Journal – August 2009

I sit in the airport on the floor, my back resting on the window with the suffocating Cancun humidity fighting back, unsuccessfully, against the thick plate glass. Hoards of obnoxious Americans with neon t-shirts announcing they had been in Mexico mill through the enormous duty free market. My hands shake as I attempt to open the packet of Pringles I picked up, not having eaten all day. Weak and exhausted, the maudlin tones of Heypenny’s Use These Spoons serve only to exacerbate the deep sense of regret that sits like a brick in my belly. Such a small and silly regret: just for not having followed that stranger on the beach in Tulum. And the sick sadness at the thought of returning to my life in Charlotte only weights me further. There is something alive in me that I am scared will die if I stay any longer in this materialistic, bullshit job pretending to be something I am not every day. Being in Mexico with Carlos opened my eyes and made me believe it really is possible to pick up and go. My student loans and credit card debt have been a prison from which I know I cannot escape in my twenties, or even my thirties. I don’t have that much time. None of us do. The weight of the life I am living is suffocating me like the humid August heat and I have got to get out from under it. I have made a decision. Instead of paying off as much debt as possible, I am going to save as much as possible. Once I have enough I am leaving. I don’t know where yet, but it will be somewhere beautiful, somewhere cheap, and somewhere new. Perhaps I will take my car and drive through Central and South America. Perhaps I will move to Playa del Carmen and find a job tending bar, learning the language as I go, become a part of something unfamiliar. Sitting in seat 17E I stare longingly at the azure sea as we leave the vast turquoise behind. Tears sit waiting behind my eyes as I try to reconcile the life I want with the one I have, growing ever harder the more I understand who I am. I am applying to school in November. If I can get into Adelaide or Vancouver I will find a way to get financing and my student loans will defer. If I don’t get in or I can’t afford to go, I will take as many cash advances on credit cards as possible, get in my car, and hit the road. Drive through the country, head out west, see what happens. Hopefully I can find odd jobs as I go, maybe settle somewhere for a few weeks at a time. I could follow the road across Tennessee, then out through the fly-over states, then up towards Vancouver and back down the coast to Mexico, down to the winding tip of Central America into South America. I would stop and stay in any place I wanted to explore and get a new tattoo from every place that feels like a home to me. Anything but this.

After six days on the Yucatan, I know I could live there for years and the Mayan sun inked on my ankle will remind me of that every day. The pilot has just announced that we are flying over the East Coast of Florida. At thirty thousand feet I am back in America. The thought that I may be able to follow the incessant pull in my belly to run away calms some of the sadness that Mexico is in my rearview mirror, and I will have to sink back into the hurried and soulless world of finance like jumping on a merry-go-round as it whips quickly past you. I don’t know what my plan is, I don’t know what will calm this ever-rising pressure from my soul, I only know that I have got to get out of this place, and I’ve gotta do it fast.

February 2008

He picks me up by my waist, roughly, recklessly, and sets me on top of the copier. My tweed pencil skirt tightens against my thighs as he hurriedly pushes it up my legs. The plastic of the copier creaks with my shifting weight. We laugh with abandon. I unbutton his shirt deftly, though one-handed and blindly as our mouths can’t find enough of one another. With his chest bare I run my hands over his broad shoulders, down the contours of his back. He is a runner. I momentarily stop only so he can lift my blouse over my head, thoughtlessly tossing it into the recycling bin next to the fax machine.
“Taylor, do you have that model finished for the investment committee meeting?” I am snapped faster than a falling dream from my almost painful reverie. Fuck.
“Yeah, it’s almost done.” I lie. “I’m still working on it, but I’ll email it out as soon as I’m finished.” I am nowhere near finished. I hate this job.
I glance over to the man about whom I had been dreaming, sitting engaged and focused at his desk. He looks up, as if able to feel my stare on him, and the familiar glimmer of our eyes meeting pulses a quick shiver through me. He is married. He has left his wife. No one knows. We are in love.

I struggle through the model to the last minute, frustrated with the same errors time and again. I have never been trained in the work I am doing and wonder on a daily basis why I was ever hired. What the fuck is a sociology major doing working in a major asset management firm anyway? I still don’t have the answer to that question. I hurriedly paste the model into the presentation and wait while the copier dutifully spits out my thirty copies. I like my idea for the copier much better than this. From my place across the office I can see the entire team is already sat at the long, formidable table. I am late for my own presentation, yet again.

I stumble through my investment recommendation with the sole hope of not sounding like an idiot at any point in time. I have worked for this firm for over a year now, and am only just beginning to understand what I am doing. I come out of the meeting to several comments from colleagues congratulating me. It is not that I have done such a great job, just that I didn’t fuck anything up, which I assume is expected from me at this point. I sit back down at my desk, a sigh of relief releasing itself from my chest. Back to trying to figure out what I am actually going to do with my life.

I am twenty-five years old. I have just shy of fifty-thousand dollars of student loans from my bachelor’s degree. In addition to that I have anywhere between twenty and thirty thousand dollars of credit card debt, depending on how good I have been. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and other than a few close friends, and my sister, I hate this city. Hate it like getting lost down a dead-end. Like waking up in a stranger’s bed. The large majority of my good friends live in Washington, D.C. and despite my desire to join them I know I won’t be able to find a job to support myself and my debt in a more expensive city and Charlotte happens to be one of the cheapest in the country. I sigh the sigh of futility knowing that even here, I can barely afford to pay my bills, and my only comforts lie in the one room crack den that is my apartment, and the three bottles of wine I know I have waiting for me at home. Every day of my life is the same.

