never squirrels

Megan, my CS host, was working until late afternoon. Given I had only an hour’s distance to cover hitchhiking from Minnesota, I made it to Eau Claire before noon. She had left a key hidden for me, and there was also potentially going to be a CSer from New Zealand there when I arrived. He was. His name is Peter, and this was his first time in the States. His first time off of his continent, in fact. He had come all this way to attend the Eaux Claires music festival (and here I thought Sunita and I had make quite the trek from Washington last year). He was a pretty interesting guy, rather chill, mostly quiet. I didn’t mind. Megan arrived home early and made tacos for us. We had a mostly uneventful evening, which is my preference on hitching days.

Peter and Megan were gone before I awoke the next morning. I was excited about my day in Eau Claire. This is probably the most random stop on my trip. But Sunita and I didn’t get to explore much when we were here for the festival, and I’ve been wanting to come back ever since. I walked downtown to the farmer’s market, and then meandered through the streets. I happened into a record store and decided to buy my first ever record – I don’t even own a record player! But I guess I like the idea of owning my favorite albums in vinyl. Only albums that are perfect. This first one was the self-titled album by The xx. But now I have a record to lug across the US with me. Great decision making, always. After strolling, I ended up back at Megan’s before taking a bike ride. I partook in something she said everyone should have upon visiting Eau Claire: a hot and hammy. Which is a delectable dive bar sandwich. When in Wisconsin(?). I biked around until late afternoon, through parks and over bridges. I quite like Eau Claire. Megan was home when I got back, and we went to the Lazy Monk brewery to enjoy their patio overlooking the Chippewa River. I like these tame destinations. I especially enjoyed people watching here. Eau Claire feels like a bit of an anachronism to me. It’s the type of place where small gangs of kids bike the streets without their parents; it feels small, it feels safe.IMG_4945Megan dropped me the next morning at what I felt was a strange location, but eventually  I understood why. It was a road filled with businesses, and I tried to walk past them to an actual highway, but the road turned from normal business lined street to fast interstate with no warning. I walked several miles to get to the nearest on ramp, in hopes of calmer traffic. There was calmer traffic yes, but also noticeably less traffic. I finally acquired the first in a long and tedious series of rides. This was my hardest day thus far. I definitely had to work for my miles to Geneva. There was a lot of walking, a lot of being dropped off at in-optimal exits, and a lot of patience. It did feature two notably great rides. The first was two best friends who offered for several minutes to take me to Milwaukee so I could catch a bus. When I finally convinced them I wasn’t interested, the conversation shifted to other things.

Dale: Do you tell your parents where you are?
Me: Yes.
Dale: Did you tell your parents you’re in a van with two black men?
Me: No.
Dale: Do you associate with black people?
Me [laughing]: Yes
David: Of course she does man, she wouldn’t have gotten in the car with us if she didn’t.

Around this time David gets a call, and tells what is presumably his female that he picked up a girl hitchhiking. She apparently didn’t believe him and he hands the phone to me, “tell her who you are.” I went through a conversation with this woman, explaining just why I am hitchhiking across the country. Satisfied (after reprimanding me), she asks for David and I handed the phone back. He said she was jealous. They gave me their number in case I needed anything, ran into any trouble, or was ever back in the area. They also insisted I text them upon reaching Geneva, so they would know I made it safely.

The second cool ride of the day was my first solo female. She was twenty-three, and said I just looked non-threatening (I get that a lot.) Her boyfriend called, and she, too, informed him that she had picked up a hitchhiker. I listened, amused, to her side of the conversation. He was clearly concerned, and she was enjoying taunting him from her entirely safe situation. My favorite part was the line “She’s traveling from Washington to Florida, and I’m party of her journey!” that’s exactly the spirit I hope for.

There was a handful of other rides, but the final one I’ll detail was the last. I was dropped at Cassie’s exit on I-90. On my map, I could see she lived just off Randall Road, but what I didn’t realize was that it was fourteen miles away. Ugh. I was ready to be done for the day. I walked a bit down Randall, looking for a place where cars could conceivably pull off, but knowing I had no chance. Already defeated, I stuck my thumb out and tried to pretend like I was happy and hopeful. This lasted for about ten minutes before I gave up and trudged to the 7-eleven nearby. I bought a tall, cold tea and was ecstatic about consuming it. As I was exiting the store, a man coming in stopped me. “I saw you on the street…do you need a ride somewhere?” Astounding. “Uh, yeah, I just need to head down Randall for like fourteen miles.” He didn’t even get anything at 7-eleven, he just cleared out his passenger seat for me and drove me all the way to my destination. People are the best, sometimes.

