Dusty gravel shifted under our songthaew as it turned into the driveway at the COSA facility north of Chiang Mai. We tumbled out of the open back and were greeted with an idyllic view: soft lawns, flowering shrubs, palm and fruit trees, several low buildings with shaded patios, and the laughter and chatter of girls playing in the grass or carrying school books to their dormitories. They barely noticed us.
Looking down over the elephant’s ears and trunk, the ground started to spin and the midday sun suddenly became both blindingly bright and oppressively dark. My breath came in quick gasps and my vision blurred with tears as I tried to find the rest of the group, fixated on a cute baby elephant sitting in front of them. My elephant’s mahout, or caregiver, shouted commands and encouraged me to shout along with him but my voice was caught behind my heart, now a painful lump in my throat. I heard him from miles away, dimly, through the ringing in my ears. I croaked out whispered gibberish as my lip trembled and the tears spilled over. My elephant lowered her front legs, time froze, and I thought I was going to topple forward and be trampled. I somehow very ungracefully removed myself from atop her shoulders, stumbled backwards, and tried to hide myself behind a pole to lick my wounds to dissect what had just happened. The truth was, I didn’t really know.
I heard about The Giving Lens’ (http://thegivinglens.com/) trip to Thailand on Facebook. A blip, a quick few words on my News Feed from a friend of a friend. Photography? Travel? Philanthropy? All in one trip? I was committed before I even knew the details. What I found out was that this would be TGL’s first women-only excursion, and we would be teaching photography to girls in a facility (COSA – http://www.cosasia.org) that prevented them from being sold into the sex trades, or rescued them from that torture. I was enthralled. I had never traveled anywhere in Asia, and Thailand had been number one on my dream travel list for years. I submitted my passionately-written application and hoped I would be selected to join this project.
I returned from Thailand on Sunday night, after 18 hours of travel. I woke up at 6:20 the next morning feeling ready to tackle my workday. That quickly faded, and I laid down for a quick nap. I woke up three hours later feeling groggy, disoriented, and with terrible heartburn. So this is jet-lag! It is Thursday now and though the grogginess has subsided, I now feel that I’m getting a cold. This finds me in a bit of a funk, like jumping off a moving boat and feeling all the accumulated inertia catch up with me at once.
I took a break from work to sift through some of the 1600 pictures I took while traveling and quickly got overwhelmed. I am not ready to reflect on the trip. Each day was non-stop from dawn til well after sunset. It was so many different things; beautiful, inspiring, difficult, simple, profound, hilarious. It will take me weeks, possibly months to devote the deserved attention to my images, and I know during that process I will find the words to reflect on my experiences.
The rest of the story can be found here: http://thepandaknows.blogspot.com/
With an upcoming trip to Thailand, I told myself I need to document it. I’ve never been much of a writer, never kept a diary, but when I traveled around Europe and Morocco solo for two months in 2007, I meticulously wrote a daily journal. I never knew that seven years and seven moves later, those two tiny journals would be my most prized possessions. I keep them in my nightstand drawer and flip through them from time to time, all the memories washing over me.
Last week I cracked open the blog linked above, only to realize I never typed up the last two weeks of my trip. Huh. I always was a late bloomer. Additionally, that blog was linked to my long-defunct hotmail account and I haven’t figured out how to recover or access it. So there it sits, collecting dust, my 23-year-old self broadcasting her musings of independence to a small, dark corner of the Internet.
And now, before I start a new chapter of white sand, chili & lime, elephants and philanthropy, I will finish my last trip.
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July 14, 2007: Scotland Tour Day 2 (Isle of Skye)
Today began with a short ramble through the beautiful, ancient Coolin Mountains. They slope gently up from the boggy valley floor to form harsh walls of scree (broken, loose rock bits) and disappear into the dense, low fog. We continued on to another short hike, bringing us to the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley. From here we journeyed to the Fairy Glen, an area formed by 40-50 foot tall mounds. Each miniature mountain was covered in soft, mossy grass and dotted with ferns. Many locals believe it to be a sacred or magical spot and use it for meditation, often leaving behind offerings of coins or small presents for the “fairies” that live there. In the middle of a stone labyrinth, I found a picture of a young man. On the back was written “Ross” and a phone number.