Despite the massive amount of work I know I have to be doing, I leave the office at six thirty, most people still toiling away at their desks. My twenty minute walk home through uptown is spent with headphones in my ears and lets the work day slip away slowly from my mind. It is the exact antithesis of driving home in rush hour traffic. Opening the door to my four-walled first-floor efficiency I kick off my shoes and immediately remove the shackles of my business casual attire. In my underwear I head straight to the kitchen and pour a large glass of cheap red wine and let the remainder of the day wash through me with the bitter crimson. Despite the books pouring from my bookcase and stacked in careless piles around my bed, I never have the energy to read for pleasure after spending ten hours reading credit documents and legal contracts. I turn on the TV and flop onto my bed/couch. I spend the remainder of the night in this position. My boyfriend is at home. With his wife.

Before I know it I am drunk. I am drunk every night. My sleep is sporadic and fitful, waking up each hour on the hour until I see the number starts with a seven and it is time to get up again. My Groundhog Day nightmare, my broken record existence, my lifeless life.

At eight thirty our morning investment committee meeting begins yet again, the same meeting, every morning, and I immediately begin sending dirty texts to my paramour on my blackberry. He is the only thing that makes coming to work worthwhile. We go on this way for ages. I feel a decade has passed. It has been another year. He gives his wife the house. He puts me up in a fancy apartment. I am his love. I look like his whore. Eventually we are found out and he is inexplicably fired for unrelated reasons. There is now nothing getting me up in the morning. But what choice do I have? Two hundred dollars to my Stafford, three hundred and twelve on the AMEX, a hundred and fifty to Capital One, two hundred to Citibank, three hundred to Sallie Mae, six hundred to rent, a hundred a fifty to Time Warner Cable, seventy-five to Sprint, and barely enough left to get drunk. My life is swallowed by the debt I am in. The debt I cannot control because as soon as I pay my bills, I have no money, and so I run up more debt. I am making sixty thousand dollars a year and I can barely afford to live. It will take me fifteen years in this job to pay off my debt at this rate. I do not sleep. I am a shadow of a woman. My only hope lies in the possibility of going to graduate school for my writing. My student loans will be deferred. I will come out with sixty thousand more dollars of debt and a masters in something that will make me no money. I toil over applications regardless, finding that even browsing the programs and dreaming of another life offers me quick breaths of relief from this career I never wanted. There has to be another way.

Journal – March 2009

It is the second day of our safari into the Serengeti and amazement is painted on the faces of everyone in our oversized crew. After four flat tires in one day, we are finally headed towards the Ngorongoro Crater. The sun is setting behind the crater rim, its golden rays piercing, unfalteringly true in every direction, a glimpse of something beyond the temporal. The plains stretch in infinite freedom beyond us. We are standing in the pop-top Jeep and suddenly I am overwhelmed. Tears fill my eyes and my breath is both shallow and great. At twenty-five years old I feel something I have never felt before. Everything inside me rises; my wide smile will bridge the hemispheres. I will swallow the world. I will absorb these lands, my skin is a billion cells, everything is possibility. So much beauty will suffocate me. The yellow of the sun brushes the crater rim’s horizon and I have no words, no voice, I am nothing in the vastness of this planet. I will devour it all. I am a human again. I am a human for the first time in my life. The purpose of life surges through me in one instant, electricity, a tangible change, the weight of a knowledge that levitates. I can never go back to the life I lived before. She no longer exists. I am born.

Back in Charlotte the change is imperceptible. Eight a.m., another meeting, another daydream. I have nothing left to give to them. The meeting is over and I head back to my desk to begin another day of doing as little work as possible. The man I loved moved to the other side of the country. We believe he was fired for fucking me. They never knew he loved me. I spend my days trying to get laid off. I have nothing left for the company that told me my apartment wasn’t nice enough. I have nothing left for the boss who told me my bonus would be bigger if I stopped wearing crazy jewelry with that grey tweed pencil skirt. I read the New York Times. I sit on Facebook. I plan trips to anywhere, to everywhere. This will not be my life for long.

August 2009

I am traveling for the first time on my own. I have no idea what I am doing. I have a cheap ticket to the Yucatan Peninsula, my backpack, and a few hundred dollars. I spend a week reveling in all the possibility there is in the world. In a strange twist I find an acquaintance who has quit his job and moved to Playa del Carmen, a city on the way to my destination. He invites me to come and stay with him and I know there is no such thing as coincidence. He lives here now on almost nothing, on money he had saved. He and his brother own only two forks. No one wears shirts in the streets. He smiles with the ease of a man who knows what he wants. I fuck him maybe hoping he will give me whatever it was that got him. I think he does.

Despite the ease of his place in Playa, I venture alone to the beaches of Tulum. I don’t know how to travel yet, but I am learning. Find the cheapest hostel. Be willing to accept kindnesses from absolute strangers. Be spontaneous. Be open-minded. Be careful. I spend these days walking the beaches in a solitude that somehow comforts me. I am alone, I am not lonely. I watch a couple raise their glasses over the candlelight, in front of the moonlight, with a soft clink. They laugh. I smile. I will never know them. The ocean has always held a strong influence over me, and with the days the quiet turquoise of this ancient place pulls me deeper into it. I need it. But I know this is not my life. Waiting at the bus stop back to Playa I meet a fellow traveler. An American boy, ripe with the dirt and grime of the sweaty country that we share, open to everything else we might. I will never know why, but when he asks me to return to the beach with him, I turn him down. I have just trekked the four miles with my pack. I can barely stand I am so dehydrated. I have just purchased my ticket back. A million reasons why not. Sitting on the air conditioned bus on the way back to Playa I think of only him. I want to tell the bus driver to stop. To run back to the beach through the stifling heat with my heavy pack on my weary shoulders just to have a beer with him. Just to learn his name. As soon as I make it back to Playa del Carmen, I turn back to go find him. I learn how to ask for the American traveler with a red pack and curly hair in Spanish. We are vanished. I never say no, but this time, I did. Whatever path that boy represented gasped its last breath as the unfamiliar words fell exhausted from my thirsty lips against his protesting invitations. I will never let caution, exhaustion, or apprehension overwhelm desire. I will only ever regret the things I don’t do.

