Her face said Chinese, but her demeanor shouted Russian.
“People try to talk to me in Mandarin all the time,” the 30-something-year-old Moscow resident told me. We were in my room in Chiang Mai. It was February, Chinese New Year, so the northern Thai city was full of Chinese tourists.
“I can’t respond because I have no clue what they’re saying,” Nona said, not laughing, but not frustrated either. It was just a fact of life she’d accepted long ago. She knew she looked Chinese. But she identified as a Russian raised Russian by Russians in a rural village in Russia. (Say THAT five times fast!) After school, she’d moved to Moscow where there were more opportunities for work.
Nona, that’s not her real name, looked like Lucy Liu meets Lisa Ling meets Yao Ming. She was more than six feet tall. My Facebook sleuthing did in fact prove that she’d worked as a model. But those weren’t the photos she showed me on her phone as we sat on my hotel balcony in one of Chiang Mai’s less fashionable districts. (My “balcony” was really just a short outdoor concrete entryway to my windowless bathroom where I could sit on the toilet, shower and brush my teeth all at the same time—under the watchful eye of the resident cockroach.)
The photos she showed me were action shots of her surfing in Bali the week before. Like me, Nona escaped her home country’s harsh winters by escaping to Southeast Asia. The fact that Nona sort of blended in because she looked Asian, was just a coincidence. If you could hold up a mirror to her mind, you’d see Russian.
The mirror was actually the reason I met Nona in the first place. I was tired of seeing the two furry caterpillars slowly, but surely, approaching one another on my forehead. Yes, I own a pair of tweezers. But these caterpillars looked like they’d need something from the power tool family—not a hedge trimmer (I’m not that dramatic) but at the very least, the tool my mom should buy my dad to trim his nose hairs. The only way tweezers were going to work is if they were wielded by someone with experience. Someone like Nona.
Much like some people use the Internet to find their mail-order Russian brides, I used it to find my mail-order Russian browmaster. A quick search of “eyebrows Chiang Mai” brought up a recent post in an expat forum. It read something like this:
Hi, my name is Nona and I am visiting Chiang Mai from Moscow. I will be here for about a month. I specialize in eyebrows. Message me if you’d like more information.
I messaged Nona, requested “more information” and was shocked by her response. Her fee for a pair of brows was 700 baht!
If you’re not familiar with Chiang Mai’s cost of living, here’s a snapshot of what I was spending:
By Chiang Mai local standards, I was ballin’. Still, I wasn’t about to drop 700 baht on my brows. That was $22! I can get my eyebrows threaded at a dozen places in Manhattan for $8. So why the heck would I pay three times that much in a city whose consumer price index is 53% cheaper than Manhattan’s? Granted, Nona was making a house call and coming to my place (maybe a 10-minute commute on foot), but still, she was charging Reykjavikian prices!
It was so absurd I had to know why. Was she the brow whisperer? Were hers the fingers responsible for Brooke Shield’s money-making fringe? No, she was too young. Could she be behind Kylie Jenner’s sky-high arches? Nah, that person had blood on their hands.
Nona’s high price meant she had to be good. But like an idiot, I tried to talk her down. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to negotiate with a Russian before, but I, for one, was not successful. Ultimately, Nona told me that she wasn’t an “eyebrows God” but she was worth 700 baht, I was desperate so, “Deal” was what I messaged back.
The next day, I invited Nona into my hotel room where we decided it was too dark to set up shop. The windowless bathroom didn’t have sufficient lighting either so we wound up on the open-air “balcony.” It was barely big enough for the both of us so Nona used my desk inside to lay out some of her instruments and materials. Imagine Bob Vila’s tool belt collided with Bob Ross’s painting supplies and you’d have half of what Nona was pulling out of her bags.
My entire desk was covered with tools, measuring instruments, paintbrushes, a color-mixing palette and paints. I reached for my phone but before I could take a photo, Nona put her hands over her stuff like a mother bird protecting her nest.
“You can’t take any photos,” she said, instinctively using an arm to shield her arsenal. “The salons back in Moscow are trying to figure out how I do it. They’re jealous I’m able to charge as much as I do.”
After assuring her I wasn’t a spy sent by the KGB of facial hair, Nona relaxed, a little.
To make small talk, I asked her how long she’d been doing brows. It wasn’t long. Maybe a year or two. She’d only recently left her corporate career. She was the manager of a prominent bank in Moscow—responsible for too many employees and feeling stifled creatively. So naturally, she left that industry and ended up in eyebrows.
I couldn’t get much more out of her because she was an artist and most artists don’t like to talk while they work. So, I sat there, on a hard, wooden chair, while Nona towered over me, tweezers in hand and eyes squinting. You know it’s bad when Asian eyes have to squint. In this case, “bad” was what I had done to ruin my brows’ natural shape. Years of over and under tweezing in all the wrong places she told me. I felt like the kid who goes to the dentist, and after an hour of having metal tools poke, prod, spray, drill and scrape the inside of her mouth, has to sit through the floss-or-die lecture.
I don’t know how she did it (I had my eyes closed half the time) but Nona assessed and then attacked. One minute she was two inches from my face, her hot breath on my nose. The next, she was two steps back, judging her pluck from all angles. It went on like this for two hours. TWO HOURS! I’ve gotten perms that have taken less time. My butt was painfully asleep, my stomach was rumbling and my friend who I had been messaging with when Nona showed up was wondering if I was still alive because I hadn’t responded in two hours. TWO HOURS!
Nona, however, didn’t seem to notice the time. She was in her element, rifling through a pile of colored brow pencils that all looked like brown and black to me and mixing the brow paints. Or were they dyes? At this point, I felt like saying, “Paint them purple. Just take this 700 baht and leave.” But I was polite. I nodded when she said, “Don’t you think this is too dark?” and lied when she said, “This looks warm-enough right?”
After my brow paint had dried, it was finally time for the big reveal. Nona had not let me look in the mirror for the two-hour session. Naturally, I had to take a bathroom break halfway through and she made me promise I wouldn’t try to see myself in the cloudy mirror above the sink.
I wish I could say the big reveal blew me away. That my new arches accentuated my high cheekbones. But I don’t even have high cheekbones to begin with. I wish I could say that the new color brought out the green in my irises. But truthfully, my brows seemed the same shade of brownish black they’d been for 27 years. I wish I could say my caterpillars had turned into butterflies (metaphorically of course), but they just looked like junior varsity versions of their former furry selves.
That said, I didn’t hate them. The end result was definitely better than what I’d started with. I said something to that affect and Nona laughed.
“This is not the end result. You’ve done so much damage to your natural brow line by overplucking in the wrong places. It’s going to take months for some of the essential hairs to grow back.”
That was when she dropped the bombshell that I’d have to routinely check in with her.
“I usually consult with my clients at least once a month,” she said before telling me that I was not to pluck a single hair that would grow in until I had gotten the green light from her. We would communicate via Facebook and meet in person if we were on the same continent. The quest for perfect brows would take at least a year, assuming I didn’t go rogue in the meantime and remove any strays, or what I perceived to be strays, without her permission.
It was an admirable quest, albeit one I abandoned the second I hugged Nona goodbye and handed her 800 baht (not tipping an aesthetician is pretty much asking for a breakout). Telling me not to tweeze was akin to telling me not to touch the puppy.
Still, I have a lot of respect for Nona and her commitment to helping the human race bring a stronger brow game. It was refreshing to meet someone who was a master of such an obscure craft. It was inspiring to meet a woman who knew, and demanded, her worth. And yes, it was kind of funny to meet a Chinese-looking Russian.
If you want to bring my blood dangerously close to its boiling point, say this: “You’re so lucky; you get to travel.” I hear it almost every time I tell people where I’m from or what I do for work. It’s not that I’m mad for me, because I’m not. I’m mad for the person asking. In a way, they are robbing themselves of the same “luck.”
It’s not luck that has me writing this from a black sand beach on a Spanish island the British revere as paradise. In fact, when I look at my life’s events, I think, for a white, American woman, the odds of becoming someone who lived out of a suitcase seemed stacked against me.
Preface: Spreading of the broken wings
I had every reason to stay in Montana for college. As a high school sophomore, I was finally diagnosed with OCD, something I think I’ve had since at least 5th grade when I kept a ridiculous spreadsheet chronicling all of my movements and encounters. If you so much as looked at me back then, it was documented in Excel. Why? Well, because I was convinced I was going to be kidnapped of course. Monk and Howie Mandel have an irrational fear of germs. Well, I had an irrational fear of kidnapper vans. OCD manifests itself in millions of ways.
My OCD was more than an impeccably organized sock drawer. In fact, it was so severe I almost ended up in-patient (think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). To show me what my future could hold, my parents and therapist actually arranged for me to do a supervised meet and greet session with a graduate (although I don’t know if he’d call himself that) of an in-patient place on the East Coast that treated his extremely severe OCD. It wasn’t quite Shutter Island, but it scared me into abandoning some of my most crippling compulsions.
During my worst episodes, I moved into my closet where I could set up camp and control every element. So, the idea of moving to New York City, while I was still seeing my psychiatrist regularly and hadn’t completed my cognitive therapy workbook, where I wouldn’t be under the watchful eyes of my parents, was preposterous, at best.
