I’ve got a golden ticket, I’ve got a golden ticket!

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People. I just booked my ticket to Dakar. I wanted to lock it in before the dust settled on my Elsewhere trip and the paralysis and despair of unemployment (which started this evening) wrapped me in its death-grip. I also thought, wouldn’t it be nice to go into the new year with something to definitively, concretely look forward to and plan for? And why wait? The longer I put it off, the more opportunity I had to start squirming.

So I’m flying to Dakar on Valentine’s Day, which seems appropriate given how I’ve loved Senegal from afar since the age of 14. The amazing thing about this trip is that while I panicked two years ago when I purchased a solo ticket to Argentina (13 days long) and became mildly anxious when I booked a 1-person trip to Mexico City and Elsewhere (11 days long), I barely batted an eyelash of anxiety when I confirmed this ticket (one-way, i.e. unlimited-days long). Practice makes perfect, I guess.

Now I am heading downtown to raise a glass and toast not only the new year but also the next adventure, 22 years in the making.

Happy new year! Or, rather, bonne année et bonne santé, from someone who will be speaking nothing but French in a matter of weeks…

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Coming out of the woodwork

woman_on_map.jpgIt seems that the more boldly you go in the direction of your dreams, the more readily you find kindred spirits going boldly in the direction of their own very similar dreams.

It started two years ago when I traveled to Argentina for my first solo adventure abroad (apart from Vancouver the year before, which barely counts). I met a 20-something Korean woman who had been backpacking alone for four months across South America even though she spoke maybe 40 words of Spanish and even fewer of English. I sat next to her on the bus back to the hotels from the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls one night, and then ran into her at the entrance of the Brazilian side early the next morning. We walked around the falls together, and though we understood next to nothing of each other, her bad-assness translated perfectly.

A few months ago at a Speakeasy event I met a French woman in her fifties who was in the midst of long-term travel. She is the only person I have ever met who has taken a cargo ship to get where she was going, and she did it by herself. I asked her all about it because I would love, love, love to do a leg of my (still-nebulous) journey via one of those ships but am just a little wary of what that would entail. She assured me it was safe, clean, fascinating, generally awesome. More inspiration in the bank.

In Mexico City two weeks ago, I hit it big. At breakfast on the last day of my trip, I met a Dutch man whose adventure started twenty-something years before when he moved to Sweden after studying Swedish in school. He just loved the idea of Sweden for some reason, much as I love the idea of Senegal without really being able to say why. After something like twelve years there he quit his job as a translator to travel through South America and Asia, but he ended up staying in Buenos Aires for almost three years because he loved it so much. (Much as I fell head over heels for Argentina.) At some point, his former company called to offer him translating work that he could do via telecommuting, and he realized he could travel at the same time. So he’s been a veritable nomad for twelve years. He speaks seven languages, several of which he learned in his thirties, and he did it via self-teaching and immersion rather than classes. I practically bowed down to this man for offering living proof that it could be done.

Then I returned to work and found out that it was a colleague’s last day. I hadn’t talked to her much before but we started a conversation and learned that we are the same age, have trained in similar fields, and are both about to take off on a self-financed trip to Africa to finally do what we’ve been meaning to do for years. She plans to head to Tanzania in January to document the situation for Burundians in refugee camps. I told her I’d see her there – since, you know, we’d be nearly 6,000 miles from each other but we’d be on the same continent, so of course I’d come to visit.

Because that’s how you’ve got to think when you’re thinking big.

[Photo: Kate Ter Haar]

my new smartphone rules

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I am something of a Luddite. A hypocritical one, as I rely on modern technology to do my work (documentary and news production), but a Luddite nevertheless. I don’t embrace machines that make life easier unless they free up my time in the world (dishwashers!) instead of taking time away from it (stationary bikes).

Even though it is a supremely useful device, I resisted getting a smartphone for years because I didn’t want to turn into a person who was more engaged with my phone than with everything and everyone around me. I succumbed a couple of years ago when I realized that without one, I was at a distinct disadvantage work-wise. Knowing that I tend towards an obsessive personality, I set rules for myself to try to limit the extent to which the smartphone could suck up my presence and swallow my soul. But as expected, I broke every single one, and little by little I became a smartphone brat like the rest of them.

There’s nothing like seeing how people live in a country with hardly any computers or smartphones to recognize that I am in my terrible twos of iPhone ownership, and if I don’t impose some mom-like discipline on myself, I’ll turn into a complete and utter wasteland. So it was two weeks ago on the plane home from this place – where it was impossible to use my phone as anything other than an alarm clock and camera, where I did not go online once, and where the digital age was limited to televisions and flip phones – that I decided to take advantage of the momentum and reset myself with some stringent smartphone and Internet rules:

– phone /Skype conversations only at home, at work, or parked somewhere. No walk-and-talks.

– no walking and texting, ever.

