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singapore souvenirs: all of the books

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I’ve never been the sort of person who drops their bags and collapses into bed. I’ve never left dirty dishes in the sink and it normally takes me at most three hours to unpack from a move. So when I came home late last night, depleted from 20 hours of travel across multiple time zones, the first thing I did was unpack. And clean. And play with my cat into the wee hours of the morning. Because I can’t bear the smell of suitcase clothes and books slightly marred from a journey–I need to go to bed knowing everything has been set to rights. I acknowledge my Type A-tendencies and I’ve accepted that I’ll likely always be this way.

This morning I woke at dawn, disoriented, forgetting that I was in New York and it was only my cat sleeping soundly beside me that made me realize that I am here. I am in this temporary home. My head’s not quite right yet, and I’ve accepted that over the next week I’ll endure the special kind of torture that only jetlag from Asia can bring.

What gave me joy this morning was poring over my newly-acquired books. There was a time when I used to hoard up on souvenirs–knick knacks and the like from my travels. However, over the past five years I’ve stopped buying, started experiencing, and now the only treasures I bring home are of the book variety. I tend to pick up books from local authors or titles that remind me of my journey.

Books Actually

While in Singapore, my friend Denise pointed me to Books Actually, now my favorite independent bookstore in the WORLD. Although I missed the resident felines (insert emphatic wail), I spent a few hours in this small shop marveling over the titles. Denise shared that Asian publishers place a premium on a book’s presentation and design–even for the most literary of titles. As I thumbed through photography books on loneliness and poetry anthologies, I stumbled on a host of titles from the bookstore’s resident imprint, Math Paper Press.

Believe me when I say the poems are GOOD.

Whenever I’m in-between projects or in need of inspiration, I turn to music and good poetry–both of which place weight on the economy of words. Words are workhorses in both disciplines, and I’ll often get story ideas, titles or images from a single line of poetry. My purchases did not disappoint. I purchased Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light (my favorite, by far), Occupational Hazards, We Were Always Eating Expired Things (the title, alone. I MEAN), and Objects of Affection.

You should know I considered buying this book. I’ll likely pull the trigger now that I don’t have to worry about baggage weight.

While in Singapore, I watched a lot of NatGeo Asia, and I fell in love with this quirky couple. When they weren’t bickering, they were making sumptuous food and I’ve since ordered their cookbook. I also secured my friend Denise’s extraordinary cookbook cum food narratives, Kitchen Stories, and scored the latest Rachel Khoo. Know that I’ll be making great food from these books in the coming weeks!

Now excuse me while I pass out in front of my computer.

“obstacles are smaller when you dream bigger”

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Sometimes these questions arise most urgently only because you are the one instigating the move. If some employer or relative or force of nature compelled you to move, then you’d just do it and get it done. Sometimes it helps to adapt as if one has no choice other than to adapt. It’s a way of snipping ties and burning bridges quickly, without dragging that big bag of Looking Back behind you. That said, I remember the time it was finally real that I was moving out of Michigan, and I felt like I was seeing my hometown for the first time. It felt like preemptive nostalgia. I think this is also the nature of sensitive creative types. We just feel everything too damn much. So keep writing about it so you can keep perspective. Obstacles are smaller when you dream bigger.my always wise, always thoughtful friend, David, in response to me writing about my fear of leaving.

I held off signing my lease for days because committing myself to a new home for the next fifteen months became all too real. I got surgical with the contract, posed endless questions, and this morning I woke to the last of my seemingly endless inquiries met with cheerful, patient responses, and I signed a 42-page electronic document that would put me on a plane to Los Angeles in less than a month.

This is the part in the story when I become terrified. When I feel like the call is coming from inside the house (to quote my friend Amber). When it seems as if I’m the star of my own horror movie. This is the moment in the story where fear registers high, and even though I’m 8,615 miles from Los Angeles and 10,125 miles from New York, I want to crawl under my covers and scream into pillows.

However, I refrain, fearful that my fancy Balinese hotel would charge extra for the outcry.

The year before I left for college, I took a cross-country trip to meet a pen-pal, Leilani. We exchanged letters where we wrote at length about our affection for hip hop, and how we felt as if we were tourists in our own skin. She was Hawaiian, forever perceived as a chola; I attended a predominately all-white high school where I was an outcast, considered an other because of the disconnect between my unruly, kinky hair and my pale skin. I was white but not really, and in a high school where my classmates thought black people were ball players, rappers or criminals, I was often met with confusion, fear and disgust. Leilani and I issued countdowns for our respective escapes (she was 19 and finally had enough money saved to move out, while I was college-bound) and we decided to spend a week together celebrating in Los Angeles.

Boarding a plane at 17–at a time when I considered Long Island another continent in comparison to Brooklyn, where I’d grown up–was inconceivable. I didn’t even know how to buy a plane ticket and I refused to hand over my life to a giant flying machine suspended in midair. Flying was out of the question–who had all this money for a ticket that was the equivalent of riding the Cyclone, but elevated thousands of feet from the ground?–so I took a series of trains into the city to purchase a Greyhound ticket.

The trip took three days. Until then I’d never left the city perimeter, so I was in awe of the accents I’d only seen played out on television. Mouths made the strangest sounds. People said pop instead of soda, and regarded New York as a place where people got maimed and murdered. A man boarded the bus in Wisconsin smelling of sweat and coconut oil, and regaled me with his tales of being a male escort. I changed seats. In Montana, a woman boarded and cried for two hours, occasionally banging her head softly against the window–but not too loud as I suspected she’d get kicked off the bus for bringing crazy. I clutched my bookbag to my chest. The rest stops stenched of bleach blended with urine and air conditioning, and I’d enter diners, bleary-eyed and exhausted, and feast on cinnamon buns or charred, buttered toast–whatever my meager pocket money afforded me. By the time I arrived in Los Angeles, all I wanted was a shower in silence.

Back then the only word I could use to describe my initial reaction to Los Angeles was sprawling. The roads were winding and seemingly endless. Numbered streets didn’t exist–there was no rhyme or reason for intersections and thoroughfares. Where were all the people? Why were the streets wiped clean of them? Had my post-apocalyptic fears come to pass? People don’t walk, they drive, Leilani offered in response. In Los Angeles, we were forever in a car, always on a freeway. In New York we wouldn’t think twice about walking miles to a movie theater or a pool, however, in California you turned on the engine to move a few feet.

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Yesterday I’m reminded of this when my guide takes me to the temple at Batukaru. Built on the slope of Mount Batukaru to ward off evil spirits, the climb up is windy, arduous, and my guide tells me that during sacred holidays cars are verboten. Everyone must make the journey up by foot! His voice registers a quiet kind of horror. I regard our differing perspectives: how he shivers in the 70 degree chill and considers a trek uphill as a form of torture while I’m willing to take the mountain air and hill like sacrament. Several times during our walk along the lush terraces of The Jatiluwih Rice Fields, my attentive guide inquires whether I’d like to pause, if it’s all too much. I want to say it’s not too much, it’s never enough, but he wouldn’t understand because what I can and cannot endure at this moment has little to do with rice paddies. Instead I tell him that I’m fine, everything’s okay. Let’s keep moving.

This is my life, I think. Forever fine. Forever moving.

