Wilderness

As a cloudsrestpart of this Everglades Wilderness Expedition writing team, I’ve been asked to write about what wilderness and especially National Parks mean to me. It’s also an inspiration to re-open this blog so… let’s go for it. A lot of the other young writers are accomplished poets, lyrically weaving beautiful words through imagery and metaphor, but I’m not really a poet. I’m just a story teller. So instead I thought I’d tell a story.

My first experience in a National Park was in one of the biggest and grandest in my own home state of California. I’d done a bit of camping and RVing, but always with my aunt and uncle. My aunt can magically make a full breakfast of biscuits and gravy appear at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and I slept on a bouncy air mattress. This experience was to be considerably different, two full weeks backpacking through Yosemite with my high school boyfriend, John, and his dad. We were both 17. This was in the days before GPS, before cell phones. We had a paper map and trust in my boyfriend’s dad, Mike, and that was it. Mike was a fairly seasoned backcountry backpacker. He’d been taking John backpacking since John was 12 and much longer back with friends so I pretty much assumed I’d be making it out.

In the evenings of the days and week beforehand, I watched the guys assembling, organizing, shuffling, and repacking equipment into three old-style exterior frame backpacks in their garage. There was plenty of horse play and funny stories often involving Gus, his father’s slight, be speckled, and good-natured best friend. A favorite was the one about Gus eating a can of asparagus and the externalities of peeing upwind afterwards (“Dammit Gus what is that smell?!” “The whole campsite reeked that night. It was awful.” “I didn’t know a human could produce such a foul smell. Then again, I have had to deal with his farts after canned chili in the tent before.”). There was an excitement that stirred in the air, growing each day as the moment of departure grew nearer.

I spent most of my evenings at their house in those years. Ostensibly it was because there was food at their house and none at mine. Really I was just trying to spend as little time at home as I could. There were 3 or 4 of us at times in our giant house on the hill and if you timed your movements just right, you could go an entire day without seeing each other. But then again, this plan could still have errors. Instead in exchange for a hot meal at every night, I drove my boyfriend to and from school every day, leaving my house at 6 am and making it back home no later (nor no earlier) than 10 every night, just in time to slip down into my mom’s cave-like bedroom on the bottom floor to kiss her good night. I kept asking John if his family minded having me around so much, but he insisted it was no problem. The presence of an outside young lady seemed to have a calming influence on everyone. One is less apt to squabble and jab at the dinner table when someone outside the family is around. The tone of the house always changed when his dad got home as a sort of deference was paid, though he was always gracious with me. Besides the free meal, I think his mom enjoyed my company too. His family was as complicated as mine, but did a better job of hiding it, mostly due to the patriarchy of his father. Their household routine was orderly and normal. Dinner was the same time every night (6:30, meat, veg, starch) and mass every Sunday. Cheerleading practice, track team meets, work, etc. rolled by with dependable regularity.

Both of his parents were brilliant, trained in engineering and math and some of the first computer scientists to graduate from UC Irvine. His mom in particular graduated sum cum laude and did the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning in pen. Any attempts to praise her intelligence were always quickly brushed away with an awkward and self-effacing, but clever reply, normally some dark illusion to her role as a housewife who sometimes burned dinner. We all knew that back in the day, she wrote code for the CIA. Burnt rice be damned, this lady had a hand in the Cold War and I found her story fascinating, even if others did not.

My boyfriend was also quite bright and it was expected that he would achieve similar success. His dad in particular had high expectations. John tried desperately to earn his father’s respect, competing in the same sports his dad had excelled in, focusing on similar subjects, but in my boyfriend’s sensitive eyes, he never thought he was good enough. Looking back it was clear, if subtly so, that had had always been his father’s pride. But being a son, I think his father thought being critical of him might toughen him up for the rocks life would throw at him. As a child, a fever had left John legally deaf and the school bullying early on disabled him more than his weak hearing. He became a far more jaded and reckless young man, I believe, for it. The transition to adulthood did nothing to correct this and four years later, it helped drive an impenetrable wedge between us. If his father thought his criticism toughened him up, I politely disagreed but still, I understand.

Yosemite though, this was something else. Watching those two laughing and conspiring on the plan for this big adventure in the garage, I knew I was watching something special unfold. There were no physics tests discussed, no SATs, no work deadlines, no family tension.

“My dad is the happiest when he’s out there, away from work. You’ll see. He’s a different man,” John would saw with optimism when we talked about the trip. He was also happier and more hopeful than I’d ever seen him.

The journey started with a road trip to the entrance of Yosemite to the tunes of Bob Marley, Dave Matthews, and classic rock CDs from Mike’s college years played many decibels louder than they ever were in our suburb. Mike’s normally biting humor lost its acerbity and instead we teased each other into laughter, butchered song lyrics and fully entertained ourselves with the spectacle of oddities, ghost towns, and one-off species found only on the backwoods highways of the California desert.

The packbacking itself was both grueling and energizing. We covered as much as 10 miles in a day with heavy packs, up mountains and down valleys. In the shadow of Half Dome, we climbed its lesser known brother, Cloud’s Rest. This slice of granite rises suddenly a thousand feet off the ground, its crest a narrow sliver extending into nothingness, 10 feet wide at the most from tip to tail, with a tumble to your death guaranteed on all sides, including the steep, narrow trail you had to ascend to reach it. At the top it feels like any sudden gust could end your life, but the unrivaled 360 degree view of the park more than makes up for the risk.

Around the 10th day, we were deep into the park, hiking switchbacks up the side of a mountain when Mike informed us that the very trail we were on was named for the adventurer who had himself first blazed it, the one and only John Muir. A deep sense of history filled me as I looked back down on the meadow we had just traversed, crisscrossed with tiny babbling brooks filled with smooth river stones and juvenile trout. So these were the views that had moved a man and an admiring president to undertake the salvation of a nation’s wild places.

Our dinner that night was supplemented with a few silvery, slippery trout we’d caught in a stream. We were so hungry after completing the longest hike of our trip that we ended up eating the fish still half raw in the frying pan, picking at it greedily claiming we were just “checking to see it if was done”. Mike knocked a particularly succulent bike off John’s fork and quickly popped it into his mouth with a self-satisfied grin.

“What!! You jerk!” John shrieked, trying to stifle laughs as his dad, grinning like an ass, made a show of noisily slurping and sucking the tips of his fingers. Already behaving like half-starved animals, we further descended into light shoving, balking, and flat out thievery.

The next morning we woke up and crawled out our tents. Breakfast was Pop-Tarts as usual. I hadn’t realized when I’d let the guys plan the meals that that would mean lots of Pop-Tarts and gooey energy gel packs, neither of which I had ever eaten before and which I have staunchly avoided since.  Cinnamon brown sugar was the only variety I could stomach as I could recognize the flavor they were trying to achieve, as opposed to “blue raspberry” or “wild fruit”, neither of which is an actual food.

While we nibbled on fake pastries out of tinfoil wrappers, Mike stood in an open patch of the meadow, hands on his hips and head thrown back into a ray of sunshine filtering through the trees, exhalted and at one with his surroundings.

“Is this not the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen!” he exclaimed. “I mean, it’s perfect. Just absolutely perfect. You guys gotta come see this. What is it with teenagers, sleeping the day away and missing everything? Lazy I tell you,” he grumbled with a light smirk. “Wait! I’ve got an idea.”

Next thing John and I were corralled into an opening in the center of the meadow, sunlight tumbling down, gracing every blade of grass, and lighting up each speck of pollen in the air like confetti.

“Ok now you two kneel down,” said Mike.

We found ourselves on our knees in foot-tall green grass, facing each other, giggling nervously at the situation while Mike fussed with his camera, checking the lighting from different angles until he found just the right view.

“Alright John, now give her a kiss.”

I looked at John a bit wide-eyed. We’d always kept physical affection to a minimum around his dad, both out of respect and fear. Until then the most I’d ever risked was using his shoulder to nap on far too early on Saturday mornings. I would go with him and his dad to cheer on John at his mountain bike races several weekends a month. We leaned in for a modest peck, looking quite a lot like a life-sized Dutch girl and boy figurine set, and held the pose as his dad snapped, capturing a moment of that rare stuff I think they call innocence.

“Ooh that’s a good one! Ok, got it. Alright troops, let’s get going. Still tons to see today,” and with that Mike strolled back to camp to finish packing, whistling the loudest tune he could muster and relishing in the acoustics as the sounds filled the stone walls of our valley.