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psiouxdo patience

I was standing on the side of I-90, my faithful friend these past few weeks, by 8am. The sky was overcast, and the morning was windy. A welcome change from the eastern heat I’d been traveling into. Rapid City saw me standing there for nearly an hour, slowly losing the hitchhiking confidence I’d been building up since the commencement of this trip. In Europe it was longer, but I think in the US about half an hour is the point where your hopefulness drops from Full like a balloon with a slow leak. Or maybe an air mattress – even more depressing. Anyways, I retired my thumb and made a sign for Sioux Falls, my destination on the other side of the state. A blue semi pulled over nearing my hour mark, and my spirits returned instantaneously. “I have to pick up my load, but I’m headed for Sioux Falls,” the driver said, when I climbed up and peered into the window. I hesitated. It was only about a four-and-a-half hour journey. How long could picking up a load actually take? I figured maybe an hour. And hey, new experiences. Probably largely because I was sick of this particular section of highway (and because certainty is enticing), I grabbed my bags and hopped in. A decision I would regret for the duration of the day.

What my lift had failed to mention was that his load was back in the opposite direction, in Spearfish, SD. Which added about an extra three hours of driving to our journey. Upon arriving at the lumberyard, we found out the man who was to load our truck had just left for his lunch. He didn’t return for at least forty-five minutes. And then he had to load thousands of pounds of lumber onto the truck. And then it needed to be strapped down. And then we had to weigh it, to make sure we weren’t overweight. And then came the tarping process, for which I was recruited. All in all, it was almost three more hours. My nice, easy, four-and-change hour journey turned into a thirteen hour ordeal. I was not making it to the barbecue my CS host in Sioux Falls was hosting.lumberWe passed alternating endless fields of corn, wheat, sunflowers, soy, and something neither of us recognized. I have to say, since I was with him so long, I didn’t feel bad about taking time to read. I don’t usually get much reading time when I travel, but I’m about a fourth of the way through Cloud Atlas. It was nice, reading and not having to put effort into interacting (for twelve hours.) We didn’t stop even once after leaving Spearfish. Not for food, not for the bathroom. He booked it to Sioux Falls, and even forged his records so we could make it that night. Travis, the truck driver, dropped me at the edge of Sioux Falls, and Travis, the CS host ducked out of his barbecue to acquire me. We arrived back to a circle of people in the parking lot of his downtown apartment. There was a ton of food waiting and I partook with feeling. We had a rather late night, and I felt drowsy long before we turned in. But I was glad to have arrived.sunflowersTravis happened to have off on my full day in Sioux Falls. He’s an outdoorsy fellow, so we headed for the water. He had a kayak, to which he tied an inflatable raft. I had it pretty easy, because he did all of the paddling and I just kicked back and got a summer’s worth of sun. We were on the Missouri river, and we were positioned loosely between South Dakota and its dastardly neighbor Nebraska. The current tried its best to get us closer to the latter, but we had no intention of crossing the watery state line. For hours we had warm sun and cool water, but quite suddenly grey started overtaking the sky. Travis started the against-the-current paddle back towards shore. Not so far along, the life jacket fell off my raft and beyond my reach. I shouted a quick ‘hold up’ before sliding off to retrieve it. Travis hadn’t heard me, and was paddling further away. My first instinct was to whistle, but between giggling about being left behind, and trying to swim after my departing vessel, I couldn’t form the sound. So I switched to shouting. Alas, my voice couldn’t carry over the distance and the speakers playing the usually perfect sounds of The Tallest Man on Earth. I couldn’t stop giggling in order to swim effectively, and so I eventually donned the life jacket and hung out until he noticed I was missing. It took awhile. He was nearly back to shore when I could see the small figure of his kayak turning back. Reunited, I relayed what had happened, and he shared the utter fear he had felt at the realization that he had quite possibly just drowned his couchsurfer*. He had to rest for a bit before we could continue, and in the meantime a squall kicked up. He had his work cut out to get us back, and powerless to help on my little raft, I curled into the smallest ball against the cold and rain.