I had another reason to attend a school close to home. My senior year of high school, during baccalaureate and the Senior picnic and more Senior Week events which I had to miss, I was getting my first colonoscopy which would diagnose me with Crohn’s disease. I’d spent way too many months, and now that I think about it, years, silently suffering. It made sense to stay within a three-hour’s drive of home where I could have my parents take care of me if I had a flare-up. But, I didn’t. I went further east than everyone in my class except David Chen who ended up at Amherst.
I didn’t “get” a full ride scholarship
I earned one. No guidance counselor, friend, family member or mentor encouraged me to apply to a school In New York City. I watched a 48 Hours Mystery episode (again, my obsession with true crime) about a Ohio girl who moved there to pursue her dance dreams. I CHOSE to. I chose to log on to the St. John’s website, request an application, and then fill it out, along with a personal essay I spent hours agonizing over. It worked. I didn’t “get” good grades in high school. I earned them or when needed, avoided bad grades. For example, when my near-perfect GPA was in jeopardy, I quickly dropped AP Physics and enrolled in Art Class. RIP Mr. Borgreen. You were the best.
I didn’t “get” to spend my summers in the Hamptons
Try waking up at 6 a.m. six times a week during your summer break and helping manage a celebrity-ridden (i.e. high stakes, high expectations) yoga studio in the Hamptons all while cleaning up after a two-year-old and chasing after her older brother who was way too smart, and fast, for his six years. Yes, I got to do all of this in one of the poshest zip codes on the planet, but I, like many of the wealthy people who own homes behind hedges there, earned my place there.
After spring semester, I could have gone back to Montana where I had free room and board and a car at my disposal. But no, I sacrificed that to cycle from Hampton to Hampton, from bayside to beachside, even in the rain. My second summer there I went through Lululemon’s almost cult-like application process, got a job in retail (where I folded more pants in one week than most people fold in a lifetime) AND interned, unpaid, as a nightlife and social reporter for the largest newspaper in the Hamptons.
Did I mention I didn’t have a car? Yes, even on the afternoons when the summer thunderstorms rolled in, I’d have to ride my bike ( a hand-me-down hybrid, not the fancy one I have now) all seven miles from East Hampton (where I worked) to Sag Harbor (where I shared a basement room with my cousin who I brought out from Montana to nanny). The only other people in the Hamptons who seemed to be biking out of necessity, not for sport, were the Mexicans, who may or may not have “earned” their way…
I didn’t “get” to backpack across Europe with my best friend
Over Christmas break 2009, I met with my best friend in a hometown coffee shop. Instead of gossiping or talking about boys, we hatched a plan to backpack across Western Europe.
No one handed us tickets to Dublin or paid for our Eurail passes. Instead, we divvied up the research—each of us responsible for specific cities and spreadsheets—and pinched our pennies. For the entire spring semester I packed lunches of Trader Joes-brand food while my classmates ate out and shopped at Whole Foods. I even trekked to Brooklyn a few times to make babysitting money while the parents had a Saturday date night and many of my classmates were probably at a bar.
Once we were in Europe, no one was waiting for us at every train station, ready to carry our backbreaking Keltys and take us to our rooms. No, we had to learn how to communicate with the strange older Italian man in the Cinque Terre who told his room for rent had AC. So we took it, only to learn later that to him, a fan =’s AC. Just like mistakes didn’t happen to us, we made them, we didn’t “get” to backpack across Europe. We put in the time, sweat and a few tears needed to spend 80 days touring more than 10 countries.
I didn’t “get” to help hand out 550 bikes in Costa Rica
Bikes for the World didn’t email me or hand me a flier on a street corner asking me to contribute to its cause—collecting and donating used bicycles to rural communities in developing countries. I Googled something like “bicycle non-profits”, ended up on its webpage, and scrolled down so I could click on the “Contact Us” button. Even after responding to my inquiry and saying that yes, I could help with the next distribution, no one from Bikes for the World offered to pay for my flight down to Costa Rica or drive me to the distribution site, a few hours from San Jose on a barely passable dirt road. Instead, I went on craigslist and then met a stranger in Chipotle where I traded him my netbook (remember them?) for his Jet Blue voucher. Then, I reached out to a friend’s sister’s ex-boyfriend who I had never met in Costa Rica and asked if he’d take me to the rural village. Thank God he said yes (and today he’s one of my best friends).
I didn’t “get” a Leonberger
Leonbergers are rare and expensive. Anyone who knows that tends to say, “You’re so lucky you got one.” Except, I didn’t. When Zeus’ owner dropped him off at the Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter, they didn’t call me.
I had to learn about him from my mom (who found him online) and make a trip to visit the shelter (you had to show up in person for a supervised visit to get approved to apply). Once I was approved to apply, I had to drive back to the shelter to pick up the paper application, which I completed and handed in. A few dozen (I seem to remember the number 100) applied for him. I didn’t “get” Zeus because I was the lucky one. No, the shelter chose me because I’d done my homework and I had stellar references.
For at least three years, I’d wanted a Leonberger and anyone in my inner circle knew how passionate I was about them. Even people who weren’t in my inner circle! For example, a few years before meeting Zeus, I emailed a reporter at the Associated Press who wrote about my obsession with the breed. That story appeared in newspapers across the country. I also reached out to a national Leonberger club, eventually visiting the home of a Montana representative (who I reached out to online) who would later vouch for me at the shelter.
Finally, I CHOSE to go against my mom’s advice (she didn’t think adopting Zeus was a good idea at the time) and I accepted him when I was told I could adopt him—something I credit my AP article and association with the national club for.
I didn’t “get” good genes
Okay, so that’s not entirely true. I do have some good genes. BUT I also have Crohn’s disease (which runs in women of Eastern European Jewish descent) and strictly vanity speaking—I had to wear braces, get glasses and suffer through years of people either making fun of my freckles or telling me they were adorable. I was confused af. But I want people to know—for their sake—because they can do it too—that I didn’t “get” a good body.
I make choices that result in being healthy and lean. I.e. I’ve never gotten bigger than a size small ice cream (my parents used to make us split SMALL Blizzards when Dairy Queen was open). I never get extra toppings, unless they’re fruits or vegetables. And who needs stuffed crust when the cheese is already on top of the pizza? I don’t look at appetizers unless I’m eating them instead of an entrée and I NEVER NEVER I-don’t-care-what-the-occasion-is* day drink.
Similarly, I don’t bingewatch anything or spend Saturdays sprawled out on a couch. Nor do I take an Uber if it’s within walking distance. Walking is cheaper anyway. And the elevator? I only use that when it’s more than 6 stories and even then, when I lived on the 9th floor of my apartment in New York City, I took the stairs most of the time. So, I challenge you, if you want to be leaner and perhaps, probably, meaner, to make similar choices and see if you “get” a body closer to what you want.
And finally, I don’t “get” to travel
No one fired me from the 9-to-5 realm and said you are simply not cut out for the corporate world. Nor did a genie magically appear and grant me a wish of being able to travel as often as I’d like. No, what really happened is I made a series of conscious choices. Sometimes, with the consent of my friends and family. More often, without it.
When I was at my sickest, very weak and around 100 lbs., I got an email offering an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa if I was able to secure an assignment. Granted, not only was I too sick to travel anywhere, according to my parents and doctors, but it was also 2015: the year of the Ebola scare. I.e. if I had a $1 for every editor who told me there’s no way they’d assign an Africa story right now and even $1 for the editors who didn’t bother responding to my request, I could have paid my own damn way. But I didn’t. Instead, I chipped away at every editor and outlet whose contact information I could find until one finally gave me a letter of assignment.
And then, I ate as much as I could, put on some weight, and convinced my parents that I was healthy enough to travel abroad. Two months later, I was in Africa. Furthermore, I didn’t just stay in South Africa. I’d reached out to Rwanda’s tourism board and convinced them to agree to host me, if I paid for my flights, so I flew there. This was despite being told by my doctors that visiting Central Africa wasn’t in my best health interest. I’m on a biologic which weakens my immune system and doesn’t allow me to get live vaccinations such as the Yellow Fever vaccination required for visiting most, if not all, Central African countries.
The rest of my trips in the past few years have been similar. Yes, I do get a ton of emails offering “free” trips to exotic destinations. BUT, no trip is ever free. Nor do I “get” to go on them. I’m working: from responding to that initial email to handing in my assignment. I work to secure an assignment in advance, I hustle and suffer through boring, drawn-out press trip dinners, and when I get tired of having to play by their rules, I keep traveling by paying my own way. If this means I still drive a 2006 CRV, my bike seat is held together by duck tape because I can’t drop $100 on a new saddle and I can only afford to eat out during happy hour or on my birthday when I eat for free, then so be it.
The goods news is that because I don’t “get” to travel, neither do you NOT get to travel. If you wanted to quit your job tomorrow, I don’t think you’d have to walk over any dead bodies stopping you.
If you wanted to buy a ticket to Thailand and check riding elephants (although you will learn you shouldn’t ride them) off your bucket list, no one at the airline or elephant sanctuary is going to stop you. Nor is your bank account going to not approve the payment (unless you don’t have the funds in the first place).
