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Lessons from the Halfway Mark

16 Mar

No, I’m not halfway done with the AT.  Supersonic speed still eludes me.

What does not elude me is the march of time.  I’m halfway done with my year off — or, as I’ve dubbed it most recently: “my one year escape from the real world.”  “So, like, what would you say you have learned?”, the voice of my Aunt Leslie booms through my cell phone receiver as she crunches down on a Medifast bar.

Looking out a bus window in Australia.  It captures perfectly this feeling that the world is whizzing by, and we're just trying to grab a piece of it.

Looking out a bus window in Australia. It captures this feeling that the world is whizzing by, and we’re just trying to grab a piece of it.

Ummhh, well.  It’s hard to sum up the lessons of 4 months of solo backpacking Asia and the Pacific, 2 months of rehabbing my ankle while raising a puppy in the metro DC area, and a week-plus stay at a silent meditation cult in bumfart Canada.  But, if I had to try:

1.  I have learned… a few new prayers.  I’ve said a few during the last six months (except, I will note, during my time at the meditation cult when prayer was BANNED — yes, still traumatized; will write about it… next century).  A sampling:

  • “God, please don’t let me [expletive] up.”  
  • “God, please preserve my sanity in spite of the craziness happening around me right now.”  
  • “God, please sustain the lift beneath this airplane right now.”

2.  I have learned… that Thornton Wilder (whoever he is) said one of the truest things ever said:  “It’s when you’re safe at home that you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  One of the great — and frustrating — truths of adventure.

3.  I have learned… to see myself differently.  Before (on an admittedly self-indulgent level), I pictured myself as a strong, independent person who has pulled it all together and, like a phoenix, risen from the ashes of life’s sorrows.  But now, when I look in the mirror, I see just another broken person, like all those who walk around me — the prostitutes and the johns and the vacationing families and the other backpackers (or, that’s who was walking around me in Thailand, when this thought first skipped acrossed my mind).  I am broken; we are all broken, in some sense.  And there is a unity in that brokenness that binds us together.  That feeling, racing through your veins, is the antidote to so much — expectation and perfection, fear and inadequacy, judgment and envy alike.  It restores our humanity.

4.  I have learned… the difference between confidence and self-confidence.  Before, I was confident in my ability to succeed at various things.  I strode into job interviews and dodgeball leagues with confidence.  But, I’ve realized, I lacked self-confidence because — if it came to it in the end — I couldn’t weather the storm of failure.  The disapproval of others was hail to my psyche.  It’s like: I bet on the racehorse and I piloted the racehorse, but — at the end of the the day — I didn’t own the racehorse.  Because I didn’t love it no matter what.

You can be really confident and yet lack self-confidence.  The latter — self-confidence — is the tricky one.  It happens at home underneath your covers after you’ve royally messed up.  Botched a work project.  Completely embarrassed yourself in a social setting.  Ate multiple pints of Ben and Jerry’s in one sitting.

5.  I have learned… that — no matter what they say — you can’t enjoy the ride until you believe that everything is going to be okay at the end.  [Note: this is particularly true with airplane flights.]  Six months into this big journey to “figure it all out,” I have figured out little beyond the best way to get gored by a rhino and that Germans are good kissers.

Recently, I had dinner with a friend who queried me about how my life was going to look 5 or 10 years from now.  My reply: “I haven’t got the faintest, foggiest clue.  When I am able to wrest the drunk goggles from my face, I will let you know.”

She looked at me, and she said what I never really knew until she said it.  She said: “It doesn’t matter.  Because whatever happens,

You are going to have an amazing life.

You are going to do cool things.

You’re going to meaningful things.

And, most importantly, you’re going to be happy.”

Trekking through the Longji rice paddies of China.

Trekking through the Longji rice paddies of China (November ’12).

Did I Ever Tell You About…

13 Mar
  • The time, in Koh Pha Ngan, when I beat the boys in bamboo stick throwing?  I negotiated a “girl’s line” without disclosing that I had thrown javelin… in college.
Yeah, I know, red shorts was formidable competition.

Yeah, I know, Red Shorts was formidable competition.

DSC02011

  • The time, in Beijing, when I met a 19-year-old Californian boy, and we spent the day drinking the cheapest booze we could find?  This entailed at least two hours drinking in the aisle of a supermarket, and at least one hour drinking free samples at a wine shop.