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I watch monkeys and how swiftly they move. How the mother carries her young as she flees into the trees, deep into the green. I watch fathers sift through hair and skin to ferret out burrowed ticks and bugs. Everyone is in the business of care and protection. And then I see a lone monkey (first image, above). He’s small, agile and resistant of the slightest gesture of affection. When other monkeys approach (and you can tell it’s with trepidation), this one scurries away, climbs up a tree. Watching from above. When he’s assured that danger in the form of attention no longer exists, he climbs down and watches the other monkeys playing, as if a self-made partition exists between them. My local guide dismisses this monkey, calls him antisocial, and I disagree.

I think he’s scared. I think he has a great deal to protect. Why else would he build a fortress around his heart?

My friend David serves as my occasional moral compass. Years ago, he called me out for expressing anger over the ingratitude of others I’ve mentored. With calm and clarity he told me that my intentions weren’t whole and honest because I’d delivered kindness with the expectation of something in return. Instead, we should give kindness simply to give it without any desire for reciprocation. Karma will care for us in the end, he said, and I fervently believe this. While we haven’t seen one another in years, whenever he writes me I pause, read and reflect. I treat his words with care because they come from a place of complete selflessness. Somehow he always manages to inspire clarity and calm whenever I’m flailing. I deeply admire him this–his propensity for reflection and honesty. A few days ago I posted a flippant comment (half-joking, half-serious because this is how I manage discomfort–I swathe it in forced gaiety) about being terrified of leaving. I had all the questions. I’m signing a lease for an expensive apartment–will I be able to pay for it for 15 months? I’m thousands of miles away from my closest friends–will I sustain those relationships while cultivating new ones, even as an introvert? Will I get over my fear of driving and get in a car? Will I become one of those people who complain about walking a mile? (oh dear god, I hope not) Will I finally be in a place where I can fall deliriously in love? Will my cat survive the plane ride? (yes, of course, of course, but I’m panicking nonetheless. I imagine Cesar Millan wouldn’t be pleased) How will I pay for the insane $3K+ it costs to move my stuff from one home to another (do you believe it’s this expensive!)? And on it goes.

Hours later, I scan Facebook and pause when I see David’s comment:

Sometimes these questions arise most urgently only because you are the one instigating the move. If some employer or relative or force of nature compelled you to move, then you’d just do it and get it done. Sometimes it helps to adapt as if one has no choice other than to adapt. It’s a way of snipping ties and burning bridges quickly, without dragging that big bag of Looking Back behind you.

Somehow this puts me to thinking of my relationship to alcohol. There was a time when my significant relationship was with a bottle of red wine because it was my one constant, the one thing that would never leave. I needed this permanence and the way alcohol blurred the edges of things. I spent most of my adult life numb until I woke up one day, fed up, aching to actually FEEL something. Quitting the drink felt like bandaids ripping off. The pain was that real and acute but I dealt with it. With the passing of each day, I rationed, it had to get easier. The once-throbbing pain would dull and I would only suffer the occasional pang. As it turns out, I was right, and looking back on my life I’ve so much regret that I spent it anaesthetized. I’d much rather have endured the hurt–all of it–because it’s temporary and the light always rises up to meet you once you’ve crossed over to the other side of sorrow.

So I imagine moving from my home, all that is familiar, is much like this. A burn, a sting that will invariably heal.

Right now I have $0 in my bank account because I’ve paid off much of my debt and I’ve checks to deposit (thank god). Right now I’ve booked a one-way ticket, have given notice to my current landlord, and will spend tomorrow comparing rates from various moving companies while perched in front of The Indian Ocean. I will push through this and feel the bandaids ripping off, one by one. I will feel it. I will write about it. I will get through it. I have to believe there’s something just right beyond my reach, on the other side.

We just feel everything too damn much. So keep writing about it so you can keep perspective.

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“you have the good skin, the white skin”

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I believe, if you wear the Balinese clothes, you will be very beautiful. Because you have the good skin, the white skin, my guide says, pointing to the masses of women in the street preparing offerings for Galungan, the most sacred of Balinese Hindu holidays. The women wear folds of silk and satin in vermillion, sanguine red and yellow while they weave together blooms and wave incense. Some wear blue the color of certain skies as they prepare jaja, a Balinese fried rice cake. I’m quiet for a moment because I realize the deception my skin bears, and the privilege it affords me. I tell him the women are beautiful just as they are, and I’d hope that I would be the same not because my skin is the color of parchment, but because my heart is one where the good parts of me (dharma) smother the darker parts (adharma).

My guide, whose name translates to swastika in the Sanskrit, apologizes often. He offers regret over the enormous step I have to take when coming out of the car or if there’s traffic in the one road that snakes through much of Ubud. At one point I tell him that he’s nothing to be sorry for, he’s done nothing wrong, and he looks both startled and relieved. We spend most of our day winding around the Northeast part of Bali, visiting Mount Batur and feasting on sweet oranges from the groves that crowd the mountain while men sell adorable furry dogs locked in cages and chidren hock local fruit. We visit the Gunung Lebah Temple where I watch scores of tourists cleanse themselves in the purification waterfalls while the Balinese in traditional garb smoke cigarettes and attach themselves to their phones, texting, game-playing, Facebooking. I hike the grass covered Tegalalang Rice Terrace steps and weave in and out of dozens of shops known for intricate wood carvings, stained glass and iridescent shell art.

Often, my guide asks me questions about my work, life and travel. He can’t fathom a life like mine where a woman manages everything on her own. Often he calls me strong, and his words are tinged with a kind of respect that borders on envy, and I tell him it’s less about bravery than about choice. I’ve no choice to support myself. I choose to travel alone. And if given the choice, I would have a partner but we would be equals because I would never, ever, be with a man simply for means, simply to be taken care of.

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I think about how my guide and others must see me–a prosperous white American woman on her own. No husband to command her time and attention. Enough means to demand it on her own. I am all of the things but none of things, and it’s midday and I’m tired.

Sometimes I try not to think of class division even though I know it exists. We sit in the back of cars when we pay someone else to drive them. We are polite, if not downright deferential, when we pay others to take our food away after we’ve eaten it. In no way would I ever be foolish enough to believe that my privilege affords me a better sense of self simply because I’m in the position of sitting in the back seat. I am of no better character because of it, despite of it, although I’m certain there are many who believe they are better than simply because of the weight of their wallet.

Often I consider the burden of it. The cruelty, or adharma, money can cause.

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I had an odd day, the kind of day I wouldn’t have had four years ago (I wouldn’t have been present or healthy enough to see the subtle signs), but over the course of the day my guide’s despair become palpable. He revealed that his wife is away on a contract hotel job in Turkey for two years while he raises their five-year-old son. He repeats, this is her last contract, and I vacillate between wondering if this is a good thing (she comes home) or a bad thing (financial uncertainty). When he plays me the song he played the last day he spent with her before she left for an inn named after Snow White, I realize that her return is auspicious and desired. I feel this ache, his longing.