After warm showers and sushi, we strolled through downtown Sioux Falls, to its namesake. The falls were nicer than I expected. Wide, multi-leveled, sprawling waterways formed a beautiful location for sunset. But we didn’t stay long, instead we retired early for a classic film, The Thin Man, and then I slept superbly after an active day of sun and water.

In the morning Travis drove me to my hitching location, and hopefully a day of better decision making than the previous portion of my travels.

*come to find out, this wasn’t his first almost-drowning-of-a-couchsurfer. I had encountered a serial drowner, if you will. siouxfalls

this land was once a million miles

I was walking a long, unused highway for who-knows-how-long when David, my CS host in Rapid City, SD texted me to inform me that he would be picking me up. Upon retrieving me and my bags, he asked tentatively ‘are you opposed to eating at Dairy Queen?’ I wasn’t; I eat anything, on the road. It was the first fast food I’ve had in ages, but after a long day of hitchhiking, I can’t say that fish sandwich was anything but satisfying.

David’s house is an absolute work of art. He very particularly chose his neighborhood, a charming historic district in Rapid City, and built his house in a traditional style. You can tell everything about it was done intentionally, and the details are stunning. From the rockwall climbing the wall of the room where I was staying that leads to a secret play space, to the window saved from the original house that sits between the laundry room and the stairwell. It felt luxurious and homey all at once. After our fancy fast food dinner, we pulled up a few chairs on David’s porch and sat in the darkness exchanging travel tales. David is a water engineer, and has worked in Haiti and Timor. He had been part of the peace corps, as well as the Australian equivalent. He has lived an impressive life thus far, and has a unique perspective. I knew from his response to my couch request (“you have a home in Rapid City”) that this would be a welcome environment, and that was totally true. I did feel entirely comfortable both in his home and in his company. During our conversation we would have to cut our sentences short to allow for the storm blowing through, shaking the trees down to their roots and making our voices indistinguishable behind the noise. I’ve missed these storms.

I slept in and it felt marvelous. Downing a few slices of zucchini bread fresh from David’s garden (yes, he grows zucchini bread), I set off on the day’s adventure. I headed straight for the heart of the city. The day before David had told me the story of how the town square had come to be. Basically the area had been inhabited with some off-colour businesses, including a porn shop. This guy Hillenbrand bought up the businesses that he didn’t feel fit into the vision of a town square for the community, and turned the strip into something everyone could take part in. Which I think is totally awesome. I made a slight detour on the way to check out Art Alley, because street art. Duh. My favorite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI grabbed some tea and set off for the dinosaur on the mountain. At the top, not only could you hang out with dinosaurs, but you could see all of Rapid City. Here I received a text from David saying he was leaving work early, and we were going on a tour of the surrounding area. I arrived back home just as he was pulling in.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur destination was partially uncharted. David had heard rumor of ‘the Hippie Hole’, but had never been. It took some tricky navigation, but we arrived, and made the trek down to the pool that was deep enough for cliff jumping. There were other people there, but not many. We watched one person jump before David made the plunge. I followed, carefully choosing my landing, as we had been warned that some girl at some time had landed in the wrong place and ended up in the hospital. Lovely. But after seeing two other people go for it and survive, I felt confident. It’s exhilarating, jumping, falling, landing in water that is the absolute perfect temperature. The rope for climbing back to the top was a bit tricky, as the rock face was soaked. Scarier, in fact, than the jump itself. Still, it was worth it. We took several turns each, and helped a group of Jamaicans encourage their friend to make the jump. What we didn’t realize was that the guy didn’t know how to swim. He nearly drowned his friend and David who were trying to help him back to the edge. But, spoiler alert, everyone was okay. hippie holecliff jumpingDavid took us for a ride through the Black Hills. It’s a gorgeous area, and the time of day was just right. We decided to take a hike at The Cathedral, stopping to eat raspberries along the way. The path we took didn’t lead back to the car, so we planned on (hoped to) hitchhike back. We had to walk for a bit before anyone stopped for us. Our salvation was a family who thought something was wrong and straight up asked us if we were psychos. They made room that they didn’t have for us and we piled gratefully in. To finish our adventure, we had some ice cream sandwiches and did a drive-by of Mount Rushmore. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADinner was a handcrafted hodgepodge of dishes. We had grilled sweet potatoes, stuffed grilled peppers, and a fresh caprese salad. It tasted glorious after an active day in the sun. I had a late night and an early morning, with hitchhiking on the horizon. Sleep is valuable, but hey, you can sleep when you’re home. More experiences than daylight can hold – that’s the wandering life.