– text checks 3x a day max, unless I’m in conversation with someone and/or time is of the essence.

– email checks 3X a day max except work emails while at work.

– change notification settings so I don’t get any phone alerts when texts or emails arrive.

– use apps only for “necessities,” meaning: navigation, weather report, my schedule, checking on important work-related stuff, writing notes, accessing my bank accounts, getting the news, mapping my runs. (I know I am pushing the definition of necessity.)

– use social media only for work, except Facebook no more than 1X per week and for no more than five minutes at a time.

– no mindless Internet browsing – must have an objective in mind when online. Once that objective is met, get. the. !@#%*$. off.

Good rules, no? I’m going to see how it goes and reassess in a few weeks.

Switching cultural languages

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When I first read the sign in the bathroom that asked in broken English for all paper to be thrown in the trash and not in the toilet, I assumed it was translated incorrectly. Because how on earth could people deposit their soiled toilet paper in a can and leave it there, in the house? I had bucket flushed my way through the Philippines, but this practice struck me as way more unsettling.

After seeing significantly placed trash cans and/or strongly worded signs in every bathroom in the country except in the fanciest hotels, throwing my dirty paper in the trash became a thoughtless fact of life. I got used to it far more quickly than I would have imagined, and the first time I used the bathroom upon returning to the States, I hesitated before dropping the paper in the toilet, needing a second to convince myself I wasn’t about to do something horribly wrong that would ruin the pipes. But within a day I was mindlessly back to my old habits, including unwinding way more toilet paper around my hand than I actually needed, because I’m a germaphobe and the toilet paper here is cheap and readily available. Elsewhere, it’s a luxury item and I used the bare minimum necessary to not be gross.

Though it’s perhaps not the best thing to talk about in public, my nearly auto-pilot switches back and forth between one mode of toilet paper usage and another really struck me. I guess I hadn’t thought about the fact that every culture has a nuanced, far reaching language all its own, and that learning to speak a cultural language is its own process distinct from any linguistic one. Or maybe I had thought of that before, but not in relation to something as banal as toilet paper.

(P.S. I’m going to try to speak the cultural language of sustainability and reduce my T.P. usage, now that I’ve seen what I’m capable of.)

¡progreso en español!

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I left for Mexico City on the last day of my Spanish class, a perfect segue between theoretical practice and putting it all into actual practice. My hope was to get a full immersion experience, use English as seldom as possible, and come back speaking Spanish leaps and bounds beyond where I started.

Problem is, I don’t know that much Spanish to begin with. I’ve learned two forms of the past tense but not the one that seems most important, the simple past. Likewise, I know the easy form of the future tense (ir + infinitive), but not the more sophisticated one. I am clueless when it comes to using verbs with se at the end, because I keep projecting the French rules for reflexive verbs onto them, and they just do not follow those rules. And my vocabulary is severely limited.

It’s not easy to immerse with such a small tool set. So, my level of success was varying. Sometimes, due to accents above all, I could not understand a single word a person was saying, and they could not understand me either. Many times, I thought I was cleverly and rather poetically working my way around the words I didn’t know, when in actuality my creative expression was only further confusing things. Often, I swapped similar-sounding words and wreaked havoc on my intended meaning, as when I told a man that my job was to make girlfriends – novias – instead of the news – noticias. (Akin to when I kept referring to hair – cheveux – as horses – chevaux – in France.)

I had better luck once I accepted the fact that I had to think my words through more carefully before spitting them out, even though I was already talking at a snail’s pace. After a slooooow conversation with two local men towards the end of my trip, one commented to another, “Ella habla muy despacio pero cada palabra es perfecto.” I was thrilled at the backhanded-compliment – despite their obvious belief that I was too slow to understand what they were saying about me.

And eleven days of semi-immersion is all it takes, apparently. By the end of my trip, when I was in a taxi returning to the hotel in Mexico City after my Elsewhere adventure, I became a veritable charlatan. (Not a pretender, as in the English definition, but rather a chatterbox, as in the Spanish. Intriguing, no, that there is an etymological connection between lying and over-talking?) I was making crazy confident conversation. The words were flowing. I understood the cabbie, he understood me. It was like I had hit my Spanish flow.

The same thing happened in France, though on a much higher level. In Mexico, I was ecstatic to find I could form complete sentences with the correct tense and conjugation. In France, I was astounded when I could carry on the same conversations I would have had in English. But in both cases, I kept hitting a wall, hitting a wall, hitting a wall, and then went to bed one night and woke up the next day speaking the language.

In short: immersion makes miracles happen.

[Photo: Wendy]

Senioritis

rope_bridge.jpgI have one week left on my contract, and I’m not looking for a new job. After that I have about a month and a half off before I intend to leave for Senegal, where I will first be doing French immersion and then who knows what (for who knows how long).

