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.

lunch in Bali

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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what we talk about when we talk about food in southeast asia

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It feels good to be here, halfway around the world. It’s winter in Bangkok, and during the day our shirts cling to our backs and all we want to do is crawl into the cool dark and settle there. In the morning we took a private car and toured a steamy city. We covered our shoulders in temples, took off our shoes and quietly prayed. Marveling at a buddha worth forty million dollars and built in 24-carat gold, we stood on a balcony overlooking the city and thought about how far we had to travel to shake home off our feet. Twelve hours separates us from them and it was comforting to know that we celebrated our best moments, traded stories and laughed so hard it hurt when everyone was asleep.

Normally, I travel alone because I like it that way; I prefer the company of solitude that comes with being itinerant. I like being a nameless stranger, one of the many in a car, in a train, swimming deep underwater. Yet this trip, one I’ve taken with two dear friends, has been wonderful. In the early evening I drank fresh watermelon juices with my friend Amber and talked about an old friend from an old life, and I hadn’t thought of this friend in a while, and it felt good to talk about the person I used to be, to be on good terms with her, even if the space between that woman then and this woman now is an incalculable figure.

I watch a movie in my hotel room and Thom Yorke’s “Analyse” comes on, You traveled far/What have you found/That there’s no time/There’s no time/To analyse/To think things through/To make sense. I want to be here longer because when I come home there’s so much to deal with. So many bandaids in need of ripping off. But I try not to think about that. I try not to let my mind go where it wants to go. I try to hold on to this time for as long as I can.

I’m traveling with two friend who light up when it comes to beauty and I go mad for food, and it’s good to know that the two loves have been harmonious. They waited as I raced to a corner to grab a plastic bag of juicy mango dusted with cane sugar and pink salt and watched as I poured water all over my hands outside of the temple because the sweet clung to my fingers. They marveled as my Korean lunch took up nearly our entire table. We’ve had spicy curries, fluffy seafood pancakes, slippery glass noodles and buttery beef. My friend Amber eats all of my kimchi because I can’t tolerate the sourness of it. I watch a man crush pomegranate seeds into a bottle and I drink the juice as it is, tart, a little sweet, completely what I needed in the hot sun.

Tomorrow we leave for a long holiday in Phuket, Ko Phi Phi and who knows where, and I can’t wait to tear into papayas, pineapples and have all of the greenery.

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my food journey (weeks 8-9) chowing gluten + dairy free in spain (a lamentation)

Restaurante Campanario Granada
If you love (and I mean, LOVE) fresh bread, red wine, cured sausage, seafood and cheese, you will hole up in your AirBNB apartment in Spain and never leave. You will slice into your chorizo and lap up all the spice and grease happily with a chunk of warm bread. You will worship at the altar of the mollusk and you will eat cheese into the gloaming. Or until you pass out, whichever comes first.

However, if you don’t drink, can’t consume gluten or dairy for fear of a full-body hive blitzkrieg, and the idea of fondling a crustacean gives you vertigo, Spain can be challenging. While I was away I didn’t bother with a food diary because you people didn’t even want to know the amount of sausage and patatas bravas I managed to Dyson in one sitting. You don’t want to know that my meals were a rinse, lather, repeat, because everything, everything, contains gluten. That fried eggplant with drizzled honey? Flash-fried with flour. Ah, that’s why I broke out in hives! The salad that I thought would satiate arrives on a childlike plate, and the greens are actually nearly white because cruciferous greens are not as abundant in Spain. While it was easy to stockpile food in Barcelona (and La Boqueria provided ample offerings in terms of vegetables), Granada was a real challenge. I’m sure eating gluten + dairy free can be done, however, it requires research and preparation. You can’t just walk around, fancy-free, without analyzing the menu, without alerting your server that you have an allergy to gluten and dairy, and inquiring, este tiene gluten?

Because EVERYTHING CONTAINS GLUTEN.

