On the Angst of Travelers

IMG_1046_editI was in northern Hungary, and I needed a break from my traveling partner. After weeks together, we strained under the expectations we laid on one another.

I saw the town name Egerszólát next to an arrow pointing west on my map of Eger. In my Lonely Planet, I scoured the chapter and the author noted only that it was a quaint wine town. That was the only reference. No dot marked the location of the town, just an arrow at the map’s edge: 13 kilometers west.

I decided to walk there. My travel partner decided to spend the day sightseeing in town.

I didn’t get a different map. I didn’t check my GPS on my smart phone because I hadn’t paid to have my phone work abroad. I didn’t ask for directions.

The arrow would suffice. I wanted to feel the pavement under my feet; I wanted to feel like an explorer, I wanted to feel the magic of being somewhere foreign to me.

At breakfast I pocketed a roll and an apple and tucked them in my backpack.

I walked to the edge of town and checked the map. I matched the curve in the road to the curve at the edge of the map. Same enough.

A narrow shoulder banked one side of the two-lane road paved for roadsters, not sports utility vehicles. I walked. A man in shorts and no shirt traipsed out of the woods. He was bearded and if I had been in a California mountain town, I might have thought him a marijuana farmer or a serial killer. But I was in Hungary, a place unfamiliar to me; I smiled and nodded hello.

I walked. It was a lone stretch of road. The forest gave way to fields of grapevines. I didn’t see many signs. I did see farmhouses speckling the horizon. I didn’t see other walkers. Still, I wanted to see this offshoot town described as quaint, yet not worth a description or a dot.

A car stopped and backed up toward me. A woman rolled down the window. “[Insert Hungarian words I don’t understand here.]”

I shook my head and pointed forward.

She smiled and gestured at whom I presumed to be her husband. They looked so much older than I was at the time, but now thinking back, they just looked so much more content.

The man leaned over the woman with a familiarity that confirmed a partnered intimacy.     “[Insert more Hungarian words I don’t understand here.]” Yet with the inflection, the message was clear: What the hell are you doing walking along the road by yourself?

They sped away.

I walked.

By accident, I followed a sign that said Egerszalók, lazily seeing the beginning of the town name and not the slurry of letters after. My first detour. I pulled out the guidebook, but I was beyond the edge of the map. I retraced my steps best I could.

This was the first time anxiety filtered into my consciousness. Still, I walked. What else could I do? I was on a country road. There was no cab to hail. No bus to take.

I passed fields of sunflowers yielding from the sun. Their heavy heads hanging down, the centers browned as if they could no longer stand the summer heat.

I was hot too. My jacket was stuffed in my backpack. Sweat dripped to my tailbone. I hadn’t seen a sign for Egerszólát in several kilometers. My water was running low.

Panic began to set in. Under the bright blue sky, I was alone and no one in the world knew where I was. Even my travel partner hadn’t asked. I breathed. The sun fed me. I could knock on a farm door and utter Eger with a question mark. I had passed a church. Someone there might help me.

I knew as a woman closer to middle aged than not, I didn’t pose a risk to anyone.

I kept going.

And then I saw the road sign with an arrow. Egerszólát. Within an hour, I wandered into the town of low-lying homes nestled into a hillside. They were stucco and small. I happened upon a square and unadorned pink building, like one you might find in the flats of south Los Angeles. It was purposeful; it was not quaint. A store. I bought homemade sesame candy from a woman who didn’t smile.

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I continued walking. Everything was closed. This was a weekend town and it was a Wednesday. I stood in front of a winery and looked up and down the road. I contemplated walking further into the foothills. What would the next town look like?

Someone tapped my shoulder. I screamed.

It was a sturdy woman with black hair, remnants of a platinum dye job on her ends. She beckoned me into the winery. There was a red tiled floor and a hearty wood bar reminiscent of a pub in England. She poured me a glass of wine and offered me a seat on the patio. I accepted. I couldn’t understand much of her Hungarian. But she smiled when I said where I was from. I smiled when I understood it was her family’s winery.