But just like no one is going to stop you from booking a flight, reserving a week at an all-inclusive resort or whatever it is, no one is going to hold your hand when you sit in your boss’s office and ask for the time off. Unless your parents are as generous as mine, no one is going to volunteer to watch your dogs or your kids while you’re away. Also, no one is going to pat you on the back when they see you’re saving up for your trip by doing without a month’s gym membership and riding your bike for cardio (rain, wind or shine) instead.
At the end of the day, you are pretty much responsible for what you “get” and don’t get. Sure, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but genuinely good people usually don’t become bad people just because they’ve had some misfortune. They dictate how they react and they don’t let circumstances define them.
If you see something you want, don’t expect to “get” it. Expect to earn it. Most importantly, expect to savor the satisfaction that comes with knowing you earned it. Listen to any Ted Talk by a successful person or read the biography of a celebrity and most of it won’t be about what it’s like to live life at the top. It will be about the choices they made, and the hours they put in, to get there. The journey is NOT the destination. But more often than not, it’s just as pivotal.
*I do partake in the blood of Christ at communion
Damir was about to get laid. At least, that’s what he thought. Hours earlier we’d matched on Tinder. Now, he was standing in the doorway of my Dubrovnik hotel room. Like many Croatian men, he reeked of cigarette smoke. “Welcome,” I said demurely. “Wine?” He nodded, and the night began…
Two years before meeting Damir, I went on my first Tinder date. Brad was the closest thing to Bradley Cooper I’ll ever see, and we went to dinner at one of the poshest restaurants in town. I don’t remember my entree—I was already naming our offspring in my head—but I do remember he didn’t let me order dessert.
“I don’t want you to get sick,” he said.
Sick? Was Brad calling me fat? I thought the night would end there. But it didn’t. Much to my surprise, we drove up to the airport. It was 11 p.m.—the last commercial flight of the day had taken off hours earlier.
“Come fly with me,” Brad said, leading me to a two-seater Cessna. I had no idea if it passed inspection, and I didn’t ask to see Brad’s pilot’s license. I just put the headset on and let this stranger I met on Tinder take me 1,000 meters up over the city, at night nonetheless.
Despite sharing a few romantic nights, Brad and I didn’t fly off into the sunset together. I knew things wouldn’t last when, on our last date—camping in the mountains—he asked me to take a photo of him posing on a rock. “This will be my next Tinder profile pic,” he said, aloud, not realizing in doing so he was stabbing an ice pick through my aorta. I’d really liked Brad and saw a future together.
In my current profile photo, I’m posing with a plush Tramp from Lady and the Tramp. I got him at Duty Free in the Brussels Airport, and he goes everywhere with me. Any guy who wants to sleep with me has to be cool with sharing the bed with Tramp too. “Just think of it as a sex toy,” I tell guys who raise their eyebrows when they pull back the sheets and see cartoon eyes staring back at them.
I travel, alone, about nine months a year. Much like Tramp looks for Lady, I look for a gentleman. After writing a Fox News story about tips for Tindering internationally, Tinder gave me a free subscription to Tinder Plus, so that’s my modus operandi for finding men. Currently, I have about 1,100 matches. I could easily have a million (if I swipe right 20 times I will match with at least 18) but I don’t consider myself a collector. I’m a curator with standards so high that you could be Brad Pitt’s body double but if I’m looking at your six-pack in a mirror selfie, I swipe left. Still, 1,100 means one man for every day of the year for the past three years. During that time, I’ve visited 25 countries spanning five continents.
Cagri was not my type. Not because he was Turkish, but because he looked like my cousin Burke. Still, his profile said he worked for Al Jazeera, and I was also a journalist on assignment in Bali, so why not meet for drinks and swap best practices? We met at a beach club bursting with wasted Australians and Irish tourists trying to keep up with them. There were no sparks between us (maybe I looked like his cousin too), but our conversation was stimulating.
“I matched with this really hot girl on Tinder in Java,” Cagri said. “The problem was she was into this other girl, not me”
I had a hard time following, but basically, the other girl liked Cagri. So, the only way girl A. could get in bed with girl B. was by getting Cagri in bed to lure her in. “It was my first threesome,” he proudly proclaimed. There was an awkward silence while he waited for me to tell him about my first threesome.
Instead of making something up—the only threesome I’ve been in involves Tramp—I told him about Tim. I’d matched with Tim in the U.S. but it wasn’t until we were both in Thailand that we were physically together. “You flew from the U.S. to Thailand for a guy you met on Tinder?” Cagri asked incredulously, as if it was more ludicrous than him sleeping with two Indonesian women, including a lesbian who used his Turkish ass to get with her dream girl!
But, Cagri was right. In hindsight, Tim was a waste of time. The only thing a guy like him is good for is providing material for Taylor Swift’s boy-bashing songs.
A year later, I met up with another Tinder match in Thailand. Roger was about 15 years older than me and he had a trail of ex-wives two women long. However, he was so tall, dark, handsome and Swiss that I wouldn’t have minded being a much younger wife number three. We’d matched a few months earlier when I was in Bali, but it wasn’t until we were both working remotely in Chiang Mai that we got physical.
Our couples’ massage was at Lila’s, across the street from a restaurant called Burgers and Spring Rolls, a disastrous combination pretty much summing up all of my past relationships. Staffed by former female inmates who were taught massage in prison, Lila’s isn’t the most romantic massage parlour. Since we were in a crowded room with other sweaty tourists, and we spent most of the time wondering what the tiny Thai women on top of us did to get themselves locked up, we had no chance at having a happy ending. (I adore Roger though and am happy to report that he is now happily dating a Balinese woman he met on Tinder.)
Meanwhile, I’m haunted by the ghosts of Tinder matches past, like Theuns. It’s been more than two years since we met, but he still occasionally pops up in my Facebook inbox with marriage proposals. He’s not that into me, he just really wants his U.S. green card. Theuns, bless his heart, is the first South African I’d ever met. But the problem with dating Theuns, at the time, was his truck. Most girls like a guy with a big truck, but Theuns’ was too big. Originally from Stellenbosch, Theuns had jumped at a chance to work in the U.S. even if it was a depressing job driving a semi-truck across the country.
Downtrodden and exhausted after driving his 18-wheeler all night, Theuns slumped into the McDonald’s booth, struggling to keep his eyes open. We had to meet at a truck stop because that was the only place where he could park his giant-ass truck. Over too-salty fries and a too-sweet milkshake, we talked about the farms we’d grown up on. Naturally, that led to a conversation about farm murders. Naturally, that led to no goodnight makeout session. There are just some topics that can kill the mood almost as fast as shouting, “I have HIV!”
The next time I talked farming with a Tinder match was in Costa Rica. Sebastian was a mushroom farmer. What separates Seb from the rest of my Tinder dates is he told me he brought me a gift on our first date. I was praying for roses but expecting a bouquet of mushrooms. So, imagine my surprise when he produced a cycling cap. From the brownish-yellow stains, I could tell someone had sweated buckets in it. Seb beamed and pointed to the autograph across the cap’s bill. It was from a professional rider I’d never heard of. Evidently, Seb had seen that photo of me and my bike in my Tinder profile. I was honoured he’d brought me one of his most prized possessions, but I was also uncomfortable. I had nothing for him. (Don’t get me wrong, if I’d had a marker, I totally would have snuck into the café’s toilet and forged Beyonce’s signature on my sweaty panties.)
Speaking of panties, I have rules against sleeping with a guy on the first Tinder date. But for Taylor—to this day the dreamiest guy I’ve met on Tinder—I went rogue. How could I not? His nose was pierced, he had a man bun AND he took me for a ride through the Balinese rice paddies to a hip breakfast spot where we waxed philosophically over wheat grass shots and avocado toast. He was so attractive to look at I had to keep fighting my tongue. It wanted to call him Adonis. I only spent one night in bed with Taylor, but it was epic.
Maybe our mouths should have been doing other things, but I let my jaw drop open as he dramatically described the time he hiked to remote tidal pools off the coast of Cape Town. The tide came in, Taylor nearly drowned and the world almost lost one of its finest sources of sperm. Not that I knew what his sperm was like, we both fell asleep after talking.
When I think of Taylor, I get butterflies in my stomach. When I think of Phil, an Irish fellow I matched with in Ethiopia, my blood boils. I was new to Addis Ababa and he was my first and only friend. About a week into my Ethiopian trip, I was attacked by two young men who tried to rob me on a busy street IN BROAD DAYLIGHT. Since Phil was the only person I knew in town, I texted him for help. His response hurt as bad as being hit by the Ethiopian men.
Addis is safe, you must have been doing something to provoke them.
Gentleman, if you want to shoot yourself in the foot but don’t have a gun, tell a recently assaulted woman that she did something to deserve it. There is no excuse for violence.
Which brings me back to Damir. When a Tinder match invites you to meet at their hotel room and share a bottle of wine, sex is imminent. Or is it? Poor Damir had never met a girl like me. I didn’t want his cock, I wanted to talk. Earlier that week, I’d visited the War Photography Museum in Dubrovnik and I couldn’t get the images of the Yugoslav Wars out of my mind. I wanted to hear from someone who’d been alive during the siege of Dubrovnik. Someone who’d heard the bombs drop and shot back at the Yugoslav troops. But in 1991, Damir was too young to have a gun.