Two months later, I quit.

I arrived at the Changi Airport in Singapore at seven p.m. local time on Friday night after forty-one hours living in four different airports. Maybe if the unthinkable stint hadn’t begun at six in the morning after an eighteen hour session of boozing and no sleep, it would have been manageable. Needless to say, I was exhausted. I made my way through the fantastically modernized airport with the taste of cheap wine in my mouth, and the taste for a cigarette even stronger. I had heard horror stories of Singapore, and the strict enforcement of any and every law from jay walking to littering, including mandatory public hanging of anyone caught with any illegal substance. (Luckily I had remembered to toss the half a joint worth of pot that I had been carrying around when I got to Auckland.) I heard that smoking cigarettes was not allowed in public or in any covered places, but as far as I could figure, that pretty much meant anywhere. Then, a small, secret relief relaxed the exhausted tension in my face. Just minutes away from my arriving gate I found an outdoor smoking area. I quickly headed up the stairs and out onto the patio-bar into my first taste of the palpable Singapore heat. I threw my carry-on bag down to spark a beyond-needed cigarette after four hours, two beers, and two mini-bottles of wine on the last leg of my journey from Wellington. As I sucked the first, sweet drag in ineffable relief I let the awareness of my surroundings permeate my already sweat-covered skin.

While Changi Airport was a marvel of futuristic convenience, streamlining hollow-faced strangers to their next consumer-driven destination, the nervous flutter in my gut wasn’t fooled. The next three months that lay ahead began to trace themselves through me in uncertain vines. I was more alone on this bench in this sweater of Asian humidity, in this most foreign of places, than I had ever been before in my life. I had no travel guide, no ideas, no plans, no friends, no phone, and no connection to anything I know other than whatever internet café I may stumble upon along the way. I had with me thirteen kilograms of backpack and clothes, a laptop, a few travel suggestions from friends, and enough money to travel on about forty New Zealand dollars a day for the next three months. As excited as I had been in the weeks leading up to this adventure, two tired days in lonely airports had only served to dig my solitary sense of self deeper. As it was, my cigarette was finished and it was time to make my way towards the one reservation I had: a hostel in the heart of Chinatown.

Singapore is a canvas splatter-painted with language and simultaneously married, and competing cultures. Standing next to my rucksack on the crowded metro rail as I made my way into the city’s heartbeat, I noticed the four official languages posted on every sign. The faces lining the endlessly long train blended from Chinese to Indian to Malay and every shade in between. With tourist tattooed across my curious Western face, I took out my camera to snap a photo of the snaking train, whose rail cars slowly shrunk and disappeared into the infinity of distance as the near silent train breezed effortlessly down the curving track.

Goes on for days...

Before I knew it, it was time to alight at my stop (as the soft voice of the metro requests). As I stepped out on to the crowded streets of Chinatown, with hawker stalls lining the road-less alley as far as I could see, the humidity, again, swallowed me whole. Luckily, the hostel’s website was no lie and the entrance was literally footsteps away from the MRT stop. After almost two straight days spent in airports, lugging too many bags of oversized gear on my weak and tiny frame, I checked in, threw my bags into the packed twelve person dorm room, and collapsed onto the bed in utter, humid, lost, sweaty, tropical, traveling exhaustion. My excursion around Southeast Asia had officially begun.

I awoke early the next morning, planning to absorb as much of the city as possible before heading north into Peninsular Malaysia. I didn’t know much about Singapore, but I knew that the tiny city-state was over-populated, over-developed, and over-regulated. Even from the quaint and busy authenticity of Chinatown, the flagstaffs of twentieth century industry peeked above the carved roofs of ancient temples.

Past and Future


Why is there a surfboard on top of those buildings?


Singapore River


Miracles of modern engineering leapt from the horizon in daring postures, challenging one another to battles of modernity and design. With over five million people living on the island city-state of Singapore it is the second most densely populated country in the world, after Monaco, and it shows. The streets are a constant push and pull, hurried faces and cell phones pressed to cheeks like lovers. Making my way along the river that cuts through the heart of the city, I strolled silent and slow down towards the Marina, reading of the city’s history on statues and monuments as I walked. Past the Marina I came across the Ritz Carlton, and remembered there is a free art tour through the hotel’s SGD$5 million collection. I wandered up the steep driveway of the luxurious hotel and lost myself in a momentary daydream of king size beds with thousand thread count sheets and champagne breakfast room service. “Are you a guest of the hotel, miss?” The concierge’s question snapped me briskly from my reverie. “I wish,” I replied, and exchanged my passport to the desk for an iPod to tour the famed collection of contemporary art. Singapore is easily the most expensive city in Southeast Asia, and considering the New Zealand dollar is even weaker than the Singapore dollar, I was hard pressed to find free activities in the racing metropolis. Even the TIME Magazine article that recommended this tour to me had “plastic surgery” listed as the fourth best thing to do in twenty-four hours. As it was, I sauntered slowly through the miraculous structure, gazing in awe at the various pieces of art, and enjoying the sweet relief from the humid air outside, bloated with rain just aching to fall.