Although he lives with his mother, whom he loves, he’s lonely and doesn’t much like his job (we compared stories about working for sociopathic, dishonest people), and sometimes feels he doesn’t like his life. Even now, as I type this, as I try to decipher his halting English, I wonder if he told me that he contemplated taking his life. I acutely know the comfort in confiding to strangers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did mean this, but it pains me nonetheless. I remember his nervous laughter when he tells me that his life is so hard. I know that laughter because I’ve used it when saying things too painful to say in the company of others (I’m fine, everything’s fine–my constant, cold refrain). Part of me always wants to correct, to save, but over time I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t want to be taken care of, they just want someone’s kindness. They only wish to be heard.

So I did just that. I listened without waiting for my turn to speak. And I tried to be kind as I know how.

I invited my guide to have lunch with me at a fancy restaurant, and he refused for some time. He’s never been in a restaurant where he takes his tourists, much less enjoyed a meal served by the people with whom he would share a lunch (don’t worry, there’s free food for me in the back). I felt my privilege so deeply it almost made me feel ashamed of it. Of how he felt odd sharing a meal with me until I made him realize that we’re people who like watching animal videos on the Internet (we referenced a particular camel video we saw and we collapsed into ugly guffaws). We’re two people who love food.

I talked a lot about my father, how much I’ll miss him when I move to California. My guide shows me photographs of his sweet son (very fat, but very, very happy). We speak of karma and how we both try to be good people even if we don’t always do the right thing.

On the drive back I grew sleepy as he played songs off his phone–rock songs that are riffs off American music (Skynyrd, Zeppelin) and songs about leaving. We pass some words on leaving, on time, and how we fear both of these things yet have to consistently face them.

I would be silly or arrogant to think I made any impact. And it’s not about the meal I can afford. It felt more like I was able to listen and give someone else the compassion and kindness they needed–to not make this day about me. I think sharing a meal, albeit briefly, is an intimacy, a deep kindness, toward myself and for this great man who’s suffering perhaps more than I know.

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note to self: always listen to maomao

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Maomao tells me that she’s glad her husband’s dead because she’s had thirteen years of freedom. You know, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die, but it’s as if the gods heard me. I’m 69 now. Can you imagine coming home to a man? It’s a second job. I would have to eat with him, pay attention to only him. My whole life would be him. Pointing to her license (all tour guides have to wear their badge prominently), I wonder aloud about the fact that she knows English and Italian. Why Italian? The dead husband, she says. I nod. The dead husband. We continue our half-day food tour around the Chinese wet market in the Chinatown Complex, weaving our way through hawker stores as she explains the difference between Haiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. Wrinkling her nose she says, Cantonese, all fried, very spicy, too much chili. Very yang. Gesturing to the cool blues of the Haiwanese placard she says, Steamed, boiled, healthy. Yin.

I offer Maomao back the pastry she purchased for me at the start of our tour. I tell her I have to chill with the gluten, that I spent a year with a nutritionist and doctor trying to repair my insides, and while I can occasionally indulge in wheat-based products, I got to take it easy. After an Odyssean of polite refusals, she accepts the croissant-like dough. Tearing into the flaky, hot sweet, she remarks that she’s no self control. I lost 30kg last year because I stopped eating and started walking. I tell her that’s a little extreme–a life sustained on salads and fruit. Maomao shrugs, pulls a bottle of water out of her bag, taps it proudly and says, It’s filtered. Then she proceeds to share her recipe for tortellini and meat sauce, a dish she’s making for her family this evening. Normally, they would never have pasta at night because there’s no time to expend the energy, but she’s mindful of a food’s expiration and tells me that she finds it strange that Americans store food for so long. How we allow time to steal all the nutritional value from what we eat. She only purchased the fresh pasta over the weekend and she’s concerned that time for her tortellini is running out.

Some might think this odd but I get it. I too am forever thinking about a ticking clock; I understand what it’s like to fear the one thing for which one has no control: time.

It occurs to me now, as I write this, that my tour guide’s name translates to cat in the English. The fact that the other person who was supposed to accompany us on the guided food tour of Chinatown dropped out at the last moment. Clearly Maomao and I were meant to meet.

One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.

One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.

We’ve only know one another for a few hours but I love Maomao’s candor, how she calls me a “new-style” woman because I’m unmarried, childless, and traveling on my own. At first she regards me with caution, curiosity. You’re very brave. And quiet. I laugh and say, I’ve only just met you. We start our tour and I do that thing I do when I’m around much older women–I become deferential, calm. My curiosity takes the form of quiet study while she’s inquisitive. Maomao has all the questions. How old are you? What do you do for work? If you are not owned by a company why do you pay taxes? Are you lonely when you travel on your own?

I think of a line Robert DeNiro said in Heat: I’m alone; I’m not lonely.

Over dessert at Tong Heng, where she presents me with a cool, syrupy-sweet bowl of cheng tng, Maomao tells me that shse has six children whom she loves but she says, emphatically and often during the tour, how much she hates frogs, pork, and turtles. You’re so lucky to live in New York, she marvels over the cakes, cookies, and pastries she devoured in the city while I pause over her non-sequitur. Maomao says she envies the fact that I have choices.

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Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I've never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel--you name it, it's been dehydrated).

Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I’ve never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel–you name it, it’s been dehydrated).


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We talk a lot about alternative medicine. Maomao confides that when her son was six and he had asthma, she stepped a dried gekko in hot water, and he hasn’t had a problem with asthmas since. Shaking her head she says in a small voice that she could never tell her son this because he’d never forgive her. He’s a vegetarian. We talk about using lemongrass as a natural mosquito repellent and Maomao points to all of my blistering bites and tells me that toxins are desperate to leave my system. She tells me to drink frog or turtle broth (not the meat! never the meat!) as those are natural detoxifiers. We pass by a spa where we see a photograph of a woman’s feet seemingly steeped in sewage. The photograph suggests that bathing our feet in this way will expel all of the toxins from our body. I shake my head and laugh at the clever marketing and Maomao agrees. While she believes in the power of old medicine and natural herbs and the healing power of animals and plants–technology she doesn’t buy.

We agree that the marketing is clever and the people who buy into this are desperate, possibly stupid. I become fond of Maomao.

After, she takes me to a famous shop for mooncakes, Chop Tai Chong Kok, and by habit I purchase a bag of buttery savory cookies knowing that I can’t eat them so I instead attempt to pawn them off on Maomao and she reminds me of her willpower. Give her an hour and they’ll only be crumbs left in her bag. I procure bags of dried herbs from Anthony the Spice Maker after getting a whiff of his famous curry blend and Maomao’s assurance that if I spread the powder on a piece of chicken, your family will lick their fingers.

Maomao reminds me that she loathes frogs, pork and turtles and I confess my hatred of fish and the mushroom. There is a moment when Maomao looks at me as if I were insane. I’m not going to regale you with the details, but let’s just say we had a long discussion in a dining hall where Maomao tried to make me a mushroom convert and I adamantly refused.

Before we part ways, before I take another terrific lunch at The Noodle Man (the fried dumpings and tofu are REAL, people. REAL), Maomao embraces me. She tells me that it’s so hard to be a woman, we’ve so much to manage and bear that I should focus on making time.

Make the time for your life, she says. Before you are old and there is no more time.