“I was responsible for collecting rainwater,” he told me. “We had no running water or electricity.”
Similarly, there was no electricity between Damir and me. I’d killed any shot at even kissing when I’d started the night off with “What was the war like?” Damir’s eyes grew wide with the realization he had been lured into a trap. His seductress didn’t want to get intimate with him; she wanted to interview him.
To his credit, Damir graciously and honestly answered all of my questions about what refugee life was like during the siege. We finished the bottle of wine, I thanked him for his time and then I led him to the door—the same door he had walked through just hours earlier, so sure he was going to get laid.
Damir didn’t get laid that night (at least not by me), and I didn’t get laid either. I think for every insane Tinder hookup story, there are a hundred stories where neither party gets any action. But does that stop me from using the app? Hell no. In fact, the next time my plane touches down in a foreign country I’ll have already swiped on at least 100 local men before the immigration officer officially lets me in.
“From here on out, we’re committed.”
With those six words, my rapidly beating heart sank even further. Ben, our canyoning guide, had already spent an hour leading us through a marshy maze winding through mysterious shadows cast by high canyon walls. Hadn´t we been committed since first wading into the murky water I´d joked was the sewage runoff from Siam Water Park?
Back then I was in good spirits. Now, I was wet, spent and ready for a snack. But Ben had no intention of breaking into the waterproof bag carrying the crisps from the concessions stand at Siam Water Park and my apple. It was like we’d played our hearts out for the entire first half of the game only to be told it was just the warm-up.
I wanted to warm up. The temperature was 80 degrees 25 miles away at Tenerife´s popular beach resort, Los Christianos, home to Siam Water Park, the world´s best water park according to TripAdvisor. But here in the bottom of the Los Carrizales gorge, I was constantly curling and uncurling my wet toes to maintain blood flow. Although the four of us—Ben, myself and a couple from England—were all in wetsuits and water booties, we were as permeated as a sea of sponges.
Canyoning, in this context, meant traversing a chilly trail of spring runoff. There was never a current to worry about, but the water was often up to our necks. I thought about a book I once read where the recent jail breakees attempt to avoid leaving a trail for the cops by wading in a creek. This particular trail we were on was not visible, unless you were on it. Even then, you felt like you trespassing into a world humans had no business being in.
“I feel like we stumbled onto the set of Jurassic Park,” said Imogen, the English girl who I took an immediate liking to. Like me, she´d never been canyoning, and like me, she was willing to vocalize her fears.
We´d first bonded an hour earlier when we´d started this journey.
“Find a bush,” Ben said. Knowing it would take us 10 minutes and at least a dozen four-letter words to get our wetsuits on, he wanted to make sure we emptied our bladders in advance. Imogen and I headed in the same direction, in search of a bush suitable for squatting.
As I peed, I wondered what I´d gotten myself into. In my mind, I saw the words from Ben´s email when I’d first reached out to Canyon Tenerife a week ago.
“Los Carrizales Canyon is an aquatic canyon with slides, jumps and abseils,” he wrote. Then he went on to describe the hike back up to the car. “Steep, vertigo (sic) and quite intense.” It´s like he was trying to talk me out of it. I basically replied NBD, I’m from Montana.
The last time I´d grossly underestimated the difficulty of a physical activity was when I went coasteering in Portugal in August. Now, I’ve never been to Navy Seal Hell Week, but I imagine they have a coasteering day. Even three days after completing the course—rock climbing, cliff jumping and rappelling our way along four miles of steep Atlantic coastline—I couldn´t squeeze a bottle of toothpaste without grimacing. My arms were as useless as T´Rex´s.
Canyoning, on the other hand, doesn´t require as much upper body strength. At least it didn´t in Los Carrizales where were constantly going with gravity. There was no jumping into a pool of water and climbing back up the rock walls to do it again. In that sense, canyoning was less physically demanding than coasteering. However, it more than made up for that with its increased toll on your mental state. In coasteering, I was jumping, sometimes from heights of more than 30 feet into the ocean. In canyoning, our target was far less forgiving. I.e. you had to carefully calculate where to jump to avoid colliding with rock.
“Bend your knees,” Ben would say before a jump where the water below was shallow. The canyon we´d entered, upon “committing” was now characterized by a series of sudden drop-offs. We’d walk 100 feet to the next edge, sometimes staring down at 65 feet of sheer, slick rock. Naturally, my thought process worked like this: if it´s so shallow we have to be concerned about breaking our legs, why are we jumping into it? I think Ben´s thought process worked like this: “If it looks dangerous, do it.” (And don´t forget to turn on the GoPro.)
As much as I questioned his sanity, I felt safe with Ben. He´s a certified EMT in his native France where he works on a helicopter ambulance. When we asked who he rescues, he didn’t even bother lying. “People out canyoning,” he said before going on to talk about some Japanese men whose bodies he had to retrieve when they tried to sled down a mountain. Ben´s seen more blood and bones in one season than most people see in a lifetime of Halloweens.
But Ben was a pro. When he canyoned, he came prepared. He made us carry three waterproof packs filled with supplies. Technically, we threw them down the canyon for much of our trip. I came to hate the sound of their echoes bouncing off the canyon walls.
“SPLASHhhhhhhhhhhhh!” Ben had thrown his big yellow pack down into the pool below and was now waiting for us to catch up so he could coach us on the jump, slide or abseil down. It was unspoken, but unanimous. Rob, Imogen´s cardiologist husband, would always go first. Like us, he´d never been canyoning, but unlike us, his legs didn´t shake uncontrollably. We all may have had the same amount of courage, after all, we completed the same jumps, but Rob didn´t take nearly as long to summon his.
I never saw the look on Rob´s face when he hit the water. Just his helmet bobbing as he swam to the water’s edge to make room for me to jump and join him. As a seven-year-old, I didn´t hesitate to climb the ladder up to the high dive at the city pool despite hearing about how my mom had done it when she was four or five, breaking her neck or something like that in the process.
Heights have never scared me. But heights combined with enclosing rock walls and pools of sketchy depths made me wonder how they´d mark the place where my body would shatter and splatter. For car accidents it’s white wooden crosses and for cyclists, white ghost bikes. Perhaps canyoners use pictographs?
Fortunately, I did not meet my demise* in Los Carrizales Canyon. Although, in a way, parts of me perished. Don´t get me wrong, I still have a lot of “I can’ts” in me. But after every leap—feeling the shock of the cold water followed by the burning sensation of what I´d sucked up into my sinuses (it´s nearly impossible to have an impact like that and not take in water up your nose)—I realized every “I can’t” I’d told Ben as he tried to cajole me into jumping had turned into an “I did.”
That´s not to say I was a good sport for the entire three hours of canyoning. There was at least an hour where I didn´t say anything unless it was absolutely essential. I.e. “Where do I put my left hand?” or “Oops, I undid my carabiner.” I also demanded a complete tutorial for the slide where it was essential we kept our heads pressed against the rock we slid down.
At this point, my feet were numb enough you could hit them with a hammer and I wouldn´t flinch. My legs were so sore they wobbled worse than the town drunk´s. I tried to turn off my thoughts, to conserve energy and to stop myself from going down the dangerous road of ruminating on things like the blood splatters on Ben´s helmet.
“I thought it was blood too,” Rob said later on when we found out it was just a spray of reddish brown paint. The only blood I saw while canyoning was the bright red pin pricks on my arms and hands. Often, to avoid slipping on the wet rocks, I reached out to grab a hold of the nearest bush, not realizing said bush was covered in thorns, or worse, a cactus.
Between the three of us, Rob, Imogen and I must have fallen at least 20 times. Our reinforced ¨Singing Rocks¨ nappie shorts over our wetsuits offered some padding in the bum area, but not enough that Imogen didn´t say, “It will be funny to see all of our bruises in the light tomorrow.”
Imogen, afraid of heights but hiding it under a semi-dark English sense of humor, always made me laugh. “It would be much easier to jump during the dark when you can´t see how high up you are,” she noted after one particularly jarring jump. “Sure,” I said, “The jumping would be easier but the landing would suck.”
“Aim for that dark green spot,” “tighten your bum and core” or “cross your arms over your chest” Ben would say when coaching us before a jump. After six years of leading five-hour tours here, he probably could navigate it at night.
My method-down of choice was always abseiling. Whereas I didn´t trust myself to jump at least two feet out, so as not to hit the rock shelf between me and the pool below, I was confident I could hold onto a piece of rope.
“Do people ever think they´re helping you out and toss the rope bag over into the next pool without realizing it´s one that requires abseiling?” Rob asked. We´d all taken turns heaving the bags ahead, 20 feet below and forward, down the canyon. But if we’d accidentally thrown the rope bag down, we´d be royally screwed.
“Yes,” Ben said cringing, “But that´s why I have two ropes and they´re in separate bags.”
After three hours of traversing the canyon, via water, Ben told us this would be our last jump. He didn’t need to coach me on this one. I´ve never jumped so fast in my life. I think I flew off that ledge. I just wanted to be done, dry and fed.
A few minutes later, we stripped off our wetsuits and broke into our snack bag. The crisps were crumbs so fine you could snort them, and the apple I’d painstakingly picked out at the market was brown and bruised. We ate them anyway. Ben said we’d need the energy for the hike back to the car.
