All I Want for Christmas is a Prosthetic Leg

Dear Santa,

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.

cabbage-patch

 

In Social We Trust

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-18-38-am“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.

floyd

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.

  • brent-bikesBiking up the Beartooth Pass

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.

  • Falling in Love with A Dog and His Family 

    Apollo and I in Prospect Park. I thought he was big for Brooklyn. Until I met a man who lived down the street with 9 mastiffs. Try breaking into that place!

    I thought he was big for Brooklyn. Until I met a man who lived down the street with 9 mastiffs. Try breaking into that place!

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.

  • Me and some random German dude named Jul.

    Me and some random German dude named Jul.

    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.

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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.

 

  • Co-signing with a stranger

erez-challahIt 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.

Sometimes I wish I was still living here with Erez. He had a claw machine. And he knew how to make balloon animals!

Sometimes I wish I still lived here with Erez. He had a claw machine. I.e. we had a claw machine.

Where You Do Not Want to Go

I can’t quote a Bible verse to save my life. Not even that “Love is” one from A Walk to Remember. Still, you don’t need to know something verbatim in order for it to resonate with you.

For example, there’s a Bible verse I remember reading in the spring of 2013. I underlined it in the secondhand Dreamsicles Bible I found in the basement of a New York City church in 2007. When I first read these words, I was 22 years old. Home was a wooden bungalow without AC. My alarm clock was the barking cacophony of hostile howler monkeys who constantly reminded me I was a trespasser—a sentiment also expressed by the skunk who lived beneath the bungalow’s deck.

eggshomecooking

I lived about 40 minutes from the nearest town and I’d only have a ride (sometimes in the bed of a truck) to the store once a week. I ate pretty simplistic meals. And lots of plantain chips.

The bungalow was a simple structure. Two bedrooms, with three wooden slat walls and the fourth being a screen, separated by a barebones kitchen whose only appliance was a tabletop two-burner propane stove. There was also a bathroom; a cement floor, a real toilet, a small sink and a shower with a widow maker. At first I called it a hot water heater, but after a few electric jolts that shocked me to my core, I quickly realized it would be my cause of death on the coroner’s report. I had been to summer camp as a kid; I was capable of taking cold showers. Lord knows it was hot enough outside.

March in Nicaragua isn’t like March in the U.S. March in Nicaragua is like August in Arizona. Some nights, after shaking the scorpions out of my pillowcase, I would lay on my stiff mattress and stare up at the sorry excuse for a ceiling fan struggling to spin above me. It had one speed: a slow that was only a fraction faster than going backwards. Sometimes I was so hot I thought I was hallucinating, and the stupid fan was a mean mirage meant to punish me for my sins. So on those nights, I figured I’d read myself to sleep, and try to atone for them. Plus, what better book to put you to sleep than the Bible?

Neglected at home, where I had distractions like WiFi and people, my Dreamsicles Bible loved the attention it received in Nicaragua. It was down there, by the light of my flashlight (before it got stolen), that I first read John 21:18.

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

If there was a light bulb in my head, it would have exploded—shooting shards of glass and tungsten filament through my skull. In 44 words, Jesus, via John, had just explained to me, via Peter, why I was in this foreign place that seemed so godforsaken at times.

Again, I was 22. And if you listen to T-Swift, you know how glorious that age can be. Just a few months earlier, I’d had an amazing luxury apartment in New York City and an enviable job on Park Avenue; I didn’t have to be in Nicaragua—alone, isolated on a private reserve and wicked hot and itchy (thanks to pollen from those pica pica trees—aptly named because they make you pick at your skin).

Yet, here I was. Uncomfortable, but, and this is a big but, not uncertain. I knew, much like a baby sea turtle knows he needs to keep trying to get to sea despite the crashing waves pushing him backward, I was where I needed to be.

About a 10-minute jungle trek from my bungalow brought me to this beach where I got to witness the birth, and subsequent trials of these sea turtles.

About a 10-minute jungle trek from my bungalow brought me to this beach where I got to witness the birth, and subsequent trials of these sea turtles.

And when I forgot this was where I needed to be, I’d have 12-18 hungry brown eyes reminding me. They belonged to the brave souls, young and old, who signed up for my free English classes. Armed with little more than a white board and some markers, I got up in front of them, several times a week, and attempted to teach them something I took for granted that could be their key to catching up with the rest of the world. Without getting into the politics of Nicaragua, I will say it’s the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

laundromat

One of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken. This is the laundromat in Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua.

It was hard to remember, and pronounce, my students’ names: Zelaya, Flavio, Evert, Orling, Esperanza, etc. Zelaya had 19 brothers and sisters. He doesn’t know their names or ages, but his parents were poor and like most people in rural Nicaragua, didn’t have a TV, so they found other ways to entertain themselves.

class

Taken on one of the first days of class. Zelaya is on the far right end with his hand raised. Flavio has the green notebook.

Our classroom was outside, wall-less save for some sticks, but with a roof so at least we had shade. There was no AC, and I always prayed for a cross breeze. They sat on wooden benches, and I crouched in a corner. I don’t think they knew what I was saying 90% of the time, but that’s okay. I didn’t know what they were saying either. Unless Flavio was in class. His English was the best and he was my crutch, acting as translator and letting the others copy his notes when they missed a class.

english-me

I had no idea how to teach. But I faked it. I fake a lot of things.

My classes didn’t follow a curriculum. Most days I would show up, spend a few minutes trying to track down a marker that worked, and then ask the students what they wanted to learn. I will never forget the laugh I let out when I asked them what they wanted to learn in our very first class. That laugh was soon followed by overwhelming sadness as I realized, it wasn’t a joke. It was a survival tactic.

They wanted me to teach them how to say “¿Me puedes dar comida por favor?” in English.

board

Day 1

In other words, “Can I have food please?”

If they were hungry for food, then they were ravenous for English. Most of them worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, 28 days a month. On their days off they’d travel as far away as eight hours by bus to their hometowns where they would visit their families and bring them money. One of my youngest students, a 16-year-old named Teresa, had at least two kids. They didn’t live with her in the crowded accommodations even more rustic than mine. Sometimes I shudder to think that originally I was supposed to live in their little village.

My students didn’t work desk jobs, and I could see the physical exhaustion in their postures. Shoulders slumped, elbows on the table and heads cradled in their calloused hands, they struggled to keep their eyes open as I struggled to explain to them how to make an “H” sound. As my yoga teacher says, “It’s like the sound you make when you’re fogging up a windowpane.”

My students and I didn’t have windowpanes where we lived. If we did, maybe they would have kept the scorpions out. If they were double-paned, perhaps they would have muted the guttural growls of the howler monkeys. If you ask me, they should be called growler monkeys. I never once heard one howl.

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-7-36-08-am

I captured this monkey one day at sunset. On my camera. Not with my hands. I think he is waiting for his ship to come in.

It’s been three years since I wrote Flavio a goodbye letter, left it in my room (which he swept on a daily basis), and embarrassed for not lasting longer and ashamed for abandoning my students, boarded a United plane bound for the U.S. I haven’t been back to Nicaragua since. Although I came within 47 miles of the border last November when I was a guest at a five-star Marriott resort in Costa Rica. There, I spent most of my time in a bikini or in a robe at the spa. I dressed myself, and I was there on my own accord.

mangroove-spa

Where I would get my massages at El Mangroove.