Lobby at the Ritz


Frank Stella's Moby Dick


By the time I finished wandering around the Ritz, the sky could no longer take the pressure, and warm rain began to drench the city. There is no drizzling in Singapore and as buckets pissed down on me, I hurried to find shelter.

when it rains it fucking pours


If there is one thing I learned about Singapore, the closest shelter is always a mall. Of the four MRT stops I saw, three of them were in malls. The bus station is in a mall, there is a mall dedicated to sporting goods, another for designer gear, another for electronics, and plenty for everything. If there isn’t a Louis Vuitton bag on your arm, then there better be a Gucci. The city is obsessed with shopping, and I found myself for the first time in my life untempted by material goods. There was a time when I would have sold my soul for a pair of Jimmy Choos. When I racked up more than fifteen thousand dollars in credit card debt, most of which fueled the oversized wardrobe I was faced with as I left my life in North Carolina behind. After donating an entire Jeep Cherokee full of clothes to a Family Crisis Ministry, after giving away endless amounts to friends and family, when I left DC for New Zealand, I still had suitcases and garbage bags full of tops and dresses, skirts and sweaters. I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume I had accumulated over the years. As I attempted to unwind the ties these possessions twisted round me, I found myself all the more happy to be liberated. In my thrift store button down and dirty ten dollar shorts, a calm smile sneaked across my face in the swamp of materialism that is the Singapore streets. Every inch of me knew at that moment what really matters in the world, what really matters to me, and that I would never get caught in that trap again. And at thirteen Singapore dollars a beer, I also knew it was time to get out of this city.

Traveler’s Note: Despite the city’s obsession with shopping, there is one thing they do right: food. Don’t leave the city without heading to Tan Quee Lan Street for some Chinese Steamboat. Choose your broth, meat, organs, seafood, vegetables, and noodles and prepare yourself for a marathon of eating. Somewhere between soup and Chinese fondue, Steamboat (or Hot Pot) is a must to complete any visit. Just make sure you go hungry, and bring lots of friends.

Five Plates Deep into the Singapore Steamboat

Though flight eight-eleven bounced and skidded onto Fijian concrete in the same unforgiving darkness through which I slept, by the time I exited the airport, the tropic sun was quickly hoisting itself to the top of the sky, breaking through hazy early morning clouds in that way that always looked like heaven to me. If I believed in such a place, anyway. Immediately after clearing customs, I made my way into the kind of stagnant humidity you wear like guilt and attempted to find a ride to Port Denarau. The first woman that approached me smiled and offered to help me with an earnestness I had learned to be skeptical of when traveling and asked me my name. “Taylor,” I said, and exchanged the same question to her. I abandoned my suspicion for the honesty in her words and smile and Vera agreed to take me to Port. She booked me on the Yasawa Catamaran to Kuata, a small nature reserve, two hours away by boat, and immediately I was three hundred Fijian dollars poorer. As I had missed the shuttle to the port and Vera was driving me in her car, we stopped to pick up her children and drop them at school on our way. Marie, 10 and Peter, 7 slipped quietly into the back of the car as I turned back to introduce myself. Apprehensive and reserved out of respect for their mother, they both shyly looked down at my cheerful introduction, barely uttering their own names in response. Their mother began to speak to them in the first bouncing, song like tones of native Fijian I heard, and slowly they began to relax and chat openly in their native tongue, though were still too shy to offer more than a word or two of English to me. Regardless, a smile stayed drawn across my face as the warm nature of the Fijian was the very first welcome I received.

heaven overexposed


After the confusing and costly check-in process at Port Denarau, I made my way immediately to the bar on the boat to taste my first Fijian beer (a bitter disappointment), and then immediately to the upper deck to absorb the paradisiacal setting that would be my home for the next four days . The tiny islands scattered themselves in hazy voids across the cobalt blues of the south pacific horizon, as if mirages, slowly gaining in size and detail as the large, quick vessel tore through the endless waters.

Island Mirage


Kuata, Yasawa Islands


As the boat approached the Yasawa Islands my body smiled in the glow of freshly found freedom, absorbing the majesty of these mountains rising from the sea like some ancient paradise lost. As we stepped off the boat we were greeted with a round of “Bula Bula,” a Fijian welcome that you quickly tire of being required to enthusiastically shout at every arrival, departure, and event. The fanless room dorm room was more stifling than the air itself, but as the seven of us that arrived together from Nadi got settled in our beds, the easy conversation of past travels began. Despite the fact that in America the large majority of people were shocked and scared for my spontaneous and open-ended adventure, the rest of the world seems to thrive on travel the way I do. Most had been roaming on one-way tickets for six or eight months, with plans to continue on for a year or longer. It is contagious to be surrounded by the kindred spirits of wandering souls and within moments I had already begun to plan a trip to Indonesia and Thailand when New Zealand’s autumn dipped into the frigid winter I had only just escaped. Of my six dorm mates that had been traveling around Asia and the South Pacific for the better part of the year, most had only run into a handful of Americans and I found myself once again trying to defend my fellow countrymen against the worldwide stereotype that we are moronic, close-minded, and ethnocentric. A difficult thing to do as I believe there is a good amount of truth in that stereotype. Despite the fact that there are plenty of exceptions. Will, a charming yet arrogant young Brit, dropped a statistic that eighty percent of Americans don’t even have a passport and I didn’t doubt its validity. Why is it that international travel isn’t important to American culture? I constantly desire to expose myself to as many new cultures as possible and yet a large and ignorant piece of our population actively chooses to stay put, insisting that they can find everything they need in the States. The thought made me sad for such people, but regardless, as the only American on the island I did my best to represent my country well. By the end of the boisterous night of playing drinking games to the lilting Polynesian strums of ukulele and guitar, I am pretty sure I convinced the group that all Americans are charming, witty, good-humored, well-traveled, reckless alcoholics.