The “hike” turned out to be more of a scramble along the sides of the gorge. We must have climbed a couple thousand feet, under the hot sun, surrounded by cactus, lava rock and the occasional curious lizard or mantis. My mantra became “Don´t look down.” I allowed my eyes to only look at my next step and the next handhold for my hands. Looking down at the depths below and realizing how high we were and how there was no handrail, tree line or harness preventing a fall was akin to sanity suicide.
Finally, after an hour and a half of “hiking”—most of it spent not talking since we were all of out breath—we were back at Ben´s red Peugeot. He took a cooler out of the car and opened it. We grabbed cold cans of Schweppes like they were winning lottery tickets and said cheers, not even taking the time to ensure eye contact.
After crushing his can, Rob went to the car to retrieve his bag. He returned carrying a pack of smokes.
“Wait a minute,” Ben said, “You´re a doctor!” He was voicing what the rest of us were thinking.
Rob lit it anyway. “I’m on holiday,” he said, taking a drag to Imogen´s horror.
I didn´t dare to judge. After completing something like canyoning, I don’t think you should be too concerned about a celebratory cigarette.
*Although I´m still not certain I have contracted a flesh eating bacteria.
Double blade razors are like tandem bicycles. They should exist, but for comfort’s sake, they should never be used. Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful for the toiletries kit the Delta employee gave me when we both realized it could be a few days before I saw my lost luggage. I’ve managed to squeeze 10 uses out of the tiny tube of Colgate, and the miniature deodorant is kind of soothing on my razor burn.
Still, I’d prefer to have my luggage. My beloved duffel bag was last seen on the morning of Sunday, April 30 at Billings International (because apparently it has flights to Canada?) Airport. I was supposed to reunite with it in Newark later that evening. Despite a two-hour delay in Minneapolis, where I already had a generous layover, my bag did not make it onto the plane to Newark. If it was held up by drug dogs, I understand. If it was simply lost in the shuffle, I understand. If some luggage handler has his feet propped up on it right now and is taking a nap, I also understand. That’s a tough job.
Jokes aside, it’s been five days and three countries since I last laid eyes on it. Two of those days were spent in Iceland being the village idiot because A. I wasn’t dressed for the rainy weather and B. I tried to compensate for that by buying an umbrella. As I found out, Iceland is where good umbrellas go to die. Fortunately, I have the receipt, so I will submit it and hope Delta reimburses me for it.
I also hope Delta reimburses me for the rain jacket and dry pants I had to buy after my umbrella lost its short-lived battle with a wind that took no prisoners. For Katie vs. Rain & Wind Round II, I opted to invest in armor, even if it was going to cost a few hundred dollars. Iceland is expensive. As I told a friend, expect to pay room service and mini bar prices, at fast food joints and grocery stores. I’ve been to Iceland before, in late January, so I know you should pack warm clothes and not plan on buying them in Reykjavik unless you want to take out a second mortgage. That’s why I dedicated 25% of my duffel bag to bringing my proper gear. Which was/is sitting in a lost & found somewhere. I hope.
Anyway, my new water-resistant pants? $200. My waterproof rain jacket? $200. And those weren’t even the higher end items I was looking at. Fjallraven had a neat anorak for about $600. Slap a kangaroo pouch on something and TADA! The price triples.
Fortunately, the hotel receptionist in Reykjavik noticed I was leaving puddles in my wake when I checked in. He also noticed that I had no luggage. Taking pity on me, and before he left the desk to fetch a mop, he said he wouldn’t charge me for the buffet breakfast. Mind you, I was staying at a low-cost hotel (twin-sized bed, practically touching three walls) but it still saved me $14 USD. In Iceland, that gets you the equivalent of a Days Inn continental breakfast sans waffle maker and miniature boxes of cereal. This hotel bought its puffed rice in bulk and just poured it into a big bowl. The hot part of the buffet was the thermos of water available for mixing with the instant coffee packets. $14!
By the time I left Iceland for Spain, I was dry, fed and looking forward to reuniting with my luggage in Tenerife. The Delta employee at Newark had taken down the address of my apartment in Tenerife and my phone number. Delta’s convenient online missing bag tracker informed me my bag had arrived in Europe, via Amsterdam, and I was told it would be delivered to my apartment in Tenerife. That was three days ago. Since then, I’ve called Delta’s baggage number in Spain several times a day. The first two days I was connected to a friendly operator who was able to locate my bag (I think) and assured me someone would call me when it was en route. My apartment is about 10 minutes from the airport in Tenerife. I gave them my local Spanish cell number, and even though I was planning on rationing my data usage, I’ve left it on 24/7 in the hopes a Spanish delivery man would ring.
He hasn’t. In fact, this morning, when I tried calling the Spanish number for Delta, I got an automated message that ended with a dial tone. Almost as if it was disconnected. Either that, or the friendly employee I spoke to is on holiday. I can’t tell because I can’t understand the recording. I know enough Spanish to order a seven-ingredient omelet, but I can’t understand it when it’s spoken 200 mph into a bad connection.
Also, Tenerife is hot. So despite trying to save money by washing my Sunday clothes (which I wore on the flight to Newark and every day since), I’ve had to buy more clothes which I will have to charge to Delta. The apartment I’m staying at does have a small washer, no dryer; however, the electricity situation here (I’m staying in a ghetto of sorts) is iffy at best so last night I blew a circuit. On the bright side, I finally met my neighbors who had the audacity to accuse me of trying to blow dry my hair while running the washing machine. I don’t even have a blow dryer!
To make matters worse, my skin is flaring up. My $175 Rodan & Fields skin care regimen is, you guessed it, in my missing duffel bag. In the same toiletries kit, I have a five-blade razor and a month’s worth of medication. For starters, I’m on 80 mg Prozac/day for my OCD. That’s like enough to make the entire state of Texas happy. For two months. To say my anxiety levels are high would be an understatement. Which is probably why I’m getting stomach pains too. Although, that could be a result of not having my azathioprine which is collecting dust in my duffel bag. In addition to my Remicade infusions, I take azathioprine every day to help with my Crohn’s disease.
So basically, yesterday, I was at the pharmacy in Las Galletas (ironically, it translates into “the cookies”) trying to figure out how you say “second coming of puberty” in Spanish because I’m pretty sure that’s all the pharmacist needed to know to help me. I ended up leaving with some green foam, blue moisturizer, herbal capsules that smell like urine and these cheap plastic sunglasses which I will also charge to Delta. My polarized Ray Ban’s and SMITH cycling sunglasses – about $400 worth –are keeping my Prozac company.
Since I came here to cycle, I also had to drop about $100 on a cycling kit. Sorry, Delta, but I’ve paid my dues of riding without padded shorts. If you think razor burn is bad, try chafing on top of it.
What’s really frustrating, however, is that my cycling pedals and shoes are in my missing bag. So, the bike shop had to put on pedals with cages and the cages are so big they drag on the ground if I don’t have my feet in them just right. I’ve already had a few near-accidents because they’ve gotten snagged on the ground. I would hate for the white cross on the side of the road to be because I tripped on my cage and got hit by a British tourist in a Fiat Punto who was simply trying to escape the rain and enjoy some sun for a change.
Speaking of sun, it’s bloody hot here in Tenerife so everyone goes to the beach to swim. My swimming suit, is in my luggage, so today I had to do something most women wouldn’t even wish upon their worst frenemy. I HAD TO TRY ON SWIMMING SUITS. The fitting room mirrors don’t care if you’re a size 0 or a size 14. They are designed to make you think your thighs need their own zip code and your belly has no business even being in the same store as a bikini.
Alas, I did buy a bikini. Which I will have to charge to Delta. I should be excited. I have a new swimming suit that I didn’t even have to pay for. Except I’m not. I’m terrified about the prospect of using that damn two-blade razor to get me bikini-body ready.
P.S. As a brand ambassador for RedOxx, I should be the last person making the mistake of checking a bag. Their best-selling bags are designed to comply with the standards of any airline’s carry-on policy.
The sun very seldom sets before I’ve consumed at least four servings of fruit and double the recommended servings of vegetables. Despite, or perhaps because of, my proclivity for healthy choices, I am a Coke addict.
There are several gas stations within a five-mile radius of my house. They all advertise fountain sodas—any size—for only $.99. Ever the opportunist, I reach for the cup so big it makes my car’s cup holders look laughable. In fact, the cup’s contents would barely fit in a blue whale’s bladder.
When I travel at sea, however, my access to Coke drops exponentially.
Two Septembers ago, I found myself sailing on a 104-foot-long wooden gullet off the coast of Turkey. On day one of our voyage, I searched the tiny cabin like a drug dog with a nose for narcotics. Unfortunately, I found no evidence of Coke or even an off brand Turkish cola. I did learn, however, that fridge space was reserved for beer reserved for the Turkish men manning the ship. Port stops were few and farther between. In other words, it was the perfect time to quit my habit, cold turkey.
After about six days of soda sobriety, I snapped. On that fateful day, we dropped Muhtesem A’s anchor off the coast of a small island off the coast of the Turkish Riviera. In my mind, it had been weeks since we’d seen dry land. In reality, it had probably only been a day. But when you’re suffering from withdrawal, an hour can seem like eternity.