two hour sandwiches

I didn’t spend a lot of time in downtown Bozeman. Despite it easily being one of the most fondly favored cities in America. But I rather enjoyed my days nestled into a cabin in Bear Canyon. Pam works on the trails in the area, and I just happened to request her couch (presence) on her off week. This was her first couchsurfing experience, which I was excited about because I wanted to do my damnedest to make it stellar. However, in this Pam was prepared to beat me profusely (by being a more superb host than I was a guest).

Upon dropping my stuff at the house she and her friend Richard took me for another outing of pizza and beer. Immediately producing pizza for a guest is pretty much the best possible situation. We sat outside on a balcony with a beautiful view of the Bridger mountains and spent a few hours getting excited about each others respective lives. Pam was already prepared with ideas for how to spend her days off, my visit in Bozeman, and our time together. Our first stop was the S.L.A.M. festival, which was the free option of the two music festivals happening in Bozeman at the same time. There is no television in the cabin, so we spent our just-before-bed hours listening to music and enjoying the presence of the people we were with. It’s so nice to actually be entirely where you are. No distractions in time or space, just a steady here-ness.

Pam, Richard, and I went out for breakfast and a stroll through downtown the following morning. After which we took her dog, Obi-Wan, to the most beautiful dog park I’ve ever seen. We spent a lot of time discussing plans for the evening, and ultimately narrowed it down to hot springs, or the neighbor’s hot tub (if there were no airbnb guests). The latter won, and we spent the evening watching the sun set behind the mountains, the stars slowly appear, and bats fill the air around us. I had only requested to stay with Pam for two nights, but I ended up staying another, which was fine by me. We had a giant homemade breakfast and a not-especially-successful berry foraging outing (I did get my fresh Montana huckleberries). The remainder of the day was spent slowly making ceviche and chatting. Pam is one of those people that I pretty instantly wanted to be good friends with upon meeting. You know how you just get excited about some people? Pam is like that, she is one of those humans I am proud of, just for existing. Despite only knowing her for three days.IMG_4900I usually try to start hitchhiking at 8am, or 9am at the latest. Both because I think there’s better traffic earlier in the day, and because the weather is nicer. I awoke at 7:45 and had everything packed and ready to walk out the door by 8. Pam offered to make breakfast sandwiches and I agreed to yet more of her generous hospitality. Pam’s heritage is Mexican, and you can see it in the time she takes to prepare and eat meals. It is an enjoyed process, rather than an activity to be gotten through. And in the way that talking becomes more important than doing. We stopped halfway through to enjoy a coffee and a tea. I think a few years ago I would have started getting anxious about not leaving when I had planned to. But I’ve learned a decent amount of calm in the past several years, and I’ve also made people my priority. I gave my time and attention to our morning’s conversation, and it was full and rich and intimate and irreplaceable.

Pam dropped me at the edge of the interstate, closer to Bozeman. I was situated on a slight hill, and the land all around was flat. I could see for miles. It took me an hour to get a lift, which I at first felt a little rustled about, but then I realized how short of a wait that is in the vast world of hitchhiking. I’ve gotten spoiled in the past week. Finally, a bright blue car pulled up headed for Livingston. Upon settling in, I was offered a twinkie, and politely declined. My lift hailed from Pennsylvania originally, and when I asked why he had relocated to Montana his response was ‘crime.’ I thought he was trying to make a funny joke about how he came to escape or pursue a life of crime. But actually he had been a police officer. Apparently he had specialized in cross dressing to catch purse snatchers. Which I didn’t know was a thing, but I guess it is. After he dropped me in Livingston I had barely stuck my thumb out before a black truck pulled over and took me as far as Billings. The man was an electrical engineer working on a new school in North Dakota. He also had a degree in aeronautical/astronautical engineering and had done that for awhile. No big deal. My final ride of the day was my first semi of the trip. A couple. Debbie moved to the back so I could sit in the front. They were from Missouri, and their accents proved it. The ride was filled with sugar and cigarettes as we cycled through conversation and comedy sketches. We passed a university in Lame Deer called Chief Dull Knife College, which we all found amusing (and you can bet there was a volley of ‘not the sharpest tool in the shed’ jokes.) We hit a black sky and heavy wind and rain before the most vibrant, full rainbow I’ve ever witnessed appeared. Debbie and I nerded out over it and took a billion pictures. Five hours later, they let me off at my exit and I felt like I had lost a bit of short-term family. So it goes…rainbowIII