Later that day, we took a ferry to the Isle of Lewis, another in the Hebridean archipelago. We were fortunate to encounter a group of teenagers playing music on our two-hour ride; a harpist, accordionist, fiddler and a singer tinkled out traditional Gaelic tunes. Being able to experience local, traditional music on that trip and in Ireland are some of my fondest memories. Something about a timeless melody being echoed throughout the centuries…
We arrived at Blackhouse Village at dusk. Now I really felt as though I had traveled back in time! Our accommodations, perched high on a grassy bluff, were cottages constructed from large stones, cobbled together and topped off with thick, peaked thatch roofs. The sheep from the pasture surrounding us seemed accustomed to guests coming and going, and barely took notice of us as they munched on grass, choosing instead to stare vacantly out at the ocean breaking on the mouth of the small cove below. Inside each surprisingly warm cottage was a kitchen, two bedrooms complete with “rustic” bunk beds, and a comfy living room. We quickly got to work on dinner, cooking up some tomato soup and grilled cheese.
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July 15, 2007: Scotland Tour Day 3 (Polar Bear Swim)
Now this was a good day. Being a water baby, I had been taking note of the ocean and beaches we’d been passing by every day. I knew the water was cold, but the sand was bright and the water was so light it was nearly clear. How could I watch this aquamarine water go by and not go for a swim? So, we convinced Budgee to let us take a little detour. He stopped at a shallow, gentle beach that may as well have been a lake. A few of us stripped down to our bikinis and decided to check it out. I knew if I was timid and only dipped a toe in, I would be too scared to take the plunge, so… I jumped in. All at once. Head under and everything. It was like being thrown into a jug of mouthwash in a walk-in freezer. Yes, refreshing! We estimated the water was about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. After I became so numb I couldn’t smile any more, I ran out and dried off.
Later that evening, after defrosting, a couple of the girls and I grabbed some blankets and climbed onto the roof of the cottage to watch the sunset. It was beautiful, painterly, and a perfect end to the day. The sheep were unphased.
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July 16, 2007: Scotland Tour Day 4 (Burritos and the Cairn)
This morning we visited the remains of a circular fortress. The ceilings were very low (I guess my ancestors were even shorter than I!) and I bonked my head. Clearly it made me a little goofy, because when we made our way to a set of standing stones (think small Stonehenge), Sarah (from Vancouver) and I decided to do some crazy hippie dancing in the recessed cairn in the center of the formation. We did the “Weeping Willow” move and joked about “channeling the power of the liiiiiiight.” This is what happens when you hit your head on really old rocks, I suppose. Later in the day we got to see a restored Iron Age house. The curator showed us how she makes her own pottery, smokes her own meat, and other tasks the same way they were done thousands of years ago.
For dinner, we all got together and made burritos. I loved getting to share something a little “MexiCali” with my fellow travelers from around the world.
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July 17, 2007: Scotland Tour Day 5 (Scrumpy Jack and the Butt of Lewis)
We braved the wind, rain, and freezing temps this morning to see the Butt of Lewis, the northernmost point of the Isle of Lewis. It was pretty, and now I have those bragging rights, so…
After killing some time in Stornoway, we rode the ferry back to the mainland where we met up with another tour group leader, who happened to be wearing a kilt. Some of our group left us at this point, because they had only signed up for a four day tour. I saw Scott, the kilted man, leaning in close and talking with Budgee when I interrupted loudly, “You’re not leaving us, right Budgee? I don’t want to go with that crazy guy in the skirt!” Scott shot me a look of mock outrage and exclaimed, “You did not just call my kilt a skirt!” Everyone giggled at the silly exchange.
For dinner we decided on cooking up some barbecue. At the store I found a hard cider called Scrumpy Jack, and thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did – it was a crisp, dry cider. A couple hours later, our dinner was ready and looked delicious: salad, burgers, chicken, sausage, potatoes, grilled veggies, and mini tarts for dessert. Once we had all filled our bellies, we gathered around the campfire outside our hostel and joined some other guests. Two guys had guitars, playing some of their own rock/folk-ish music. They both poured such emotion into their music; just watching their faces glowing orange in the flickering firelight, I felt alive. When you hear something so beautiful it gets stuck inside your heart somewhere, and I think the only way to pass it on is through goosebumps. I looked up into the cloudy, darkening sky and followed the thick bands of fog to the shrouded hills in the distance, then re-focused my gaze back to our small group huddled in the cold around the burning logs. Maybe it was the beauty of the moment getting to me, or maybe it was just the Scrumpy Jack.
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July 18, 2007: Scotland Tour Day 6 (Back to Edinburgh)
Sadly, today was the last day of our tour. We went to Loch Ness, which really just looks like the many, many other lochs dotting the country. I think Nessie was hiding somewhere in the murky depths because she failed to make an appearance for us.