“Who wants to snorkel?” asked Ali, our Turkish guide. The four other girls making up Muhtesem A’s guest list dug through the bin of snorkel gear—searching for masks that were clean and didn’t leak—before plopping into the turquoise abyss. “Let them look for coral,” I thought to myself. “I have something more important to find.”
Five minutes later I was also in my bikini, leaving little to the imagination of the Turkish men who, if they were particularly observant, would have noticed my left breast was slightly larger, and richer, than my right. Stashed in a plastic bag stashed in my bikini top was 20 lira—enough to buy at least four overpriced cans of Coke. In the distance, on the shore we had no plans of visiting, I could make out a shack-like structure and a small dock. Surely whomever they belonged to had a cooler full of my fix. I don’t speak a lick of Turkish, but I reckoned lira talks.
Foolishly, I didn’t tell anyone on the boat that I was swimming to shore. I would have been too embarrassed to answer truthfully when they asked why. And I’m a terrible liar. Quietly, I slipped underwater and began to breaststroke my way toward the shack which seemed forever and a day away. If being sober makes an hour seem like eternity, then it makes 200 meters seem like a mile.
Finally, after 20 or so punishing minutes of swimming, I surfaced. Through the fog in my goggles, I immediately noticed a peculiar face attached to an even more peculiar body peering down at me. It wasn’t the fog distorting his features. His features really were distorted. Even in my exhausted state, I could see he was physically disabled from the way he held, or rather, didn’t, up his hands. My instincts told me to slip back under the water, to swim away from this strange man and return to the safety of my gullet. My cramping muscles told me that wasn’t an option.
He giggled nervously as I emerged from the water.
“Hi,” I said, nervously, wondering how long he’d been watching and waiting for me.
He blushed and looked down submissively. He didn’t speak a word. Instead, he half-gestured, half-fidgeted toward the shack. Because I had nothing better to do, I followed him, past a small wooden dory and an orange canoe tethered to a no-frills dock. I was silently praying he’d lead me to a cooler stocked with Coke. Instead, he led me to a small rickety table—the shack’s al fresco dining room. Several mismatched decrepit chairs were haphazardly scattered around it. My eyes were immediately drawn to one chair in particular. It was on wheels.
There are things you simply don’t expect to see on a remote island of rock in the Mediterranean. One of them is a wheelchair. Especially, an occupied wheelchair.
His unshaven face told me he was a man. But his inability to keep his spine upright and the drool on his chin told me he was a baby. Unlike the blue-eyed, fair-haired man who had led me here, he was definitely Turkish. From the euphoric look in his eyes, I knew it had been a long time since he’d seen a woman. He blabbered uncontrollably and restlessly squirmed in his chair/vehicle as though there was a knife-wielding murderer behind me and he needed to warn me. His intentions were there, but his lips refused to form words.
“Hallo!” At least the shack was talking.
A white-haired, white-bearded shirtless man poked his head out of the narrow doorway. “Have a seat,” he continued without hesitation. “Coffee or tea?”
“Coffee,” I said, somehow knowing now was not the time to ask for Coke. After a few minutes he came out with a pot of hot water and a jar of Nescafe. No milk. No sugar. No creamer. But, he did have a fancy, delicately wrapped Swedish chocolate for me. I wondered where the heck he had gotten it. I wondered where the heck I was. And who the heck was I there with?
“Do you want to see my pet baboon?” the old man asked while we waited for my coffee to cool. I looked at the two handicapped guys squirming in their seats and ogling me from either side of the table.
“Yes please,” I said without hesitation.
The old man led me on a short wooded path behind the shack. We eventually arrived at a chicken-wire enclosure. In it, as promised, was his pet baboon. “She’s about 25 years old,” he told me while juggling a handful of boiled eggs that had somehow magically appeared. The baboon, who had a name I cannot recall, eyed the eggs hungrily and ignored me. Unlike the two guys back at the table, she wasn’t amused by an unexpected visitor.
Five minutes later, over a cup of bland yet bitter Nescafe, I was finally introduced to the island’s human inhabitants.
The old man, who appeared to be in his 70s, was from Sweden. It didn’t surprise me. Like the younger man, his irises were so blue they made you uncomfortable because they left you with only two options, to stare or to look away. The younger man, albeit in his 30s or 40s, was his son, Yusan. Without going into detail about Yusan’s disabilities, the older man told me he was not normal. I believe the word autism came up. If Yusan could talk, he’d tell me about his love for boats and dogs. As if on cue, a pair of dainty golden spaniels of some sort yawned from underneath a nearby tree.
The older man’s eyes sparkled as he told me he had another son, David—if I remember correctly. David was Yusan’s older brother. I looked at the raven-haired, dark-eyed, hunched-over-mass-of-humanity twitching in the wheelchair. Surely, this could not be David.
He wasn’t. David was in Sweden. This fact I learned from the fading Swedish newspaper clipping the older man fetched from the shack. I couldn’t read the words, but I could see from the photos accompanying the article that it was a wedding announcement. Or rather, an article. It took up two pages, not the normal length of the news of someone’s nuptials. The bride-to-be was beautiful. The man next to her vaguely resembled Yusan, but instead of wearing shorts and a childlike hat that tied underneath his chin, he wore a tailored suit.
“He’s friends with the King of Sweden,” the old man added with a surprisingly authentic air of nonchalance. The woman David married, in front of the King who attended the ceremony of course, was one of the most famous journalists in Sweden. Not only had David made a fortune with his business (the old man said he was one of the wealthiest men in Sweden) he had also procured one of the most coveted blondes in the country. Just as I was asking if they had any children, the old man interrupted me.
“Did you know you’re sitting in the same seat Princess Diana sat in when she was here?” Again, the nonchalance was astonishingly authentic.
Had he not presented the newspaper article as evidence of his affiliation with Swedish royalty, I would have thought he was as crazy, albeit more articulate than, as his companions. I shifted uncomfortably in the seat. I was already uncomfortable, 75 percent naked in front of three foreign men. But the idea of sitting my still wet commoner butt in a chair once occupied by Lady Di seemed sacrilegious, at best.
(Later, when I had WiFi, I fact-checked the old man’s furniture claim to fame. Indeed, Prince Charles and Princess Diana had yachted through these very waters on their honeymoon in 1981. Who’s to say they didn’t wind up on this island, much like me?)
After discussing Princess Diana’s mischievous side and her penchant for swimming, the elephant on the island was finally addressed.
“He was an orphan,” said the old man, talking about the man in the wheelchair as though he was not sitting two feet away. The old man had been visiting the port city of Marmaris when he found the young boy, alone, afraid and afflicted with something I assumed was cerebral palsy. There was no question. The old man would take the discarded boy home to the island where he would raise him as his own. If I was surprised to hear that, then I was even more surprised to hear that he wasn’t the first disabled orphan to be reared on this otherwise seemingly deserted island.
“I’ve taken in several orphans with special needs,” said the old man as if he was telling me he had a weakness for stray cats. I wondered how someone could be so nonchalant. Meanwhile, Yusan nodded and grinned as if he fondly remembered each and every face who had once sat at this table.
Yusan wasn’t a talker like his father. He also wasn’t a blabberer like his adopted brother whose mouth moved uncontrollably, still futilely attempting to express something you and I could spit out in seconds.
No, Yusan was silent. But he was coherent. Aware of, but not disheartened by, his disability. I knew he knew he was lucky to not be in a wheelchair. He had seen worse. What was sad, however, was that it had been years since he’d seen his blood brother, David.
“Their mother was a stunning Jewish woman,” the old man said wistfully. “But she made the mistake of marrying a Lutheran.” In the eyes of the woman’s family, the old man was not even worth mentioning by name. The fact that their second son, Yusan, came out of the womb with obvious disabilities, was seen as further proof that the old man was an abomination. (David, a healthy baby and technically Jewish because his mother was, was deemed OK.)
As the old man continued the story, I watched his striking blue eyes turn into deep pools of sorrow. I began to wonder how many decades of heartache and pain were weighing down his already frail, tanned frame.
After Yusan’s birth, the woman took David and moved away where she could raise her barely acceptable son, alone. She left Yusan with the old man and refused to let them see their firstborn and brother. In fact, she told David his father was dead, and she never mentioned Yusan. (David wouldn’t learn the truth for about 20 years.) The old man, heartbroken and unsure of how to care for a child with special needs, did the only thing he could think of.
He moved to Turkey. With full custody of Yusan, he settled on an island that no one but cartographers and ship captains had ever heard of. Every few weeks, for more than three decades, the old man left his beloved tribe of unwanted boys on the island, along with his pet baboon. Not knowing if he’d come back with another orphan, he would empty his boat before heading to the port city of Marmaris to stock up on supplies.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that stocking up on essentials was why I had swum to his island in the first place.
When the final dredges of my Nescafe had dried and formed a stubborn crust in the bottom of my cup, I looked out at the wooden gullet in the distant cove. The old man read my mind and gave instructions, in Swedish, to Yusan. Like a dog obeying his master, Yusan jumped up from his chair and whistled. The dogs at his heels, he half-ran down to the dock to untie the orange canoe.