South Pacific Sounds


After only one day in this remote crescent of more than three hundred islands I sank easily into what the locals refer to as Fiji time. Minutes drift into irrelevance in a place like this and lazing the days away weaving or carving any and everything out of coconuts slows the soul and loosens the limbs. I passed two easy days walking around the islands, snorkeling, kayaking, napping in the shade, and looking out over the South Pacific letting the beauty and tranquility of this place sing to my venturing bones.

Sunrise over Kuata


By the time I awakened to the breakfast drum on my third morning in Fiji, it was already time to head back to the mainland of Vita Levu and I knew I needed to return to this place soon. I had seen only two of hundreds of islands snaking their way in an arc around the two main bodies, and had seen nothing of the mainland itself. As it was, my time was almost up and I headed back towards Nadi with Sebastian. He was a smart, though somewhat humorless, textbook Aryan with white-blonde hair from head to toe and almost translucent periwinkle eyes. We met on South Sea Island the night before and talked for hours about traveling, the world, and life in our respective countries. As we were headed the same direction, we accompanied one another on the three kilometer walk from the bus stop to the hostel in the piercing sun and tangible humidity. My pack grinded and stung my sunburned shoulders with each step as we trekked towards the beach, our shirts soaked in tropic sweat, mouths stuffed with cotton, and dreamed of the first cold sip of Fiji Bitter that was sure to touch my lips as soon as we arrived. The heat kept us mostly in silence, until, in true Fijian fashion, a car traveling the opposite direction stopped and asked if we needed a ride. An older man in his late forties with an a smile that asks for nothing in return carved into his instantly welcoming face, and his plump, quiet wife happily turned their car around and we felt the forgotten relief of air conditioning with the weight off my pained, stinging shoulders. After checking in to the cheapest room on the beach at just fifteen Fijian dollars, I passed the hours in the shade of a small thatch umbrella letting the words to describe the unwinding I had felt since arriving find their way from pen to paper.

Peace.


Sebastian and Tom Robbins in the hammock


Hours are easy to pass in Fiji when the breeze sweeps the heady humidity from your neck and before I knew it the tranquil beach was a torch-lit club and I found myself making friends with a table full of locals and Australian ex-pats that had made their homes here. As once again the sole American at the table, the conversation immediately made its way to our egotistical and unwarranted national pride. Yet again I found myself defending the large part of our population that understands and attempts to change the antiquated idea of world dominance that pervades the worldwide American stereotype. After several hours of passing a pitcher of beer around the table from which you pour a shot and offer it to someone else (a friendly tradition I found promotes good will amongst strangers), the bar topped its bottles, closed its doors, and the handful of us sober enough to keep drinking headed into Nadi proper to Ed’s Bar. American hip-hop pulsed through the street outside as we approached and my body buzzed with alcohol and anticipation for true Fijian nightlife. The only girl among four intimidatingly large, but good humored Fijians, two greying Aussie ex-pats, and one Norwegian wanderer, we chatted and ribbed one another in playful jest while dancing to the same five songs on repeat the entire night. We shot a few games of pool, and threw back bourbon (a tradition I brought to the group) until the bar closed its doors as well and the boys congregated outside deciding where to head on to next. I was assured by the group as a whole that I had changed their opinion of at least one American, but I guess stereotypes are a hard thing to break down. Drunk, tired, and departing for New Zealand tomorrow, I was ready to head back to the hostel. Dee, a Guiness-toned native, whose formidable build belied his sweet nature, prodded me to join them at his house party. For the first time since I arriving in Fiji, I declined and instantly tensed at the bitter hint of unwanted pressure. Grasping the crook of my arm the way you would a petulant child he pulled me away from the bar in requests that quickly lost their playful nature. It is not often I turn down a party, especially not while on vacation surrounded by friendly and exciting strangers. But I also have a strong relationship with my instincts and the discomfort I began to feel spread to my bones like cancer, and the defenses that sit dormant in me most of the time threw up their stony walls. My tone and posture hardened and I pulled myself from the prodding crowd, attempting to find a taxi. Even, the soft, Norwegian traveler that had accompanied the group from the beach to the bar sensed my discomfort and the change in my demeanor, and found a cab for the two of us to return to the hostel. Conversation between us had been easy from the start and the long, fair-haired Scandinavian and I made our way to a hammock on the pre-dawn beach to drink the last beer I had found in my bag on the ride home. The desire to kiss the kind spirit came to my mind more than once, though never made it to my lips. And when the beer was done and it was time to turn in, I offered him to share my bed as his hostel had already closed its doors for the night. I laid my head on his chest under the cool breeze of the fan and we found sweet sleep together on my last night in a place I knew to which I would one day return.

