two zero one six

thirty-four things to do before I die:

1. hitchhiking across the United States, and all of the wonders therein.hitchhike2. seeing Thoth & Lila Angelique in person (after a decade of anticipation).thoth3. attending a mewithoutYou show, at very long last.mwy4. taking the exquisitely scenic train across Canada.canada5. visiting Australia (new country, new continent).australia

bonus items:

I. surprise trip to Florida to see some of my very favorite humans. (and The Top!!)gainesvilleII. revisiting the ever charming Astoria (and its seals!) with Jeremiah.
astoriaIII. roadtripping New England/visiting Vermont: land of Vil, with Sunita.vermont-ii
IV. spontaneous Port Townsend/couchsurfing-with-new-friends trip.ptii
V. taking on the northwestern northwest for Kate’s birthday adventures.nwnw
VI. attending the Pemberton music festival (as a VIP!) with Corey and Stazzie.pemberton
VII. finally making it to the Bahamas (new country) with Corey and Stazzie.bahamasVIII. eventually completing the Mosa Lina road trip via reuniting in long lost Boston.boston

I, for one, have had a stellar year.

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only in nightmares

I feel bad that I don’t have as much to say about hanging out with friends and family as I do about hanging out with strangers. But, what it comes down to is when I’m with people I already know, I am content to do absolutely nothing for days. Because I’m in the presence of people with whom I am already completely comfortable, and whose presence I adore. Sorry friends, it’s not that I don’t love you or am not impressed with you. Quite the contrary.

Actually though, my time in Geneva was pretty eventful. Cassiopeia took me to several of her favorite restaurants, and the girl has fine taste. We indulged in a chill pizza and cookie and movie night. We had breakfast with Todd and Hope, very dear friends from Naples. Whom I also spent my Sunday with, on my own private tour of lovely Wheaton. I got to see the Wheaton campus and their church. We went for a drive to admire the local, so charming architecture. And for lunch and a stroll around the lake. I got to see their home and hang out with their dogs. I love how many dog friends I’ve had on this trip. Also the diversity of the people I get to see. The last time I saw Todd and Hope was in Seattle a few years ago. Traveling by hitching has definitely allowed for a broader itinerary than I could have managed by plane, bus, or train.

Cassie and I also stopped in at her family’s house and biked from Batavia to Geneva. It was a really nice visit. But I miss living with all of my ex-roommates. I love that I have the opportunity to have these moments with people I care about, but it always makes me a little sad, too. 14054448_10157361749315581_6707912444237403548_oScreen Shot 2016-09-04 at 12.20.24 AMIMG_4950
It was a bit of a hassle, getting me to the interstate. Cassie lives an unfortunate distance from both the road I took to get to Geneva, and the road I needed to get out of Geneva. She had to bring her nanny kids and half her family (thanks to all!) to drop me off on I-88. It was a later start than usual, but I’m beyond getting anxious. Everything happens, and all. I got a ride with a posh guy in his thirties. He candidly informed me that he had no license, but it was okay, because he has good lawyers, and it’s not a big deal. Well, at least he wasn’t taking me very far. Interestingly he, too, had lived in Olympia for several years. He even had an Oly tattoo to prove it. I asked him to let me off at exit 136, just before our roads split. But he told me there was an exit for my turnoff. Even better. However, despite him having hitchhiked in his youth (at thirteen!), he didn’t know what he was talking about. The ‘exit’ was literally just a fork in the interstate. He dropped me off with 65mph traffic thwushing past. Lovely. I consulted google maps, and determined that the exit behind me was closer than the exit ahead of me. So I started walking, illegally, backwards. It ended up being a pretty inoptimal on-ramp. But, I didn’t really have much choice. A couple pulled over to make sure I was okay. They approached me as if I were a wild animal; I can’t shake the look of apprehension on their faces. I wonder if they thought I was on drugs, or out of my mind, or perhaps a criminal. Regardless, it made me feel disgusting. But I’m glad to have all these miles under my belt, from Washington until here. There’s some substance to your defense of hitchhiking when you’ve traversed almost the entire width of the country.