Pampered, but alone, I marveled at the transparency of Costa Rica’s tranquil Bay of Papagayo. Occasionally, the boat’s captain, who didn’t speak English, would point out something interesting in the coral reef beneath us. Slowly, we trolled the glassy water. Not fishing, not snorkeling and not talking.

In the resort’s private boat, sent out for the sake of showing me around the bay, my mind was 70 miles north, reflecting on my months in Nicaragua. They were not fond memories, like the ones I was currently making in Costa Rica, but they were foundational memories. They built character in ways that only some motivational poster hanging in a military recruiter’s office can articulate.

My reverie was broken when the captain turned up the radio. I was so lost in thought I didn’t realize he was listening to music back behind the boat’s wheel. Immediately, I recognized the song. There, in the tropical midday heat, I got chills. If those words were in my Dreamsicles Bible, they’d be underlined.

And all the roads we have to walk are winding.
And all the lights that lead us there are blinding…

screen-shot-2016-11-04-at-7-40-10-am

And sometimes, God willing, you’re called to the road that leads to where you started.

 

Oh, the People You’ll Meet! – Bali Edition

spa-menu

Every day I tried to get a treatment. Reflexology was the best.

The upstairs room is long and narrow, dark and drab. There is just enough light I can read the words in my lap. Nicole Kidman reflects on the risks she’s taken in her career and shows off the roses she’s growing in her Nashville garden. A few pages earlier, Tory Burch attempts to convince readers she’s just another working mom. Oh, the irony. I’m reading the world’s most glamorous publication, Vogue, in a most unglamorous setting.

 

massage

Probably the most luxurious spa I found myself in. Lots of light and a curtain separating you from your neighbor.

“Crack,” goes my toes. Ten cracks in a row and the petite Balinese woman at my feet is finished pulling each of my toes until they pop. I put down the magazine and pay, 90,000 Rupiah, for my hour-long reflexology session. Barefoot, I walk past a couple of older Aussie tourists who are getting their scalps massaged (or scratched, from the sound of it) and head back down the narrow stairs to the street. It only takes a minute for me to find my flip-flops in the growing pile outside the spa’s front door. Besides the older Aussie man, I think I have the biggest feet on the street.

The street has a name, but I don’t know it. I’ve been in Bali for about two weeks and I still don’t know any street names. But I don’t beat myself up over it. I know other important things. For instance, I know where to find a spa with quality reading material in English. I know the WiFi password at Monsieur Spoon is enjoylunch. Furthermore, I know to order my scrambled eggs “well, well done” at Mr. Spoon’s because the cook has a tendency to sear them and then serve them.

I know which pharmacy in Canggu has the widest selection of remedies for Bali belly. I know to ask for Sanprima (an antibiotic) instead of taking the Imodium they’ll try to give you. I also know there’s a good chance I have Bali belly from handling dirty money. A South African couple informed me that everyone thinks it’s the food that makes them sick, but it’s actually the cash. And I handle a lot of cash. One USD is 13,000 Rupiah.

money-changer

The money changer getting my bills from his boss.

A 2,000 Rupiah note is almost worthless enough I can use it as toilet paper. (But I don’t because the Sanprima seems to be helping.) I actually used one of those NO COMMISSION Money Exchange places the other day. The rate posted outside seemed reasonable, 12,900 Rupiah: $1USD and the place didn’t seem the wrong shade of shady. It’s easy for establishments in Indonesia, like my favorite spa, to scream sketchy. Anyway, the twenty-something-year-old working behind the counter took my U.S. dollars, $187 total, and proceeded to tell me how much each individual bill was worth. Apparently, the advertised rate only applies to a Benjamin Franklin fresh off the mint. My manhandled George Washingtons were only worth about 10,000 Rupiah.

At one point, while counting out the 2.2 million Rupiah he owed me, the guy held up his phone, put it on selfie mode, and took a photo of him and me. There was no exchange of words. When I asked why he took the photo, he said “Facebook.” Then he took another. Apparently I was quite cockeyed in the first take. Frankly, I don’t mind if my mug shot shows up on some Balinese man’s Facebook page. Plenty of locals grace mine.

Like Geday’s. Geday—pronounced “good day”—is a small wiry, chain-smoking Balinese man with some of the darkest skin I’ve seen on the island. He looks like the type of guy who puts the street in street fighting. I knew he was either the guy who steals your bag while you’re swimming at the beach, or he was the guy who goes after the guy who steals your bag. I chose to believe the latter.

geday

That would be Geday in all his glory.

So the first time I met Geday, I didn’t buy a drink from his tiny wooden bar on the beach. I asked if I could pay him to hold my backpack—containing my iPhone, iPod, wallet, keys, etc.—while I swam. He was a bit taken aback by my request. Surprised, he looked at me and in Balinglish, he said of course he’ll watch it but why should I pay him for that service? He hung it on a hook by the bar. Then he asked me what was in it. I was honest. My answer prompted him to move my bag from the hook to a more secure location: between his legs, under the bar. I knew then that I had made the right choice to trust him. Without hesitation, I gave my full attention to the waves.

After my swim I went to collect my bag. Without saying a word, Geday gave it to me. I tried to give him a 20,000 Rupiah note, but he just shook his head and waved it away. I folded the bill and slipped it into the tip box on the counter. I wish I could say he smiled at that, but he didn’t. He may have shrugged.

And so Geday and I established a routine. Every day I would hand him my bag and he would put it behind his bar. An hour later, I would return, sandcoated and sunkissed to the point it looked like the sun had given me a body hickey. I’d slip a 20k into the tip box, and Geday would shrug. To my knowledge, I was the only one he was bagsitting for.

Until day five. On that day, he didn’t watch my bag. I rode my scooter to the beach so I locked my things up in the storage space beneath the seat. I put the scooter key in the zippered back pocket of my board shorts and walked toward the beach. Admittedly, there was a trace of a pep in my step. I was being an independent adult (although I had plans of attacking the waves like a child), and I didn’t need to rely on Geday today.

As I walked by his bar, I saw my neighbor from the surf hotel where I was staying. His pinkish completely-shaven head peeked over a coconut the size of a pumpkin. The straw between his lips told me he was busy hydrating. For some reason I decided to say hi. Mind you, we hadn’t exchanged a single word despite having seen each other at the hotel at least four times a day for the past four days. To be honest, like Geday, he wasn’t the approachable type. Sure, he was attractive enough and about my age, but he was a big guy and those were not shooting star or frog tattoos snaking across his huge arms.

“Hey, I think you’re my neighbor,” I said. The straw slowly slipped out of his lips and he responded in the affirmative. Then he went back to sipping. He didn’t invite me to sit down on the empty stool next to him. But I did anyway, and in lieu of awkward silence, we got to talking. He was from Germany. I was from America. He had overheard me telling our other neighbors I was a writer, so he asked about my work. After explaining that working as a travel writer is not the dream job everyone thinks it is, I asked him about his work.

“I was fired from my job a week before I came here,” he said candidly. Shit, now I felt bad for asking. “That same day, my wife left me,” he continued. Instinctively, I looked down at his ring finger. It was naked but you could tell where a ring used to be. Unsure of how to respond to something like that, I was relieved when he went on talking.

“She was sleeping with my best friend.”