We smiled at each other and rose, likely sneaking in another kiss if my memory recalls correctly. The bubbly, indefatigable nature of his normally serious father was infectious. There really was no time to lose. We only had three more days left to savor this until we had to go back. Back meant the real world where their every day roles were stern father and petulant son. But here was no ceiling here to hold in the bad air. No mention of disappointment, no strained “yes, sir’s”. They talked as freely as they breathed and each breath was fresh and restorative. For me it was affirmation that these places are important and worth protecting. They give us something which nothing else in our busy lives can the same, breathing room.

In yoga we learn to connect our breath with our body with our mood and with our spirit. In that practice and outside in the big wilderness are the only places sometimes where I can find my breath. I don’t realize most days how tightly I’m holding it in until I get those first few long, luxurious breaths out.  It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen either John or Mike and I wonder sometimes what their relationship became. Those foundations I saw forming around campfires and on mountain trails were strong, stronger I hope, than the things that we as families always do and never mean to try to tear them down.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

At Least Dorothy Had Cute Shoes

Ask me anything on a Friday night. Loan you my favorite jeans, give you $100, donate a kidney, whatever. When I’m on top of the world because my favorite song is on and it’s sometime past midnight, take your best shot. I can only imagine that’s how seven of us ended up standing in six pits of muck with shovels and garden clippers way too early on a Sunday morning. The instigator, let’s call him Mitch, knew the exact right moment to ask his friends for free labor (sometime around the eighth round I imagine), ‘Come round and help me clean up the place a bit. It’ll be fun. We’ll have a BBQ.’ So here we are in our worst clothes and sandals (who owns practical foot ware on islands anyway?), staring at six giant concrete pools filled with unidentifiable muck and I’m pretty happy about the tetanus shot I got six months ago. This is the land that time (and obviously the former caretaker) forgot for nearly half a century. It is also our friends’ new home.

The huge property is called Fontein and it’s some kind of sick, twisted, and utterly fantastical tropical wonderland.  It was and is truly something special, though no one knew the full story. It started as a plantation way back in colonial times and had obviously become a lavish bathhouse sometime in mid-last century. Dignitaries and even Queen Juliana of the Netherlands herself would stop in to soak in the restorative powers of the waters bubbling up from the underground aquifer. On a desert island where fresh water was so precious, it was surprising that they devoted so much of it to such a wasteful pastime. But that’s how these trivial otherworldly luxuries are, doggedly constructed and closed off from the realities and resentments surrounding them. An island in an island. It gave off that scent of regality, stubborn ostentation, and colonial guilt.

We pick our way through acacia brush and pieces of barbed wire which lodge into the bottoms of our sandals. The strong tree roots and creeping vines have broken through most of the concrete and mildew from the humidity has stained black streaks down the walls. A dead, stiff kitten lay on the first step of a grand staircase, leading to the piece-de-resistance: a six-pool bathhouse fed by a natural sweet water spring flowing out the mouth of a cave. On all sides volcanic cliffs closed in on us and mature almond trees blocked the light. Jurassic Park? Blair Witch Project? Great Expectations?  I don’t know, but I do know I wouldn’t want to be there at night.

For hours we shoveled shit from one pool into the next, then out of the pools by bucket, then down a flight of stairs by wheel barrow and into the forest in a back breaking and tedious process.

“Look if it’s between you and the wheel barrow, just let it go over the edge” says Mitch. Why yes I do value my neck more than a wheelbarrow, but thanks for the permission, I think to myself.

No bit of black muck could be lost, oh no, this was an ecologically-minded project and we were actually hauling “rich nutrients for the garden”. Funny, it smelled like shit to me. We teased each other as we slung the stinky, black “nutrients” out of the pools, inevitably covering ourselves in it.

Mitch noticed the cat and I had to turn away as he scooped it up with a shovel.

“What are you going to do with the cat, bury it?” my tall Dutch friend asked.

“Naw, put it at the bottom of the compost pile. X marks the spot guys. Black shit pile on top of the dead cat please” with typical British deadpan, launching the cat into a forest clearing.

I started thinking about tomato plants made of dead cats and tried to remind myself this is the circle of life blah blah blah, but it’s still pretty gross and I let someone else throw the first pile of muck so I didn’t have to look at it.

Image

Behold the mucky glory

This wasn’t my first encounter with a strange ruin, somehow stuck in time and slowly being swallowed by the jungle. Exploring ruins is one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve played in WWII-era Japanese barracks and a gun factory as a volunteer teacher on a tiny Pacific island. I’ve climbed my share of hills in the Caribbean to discover the last remains of forts, installed centuries ago to guard the tiny, vulnerable settlements below.

The strangest ruin I ever saw though had to be the plantation deep in the heart of my former island home in the northeast Caribbean. No matter the weather, this place was always in a state of shadow. The jungle was winning the battle for light and space. The property was owned by an eccentric animal lover, a lady who had long ago replaced her attachments to normal society with an intense and almost nonsensical devotion to saving the wretched and starving street mutts of the island. Her truck displayed a huge picture of one of these abused creatures and she could be seen circling the island several times a week, leaving bowls of dog food for strays on the side of the road. Those animals that could be caught were brought to the property. In her misguided desire to protect them from further harm, she could almost never bear to give the animals away for adoption and she eventually amassed some 70 or 80 animals. One female lived in a tree, forced into an arboreal life due to her low place on the pecking order.They took over every corner of the property. Eventually the structures became unlivable and overrun with mutts. The rumor was that one particularly ugly pit bull male and his harem of six or seven bitches had taken over the main house. The only place one could escape the animals was atop one particularly high dinner table and this is where the woman made her bed. I’d seen the place only once but my impression had been that the rumors were sadly true.

As much as time had crumbled their foundations and softened them into harmless but fascinating oddities, I could never look at these ruins and forget their history. Plantations, forts, and slave housing come from a harsher time when our forebears lived hard and died young. If abusing or killing another meant your short and miserable life was a little more palatable, so be it. In the “civilized” Western world, we like to think we’ve progressed, but a hundred years isn’t a blink in the eye of the world.  The past, present, and future are full of brutality. I sling muck and break my back by choice occasionally, but for most of humanity, that was and is a way of life. I often wonder if I could have survived those times, or if I would have died young in child birth or from disease like so many women. I like to think I could have survived the physical endurance of being a laborer’s wife at least.

As if to prove this point, I turn down an offer to switch out muck hauling duties with a stiff upper lip and curt “nah, I’m good mate”. However, the shooting pains down my back quickly put an end to my stupid machismo and I sheepishly requested to switch out with one of the boys, preferring to rake and pile leaves for a while instead. I chuckled to myself thinking how unrecognizable I would look now in the stuffy and pretentious suburbs I’d grown up in. But I’m honestly ok with that. I look better with a rag tied around my head and covered in filth than I do in Prada anyway. Sometime around this point we heard a loud CRACK! and lightening flashed across the sky. The sky opened and a downpour only the tropics can release fell on us. The slag became more liquid diarrhea than mud and we shrugged at our situation, next to very tall trees and ankle deep in water in an electrical storm. If today was our day to be electrocuted, at least it would make a good story and we’d all die together as a team (yippy!) so we labored on.

“This isn’t work; this is fun. This is a spa day. Mud treatment! People pay for this stuff. Ooh that smells LOV-ely!” chattered Mitch as he energetically flung shovel after shovelful of stinking, decaying plant matter six feet over his head onto a tarp laid out on the deck, smatterings landing on those within range.

Gotta give it to him though. The cunuku where he lived (think the Outback, island-style) is not for the delicate and demanding. Solar panels and gennies provide the little current they have so if something can be done in the dark, it is, like “I can totally find the loo and toilet paper by feel! Loo roll out? Something within arm’s reach will work just fine.” I could say I’m just guessing about this one but really, I’d had a bit of a close call in his very dark bathroom at dusk.

The rain eventually stopped and we opened the canals and let the stream water flow through, rinsing the pools one by one. We laughed as we chased tiny, squirming juvenile tilapia before they could be swept out the bottom drain to a certain death on the forest floor below.

“I got one!” “I missed one!” “It’s coming down to you, grab it!” “Oops, this one didn’t make it. My bad.”

Giant almond trees hung over the pools and we raked two, maybe three million almond pods out of the pools, or so it felt. I tried to clear the drains between the pools and flung a shovelful of the stuff over the wall. I immediately heard “Ah! Ah! It’s all over my face! Ah! Disgusting!” from the other side of the drain. Being a sensitive person, the first thing I did was double over in uncontrollable laughter as my friend desperately tried in vain to wipe the muck off his face with an equally mucky hand.