early meteors

Jed is a musician first and foremost. I could tell from his CS profile, and you can tell almost upon meeting him. He met me at his house, where I deposited my stuff in my tiny, cute, peculiar guest room. He had band practice that evening, which I was invited to, but first we were off to the Top Hat, where his [main] band plays regularly. It was one of those situations where he knew everyone we passed, and we stopped to chat with quite a few of them. The majority of our time was spent talking with Tom, a recent retiree from New York who spends his summers in Montana. We made plans to have pizza and beer with him the following day. Sitting in on band practice was a delight. They play bluegrass, I suppose. I’ve never been good at determining genres. It reminded me often of Irish music, and old English folk songs. We spent a good three hours there, and I enjoyed it immensely.IMG_4839.jpgThe first day in Missoula I spent, typically, wandering. Objective number one was breakfast. I chose a place with ‘Brazilian fast food’, which is a bowl of epic deliciousness. I got the large size and it was enough for three meals (which is pretty much a backpacking win). I walked all of the downtown area, stopping in wherever looked interesting. Despite not generally being into museums, I popped into the Missoula Art Museum, which was free. There was a fantasticly haunting photo exhibit. Definitely one of the better museum experiences. It was becoming a quite warm day, and I felt that tingling need for ice cream. So I scouted out the place with the most locals hanging around, saw the words ‘chai’ and ‘milkshake’, and my day was made. I actually got a dirty chai milkshake, at the recommendation of the cashier. And it quite officially wins Best Milkshake I’ve Ever Had award. I had one the following day as well. Should’ve had one the last day as well.

After a stroll through the University of Montana campus, I met up with Jed and Tom for the aforementioned pizza and beer, and spent a few hours talking life. Jed had music practice with a different band, but instead of joining again (I was tempted) I chose to hike to the top of the “M” for sunset and stars. Which, was a great choice. I made it just as the sun was dipping behind the mountains, and stayed until well after it became dark. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI remained in Missoula an extra day for ‘first Friday,’ which is apparently thing, though I had never heard of it. Jed’s band, Dodgy Mountain Men, was playing for a good portion of the evening. But before I settled myself in for another night of fantastic music, I followed Jed’s advice and peeped into shops, and saw a bunch of local art. It’s such an interesting event, most places serve free alcohol, and so people just wander from shop to shop with their beverages. Which, apparently doesn’t happen anytime except for first Friday. It felt like a tight community. At least on this night. I found Tom again, when I finally returned to the parking lot where music was happening. I was definitely ready for dinner, and Tom happened to mention that the venue in front of which they were playing had one of his ‘favorite menu items in the world.’ Which, pretty much sold me on it. It’s a couple of huge corn cakes, topped with fried eggs, black beans, cheese, salsa, and other delicious and flavorful sauces and such. Duh. I stayed for most of the music, but went in and out of listening carefully, because people in Montana are friendly. I was drawn into several conversations with the fun and fascinating individuals who inhabit Missoula.IMG_4888_2The following morning I was planning on catching a ride with Jed partway to Bozeman. But his plans got pushed back until late afternoon. So, at 11, he dropped me at the same interstate ramp at which I had arrived a few days before. I forewent the sign and just thumbed it. A car pulled over and offered to take me one exit, which seems funny to me. But I appreciated the gesture, of course. There wasn’t a ton of traffic, on this Saturday morning, but I got a ride within fifteen minutes. A giant blue truck stopped right in the middle of the road, and blocked all of the oncoming traffic for about thirty seconds while we talked. After determining that he was, indeed, going through Bozeman, I waved apologetically/gratefully at the line of waiting cars and hopped in. He was part of a two car caravan, and his friend was pulled off waiting for us on the on-ramp. They had just taken a mining course in Missoula, and were headed to Wyoming to lay tracks. Jack met both of the most common reasons-for-the-lift markers: used to hitchhike back in the day, has a daughter my age. We had a three hour drive together. Part of it covered diverse topics such as motorcycles, hitchhiking tales, ghost stories, surfing, Washington being the best state (he lives about an hour from Olympia)…I was surprised to hear a funny beeping sound at some point, and enlightened when he gave a long breath into it. I’ve seen breathalyzers before, but it’s still disconcerting when your ride has to use one every twenty minutes. Disconcerting perhaps, but a surefire way of knowing you’re not riding with an inebriated driver, which I have (in Ireland). About ten miles before reaching Bozeman, we were on the topic of self defense. He was explaining how he had taught all of his kids to use firearms for their protection, when his whole face lit up. “Actually, you should take this!” he said, nonchalantly, as he pulled some giant brass knuckles out of his door. I laughed, and declined under protest of unwanted weight. Oh, weaponry. As soon as my personal caravan dropped me at my exit, the sky let loose. We had seen the dark sheets of rain for miles, but finally, now, it arrived. My couchsurfing host was potentially going to pick me up from the exit, but I hadn’t heard from her in a bit. I sat under the overpass for a bit, until the rain lessened. And then started walking. I made it perhaps a mile before Pam pulled up ahead of me, apologizing profusely for making me walk in the rain. I never did mind rain, and Bear Canyon makes for a beautiful walk under a thunderous sky.