She offered me cheese to go with my roll. I sipped my wine. I breathed free, freer than I had felt in weeks. What did that next town look like? I wondered.

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On the Seriousness of Tourists

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Rice cooked in the bamboo.  The smoke kept the bees away.  So she hovered by the smoke and waited to eat.

She was leaving the rice farm the next day.  She had been the eldest person working the farm by a decade.  She was both proud of that fact, and lonely that she had to do it alone.  She drank the water from the ceramic urn that the farmer’s wife said came from the mountain.  She only saw a tub of water and made sure to pick the bugs out before she drank.  She loved the chili paste.  She was partial to her family’s recipe—the family with whom she lived.  She didn’t know how she would live without rice three times a day and the smell of chili heat on her skin.  She didn’t mind the beetles who lived with her in the hut.  She liked her mat better than her mattress at home.

She didn’t like the man who asked her to marry him.  A man from a nearby village who helped at the farm.  He mimed putting a ring on her finger; he mimed rocking a baby; he mimed going away to live in his village.  At first, it had been charming.  She mimed that she was too old.  She mimed that she was in a relationship.  But she had no ring, and he did not believe her.  She mimed, no.  No.

He was persistent: taking over her work at the farm; sitting next to her at dinner; insisting that she sit behind him on his motorbike on the way to the furthest rice field.  John, the farmer, waved him away, but that did not stop him.   She began putting her backpack against the door of her hut—there were no locks and just in case.  She began to look through the slats of the bamboo wall when she peed to make sure no one was watching.  She stopped smiling. The man spelled baby in English in the dirt.  She crossed it out.  One night he came to her and showed her an official document that mapped a plot of land.  She supposed it was a deed.  He gestured to her again.  Marry me.  She saw his loneliness, but she was tired and angry and ached for home.

She was grateful John hadn’t let him come on the hike that day.  The man had insisted, but John took him aside.  She watched their arms wave at one another.  The man left on the motorbike and she would not see him again.

John prepared the rice and smiled at her.  Had he known she was bothered?   She would never know.  All she knew is she felt safe, and for that she was grateful.  Yet it didn’t take that sadness away:  Half way around the world from her home and decidedly middle-aged, she still had to be wary of men and grateful at times for their intervention.

On the Seriousness of Christmas

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She believed in Santa.  A man who jingled in the skies.  She did not necessarily believe in the chimneys and Rudolph, but she believed in the magic.  She heard the bells and said to her parents, “Don’t you hear them?  I can hear them.  I hear the bells.”

She was never quite sure who Santa was, but the world was small to this seven-year-old and she was certain she could figure it out.

Once, she thought he might be Frank Sinatra.  She just pretended Santa was a fat man with a beard to make her parents happy.  She wanted him to be dapper even if she didn’t yet have the word for it.  He sang about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and he seemed to want to travel back to another time, a magical time.  She would stand on the front porch, smell the cold and look up toward the stars, and yearn.  This meant something to her even if she didn’t yet know the word nostalgia either.

Her parents would slow dance in the living room, the seven fishes cooking in the kitchen.  Family would come.  There would be presents and laughter.  She would wear her favorite burgundy dress with a pink ruffle hidden inside the sleeve like a secret.  She thought it elegant, and no, she didn’t know that word either.  Her uncle had brought it home from Germany.  She didn’t understand what he was doing there, but he sent her books and beautiful clothes.  He didn’t have children yet and she felt special.  Like maybe, just maybe, he was her Santa.

And now each Christmas, she sets up the tree and hangs up the lights.  She pauses with each ornament before hanging them on the tree.  A red sparkly glob of painted string; a plastic elf that looks as if he ate children for dessert; a chipped nutcracker; a crumpled felt drummer boy; and even a shiny plastic Muppet character whose name she can’t recall.  She would never get rid of them even if she could no longer remember where they came from.  Only that they came from before.  They all came from before.

She cooks the seven fishes; she had long ago given up believing.  She listens to Frank Sinatra and tears up.  I’ll be home for Christmas, he sings.  If only in my dreams.  