 “wooHOOHOOhoo!!! I’m so sorry man….oohHAHAHA!!! I forgot you were there. Oh my god… hahaHA!!! *gasp*Stop being funny….. I can’t breathe *gasp*.”

Luckily my friend is more good natured than me. If it had been me, he’d have gotten a full shovel of muck in the face.

We watched in amusement as two guys stuck sticks in a drain on either side of a wall between two pools in an attempt to keep the drain clear.

“That’s it boys. Stick it in his hole. Git’n there!” Mitch teased, eliciting unamused, withering looks.

“You boys look like you’ve found yourself a nice glory hole” I sassed.

My foul mouthed, but naive English friends looked at me, waiting for an explanation that would no doubt lead to many jokes at my expense. I blushed and muttered “I lived in San Francisco for five years boys. You learn things. Things you don’t always want to know. Just believe me, if you’re ever at a rest stop in California and you see a hole in the bathroom stall, don’t look through it if you value the gift of sight”.

I jogged off behind one of the old almond trees for a wee, on the way passing a dead bird and the jawbone of some large mammal. God we were really in “their” territory. I squatted and noticed reptilian skin directly in front of me. Crouching there with my pants around my ankles I thought “Oh please let that be from an iguana and not a boa. Please, anything but snakes.” Because you see, the history of this place doesn’t end with the Queen and glamorous pool parties. Oh no, it gets better.

The clean-up of Fontein had started months prior. One coerced laborer (i.e. friend) wading around in a pool had gotten the shock of his life when his shovel hit something solid, squirming, and way bigger than a toad or turtle. And it had big teeth. The legends were true…

Fontein fell into ruin after it changed into private hands and it eventually found itself the property of an eccentric man with a penchant for exotic pets. We don’t know all that he had, but we know he had a blind boa constrictor and at least one caiman. If you don’t know what a caiman is, it’s an alligator with a pointy snout from South America. The rumor was he’d just let everything loose on the property when he sold it and the prospect of seeing a caiman was really the only reason we were all sweating and slogging it out that day. God knows how it had survived years in a foot of water with no obvious source of food or place to sun itself, but we aimed to find the animal and make one of the pools a comfortable home for it. We hadn’t actually worked out how we were going to catch it, but surely one of was young and dumb enough to do it, but first we had other ornery creatures to deal with.

The bravest (i.e. foolhardy) among us volunteered (my tall Dutch friend) to find the animal so he jumped down into the enclosure armed with a large and intimidating, or not so much, length of PVC piping. He balanced himself on a fallen tree branch and got to the business of poking around the murky water as we crowded round safely on the outside.

“See anything yet?” “You think it’s even alive still?” “What the hell does it eat, almonds?” “You’d look good with seven toes buddy, git in there!”

And finally, “I hit something!”

At first the caiman didn’t move, obviously in some state of hibernation, but as my friend poked and flipped it with the pipe, it suddenly came to life. In a flash we saw a wake from its powerful tail cross the enclosure as it high-tailed it to the far side of the pool searching for safety, quickly disappearing back under the water.

“Holy shit!” “That was awesome!” “Can I offer you a fresh pair of underwear, my friend?”

The tall Dutchie looked up at us with a huge, childish grin, “That was the coolest thing ever, but my heart won’t stop pounding. Pretty sure I just shaved a few days off my life expectancy.”

“So that’s it; that was the alligator?” “All that work for 30 seconds of reward?” “It’s a little guy, can’t be more than half a meter.” “I want my money back.”

But of course we said “all that work” as if it were over, but it was far from over. We still had several hours left. Then came a lovely BBQ with bottles of red wine and hot tea to chase the chill out of our bones and the fatigue from our muscles. We congratulated each other on a job well done and basked in its glow, heartened by friends and the red wine. We each tried to ignore the fact that Mitch kept saying things like “We really should go clean it up a bit more. You know, just leave it nice. “Just a bit more. Shouldn’t be bad. It’ll be fun.” We kept praying he’d have another beer and lose his resolve but he knew when he had free labor so we weren’t getting off that easy. We’d come this far and couldn’t puss out so grudgingly we picked up the shovels again and headed back for a second round.

One by one we got picked off by the creatures of the woods who vehemently showed their distaste for our presence. First my Latin friend got stung by a wasp. Next the tall Dutchie got it from a scorpion. The good natured English fellow suffered fire ant bites while attempting to climb a tree to cut down branches, a tree that was also swarming with wasps. We decided to abandon that task, but our fearless leader was not so easily perturbed and Mitch clambered up the great tree with alacrity, only to drop the ten feet back to the ground a moment later, breaking his fall by swinging from branch to branch like a monkey amidst shouts of pain. Back on the decking, he found his head burning with fire ant and wasp stings and one eye nearly swollen shut. He quickly brushed off any concern for his well-being, but became concerned as the adrenaline wore off and the wooziness and dizziness hit him.

“Um, I don’t reckon I’m allergic or anything but, what are the signs of sting allergies?” he asked only half nonchalantly this time.

“Well, you wouldn’t be able to breathe. How’s your throat?” the most medically savvy amongst us answered.

“Little tight. Little scratchy” he answered.

“Oh, that’s not good. But you can still breathe right?”

“You know what, I might just sit down for a second. Maybe that’s better,” said Mitch, shaking his head up and down, agreeing with himself that indeed this was his first clever thought of the day.

“You just took about a dozen stings to the head. I don’t suppose you would feel good after that” I offered.

“I suppose you’re right. Well not likely to die. Probably would have already by now” he said.

We all chimed in with “Oh for sure, you’d already be dead”, “yeah I’m sure you’re good”, and “if not, can I have your guitar?” We got an enthusiastic “Fuck off!!” for that one and that’s when we were all happily assured he’d survive.

I looked at my bruised and battered comrades and realized it was only a matter of time before it was my turn. I figured it was a female’s natural inclination not to do stupid stuff that will get you hurt that had kept me out of harm’s way until then, but really, it was only a matter of time. Sure enough, I soon stepped on the wrong spot and my feet were covered in fire ants mercilessly biting and leaving huge red welts.  A steady string of obscenities flowed out my mouth as I ran to dip my feet in the one full, green pool.

“Uh, you know. We’re not absolutely certain there aren’t, you know. More caimans” said Mitch, in a slow, measured word of caution.

I whipped my head towards him with a look of ‘You must be joking? Oh jesus you’re not’. The pool felt good on my burning feet but any caiman in that pool hadn’t seen a flesh meal as tasty as my toes in years so I reluctantly, but quickly pulled them out. I snapped off a nearby aloe leaf and furiously rubbed the smelly yellow oozing liquid all over my feet, still letting out intermittent strings of obscenities, giving no end of amusement to my friends. That’s it, I thought. I’m done with this. Work’s over. My English friend was kind enough to say with an empathetic smile “I know, no one likes to be in pain” and I appreciated it and felt less miserable.

I might be one of the dudes, but I’m still a girl, and even I have moments where I wonder why I do the things I do.  Lions and tiger and caimans and wasps and scorpions and fire ants and who the fuck knows what else. I was feeling like Dorothy in cheap shoes. I might have chosen an easier life without muck and with reliable electricity; stayed in San Francisco and married this boyfriend or that one; have a two car garage; maybe by this time have kids and a nice house. One without a leaking roof where I didn’t spend time every day killing the biting, buzzing, disgusting insects that always crept in. Maybe not spend the occasional night sitting up in bed with my head faceplanted in a pillow stuck between my knees, trying to find a comfortable way to sleep upright because I’d figured out the hard way why meat in the Caribbean so rarely went on special. I love adventure and nothing yet has inspired me to stop traveling, but some days even I didn’t understand why I’d chosen this life or why it had chosen me.

Just then the sound of my own thoughts were drowned out by the calls of hundreds of parrots. I looked up and the sky was filled with wings. It was dusk and the green lora parrots were returning to their roosts for the night after a full day of foraging for cactus fruit. I stopped to watch them swoop and loop in endless formations, breaking and converging in an unintelligible pattern. I really am Dorothy some days, but all I have is a pair of oversized Havianas with thorns stuck in the bottom and no amount of clicking them is going to transport me to a magical place called “home”. From perched atop a bench tending my wounds, I watched my friends continuing to work with admirable dedication. The tall, gangly, and foolhardy Dutchie with the easy smile was really my scarecrow. And the timid, good-hearted Latino was my Lion and the kind and clever Englishman was my tinman. And Mitch was the fockin crazy Wizard of Oz and this made me smile. What a motley bunch I found myself with and I fit right in perfectly.