shotfuls of shared time

Flying to London with less than three weeks notice is definitely unusual for me. Spectacularly spontaneous, as it has been put. I’m quite solidly the ‘purchase-your-ticket-six-months-in-advance’ type. But, honestly, I didn’t really even need to think about it. There was no mulling, no careful consideration of costs, no hesitation about taking the time off work. I was going, I was absolutely going, and that’s just how it was going to be.

You see, while yes, I am in theory flying to London for a party. It’s definitely more than that for me. My good friend Jean-Marc is taking leave of his flat which I’ve come to think of as another home. Which…may be weird. That a place I’ve been to only a handful of times could feel so hugely like home to me. But it does. It feels at least as much like home as any of my previous residences. When I have visited my old roommates in my old apartments, I still always felt like I was coming back home. I still knew where everything was, and I still felt like I was a part of life there, albeit an infrequent part. And that’s how I feel about Jean-Marc’s dear old flat. I know how to get there from anywhere in London (blindfolded…or not), I can just about guess the exact contents of the refrigerator and freezer, I know what the light coming in through the bathroom window looks like at any point during the day, I could trace from memory the decals on the wall. And then there’s Jean-Marc himself: I can’t name too many people that I’ve spent so little time with and have such a huge affinity for. Indeed, our so-called ‘quirky bond’ is the stuff that legendary indie films are made of. It’s just…from the most epic and entertaining stories you will ever hear, to the ceaselessly brimming enthusiasm about…life?, to the entirely random chunks of the encyclopedia that must be lodged in his head, to his passion for visiting every part of this extraordinary planet, to the infuriating command of an enviable amount of languages he casually throws around, to the mastery of interacting with practically anyone on any occasion in a matter of seconds, to the umm…skilled (and by skilled I mean magnificently amusing) dance moves…I dunno. Everything. Everything about that man makes me glad for his existence. And grateful for having the pleasure of knowing him.

While Jean-Marc wasn’t my first couchsurfing host, he was the first good one. He was a superb one. After our real first couchsurfing experience, Christy and I both felt sort of meh. Couchsurfing seemed a cool concept, but turned out to be less awesome than it sounds. We had this conversation while lugging my entirely-way-too-overly-filled backpack and her two baby-elephant-sized suitcases across the very stair-filled underground stations of London. On our way to the flat of the guy who had responded to our emergency couch request. We more or less decided that we probably wouldn’t do any more couchsurfing after the conclusion of this two week trip to London. And then, and then we heard a contagiously friendly voice greet us before we even reached the open door of Jean-Marc. Jean-Marc, one of the most exceptional human beings I’ve encountered. Jean-Marc, who’s seen me at either the beginning or end (or both) of just about every trip I’ve taken to date. If we were unenthused about couchsurfing before our whirlwind few days with Jean-Marc, we were enchanted completely by the time we left. My parents are known for their exceptional hospitality (it is, in fact, so ingrained in me that I went to school for the damn concept). Likewise, my childhood best friend’s family was ever social and seemed always to have company casually lingering around as though their house was the local favorite coffee shop. I’ve known hospitality and sociability. But I had never experienced it at this level, had never known it from strangers. I became intoxicated by this new potential, this unexpected aspect of life I had stumbled upon.