This liminal period feels startlingly akin to my last semester of high school after I had been accepted to college and knew that only a few short weeks of classes and two months of summer separated me from a freedom-filled new life in New York City. The things that used to bother me didn’t bother me, and I walked around in a dream, filled with infinite possibility and muted excitement – muted because I knew that if I gave in to it fully the anticipation would kill me.

Now, work is no longer work. New York is no longer New York. Annoying people are no longer annoying. I don’t have senioritis in the traditional sense that I’ve checked out of my responsibilities, but I have it in the sense that I am delighting in the present without being at all concerned by it    instead putting all my energy into my next step, which is so close I can taste it.

For the past few years, there has been meaning and purpose and challenge in my life, but not nearly enough. On some mornings it’s been difficult to get out of bed, and I’ve chalked up my exhaustion to not getting enough sleep. But now that I’m popping awake every day I realize I had just been bored into depression.

Same thing with my taciturn stomach. It did a million times better in countries where you’re not even supposed to drink the water, because I was a million times happier there.

I’m pretty sure at this point that I’m going to make it to Senegal, but even if I change my mind and end up staying here for the foreseeable future, I’ll have benefited from experiencing the me that I am when I’m excited about life. If I stick with New York I’m going to have to figure out how to do it more on my terms, so that I can keep this fun-to-be me around.

[Photo: Clark Maxwell]

ESPRESSOOOOOO

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I mournfully gave up coffee many years ago, when it became clear that my stomach just could not handle it. In switching to black tea I abandoned not only one of my favorite foods but also one of my favorite past-times. Because drinking coffee is an act not only of consumption but also of culture, community, and – due to my extremely sensitive nervous system – hypercaffeination.

When I visited Elsewhere, though, I realized that I could not possibly leave without partaking of the ubiquitous espresso-drinking ritual. This was quite risky, considering the state of Elsewhere’s bathrooms. But one quiet morning towards the end of my trip, I took the plunge. I headed over to an unmarked home restaurant at the top of a nondescript apartment building, parked myself at the deck bar overlooking the city and the sea, and ordered a cup of “cafe en el estilo Elsewhere-ano,” because at that point I didn’t realize it was plain old espresso everyone was drinking.

I then proceeded to spend the next two hours drinking my teeny coffee, because savoring it and the view at the same time was about as perfect an experience as you can get. I also figured that would give my digestive system time to alert me to an impending disaster before I had ingested all of the toxins. As it turned out, my body reacted to espresso quite well: I became high as a kite in the smoothest way possible, and without any intestinal distress. My guess is that my only real problem for years and years had been gluten, and in giving it up two years ago I recovered my ability to eat all sorts of other things that I used to think set me off when in fact it was just collateral damage from gluten-induced inflammation.

Since that fateful, magical day (because coffee really is magical for someone who reacts to it like cocaine), I’ve indulged in an espresso every morning. Each time I drag out a cup for twenty minutes,  I experience a three-fold pleasure – the thrill of consuming what feels like it should be an illicit substance, the delight of tasting something so delicious that I thought was lost to me, and the joy of partaking in a slow, Old-World ritual that connects me culturally to two places I love – Elsewhere, where I picked up the habit, and Italy, where it was born.

what luck!

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In the more than two years that I’ve been going to French conversation Meetups, I have met people from virtually every francophone country – except Senegal, the one in which I’m most interested. Last night, less than one week after setting my tentative departure date for Dakar (February 15) and beginning to make concrete plans, I met two guys from… Dakar. They live in New York at the moment, but one of them, Michel, will be heading back soon. I told him he will be my first friend there, and I hope I’m right, because living in place where you don’t know a soul is pretty challenging.

He also works at a really great Senegalese restaurant in Harlem, so I now have a plan for my first lunch as a lady of leisure in January.

Ask, and – sometimes, when it feels like it – the universe answers.

[Photo: Tomo Tapio K]

lo que hice en mis vacaciones de invierno

post_officeConsidering that my command of both French and Spanish is at a grade-school level, it seems appropriate to report on my vacations to French and Spanish-speaking countries with elementary school-style essays. Today I bring you the second installment: DF and Elsewhere edition.

Please note that I did not consult Google Translate or a living, breathing Spanish speaker for this. So what follows is not pretty, but it’s an accurate representation of where I’m at when I have only my brain and Spanish spell-check to rely upon:

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He llegado por la tarde en Cuidad de México (DF) y he ido a mi hotel en el barrio Condesa. La primera noche, he conocido a mi amiga de la universidad que vive ahora en DF. En el restaurante ella me dijo que puedo beber el agua además comer los vegetales frescos, si es un bueno restaurante, porque ellos anudan ‘iodine’ a su agua y limpian todo con este agua. Aunque el más importante reglo que he escuchado para México estaba de no beber el agua, decidí de crear en mi amiga y esperar por lo mejor. O sea que la primera cosa que he comido en México estaba la más prohibida: unos hojas de una verdura con agua no-de-la-botella (no-botellado?). Continue reading