Finding my grouchiness and the light fading, I took my last chance and hiked up the hill for a view of the valley below. The path disappeared amid a tangle of acacia thorns growing around and in a half-constructed house. The only sounds up here were those from the rapid retreat of some goats I’d scared. In the skeletons of those uncompleted structures, I saw stairs that led nowhere, rooms open to the heavens. I saw the unfulfilled potential of it all. It was beautiful in a lonely sort of way and I hoped the new caretakers would be successful in bringing this place back to its former glory. I knew they certainly had the gumption.

This was my last Sunday on the island. My last chance to share an experience with my friends and I was glad I’d chosen to spend it where and how I had. It was important to me to breathe in and capture the last of this, hold it in my lungs and make my own mental home movies. I hiked back down the hill to my friends who’d just wrapped up their work, happy and proud to have contributed to the noble project and vowing to come back next Sunday to help finish it.

That Sunday was two weeks ago and I’m back “home” now. It’s the most subjective term in my vocabulary but for all intents and purposes, Florida is as much home as anywhere else. I heard the next Sunday’s adventure was more BBQ, less work and I was quite disappointed to have missed it. I’m sure the memory of me is already fading there and the little island is quickly becoming just another chapter in my erratic story, ripe with unfulfilled potential and lonely beauty. The only direction to move though is forward and that’s exactly the direction I’m pointing myself.

I guess I seek out those places because they speak to me, of courage and pain; of struggle against the encroaching jungle; of loss and ultimately; of survival and progress. The people that built them are a part of humanity’s family tree and what they left behind is here to remind us that we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. We as a species survived famines, slavery, wars, and more to raise children that have lived far beyond our wildest dreams. We crossed great oceans without any idea of what waited for us on the other side, if indeed we survived the crossing at all, emboldened by the belief that a better life was just somewhere beyond the horizon. This belief coupled with the urge to survive is woven into the fabric of our beings, in the very stanchions of the double helix of our DNA. It’s a shame empathy’s bond within the structure is far less tangible or guaranteed. Some are overwhelmed by empathy and devote their lives to “worthless street mutts”, while others lack the capacity entirely.  

I find myself again at the mercy of others, dependent on their good will and helpless without it. I’m thankful for a life that doesn’t allow me to take empathy for granted, but my DNA tells me to want more than just to survive. 2012 is thankfully almost over and thirty is around the corner so I’ve got my eyes on the horizon and I’m crafting my next adventure as we speak. Bring. It. On.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s giblets, Precious? A Vagabond Thanksgiving

This morning I woke up uncommonly late, belly still fully distended, happy and victorious that I had won the battle with “the Big Bird”. Last night I hosted my very first Vagabond Thanksgiving and after two days of preparation, I believe I can call it a success. What makes a Thanksgiving so vagabond you ask? We’ll get to that. But first, the bird…..

Image

Set for 5, expect 8

Reminder, I am on a tiny island in the Caribbean and besides some of the resorts, they are unfamiliar with some of our more gluttonous traditions. A ray of light, behold! The local supermarket has frozen turkeys, yes! We goin do this hoo boy! Having no vehicle, I buy the heaviest items and vow to return for the others. The sign says “Frozen turkeys, 10-15 lbs. $25”. I’m incredulous. That ain’t no 10 lbs. bird sir, but I’ll take it. As for the pumpkin, as my uncle might say “We don’t need no stinkin cans”. My roots are the tiniest bit redneck you see, and if the woman of the house can’t cook a rib-stickin traditional thanksgiving dinner, well that’s just unacceptable. I doubt canned pumpkin has made it to the Caribbean yet anyway so I pick up a giant gourd labeled “pumpkin” (in what world? Pumkpins are kinda round and orange. This one looks like someone sat on one end of it while it was growing and it’s got green stripes. Whatever. I make do). Balanced precariously on either handle bar and threatening to rip the handles of the plastic bags at any moment, I attempt to hop on for a ride. The bike immediately swerves into the road and my giant, pendulous bags swing wildly about like an old fat French woman tripping on a topless beach. Bad idea. Back to walking and hope no one I know saw that.

Back home the internet is working again, oh happy days! This is the one and only advantage of our frequent blackouts. It forces my neighbor to completely reset her internet, meaning I can go back to “borrowing” bandwidth before it inevitably drops out again some three, four days later. I type in “Thanksgiving recipes” and the first ones to pop up are by some English twat, Jamie Oliver. No offense to Mr. Oliver, I’ve used some of his recipes in the past, but this is the most ‘Merican of holidays and you can keep your dried figs, guava paste, and wine reductions outta my cranberry sauce. I will indulge one shake of the balsamic vinegar bottle, but other than that, it’s cranberries, water and sugar. Ok, I use brown sugar but still! As for the vinegar, try it. Believe me. Shockingly good.

I make my list of ingredients and check it twice. This year we’re going for stuffing (made with fresh baguettes, you can keep your box), glazed sweet potatoes (my favorite), big ass turkey brined in spices, apple juice, and orange rind, cranberry sauce bien sur, pumpkin soup, and pumpkin pie. My lovely guests (none of whom are ‘Merican or have ever celebrated Thanksgiving) are bringing green beans with thyme and almonds, baked sugar apples, and Belizean rice and beans (this is an international feast after all). Like any good mother, I plunk my turkey the size of a toddler into a cool bath in the kitchen sink, tell it to be good and mummy will be back, and promptly abandon it for a few hours while I go shopping.

I realize I will have to go to both big grocery stores and multiple small Chinese outlets to have any hope of getting everything on this list and even then, I have to make concessions. As I stand in front of a fancy refrigerator in the dairy section of the nicest store this island has to offer, I shake my head in anguish. There are literally over a dozen types of margarine filling this case and not one echt boter (real butter). I grab several of the one making the best impersonation of a stick of butter and proceed to check out. I give a silent “I’m so sorry” to all the chefs that have tried to impart their knowledge on me. They’ve been to the outer islands, they’ll understand.

Image

it goes something like this

That night I spend hours prepping while sipping rum drinks and singing along to Adele at the top of my lungs. Mummy always cooks with alcohol; sometimes she even puts it in the food. My roommate is with her man and my obnoxious neighbors torment me with the sounds of freestyle drag racing every afternoon so I figure they can bloody well put up with my singing. I am uncommonly cheerful that night and it has nothing to do with the cheap rum. You see, we don’t really do holidays in my family. Sure every few years someone gets the brilliant idea that this time will be different. I’m thinking the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results but whatever. We’re an odd lot; we put the fun in dysfunctional really. In small groups, we’re a helluva good time. Put too many of us together in one house with a hot kitchen for an entire day and don’t be surprised if things get interesting. If the day doesn’t end with at least one person storming out the front door in a hissy fit, another breaking something made of glass, and a third bemoaning in exaggerated self-pity “Why do I bother? Who’s got the vodka?”, then it’s really not the holidays. We have agreed on a peaceful but sheepish truce in the last ten years. Family gatherings are limited to no more than three people (extended family don’t count), going out for Italian is just fine, and all major holidays are allowed to pass with little more than a few phone calls.

But like I said, this is Vagabond Thanksgiving, and since I left home some eleven years ago, this holiday has actually started to take on meaning. The first few years I spent with my roommates’ family and was in awe of the number of pies and cookies along with the full dinner their mom managed to make effortlessly every holiday. Bless them, they took me as the fourth daughter, even gave me my own family nicknames, and I still count them as some of my favorite people in the world. The years after that were when the real traveling started and every year practically I found myself in some new far flung location with a motley crew made up of other similar travelers, far from home during the holidays, and woefully unaware of this thing we Americans call, Turkey Day. By group effort and eking out menus that were just as likely to include South African brau and Philipino loempias as cornbread stuffing, we managed to make the happiest and most delightful of feasts. Believe me, this wasn’t the first gourd by the misnomer “pumpkin” I’d dealt with. I found that no matter where I was in the world and no matter how long or how little I’d known the present company, the feeling of goodwill and camaraderie and yes, thankfulness, that took over that day was without exception. Being thankful for what you have, no matter how much or how little, makes near strangers into friends. This year having lots of time on my hands (being newly unemployed, oh man how thankful AM I?!?! fml) and living in a house with another American chick who was exhausted from a rough couple weeks at work, I saw the perfect opportunity to bring Vagabond Thanksgiving to this little rock and the awesome friends I’d made here. Besides all the happy squishy feelings associated with Vagabond Thanksgiving, you might have picked up on the other theme. Wherever you are, you sho ain’t in Kansas no mo so don’t forget the mosquito repellent.