I looked out at the waves. I couldn’t look at this shaved head and tatted-up half-naked man who, for some reason, was telling me the source of his heartbreak and humiliation. What if he started crying into his pumpkin coconut? He had been in Bali for about a week, and I had a feeling I was the first person in Bali he had told WHY he was there. He had never been to Asia before, and after losing his work, his lover and his best friend, he had no reason to call Cologne home. He told me he’d spend the next year traveling, although he had never traveled alone before, and figuring out his life. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I just listened and looked out at the waves.

After about an hour, Yves, pronounced Eve, had to go. “I have an appointment to get a palm tree tattooed on my middle finger,” he told me. Alone, I sat next to his empty coconut for a somber moment before deciding I was too sad to swim. I walked back to my scooter and strapped my helmet on. I reached in my back pocket for the key…nothing but netting. My fingers poked around but the only things they touched were mesh and flesh.

“Damn,” I said. I must have dropped it. So I traced my steps back to Geday’s bar and where I had sat with Yves. I didn’t see it. “Shit,” I said. Maybe I didn’t put the key in my pocket after all. Maybe I accidentally locked it in my seat compartment with my backpack. At this point, Geday stepped out from behind the bar and asked me what was wrong. I told him I thought I had locked my scooter key in my seat compartment. He asked me to take him to my scooter.

broken-scooter

Getting petrol with a broken seat is a breeze. No need to unlock it every time you fill up. Just slide off and the seat comes with!

“Fuck,” I said. Before I knew what was happening, Geday had pried my seat off with his bare hands. Plastic scooter seat parts went flying, and I scrambled to collect them. I looked down at my backpack. I didn’t see any key. Geday stood there, asking me to check my pockets, and recheck them. I did. He asked where I was staying. I was honest. He started to call someone, and when I asked who he was speaking to he responded it was his boss. He was asking his boss to come and give me a ride back to my hotel.

food-cart

The food cart boy.

About that time I looked up and noticed the food cart boy I made a point of not noticing these past few days. He stands next to a pushcart outfitted with a little fryer in which he fries something. I’m not interested in street food. I have Bali belly. Anyway, he’s cute, young and seems so hardworking despite the lack of demand for his goods. I’ve never seen him with a customer but then again, I try not to look his way. I’ll feel guilty for not buying anything.

 

Without making a conscious decision to, I walk over to the boy. Before I can even open my mouth he reaches up to the top of his cart where he has stashed a green scooter key with the numbers 3958. He slow motion drops it into my cupped hands. In turn I cup his face and begin to cover him in kisses.

Just kidding. I said terima kasih (thank you in Balinese) and gave him 50,000 Rupiah for finding, and holding onto my key. Like Geday, he looked at me as if to say, “Don’t be weird. Put that money back in your pocket.” The same pocket my key must have fallen out of. I walked back over to Geday and held up the key. He smiled. HE SMILED, and in all my life I have never been so happy to see crooked teeth and gnarly pink gums and wrinkles in the corners of a mouth. I tried to give him a 50 Rupiah note for helping me (or hurting me depending on how much it would cost to fix the seat). The sight of money wiped the smile off his face as quickly as it had come. He shrugged it away and then shoed me away.

When I made it back to my hotel, legs tightly clenched so as to keep my seat in place, Yves was sitting at the table on his front porch. I walked by and asked to see his middle finger. He laughed and said they had to reschedule his appointment for the next day. I thought about offering to go with him, for moral support, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked into my room and grabbed the book I was reading. I found it back in Billings at the Hastings going-out-of-business sale, and it seemed appropriate given my destination, Bali. It was a spinoff of Eat, Pray Love—arguably the bestselling book and Julia Roberts movie that put Bali on the map for many people, including myself.

I brought the book out to Yves and set it on his table. “You can have it,” I said. “You need it more than me. It’s about a recently divorced guy whose wife left him for another man.”

“Shit. Well, um, thank you,” Yves stammered before picking up the book and reading the cover, Drink, Play Fuck. Then he did a man giggle before asking if he had to give it back to me when he was finished with it. I looked at him like Geday and the food cart boy had looked at me. Eyebrows raised and forehead creased, “Are you kidding?” I asked. “Don’t be a fool. Keep it. Pass it on. Pay it forward.”

drink-play-uck

I think I paid like $1.50 for this book. Used, but quality guaranteed, is the way to go!

I can find more reading material. I know a spa with a Vogue I need to finish.

me-bali

Words don’t do this place justice.

Inside the Mind of a Mastermind

According to Myers-Briggs, I am a mastermind. That’s the personality type listed in the square box I find myself in. I’ve just completed Myers-Briggs’ DIY map for coming out of an identity crisis alive. Based on my answers to the questionable (at least to reputable psychologists) questionnaire, I’m an introverted, intuitive, judgmental thinker. I imagine a blue and white sticker in my head: HELLO! MY NAME IS INTJ.

 

It’s not nametag shock. I don’t disagree with the results. In fact, these past few mornings I’ve experienced my INTJness in all its god-awful glory.

 

Some people can’t think until they’ve had their morning cup of coffee. I’m the opposite. I think too much. Pre-caffeine, I am the poster child for Adderall. My brain behaves like a six-year-old who just pounded a pack of Pixy Stix. It’s almost as if there is a pinball machine carved into my skull. Every thought is a ball, ricocheting around at 100 mph, activating sound and lighting effects that spur even more thoughts. Have you ever tried to play pinball with 50 balls at the same time? Nobody wins. My mental game is even more maddening when other people enter the picture.

 

For example, I’m currently on an ultra luxurious cruise that has disrupted my usual ritual. At home, I roll out of bed and follow my feet down the stairs and into the kitchen where my right hand instinctively reaches for the cabinet containing my fix, Folgers Instant, Classic Roast. Within seconds I’ve mixed one tsp. of the finely ground far-from-premium beans with 6 ounces of water, one Splenda, 2 TBSP. of International Delight* and enough almond milk to attain the desired color. (In addition to being INTJ, I’m OCD.) The result is a shea butter beige concoction as smooth and creamy as Maybelline mousse foundation. Yes, my mind is racing until that first sip. But it’s okay. I am the composer of this sweet symphony. I know how the song ends.

 

On the cruise, however, I have as much control over the outcome as a B-rated oboe player. In the ship’s breakfast room, I am at the mercy of a waitstaff consisting of overly polite Filipino and Eastern European men who unapologetically wear white after Labor Day. They call me Miss Laura and act as though their sole purpose in life is to please me while keeping my cloth napkin neatly folded and my silverware so shiny I can see my reflection’s reflection in it. It sounds like nirvana, but if you’re an overthinking INTJ, it’s a nightmare.

 

For starters, just when I get used to one waiter fawning over me, another appears and attempts to take over. It’s like the passing of the breakfast guest baton. Say Amir greets and seats me in the breakfast room. While I settle in, he leaves to attend to another guest. Before I can unravel my napkin sculpture and cover my lap with it, his colleague Jurgis is smiling down at me, asking if I’d like some coffee.

 

I shouldn’t be, but I’m internally conflicted. I desperately need a cup of coffee to mute this overthinking mastermind mind of mine, but if I let Jurgis get it for me, will Amir feel slighted? Seriously. It was just the two of us a minute ago. It seems far too soon to introduce Jurgis into the equation.