There is no Santa.  Still she steps outside and looks up at the stars.

Her seven-year-old self whispers, “You aren’t alone.”  And for that moment, she is comforted.

On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #10

Privilege.

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I tell John—not his Karen tribe name, of course—that I live in Los Angeles, California.  He asks for me to point to it on the worn and dirty map hung on the wall of the wooden house he built himself.  He was proud of his home on stilts, trunks he had cut down as a boy, a symbol of burgeoning manhood.  No electricity, no plumbing but a panoramic view over the endless jungled mountains of northern Thailand.

I point to Los Angeles on the map.  I yell Hollywood.  He looks at me blankly.  I am embarrassed, but he doesn’t see that. I don’t know why I yell when I am pantomiming in different languages, a prejudiced vestige in my reptilian brain.

“Alec, Alec,” he says, “pin it.”  And I do.

I become another pin on John’s map of visitors who help with his 100-year-old rice farm.  There are pins in Italy, in France, in Germany, in China, in Australia.  I am the one pin in the United States.  I represent all of us.  I hope I do okay.

“Alec, Alec,”   He shows me how to use a manual plough.  The tangled roots, lifetimes old, have a particular direction in mind.  One different from John’s path.  I push, my shoulders pressing into the hot metal bar, my feet slipping in the mud.  Those roots are stronger than me.  Getaway plough.  I nearly ruin a terraced paddy.

I end up standing knee deep in a paddy pulling the mud into the swampy water.  This is only the first step in the year long process of rice farming.  “Alec, good.”  He gives me a thumb’s up.  He catches an eel in the water.  He kills it by whacking it on a rock.  “Lunch,” he says.  He’s taken to teasing me, so I am never sure.

Cooked over an open fire, we eat it for lunch over rice.  Rice his family and village handpicked, rice his family and village hand threshed, rice his family and village stored and sold for their survival.

On Venice Beach, I can get my name written on a grain of rice.  I never do, it’s ten dollars.

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On the Pretentiousness of Travelers #9

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She looks happy, doesn’t she?  She goes between pretending to be Elizabeth Bennet and Aero, her avatar in Skyrim.  Next time we bicker about which footpath to take, I expect she’ll say, “Fuck you, Mr. Darcy,” and hit me with her imaginary sword that’s 27 fire power.  She’s got some bad temper.

She can’t be bothered with the topographical maps or even the compass.  She was sorely disappointed that I bought one made of plastic.  She wanted one straight out of Pullman’s The Golden Compass—all brass and steampunk.  She tells me she wants to feel her way west like true explorers do—she sees herself as Aero jumping over cliffs and forging rivers, meeting strangers and completing quests to save a village, stumbling into caves and finding magic treasure.  I think she’s delusional in her view of the world.

She loves staying above the pubs between those daily 15 miles, but she complains they don’t serve red wine.  I listen to her vacillate between the lamb stew and the salad.  And when she chooses the lamb stew, she complains about how she’s aging into a very wide woman.

I know behind that temper and fantastical thinking there is a woman who worries no one truly loves her.  I see her darkness and her hurt in all the spaces in between.

She’s laughing now on that stile, telling me to hurry up and that she gets final say on the photo.

I’m going to ask her to marry me at the end of the Dales Way.

I hope she says yes.

Bookstore Therapy

A punch of depression.  That was what I felt last night in the twilight hours of the day.  I was early meeting a friend and so I wandered into a bookstore.  I touched books and connected with authors I had forgotten. (Amazon’s recommendations aren’t as tactile as a pile of books.)  I read a Nikki Giovanni poem and missed my mother.  I saw Cathleen Schine had a new book out and bought it. I have followed her writing career novel by novel. Awash in the smell of paper, I sat in an aisle and read two chapters of a fantasy book.  I let my fingers run over the impulse buys on the counter—all the knickknacks my mother would have bought to stuff my stocking.  I smiled.

Bookstore therapy. It works.

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