The couple left, but were replaced pretty quickly with flashing red and blue lights. I’ve had a fair amount of police pass while I’ve been hitchhiking, and it’s always a mixture of relief and satisfaction when they just keep driving. This one didn’t. I felt calm. No quickened pulse, no anxious thoughts. He rolled down his window and I approached with a smile.
 The officer was very friendly. But he told me that hitchhiking was illegal. Which, was news to me. I had researched the hitchhiking laws in each state before I embarked upon this trip. I said as much, in the least argumentative way possible. I asked him politely about the specific laws, and he said that yes, hitchhiking is illegal on all roads in Illinois and had been for some time. This didn’t sound right to me, but I wasn’t about to argue and escalate the situation. I wasn’t being treated like a criminal, and I responded in kind. A female officer had shown up in the meantime, and she more or less took over. She ended up driving me away from the highway to a nearby mall. She had to search me before I got into the car. I was curious about what passersby made of the situation, but I wasn’t bothered. This is my third time ‘hitchhiking’ with a police officer, but the first in this country. The officer, who wasn’t much older than me, was very curious about my trip and my life, and was extremely polite about the whole ordeal. She dropped me off, apologetically, and repeatedly made sure I was alrightIMG_4958I sat on the bench outside of Macy’s for quite some time, trying to determine my next move. My first thought was to try to find a rideshare on craigslist. But there was surprisingly not much happening in the Chicago area. I looked into buses to Indiana (after thoroughly re-checking the hitchhiking laws in both Indiana in Ohio). There was a $6 Greyhound bus from Chicago, IL to Gary, IN. I’ve heard only bad stories about Greyhound experiences, but, it seemed like a decent option. It was nearly noon, and I felt more than a little defeated. I was thinking of heading back to Geneva and starting again the next morning. That was my plan, until I realized that I am not so easily defeated. This is hitchhiking, this is traveling. Things happen and you figure them out and you keep going. Not that there’s anything ‘wrong’ with going backwards, in fact that was one of my favorite experiences with the Birthrighters, when we had one of two failed hitching days in Europe. We spent a bonus night with our CS host in Salzburg (whom we were all slightly in love with), and started fresh in the morning. And not that I would ever be opposed to spending more time with Cassiopeia. But I just felt like it was important, in this instance, for me to move forward. I’ve grown far too accustomed to my comfort zone in the past few years. I google maps-ed it, and found a bus headed towards Chicago leaving in less than five minutes. I took a bus and two trains to get to Gary, Indiana. It cost $11.

Gary, Indiana is probably the sketchiest place I’ve ever been. The eastbound on ramp adjacent to the metro station was closed. Of course. So, I shouldered my bags and walked a mile to the nearest entrance. The houses I passed looked abandoned, but I realized that they were not, in fact. Maybe people were just terrified of their neighbors. Yikes. The people were friendly enough. But back in Oak Brook I had considered sleeping here, and that was hopefully not going to happen. This was literally the worst hitchhiking location I’ve encountered. There were two separate on ramps and there was nowhere I could stand to catch traffic from both. Indiana actually has the most strict hitchhiking laws of any state I’ve been through, and I was not interested in being picked up by the police twice. In one day, no less. Also problematic was the depressingly infrequent traffic. Literally about two cars passed every ten minutes. But I had been through a lot today, and I refused to cave in to negativity. It was dusky, the weather was nice enough, and I was here. A car stopped, and the driver took me further than he needed to in order to leave me in a decent location (it’s really refreshing when people actually consider hitchability.) It was a truck stop that was closed except for truck parking. I considered spending the night here, and trying to get a lift in the morning. All of these trucks would be here for the duration of the night. But I decided instead to walk into town, get some tea and internet, and try my luck with the interstate entrance there. Portage was grand in comparison to Gary. I scanned the area for camping spaces as I walked. There were plenty of good options. This was going to be a fine night. Starbucks is not my favorite, but it suffices in a pinch. I was happy to spend a few hours there.

