On the Angst of Travelers

DSC00241

Limbe, Malawi

I asked before I took this photograph. I asked in English, not Chichewa. They nodded. But in any language, that nod was reluctant. Let the Mzungu take the photograph. I smiled and said zikomo. Thank you.

They waited. I wondered how much the platter weighed. At the volunteer house, I had tried to balance a bucket of water on my head the way I’d seen women do. I got wet.

I fumbled—I had my fancy camera and I wanted the photograph just so. I wanted to improve my photography skills. They waited.

Hurry, hurry, I said to myself.

I slid the dial to autofocus.

The weight.

Mzungu someone behind me called. Foreigner. White Person. Rich person. Not said with anger. Not said with curiosity. Not even said with resignation. Said with a murmur. A fact.

Shame, shame, I felt. I snapped.

On the Seriousness of Tourists #16

img_1965-1

Whenever I tell people that I went to the Yucatan in the summer of 1983, that I slept on a beach in a hammock, that I ate live conch cut out of the shell, that I hiked into the jungle led by a machete-wielding man named Alamon, that I crawled deep into cenotes not fully excavated, they tell me, “that’s how you got into travel.”

I say yes and let the moment pass. It’s the cool story.

But it’s not the real story.

I was 15.  My parents said I could go on the trip if I saved 150 dollars.  I still have the passbook.  I permed my hair so it would look good wet.  No one told me it wouldn’t look good dry.  I was battling an eating disorder, but that really wasn’t a word everyone knew back then.  I managed my life on 700 calories a day and threw up the rest.  I still put baby oil on my skin and got almost as dark as my hair.

For three weeks, five teenagers led by two high school biology teachers and a professor from Texas would travel the Yucatan in a white Volkswagen van.  O the privilege!
IMG_1963 (1).jpg
There was a popular boy—the son of my father’s best friend—whose older brother I had crushed on since I was ten.  There was a boy with hearing problems with wavy  brown hair and tawny skin, who was definitely going to be handsome, but like any teen in the 80s who was different, well, he was different.  There was a girl who flirted between popularity and toughness.  She was Italian with permed hair too, but she carried herself like a jock, and somehow made the bad hair and the over-tan look good.  Plus, she talked to boys like they were human.  Let’s face it, she scared me.  The last girl, a quiet girl, a girl I had never heard of (after all, we were in a school of about 2000), was, well, she was going to be my friend.

To see the weeks slipping away, was to watch me become invisible.  My breasts were big and I was all bones.  I was so uncomfortable in a bathing suit, in my skin, I used any excuse not to disrobe.  I snorkeled, mostly, with a tee-shirt.  While the boys ignored me, I felt the eyes of men on me.  I curved inward.  The two boys and the popular girl became fast friends—they quoted movies to one another like witty banter.  I didn’t get it.  But still, I tried to think of a quote from a cool movie, a pretentious movie, any movie, Bambi, and I just couldn’t.  (I still can’t.)  The other girl and I ignored them and looked for snakes and scorpions and iguanas.

We all drank strawberry soda straight out of the bottle.

The other girl, the quiet girl, was long-legged and without curves.  Her hair was long and unpermed.  In the heat, it grew big and wild.   She chewed straws when she was bored.  She tied her baseball shirt up around her waist in a way I had not seen before.  She found a baseball cap and plopped it on her head.  Sometimes she wore it backwards.  (Remember, this was 1983 and just not done.)  She looked for iguanas and she quoted movies.  She was my first hipster.
img_1967-1
And soon, she quoted movies more than she looked for wildlife.

I was alone.

My journal entries from that trip are full of loneliness, but there are glimpses of insight.  I celebrated the day I talked to the popular boy about a book he was reading.  “He laughed at my joke and it wasn’t that funny.  But I bet this changes nothing at school or when our families get together,” I wrote.  I was right.

I began taking my photographs more seriously.  At first, I had used the camera to hide, but soon I just began observing.  One of those photographs I framed and gave to my mother.  She hung it in the kitchen.  Now it’s in my studio.

The night we slept on the beach, I had my period.  This was not Venice Beach; there were no bathrooms.  So I buried my tampons outside, saying a little prayer to a god I didn’t believe in that a pelican wouldn’t dig them up and choke to death.

My heels blistered from a hike and I fashioned mole skin from palm leaves.  I never once complained like the other girls did.