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women don’t break

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Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers. And all of this, dependent, closely woven, all of it is deceiving. There are really two kinds of life. There is, as Viri says, the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see. ― James Salter, Light Years

There’s a woman I recognize in Chinatown. She’s seated a few tables in front of me on the thoroughfare of Smith Street and I wonder if the day has gotten the better of me, if the heat has ushered in a mirage of a face from my past–a face at first slightly familiar (it’s been a while), and then it reveals itself in degrees. Then the full of her, our history coming into focus. She fills the frame and I lift my camera and pause; I want to take her picture. We look at each other and look away, doing that thing we’ve all instinctively learned to do–we pretend we don’t exist, that the moment of awkward familiarity rewound and erased itself, and I’m left facing her, refusing to move because this is the only place in the restaurant in which I’m seated where I can get good light.

I know you. We were friends for years until someone I loved excised me from her life and you followed suit. My calls were unreturned, emails unanswered. It was as if you’d vanished although I’d see photographs in you in Sunset Park. You in Berlin. A woman cloaked in shadow followed by a poem from an obscure Chinese poet–I remember you liked your photographs marred, imperfect and your verse vague and neat.

I know you.

Part of me now wishes I would’ve done what I wanted to do: get up from my table and walk over to yours and say hello. It would’ve been a polite hello, a salutation that would’ve been mature, although for a moment I imagine tensions would reverberate. I didn’t want to be that woman who stared at you in the middle of Chinatown, in the middle of Singapore (what are the odds, really?!?!) and pretend I didn’t know you. But that’s exactly what I did, what we did, and I remember asking for my dumplings to go because inhabiting this shared space was unbearable.

The exertions have taken their toll. We feel the surface trembling. Or are we underwater, knocking at the waves overhead, asking for trespass to breathe?

It’s dawn now and I feel the burn in the mouth from my impatience, for feasting on xiao long bao, soup dumplings with a lightly flavored pork broth, from Jing Hua Xiao Chi and pan-fried potstickers at Lan Zhou La Mian. But at the same time I feel the coldness of you. How you glanced at me while talking to your friends who seemed oblivious to our transaction. And I think: this is who you are? Still?

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It’s strange to see a place before it unfurls and then be in the middle of its frenzy. I’ve been waking early (if the jetlag won’t be the end of me, these mosquito bites surely will be), and I spent the better part of yesterday morning exploring Singapore by foot. I made my way to Chinatown, which is a direct, 30 minute walk from my hotel, to see tarp-covered stalls, plates piled high and tourists assembling for bad coffee. I took a second breakfast at Tak Po HK, ordering scores of tiny plates ranging in price from $1-$4, and inadvertantly ingesting seafood. I loathe seafood nearly as much as The Vile and Wretched Mushroom, however, the char siew pies were flaky and fresh, and the yam tart tender and spicy. Later, I had durian out of plastic bag, and remembered the delicious fruit and its unpalatable stench.

I began my day with a Chinatown markedly different from how I left it come evening. Funny how time sorts things.

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Dim sum

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In Little India I was transported back to the markets of Delhi and Jaipur and feeling outnumbered. Always wondering: where are the women? Why are the streets crowded with hulking, chain-smoking men? While my camera captured the few women weaving through the food stalls as they bargained for herbs and purchased jasmine wreaths, but the feeling of being surrounded by men was palpable. Men passing a smoke over a meal in the open eating area. Men forming a line for Western Union that snaked around the block. Men sitting on crates in front of the plentiful jewelry shops that lined the streets. Men saying pardon as they bumped into me. Men politely starring. While I’m speaking not in the pejorative, I should say that I felt my gender. I felt very much a woman amongst men.

I remember feeling faint from only having eaten a bag of almonds for lunch because I wanted to prepare myself for the dumpling binge that would ensue. This was an hour before Chinatown, before a saw you, and I wondered how my day would have played out if I spent another night shocked to get a $12 bill for a small bottle of Perrier (are you kidding me?) at my hotel. But in that moment I was exhausted from walking 12 miles in heat that felt in excess of 100 degrees, and all I wanted were the dumplings.

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You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / They called me the hyacinth girl. / —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

I want to tell you about your face. How hollow it is. How it assumes the shape of laughter but you are neither laughing or a contortionist. You are miming life. I want to tell you about your eyes. How cold they are in this heat–the heat that smokes the insides of rubber bins and cut fish. I want to tell you about the chill I felt when you looked into my eyes, look through them, as if you were desperate to grasp all that lie behind me. In that moment I saw you vacant, a robber-baron (barren) of fertile land.

There was an orchid in The National Orchid Garden that was practically translucent. After photographing it, I had to do a double-take because the flower was luminescent, it glowed cool under the midday sun.

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Do you know in Hinduism there are 33 million gods. Straight face. Google it (I did). There is a god for everything, my guide says outside of Thian Hock Keng, Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple. It’s strange, you know, being in a kind of Utopia. Over five million people (60% are indigenous) live in a city where there crime scarcely exists (I’ve yet to see a police officer), a place, where, after three years you are guaranteed affordable and princely government housing. Where the wait time in a government hospital is 45 minutes and you are guaranteed healthcare. Where Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, and 95 other faiths cohabit peacefully. Where a mosque is constructed every 3K out of respect for Muslims who need to pray five times a day. Where people only need to worry about providing food for their family because shelter is a non-issue. Where a 4% supercedes the American 1% (36 billionaires and 174K millionaires reside in Singapore). Where everyone is kind and hospitable even if navigating the streets resembles a game of Tetris.

It occurs to me that I’m a tourist in a city that is unusually pristine and oddly near-perfect. And this puts me to thinking about faith and the impossibility of perfection (of which I learned acutely in Spain while admiring the imperfect perfection of Muslim architecture). A trembling always exist, even below a seemingly calm and idyllic surface, and if someone would’ve walked by me in that restaurant in Chinatown, they would’ve thought, Now there’s a woman enjoying her dumplings. There’s a woman smiling. There’s a woman photographing her dumplings. There’s a woman about to take a picture. There’s a woman staring (reverberation). There’s a woman in thought. There’s another woman laughing, all tra la la less. There’s the first woman’s face, falling.

The shift might very well be imperceptible to you had you walked by because what it had occurred took place in a span of five or ten minutes. Yet it marred a seemingly perfect day, albeit for a little while. I couldn’t get her, and my inability (or fear) to walk over to her table, out of my mind until this morning when I realized that feeling that discomfort, that ache and pain for someone I once loved, is me breaking in all the right places.

She didn’t break; she was impenetrable. I broke; I was a river.

Women don’t break. Women break.

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points of exit + entry, a meditation on leaving while in singapore

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I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Jaffa tells me his name means orange–very easy to remember. His face is tawny and weathered with age, yet he has an verve that dwarves mine. He’s talkative, Jaffa, because of years spent being a limousine driver, where he made his living by making his home a story he’d tell to tourists of means and interest. Now he’s a taxi driver, a transition of which he’s slowly and painfully, become accustomed. His is a vocation that requires speed, dexterity, and silence. People want only to move between points on a map, and Jaffa affectionately pats his GPS, his girlfriend, who speaks to him when no one else will.

Later I’ll read that Jaffa’s name has roots in Israel and Palestine, and is more recently known as a seedless fruit with tough skin, perfect for export. Leaving. But I don’t know this yet and I spend my first hour in Singapore trying to stay awake from two days of travel, while trying to fill his quiet spaces with the only gift I know of: words.