Traveler’s note: Our sweet and peaceful rest at Horizon Backpackers left me covered neck to toe in excrutiating bed bug bites. Lesson learned: ALWAYS use your sleeping bag, even if it’s a hundred degrees.

hideous, itchy, swollen bed bug legs

As our group of seven walked along the road lining the lake recounting our first interaction with the African wildlife we were all so eager to see, the rest of the girls wandered ahead again while the boys and I discussed their consistent need to hurry in a place where everything else moves so slowly. The walkie-talkies Fityfo brought in tow were relatively useless when the Bijelic girls had them as they seldom answered them, other than sporadically, and often they didn’t even keep them turned on at all. It was a long walk which we spent mostly in silence absorbing the unfamiliar surroundings, breaking occasionally to return a friendly jambo to the many small children we passed. The single road from the lake to the town of NaEvesha is dusty and littered with what seems to be years worth of trash. Women in traditional kangas carrying baskets on their heads in that way they do, children in school uniforms, and barefooted teenagers in dirty clothes made their way along the skinny dirt path following the broken pavement. As there is clearly no city maintenance out here I wonder if people ever think about that fact when they see a cigarette pack they dropped on their walk to work three years earlier. Apparently not.

We finally arrived at Fisherman’s Camp where we intended to rent bikes for the ride through Hell’s Gate National Park for the following day. Once we got there and got the bikes in order we headed to their restaurant for dinner and drinks. The seven of us sat down on a large wooden porch wrapped around the main building of the camp, ready for a cold beer and anything that might dilute our memories of that debacle that Crayfish Camp called our lunch. Our table on the deck overlooked an expansive yard with old, tall trees that were home to wild Colobus monkeys (resembling some bastard combination of monkey, skunk, and crazy old man) and a dock jutting out into the lake. About fifty feet in from the lake, the restaurant was surrounded by an electrical fence and a sign apparently warning of us of cartoon polka-dot hippos.

Beware the feared pink polka-dot cow hippo

Beware the feared pink polka-dot cow hippo

We each ordered our dinner and a Tusker and struck up a casual conversation with the owner, a friendly American man seated next to us, joking about the electric fence keeping out the hippos. Apparently, based on the sudden (and very ominous) warning we received from him, joking about death-by-hippo is not, in fact, funny. He proceeded to inform us that it actually happens somewhat frequently. Though these massive and lethargic mammals can outrun humans, they tend to spend their days mostly under water enjoying immersion in the cool lake and minding their own. But at dusk, when they come up out of the water to graze, you best not get in their way or they will kill you. Literally. One of the local men who guards the camp at night took us down and let us walk out to the end of the dock before the fences were electrified at sundown. Hoping to catch a glimpse of the deceptively violent (yet completely adorable) beasts, we ended up enjoying our beers and the sunset from the edge of the lake. When we inquired of the guard as to when the last time someone got killed by a hippo he flatly replied, “last week.”

Hungera!

Hungera!

After a few minutes by the water scoping the hippo scene, we exchanged the Kiswahili toast “hungera” and headed back up to the deck for dinner. Though we weren’t all friends before this trip, there was a certain ease between the seven of us. It was as though we had traveled often before together and knew the delicate rhythm of each other’s moods, the gives and takes necessary to keep from creating incurable tensions and divides on trips like this. Our dinner was loud and delicious and full of booze and for the first time since we arrived in Africa the seven of us truly enjoyed each other, notably lacking the pressure of the next hostel or bus to catch. We stuffed ourselves with curries and meats and libations, peering out towards the lake every so often in hopes of finding a wandering hippo. And then, during that most enjoyable period of any meal when the plates have been cleaned, everyone is full with food, lightened with booze, and the conversation is flowing with more ease than the Kenya King we were drinking, we were approached by one of the guards. The sun had set on the restaurant and he came to inform us that a hippo had been spotted grazing just on the other side of the electric fence. Ecstatic, but silencing our excitement, we got up from the table and followed the lone illumination of the lanky guard’s flashlight down into the darkness. As we approached the fence we strained our eyes, our pupils adFityfog and finally the great animal came into focus. Not but ten feet from where we were standing, a fully-grown hippopotamus grazed calmly on the green lawn, completely oblivious to our presence. It was hard to reconcile this seemingly friendly creature with a horrific and bloody mauling, but if you try reeeeaal hard, you can do it. We stayed for a minute trying to capture the moment in pictures, but unfortunately the blurry mess you see below is the best we could do in the darkness.

He was RIGHT THERE!

He was RIGHT THERE!

Excited over our hippo experience, we headed back up to the deck and let our boisterous evening continue a while longer. A few hours and and a few more drinks later, as everyone finished their beers and began winding down, we were struck with a most unfortunate realization. It was 10PM. It was pitch black. We were several miles from our camp, and between the seven of us and our seven bicycles we had one headlamp. Fuck. Despite our initial concern over the stickiness of our situation, seeing as we didn’t have much of a choice, we heaved our drunk asses on to our bicycles and headed up the steep, rocky hill towards the thick, dark, nothing.

Despite that old adage about never forgetting how to ride a bike, I can assure you there is certainly a period of re-acclimation that is required. Both BoBo and I, somewhat awkward and clumsy to begin with, struggled to even get going, and much more so to keep up with the group. The road was narrow and shoddily paved and either side was lined by a drop-off ditch that was several feet deep in some places. Every few minutes someone would yell out “BUMP!” as a warning to those following behind, and even more often than that you would hear the yelp of nervous surprise coming from someone unprepared for what they just hit. The whole ride was a comedy act of sorts, each of us taking our turns falling, narrowly avoiding ditches, or not avoiding ditches at all. But if you could forget for just one second that there might be a five-foot deep ditch ahead of you and look up – a billion ancient stars looked back down, painting the sky in every direction. It was perfect.