The sky was black when I finally left. I had scoped out a forested area just by the interstate, but upon exiting Starbucks, I noted a small grouping of trees to my right. I checked it out and decided it would do. After feeling the ground for dampness, and deeming it satisfactory, I curled up with my backpacks and laid there for awhile before falling asleep. The frogs, crickets, katydids, cicadas, and the like were in full swing. The noise from the interstate sounded quiet in comparison. I was pleasantly surprised to see the rhythmic glow of fireflies illuminating my personal forest ceiling. Finally assured that I wouldn’t be disturbed by local hooligans or animals, I pulled out my silk sheet, slathered on some bug balm, and got a pretty decent night of sleep, really. That said, I was awake by 4:30. So I headed to the interstate and camped out in the grass of the Holiday Inn. I’ve never been keen on hitchhiking in the dark, and I didn’t want to take any chances of someone calling the police on me. So I made a breakfast of the madras lentils I had been carrying with me since Olympia, and waited until sunrise. I had known before I started out that I would end up camping somewhere, and to be honest, I was excited about it. I could do this more often.

I had to wait an hour and a half, the longest wait of this trip. Not so much as a stop headed in the wrong direction. Was this how it was going to be, eastern US? I was offered forty bucks for a bus ticket, which I declined, obviously. Finally, I heard a shout from behind me. There was a man saying he would be headed east in a few minutes. I thanked God and grabbed my bags. Not only was he heading east, he was driving all the way to Mansfield, Ohio. Half an hour from my destination! I settled in for a five hour ride. He was pretty quiet, and conversation was sparse. Even though I consider myself a mostly quiet person, I pride myself on being able to elicit conversation from people, particularly strangers. Hitchhiking and couchsurfing will do that for you. I was bomb at getting anyone to engage when I first started at TJ’s. But this guy I could only get excited about his three cats back home. Oh well, I’ve never minded silence. He had been in the military, and now worked on railroad signals. It just so happened that the exit where his road and mine split was the exit for Strongsville, which rung a symphony of bells in my mind. He was going to drop me at a gas station, but on the way I saw a promising sight: Rockne’s. I was pretty sure my uncle owned a Rockne’s in Strongsville, and I called my mom to check. He did, and it was possible that someone in my family would be working. She immediately called my aunt who ended up coming to acquire me. It had taken a lot to get here, but Ohio, here I am.

field of scattered lights

I was deliberately advised not to take the train in Vietnam. I was told a horror story from a couple who had taken the train just a few days prior. Even while listening I knew I would still go by train. They had gotten a soft sleeper overnight train, which is the nicest you can get. I opted for a daytime hard seat, which is the least nice you can get. But the windows open, and the journey was supposed to be beautiful. Vietnam is such a long country, so it makes sense that it would have dramatically different scenery. 

After my [now routine] dragon fruit shake for breakfast, I walked the few kilometers to the train station. As a side note, dragon fruit. I don’t know how I learned about it back in middle school, but at some point I became obsessed with them. I had never even had one, but I just had to grow my own. My mother very patiently, as always, helped me research and find my latest edible plant obsession. We finally even found a dragon fruit, which we tried, and were sadly unimpressed with. I thought ‘maybe it just wasn’t ripe?’ So I didn’t have the chance to try another until Bangkok (although we did acquire ourselves a dragon fruit plant back then, which I think is still growing at my parent’s house). Again, I found it a bit bland and a tad bitter. Not the best. My childhood dream of the amazingness of dragon fruit was officially crushed. Until I had a passionfruit shake in Saigon, and it had a bunch of sugar in. Why? And then I realized that maybe, just maybe dragon fruit might make a really nice shake. So I ordered one. And it was so lovely. Haemoglobin isn’t the key, damnit, sugar is! To the perfect dragon fruit experience. It comes out cold, earthy, and just the right amount of sweet. And if you get the red dragon fruit it comes out in this delightful shade of magenta.  

Anyways, the train to Da Nang. The tiny old Vietnamese woman sitting across from me leaked out sad tears when the train pulled away from what may have been her grandson. She didn’t really speak English, but her and the younger gentleman she was with became very protective of me during our hours together. I wanted to take her picture, because she was very beautiful, but taking pictures of people is one thing I’m still shy about.  