So I’m in London with my best friend and we’re trying this newfangled couchsurfing thing. And I find myself falling in love with these people whom I had never even heard of a few days prior. Like, head over heels in love. I don’t want our time together to end; I want to hold on to these new relationships like I desire to hold on to all of the goods things in life. But instead I’m just enjoying the ephemeral time we have. It’s all I can do. Jump in and swim before the water dries up around me. It is temporary, but it is good. It is enough. Don’t get me wrong – I love the people who are constant in my life. I need them. But there is something so inexplicably magical about choosing to invest, too, in people who won’t always be there. Being real with people who are present in the here and now. There is a whole universe of potential out there when you open your circle beyond just the people you’ve known.

I guess my point in all of this is: Jean-Marc was the beginning of this. Jean-Marc set the standard for this sharing-a-snippet-of-life-with-strangers phenomenon. For embracing the unknown as much as the familiar. And so, I attribute the life changes that have come from all of this greatly to him. And there have been many. My entire outlook on life has shifted, the whole way I interact with the people and the world around me has been transformed. I’ve shed all of my childhood fears of strangers in favor of hopeful potential, and it has brought about a terrific satisfaction to my existence. To not allow whether or not I know someone discourage my ability to have an authentic interaction with them. It has changed everything for me.

So, that is why I’m not just flying to London last minute for some alcohol-infused party. I’m flying to London to celebrate the end of a dynamic that has unequivocally rewritten my life. The dynamic of a man I didn’t know, his ordinary flat, and his peculiar passion for captivating strangers. I have no idea what my life would have been like if Christy and I had decided to call it quits after that first couchsurfing experience. If I had never met Jean-Marc and, consequently, all of the incredible CS hosts (humans) that followed. Not to mention all of the other strangers with whom I have shared various experiences. But I can’t believe it would have been nearly as exciting or fulfilling. I’m glad my life has gone in the direction it has. I’m glad I am open to interacting with whomever I might encounter. I’m glad I’ve seen the world from the inside of dozens of residences across the globe; felt life by sharing it, briefly, with people in vastly different situations than my own. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to share my home and my little life with people I’ve never before met. And a huge portion of my gratitude goes to Jean-Marc Knoll for showing up to change my life. So thanks, JMK, and let’s give a freaking phenomenal sendoff to that spectacular old flat.

raclette-dinner-ii

chameleon by proxy?

My fourteen hour train from Da Nang to Hanoi was the nicest journey yet. I watched more beautiful scenery pass, listened to a few podcasts, talked for hours to a man whose English was no better than my Vietnamese, and slept until we arrived in Hanoi at 5:30am. My couchsurfing host welcomed me into her home just as she was leaving to teach at university. I went back to sleep and then ventured out for breakfast. I decided on pho. My first day in Hanoi was pretty uneventful (which I don’t consider a bad thing). I had actually planned on bypassing Hanoi in favor of a smaller village, but then decided to get my visa for Myanmar there. However, upon arrival, I decided to instead get it in Laos, as the process seemed quicker and easier. Soo, there I was.    Dung is kind of a perfect host, and a wonderful human being. I’m glad I accidentally failed to skip this city, because meeting her and staying in her house has been such a pleasure. I think that if you are in the care of a Vietnamese person, you are in very good care. Dung has provided me with so much food (very insistently sometimes! To which I didn’t object), so many recommendations about both Hanoi as well as some of my upcoming destinations, and a lot of knowledge about random little things in general. Dung is an English teacher – both at university and at home. But I think she is a teacher to her core. She is very thoughtful about things and has a lot to share. She was busy teaching classes for long days during my stay, but still managed to find a few excellent tour guides for me. The first two I met while talking with some of her students during their class. She liked giving them the opportunity to put their English to practice with a native English speaker, and I was happy to oblige. Anyways, she asked for volunteers, and two of the guys agreed and we scheduled a ‘tour of Hanoi/English session’ for Sunday.   On Saturday Dung was having a dinner party with some of her ex-students. I was invited, and I happily accepted. The food was a so good. One of the women lives in Australia and she had brought beef back with her! So we had a soup with a very gingery broth. In spurts, fresh mushrooms, greens, tofu, beef, and eventually noodles were added. There was a burner in the middle of the table, and we all continually served ourselves tiny bowls of soup. It was so delicious and so filling. Probably because I ate a few pounds of soup. The group was a fun group as well. They spoke English to me (she taught them well!), but I equally enjoyed listening to them chatter amongst themselves in Vietnamese. I think the people here are very expressive, and this group had a high level of playfulness. It was fun to take it all in over my steaming bowls of soup, which I was constantly reminded to refill. I spent a lot of time talking with one woman in particular. Her name is Thao. She expressed interest in visiting Washington and we discussed that for awhile – how long you need in order to experience the pacific northwest. And then she invited me to her home later that evening.