Upon returning to Edinburgh, I checked into High Street Hostel again and found my favorite chocolate brown leather armchair by the fire. For dinner I met up with Vanessa and Margot from my tour and we warmed our bellies with some local pub fare.
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July 19, 2007: London Bound
After a leisurely morning, I flew back to London for the final few days of my travels. By this point, I’ll admit I was getting fairly homesick. I believe we all reach a point during any trip when we grow weary of living out of a suitcase, changing clothes in a room with 7-10 other people, foraging for every single meal, and generally becoming oversaturated with “newness.” Sometimes we need that “sameness” that drove us to seek out foreign places to begin with. I will tell you, at home it is quite lovely to not have to label my fridge food with my name and date.
Found a (very weird, upon arrival) hostel in London that could accommodate me every night until I leave except for Saturday night. I contacted Brian, my New Yorker living in London Morocco travel buddy (whew! got that?) and fortunately, he said he was able to host me for Saturday night. We ended up meeting later that evening for “Wing Night” (yeah, what?) at an American-themed sports bar near Piccadilly Circus and I can now say I’ve contributed in drinking a bucket of beer. Or rather, bottles of beer in a bucket. The chicken wings and beers were a perfect dinner and eased my homesickness slightly. Brian told me stories of his trip after we parted ways in Morocco, complete with pictures of his trek on a camel into the desert east of Marrakesh – while very, very sick, apparently. In turn, I told him all my stories from the past six weeks. It felt great to meet up with a familiar face.
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July 20, 2007: Free Wi-Fi and Curry Chips
My London hostel was dark, cramped, and smelled odd. It had narrow staircases leading up to the various levels with a room or two off each landing. The common area left much to be desired; I was not interested in hunching over my laptop on a single, musty couch under seizure-inducing flickering fluorescent lights. Back in my room I looked out the window only to see an overcast sky that matched my mood. I was done sightseeing, done schlepping my tired, holey canvas lip-on shoes from Barcelona across dirty sidewalks and gleaming museum floors alike. I needed a normal day.
Brian happened to be working in his office, so I met him there and utilized their wi-fi to do some major blog catch up. In the afternoon the sky had brightened a little, as had my mood. I had quite possibly been weighed down by all the writing I needed to do. Brian had to check out an event space his company was scheduled to be staffing in Charlton, so I went with him. It’s a cute little suburb, with tiny brick domiciles lining its cobbled streets. After surveying the venue, we grabbed a pint and a snack at a real “local pub.” The ceilings were low, as were the lights, and thankfully so because I don’t think I wanted the chance to closely inspect the carpet, which had an…interesting…texture. We enjoyed some curry chips (which now I believe were topped with Sri Racha Chili Garlic Paste – yum!) and savored our beers on the back patio. A little warmer, a little fuller, we ran some errands before parting ways for the evening. I was grateful for the break from being a Tourist and a chance to do something normal.
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July 21, 2007: Pasties and Parties
I woke up refreshed, motivated to be a Tourist again. This was Saturday, so I had to check out of my hostel for the day (they couldn’t accommodate me that night, but I’d be back on Sunday.) I brought my things to Brian’s new flat in the West London suburbs, that he shared with a few other people. Brian’s room was miniscule (quite possibly a closet, actually) and there was a couch in the living room for me to sleep on that night. I had a cup of tea while deciding my plan for the day. My first stop was the Old Operating Theatre Museum, which was essentially a cramped attic stuffed with preserved specimens in jars, some skeletons, cases of antique surgical equipment and what looked like a dentist’s chair. A little creepy, but very interesting. I came across a binder detailing 16th and 17th century uses for herbs and oils; everything from marshmallow root for respiratory ailments to eating a rat while pregnant if you desire a child with black eyes (um, what?) I climbed through a tiny door onto a balcony overlooking the wooden operating theatre. It was a pit surrounded by concentric circles, where students could stand and gaze down on the cadaver being dissected on the table. What a wonderful way to study anatomy.
Apparently the jarred body parts and dissection illustrations stimulated my appetite as well as my brain, because my stomach started grumbling as I left the museum. I spotted the London Bridge Tube Station and remembered from my 2005 London trip that inside was a West Cornwall Pasty Company cart selling piping hot hand pies. Ohhh, now this is the food of my people. I bought a steak and Stilton pasty, chock full of meat, cheese, potato, onion and plenty of gravy. The crust was flaky, the inside was warm, and it was the perfect lunch.
With a warm belly, I walked along the bank of the River Thames toward the hulking Tate Modern, London’s museum of contemporary art. Once inside, I made my way to the top floor and started there, admiring abstract art and sculptures. I saw a Picasso, some sculptural installations made from colored fluorescent lights, and many other exhibits but nothing really jumped out at me. Either way, it was a good way to get out of the rain for a few hours.