The day-of I woke up bright and early and went for a big bike ride around the Southern tip of the island to clear my head and rev my metabolism for the beating I knew my digestive system would be taking later. Back home and freshened up, I kept my recipes and my facebook open, enjoying the giddiness and commiseration of my chef and cook friends around the Western hemisphere as we all collectively sweated it out to produce similar feast miracles in our respective corners. Thank god I’m friends with chefs. I put out the desperate call. “Guys I got dried cranberries mixed in a bag with raisins and cranberry juice. How the f*&^ do I make cranberry sauce outta this?” My chef friends stepped in. Boil the dried ones in sugar and water and they’ll plump up and gel eventually, don’t worry. I had my sister (a professional and excellent chef) on-call halfway around the world in France.

“Ok, I’ve just discovered another bag of innards in this turkey. I don’t know which one is the giblets. This is the neck I know; I think this is the liver; I have no idea what the round thing is. How do I make gravy?” I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I’m revealing my true inner dork here, but I had that scene from “The Lord of the Rings” looping in my head where Gollum asks Sam in a completely befuddled way “Taters? What’s….. taters…. Precious?” Except this time I was the befuddled one staring at a bag of squishy red innards going “Giblets….. which ones are the giblets, Precious???”

The redneck in me had been inspired at the last minute by the discovery of yet another bag of innards in the bird. If I totally effed up this turkey (and my mantra had been for days, “Guys if I burn the turkey, I don’t want any lip from you and we’re going for Colombian food around the corner. Got that?”), the only thing that might save it would be to drown it in gravy so I thought, oh yeah baby, let’s go all the way. We’re making giblet gravy, woooohhoooo!!!

My older and wiser sister tried to steer me away. “Don’t do it! Far too organ-y pour moi. Just feed’em to the raccoons or neighborhood cat or something”, she messaged. “I’m gonna go for it I think. But if it’s totally gross I’ll feed it to the sweet but disgusting dog that’s always wandering around the neighborhood. It’ll make his week” I replied. I’ve just remembered I kept some innards to the side for that poor skinny clumsy puppy. Hopefully he comes around soon. I sure feel bad for him. He’s mangy, desperate for love, smelly, and his eyes are usually kinda goopy. I indulge him in two-finger pats and snacks whenever I can. For the second time this year I’ve found myself saying to a mutt, if I had a home babydoll, I would take care of you and share it with you, but I don’t.

Back to the bird. I realize I don’t know the actual size of this thing (which determines cooking time), the kitchen scale only goes to 10 lbs. (whaddya think we’re cooking here, pigeon?), ALL my measuring utensils are in metric (yeah failed that course), I have no meat thermometer, no oven thermometer, no baster, I’m low on propane, and my tiny gas oven has the habit of turning itself off every half hour or so like “Surprise! Your dinner’s still raw!” No wuckin furries mate. There’s a strange little red pushpin in the side of the turkey that’s supposed to pop out when it’s done and I’ve got one large plastic spoon ladle-y thing. We are all good. Crap, no can opener for the condensed milk.

I violate the turkey but shoving handfuls of stuffing up its arse. I’ve got no twine either. Brilliantly the turkey manufacturer (and who could call it anything but? I know this is no free range, Farmer Ezekiel, non-GMO bird I’m dealing with, this is frankenbird) has cut a little loop in the bird’s arse so no need to tie up its legs with twine (noooo, that’s not nearly clever enough). I can literally keep the stuffing from falling out by shoving this bird’s legs through its own arse. Like I said, B-R-I-L-L-I-A-N-T.

There’s a small Chinese market next door to me and they are awesome. I run in and frantically search the dusty shelves. Can opener can opener…. gotta have one. Yes I know how to open a can with a knife or machete from my days in the outer islands, but I have one workable knife and I’m not risking the tip being knocked off. I make the can-opening motion to the lady at the checkout and repeat the words “can opener?” This gets me nothing but a regretful look. I quickly grab a can of tuna and repeat the pantomime. Who needs common language? Lo, a light bulb! She snatches a can opener from behind her and I slap my debit card on the counter with a genuine and relieved “Thank you! Savings please”. And the lady does something which makes me love her even more. She pauses and repeats after me “savings”. First one way, then another pronunciation, rolling the “v” around in her mouth like a new hard candy. We’ve been doing this a lot lately and she’s nearly got the word down. I think it’s amazing. The nice Chinese family that owns this store speak Chinese, local dialect, and English far better than I will ever speak Chinese. They probably speak Spanish and Dutch as well, but I’m just too dense to realize it. I’ve been in little Chinese markets all over the world (never in China mind you) and I’m always amazed at how adaptive, hardy, and hard-working these families are. Sure their products are crap and I’m sure this can opener won’t last a month, but the prices are good, hours are late, and the people friendly. I will never begrudge the Chinese for being excellent merchants. They’ve been for centuries; it’s just in their blood.

Back to the beast bird! I turn the oven back on (bastard!) and continue with my work. So far so good. Four more hours until the guests arrive. I’ve dragged out the nasty, rusty electric burners that shock me every time I touch a metal lid in hopes of making the propane last for the bird. Gas off again, curses! Re-light. Sweet potatoes are perfect. Stuffing pretty darn delicious. Time to clean up the house and myself.

Eventually my friends arrive and all the dishes miraculously finished cooking at the appropriate minute. Some friends had to cancel or couldn’t make it, and they were definitely missed. Some peeps got invited last minute and they were warmly welcomed (they had manners and knew unannounced guests must bring wine) and room was made for them at our ever cozier table. Everyone pitched in to serve and set. My roommate and I smirked at one another as we handed off carving duties to a Dutch guy friend. We might be self-sufficient, educated women of the world, but we know when sexism works to our advantage and as neither of us relished the idea of fighting that bird into pieces, we gave the big knife to the big man because although we might be trusted to cook the whole darn dinner, we certainly couldn’t be trusted to carve the turkey. The Dutchie did a fine job, though my roomie did have to give him a little carving etiquette lesson first.

One of the finest moments of Vagabond Thanksgiving is just before we tuck in and go around the table and say what we’re thankful for. I was really thankful for the friends I’ve made here and sad to leave them and my new home so soon. I thought coming down here would be the real challenge, having to learn a new job, find a home, adapt to a new culture and language, and do it all on my own this time around, but really, that was the easy part. I ended up rooming with the first person I called and she turned out to be awesome. My colleagues turned out to be the best bunch of knuckleheads any girl could ever ask for. We went round the table and the moment of appreciation was lost on no one.

Course after course piled on the plates and our Latino friends’ eyes went wide with amazement. So much food these Americans make, por que tanto? We spent a great part of the later evening on our beautiful terrace lit with Christmas lights, eating sugar apples and pumpkin pie, fondly ripping and ribbing one another for the social faux-pas we may or may not have committed some weekend past. “I did what?” “I don’t remember that. Where was I?” “Meh, it was three o’clock in the morning. Nuff said!” “If you don’t know I’m not telling you!” “Haha, even old ladies need love!!” We realized one friend was even cooler than we knew and vowed to drag her out with us more. Another friend I knew was missing his family something bad, and I hoped he was realizing he’d been lucky enough to land in a group of crazy knuckleheads that would look out for him and be his home away from home. We talked about life and love and friendship and I was reminded for all the money and luxury in the world, I would not give this up. I know so many people with so much and they are so unhappy. But these fellow vagabonds I’ve chosen to spend my twenties with, we share what we have, and we find more joy in a shared bottle of cheap rum than I think most people find in all the mega yachts I’ve ever worked on. Again I missed the ones who couldn’t make it and wished they could be a part of this, if only to have the chance to defend their honors against the merciless teasing! Fair enough, long after I’m outta here, I’m sure they’ll be taking the piss outta me and missing the entertainment I inevitably inject into all our raucous outings. I love moments like this and they made spending two days in a kitchen and even the disappointment of a three-month failed venture worth it. I can’t say why the universe sent me down here and then snatched me back out just as I was finding my rhythm, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the people celebrating around the table with me last night.

The plane taking me away from here is set to lift off in 7 days, 19 hours, and 55 minutes from now. I suspect this will be one of the harder leave-takings of the dozens I’ve had to do. I was ready to put down some roots here and it’s the friends I found that convinced me of this. But maybe this job wasn’t the one that was really going to let me stretch my wings and maybe around the corner I will finally find my place in the world. I know where I’m landing, but don’t know where I’m going, and for the first time, I’m a little scared. Whatever happens, I will definitely be leaving a little piece of my heart here on this rock. Luckily, it’s big enough to risk leaving yet another piece behind.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

It’s All Down Hill From Here…..