Beautiful (though blurry) Night Sky

Beautiful (though blurry) Night Sky

The drive to Naivasha was beautiful, filled with both anticipation and awe at the surrounding landscapes. We drove on with our heads out the windows, smiling and dancing to the local hip-hop and reggae flavor our driver was was playing.

The road to Naivasha

The road to Naivasha


We arrived in Naivasha a little under two hours later, our matatu driver being the safest one we would encounter for the remainder of the trip, and hopped on to another matatu that would take us down the road from the town center to Crayfish Camp. I am pretty sure that every single person outside of the crowded van was trying to sell us something. Whether it be roasted corn, blow-pops, sausages, pens, hair clips, or warm yogurt, it can be peddled through the window of a stopped, or moving, matatu. Our new driver was much less cautious than our first and took off barreling down the bumpy dirt road at an obscene speed, passing cars in the opposite lane, narrowly missing oncoming traffic, warning everyone of their impending death with nothing but a hilariously brief and inadequate honk.

After a ten minute ride down the sole road from Naivasha town to the lake we hopped off the pleasant little death trap at the entrance for Crayfish Camp. Though Matsui’s gentle caring for me on the drive had helped to ease the intense nausea, I was already wary of that inevitable pull developing between us. Pushing it aside, we walked up a long paved driveway past a crop of rosebuds lined with irrigation canals and greenhouses, cattle and goats roaming along the fences. When we finally reached the camp we were immediately greeted at the desk by Joseph, a suspiciously friendly gentleman, willing to fulfill any need we might have, albeit at an exorbitant price. He took us around to see the rooms and for the first time I stopped and realized that we were in Africa. The camp was beautiful. Three horses roamed freely like pet dogs, grazing on the lush green grass, and the trees were filled with the bluish-purple iridescent superb starling.

Free-roaming horses at the camp

Free-roaming horses at the camp

Superb Starling - they were everywhere

Superb Starling - they were everywhere

Eve, Faye, and Fityfo in one of the many creative quarters at Crayfish - the bus bed

Eve, Faye, and Fityfo in one of the many creative quarters at Crayfish - the bus bed

As we tried to sort out who was sEELping with whom I could already tell what Matsui was thinking. Despite our tumultuous history, our physical chemistry was never something in question. Still holding white-knuckled on to my resolve to leave Africa as Matsui’s friend (and nothing more) I made very clear to him that we would not be sharing a room, much less a bed, at any point on this trip. When he inquired as to why with a sly smirk on his face, I stared at him incredulously for a moment and replied, “Because of your girlfriend. The one you have. That isn’t me.” Smiling, he let the jab roll off his shoulders, and we all headed to find some lunch.

As we sat down at a table at the camp’s oddly empty restaurant, we began to wonder where everybody was. We had yet to see any other travelers, save for at the hostel in Nairobi. Those thoughts were quickly dismissed by our hunger and we eagerly began perusing the menu. Options were limited and while I struggled to find something that would agree with the still strong remnants of my hangover, I ordered a beer to ease the pain, a hot dog despite my utter lack of an appetite, and hoped for the best. About twenty minutes later a few of our plates arrived. Though both Barbara and I had ordered the hot dog, when our food was set in front of us, french fries tumbled down a small potato mountain on her plate and I was left staring at three fries, a few small slices of tomato and a similarly disappointing number of onion slices that I believe was intended to resemble a salad. To top off our gourmet meal, the hot dogs, tiny shriveled pieces of meat, were lacking buns. It didn’t stop there. Both Fityfo and Matsui ordered ham and cheese sandwiches, and when Fityfo received a ham and cheese omelette in its place we humorously assumed that they must just be out of any kind of bread. However, just about the time everyone else had finished eating, Matsui inexplicably received his ham and cheese sandwich (bread and all) and we were left perplexed by the waitress and, for the most part, still hungry. On the bright side, the hilarity of that meal ended up providing an inordinate amount of entertainment for days to come as well as a wonderfully low standard to beat.

Unwittingly smiling unaware of the meal to come...

Unwittingly smiling just before the infamous meal ...

After lunch we decided to find our friendly con-artist Joseph to get ripped off on a boat ride out on the lake. We arranged a boat and a guide with the camp and walked the short walk to the lake to set out on freshwater in hopes of our first real taste of African wildlife. The sun was pounding on our pale wintered skin unaccustomed to the relentless heat. Rolling up our sleeves we all silently begged for a breeze until, across the lake, we saw a storm coming. As we continued towards it the wind picked up, cooling our overheated bodies, and finally the sun disappeared and the most refreshingly welcome rain began to run down our faces and arms. After about thirty minutes, when the winds grew and the water on our arms turned to goosebumps, the clouds began to break and the sun returned to the southern side of the lake.

Sunlight breaking through after the storm

Sunlight breaking through after the storm

Pink-backed Pelican

Pink-backed Pelican

Yaaaawwwnnnnnn

Yaaaawwwnnnnnn

The tango of clear skies and sunlight through the storm clouds projected a strangely beautiful backdrop for the birds as they swooped in and out around our boat, some diving for food, some just calmly floating by. The freshwater lake is home to not only more than four-hundred species of birds but also three separate families of hippopotamuses (that we saw anyway). The enormous beasts appear docile as they roll about lazily in the water, yawning and stretching against one another, but anything as big as a car that runs faster than a human is certainly something by which to be intimidated.
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After about an hour or so of bird-watching and hippo-gazing, our guide on the boat (whose name I can’t seem to recall) brought the vessel around back to the dock and we headed back to camp to find some dinner.