 

Then there is the issue of ordering. My order makes me come across as a bit of a diva. I always ask for a cappuccino with two shots in a takeaway cup—a contradictory request given the fact I’m dining in. Still, this is an Arctic cruise and in the event of an evacuation, I don’t want to be in the lifeboat empty-handed. My fingers get cold real easily.

 

Adding to the stress of my order is the fact I secretly want my cappuccino made with nonfat milk but I’m too self-conscious to say so because I think it means extra work for the barista. Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that I did ask for fatless milk. Then let’s say the barista forgets or is lazy and he makes my drink with the 2% milk already in the machine. Would I even notice it wasn’t skim? Am I as sensitive to foamage as I think I am or does my fat percentage radar suck?

foam

While I’m still pondering those questions, Jurgis  returns with my drink. I add 1.5 Splendas (even though, according to my roommate, they’ll give me cancer), and give it three stirs with the plastic takeaway stick that comes with my drink. Painfully aware of the ceramic cup and saucer and oh-so-shiny mini spoon at my place setting, I feel badly for using the plastic stick because it will be thrown away. Still, I always forget to tell my waiter I don’t need it, and I don’t want him to see me not use it since he took the trouble to bring it to me. Perpetually living in self-loathing mode is no way to go about confronting your carbon footprint. But I digress…

 

Finally, I take my first sip of coffee. My vital signs approach normalcy and my mind stops trying to keep up with Usain Bolt’s legs. My neurological system recognizes this familiar substance and calls it savior. My tongue savors each sip, starting with the foam. A foam that would probably not be so dramatically frothy if it had been made with the nonfat milk I was too afraid to ask for. The best part of the experience is the syrupy liquid at the bottom. Contrary to what Bono sings, synthetic sugar is the sweetest thing. The caffeine courses through my body and all is well with the world.

 

Until Amir stops by. Shit. I had almost forgotten about him.

 

Noticing my empty cup, he asks if I’d like another coffee. He’s trying to act nonchalantly, but I can tell he really wants to be of assistance. He needs to get even with Jurgis. Although I’m digging the high of the caffeine, I’m not sure I want another cup. Between analyzing my carbon footprint and dealing with my inability to ask for the nonfat milk I want, ordering the first cup was stressful enough. Still, I want to help the poor guy out.

 

So I say yes. In doing so, I throw myself into another tailspin. It’s not even 8 a.m. and I’ve just accepted a gift for the sole sake of making the giver happy. It’s an honorable principle, but at what point do I put myself first? If I say yes to an unwanted cup of coffee, then what else in life am I saying yes to that I don’t really want? Am I a doormat that people trample all over?

 

No. I’m just an introverted, intuitive, judgmental thinker. Make that over-thinker. INTOJ.

 

*Is it called International Delight because it has an Irish Crème and French Vanilla Flavor? I feel like if you’re going to call yourself International Delight, you need to represent more nations.

25 Countries in 12 Months

Scholars argue reflection is the most critical part of the learning process. I don’t have a bucket list. I have a hard enough time getting my daily to-do list done. And I don’t really think in terms of milestones, unless it’s a buy-10-get-one free coffee card. But recently I had the luxury of reflecting as I hiked around an ice cap in Greenland, which just so happened to be the 25th country* I’ve overnighted in since last September. Because one day I may suffer from dementia, like my grandparents, I made a list of the highs and lows (finally, I get to use red italics) of the countries who let me in. Obviously the countries who did not let me in did not make the list. Their loss.

south-africaSouth Africa

  • Strolling at dusk with juvenile lions, unleashed and mischievous, before ending the evening playing with more purring attention whores: cheetah cubs.
  • Dining (or in my case, whining) at Carnivore, a bushmeat-themed restaurant outside of Johannesburg where men invade your personal space with swords piercing slabs of zebra, giraffe, wildebeest, etc.

 

Rwanda rwanda

  • Cycling on the one, hilly paved road in Northern Rwanda, while the children in the villages shouted, “Rafiki, Rafeeeeeeeki!” after my guide, Team Africa Rising’s most beloved rider.
  • Crying myself to sleep at night in the hotel in Kigali. I was scared (watch Hotel Rwanda), alone, depressed (I went to the Genocide Museum straight from the airport) and exhaustipated (tired + constipated) after about two whirlwind weeks in South Africa.

greeceGreece

  • Feeding the wild animals in the streets of Old Town Rhodes and petting them until they purred. (Notice a recurring theme?)
  • Drowning in my Dramamine-induced dreams while on a Turkish gullet that was no match for the stormy waves.

 

Turkeyturkey

  • Swimming (in search of Coke Zero) from the gullet to a tiny island in the Aegean Sea occupied by a Swedish man with royal connections, a pet baboon and several adopted orphans with special needs.
  • Not following directions at the Turkish baths in Istanbul. (Do NOT lay directly on the hot stone slab. Lay on the threadbare towel they give you. Unless you want to be like me and have a nasty, bacterial burning rash for two weeks.)

irelandIreland

  • Reuniting with Sam, the Irish lad I fell in love with in 2009, and probably the only person in the world who could talk me into swimming in the Liffey which resulted in a few rounds of antibiotics, but I digress…
  • Walking through The Clarence without seeing Bono. Or the Edge. Or even the band members with normal names.

Northern Ireland northern-ireland

  • Whacking hundreds of balls at the driving range at Lough Erne. They have electronic tees that load the balls so you never have to bend over.
  • In Belfast, I was too preoccupied with The Troubles to visit the Titanic, recently named the top tourist attraction in Europe.

puerto-ricoPuerto Rico

  • Photographing the old man, gambling at a gas station, who once delivered takeout to Jackie Kennedy in New York and chatting with the chef who told me he could cure my Crohn’s with gemstones.
  • Getting hammered by the waves and spending a few days painfully picking embedded shreds of coral out of my tender palms.

 

mexican-tequilaMexico

  • Paddleboarding to a private cove so I could scare the rest of my group (a diverse microcosm who made me question my stereotyping) as they returned from their boat tour.
  • Leaving without the elusive bottle of Tequila Revolucion Anejo I tried so hard to find for David and Evelyn’s Cinco de Mayo party.

costa-ricaCosta Rica

  • Reuniting with Jose and staying with the most fascinating couple in the world: David and Evelyn of Discovery Beach House.
  • Standing up the surfer I met in Guanacaste. I was too embarrassed of my lousy Espanol to meet up with him for a lesson and drink.

 

Colombiacolombia

  • Traveling with the likes of Mikey, Elyse, Greg, Finn, Matt Bell’s calves, etc. who made every once-in-a-lifetime experience a shared memory and put up with my memes.
  • That’s easy: dramatically vomiting for three days. I even held up the plane on the tarmac in Bogota, probably causing a few innocent bystanders to miss their flights home for Thanksgiving.

icelandIceland

  • Hovering on the brink of exhaustion for days, thanks to my my guide, Iceland Air captain of 20 years, Sigrun. She lives each day as though it’s not only her last day, it’s her only day.
  • Giving up after skiing one run at the ski resort. It was February. I was freezing. I like to feel my fingers too much I guess.

 

 

Spain spain

  • Staying with the most gracious hosts in the world, the Sanz family, and spending my days sleeping and cycling around Casa de Campo
  • Not being able to adjust to dinner at 10 p.m.; sleeping too much. I blame Sigrun.