“Hey!….Hey!… Miss!!!!”

 

It’s the old men from the Chinese market next door that spend all day there playing dominoes and talking nonsense, what most old men all over the world do I imagine. The proverbial stoop here happens to be the Chinese market, mostly because the beer is very cold and very cheap. They are lovely and today I’m in a good mood. I’m sweaty and disgusting from an exhilarating 3.5 hour bike ride around the island so I smile and holler back “Good afternoon!” in the native tongue. Clearly the best post-workout food is a chocolate bar and they keep them in the fridge at the Chinese market so I trudge over for my reward. The old guys are delighted I’ve come for a visit and thus starts the most confusing, multi-language conversation I’ve had today (because I have them all day, every day).

They know my face and routine by now and I get lots of congratulations on my long ride and asked if it was very nice and I must be very tired. I catch only bits of this because it’s in Dutch and given that I’m quite tall and blue-eyed, I get mistaken for een nederlandse often, but really, I suck at the language. I’ve learned to mutter “Ik spraak niet het nederlands. Ik spraak engels” quite quickly to avoid more confusion, but before I can finish my rehearsed statement, they shout in delight and throw their hands to the sky. “ENGLISH!!! Oh! We can speak English. Around here we speak everything!” Dutch, English, Spanish, Papiamento (and sometimes French when I got really confused) get tossed around like so many colorful hacky sacks as they enthusiastically try to teach me the local tongue. Thoroughly confused by all this, I shout the first thing that comes to mind on my way out, “Hasta la vista!” Chocolate bar in hand, I’m happy in the fact that I seem to be an accepted neighborhood figure, but sheepish that I sound a little like The Terminator.

It’s a beautiful thing about the Caribbean. Language is as fluid as warm caramel here, malleable and yielding, yet resisting any demand to keep its form.  What one language lacks another fills, or simply, a new word is created. Little surprise we are all shades of caramel here, from milky to burnt. A little time spent under her sun and with her people and you’re likely to become just another sun-kissed caramel Caribbean islander. There is sweetness and kindness here, but also cruelty. I’ve seen both in turn, though more kindness than not. An extraordinary and strange race of caramel oddities we are, linked by our love of the seas and winds and a refusal to be beholden to a single language, flag, ethnicity, or definition.

            It’s a shame I’ll likely be leaving soon. See, after two and a half years in pursuit of my dream job and finally achieving it, a setback came that I was not expecting. They re-evaluated the budget and the numbers don’t add up and the one with the least seniority (me) became the first to go. One could say, you might have chosen an easier part of the world to settle and one may respond to this with, well, one ought to screen passports before falling in love, but life doesn’t give us this option. I should have left when he did, but I’m just too stubborn. I hold onto things until I have no choice but to let them go.

He said it was too much to deal with, too much struggle and disappointment. He was going home and so should I. I scoffed and asked him to point out such a place on a map.

“You know, the place where you feel comfortable. Where your friends and family are.” “First off, my friends and family are spread out over four continents. Secondly, if you don’t get it by now, I guess you’ll never get it”, I said.” Mweo ma is met jouw, maar no mas, ey mi amor?”

In truth I answered in English, but 6 years of steady travel and the languages and places have melted together so much I have my own unique Creole, more accurate than any Oxford dictionary. So I will remember this conversation the way I want, d’accord?

Years of drifting and I thought I’d found my reason to finally stand still. I gave everything I had to give and I guess so did he. But it’s different when you have something to go back to. It’s always in the back of your mind that there is an exit strategy. And for him home was not an abstract construct, a goal and an end to achieve, worthy of every heroic act and every sacrifice. It was an actual place with four walls that had seen him born and raised by the same people that still filled the space between them with warmth and welcomed him back in their fold. For me, home was him and our dogs, and wherever the four of us found ourselves. When he left, I lost my home (literally and figuratively).

Having no logical returning point, there seemed no other direction to go but to keep on so I just kinda stayed in the islands. To be honest, he did the smart thing and if I were a cleverer girl, I would have done the same. But I’m not a clever girl. I follow my heart (a complete idiot if there ever was one) blindly to ruin and loss so that’s how this one ended, with less than I started and two years of equal parts struggle and happiness gone in one conversation. But the time when something is over and the time when it actually ends can be very different, so eight more months of indecision and uncertainty dragged on with me kicking and screaming and refusing before I could finally say I’d let it go.  

And now it seems time to let the islands go too. I’m giving it one last try. I applied to one other position. Do I fit the qualifications? Hardly. Am I anything like they imagined the person for the job? Certainly not. Could I do the job? Like a champ. But I’m exhausted of fighting the odds. It feels like I’m always swimming against the current, always going uphill. I seem to pick the least likely, most hopeless situations and then hammer away at them like a fool trying to turn lead to gold.

In times like these, I know exactly what I need so this particular morning I hopped on my bike, intent on fresh air, exercise, and scoping out the top two thirds of the island. And they were truly stunning. Tall stately pillar cacti; bright green brush and grass newly refreshed from last week’s downpours; rocky inhospitable shorelines with impossibly blue, white-capped waves breaking against them; sharply carved  caves and overhangs; salt flats filled with leggy waders; and hills topped with forests hiding goats and donkeys and iguanas. Dozens of lizards sunning themselves on the bike path scurried to the right and left in a panic like the Red Sea parting before my front tire. My favorite was the troupial. Its audacious orange plumage, long mockingbird-like tail, black face, and yellow-lined eyes reminded me of a hardened jailbreak artist. Unlike the soft, lilting, modest coos of he doves I was accustomed to on island, this bird had a sharp, single note call which it repeated with no respect to its unpleasantness. Super cool bird.

I let the week go in the burning of my lungs and legs up hills. I took the time to explore the towns and stopped at one of the many roadside bars to enjoy a cold lemonade in the company of the loud, raucous locals heckling one another in a completely indecipherable language. I paused to appreciate the proud architecture of the Antillean homes with their bright yellow walls, steeply slopped roof peaks and terra cotta tiling. My time here is likely counting down, and I don’t want to miss this, so I focus on soaking it in and then chide myself for once again forgetting my camera.

The best thing about the day though was the down hills. Whoever came up with the saying “It’s all downhill from here” never rode a bike and has no idea what he’s talking about. It’s kinetic energy turned to potential and released in a glorious explosion of gravitational free fall. There’s nothing like the rush of the wind past your skin and the mild thrill of realizing you’re not completely sure these brakes could stop you if you needed them to. It’s a moment’s break in the long slog up hill, the reward for the work when you can stop pushing and let the momentum pull you through to the next incline.

It’s these moments where I can say “Today is good”. I don’t know about tomorrow and I don’t know about two weeks from now when my contract ends. To be honest it’s been years since I could say for sure where I would be in a month’s time, but I hope to god the next move is the right one, the good one, the one that sticks. Maybe the universe sent me down here for a reason and there was someone I had to meet or something I needed to do, but really I won’t know that until well, I know that. Right now it all just feels like a monumental waste of energy and time, but I’m trying to stay up. I’m waiting for the down hill and maybe the harder the climb, the better the descent.

Back home, I enjoy my well-deserved chocolate and chuckle over my impromptu language lesson with the neighborhood grandpas. Today is good and tomorrow who knows, but I keep hope that one day soon when all the pushing is done I’ll be able to smile and say in my funny Creole, “No worries amigo, ev’ry ting aire. It’s all down hill from here.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Fake It Til You Make It

Ima hustler homey, you a customer crony. Got some, dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off fo me?

One ever present component of the endless, mindless banter which runs in my head (a dialogue with no one but my alter egos) is the ridiculously bombastic remarks. According to one of my personalities, I totally get Kanye West, y’know, cuz we’re like, the same person. Not really of course (I mean, he’s East coast for goodness’ sake and I’m from Cali), but he knows he’s the shit and he’s not afraid to speak the truth. Just like moi, but with considerably shorter stacks of cash.

This voice cracks me up constantly and you will find me giggling to myself like a crazy person, especially whilst doing some kind of repetitive task like polishing silver or data entry. I think this alter ego came about from my years of working as a yacht stewardess. From the outside, it looks like an awesome, glamourous gig, I mean, you live on on yacht worth something like $10 million and your boss is probably on the Fortune 500 list. And if you’re really lucky, some snot-nosed, new money chump will charter the boat and do something stupid, like boast about having banged Paris Hilton just before he upchucks Cristal all over the poor Russian hooker. This will give you fodder for sitting at the pub for weeks afterwards ripping this trainwreck apart with your mates (this is assuming you’ve got any time off between the 100 hour work weeks) and giving you that warm, brothers-in-arms comraderie that at the end of the day, is the only thing that makes that job doable. Well that and the fat tip the chump left you because he (rightly so) felt a little sheepish seeing you delicately dabbing his puke out of the stupid expensive, cream-colored, silk fiber carpet. It’s these times of moping up puke or wiping pubes off the bathroom floor or ironing someone’s pillow case for the third time that day because for heaven’s sake, it cannot be wrinkled, that you just have to turn to yourself and say “You jus jealous cuz I make this look goooood”. And then giggle alone like an insane person while trying not to retch at the puke smell.