I woke up that morning like many (okay, most) other mornings, slightly hungover and thirsty for a breakfast cocktail. The only differences being that I awakened in Faye’s bed, and we were leaving for Africa that afternoon. In preparation of our trip we had a few errands to run after which we hurried back to Faye’s, already a little drunk and sped up having a mimosa brunch and popping some of her narcolepsy medication before we finished packing and headed to meet the boys at the airport. The four of us finished our beers just as the “final boarding call” announcement for our flight came out over the loudspeaker at Dulles. We filed on to the plane to disapproving glances into four adjacent seats: Matsui and I on the aisles, Faye and Fityfo in the center. My distance from Matsui was already tangible and before the plane had left the gate I already felt the painfully familiar clenching in my chest that accompanies being in the presence of someone you still love, but also pretty much hate. Fighting the urge to cry, and silently losing, I tried to think of a good analogy to properly illustrate the sorrow of the constant contradiction I had been feeling for the last six months between sense and passion, until I realized, there isn’t one. I can’t recall who came up with that whole “better to have loved and lost…” nonsense, but I assure you – not all loves are worth the loss. Luckily enough, Fityfo bought a bottle of duty-free vodka in the terminal, and suddenly the wonderfully warm and sharp feeling of liquor drowned, at least for the moment, any thoughts of Matsui and me. Ahhh, the sweet relief of alcoholism. Twenty hours, a bottle of vodka, and somewhere between twenty and thirty of those single-serving bottles of wine later, we arrived in Africa.

We landed in Nairobi relatively late our first night, and caught a cab to the Milimani Backpacker’s Hostel, where we were to meet up with the rest of our crew who had come in from Ethiopia earlier that day. Arriving at the hostel seeing Eve, BoBo, and Faye, a sense of both relief and excitement flowed through each of us. We had managed to find each other on this mysterious continent and tomorrow morning we would begin a trip which, at this point, none of us knew just how incredible it would be. We sat down at the hostel’s outdoor bar, enjoyed a few beers together amongst stories of our, until this point, separate journeys and headed back to the eight-bedded dorm room we were all sharing for some much needed rest.

A round of Tusker at the Milimani Backpacker's Hostel

A round of Tusker at the Milimani Backpacker's Hostel

Though everyone else managed to find sleep between the two eight hour flights, my insomnia teamed up with my alcoholism for twenty straight hours of consumption. Heading to the dorm at midnight I had only assumed the combination of travel, alcohol, and exhaustion would put me immediately to sleep. Unfortunately for me, some strange mix of excitement for the journey ahead and apprehension over the awkward purgatory in which Matsui and I were trapped kept me from finding any rest. Not to mention those four A.M. roosters. When early morning came and it was time to pack for our two day excursion to Lake Naivasha, it finally caught up with me. Feeling weak and nauseated, I attempted to indulge in one of the delicious ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches prepared by the hostel’s cook. That was my first mistake. After throwing that up, there was no turning back. After about an hour, a bottle of water, three sips of a fresh mango smoothie, some Tums, and a different trip to puke for each of the things just listed, it was time to go. I gathered whatever strength I could find knowing that not even the most vile and intense of hangovers was going to steal a minute of my time in Africa. Besides, being hungover about sixty-percent of the rest of my life, it’s something to which I am relatively accustomed.

We started the twenty-five minute walk into the center of Nairobi around nine in the morning and the heat was already unbearable. Perhaps it only felt this way to me as I had to stop every few feet to dry heave into the river of trash along the side of the road, but who can say for sure? The girls quickly took a lead and Matsui and Fityfo, being the gentlemen that they are, stayed at my pace and offered water or the support of a shoulder as needed.

BoBo being silly on the road into center city Nairobi

BoBo being silly on the road into center city Nairobi

I could not have made that walk without them. The center of Nairobi was as westernized as any city we saw in Africa and I walked through the crowded sidewalks surprised at the colorfully busy English signage plastered across and in front of every store we passed, like some second-hand Times Square. After a long and thoroughly exhausting walk we finally arrived at the bus station, though I am using the term “bus station” quite loosely. The place of which I speak is simply a long street lined one after another with dozens of colorful matatus which can best be described as minEvens retrofitted with twelve cramped seats, and which are often stuffed with twice that many people. We made our way down the seemingly endless line of vans emblazoned with slutty rap video chicks and Obama tributes with offers for bargains flying from the mouths of the drivers faster than Italians cursing.

When we finally found the matatus headed to NaEvesha Faye and EEL immediately began the constantly arduous, but usually fruitful, negotiation process. Hard-edged and firm these two cuter-than–girls-in-pigtails women were relentless as the rest of us stood idly waiting like five open wallets. The odors, the heat, and the hangover (a combination of assaults I was at that point unaware I had only just begun to experience) overwhelmed me, and I began to lean on Matsui for support. Dizzy and wavering on the brink of consciousness, I struggled to drift back to the negotiation and find out why the fuck we weren’t already in a car, on the highway, with the window down. When I finally found my way back to the conversation, our little negotiators had gotten the driver down to three-hundred Kenyan shillings per person. As this is about three dollars and fifty cents for a ninety-minute drive in a private van, I assumed I was only moments away from the welcome relief of shade and a breeze on my sweating, pallid face. It was at this moment I learned just exactly how fierce of a negotiator Faye really is. Trying to work the driver down another fifty shillings (or about eighty cents) I struggle and fail to voice an objection or offer to cover the difference if we can just get in the fucking van already. Luckily, the driver folded to Faye’s hard negotiating and for seventeen-hundred shillings all-in I slid across the seat to the window and waited for the most rewarding ninety-degree breeze of my life.