Jaffa comes from a small village outside of Singapore, and there was a time when he could’ve afforded a home for $15,000. Now he points to the condominiums clouding the sky and whistles. One, two, three million. He tells me that it’s a different time. I ask him a few perfunctory questions, but what he really wants to talk about a fine he’s been issued. Last week he stopped in an intersection to pick up an elderly woman. If you’ve ever been to Singapore you’ll know that taxis don’t halt in the middle of city streets, rather people have to queue up in designated stands. Yet Jaffa breaks this law because he tells me that the woman was frail and aren’t you supposed to help someone when they’re in need? Tell me, he says, wasn’t stopping the right thing to do?

Of course it was. However, the law disagrees. A CCTV camera caught Jaffa and he’s been fined $150 (a princely sum for him) and three points on his licence (24 points revokes a license). His only recourse is to appeal to his minister (think of a minister as a supervisor) who will plead Jaffa’s case on his behalf.

Sometimes I get frustrated, Jaffa confides. Sometimes I want to leave.

I know the feeling. Yes, but not really. But almost.

I wanted to start over completely, to begin again as new people with nothing of the past left over. I wanted to run away from who we had been seen to be, who we had been… It’s the first thing I think of when trouble comes — the geographic solution. Change your name, leave town, disappear, make yourself over. What hides behind that impulse is the conviction that the life you have lived, the person you are, is valueless, better off abandoned, that running away is easier than trying to change things, that change itself is not possible. ― Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature

There was a time when I thought the definition of love was a house once brightly lit and warm falling to blight. All the lights extinguished, the fire gone out, and you’re left with the cold, empty spaces you once so joyfully inhabited. There was a time when I used the words love and leave interchangeably. Because people always leave. Because lights invariably burn bright, flicker, and fade out. Never did I think that leaving bears its own light, that the passage from one place to another isn’t an end but a continuation. A cloud shifting. A movement of light. Never did I believe that every exit being an entrance somewhere else. And the places and people you once desired become memories you rewind and play like old movies.

I think about Jaffa’s name, its origin, and it means both exit and entry. This is how my trip begins–the realization that I’m oscillating between two states. I haven’t quite settled and my days have come to feel like a nervous reverberation. I’m here, but not really, and you know how it is.

And it only occurred to me, only today, that I’m in a place that’s been known as a crossroads.

I started my second day in Singapore with an extensive education of the Peranakan. In Malay, “Peranakan” means “child of” or “born of” and is used to refer to people of mixed ethnic origins. Peranakans in Singapore are Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Eurasian. This is a world of color, of travel, of being itinerant and finally laying down one’s roots.

We started our tour at The Spice Gardens at Fort Canning Park, home to hundreds of spices and plants–used for local cuisine as well as medicinal purposes (DYK mixing a tablespoon of cinnamon and tumeric in a glass of water is good for joint pain, or that lemongrass is a natural mosquito repellant?). The rain came down in sheets today so the plants were fragrant (the vanilla, thai basil, mint, lemongrass were especially heady) and we learned of the origins of Peranakan cooking.

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The sky cleared and we made our way to Kim Choo Kueh Chang, home to the Nonya rice dumplings packed with sweet meats and tender rice, sweet glutinous desserts (I never thought I’d be into sweets fashioned from rice, but I stand corrected because I feasted on palm sugar dusted with coconut and rainbow cakes made of rice and natural dyes). Aside from the tubs of homemade cookies and tins of cakes, Kim Choo Kueh is also home to rooms adorned in the Peranakan style so we not only got to view a traditional kitchen, but finery a bride would adorn–from the vibrant reds and hot fuschias to her bejeweled shoes.

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After, we spent an hour in the Peranakan Museum, where we encountered a fascinating display of Peranakan costume, embroidery, beadwork, jewelry, porcelin, furniture, and craftwork–providing insight and lore into a captivating culture. To be candid, I entered the museum with trepidation–either I’d be fascinated or bored to tears, but the museum was cultivated so simply, richly and beautifully and made for a great story. Upon entry, we were given a piece of paper, “Auspicious Symbols”, of which we’d insert in various handstamps as we made passage through the rooms. Many of the bowls were painted with insects to symbolize an abundance of food just as insects fill a garden in good weather. Butterflies festooned wedding beds–a symbol of fertility. We saw phoenixs everywhere, and our guide, Foo, told us that whenever a phoenix appears, good news will follow. I think about this as I admire blue and white porcelain bowls and Foo jokes that I cleave to things of the dead. While pink porcelain celebrates birthdays and color toasts abundance, the color blue depicts mourning, loss. You see it in the gowns women wear and how they have to replace their gold jewelry with silver. You see it in the bowls covering dark wood tables.

I spent the morning with a rich, itinerant people and their cycle of life.

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By midday it was hot (the weather here averages in the 90s and is mostly humid, but oddly a lot more temperate than New York), and I broke from my group to wander around Singapore on my own. While researching great places to chow in Singapore, I discovered Seth Lui’s blog and City Nomads Singapore, and so far both sites are on point.

While I’m no longer able to eat ALL OF THE PASTRIES (these are woeful, gluten-cautious times, people), I made it a point to stop by Artisan Boulangerie Co. (flaky almond croissants like whoa) and Freshly Baked by Le Bijoux (you need to buy all the butter cakes and I’m serious about this–I’m presently noshing on a lemon cake in my hotel room as I type this with greasy fingers and I have no regrets as Edith Piaf so sagely sang) on Killiney Road. I also stumbled upon Real Food, a 4,000sq foot space dedicated to organic, local fare. It’s a bookstore, a market, a restaurant, a coffee shop and it is GOOD.

Candidly, all of this greatness was a salve for the epic disappointment that was Din Thai Fung, a Michelin-starred Taiwanese dumpling chain. I’ve been to Taiwan and the dumplings at Din Thai Fung don’t even come close to the greatness I experienced on the streets of Taipei and Taichung. Don’t get me wrong, the wrapping was tender, the soup flavorful, but these dumplings were lightweight compared to their Taiwanese counterparts. This joint came highly recommended but friends whom I love and respect, so know that I was a tad disappointed. If anyone has recommendations for great dim sum (I’m hitting up Seth’s recommended spots and Chinatown tomorrow)

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I spent the rest of the day wandering Orchard Road and Victoria and Bugis Junction. For hours I was trying to find an equivalent for Singapore and the only city that comes close is Melbourne, possibly Barcelona. You have vast newness and wealth juxtaposed with the old. Thoroughfares and quays. I wandered around, watching people eat ice cream on white bread (!!!), saw numerous signs of cows in parks and learned that New York may be the only place where people naturally jaywalk.

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After nearly ten hours of exploring the city by foot (and losing an umbrella in the process), I came home and collapsed into bed. I think about home and leaving it. I think about the lease that’s taking forever to make its way to my inbox. I think about a home laid out to bear and not yet assembled and packed. I think about being in a city known for both entries and exists. I think about how it feels to occupy the in-betweens in a new way, in a different light.

Light moves. Clouds shift. View adjusts.