 

 

thailandThailand

  • Meeting Mr. Vulgar Vinyasa in Chiang Mai, at my favorite park in the entire world. Anything goes at Nong Buack Head. Even cycling while eating ice cream and balancing a banana on your head.
  • Getting a Thai massage on my LAST day. I should have gotten one EVERY day.

 

Cambodiacambodia 

  • Toss up between finding several menus featuring kale in Siem Reap and watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Honorable mention goes to the Phare Circus although it was quite the fire hazard.
  • Reading The Killing Fields and learning about the Cambodian Genocide, especially from my guide, Sina, whose father was murdered by Pol Pot.

ethiopiaEthiopia

  • Making a cameo in an Ethiopian pop star’s music video. The backup dancers (refugees from Eritrea) came out of the woods and were hauntingly beautiful, their background story making them even more so.
  • Losing a sizable chunk of my benevolence as two young men looked me in the eyes and violated me. (Feeling like I was a quitter for flying to Paris that night instead of staying another week as originally planned.)

Francefrance 

  • Getting high on the energy emitted by hundreds of cyclists doing laps around the Longchamp Racecourse at Bois de Boulogne. Call me Francophile or do the French cycle with more finesse?
  • Seeing the bases of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre teeming with selfie stick vendors, a phenomena that wasn’t there on my previous trips to Paris. On the other hand, if it keeps kids off the streets…

dubrovnikCroatia

  • Waking up in Fresh Sheets (that’s the name of the place too) next to Old Town Dubrovnik’s cathedral. It’s like Architectural Digest and Food & Wine gave birth to a B&B.
  • Realizing how much suffering is going on because of the conflict in Syria; the War Photography Museum in Dubrovnik had a Rated M for mature (and moving) two-story exhibit on the refugees’ plight.

Bosnia Herzegovinabosnia

  • Hoofing it nine miles up to the top of the mountain overlooking the natural beauty and damaged goods of Mostar.
  • The 6-hour bus ride on which I had to sit on top of the toilet because in Bosnia, there’s no such thing as max. occupancy and they oversell tickets. 

montenegroMontenegro

  • Hiking while playing my wooden flute so offensively that when I hit a high note, a nearby goat opted to jump off a mini cliff rather than risk me coming any closer.
  • Spending only one night in Kotor. It’s the kind of place I want to escape to and enjoy for myself, secretly and selfishly.

Sloveniaslovenia

  • Photographing the view of the city and sea from the fort in Piran. Four months later and it’s still one of my best performing posts on Instagram. (Granted, it doesn’t take much.)
  • Accepting the fact I didn’t have the stamina to cycle from hilltop town to hilltop town on a single speed bicycle.

italy

 

Italy

  • Having the morning (5 a.m.-ish) to myself (and the streetsweepers) in St. Mark’s Square. It’s the closest I’ll come to being the only tourist in Times Square.
  • Not buying the pink Giro Italia jersey I tried on in the store at least three times.

 

 

 

 

Belgiumbelgium

  • Being blown away by the sound and lighting effects on the brewery tour in Antwerp. I never had a sip of beer but I walked away with at least 10 solid selfies.
  • Not realizing the McDonald’s in Brussels had a happy hour on day one. Seriously, it’s half price after 4 p.m.

portugal

 

Portugal

  • Completing the coasteering course. Zapped of every ounce of physical and mental energy but in a state of bliss knowing I never quit despite wanting to cry Uncle and swim to the Zodiac after that first electrifying jump.
  • Can I say leaving? Leaving Portugal was like walking out of a movie in the middle of the most climactic scene. AND you have to leave your box of half-eaten Junior Mints behind. You paid $6 for those!

Canada Polar Bear

  • POLAR BEARS
  • Dentists without borders could do a lot of good up here.

 

 

greenlandGreenland

  • Camping on an ice cap where I met a woman from my hometown in Montana. Just a few days after I publicly declared I will never say, “It’s such a small world.”
  • Trips to the communal buckets at ice camp. I’d take 10 minutes in the world’s most disgusting outhouse over 10 seconds in the potty tent any day.

 

U.S.me-and-zeus

  • Coming home to my family, Jordan, Roger, Jonathan, Jonesy, Zeus and my neighbor Ryan – he’s the kind of neighbor Mr. Rogers wishes he could be.
  • Dropping my dog off at my parents’ house and feeling like an absentee adopter. Seeing the “Again?” look in his eyes when he watches me pull of out their driveway. (I’m almost crying as I type this.)

*I know Puerto Rico is technically a U.S. territory, but for consistency’s sake (and a shorter title), let’s call it a country.

5 Minutes with a Man Who’s Killed 6 Polar Bears

Stevie can’t find a buyer. For more than two years, the hunter’s last polar bear hide has idled under a layer of condensed ice in his village’s communal freezer. Stevie’s last buyer was a Japanese man in Vancouver. “He paid me $5,000 for it,” recalls the 64-year-old who resides in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost territory.

Clyde River, Nunavut

Clyde River, Nunavut

“I started hunting when I was around seven,” he says in broken English. His first language is Inuktitut, and like most Inuit men and women, he learned how to hunt from watching his elders. “My older brothers used to bundle me up and put me in the back of their sled,” Stevie recalls with uncanny clarity. His memory is as sharp as his eyesight. If Stevie was a bragging man, he could boast of being able to spot wildlife with his naked eyes faster than most people can figure out how to adjust their high-powered binoculars.

But in typical Inuit fashion, humility courses through Stevie’s veins. Unless you ask, he’ll never divulge how many polar bears he’s killed (six) or how many narwhal he’s caught (too many to count). He doesn’t carry around 5×7’s of his biggest caribou, and he seems to get as much pleasure from bagging a 10 lb. Arctic hare as he does a 4,000 lb. walrus.

His favorite animal to hunt, however, is the seal. It’s plentiful, tasty and there is a fabulously cruel element of surprise. Using leathery hands that have taken many, many lives, he describes the magnitude and utility of the canvas contraption he hides behind while sneaking up on his prey. His animated expressions and movements are captivating. He makes you want to be on the ice with him. Until it’s time to pull the trigger.

Stevie’s gun of choice is the Ruger No.1 .303. While he uses traditional Inuit hunting practices like the canvas contraption and dressing in seal skins to sneak up on baby pups, he’s grateful for technology. When he was 18 he asked his father if he could go hunting for polar bear. His father said, “Sure, but if you kill one, you’ll have to pack it out yourself.” Stevie soon understood why his father made that contingency. Hauling that 1,000 lb. bear out by hand and dogsled took Herculean efforts.

Nowadays Stevie uses his Ski-Doo, and he knows how lucky he is to have 100 horsepower beneath him. Out-of-town polar bear permit-holders can’t use them. Ski-Doos are off limits for non-residents who typically pay between $30,000 – $60,000 to hire licensed outfitters like Stevie to take them polar bear hunting. Assuming they can even score a highly sought after tag, they‘re required to hunt by dogsled—to keep Inuit tradition alive, force them to hire local guides and finally, minimize their advantage. After all, there are only between 20,000 – 25,000 polar bears left according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

Photo: Daily Mail

Photo: Daily Mail

In Qikiqtarjuaq, Stevie’s community of 500 people, about 12 permits are issued each year. In most years at least 200 residents apply for a permit. If his name is drawn, Stevie has one day by Ski-Doo or three days by dogsled to kill a bear. And he doesn’t get to pick the day. The Government of Nunavut Department of Environment does. “If I’m working, and I get a call that I got a permit, I tell my boss I’ll be back soon,” explains Stevie, a school counselor Monday through Friday.