It works well when I’m trying to push myself through a workout as well. Who’s gonna run this town tonight?, you ask, Rihanna. Why me of course; I’m dat bitch.

And right now, at this time in my life, I need to be that super confident person more than ever because I’ve finally started to put my life back on track. Let me explain.

I went to school (and a darn good one at that) for environmental sciences, but I’m a pretty rootless wanderer and strayed from that path a long time ago. I almost settled down once. After a year’s jaunt to the remote Pacific to live with “the people” and be an elementary school teacher in a building where the roof was caving in, the woefully irrelevent textbooks filled the holes in the floorboards so the kids would stop falling in, and there was no electricity (or chalk for that matter), I almost took up a normal life. Granted I picked a city on a map of America I’d never been to, packed up my little car with as many of my worldly possessions as would fit, and drove across the country to maybe live with a roommate I met on Craigslist (he turned out to be a wonderful human being and a great friend and not an ax murderer, by the way). Did I mention I had no job and no money? Well I did eventually get a job at an excellent consulting firm doing mostly skull-numbing desk work in a dreary, grey suburb. Three months into that, I got a text message from my chef sister in France asking if I’d like to drop everything I was doing, come work on yachts, travel the world for a while and get paid waaaaay too much money to do laundry. Twenty five wasn’t my brightest age so I said yes (bien sur!). What was meant to be a summer job, ended up being a four-year career and try as I might, getting back into my old line of work proved incredibly more difficult than my 25-year old self had ever imagined.

Luckily my 29-year old self is somewhat more clever (god I like to think so, but sometimes not) and I did actually manage to land an excellent and super challenging position as a communications assistant for an organization in the Caribbean. Awesome right? Except I’ve just spent four years learning how to get red wine stains out of Roberto Cavailli dresses and how to organize the hell out of a cleaning cupboard (yes I have 17 types of stain removers and I know how to use them all). I’ve never been a communications anything. Didn’t study it, don’t know how to do it. I haven’t even figured out how to make this blog visually appealing yet (please forgive me for that). I started it because I frankly need to learn how to use this internet thingy for more than facebook-stalking ex’s and the occasional funny cat video. I mean, I haven’t even had TV since probably the mid-2000’s. I can’t figure out my sister’s digital satellite TV with it’s four different remotes. She likes to tease me by trying to introduce me to the “Moving Picture Box”, said very slowly with a comforting hand placed on its slim side. I smirk and respond with something like “It’s so darn skinny, how do they fit all dem people in thar?” Nine hundred channels and I can’t find anything but Kardashian crap and infomercials; how on earth am I going to master this social and traditional media thing?

Add into that the fact that despite what the job desciption says, I DO need to learn a whole new language (or even two, there’s a crazy local creole here as well!) because intercontinental communication is pretty much the name of the game. Plus I’ve decided that I need to “expand my horizons” and “take advantage of my situation” and all that crap so now add getting my PADI advanced scuba certification in there, taking up mountain biking, and maybe salsa dancing. Luckily all these things distract me from the fact that my love life has swirled the bowl and gone down that drain, but anyway….

I got this job because I basically whored myself out to a similar organization (and I mean that in the best way possible, I loved every minute of it, but I pretty much forced myself upon them and said “Make me your bitch! I want to learn and I will do anything”) just to get my foot in the door and gain some skills. But my style was pretty old school. I got things done by knocking on doors, sitting in receptions day after day, or in last ditch efforts, figuring out which car the person I needed to speak with drove and camping myself out next to his Toyota like a stalker until I finally got my man. My flyers were designed by myself, in Paint, and looked strangely similar to the pictures I used to make in KidPix when I was 8. But it worked. It really worked. I actually pulled off that whole grassroots gumption thing and I was so proud at the end, I could have melted when the fundraising check was handed over to the NGO manager live on the radio.

But this is a whole different animal. The rules are different, the players are different. I might try to look all put-together and professional with my new thick-rimmed spectacles, but the Birkenstocks give it away. I’m a hippy who can’t work a Moving Picture Box. And I need to figure out how to please some very very tough customers and perform a job I’ve never done in my life, but not in the way I’m used to. Working hard is no problem, it’s working smart that is going to be trickier, and I’m only so clever.

So I’ve decided to fake it ’til I make it and hope to God I pull it off and get offered a permanent contract. I’m only on a trial contract and I’d say my future hangs in the balance. I know for a fact several people that came before me got the ax. So this means I bring my work home with me quite often, or I spend my weekends trying to learn Dutch and write profound and provocative proposals. Unfortunately four years of living an erratic lifestyle (oh who am I kidding, an entire erratic adulthood) has completely ruined my attention span and I have so. much. to. learn.

I’ve never listened to a podcast in my life, but I’m starting to get savvy with ones relevent to my field (suggestions welcome!). WordPress is another one of those things I’ve got to learn. I can’t even get the printer to do what I want it to most of the time. Sometimes I hiss Office Space-reference laced threats to the HP 3650 whilst standing three inches from it, just to make sure it doesn’t eff this print job up again and waste yet more paper (I’m so sorry trees). I’m learning the jargon too, slowly. Things like “targeted focus group”, “compelling content”, and “intended impacts”. But it’s hard to pretend like you know something and at the same time frantically try to make that true before anyone figures out the dirty fact that you don’t.

Luckily all the rappers of the world got my back (except Pitbull, he can sod off. I love Miami and he is soiling it. That guy can’t even spell swagger let along wear it). Flo Rida sings in my head daily “Cain’t see me with ten bi-NOK-luurs!” Sometimes I even wake up in the morning and give myself a checklist. 1) Brush teeth 2) Put on trainers and run like hell 3) Be AWESOME all day 4) Brush teeth again, and try not to forget to floss this time. I don’t always achieve my list, in fact, I feel like I rarely do, but I will keep telling myself I do. I might only run three miles and it kills me, but I tell myself I’m well on my way for that NYC marathon. And my thoughts and ideas and proposals may be cock-eyed and half-formed, but I tell myself if I just keep putting in the time and effort to do the research and revise, one day I will put something on my boss’ desk that will actually make her believe she’s hired the right chick for the job.

And while my head gets filled with the many tasks I’m juggling, I’ve luckily found my newest creative outlet (and you’re reading it, woohoo!). In all those years of running around (or maybe even from) the world, I almost forgot how good it feels to write and to create and to put beautiful words to beautiful paper and think beautiful thoughts you’ve never thought up before. And in time I’ll get the rest down and when that happens, man I tell you what, I’m gonna shine so big and bright you couldn’t see me with a hundred binoculars.

At least that’s what my homeboy Flo Rida might say.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

If it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much… unless it’s ethnic food in which case it is constitutionally inedible

I was rather inspired tonight. To my Dutch chef-cook friends, a little advice. There is a lot I admire about the Dutch and I’m sort of in a unique circumstance amongst Americans to opine. Your infrastructure, health care, beer, and the way your young men wear properly fitting jeans and floppy, blond hairstyles. All TOPS. Really. But your ethnic food? My god. Let’s start with a quick lesson. The role of ketchup may mystify you as it has been nearly usurped by mayonaise (yuck, but ok, I kind of get it), so here are a few guidelines to help out. Ketchup goes on FRIES. Not ribs. Not chicken. And it sure as s*&^ does NOT go on NACHOS. Ever. Or sweet chili sauce, or whatever it was on those “nachos” I was served tonight. As well, shelf-stable, processed cheese food product that comes out of foil wrapping and a cardboard box has no place on my nachos or any plate for that matter. You have gouda, you know what good cheese is, how is this complicated? Guacamole should not be smooth, homogeneous, and made from some vacuum-sealed grey goop. It should be made from AVOCADOS. And served within like, 10 minutes of preparation. I would say no Dutch chef actually has any business serving Mexican food until they’ve spent a minimum of 6 months in Oaxaca and have literally had their misconceptions beaten out of them with a variety of fragrant, spicy, pupil-singing chilies. Mole is a subtle delicacy and utterly delicious when done right. If I find out any chef has melted Hershey’s into chili powder and called it mole, I will dip them “Goldfinger”-style into the Hershey’s factory melting pot.