I knew quite quickly that the train was a good choice for me. The seats were hard, and the air coming in was warm, but neither unbearably so. I stayed fairly well glued to the window for most of the journey. In the beginning the landscape was very dry and very dusty, and reminded me very much of the wild west, which I have always had very negative feelings toward. Kev and I agree that even just movies about it make us thirsty. And indeed, I became very thirsty, but alas my water was stowed up above the head of the gentleman next to me. However, once we got outside of the city, I began seeing acres and acres filled with…dragon fruit plants! They are very distinctive, because they are actually more like cactuses, but people shape them like trees. Some of them were newly planted and just had a few long stems, but some of them were quite bushy and had little explosions of red sticking out here and there. There were banana trees too, and probably others that I didn’t recognize. Nearing Nha Trang the scenery became slowly more and more green and more and more mountainous. Now this is my scenery. The ocean also started peeking out every so often. The adorable elderly Vietnamese woman (who had filled all of our floor space with her food and a children’s riding toy, but I couldn’t possibly be frustrated with this woman who was so sweet with me) offered to share her rice and ??? with me. I declined, and hoped I wasn’t being rude. I continued to watch the world go by. The journey was a whopping eighteen hours, but I had nothing else to do. I was the only westerner for several cars, and the people in my immediate vicinity didn’t speak English. There was a little boy in the seat ahead of us who frequently poked his head over, smiled, waved, bounced up and down, and offered to share every food he was given with new. We entertained each other throughout the trip. So much so, that about halfway through his mother turned around to see whom was this person her son was so enthralled with.  She kept asking me ‘Australian?’ And I shook my head no, ‘United States’. She didn’t understand, so the little old lady pulled out a pill bottle (of some sort of shark something or other) and pointed at the tiny US flag on the bottom. I nodded, and the mother said ‘Ooh, American!’ 

It has felt strange to be an American in this country. If I’m being honest, I’ve been embarrassed to own to it. Walking through these streets and passing through this land I can’t help but think US soldiers had no place here. I want to tread lightly on this topic – there are a lot of Vietnam veterans who genuinely believe they did their duty and served their God/country/families/whatever, and it is not my place to call them wrong, and I don’t mean any disrespect. However, in general, I do not support war and the best way I can think to put it is this: I’m heartbroken for all of the atrocities and tragedies suffered by both sides. Equally. And I’m sad in particular that my country broke in and produced a lot of sorrow in this land. The people here have been very kind, even when they learn my nationality. And even on the tours and such they speak no ill of the Americans. As a German I knew once put it, we’ve all had our share of hatred and violence in our country’s histories. That doesn’t dictate who the country’s individuals are now, and we could all do with a heap of grace, understanding, and forgiveness. Okay, subject closed. I don’t feel like I can write an account of being here and ignore our history, but I also don’t want to put blame or judgement on anyone. So, moving on… 

The golden hour found us at one of those magical places teetering on a cliff overlooking the sea. It was absolutely beautiful. I kind of missed dinner, because the woman selling meals needed to get off the train before it took off. My little hen parents were very concerned about this fact, and that I hadn’t eaten all day. They kept offering me various foods, and I accepted some. Including a fruit I’ve never had before. Little green apple like fruits without much flavor. But if you dip them in chili salt they are quite nice. I ended up acquiring a tea and that became my dinner, which was fine by me. I’ve still not been feeling hunger here. 

Sleeping was definitely not a productive activity. Some guy had sat next to me about halfway through the trip, and so neither of us really rested at all. Everyone else on our car managed to get their own seat. Probably because half the ladies laid their straw mats out under the seats and slept on the ground. The train arrived in Da Nang at 3am. I was heading straight to the city of Hoi An, because I came here way before I told my CS host I would be. The bus didn’t leave until 5:30. I thought to stay in the train station and maybe sleep, but in fact it shut down after our train arrived. So I walked the early morning streets of Da Nang and plopped myself on a doorstep to watch the city awaken. 