The other day I was reading Twitter and a woman upbraided a group of women who inquired whether there was gluten in a dip. The woman tweeted about rolling her eyes, and perhaps a few months ago I would have done the same, however, now I know what it’s like (unfortunately so) to treat every meal like it’s a miniature inquisition because gluten isn’t just about BREAD, it’s a thickener, a binder; gluten delivers perfect texture and heft to a sauce, marinade or dip. Plus, it’s cheaper. And while wheat processing in the EU is markedly different than the Food, Inc. of the U.S. (wheat in the EU is a smaller protein, less abrasive to your system), it still creates an inflammation for someone like me who can’t chow down on roasted bread slathered with Spanish olive oil and crushed tomato (a breakfast staple in Spain, one which made me weep with all my bread-adoring envy). Gluten is in soy sauces, ketchups, beef stocks, off-the-shelf salad dressings, even in gluten-free rolled oats, and you’ve got to be a food-label sleuth in ensuring that your meal won’t make you sick to the point where you feel as if your appendix might burst, which is how I used to feel when I overdosed on gluten and dairy on the regular.

Lucky for me, I love pork, most vegetables, potatoes and rice, but after two weeks of a restricted diet, I started to actually crave vegetables. Since veg constitutes about 80% of my daily diet, I actually ached for cruciferous greens. I didn’t want pasta or pizza or bread–I actually desired brussels sprouts and roasted cauliflower. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s this:

1. Do your research: Before you leave, make a list of restaurants that specialize in gf/df or vegan/vegetarian food. I didn’t do this in advance and I’m a moron because of it. Even though I can’t have gluten or dairy for another seven months, for the rest of my life I have to be cognizant of my intake. I can’t ever go back to how I used to eat, so I’ve decided to make my life easier and live gluten/df 95% of the time. Going forward, I’m making it a point to consult travel magazines, blogs, WIKI pages and other resources so I have a handful of restaurants/food markets that will keep me sane during my trip. Next month I’m going to Thailand, and while everything thinks that this is easy, breezy, I have two words in response: soy sauce.

2. Rent an AirBNB, if you can: Having the ability to make breakfast (eggs every day, friends!) and dinner in an apartment saved a lot on my budget and gave me some sanity in terms of meal balance. Most supermarkets in the EU will show items that are gluten-free or dairy-free, which is awesome. Food shopping was a cinch, and I found that nut milks were pretty abundant in Spain. In advance of my trip, I asked my hosts if they could provide me with a blender so I can make my morning smoothies and protein shakes to offset the egg situation.

3. Learn how to talk about your allergies in the country in which you plan to visit: My Spanish is pretty decent, but I made sure that I learned how to correctly address my allergies in the Spanish. Most countries in the EU know about food allergies, although I didn’t even bother saying that I have a sensitivity, which would create a host of confusing questions. When in doubt, I went extreme and said I had celiac because most people in the food industry know what that means. Not only did I explain my situation up-front, but I asked about the ingredients (and how the meal is prepared) in my dish, even if I didn’t think they had gluten or dairy based on the description. I mean, do those eggplant slices look like they touched flour? Clearly I was wrong, assumed that they were safe, and paid for it in hives later than evening. Thank god I’m not celiac.

4. Bring back-up snacks: While I fervently believe that you should always eat local food, I’m finding that it’s easier to bring a bunch of bars and pre-made snacks, especially when traveling to smaller airports. I know it doesn’t seem right, but I need to plan for everything.

Now I’m back, chowing on all the veg a woman can get her hands on, and I have exciting news to report: my itch is nearly GONE and I’m at the twenty-pound weight loss mark. I couldn’t be more thrilled, humbled and excited for this marked shift in the way that I eat.

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Restaurante Campanario Granada
Restaurante Campanario Granada
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relishing in architectural wonders in cordoba, spain + some thoughts on losing faith

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For someone who no longer believes in god, I’ve been spending time in many places of worship. You have to know that for the great portion of my life, I wanted so desperately to believe that a god was real, omnipotent, that I would be among the flock that will inevitable be warmed by his presence in the afterlife. I wanted to be believe in an afterlife, because the idea that our bodies would be cindered and ashed, or withered to bone felt unbearable, lonely. That first punch of air, that great push out in eighty, ninety years time (if we’re one of the lucky ones) becomes a crawl, an acquiesce, a slumbering home to the darkness from which we’d come. And to think that the bookend of this one life is only black felt wrong.