Robbie was having the time of his life living in Beijing because every Asian girl there (hint: there are a lot of them) wanted a piece of him.  And so he was giving it to them…  The problem was that he actually fell for one but wouldn’t admit it to himself because she — shocker — wouldn’t commit to him.  He queried me about this phenomenon, all the while referring to this girl as “having gained a few pounds”, “not as attractive” as the other girls in his harem, and — of course — “crazy.”

But that was only the start of the day’s conversation.  It ended with me fielding reams of questions on how to please a woman.  Holy eggroll, 19-year-old boys are a piece of work.

DSC02417

“Robbie Love”

  • The time, in Xi’an, when I bought a tube of chapstick that I thought was on sale.  It turned out not to be on sale.  So… I returned it.  To complete the transaction, it took a sh*t ton of sign language, all six drugstore workers, and I had to fill out a novel of a form that included my height, weight, and father’s name.
  • The time, in Nepal, when I got a giant wart on the pad of my index finger.  Disgusting yes, but talk about freaking annoying.  Available remedies throughout Asia = flunk.  Liquid nitrogen in Australia and New Zealand = flunk.  Regular application of apple cider vinegar back home = worked like a champ.  Seriously, uh-mazing.  Try it.

A Day in the Life

28 Nov

Backdated: November 9, 2012.

Today, I kept a diary of my day, 10-year-old style.

I woke up in Yangshuo, China.  My roommate immediately was like, “holy sh*t, Lucie.”  I was like, “what?”  Then she relayed to me how she got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  She was attempting to return to her bed when I suddenly sat up in bed, yelled at her to “stop right there!” and “don’t move!” before rolling over and going back to sleep.  Oops.  I told her not to worry (though I may or may not have mentioned the time during field hockey camp in Florida when I mistook my bedmate for an alligator and socked her with a pillow).

I did some Chinese calligraphy.  Early on, however, I became bored with attempting to understand the instructor lady and copy her Chinese swooshes and dots and what not.  So I started doing my own stuff.  The instructor lady was not impressed when I explained it was “American calligraphy.”

Then I stopped by the post office, where I stuffed my Chinese calligraphy into an envelope and (attempted to) mail it to my Dad.  It cost me 6.5 yuan ($1.04) and supposedly will take 10 weeks (10 weeks!).  “What?,” I asked the postal lady, “is it going by carrier pigeon?”  Obviously, she didn’t understand.

Sick by the thought of eating another noodle or rice kernel, I then went to McDonald’s and tried to order a hamburger.  In response to questions posed to me in Mandarin, I nodded my head.  I ended up getting a cheeseburger, Coke, fries, and a bacon lettuce tomato double beef burger with chili sauce.

It started pouring so I obtained some rain gear and resumed my primary pastime of walking around aimlessly.

My ankle is still a little tender so when I saw a sign for “Chinese physician cured foot massage,” I was like, great, that’s exactly what I need.  I walked in and the lady said some stuff in Chinese.  Of course, I just nodded my head.  She took me up to the second floor of the house, chased the kids away, mixed up some egg whites and whiskey, and massaged it on to my feet/ankles, being careful to punch my ankle bones every once in a while.  [Seriously, “punch” is the best way to describe it.]  My ankle totally felt better afterwards.  [But obviously, for the record, was not “cured.”]

Later that night, after a dinner of dumplings, I put on my bandana, zipped up my North Face, laced up my hiking shoes, and walked down to the river to go “night fishing.”  Night fishing consisted of a man on a raft with a bunch of cormorants (birds).  The birds would dive under the water and hunt for fish, but they had a string around their necks which prevented them from swallowing the fish they caught (at least the big ones).  So the fisherman would reel ’em back in and steal their catches.

Yangshuo is easily identified by its stunning karst limestone peaks, seen here in the distance.

Sometimes you’re the fisherman, and sometimes you’re the bird. And sometimes you’re the fish.

Unfiltered Thoughts from a Chinese Hostel Room

22 Nov

Awesome Things About China:

  1. You can wear anything you want.  It’s not fashion-forward; it’s fashion-upside-down.  [Sad note: the pictures below do not do my point justice.  I’ll have a word with my photographer.]  I myself have gotten into the Chinese spirit by wearing my beach cover-up over jeans and hiking boots.  I’ve also sported shorts and ski socks.  