When asked if he’s ever dreamed of big game hunting anywhere else in the world, such as Africa, Stevie’s response is typical of the Inuit who seldom travel outside Canada. “One time, I want to go moose hunting at Ross River,” he responds in a way that suggests wishful thinking. Ross River is in the Yukon, two territories west of Nunavut. When asked if the retreating ice has noticeably affected his hunting, Stevie doesn’t hesitate to say no. In fact, he says it so quickly it’s clear “climate change” is not in his vocabulary. He’s not concerned about global warming.

But, he is concerned about finding a buyer for his two-year-old polar bear hide. The father of three already has a polar bear suit, made from one of his first hides, and he prefers to have $5,000 in his pocket instead of a fur sitting in a freezer. Money is the main reason he hunts polar bear. After all, their meat is not that desirable. Some parts such as the liver and stomach are actually deadly to humans. Often, the meat goes to the sled dogs. The hide and skull are sold to collectors, and ideally, the only part of the kill the hunter keeps is its manhood.

“For the hunter, the penis is the prize,” says Stevie, a twinkle forming in his exaggerated almond-shaped eyes.

My Tinder Date Tells All

I used to watch a lot of FBI Files. So, instinctively, I went into criminal profiler mode. White male, late 20’s-early 30’s, lives within a 30-mile radius, speaks English and because I’m shallow, has all his teeth, stands at least 5’9 and is fit enough to run a 5k at the drop of a hat. I could care less about a receding hairline—so I guess I’m not that shallow. Regardless, Tinder has no rules about stereotyping so I strategically swiped until I found what I was looking for. And apparently, Damir was looking for me too.

Waiting for my potential matches to populate.

Waiting for my potential matches to populate.

He came directly to my hotel room. Even though it was our first time meeting in person, I gave him my room number. I knew that meeting in the lobby was a much safer idea, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to walk down the hall to the elevator. I was exhausted after having spent the day walking the cobblestone streets of Old Town Dubrovnik and then up the steep rocky path to Imperial Fortress. It was built in the early 1800s to protect this stretch of Croatia’s coastline during wartime. In fact, the Yugoslav War was the very reason I was trolling on Tinder. But I didn’t tell Damir that. Ask permission or beg for forgiveness? Hmmm…I went with the latter.

The knock at my door startled me, even though I had been expecting him. After practicing my demure smile in the hallway mirror, I opened the door. Based on the dress, it looked like he was a she. Now don’t think for a second I was disappointed. On the contrary, I was stoked. She had chocolate! Apparently my date coincided with turndown time. While I have no need for someone to fold my duvet back and dramatically fluff my pillows, I will definitely accept chocolate from a stranger in a hotel uniform.

My hotel, Hotel Bellevue. It has commanding views of Old Town Dubrovnik and the breakfast buffet is divine.

My hotel, Hotel Bellevue. It has commanding views of Old Town Dubrovnik and the breakfast buffet is divine.

I thanked the she, put my chocolate out of sight so I wouldn’t be tempted and sat back down at my desk. I was working on a story that was due later that week. A bottle of wine, a gift from the hotel manager, sat in a bucket of ice beside me. I began to type, something about a famous designer in the Hamptons. About two sentences later I heard another knock at the door. I got up, re-practiced my demure smile in the hallway mirror and opened the door. He was standing there in a raincoat, holding a large purple package that I could recognize from an aisle away. It was a giant bar of Milka noisette. If Hershey’s is scissors and Godiva is paper, then Milka is most definitely rock.

Nutella walks into a bar...

Nutella walks into a bar…

Handsome, but not dashing, Damir looked exactly like he presented himself in his Tinder profile. Mine was not the story of being catfished in Croatia. Unfortunately, though, Damir didn’t smell like he did in his Tinder profile. In person, a thick invisible cloud of cigarette smoke engulfed him. Remembering that many Croatian men smoked, I choked back a cough, made a mental note to breathe in through my mouth for the rest of the night and welcomed him inside.

“This is for you,” he said, shoving the chocolate at me. Unaware we’d be exchanging gifts, the only thing I offered in return was an awkwardly enthusiastic thank you. Out of all the Milka bars, noisette is my favorite. How did he know? Could he read my mind? Hell no! If he had, he probably wouldn’t have come. Instead, Damir saw a bottle of wine and my bed. Every signal he sent—both in our Tinder messages and now, sitting on the sofa in my room—subtly screamed, “Let’s hook up and have some fun.”

But I wasn’t in the mood for hooking up. Maybe if I had a gas mask and we were the only two people left on a deserted island. But I didn’t. And we weren’t.

“So tell me about the war,” I said as soon as the wine was poured. I didn’t even give us time to talk about the weather. Captain Obvious could wait; at this moment, I wasn’t in the mood for small talk. I sat on the floor, at his feet, and looked up at him like a student does to his teacher. “The war?” he asked, as if he had misheard me. I nodded. He didn’t seem offended, but definitely caught off guard. I didn’t divulge in our Tinder back-and-forth that the real reason I wanted to meet him was to learn more about the Croatian War of Independence. War is never a good conversation starter, especially when it took place within the last 25 years.

Photo: Ina Vukic

Croatia during the war. Photo: Ina Vukic

He could have gotten up right then and there while giving me a look that said “Shame on you” and left. Or he could have asked why I was asking. But he didn’t. Instead, he took a deep breath and settled back into the sofa. “I was eight when it started,” he began. His eyes glazed over. Not from the wine—we were barely a few sips in—but from an attempt to escape the present moment so he could delve back into the past.

Damir grew up in Old Town Dubrovnik, within the city walls. During the war, his father left the family and fought for the resistance forces along the Bosnian border. Even though he was only a boy, Damir’s responsibility was to help care for his mom and siblings by collecting rainwater. For seven months, a naval blockade prevented any food and supplies, including water, from entering Old Town Dubrovnik. Inside the city walls, thousands of residents and refugees fleeing from the landmines and fighting in the countryside were trapped. The only thing coming into Dubrovnik on a steady basis were bombs being dropped by the unrelenting Yugoslav People’s Army. They blasted holes in more than half of the city’s historic buildings and more than 100 bodies belonging to innocent civilians.

Photo: Lindsay Fincher

Dubrovnik in 1991, Lindsay Fincher

“You know,” he said with more than a tinge of regret, “before the war we used to watch TV and when the news would come on and we’d see stories about conflict in other countries, we’d change the channel.” Immediately I thought of those infomercials asking for help fixing cleft palates in third world countries. I didn’t necessarily change the channel, but I always looked away, unable to stomach seeing kids who could barely open their mouths much less practice their demure smiles.

And to think, I complained every time I got my braces tightened.

And to think, I complained every time I got my braces tightened.

“But during the war,” he continued, “We realized all those horrific things could happen to us. Had we been able to watch the news on TV—we had no electricity—it may have been like looking in a mirror. So we vowed that when the war was over, we’d never change the channel again.” At this point he paused long enough to empty his glass. As I refilled it he continued.