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Follow my exploits on Instagram, if you’re inclined. And yes, that’s me in the photo up top–me and my wiry greys.

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mind the signs

The Monkey Forest, Bali

It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself. –from David Brooks’s The Road to Character (via)

The first time I traveled to Bali, I was in a constant state of disquiet. Much of the holiday I don’t remember because I was consumed with everything that had come before. You see, my mentor forced me to go on vacation. He purchased the ticket, put me on a plane, and removed access to my email–all because he had become concerned for my health. Because when you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to regret having not taken that call, not sat in on that meeting. He sensed my unraveling and thought ten days out of the country will set me to rights. Unbeknownst to him, this trip was so much more than a relief from a job that had begun to slowly draw every last breath out of my mouth–it was the start of a love affair with Asia.

On the plane I watched a bad movie and fell in love with a beautiful song. The song was a kind of adult nursery rhyme, and I played it on repeat for the remainder of the trip. I stayed in a villa facing the Indian Ocean, a temporary home that was entirely too posh for someone who sought out hotels for their affordability and safety. It was off-season and I remember watching the rain come down in sheets–I’m alive, you understand, alive–and the whole of the beach blanketed in darkness because it was a holiday that required the extinguishing of all lights. It was an evening where everyone shut down. I didn’t realize the irony of all of this until right now–that I’d come from a place where anxiety was a constant state to rest in a place that revered an inner calm. A place considered rest noble.

It would take me two years from that time in Bali to recognize the quiet nobility in slowing down.

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Every year I make a point to travel to Asia. Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, India, UAE–these are just a few places I’ve been since 2011, and ever since last year’s Thai holiday, I’ve been aching to return. However, taxes got the better of me (hello, five-figure payment) and time got away from me, and all of a sudden it’s May and I move to California in September and where has all the time gone?

A few weeks ago, I flipped through the latest issue of Anthology and settled on a profile of an Italian designer who decided to make a home in Southeast Asia. I pored over the photos of Bali–the lush scenery, fauna, fragrant frangipani and flora the color of jewels–and I considered a repeat holiday. I shook my head, put the magazine away, because there was so much more of the world I want to see.

And then this weekend, when I decided to book a trip to Cape Town, discovered I’d be traveling during winter, realized I’ve become allergic to cold weather, and instead instantly, as if not thinking, booked a holiday to Singapore and Bali.

At first I upbraided myself. Repeat, repeat. And then I realized that this is a full-circle. This is the woman I am now returning to the woman I once was and being kind to her, telling her that the stress wasn’t worth it. It’s never worth it.

Because there is nobility in living a quiet, mindful life.

From Anthology Magazine

From Anthology Magazine

when you don’t know where it is you need to go

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Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life. –John Hodge, from Trainspotting

I don’t know where to go. There, I said it. I had the best laid plans–I’d spend three months in three states and decide where it is I’d make my home–and then life happened, I flew down to Nicaragua and all my plans fell asunder. I’m leaving in a few days and the only thing I know, in my heart, is that I need to leave New York within the next four months. I need to leave a place where people feel their handbags are a testament to their success and character, where instead of owning their possessions they are owned by them. I need to leave a place where people believe enlightenment can be found in the confines of a spin class. I need to leave a place where I’m crammed into a subway car and people are jostling; they live their lives traveling to jobs they hate, but the jobs pay for their finery, boutique fitness classes, and the $10 juices that serve as an acceptable form of starvation. I need to leave a place where the weather is a constant conversation piece. I need to leave a place that no longer feels like my home.

But I don’t know where to go.

Part of me entertains flights of fancy–I’d be some sort of digital nomad or travel the world for a year with only $20K to my name. But then I remember I own a cat and I have $1000 in student loan payments a month–real responsibilities–and I can’t just abandon rationality and real life because this isn’t The Secret; I don’t live my life in a petal pink delusion. In real life, I have monthly bills to pay regardless of where I go and I can’t just dump my cat in a friend’s lap–Felix is family and I love him that much.

But I want to go. Somewhere.

Ultimately, I know that I want to end up west but I can’t see myself there yet. Not in June. Possibly the end of the year. Until then I want to be somewhere else outside of the U.S. for 3-5 months even though I just signed up for pricey health insurance (there goes that pragmatic thinking again) and I have the logistics of pet passports and travel to consider. Part of me wants to explore Spanish speaking countries because I’ve an urge to be fluent and the question of quarantine is a non-issue.

I was supposed to come on this trip to figure out the details, draw an outline, but I’m back to where I started. Drawing circles in the sand and walking around what I’ve traced. Balancing memory, need, desire and reality. I was supposed to walk a straight line, write myself from here to there, and even though I always know that what you intend never is what you want it to be, I’m surprised (or maybe not), yet again, that I’m at the middle of my life and I haven’t figured anything out. I only know what I don’t want.

I don’t want leisure wear, matching luggage and a starter home. I don’t want a life treadmill. I don’t want 7-10pm and scrolling through my email during the four weeks of vacation I fought to have and everyone makes me feel guilty for taking. I don’t want a recruiter selling me on a company that lacks imagination and integrity, but don’t worry because the money is great. I don’t want unidentifiable food delivered to me. I don’t want to write blog posts like these and have people try to sew up my life for me–what I need right now is not a bandaid or an anesthetic, so please don’t. I don’t want to order a taxi with my phone and not care that the men who run the company hate women. But convenience, Felicia. Convenience. I don’t want to spend an entire day on the internet talking about a fucking dress. I don’t want to debate SoulCycle v. Flywheel. I don’t want to regard my book, this magical thing I’ve created, with bitterness because publishing is an industry crawling with sheep. I don’t want this: Why bother talking about ISIS because it’s not like my one voice can make a difference. So instead, I talk about two llamas and debate the color of a dress. I don’t want to wake up every morning and think: I don’t want this.

I don’t want what I can bear.

I stand in the middle of a forest, between two boulders and think, I want this. I close my eyes and fall asleep in the middle of a river, surrounded by 365 islands, and think, I want this. I look at my blog, this wonderful space I’ve created for myself, and wonder about a collection of essays I could write. I look at my bank account, about to be depleted come April, and wonder, how can I do any of this?

To be continued…

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sky burial: a town, a life, a heart drowning in ashes

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On the way to the Masaya Volcano, Ricardo tells me a story about an eruption not too long along that covered a small town in ashes. Some foretold a tale of a death that rained, a harbinger of doom, while others clucked their tongues and spoke of the inconvenience, the cost of cleaning up a town covered in grey. Some look at a place drowning in ashes and think of endings, while others, like me, are hopeful–we are in constant want of rebirth, of beginnings.

Nicaragua has 17 active volcanos that dot along the Pacific Coast. Some are massive leaving miles of scorched earth in its wake, while others are dormant, home to vegetation and minor life. Some are lakes that can erupt from below the surface while others spout rocks the size of boulders or small homes. Regardless, the Spanish call them bocadillos del infierno (mouths from hell), and Ricardo tells me about preachers who’ve affixed crucifixes near the crevices and Argentians who sacrificed children and women in hopes that the innocents will sate the evil within. But really they are natural wonders, massive in size and depth with lava the color of wine bearing temperatures upwards of 2200F. I’ve never seen a volcano before and as I stood next the crater, inhaling a cloud of fumes, I pointed above and asked if we’d climb to the volcano, to which Ricardo replied, laughing, you’re standing next to it!

