Posted on July 7, 2015
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.
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.
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.
Posted on July 5, 2015
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted on July 4, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Follow my exploits on Instagram, if you’re inclined. And yes, that’s me in the photo up top–me and my wiry greys.
Posted on April 26, 2015
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.
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.
Posted on February 27, 2015
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…
Posted on February 25, 2015
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.
Posted on February 24, 2015
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.
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.
Posted on November 4, 2014
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.
Posted on November 2, 2014
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.
Posted on September 29, 2014
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.
Posted on September 26, 2014