For seventeen years I sold myself on a god even when logic (and my heart) was telling me otherwise. When I think about it now, it makes sense why I cleaved so much to a figure that was a blanket, an embrace, a warmth I desperately needed after losing my mother. Having just graduated college, I was on the precipice of a new life but when I turned around there was no one really behind me. There was only me. So maybe I needed that blanket, that cold comfort that carries you through the night because I wanted to feel loved, protected, and cared for in the larger sense of the word care.

I often think of the body of a house and our world as the country to which it belongs. I spent the greater part of my life rebuilding my house, which had fallen to blight, disrepair, ruined by drink, grief, and fear of being truly vulnerable. I did this privately, slowly, laying down brick by brick, and over time, as I outfitted my house with furniture and shutters, I saw houses sprout up around me. I saw hands waving out of open windows. I felt the tickle and warm embrace of the gardens. Blooms that broke ground and started to grow. I no longer cared about having volume, rather I thought about personal velocity. A party was no longer a failure if sixty people didn’t show up. A short story wasn’t a mess because the “right” people didn’t talk about it. And being with people just to have someone to sleep next to in your bed, no longer sated me. I said to myself that I would rather be alone for the right reasons then with someone for the wrong ones. I became confident, quiet, pensive, and present for myself and relationships with people. I traveled more, read more, became more curious, and started to question everything I thought I knew.

And I started to see the world unravel around me, and the magnitude of hate and inequality, and for me, all signs pointed back to religion–how man had managed to pervert and interpret the teachings of god as justification for segregation (gays are suddenly an other, rather as human beings who deserved to be treated with dignity). How women were second rate because of the fact that they were born women and the word said it so. How simple, fallible creatures think they know the whole of the world, regardless of whether a god has a hand in controlling it. Suddenly, there are groups of people who feel chosen while others are considered other, and death, that once great equalizer, suddenly becomes this frightening place where people are banished to burn and suffer because they chose not to believe.

All of this is a very abbreviated summary of what I’ve been thinking about privately over the past two years. While I believe in a spiritual life, while I can marvel at wonder and man’s propensity to create great art, I no longer believe in a single man (or being) who will usher me into the afterlife.

So you’d think that I wouldn’t spend the great deal of my holiday in churches and mosques, however, as an artist, I was rendered speechless over their magnitude of devotion, and how it can drive greatness in man. Yesterday, someone told me that in Islam man cannot create perfection because the only perfection is god. There is always a flaw in a painting, or a millimeter misstep in a mosaic, and I didn’t interpret this line as something limiting, rather I thought it a celebration of being flawed. We live in a society that has morphed into something strange in its obsession for curation, order and perfection. Everyone is desperate to architect the idea of a perfect life–that image of sunglasses perched on a gleaming silver laptop. The body, and all exteriors, preened to perfection. The bruise of a lip on a coffee cup. How we relentlessly edit, delete, refine, re-edit, publish, course-correct–and I want so much for imperfection, for fuck-ups, for people wearing their flaws on their skin as a badge of honor. I don’t want all this whitewashing because suddenly you become the pure definition of the color white, which is the absolute absence of all color. I rather you be like Anthony Bourdain, flawed, raw, strange, bringing all of his passions into one place and redefining his art by not succumbing to being what a food writer should be.

Today I stood in The Cordoba Cathedral centered in a mosque (Madinat al-Zahra), the creation of which found its origins in a King’s ego, how the reconquesting of the city should reflect the Cross. But in this flaw (and all the ones that have come before), as you see in the pictures, comes great artistic juxtaposition and awe-inspiring beauty.

I don’t believe in perfect. I believe in the remarkable nature of our flaws and people who love and respect beyond borders and books. Visiting places of worship didn’t feel odd as someone who doesn’t believe, rather it gave me faith in man and his ability to perpetually ferret out the light even in the midst of darkness.

I haven’t fully reconciled my feelings toward faith, but I’m open and eager to learn and love.

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the alhambra, granada spain (and tips for getting in!)

Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain

I’m Type A in so many aspects of my life with the exception of travel and writing. I don’t plan; I don’t have a grand design. Rather, I simply go where the takes me and I play my hand as it lays. Doing so has created such an incredible sense of balance in my life, and has allowed me to artistically and mentally go to places I would never have imagined going. Allowing my novel to unveil itself, in degrees, has allowed me to create a story of which I’m truly proud–using techniques in language and line that have created this sort of nesting doll effect when it comes to my novel. Independently, every layer is wholly satisfying, but when they merge it’s this magical symphony that I’ve composed that sometimes shocks me.

The same goes with travel. I used to plan everything to the letter, and I never fully enjoyed my holidays, or allowed to go off itinerary. Deviations were unacceptable, and I think about how many opportunities or moments I’ve lost simply because I’ve an obsessive need to control.

Over the past few years, I’ve loosely planned my trips (air, hotel or AirBNB, and a short list of places worth seeing/chowing), and my experiences have allowed me to befriend extraordinary people and understand a country in a more fundamental and richer way. So when folks told me that The Alhambra was a must-visit, I only half-listened, told myself that I’ll figure it out when I get there. And then I arrived in Spain and realized that visiting this site is like getting into the Pentagon. I spent hours trawling websites for information and tickets, and I nearly gave up hope until a local travel agency told me to try Ticketmaster, and boom, a tour was booked.

I’m glad I breathed through all of the logistics involved in procuring tickets, waking before daylight and making the trek, because The Alhambra not only gave me trespass to a wealth of information about Islamic architecture and fundamentals of the Koran, but it allowed me to admire a fusion of architecture (Roman: Doric/Ionic/Naves and Islamic: minarets, the impossibility of creating perfection as only Allah is perfect) and a deeper understanding of the origins of many Spanish words are rooted in Arabic. I can’t explain it, but there’s something wholly simplistic (not meant in the pejorative) about Islamic architecture in design, but the layers of meaning are complex, fluid and powerful. In the Palace, a simple line is written over and over on the walls: There is no victor but Allah. The calligraphy is entertwined with images of vegetation (in reverence of a kingdom meant to be Paradise) and geometric shapes, as images are not allowed in Islam.

After four hours wandering the palaces, gardens and medina of this sprawling site, I spent the rest of the day in the city, in the brief rain, and came home to revise two chapters of my novel. Perhaps it’s no surprise that an awakening (and education) in the morning yielded creativity in the evening…

How to Buy Tickets to the Alhambra: You can either plot your trip months in advance by purchasing tickets directly from the Alhambra website, or you can live your life like a person (as my friend Amber has been prone to say) and purchase a terrific tour, complete with an Alhambra guide, on Ticketmaster. If you simply want to roll out of bed and live your life all laissez-faire, very few people know that Ticketmaster has a hidden kiosk (beyond the entrance Pavilion, across from the cafe), where you can purchase same-day tickets, albeit with a few Euros tacked on to the normal 14 EUR price. Or you can wait in the Odyssean line (the queue when I arrived at SEVEN A.M. was monstrous) as tickets are routinely set aside for tourists, students and seniors who aren’t able to pre-order online.

How to Get to the Alhambra: If you love a good walk, the Alhambra is a 35 minute walk for those on the opposite side of town (read: me). It’s a quick, lovely walk from Plaza Nueva (although I’m not sure I’d walk to do it in the dark as you’re winding your way up the hills to the entrance gate, even though Granada is quite safe), or you can get a bus at Calle Pavaneras, which takes you to the Alhambra (bus tickets are 1.2 EUR). If you prefer a taxi, you can phone at 011-1-958280654, but if you don’t speak Spanish, you’d better take one at the roundabout of Avenida Constitución, the one with the Spanish flag. I speak decent Spanish, but combined with the early morning call, the terse, rapid barking from the dispatcher, I’d only advise this option if you actually can carry on a conversation in Spanish. This isn’t a se habla ingles kind of party. Apparently, I did something right since a taxi was outside my door within 10 minutes. And if you’re obviously staying at a hotel, tra la la, your problems are all solved by dialing the concierge.

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Medina, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Puerta de Siete Suelos, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Palacio de Charles V, The Alhambra, Granada Spain
Facade of the Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
Comares Palace, The Alhambra Granada Spain
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