The sky was clear, a wash of cotton white and deep blue, and Ricardo tells me that we are lucky as he hasn’t been able to see so far across and down since December. He tells me that Masaya is actually a volcano within a volcano, and do you see the parakeets dotting in and out of the crevices along the rocks? They lay their eggs there. They live there amidst the smoke and the noxious fumes. I watch the birds get lost in the smoke to then fly up into the sky. I can barely manage a few minutes next to the volcano as the fumes make me nauseous, dizzy, but the birds have adapted, thrived in what some would deem a ruin.

After, we visit another inactive volcano that’s home to greenery, a hole in an earth that in a few thousand years will be a river, like Apoyo, Ricardo tells me, filled with salt, minerals–a water so blue it’s nearly purple. Too bad, I say, we won’t be here to see it. In the car, in the dry heat, Ricardo tells me that he never tires of visiting the volcanos because it reminds him that we are insignificant, small. I nod because this is precisely the journey which I’ve embarked–a trip from the cynical and tired to the awake and wonder. In Spanish I tell him that I want to go back to the wonder and he nods and I think we understands me.

We spend much of the day talking. We talk about politics. He tells me about the government corruption, a president who changed the constitution and sold out his people to the Chinese who will build a canal that will be the country’s ecological ruin. The Chinese will bring their own workers and act as robber barons, scorching earth and sea for profit. All for money, Ricardo tells me. His face flushes and I can tell he’s angry. He points to signs all over Masaya, government propaganda. They throw parties for the young, give them t-shirts and free drinks–but it’s all brainwashing, Ricardo shakes his head. All to divert attention away from what greed continues to do to this country. Nicaraguans survive on tourism, many make $2000 a year while government officials make upwards of $70,000 at the expense of the people. I pluck a nerve when I try to compare this to the corruption in the United States. Ricardo tells me that this is nothing like the U.S. There is no constitution, the opposition works for the party in power, and the people only wait for the president’s death in hopes of change.

In this way, I agree and acknowledge my ignorance and privilege.

Over lunch, I tell him about an America that is deeply divided. I talk about states that might as well be another country and politicians who care more about self-preservation than basic human decency. And for what? To buy more things, build bigger houses, hold fistfulls of bills as if the act of acquisition is a mark of great character, human frailty? Give me honesty, vulnerability, compassion over the appearance of strength and unity any day of the week. I talk about an America that is, in some ways, a terrorist. How we kill black men on the streets and send our young into unnecessary wars. We have ashes covering our country and we’ve blinded ourselves so that we don’t see it. We medicate ourselves on social media, finery, food, drugs, alcohol, sex, our ego, petty entertainment–all so that do not have to see the ashes covering our homes, finding their way down our throats and into our hearts. I tell Ricardo that I live in a country where many people are quick to label anyone a terrorist but recoil in horror when we turn the mirror on our own. I tell Ricardo that I used to love my country so wholly and completely like a child who lays at the feet of its mother to then grow old and realize that our parents are fallible, human, prone to cruelty and violence. I still love my country but I question it, constantly.

We talk about September 11, and how I stood on the corner of 23rd Street and saw a sky covered in smoke. People had taken on the shape of somnambulants and it felt like a horror film being played out on the most serene of days. I had not thought death had undone so many, writes Eliot. I tell Ricardo that my walk to my apartment on Mulberry Street was something out of a dream. Ashes covered the streets. Police officers asked about passport. Passport? What passport? Who carries their passport to work? How I traveled uptown to Spanish Harlem and smoked a little, drank a lot, fiddled with a Nokia phone that didn’t work (busy, busy), and wondered, What the fuck just happened down at World Trade? Who flies planes into buildings? Who does this? Manhattan was a wasteland, the stuff of great fiction because until then I couldn’t have conceived of the magnitude of such a horror or the fact that people exist in constant terror every day. I didn’t realize how many people in the world have hate in their hearts.

Do we live in a kind of walking mortuary? Are we nothing other than an abattoir of ashes? A mausoleum of our own greed and undoing? How is that we’ve done more destruction that large holes in the center of the earth? How is our movement more violent than tectonic plates shifting? How is it that we’ve lost the wonder?

Here’s me, trying to crawl my way back. Inch by inch.

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this is what happens when you listen to the sound of your own breath

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JC holds curled rinds of pork to my mouth and invites me to try, to taste, this is so good you will not believe. At first I recoil having remembered salty chicharrones from my childhood, and how I’d need to hose down my mouth with grape soda to extinguish the taste of fried pork. However, we’re in a market–a stopover because the crew has to pick up fresh tortillas, blood sausage and beef for the carne asadas–and I’m feeling frisky. I break off a small piece, just in case, just to be polite, and I’m shocked by how quickly I become addicted to the flavor. I purchase eight bags of rinds for myself and the crew and we make our way to Apoya. In halting Spanish I ask if anyone wants a bag because I’m copping. They laugh and a woman half my age hands me a warm tortilla and tells me that pork rinds always taste better wrapped in corn. I imagine infants swathed in baby blankets but I don’t say any of this out loud because it’s kind of weird and I forgot the Spanish for blanket.

It’s manta.

New people frighten me. I don’t do well in crowds and I tend to recede in group situations. If given the choice I’d always prefer smaller groups, conversations with one other person, and last night I ate dinner with ten new people and I can’t even begin to explain the level of anxiety I experienced. But I was hungry, starving, since American Airlines doesn’t comprehend gluten-free, and I pushed food around my plate for about an hour while drunk Americans prattled on about how this thing here is unlike the thing they know back home. Always sizing up. Always comparing. Always believing that the thing we know, that which is familiar, is always, inherently, better. After a time I left and spent the better part of the evening chatting with JC, the owner of Hacienda del Puerto de Cielo, and we talk about travel, food, solitude and he understood everything. He told me that the whole of the hacienda will be free of tourists the following day and would I like to accompany him and his staff for a day trip to Apoya? Aside from the water, which has taken on a hue of blueish purple from volcanic eruptions–the color of certain bruises–I could kayak, swim, read, eat and be alone if I wanted to. Or not. Whichever you prefer, he says. I acquiesce, humbled and honored that he would invite a guest into such a private space.

In Nicaragua you can live in a grand house for $8,000. Driver’s licenses (licencias para conducir) cost $100 and a considerable amount of time to obtain, and when you’re working full-time to support your family how is it possible to take off work to learn how to drive? Fresh food is inexpensive and plentiful and to say that people here don’t work hard would be an understatement. JC tells me that the law mandates that employees who work for 12 months must be paid for 14, and after three months of nonstop bookings he thought it smart to treat his team for an outing.

JC is an architect, specifically of yachts for the elite. There are only 50 people in the world who do what he does, and often he competes for lucrative contracts. His work takes him to China, where business is good but not great, and forget Russia because the money isn’t what it used to be. And thank god the Americans have recovered and resume the task of spending their money again. He balances this heady work (he interrupts me while I’m writing this post to tell me that he is traveling to Granada tonight for his favorite pizza covered in chili oil before he leaves on Friday for a three-week rush job that would normally take two months, and do I want to come for pizza? I tell him no, the temptation is too great. I’ve barely survived breakfast without their luscious pancakes) with managing this hacienda, which, quite honestly, is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever visited.