  2. There are no kids around.  To scream, yell, throw tantrums in the grocery aisle.  Woohoo, One Child Policy!
  3. Employees are motivated!  For instance, every morning at 10:30 a.m., before they start work, employees at this hair salon must go out on the street and do a dance to get them ready for the day.
  4. You can hock loogies anywhere.  The louder, the better.  It is ridiculous.  When you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Questionable Things About China:

  1. People are constantly hocking loogies everywhere.  Seriously, is that necessary?  I max out at one a day.
  2. Mandarin is a freaking redonkulous language.  Upon learning that no one here speaks English, I made a solid five-minute effort to learn basic Chinese until tour guide Bruce informed me that not a single one of the 1.4 billion people in China would understand my pronunciation of any Chinese word.

    The street my hostel was on.  My pronunciation: “Dogshit Alley.”  Bruce was not impressed.

  3. You can’t smoke on the bed.  Real bummer.  I swear: you can smoke, spit, and urinate anywhere — except on the bed, apparently.

  4. Bookstore selection is extremely limited.  This giant bookstore had 5,000 copies of every classic ever – Austen, the Brontes, Dickinson, Shakespeare, the whole lot.  Finding many of their characters to be rather insufferable, I searched out the “History/Political Science” section.  And I found approximately three books, including — drum roll please — “American History” by Dengchongzhangliu (some Chinese guy, you get the picture).

    Proof that size isn’t everything.

    There is, however, a good selection of Oreos.

Megalomania

21 Nov

Backdated: November 3, 2012.

I spent the last few days in Xi’an, an ancient Chinese city world famous for its Terracotta Army, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the century.

The Army is a collection of life-size terracotta sculptures that the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, had built and buried with him for protection in the afterlife — which began, for him, over 2,200 years ago.

Each warrior is different — right down to the facial features.

Let’s just say Qin Shi Huang went a little overboard.  The Army took 700,000 men to build.  It consists of over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses, as well as other non-military figures like officials, acrobats, strongmen, and musicians – the majority of which remain buried, as only a portion of the site has been excavated (the rest delayed due to expense and inadequate technology to preserve what is unearthed).

And the Army just guards his tomb.  The tomb itself (which remains unopened) is city-sized, measuring 56.25 square kilometers – the largest anywhere in the world.

An excavation site in progress. What a job…

Our tour guide was going on about the greatness of Qin Shi Huang – and indeed his obit writers had a few things to write about – like how he unified China for the first time and ushered in nearly two millennia of imperial rule; linked piece-meal sections of the Great Wall together; constructed a massive road system; and standardized measurements and currency and even the length of cart axles to facilitate transport on the road system.

Feeling it was lacking, I tried to provide some perspective to the group that Mr. Qin Shi Huang did all of this, impressive as it was, at the expense of many lives and great human sacrifice, but I’m not sure how it went over.  [Okay, there’s a chance I called him “a ruthless, genocidal, war-mongering, egotistical nutcase who burned books and buried people alive.”]

We also biked the Ming City Wall around Xi’an, which is the most complete and intact city wall in China.  It’s 13.7 kilometers in length and over 600 years old.

Also (maybe I’m going a little overboard now?), Xi’an was the starting point of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route connecting Asia to the West.  In the 8th century AD, it was the largest city in the world, home to one million (now that’s just a small village in China).  Almost a third of that population were foreigners who largely resided in the beautifully preserved Muslim Quarter of the city:

Tootles!

The Great Wall

20 Nov

Backdated: October 30, 2012.

My love affair with China continues.  Today, I walked ~7.5 miles of the Great Wall between Jinshanling and Simatai.  It was stunning.

Like a mighty serpent, the Great Wall winds 5,500 miles across northern China.  Construction started as early as the 7th century BC by independent kingdoms wishing to keep out marauding nomads.  The first emperor of China, after uniting the country for the first time, linked the wall together circa 200 BC (2,200 years ago!), and it’s been renovated in centuries since.

I stuck back with the group at first and took pictures and hemmed and hawed about this or that.  But then, I put in my earphones and charged ahead until I saw no one else, and then charged further, and marveled in the sense of deliverance that washed over me.  At once I was both very small and yet very big.  Very small because I felt, at my core, the impossibly small space I occupied – in this one tiny sliver of time – in this one little corner of the world – in a vast universe amidst vaster-yet universes.  I’m just the tiniest crumble of something I’ll never understand — something incomprehensibly ancient and immense and byzantine.

And yet it made me feel big, too, because it lifted the weight of the world off my shoulders.  The prospect of inconsequentiality, it turns out, is freeing.  It makes twenty-first century, twenty-something worries at home seem incredibly silly.  Does he like me?  Does she like me?  Am I fat?  How fat am I?  Who am I?  Who should I be?  Fruit shake me, mate.

Don’t live your life for the world.  That’s the golden ticket to inconsequentiality.  ‘Cause the world will forget you.

The Great Wall unlocked for me one of the great gifts of this trip: a grand sense of humility.  I’m learning to accept – the hour of the day, the city I’m in, the bedhard surface I’m sleeping on tonight, the people I’m with or not.  And, most importantly, myself.

Something magical happened in Beijing.  It’s like I shed an old coat, puffy and plain and comfy and sentimental.  And I put on this bright red, effortlessly sleek cape with big black buttons and deep, casual pockets and an upturned collar.  As light as a feather, as if unburdened with a care in the world, I bantered with an Australian dude who thought I was 21.  I cracked up half the hostel when I sprayed him with my hair-spray-masquerading-as-pepper-spray.  I wore long underwear to a bar.  I drove him up the wall by talking pretending to understand some hot German in a business suit over gin and tonic (yuck) and a cigarette (yuck).  While my warm Tsingtao beer waited by the stripper pole.

When the going gets tough, it’s all too easy to sever yourself from the world outside your gate.  To erect Great Walls to keep out would-be invaders.  But by making your world smaller, you make your problems larger.  And you miss out on the stingingly sweet breeze that tingles your lungs and cherries your cheeks – and that one can imagine has blown just the same across the plains of time.

Don’t find yourself amongst your colleagues or peers or friends or family.  Find your place in the universe.  Trust me, it seems a lot easier.

China: A Love Affair

17 Nov

Backdated: October 29, 2012.

At the airport in Singapore, I remember staring longingly at the terminal where flights were leaving to Australia and New Zealand.  Why am I going to China again, I thought?  Oh yeah, cheap flight, I remember.

Three days later, I’m almost ready call it the best decision of my trip so far.  I love China (or, what I know of China thus far: Beijing).  Love.  It’s insanely charming.  It’s a grand, magical place that’s alive in some special way.  Modern but ancient, developed but undeveloped.   Shiny-glass-skyscrapers and falling-apart-stone-alleyways.  Mercedes and three-sided-wagon-mobiles.  The oldest continuing civilization in the world… known only to me for the Communism of its last 60 years.

The weather is crisp and cutting and the streets brightly dotted with trees of green and yellow and red and orange.  One would think that a city of 20 million people – the population of Australia – would be tightly-packed hovels, where people are stuffed in every available nook and cranny.  But it’s not.  And, don’t get me wrong, there are people aplenty.  But the city is airy and sprawling.  Bustling.  Full of vibrant character, and not the romanticized kind that tourists go home and prate on about over foie gras.  Something is happening here in Beijing – perhaps one of the greatest transformations my world will ever see?  I had heard, but I had no idea.  It’s like you wake up in the morning and expect your street to look different.

This thing between China and me, it’s not a passionate, roll-in-the-hay, what-happened kind of romance.  It’s a sweet, soft, innocent, wow-I-think-I-kinda-like-you, no-I-really-like-you kind of love affair.  The one that draws you in and wraps you up.

I wander the hutongs – crumbling gray stone alleyways formed by lines of simple courtyard homes – that whisper about life in China before the modern era.  I buy a red bean pastry from a market stall for breakfast and then top it off by grabbing the biggest banana I’ve ever seen from an old lady’s fruit cart.  I ride the subway all by myself… except for, of course, the million-and-two Chinese people.  My camera breaks.  I find a camera repair place and get it fixed… without exchanging a single mutually understood word.  I make it to Tiananmen Square and do a big, gleeful 360-degree spin with my hands triumphantly in the air.  I feel so… strong.  I’m finding my tunnel?  I’m getting my sealegs?!  Is it China?  Is it me?

Entrance to a hutong. Maybe 8 or 10 families live in each one.

View from my hostel — overlooking the hutong homes.

My first meal of the trip eaten on a tablecloth was Peking Duck — a famous dish from Beijing that has been prepared since the imperial era.

I joined in a game of “feather hacky sack” with some locals. As you can see, I ended up on my butt in about 30 seconds. They thought it was hilarious, which was nice because laughter was the only language we had in common.

Tiananmen Square!