“You’re sending me out to sea in that?” I silently asked. “With him?” Up until this point, I’d put all my faith in the old man. He could talk. Despite the subject matter of his stories, and the fact that he had a pet baboon, he seemed rational. I knew Yusan could walk, but could he paddle and steer a canoe? With me and two dogs?
He could. Gracefully and with a grin that would make the Cheshire cat proud, he paddled me out to Muhtesem A. When we reached the boat, the Turkish crew and the girls peered down at us from the top deck. One of them took photos of Yusan and me with her cell phone. They had no idea who this strange man was. And why was there a dog in my lap?
To be honest, I didn’t know the answers to their questions. All I knew was I had desperately wanted a Coke. But despite my pure, albeit pathetic, intentions, I didn’t find one. Instead, I found a cast, and combination, of characters I could never dream up. Not even if I was high on real coke.
I won’t even try to lie and say that my visit to that island made me kick my habit. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ll die in this same, sorry state of relapse. But, I did learn something from my time with the old man, Yusan and even the wordless orphan on wheels. When you go to extraordinary lengths to get something, even if you don’t end up getting it, you set yourself up for encounters with extraordinary people.
If I found them on a remote island of rock, somewhere west of Turkey and east of Greece, who knows where else they’re hiding?
What other people refer to as writer’s block, I call writer’s constipation. I have hundreds of stories in my head. They just don’t come out when I want them to.
The other day, my brain was so bloated I headed for the beach. I was hoping the change of scenery would stimulate the words that needed to flow out of me. After swimming, I went straight to a shaded public courtyard where I sat down on a plastic wicker chair under an umbrella stained with pigeon poop and cigarette smoke. As I’d predicted, the words began to work their way out. I wrote for two straight hours. In my bikini. I felt like one of those irritating digital nomads who posts a pic of their laptop next to a pool on Instagram. #TodaysOffice.
When I stood to leave, I grimaced. The tingling sensations told me my ass had fallen asleep. It was also sporting a new look. For the next hour, I walked around with a Pipe Cleaner-esque woven pattern imprinted across my cheeks. It looked painful, and it prompted me to take inventory of the rest of my body. Here is the toll 30+ days in Thailand and Malaysia has taken on me.
The Eyes Have Bags It’s not an allergic reaction to makeup. I can’t wear it here. It’s so hot and humid—often up to 97 percent—that makeup melts faster than you can apply it. It’s not pink eye. I had that when I came back from Hawaii (tip: don’t assume the snorkel mask rental places disinfect their fleet). Somehow I made it through the airport although I clearly belonged in quarantine. My 70-ish-year-old eye doctor said I had the worst case of pink eyes (the infection spread) he’d ever seen.
If I had to guess, I’d say the puffy, swollen eyes—occasionally leaking tears or a yellow snot-like substance—is from the pollution. I adore Chiang Mai, but I complain about its AQI. The Air Quality Index has gotten up to 130 in the past few weeks. For perspective, Los Angeles, the place where smog is a four-letter word, was recently up to 63. Yeah, I think it’s the air that’s bothering my eyes. The worst part is I have three bags under my right eye and one bag under my left. They could at least be symmetrical!
The Legs Have Bites It’s not an exaggeration to say I have more mosquito bites than an entire troop of boy scouts camping on a lake in Minnesota. While my friends here coat themselves with bug spray, and I used to too, I pride myself on my newly adopted DEET detox. My friends think I’m nuts. But the mosquitos couldn’t be happier. Or fatter. They flock to me like some Southerners flock to the Golden Corral.
While I take no prisoners, I can’t kill them all. The stealthy ones sure know how to dine and ditch. My friend tells me it’s the Asian tiger mosquitos who are slipping through the swats. According to the Washington Post, “these are not your garden variety of blood suckers.” On the bright side, that same friend says my incredibly inflamed red sores are a good sign. It means my immune system is working. Yay me.
The Skin Has Lines The three tan lines on my shoulders and back tell conflicting stories. One set of lines hints at a girl in a quarter-sleeved cycling jersey. Another alludes to a girl wearing a racerback that once belonged to someone who did a triathlon in China. But the real conversation starter is evidence of a crisscross halter top bikini held together by one thin string.
The lines on my legs are more straightforward. THIS GIRL SPENDS HOURS ON A BIKE. From the middle of my thighs to my knees, I’m the color of a golden graham cracker. The top of my thighs, on the other hand, could easily be mistaken for marshmallows that are about a year past their “best by” date. The bottoms of my legs are so covered in bites that they’re starting to look like the surface of Mars. Until they reach my pale, knobby ankles. Yes, some of us wear socks in the tropics.
My Skull is Branded My worst nightmare was now a reality. The man hovering over me kept
drilling into my head. It was 2017. Hadn’t lobotomies been outlawed decades ago? “I take photos,” said the man’s assistant, reaching for my iPhone. Later, I watched the video he’d taken of his boss painstakingly ramming the foot-long narrow bamboo needle into the tender part of my skull behind my left ear. It hurt to watch. This morning, I put salve on the same spot. It’s my first tattoo. Although I don’t think of it as a tattoo. I think of it as a brand. The sideways J with a K on top is my family’s cattle brand: Lazy JK. It’s also my initials. Since it’s on the back of my head, I can’t tell if it’s infected. So every day I put pink salve on it and hope for the best.
My Hair is Gone and Long In the past month, I’ve spent about $25 on my hair. That includes a big bottle of apres-shampoo from the pharmacy, one bikini wax and about 6 blowouts. The last time I got a bikini wax for less than $10 was in Indonesia. I think I was that 14-year-old girl’s first (and probably last) client. It hurt worse than my tattoo. But clearly not bad enough that I wouldn’t try another cheap one in Southeast Asia. This one, however, was definitely worth it. I highly recommend, as long as you don’t mind being in one main room with three old dudes getting massages. There was a sheet between us, but they heard everything. And I heard everything. The hair on my head is shot. The woman who blow dries it for me twice a week was disgusted when I first came in. She kept holding up my hair, saying “New. New. New!” In her humble opinion my split ends are about two inches too long and my brown hair is a blank canvas screaming for color. In my humble opinion, she should shut up and be grateful that despite the harassment, I still tip her at least 20%.
My Pants Fall Down When was the last time you bought a bag of chips or a peanut butter KitKat only to immediately step onto a scale? I think I did it four times last week. Scales are outside the front door of almost every 7-Eleven in Chiang Mai, and when you’re handed your change, what else are you going to do with that worthless 1 baht coin? I won’t go so far as to say Thais are obsessed with their weight. But, they do love their scales. They’re also outside of TESCOs (near the ATMS) and there’s even a bathroom scale in the lobby/cafe of my hotel. It’s not for your luggage.
According to my calculations I’ve lost about seven lbs. in the last month. I haven’t cut out chocolate (those KitKats!) but I’m eating more wholesome foods—including at least three whole 14-inch pizzas per week, washed down with two glasses of outrageously overpriced watery white wine. IN ONE SITTING. I’m also sitting on my bum most days. I ride between 25-50 miles a day, sometimes with a few thousand feet of elevation gain. I think some of the weight loss can also be attributed to the GI issues I had for a couple days. Find me someone in Thailand who has NOT gotten some form of food poisoning, and I will break them off a piece of my KitKat bar.
No Crack Whore Here We were in the red light district a couple weeks ago and I was pushing up against the wall of a bar, twisting and stretching to crack my spine. “Stop it!” the white guys I was with said. “The working girls are going to think you’re trying to steal their jobs.” The sound of my vertebrate popping is far from sexy. But the former female inmates who give me massages every other day seem to get pleasure from it. They’re like kids playing with bubble wrap. Every massage starts out with the fingers and toes. All 20 (or however many you have) of them. When my appendages are being stubborn and don’t want to crack, one of the masseuses twists them clockwise and then pulls. CRACK! My neck and back, on the other hand, are more than happy to produce audible cracks. All. Day. Long. Yes, I’ve gotten so good at cracking on command that I find myself now doing it in public when I’m bored. Oh the Wifi cut out? CRACK. Waiting in line to top up my phone? CRACK. Listening to a friend go on and on about politics. CRACK. CRACK. Watching much older white men try to convince themselves their Thai girlfriends truly love them? CRACK.
I never got a chance to properly thank you for helping me out on the Q46 today. It was embarrassing enough that I had to sprint (in heels) after the bus, making the driver pull over and wait for me, but I felt even more pathetic when I couldn’t find my Metrocard. It was nice of you to give me the last of your change for my fare. But what I appreciated most was when you stood up and demanded that others come forward to pay the rest.
I knew you were a nice guy, but I didn’t expect you to take it upon yourself to collect five more quarters on my behalf from a crowd of rush-hour commuters. If I wasn’t wedged between them and was capable of moving, I would have given you my Starbucks card or at least shaken your hand.
It’s funny that I’m writing to you on Facebook, but I don’t trust the US Postal Service. I was watching NY1 this morning and they did a story encouraging members of the public to go to the post offices and “adopt” a kid’s letter to Santa. All someone has to do is show photo ID, and he or she can respond to some kid’s letter which is addressed to YOU. Seeing as I don’t want a total stranger replying to my letter, nor do I want the general public to know I still write to you, I thought this would be a better idea.