For a while, in front of lake painted azure, we talk about work. I tell him about a job that made me sick from the inside out, yet it taught me that there’s no nobility in putting a price on one’s integrity. There is no value in making money simply to show it off (please look at the finery I’m sharing on social media because it tacitly tells you that I’m somehow better off than you because of what I acquire rather than how much of my heart I’m willing to give). There is no meaning in squandering time for someone else’s dream when you can work for your own. Did you know there’s a new term going around? Brown-out? And apparently it’s so much worse than the bulbs in your body flickering and then firing out. I tell him about a man from whom I learned so much (the good and the horrific), and how American companies have devolved into the equivalent of a puppy mill. Let’s churn out these purebreds until they can no longer walk. Until they limp home from the latest show.

JC nods, solemnly, and talks about the importance of rest and rejuvenation. He nurses a beer and I try not to tackle the bag of pork rinds I’ve got hidden under a collection of Chekhov’s early stories. This is what today is about, he offers. Taking care of the people who take care of you. I say that I admire him, wish more people valued respite as much as he did, saw that it only increased productivity, creativity, and loyalty.

As I sit here typing, I listen to young men trade stories. Rested men, men who only a few hours ago sang along to Spanish songs on the radio and traded chips like baseball cards. Men who practice their English while I respond in halting Spanish.

On the ride home, I tell JC about a dish I learned how to make when I was in Granada, Spain. Fried eggplant smothered in molasses (or honey, if you have it), and he invites me into his kitchen to show the very incredible women, women who have made the kind of tostones that would bring you to your knees, how to make this dish. I slice eggplant (berenjena in the Spanish) while Taylor Dayne’s “Tell it to My Heart” blasts on the radio, and, in exchange, the women teach me the words for flour (harina) and onions (cebellas)–all the while showing me how to make salsa. One of the women, the younger of the two, holds up fresh cilantro for me to smell. We agree that this, everything, is beautiful.

On the way back to my casita I looked up and noticed stars blanketing the sky. I paused, turned round and round. I haven’t seen stars in a long time.

This is what happens when you breathe, when you listen to the sound of your own breath.

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one night in bangkok + the business of leaving

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I’m rotten at goodbyes. Years ago an old friend from the party days and I sat on a cold Miami beach, watching the sun settle into the waves that had turned black. I told her about a storm that promised to advance and she shook her head and said that the clouds were temporary, the darkness would inevitably pass. We took this trip–a weekend in a cheap motel and dinner in a fancier one–because the following week she would pack all her belongings and travel cross-country to California. While she loved New York, she ached for home–the cresting waves and fresh fish you could tear apart with your fingers. She missed being in a car, driving it, and while I tried to convince her that she was mad for leaving–who would volunteer to spend an hour in a car to inch forward half a mile?–she wouldn’t hear any of it. What I didn’t tell her was that I liked being in a car with her. You sleep while I drive. What I didn’t tell her was the thing I’d miss most about her was the drive between West Hollywood and Newport Beach. How the darkness fell and I allowed myself to settle, to sleep. But how could I explain that? How could I tell her that I allowed myself to be vulnerable with her? Always I’d hear my mother’s voice whispering in my hair, never be vulnerable, never cry, never hold a love so deep it threatens to complete.

I don’t think she knows it, how I loved her beyond the mansion parties and bathroom stall parties. Still. To this day. But that’s the thing about goodbyes–they never are what you want them to be.

In Bangkok, another friend and I sit poolside in a posh hotel and I tell her stories. We drink watermelon drinks and watch the lights paint the sky, and I tell her about the kind of woman I used to be. We laugh like children and I try to remain in that moment for as long as I possibly can. But there are always buts, interruptions, the things that lie ahead-the storm on the horizon–that threaten the space you now occupy. I keep telling myself to come back, to sit in this moment because it’s one of the good ones. It’s one I’ll remember–an image of two friends laughing, happy.

Truth be told, this trip wasn’t what I intended. The point was to rest, get focused, and come home prepared for another storm: the projects for which I’d have to pitch, the business of book publishing, the what’s next, what do I do, and all that, and I didn’t quite get there. Along the way I encountered a stress I hadn’t quite anticipated, another friend who decided to lay down her mask and reveal the darkness underneath, and everything within me seized. There were downpours. There were Skype calls and alterations to a journey en media res, and my other friend and I found ourselves back in Bangkok. We spent the night feasting and slipping back into our respective silences; we are women who crave solitude. During the day we visited coconut sugar and orchid gardens and floating markets outside of Bangkok, and burned our mouths eating coconut pancakes served from river boats and juicy mangos cut with the sharpest of knives. This was our final day and we would toast our return to New York and close our eyes to the storm that had departed as swiftly as it had advanced.

Now I sit in a hotel lobby caught in the-betweens. Anxious. Tense. I’m not quite where I was at the start of this journey, but I’m not really where I want to be. I fly back to so much uncertainty. Will I secure another project? Will my father get his surgery? Will I sell my novel? Will I figure out what it is that I’m meant to do? Will I? Will I?

I guess the only thing I know is this: I’m finally happy. And perhaps I should hold on to that? Hold it close to my chest like a suit of armor that could battle any storm that threatens to ruin.

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when your hotel is a bucket and dish pail of fail, you go to koh phi phi

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Let’s discuss my hotel in Phuket for a moment, shall we? As I type, there are three different groups of people staging photo shoots at the pool. I’m not talking about the random selfie by the infinity pool overlooking the cliffs, oh no, I’m talking about prop placement, hair arrangement, varying facial expressions and body contortions. Basically, it’s as if Angelina + Brad rolled up with legions of paparazzi.

Believe me when I say that I’m bearing witness to the Cirque de Soleil of selfies. People who relentlessly document every moment of their holiday, giving the appearance that they’re being present while their most profound relationship is the one they have with their camera lens.

But let’s set that aside and discuss how nothing works, how everyone scowls at us when we deign to ask for an apple (WHERE THE FUCK IS MY APPLE?), salad, insert food here, and how we spent a pile of money for a hotel that’s delivering us a pile of nothing. Now that my first-world rant has come to a close, I’ll share how we fled the wackness for Koh Phi Phi (translation: my new place of residence)

When it comes to Koh Phi Phi, a group of islands surrounded by the Andaman Sea, the beauty is in the elements: the azure surf, moss-covered rocks and cool white sand. We fed bananas to wild monkeys on Monkey Island, sipped coconut water out of coconuts, feasted on grilled corn on the beach and crept under caves in a boat and swam in the ocean. Amidst all of the noise of New York–the relentless pitching for project work, the minor flood in my apartment, the novel that everyone says is utterly remarkable, beautiful and astounding yet is too dark, too experimental–it’s sometimes hard to believe I’m here and I’m happy. It’s hard to believe I held a monkey in my arms as he buried his hand in my hair (my hair is a forest).

I close my eyes and try to hold on to this moment for as long as I possibly can. I try to settle in it, remain it, until I have to board a plane for home and deal with everything.

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