A side note. Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Philipino all describe different countries and they also describe radically different cuisine. They pretty much just have ginger and rice in common. That’s it. Everything else is different and you cannot dump the same bottle of sweetened soy sauce on all of it and interchange these names however you like. Don’t even get me started on Korean and Japanese. We’re not there yet, I understand that. All in good time.

Why so angry you may ask? I don’t mean to be, but let’s face it, I’m spoiled. I spent my college years living in a neighborhood called the Gourmet Ghetto and I had world famous 4 star restaurants, phenomenon-producing coffee shops (like the shop owner/barista taught Mr. Starbucks how to roast coffee, I kid you not), spectacular bakeries, homemade noodles-like-grandma-never-made it pasta shops, new york-style delicatessens, you name it, all within walking distance of my apartment (not to mention a plethora of farmers’ markets brimming with more heirloom tomato varieties than you could, well, throw a genetically-engineered franken-tomato at).   I spent the last couple of years mainly on a Caribbean island renowned for its restaurants. God bless it, we had “The French Side”. If ever you wanted fine French cooking with a tropical, seafood twist at competitive 1 euro/1 dollar rates, we had The French Side. To top it off, I’ve worked with a good many excellent chefs and have learned a thing or two about whipping up a decent yogurt curry or pumpkin pancakes with creme fraiche or even a Moroccan couscous that would fool most people into thinking it wasn’t made by a white chick.

But anyway. I’m a foodie. A gourmand. A snob. I admit it. I think Anthony Bourdain is a rockstar. My Global chef’s knife is one of my prized possessions and dare I say it, I believe I can be trusted to use truffle oil (just a touch darling!) And I love the Dutch, I really do. I’ve spent an awful lot of time in the Dutch Caribbean, in Holland, and in the presence of many fine Dutchmen and women and count several of them as my closest friends. But the cooking… If it ain’t appelflappen or something meat and potato-y, forget about it. Traditional Dutch dishes are hearty and pleasant enough, but they won’t shock any taste buds with unexpected wonder (except maybe those preserved whole fish that people dump raw onions on top of. Please, no exhaling for at least two hours after that).

Besides the horrible “nachos” that we ate anyway (they were there and we were hungry, and besides that, they made us laugh), the entertainment was quite fun. A Dutch jam band covering American classic rock n roll and doing a pretty good job of it. I tapped my toes and clapped along, all sure signs that they did Stevie Wonder justice. Rage Against the Machine however, hit a far more sour note, but good effort. One of the best signs that I’m seeing a good jam band though, is when I get an insatiable urge to want to rock out as well. When you realize it’s on your bucket list to get a band just like this at a live karaoke so you can sing your heart out to “Jolene” (in the style of Mindy Smith, please) and imagine bringing tears to the eyes of all that listen to your soulful and piercing rendition, well then you’re just pipe dreaming but hey, dreams have their place too. Unfortunately the only tears I’ll bring to anyone’s eyes at karaoke will only come about if they’re eating chilies, like one ought to with Mexican food! I might delude myself a little, but I know my rendition of Shakira at the local latino bar’s Mexican ballad karaoke night was a hit more because most people were plastered at 2 am than any real singing talent. Still I get my kicks.

Well that is enough ranting for one evening. I just couldn’t help myself, but it’s all love! Just please, think before you use ketchup. Mexican cuisine is artful, varied, and comes from a long tradition of women who knew how to make the most delicious meals from the foodstuffs they had available. That does not mean you can take creative license with ketchup, please!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Oppan Oprah-style!, alternately, Everything here is sticky.

So I think I’ve decided to go Oprah-style with this blog. You know what I mean if you’ve ever seen more than two episodes and since the woman’s been around 25 years and somehow has partial ownership in the psyche of the majority of homemakers in the world, I think you have. One show funny and irreverent (“Fun crafts to do with all those leftover wrapping paper scraps post-holidays!”) and the next darkly serious (cut to child soldier stories in the heart of Africa and babies with missing limbs). Ok so I won’t go quite so bi-polar (frankly the serious Oprah stories leave me depressed and feeling guilty about my apparent inaction and insensitivity in the globalized world, oh Oprah, how I wish I could be more like you!), but you get the drift. The last was a little heavy,which is why I’ve chosen to write about….. stickiness. Everything in the subtropics is sticky. Look at the pads on the feet of the little froggy who decided to join me on the terrace the other night. Sticky is how we do it in the subtropics.

Image

Wee little froggy hangin out on me terrace

So I’ve come to this new island in search of adventure, rediscovery, challenge, but mostly I’ve decided that for 2013, my goal is to fall in love with MY life. Not anyone else’s or anyone else, for that matter. This is the year of the big ME as 2012 has been almost utter and total kok save for a few shining moments. I have made the unilateral decision that I’m no longer even living in 2012, merely in pre-2013, thus ending the shittest year of my life with several months to go, but I digress. What I’ve forgotten in the last 6 or so months I’ve spent in the luxurious, air co’d, climate-controlled yacht I’ve been living on (sounds cool huh? haha! if you only knew, but that’s another story!) , is that trekking out on your own is a bit… uncomfortable, at times. I love it, don’t get me wrong. My passport proves it. But honestly, I told myself the next destination was going to be somewhere terribly cultured, erudite, modern (but historically fascinating!), even downright stuck up. Like Paris. But I’ll take London or Amsterdam in a pinch. Somewhere where humidity doesn’t constantly linger in the upper 80’s percentiles. Where hot water is to be expected and window screens are not some vain luxury and the bug repellents (if they are even to be found) are thoroughly approved by the governing health body of that nation. Our bottle is spelled “Atack” and the label looks like someone stuck Mandarin into an early version of Google Translate and then hit “print”. Hope you don’t mind random spleen cancer or having the world take on a slight shade of green for 24 hours after accidental inhalation. As I write this I can hear Spanish music blasting from the dilapidated passing cars on pothole-filled roads, gentlemen neighbors having lively discussions in some kind of local creole my brain refuses to absorb, and a couple of donkeys braying (but donkeys always seem agitated about something here). One hand types while the other swats at mosquitoes. Kansas this ain’t, but funnily enough, I’m growing to like its charms.

Though I’ve woefully lost my developing world stomach (DO NOT buy the meat on sale your first week in a new country, they do not have 24 hour CVS here, you will be screwed), I’ve found my ninja fly and mosquito smashing skills are still second to none. I’m just a few wax-on, wax-off lessons from getting them with chopsticks I tell you. I killed some two, three dozen flies in under twenty minutes yesterday all with merely a rolled up Dutch scuba diving magazine.

All this swatting and squashing you might imagine, leads to endless sweating and endless showers. In the morning, in the evening, after every activity. Why just last Sunday my new roommate and I went for an innocent evening stroll to work off some of the all-you-can-eat BBQ we had at a local resort (she gets company discounts, hallelujah! A break from peanut butter and whatever bread product is on sale!) and were swept up in a parade. I kid you not, we stepped out of the car just in time to watch the USA contingency pop out in front. pitifully outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Venezuelan representation behind them dancing to choreographed football anthems in matching “I <heart> Venezuela!” t-shirts. But let them have their fun. The next day they would have to deal with Chavez’ reelection, but tonight, Bailamos! Seeing our addition could easily swell their numbers by a good 50%, small US flags were quickly shoved in our hands and a stars and stripes embossed visor plunked graciously on my head and we were pushed into the whole foot stomping, waving, cheering festivities. Rather jealous of the Venezuelan football song, one patriotic reveler incited a chant of “USA! USA! USA!” which we joined in on for about 5 seconds, until we realized that much like our foreign policy, we seem to unintentionally come off as far more aggressive than we had originally meant. Sowwy! Like I said, they have Chavez to deal with so we gave the floor (or rather street) back to the well-organized Venezuelans.

Still, it was a mess of small-town fun. We shuffled and shimmied our way through a good 8 blocks before finally turning back, realizing it was late, we were tired, tonight was a school night, and above all else, we were sticky again.

Speaking of which, I’m sticky right now and it’s bed time and I have my new job to be bright and shiny for tomorrow. Because tomorrow is a new day and I intend on getting off on the right foot with 2012, 3 months early. One must never forget reality is just a construct that can be changed by simply eating the right side of a mushroom. Just ask any Cheshire Cat or white rabbit. I did end up having to return my stars and stripes visor, but I reckon I’m still a Mad Hatter and it’s time I got sleep. But first, of course, one last shower….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment