous blue-domed cathedral, with its river and its stone bridges and its parks rich with bright green grass. I was on the roof of our hotel, spreading jelly on a piece of bread, debating whether to drink the coffee they’d brought us or to ask for tea, looking down and across the street to a market, where enormous pots and pans and shiny kitchen items of all sorts filled booth after booth. And I remembered the night before and the narrow sidewalk on a dark street that we walked down to a pizza place with a mural of Rome painted on the wall. And then I was in the room, with the sagging mattress and the thin, bare white walls and the TV showing the inauguration and DC, our home until we’d left for that trip. And I was feeling a little bit homesick for it and a little bit sad that I was missing this moment, this historic moment. And I was wishing the announcers would just shut the hell up and quit translating the speech into Spanish, which I wasn’t fluent enough in to follow. And I could almost taste the soup we had for lunch, sitting at the table in the back, the only non-locals in the place. We had no idea how it worked, but we sat, and the waitress came and simply put two bowls of soup on our table. No menu, no questions. What they had was what they had. After the soup, there was chicken and potatoes. And then dessert, which we didn’t expect. And fruit juice, which was, of course, a little bit too sweet. And the bill was something like $2 for the both of us. And at the ruins, I was disappointed that there weren’t any artifacts and that I couldn’t really make out what the place had looked like back before there had been cathedrals and colonial architecture. And I remember. And I remember. And I remember.

 

Strange, I think, how the mind works. How there are memories hidden away within it that remain hidden until something—a smell, a sound, a bare-bones accounting—triggers them and then they are there, whole and perfect and as fresh as if the moments being remembered were yesterday and not years prior. Strange, I think, and wonderful too.

My Own Special Hell: Movies on Buses

The day slipped away from the Valley of the Kings, the last rays of sun passing over the tombs of ancient kings.

We rushed down the street to the two restaurants that fought for our business, trying to out wager each other with offers of free fruit juice, appetizers, desserts. We picked the one with the better kebabs, tender and juicy. Earlier in the day we had taken a feluca ride on the Nile; then spent the hottest hours of the afternoon splashing at the pool in our hotel, a luxury that came with our $7 rooms. Our trip through Egypt was reaching its last days, but before we returned to Cairo, we had one last stop: Hurghada and snorkeling in the Red Sea.

Until this trip to Egypt in June 2004, my international travels had been restricted to Europe—to high-speed rail and rental cars, sidewalk cafes and art museums. Egypt was a revelation. It was mad in a way that made me fall in love with it, all if it, even the incessantly honking traffic and the men who offered Jeff camels in exchange for me and the shop owners guaranteeing that whatever I wanted, they had. Every experience felt new, even ordinary things like bus rides.

Our bus ride from Luxor to Hurghada was to be the first long-distance bus of our Egyptian travels—we’d taken the train south from Cairo—and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the unmarked station—a mere parking lot, really—I asked and asked and then asked again which bus was ours, none of them seeming to indicate any sort of destination. Upon gaining a consensus answer, I handed over our luggage and then boarded the bus, my friends Kate and Ben behind me, Jeff and my brothers Gregory and Mark in front of me. I’m impressed with what I see. It’s clean. The seats look comfortable (and more importantly, are only required to hold the number for which they were built and not two, three, or four extra people). And best of all, there’s a TV. Hooray for entertainment, I thought. It was, after all, going to be a long bus ride in the dark, meaning there would be nothing to look at.

I hear you laughing now. I hear you laughing at the young, naive version of me, the eager traveler who had no idea what she was about to experience. I expected airplane-style entertainment: a movie, that while not awesome, would by at least mildly entertaining, and, of course, headphones or perhaps minimal volume with subtitles. (Okay, up off the floor. Dry your eyes.)

The bus began to roll—out of the station, out of the city, and into the desert that lay between Luxor and Hurghada. The wheels squeaked on the rode. The low rumble of conversation filled the bus. A kid vomited his lunch into the aisle. And then a deafening wail filled the bus. Movie time. Bollywood time to be exact. Three-hour Bollywood madness at maximum volume to be perfectly clear.

I exchanged glances with Jeff, with my brothers, with Kate and Ben. We craned our necks, waiting for the bus attendant to come back and adjust the obviously too-loud television. We waited in vain. (Seriously, enough with the laughing, Mr./Ms. Experienced Traveler.) For three hours, we endured an epic Bollywood film that seemed to combine Snow White and the Wizard of Oz and then inject it with bloodcurdling screams. It was impossible to talk, to sleep—even to think, except to think about ripping your eyes and ears from your head as a means of saving yourself. When the bus finally pulled into Hurghada—late, as all buses are—I nearly fell to my knees in thanks, if not exhaustion. I had been delivered.

But as every traveler knows, the delivery is only momentary. There is always another bus, another TV, another bad movie played at deafening volume. Sometimes for fun (yes, bus torture does distort your idea of fun) I think back about the bad movies I’ve endured on buses and try to rank them, try to determine which one was really the worst. The Egypt one has certainly stuck with me, but in retrospect I’m not sure it was so bad (though yes, very bad) as it was shocking. I mean, can it compare to the time I was forced to watch License to Wed on never-ending repeat? Or the marathon of five back-to-back Jean Claude Van Damme movies, each different from the other only in regards to what country the bad guys came from? Or the fact that more than one bus thought The Condemned (yes, the WWE film) was quality viewing? I’m not sure. All were terrible in their own very special way—a way that has allowed these bus rides to remain clear in my mind while memories of the precious movie-less rides drift away from me like sands on a dune. That’s the funny thing about travel, isn’t it? In the end, it’s not what’s good or what’s bad that makes a trip; it’s simply what’s memorable.

What about you? What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen on a bus?

Language as Hope: Teaching English to Refugees

They straggle into the classroom, some early, some right on time, some a few minutes late. I don’t hold it against them. This is not the willful laziness of college. My students haven’t opted to sleep late or chosen to stand outside the door talking with a friend. If they are late it is because of their work or because one of the three buses they take to make it to the school was delayed.

I offer bright smiles as I hand out books and give them placards on which to write their names. Some return my smile and offer a carefully pronounced “Good evening.” Others cast their eyes down under furrowed brows.

We go around the room and introduce ourselves—reveal our names and where we are from. The young woman in the second seat, an eager learner with bright eyes and a face that reveals her youth, says that she is from a Thailand refugee camp. She does not claim a nationality, but a camp, a place for those caught in-between. When I ask her where she lived before the camp, confusion washes over her face. “My family has been in the camp for 50 years,” she says. She has been in America for two months.

A gentleman from Iraq, in his 60s if not early 70s, dressed in a dapper suit and addressing me with unnecessary formality, does not stop after his name and his home country but tells me about the work he has done in Iran and Jordan, the positions he has held. He wants me to know that in another time and another place he was someone who knew things, someone who spoke with authority, someone who did not have to grasp for words or grapple for understanding. He is not pompous or boastful, but simply a man whose world has been upended.

Through the course of the class, little things are revealed. One student has been in the United States for twenty years, making her way through the details of days, weeks, and years with only beginner level English. One student has children, though they are not here with him in the United States. One student must stand for part of the class, because of a back injury suffered in Iraq for which he is being treated at the local hospital.

I teach the best that I know how. I introduce new vocabulary. I say words slowly, carefully. I write every word on the board. I ask them to repeat everything I say. I demonstrate where I put my tongue, how I move my lips. I show them how to arrange words into sentences and questions. I give them verbs that will open the door on English. I ask questions and I give them silence in which to think and respond. I encourage them to speak, speak, speak, even when they don’t know exactly what they want to say. I celebrate their successes. I work with them through their struggles.

Having lived abroad and tried to learn languages foreign to my English-speaking tongue, I can sympathize with my students. But I cannot empathize. I chose to learn other languages. I chose to live abroad. I chose to travel to places where people did not speak my language. My travel has been for pleasure. And there is, above all, the simple fact that I always had a home to return to, a place where I could be understood.

My students have not come to the United States as travelers, but as refugees, as people without a home. They are far, far braver than me. They astound me with their courage. I am amazed that they still laugh, that they bother to ask me how my day was, that they mourn for each other’s losses when their own are at least as great. It is because of this courage, this joy, and this compassion that I spend every Tuesday night in the windowless basement room of a church. It is because I have been given so much in a world where so many are given so little that I do my very best to teach my students the difficult language of a country that perhaps one day they will refer to as home.

What Skiing Taught Me About Travel

I was a few months shy of 21 the first time I donned a pair of skis, and I think I fell down about five times before I even made it to the lift. I was in the German Alps, near the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host to the 1936 Winter Olympics. Jeff had come to visit me in Germany over his winter break, and we’d decided that a ski trip was just the thing to do.

The Alps are not for weenies. On the edge of the slopes were signs warning about steep drops but there were no barriers to keep you from actually going over the edge. I should have signed up for a class, but the classes were all taught in German and the oldest person in the class was maybe 3.5. As I watched tiny tot after tiny tot come whizzing down the mountain, stopping with a snow flinging turn, I figured that skiing couldn’t be that hard. That was before Jeff struggled to explain to me the exact method for skiing, before I slid down almost the entire mountain on my butt, before I spent the night in the hot tub trying to soothe my aching muscles. By then I was convinced that those kids I had seen flying around on skis must have been born with a special gene that made skiing as easy for them as falling down was for me.

By the third and final day of our trip, I could make it down a hill without falling, but it wasn’t pretty, and it certainly wasn’t fast. We then didn’t go skiing again for five years, until a spring wedding took us to Denver in time for the last ski weekend of the season. This time I took a class, and I began to understand why people might consider skiing fun.