Not seeing the value in the tee-shirts and the tchotchkes, I came home with my journal and my pictures; they were my memories, they were my gifts.  I had more than fifty dollars left when I arrived back in the States.

Maybe that trip is the origin of my love and need for travel.  But what I learned on that trip was how to be alone and be okay with it.  It would take much longer to learn to love it.

The trip was the beginning of me.

On the Seriousness of Tourists #15

When I was sixteen, we went to visit the Italian family who had sent their daughter to live with us for a summer; she had been our exchange student.  She wore her jeans faded and tight.  She once sat in my Dad’s lap as a joke, or at least that’s how we choose to remember it.  She had wavy dark blond hair and wore the high-heeled sandals I begged my mother for.   When staying with us, her chatter was ripe with stories about Milan and fashion.  She was 18.  I was 14.  My parents dragged us to the sights we’d seen dozens of times.  We lived here, we didn’t want to be tourists.   Yeah, yeah, that’s the Empire State Building.  Yeah, yeah, that’s Washington Square.  Yeah, yeah, this is what New York pizza tastes like.  Here, try a bagel.  She was a nuisance, not an educational experience.

Then my parents made my sister and I take her to our community pool.  She wore a purple string bikini.  She didn’t bother with a tee-shirt.

Italians girls in the 80s didn’t shave.

Her purple string bikini bottom was outlined by blond-ish black pubic hair.  She didn’t notice anyone staring.  She seemed all too happy to be there showing off that bikini when my friends and I weren’t yet allowed to wear them.   (Although in retrospect, do I really know what an 18-year-old Italian teenager from Milan is  thinking when visiting a suburban community pool in New Jersey? No I don’t, but at 14, I hadn’t learned empathy.)  She threw down a towel just like any other teenager and slathered on baby oil.  She looked at my sister and I who were busy trying not to notice her full breasts, narrow waist, and round hips.  “Ciao,” she said and pulled out a book with a couple kissing on the cover.  She got lost in the sun.   My sister and I (and our friends) stared at her pubic hair and the ease with which she laid there.

I pulled my shirt down to my knees.

Two years later, my family visited her family at their summer home in Lake Como.  It was a old storied home carved into a hill.  Her mother served us chicken in aspic.  I remember candles, dark wood, and lace.  It was an event, I remember.  It was gourmet, my parents told me.  It tasted like chicken-flavored jello.

That is my only memory from the visit.

In the faded album I’ve carried with me from home to home, there is one page allotted to the Lake Como visit. Not one person.  A sixteen-year-old’s vision of travel.   And the only notation in the album?  “A good time!  I guess!”

Today, I concentrate and try to conjure the smell, the sights, and whatever transpired to make it “A good time! I guess!”  I cannot even remember where we slept or what we did.   Even at 48, all I see is the teenage girl so confident in her purple string bikini.

img_1936

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #7

IMG_1179_edit.jpg

Yesterday at the Louvre I saw twenty tourists taking pictures of a picture of the Mona Lisa.  It was so cute how they all obeyed the no photographing the Mona Lisa warning.  But why snap a photo of the tiny photo on the placard?  Why do people do that?  Silly tourists.  Go buy a postcard.

Today, I went into the cutest little market that sold fowl, just fowl!  Can you believe that?  Everything looked so fresh.  It almost made me want to cancel my Blue Apron subscription and cook for myself.  Why don’t we have fowl markets in the States?  I suppose we need the super-supermarkets so we can just work, work, work.  The French are just so much more civilized, yes?

Anyway, do those people who take the picture of the picture of the painting put it in a slide show?  Do they show their children?  Do they look back on the picture of the picture with nostalgia?

Well, I am sure everyone will love this picture of chicken.  It’s just so artistic, and I mean, it’s educating you, yes?

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #2

Down with Wal-Mart!  Down with box stores!  Socially conscious am I.

Down with the NRA.  Down with guns!  Anti-violence I am!

Flash to traveler’s photos of trip:

IMG_1121

Well, here I am in Las Cruces and well, to be a part of everything, I went to Wal-Mart and bought ammo and jumbo mayo jars.  And so this picture here?  Well, I am shooting at that mayo jar in the desert with an AR-15.  Ka-boom!

Oh please, values don’t count when your traveling…just the way cookies don’t count when they’re free.