But Katie, we’re all fucking human. We make promises we don’t keep. Especially during war. When it ended, we went back to watching the news on TV, and guess what? We changed the channel every time there was coverage of fighting in other countries. No one wants to see death and destruction. It’s fucking depressing.”

I didn’t disagree with him.

As the night went on and I asked more questions, I appreciated his honesty and openness. He quickly caught on that I wasn’t in the mood for anything more than some conversation, and if wine stimulated that, then I would suffer through a glass or two. In my defense, he drilled me as well.

He asked about New York City, why I wasn’t wearing heels (am I short?) and even how much money I made. I told him I made very little—which is why I ate at Old Town Dubrovnik’s incredibly popular Irish Pub The Gaffe when the local construction workers are fed and there’s a special $5 menu. That prompted him to ask the best question of the night. “Why do all you Americans come to Croatia and go to an Irish pub?”

Don't confuse The Gaffe with the Irish pub on the corner. That one is Karaka and there is an albino waiter there who is the meanest waiter I've ever met. He has a personality disorder I think. Photo: Global Party Guide

Don’t confuse The Gaffe with the Irish pub on the corner. That one is Karaka and there is an albino waiter there who is the meanest waiter I’ve ever met. He has a personality disorder I think. Photo: Global Party Guide

 

I Stood the Pope Up AND Lived to Regret It

On the back it reads, " In The Holiness of Truth."

On the back it reads, “In The Holiness of Truth.”

SPRING 2010, New York

It was one of two things: either a very bad good idea, or a very good bad idea. Whatever it was, it consumed me, a self-aware college sophomore on a mission to redeem herself. I knew I was no Virgin Mary. But why couldn’t I be a Mother Teresa?

That was the question that came to mind when I signed up for the Lourdes service trip offered at my Catholic university. Lourdes is a small community in the south of France. The service trip was coordinated by campus ministry, and spaces were limited—applying was a competitive process. The chosen few would bathe the sick and dying who made the pilgrimage to this world famous site. It was here, in 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared. Every year since, millions have visited Lourdes in hopes of being cured by a miracle, or even better, seeing her.

Now, why would a 20-year-old want to spend her summer ministering to the sick? She wouldn’t. Unless she needed to make things right with the Vatican—a serious institution which she had screwed over two years prior. Screwed over may sound dramatic, but when the Supreme Pontiff is involved, it’s perfectly fine to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Or in this case, a missed mass.

It wasn’t just any mass. It was a monumental mass—performed by Pope Benedict XVI at the most sacred of places, Yankee Stadium. I was 18 years old at the time, and I had just moved to New York for school. When I learned the Pope would be visiting and the Vatican was seeking volunteers to serve at the mass, I put in an application. I wanted to be a part of history. I dreamt of getting my hands dirty, helping the infallible one bless, break and serve the body of Christ. No big deal.

Yeah right. It was a huge deal! So when I found out I got accepted to serve (in what capacity, I’m not sure, but I doubt I would have been at the right hand of the holy father), I was over the moon. Naturally, when I told my very pious Catholic parents, they were too. Thanks to Verizon I heard the pride in their voices as they promised to watch the mass—which would be televised on national TV—with my grandparents. I pictured them telling my hometown congregation about their devout daughter. If all went according to plan, a hero’s parade would welcome me home at Christmas Break.

SUNDAY, April 20, 2008, Central Park

Mass was at 2:30 p.m. so I had a few hours to kill. I went to Central Park—intending to meditate and pray so I was in a pure state of mind before helping his holiness. Central Park had other plans for me. It was SummerStage and the Bacon Brothers were performing. A free concert starring Kevin Bacon? Sign me up. The music was good. The company was not.

I soon found myself sequestered between two older men, in their 40’s. They took a liking to me, and I was flattered, and curious. After a few songs, they convinced me to join them for one drink. I told them I had to be at Yankee Stadium by 1 p.m. They insisted we’d be done long before then. They said “one;” so I went.

My mind is fuzzy, but it was a bar on the Upper East Side. We walked there from Central Park so it couldn’t have been too far from 72nd Street. I was three years shy of the legal drinking age, but that didn’t stop the bartender from serving me the prettiest orange and yellow cocktail I had ever seen. I don’t remember what it was, because my two new friends had ordered it for me, but I played with the toothpick umbrella and blocked out the part of my brain that was screaming, BAD KATIE, BAD KATIE. WWJD?

“You farm chocolates?” I asked, wide-eyed and a bit tipsy from the source of my third umbrella. I was accumulating quite the collection, soon I’d have every color. “No,” laughed the shorter, chubbier of my two friends, “truffles are mushrooms.” He told me about his farm in Virginia and made numerous references to his wealth. His other friend was also wealthy. Albeit, he had a more traditional profession. He was a dentist.

The truffle farmer and dentist drilled me about myself. They asked where I was from and where I went to school. I told them I went to a Catholic university. Then they asked if my friends wore skirts, like “Catholic school girl skirts.” I said no and tried to change the subject. But I was buzzed and my communication skills weren’t as sharp as normal. My head hurt. But damn, this drink was pretty and I had so many umbrellas.

My alcohol-induced reverie was broken when my new friends pointed up at the TVs hanging above the bar. “Isn’t that your mass?” asked Dentist. I looked up at a close-up shot of the Pope shaking incense over the altar. The camera panned the crowd and my stomach sank. This wasn’t a dress rehearsal. This was my mass. The mass where I was supposed to be serving. The mass my parents would be watching 2,000 miles away at home in Montana. Where was I? A nameless bar, sitting in between two 40-year-old nameless knuckleheads who were trying to convince me to come back to Truffle’s pad in Tribeca.

I pushed the rest of my drink away and told my new friends I had to go. I thanked them for the drinks and stumbled out of the bar. Somehow I made it back to campus where I crashed and tried to forget the day ever happened.

The gravity of what I had done, or didn’t do, hit me a few days later when I received a package at my dorm. It was not a care package from my parents. Unless my parents had decided to take up residence at the Vatican.

Instantly reminded of my absence from Sunday’s mass, I reluctantly opened the package. Pope Benedict stared up at me, knowingly. It was a shiny medal, accompanied by a letter thanking me for my service to God’s chosen people. I wanted to throw up. I didn’t deserve this medal. I didn’t show up. And even if I had shown up, I would have been drunk.

Spring 2010, St. John’s University 

Some students crossed their knees, uncrossed them, crossed them again and fidgeted in their seats. Not me. I was convinced I would sail through the Lourdes service trip interview with flying colors. Eventually the priest came out of his office and looked up from his clipboard, “Laura?” he asked. Smiling, I got up from my seat and smoothed out the wrinkles in my slacks. I followed him and his assistant, a plainclothes sister, into his office.

The interview started off well. How could it not? I was being interrogated by good cop, gooder cop. The middle went even better. I smiled and answered questions such as, “Describe your relationship with the Lord” and “What makes you think you’re a good candidate to minister to the sick and poor?” The priest and his lady friend clearly liked me. I was charming them to bits and I was sure I’d walk out of their office as happy as the American Idol hopefuls who walk out with an invite to the next round.

As the interview came to a close, the priest said he wanted to ask me a “fun question.” Just to get a better sense of who I was and to ease up on the pressure of being in an interview. “Game on,” I thought. I can do fun like it’s nobody’s business.