But then, we got caught up in writing guidebooks and finishing PhDs and traveling around the world, and it wasn’t until this past weekend, that we were able to go skiing again, my third time. I had received assurances that skiing was like riding a bike, and it would all come back to me easily. I’d say that’s a partially true statement. I didn’t feel like I did the first time I clicked my boots into my skis—I certainly didn’t flail around as much—but I still wasn’t entirely comfortable.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a worrier with an overactive imagination, so every time I got going at a decent pace, all I could imagine was what it would be like to wipe out at that speed. And so, I made lots and lots of turns. I gave my glutes a workout through overuse of the snowplow. Essentially, any time I got up to speed, I made myself slow down. By the end of the first day, my knees were killing me. On the second day, they began to bug me as soon as we started down the first slope. I mentioned this to those we were skiing with and no one could quite figure out why. I played around. I experimented. And then I realized what the problem was. I was going too slow. Essentially I was taking every turn without much in the way of momentum, meaning my knees were having to do all the work of turning my skis. What I had to do was let go.

It wasn’t easy. I hesitated a few times. I pulled up on the steeper parts. But eventually, I let go. I trusted in my ability. I knew that I knew how to ski, that I knew how to turn, that I knew how to slow down, that I knew how to stop, and so I let myself go. My knees quit hurting. Skiing became much more fun and much less work. I tried bigger hills, tougher slopes. I fell a few times, but I popped right back up each time. I didn’t throw caution to the wind so much, as I trusted in my knowledge, skills, and abilities and then went for it.

As I see it, this is exactly the same thing you have to do with travel. Whether it’s deciding to take a major trip, opting to travel without a detailed itinerary, or choosing to travel to a challenging destination or simply somewhere outside your comfort zone, eventually you simply have to let go. You have to trust in your knowledge, your instincts, your experience, and whatever planning you have done, and then you simply have to make the leap. And that’s when the adventure begins.

You Can Go Home Again

As we sat in the transit lounge of the Seoul airport in October 2009, existing for a few hours in the in-between, in the interim between our round-the-world trip and the life that awaited us at home, my thoughts went only in one direction: home. I thought of catching up with my family and friends. I thought of the jeans that I hadn’t wiggled into in a year. I thought of homecooked meals and good Tex Mex and a refrigerator stocked with cheese. I thought of the adventure of moving to a new city, one that we had never even visited before. Perhaps it is because I am a person that tends to look forward rather than backward, or perhaps it was because the round-the-world trip was not yet far enough in the past to be worthy of reminiscence, but either way, my mind did not flit to memories of our adventures or pull up images of favorite moments. After one year on the road, I was ready to go home.

Fast-forward to February 2010. We are deep into winter, snowed-in in the south, which everyone knows is worse than being snowed-in in the north, where at least people are prepared. After a year of full-time summer, winter is worse than I remembered. It is cold, dreary, gray. It seems like it is always dark. Some days, I open my bookmarks page and pull up all the travel blogs I had so loved to read in the run-up to our trip and in the year we traveled. I try to make myself read, but I can’t get into it. Though there are certainly travelers, who like us, have taken a substantial trip and then returned home to other adventures, it seems to me, in my state, that everyone has become a “digital nomad.” What I take away from everything I read is that a RTW trip is not enough; what real travelers do is cut all ties and live their lives entirely on the road. We came home. We go to work. We spend Friday night running errands at Target. I feel like we failed. For months, I try to figure out where we went wrong and how we can join this crowd of digital nomads.

Jump ahead to Summer 2010. I get to go home to Louisville every month. I go shopping with my mom and laugh at my dad’s jokes. I road trip with my brothers. I share enormous pieces of chocolate cake with friends. We read haikus at Jeff’s sister’s wedding. We grill out and then sit with friends on our back porch and talk until even the cicadas have quit singing. We eat hamburgers and watch the Durham Bulls play under the ferocious North Carolina sun. We go to the farmer’s market and chat with the men and women selling us yellow lemon heirloom tomatoes and rounds of goat cheese. We try out new recipes in an effort to keep up with the okra and cucumbers taking over our garden. We ride our bikes down the Tobacco Trail. In short, we rediscover the pleasures of the ordinary, of growing roots, of having a place we call home. We renew friendships and make new ones and remember how it has always been the people, and not the places, that make our time on earth count.

It takes almost a year, but I return to the blogs. I read the words again and hear something different this time. This time I enjoy reading the blogs for what they are, accounts of travelers of all different types trying to figure out their place in the world, offering suggestions and ideas but not claiming that their way is the only way. I have accepted the fact that it is okay to like your job, even if it’s not the type you can take on the road; that there is no weakness in wanting to be close to family and friends; that adventure can be found anywhere so long as you keep your mind open and adapt the personality of a yes man. I have decided that you can love home and love to travel, that the two are not inherently contradictory. A year after our plane touched down on American soil, I realize that not only can you go home again, but also that’s it okay to do so.