 

sunshowers in the waiting room

Travel isn’t always the glamorous jetsetting it’s made out to be. Today’s journey from the island of Koh Tao to Bangkok (ultimately Siem Reap) consists of a taxi to a ferry to a bus to a train. The taxi arrived at the pier an hour before my ferry left. The bus connection was on time, but it put me at the train station about eight minutes after the train for Bangkok left. The next train wouldn’t be for seven hours.

Often in my travels there is a lot of waiting, and waiting isn’t especially glamorous. It worked out well, because I was able to finally print my Cambodian visa, and I had time to get a milk-tea-of-the-gods. But that took less than an hour, and now I’m at this train station just…existing. I suppose it’d be nicer if everything just fit together perfectly like a puzzle, but that isn’t the case. And that doesn’t bother me. I like the slow pace of being on the road. I don’t have any of my usual daily rituals to follow, and I get to just take life as it comes. There’s something really special about that.

I think I wrote on this subject at the Burger King in Cologne where the birthrighters spent a long night. About reality being what it is, and not what you might imagine. Right now I could be at TJs stocking shelves, or laughing at that notorious joke of ‘must be free!’ when a barcode doesn’t scan, or maybe at home making a fresh batch of cookies, or maybe even hiking in the cascades. Any number of things that I normally have the option to do, but not today. Instead I’m at a train station in Chumpon and I have the option of interacting with this world with which I’m unfamiliar. I had the challenge of figuring out how to print a document in this city that operates differently than what I’m used to. The Internet cafe was a bit tricky to find and the instructions weren’t in English. But the ladies there were so sweet even though we didn’t understand each other perfectly. We were all so proud of each other at the end when I stood there with two copies of my Cambodian visa in hand and we each said a heartfelt thank you.

I don’t know. This whole day is a lot of waiting, but there is something I cherish so much about it even so. Traveling is about trading the options you encounter in a day as much as it is about a change of scene as much as it is about a change of humans and their particular cultures. I didn’t get to dive back into the ocean today and I’m not yet exploring temples, but it’s still such a blessing to wake up in a place that isn’t home and make new decisions and have different experiences than those I would normally. Regardless of the specifics of my reality – glamorous or rather plain – I can’t not be excited about this exchange of circumstances. I’ll take this day of waiting whole-heartedly and I will enjoy it till the sun goes down.

we haven’t located us yet

I decided to take the night train to Koh Tao so that I didn’t spend a whole day traveling. Before arriving at Hua Lamphong train station, I stopped at a few street vendors and picked up a rice dish with chicken and vegetables, as well as a bag of watermelon. The watermelon I ate immediately, but the rice dish went into my collapsible, leakproof bowl (which I very wisely thought to invest in for just such a purpose) to be eaten on the train.

Supposedly there were no third class tickets left, so I acquired the next cheapest option: 2nd class non-AC, non-sleeper. After we took off, I decided I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the open windows on this car. Thailand’s oppressive heat is dissipated when you are sitting by the window of a train. Or maybe just a night train. Anyways, I think if I could, I would always travel by train. In my opinion, it is the loveliest and least taxing method of getting from one place to the next. I like everything about it: the scenery slowly approaching and then slowly disappearing; the gentle sway of the cars, and especially how it looks to see the car ahead of you on a different rhythm; the sound of the train moving on the tracks, the unique sound of each new thing it passes; the wind against your face and in your hair; the lack of carsickness…I particularly enjoy this night train, even though I’m likely missing a lot of grand sights, there is something so lovely about passing through all of this in the darkness. For instance, the many magnificent little shrines are all aglow in the distance – just enough so you can faintly see the details and colors. And I think there is something more forgiving about the evening lights. You miss all of the rubble and power lines and unsightliness. Instead you get little snippets of illuminated scenes. I love it. I’m meant to be sleeping, but I just can’t force myself to miss this experience. Which is a shame, because despite not paying the extra money for a sleeper car, my seat is really comfortable, and I have two seats all to myself…