Considering I haven’t been all that bad this year you might expect me to have a pretty long list. It’s not. Actually, I don’t even have a list. It’s not that I don’t want anything; it’s just that I don’t want anything that comes from your shop. No offense, but I’ve kind of grown out of “things.” I was thinking that instead of getting me a new iPod or clothes, maybe you could make Robert a new leg?
He lives within a three-block radius of 72nd St and Amsterdam Ave. You won’t be able to find him at a shelter because he isn’t safe at them anymore. He told me he was tired of being assaulted by other homeless people. People who think it’s funny to hide an amputee’s artificial limb. I watched Robert put on his left leg and it’s in rough shape. He could barely get in on. Maybe that’s because people kept hogging the sidewalk, unaware that someone was trying to mobilize himself. Gosh, he’s had it for over 15 years and seven of them have been spent on the street so it’s a little rusty.
You may remember him as the Upper West Side Irishman who had a thing for motorbikes. In the early ‘90s you gave him a helmet to go with his Kawasaki. He appreciated it, but it didn’t do him much good when he got clipped by a truck on the George Washington Bridge. Sure, he misses his left leg, but what he misses more is the chance to ride. After the accident he found work as a maintenance man on a ship at Pier 40 where he eventually worked his way up to a foreman position. His last day as foreman was September 11, 2001.
Because he knew how to cut steel he took his crew down to help at the North Tower soon after the first plane hit. Then the South Tower was hit, and the both of them collapsed. Even though he only had one good leg at the time, he made it out. His crew, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky.
Goodbye crew, goodbye job, hello cancer.
A lot of people like Robert who worked at Ground Zero got cancer from inhaling the carcinogenic debris in the dust cloud. But I’m sure you already knew that. I know you don’t make cures for cancer at the North Pole—that’s why I’m asking for a prosthetic leg. It doesn’t have to be custom or anything because I don’t have measurements (he’s lost a lot of weight since you’ve seen him last), just a decent left leg that is maybe adjustable so he can choose the length. The foot can be any reasonable size I suppose. It’s not like he has shoes anymore anyway.
So, even though they’re the go-to gift for college girls, don’t get me UGGS. Besides not liking how they look, I don’t need another pair of shoes when there are people out there who have none. I really don’t need anything. Still, I don’t want to put you out of a job and add to the current high rate of unemployment. So, I’m asking you to make Robert a new leg. That’s all.
Oh yeah, thanks for reading this.
Thanks for the $.75 you contributed toward my bus fare.
Thanks for tracking down the other $1.25 I needed.
And finally, thanks for the glow-in-the-dark Barbie tent I got in 1996. It kept me occupied while my eating Cabbage Patch Kid was malfunctioning.
“It’s okay, he’s a limo driver.”
That was the line I told myself when a stranger offered me a ride one dark December night in New York City. I was an 18-year-old college freshman, fresh off the farm. I was also freezing cold and running late to a housewarming party in Harlem. As I was speedwalking to the subway, a glossy black sedan pulled up next to me. The driver’s window slid down and a handsome face leaned out and asked where I was going. Without wondering why it was any of his business, I told him.
“What a coincidence,” he marveled. “I’m headed to Harlem to pick up a client. Care for a free ride?”
Now, I was no dummy. I knew not to take the gypsy cabs in Queens. But this was a limo. And I was in Manhattan. Plus, sharply-dressed, clean-shaven limo drivers aren’t crazy. Unless their name is Lloyd Christmas…
I practically dove into the backseat and once I had thawed out enough to peel off my gloves, texted my friend Josh.
“I’ll be there in a few. Guess who’s getting a free ride in a limo???” If emojis had been invented, I would have included the one-open-eyed smiley showing too much tongue.
My “free ride” turned into a terrifying ordeal. About 10 minutes into the ride, I noticed my chauffeur kept heading west when he should have been going north. Before I knew it, we would be in Jersey. I said something to that effect, and the next thing I knew, the driver had pulled into a parking garage. It was dark, deserted and miles away from the Harlem couch I was supposed to be sitting on, playing Guitar Hero.
My memory is clouded with adrenaline and fear, but I do remember going into fight-or-flight mode. My instincts were telling me one thing: FLEE. And fortunately, my driver’s were telling him the opposite: FIGHT.
That’s right. The only reason I escaped that night was because my driver, who made it clear he didn’t have good intentions with me, was engrossed in a fight he was watching on his phone. It was December 8, 2007: the night Floyd Mayweather Jr. returned from retirement to take on Ricky Hatton in a highly anticipated boxing match.
I couldn’t care less about boxing, but as I bolted from that car, I silently thanked Mr. Mayweather.
Later, when I reported the incident to New York’s Finest, the cops asked me how I could be so trusting. “I’m from Montana,” I told them. They looked down on me with pity, as if thinking, “She’s not going to last long in this world.”
But here I am, nine years later. And despite that harrowing incident, and a few others that I won’t go into here, I am still so trusting. In fact, I’m fascinated by the concept of social trust. The more I travel, the more I agree with the Pew Research study that found the following:
Whites are more trusting than blacks or Hispanics. People with higher family incomes are more trusting than those with lower family incomes. The married are more trusting than the unmarried. The middle-aged and the elderly are more trusting than the young. People who live in rural areas are more trusting than those who live in cities.
Most studies on trust find that Americans rank very high in social trust, while countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia rank the lowest. In a New York Times article from earlier this month, Stephen Heath writes that his Taiwanese in-laws call Americans “gullible” simply because we trust strangers.
In this context, if being gullible is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. Why? Well, here are a few rewarding experiences I’ve had because I’ve trusted strangers, and more importantly, strangers trusted me.
A couple weeks ago, I posted on Facebook asking if anyone would let me rent or borrow their bike to ride up the Beartooth Pass—one of the top five climbs in the U.S. according to Outside Magazine. In other words, I wasn’t asking for a Walmart Huffy. Cyclists have a reputation for being aloof, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to respond. But within an hour of posting, there was a comment from a man, Brent, who was willing to lend me his Bianchi road bike (i.e. $$$$). Now, Brent has never met me in person and I don’t know that he could pick me out of a lineup, but still, he was willing to let me borrow, not rent, his carbon horse for a serious ride. To top it off, he offered delivery and pick-up service! This is the perfect example of social trust, and it started with a social media post.
Several years ago, while still in college, I was riding my bike through Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Racing down East Drive, I dodged, and silently cursed, the pedestrians in my way. Then I saw Apollo, aptly named because he was as magnificent as I imagine a sun god to be. Attached to the other end of his leash was a couple pushing a toddler in a stroller. I didn’t care that they had their hands full and were crossing a street. I violently squeezed my brakes and stopped them. Apollo was a Great Pyrenees, the breed I grew up with in Montana. To make a long story shorter, about two weeks later, Apollo’s family gave me the keys to their Brooklyn apartment and I got to spend my spring break under the watchful eye of this furry pillow with four legs and a tail. When his family returned from their travels, they even paid me! Apollo has since passed, but I am still in touch with his family, which has grown by two babies and one puppy, since that spring day I met them in the park. A few years ago, I even had the pleasure of visiting them at their home in Martha’s Vineyard where they kindly hosted me for a Memorial Day weekend.
Couchsurfing Across Countries
“You gave some random German dude keys to your apartment?” my mom asked incredulously. “Pretty much,” I replied before adding, “and I left behind a lot of valuables, like my laptop.” I was in the Catskills at my cousin’s cabin, making maple syrup over spring break. My room in Queens would otherwise have been sitting empty. Why not let a tourist visiting from Europe sleep in my bed?
Jul reached out to me on the website, Couchsurfing.com. I wanted to meet him before agreeing to let him crash at my place, so we spent an afternoon walking around Manhattan. He gave off a good energy, so I had no hesitation when I handed over my keys. Several days later, when I returned to my apartment, all was exactly as I had left it except I found a bouquet of flowers waiting for me.
About a year later, I reached out to Jul. My friend Merrick and I were backpacking through Europe and we needed a place to stay in his hometown, Hamburg. Jul wasn’t in Germany at the time, but he arranged for us to meet his father and stepmom who graciously gave us the keys to their apartment and recording studio in downtown Hamburg. We stayed several nights and our tour guide of the city was none other than Jul’s brother, Foeb.
It was the last two-bedroom unit in the luxury apartment building I’d had my eye on moving into for months. Obviously, I didn’t make 40 times the rent (about $3,500) so I needed someone to co-sign with me. I posted an ad on Craigslist and received responses from dozens of interested potential roommates. Time was of the essence, so I basically said whoever can meet me at the leasing office at 5 p.m. gets to live with me. I was hoping that whoever would be another 20-something girl. But all is fair in love and leasing, so I had to sign with the first person who showed up, even if she was a he. Erez was a 33-year-old Jewish guy from Jersey. On paper, we didn’t have much in common, although I’m slightly Jewish. But in person, I’d like to think we were a match made in Queens. He taught me how to make challah and homemade hummus. I put a creepy porcelain doll I found in the trash room under his comforter and sabotaged most of the dates he brought home. We even fostered a Shiba Inu together. We weren’t the best of friends, but he was a pleasure to live with—even when he ditched me during Hurricane Sandy. He did, however, leave me a care package. It was a suitcase filled with wine and condoms.