Before that though, I had another sit in on a class of four eleven to thirteen year old girls. We talked about boys and animals and geography and ghosts. I know I’ve said it before, but I’m seriously so amazed by the language skills of people here. You think they only speak Vietnamese, but then they can carry a conversation on any subject!Thao picked me up at six and we went straight to her house for dinner. I met her parents who live with her, her husband, and her two sons. The meal was a diverse mixture of different meats and different vegetables. I got to try a lot of different dishes and they were all good. We spent some time with her younger son and his two friends as they played games to improve their English. Then it was off to the night market. Which turned into a nighttime motorbike tour of Hanoi. A superb way to see the city, as it turns out. I got to see a lot of famous landmarks and hear the stories behind them. I spent the night in a spare room in Thao’s house, and in the morning we went to a huge park for a stroll. I love the parks here. You can see elderly people wiggling around to stay fit, aerobics, yoga, dance classes. All sorts of active people if you get there at the right time. After looping around a few times we went for a breakfast of mixed seafood soup, which Thao insisted on paying for. These people are so generous! I’ve come to understand that you are never allowed to pay for anything! We got back a little late for my daytime tour of Hanoi with Dung’s current students.

Quân and Sống were my guides. I felt a little disheveled compared to their well dressed state, but I didn’t have time to address the issue. Instead I donned the spare helmet that was offered and hopped on the back of Quân’s motorbike. We went first to the old quarter. A section of town I walked to every single day I was in Hanoi, but had yet to really enjoy. We popped in and out of shops and had the unhealthiest assortment of foods you could probably compile, but they were all uniquely Vietnamese and they were exceptional. There was a shop of what seemed to be candied fruits (and vegetables? I’m pretty sure I tried some candied beets). We had doughnuts from a street vendor. Doughnuts here are filled with a thick, creamy fruit paste. Or at least most of the ones I’ve tried have been. I think I’ve detected passion fruit and maybe jackfruit or even durian. Due to the heat we were forced to stop for ice cream. It was the kind on a stick and it was an icy lemon on top with a creamy mint on the bottom. And finally, my favorite, we had this sweet fruit soup (Hoa Qua Dam). It had watermelon, jackfruit, longan, dragon fruit, thick slabs of coconut, papaya, avocado, cantaloupe, mango, and little green balls of jellies. This is all comes cut up in a bowl with crushed ice on the side, and over it is poured coconut milk, and you know how in the US we cut down [perceived] unhealthy ingredients to make dishes healthier? My mom does this with alfredo sauce, substituting evaporated milk for heavy cream. I have a recipe for carrot zucchini muffin/cupcakes where I substitute apple sauce for oil. Well in Vietnam they cut down their coconut milk with sweetened condensed milk. Because it’s delicious. It was the most refreshing possible thing at that moment, and I’m sad (yet again) that I don’t have access to tropical fruits to recreate it.  So after our sugary food adventures we went back to Dung’s, defeated by the heat. There we sat in the classroom for a few hours and chatted. I asked about geoducks, because I had read that Washington exports them to Vietnam, and indeed, they are apparently really popular in certain areas! Weird. Dung prepared lunch for us before we headed back out. Next on the itinerary was the Temple of Literature, the oldest university in Hanoi. It was gorgeous. And it was filled with nearly graduated students doing photo shoots. The women all dressed in traditional, white ao dai. Following we did the One Pillar Pagoda. Which is basically the tiny house of pagodas. And nearby is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, so we walked there too. It was a very historically, architecturally, culturally, and culinarily educational day for me! Quân and Sống were excellent tour guides and, surprise, they insisted on paying for almost all of the day’s treats. I managed only to foot the bill for the ice cream. Oh, Vietnam how you have spoiled me.