My next stop was Fortnum & Mason, a huge department a specialty food store famous for their tea. I was drawn to the beautiful charcuterie and treated myself to a couple delicate truffles. To kill some time before meeting up with Brian, I went to a movie. I thought it would be weird to see a movie alone, but it wasn’t. Oh, how things have changed!
Upon returning to Brian’s flat, he informed me we were going to party that night. It ended up being small, but the people were fun. There was a crazy Asian guy from New Zealand who put on a fairy costume and Freddy Krueger mask while parading around the house. Later, people had migrated downstairs and I found myself alone. When I joined the group again I realized they were doing coke and I was immediately uncomfortable. I had never been around that and had no desire to use drugs, so I excused myself from the room. By the time Brian and I headed home, it was well past closing time for the Tube, but we were sure we could find a night bus. Now, imagine yourself in a deserted neighborhood, following your amped up mate around and around looking at bus schedules, trying to make sense of it. Kind of humorous. Finally, defeated, we sat down on a bench to figure out Plan C. And then our fairy godmother sent us a taxi. From out of nowhere the little black Hackney carriage came hurtling down the road. We jumped up and waved our arms, grateful for the ride home.
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July 22, 2007: Sunshine and Coffee
After a comfortable night’s sleep on Brian’s couch (not a hostel, wow!) I said goodbye to my friend and wished him well. I was so grateful to have a buddy to hang out with in London and ease my homesickness. I was due to meet up with Margot from my Scotland tour that day, and found a coffee shop near our rendezvous spot. I sipped a delicious mocha while soaking up some sunshine on a bench while I waited for her. I loved being able to put my earphones in, detach from the bustling city around me, and catch up on journal entries. When Margot showed up we ate lunch together, then visited the Victoria & Albert Museum. We saw Dali paintings, Man Ray photographs, furniture, sculptures, and stunning garments from 1910-1940ish.
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July 23, 2007: An Old Friend
Ashley Lovejoy, a friend from high school, lived in London at the time, and I was fortunate to cross paths with her during my stay. She had recently married an Englishman and was settling into life abroad. We enjoyed some shopping together then ate lunch at a little place called Hummus Bros. Delicious Mediterranean food.
After a short nap at my hostel, I got a text from a Couchsurfing friend, Baff, who lives in London and works at MTV UK. He wanted to meet up, so I walked the 20 minutes to his office. When I got there, I realized I’d left my phone charging at the hostel. And Baff was only a nickname, so I couldn’t tell the front desk person who I was meeting. Forty breathless, sweaty minutes and a couple texts later, Baff was showing me around his office. It was really neat to see how a TV station works, and of course, being MTV there was a fun element to it all. We made our way to a funky rooftop bar/art space that had a live jazz band and swapped travel stories over a couple beers. It was nice to see yet another familiar face, especially on my last night before heading hom.
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July 24, 2007: Homeward Bound
I cannot adequately express the joy I felt at the anticipation of seeing my family, friends, and home again. I armed myself for the long flight home with the seventh Harry Potter book, and buried my nose in that for most of it. When I was tired of reading, I watched a couple movies. Thankfully the time passed comfortably and I found my mind wandering to the first night of my trip, in Madrid, dragging my suitcase through the dark, cobbled streets into the vibrant lobby of Mad Hostel; I remembered crying in my hotel room in Casablanca out of pure despair and loneliness; warmed myself with the memories of dozing on the beach in Atrani, letting the sunshine bake my pale skin while sweat trickled down into my ears. I recall the first rush of crisp Parisian early morning air upon jumping off the train, or gazing out the dimpled windows from the parlor of the Ballintaggart House across the misty Irish moors.
These past two months have felt like years. I pushed myself so far from the day-to-day comfort zone by constantly meeting new people, finding hostel after hostel in strange cities and deciphering French, Arabic, Spanish and Italian. There were certainly times when I wanted to give up and return to something safe and easy, but I couldn’t. I did not have the luxury to take the easy way out, and I only had myself to count on. Eventually, the changes and challenges presented every day became “normal.”
When I got off the plane in San Francisco, I saw my mom, dad, sister and niece waiting for me like I was a celebrity. They made “Welcome Home” signs and it was so sweet. Yes, I cried. There were many, many hugs. I think I talked the whole drive home. I woke up the next day and didn’t quite know where I was, but after a few seconds, remembered. I breathed, I relaxed.
And then I started planning my next trip.