“If you were a Disney character, which character would you be?” he asked. DISNEY? I love Disney! I’ve seen all the VHSes except for the last 11 Land Before Time sequels. Immediately, a Disney character came to mind and I knew it represented me to a “t.”

It wasn’t a princess, or a fairy or even a talking Donkey.

“The Tramp,” I said confidently. Much to my horror, the lady friend’s face lost all of its color. Well, the little it had. I don’t think she got much Vitamin D. The priest didn’t look amused either.

Immediately realizing my mistake, I began to try to salvage the situation.

“He’s resourceful, eager to get others out of their comfort zones,” I began. “Wild. Cunning. Street savvy.”

I wasn’t winning over either of my interviewers. They raised their badly groomed eyebrows and shared a look as if to say, “Did she really just say she was like The Tramp?”

The interview ended shortly thereafter. I walked out empty handed. The next day I received an email. The first paragraph politely thanked me for my interest in the Lourdes service trip. The second paragraph politely informed me that I was not a good fit for this year’s trip. That was probably a typo. I think they meant, “any year’s trip.”

I didn’t bathe any dying people or taste holy water that summer. But I also didn’t get drunk with older men who had a very different definition of holy water. Baby steps, baby steps.

You can't judge a dog by its collar.

You can’t judge a dog by its collar.

How Do You Become a Travel Writer?

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn't in the hotel elevator. It's on the beach:)

Posing next to my story about a pirate camp in a hotel elevator. The pirate camp isn’t in the hotel elevator. It’s on the beach:)

If travel writers got paid a dollar every time someone asked how they got their job, they’d really be living the dream. I don’t even get a dime every time someone asks me, and frankly, I loathe this question. The act of asking it doesn’t annoy me. It’s the fact I don’t have a fool-proof answer. My path was less like Chutes and Ladders and more like Mouse Trap. Instead of playing Pipe Dream, it’s like playing pinball. The following are a few steps that led up to my curious career. And I use the word “career” very, very loosely.

  1. It Was Not My Schooling – My degree is in business and marketing. Words are rather subjective, so I consider myself a numbers person. I’ve never taken a journalism class. I have vague recollections of taking a creative writing class as a college sophomore. I don’t remember my own writing as much as peer reviewing a Muslim colleague’s true story about his dad being in a World Trade Center Tower during September 11, and a Chinese classmate’s true (?) story about how she keeps reincarnating. Despite her 20 alleged years, she had a very old soul.
  2. Hunter S. Who? – I’ve never finished a book by Hunter S. Thompson. Jack Kerouac confuses me, and if you ask who my favorite travel writer is, I’ll probably stutter for a minute before admitting it’s Chuck Thompson (self-disgraced travel writer and author of Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer). While I have respect for the accomplished men and women who belong in the Travel Writing Hall of Fame, they’re not the reason I write.
  3. Carmen on the Other Hand – Geography has always amazed me. When I was about nine years old, I used my allowance—I think I was making $1/week (minus $.10 for tithing)—to buy a big red atlas. It blew my mind that while one country was experiencing winter, another was in the midst of summer. I read that book cover to cover (granted, there were a lot of photos) and even tried to get my brother interested in it. I would be the teacher and give him lessons. I think he hated them.
  4. A Pseudo United Nations – When I was in 8th grade I went to a “leadership camp” that started with a military-esque overnight mission in a swamp in Minnesota. The mosquitoes annihilated us, but I ate peanut butter from a jar and slept on the rough ground next to a Hmong girl from St. Paul, a black kid from Brooklyn and several Native American boys from Red Cloud. Tall, dark and handsome, Farshad was also in my group. He was the first Persian I had ever met, and I had a huge crush on him. Unfortunately, I learned that most Persians have to marry other Persians. Still, this sparked my curiosity in diversity. At times I hated camp (we had to watch Disney movies and would pause and discuss the racist parts), but it made me wonder about where all these people, and their strange customs, came from.
  5. Interest Meets Opportunity – Once upon a time, back in the days of dial-up internet, the 16-year-old in me went to Google (or most likely, Ask Jeeves) and asked, “What is the most diverse place in the world?” The query results indicated it was Queens, NY. That’s how I ended up going to school in New York City. Forget about the financial capital of the world, I think the “City” as residents call it, is the opportunity capital of the world. If it’s not what you know, but who you know, then I think the City is home to one of the world’s highest concentrations of the who’s you should know.
  6. Fake It Till You Make It – The lie began, “Dear Harper Collins…” I was not on staff at The Torch, St. John’s University’s newspaper. Nor did I know anyone who was. But still, I wanted a media pass to Norman Mailer’s memorial service at Carnegie Hall so badly I broke the 9th commandment and sent an email to his publisher’s publicist. This was when I realized that this title of “writer” was sort of like having a back door key to the world. While most other 18-year-olds were sneaking into clubs, I was sneaking into memorial services. But it was exhilarating. (You can read my Mailer memorial service recap here.)
  7. Call Me Intern – During college, I had two incredible internships that opened many doors for me. The first was at NY1 News. I was 20 years old, writing scripts for anchors and traveling to all five boroughs (and even the Jets’ locker room in New Jersey) with news crews. I also spent a summer writing for Dan’s Papers, the largest newspaper in the Hamptons. Dan’s office was located in Bridgehampton, about 5 miles from where I was living in Sag Harbor. I didn’t have a car at the time so I rode my bike—rain or shine. It wasn’t paid, but it got me into wakeboarding camp, Lily Pond (one of the most exclusive clubs in the Hamptons) and a long conversation with the legendary Alan Houston who I had the pleasure of interviewing for my first feature.
  8. A Traveling Salesman – I got the Dan’s Papers internship because I was relentless in hounding the editor. I sat in my dorm room in Dublin and called her on Skype and sent one email after another selling myself and my interest (I didn’t have many skills) while my friends were probably at the pub, a few pints in. Years later, when I was working full time at a public relations agency and wanted to dip my toe in the travel writing realm, I spent my lunch break pacing on the sidewalk, calling Veronica Stoddart, the travel editor at USA Today. She didn’t know me from Adam, but she took a chance on me. Granted, it took about 13 calls before I even got her on the line. At that point I was so shocked to hear her voice that I almost forgot my elevator pitch. I shudder to think what would have happened, or not happened, if I had given up after call 12.
  9. Balancing Relationships and Roundups – Being published on USA Today’s website was a big deal for me. With that byline, PR people assumed I was an established writer and the offers for gear and trips started trickling in. The more I wrote ((all on the weekends, in my free time) and was published the more offers that poured in. My relationships definitely suffered. Instead of having a social life or paying proper attention to my boyfriend at the time, I was working on a roundup of 12 Ways to Stay Active While Traveling or 5 Reasons Traveling Solo Doesn’t Suck.
  10. From Part Time to Paying the Bills – Because of an illness, I had to quit my full time “real” job. I eventually got better, but instead of trying to get back into the “real” workforce, I have been saying yes to some of the story ideas in my head and the trip invitations in my inbox. Confession: I have to say yes to some non-travel related writing—interior design, gardening and real estate—but I’m able to work on these pieces from anywhere. When I was on a wooden gullet cruising around the islands of Turkey I spent a lot of time writing a piece on how to reupholster an antique chair. I should have been swimming, but swimming doesn’t pay the bills. Unless you’re Michael Phelps.