Monday, July 29, 2013

Bad trips...like, whoa, man

After my whirlwind trip to San Francisco with my wife Sky, a trip that would have gone down in infamy as one of the worst trips I have ever taken if I had not had several other really terrible travel experiences recently, I thought I would list my top worst travel experiences.
  1. Returning from Thailand in June 2012. I had a cheap one-way ticket on Air India from Bangkok to Toronto, with one stopover in New Delhi. While the plane was aloft, Air India went on strike, and we landed in New Delhi to discover that all onward planes had been cancelled. A harried-looking man took away all our passports and bundled them together with a rubber band and then put us onto a shuttle bus that took us to a building that could either have been an enormous hotel past its prime or a moldering mental institution, where we would wait for about 14 hours until they could find another plane to take us...somewhere. When we got to the airport, I discovered my trip home would now take me through Paris (where we all had to get off the plane, go back through security, and then get back on the plane...in 45 minutes) and New York before finally arriving in Toronto. The trip that was supposed to take 22 hours actually ended up taking 40+, although the food on Air India is delicious and I made friends with the only other person also going to Toronto: a professional deep sea diver that Air India apparently thought was my husband, because they kept seating us next to each other.
  2. Train from Fes to Marrakech in May 2013. Seven hour train ride. Five of those hours spent with an earsplitting high-pitched feedback noise emitting from the train's PA system. You could watch everybody's face contort after the first half hour on the train. The only way I made it through was with earplugs.
  3. Toronto to San Francisco, July 2013. Yeah, it makes it in there, for sure. We took the Greyhound to Buffalo -- Greyhound's website estimates it will take 3 hours, but the bus driver told us that was completely wrong; it always takes longer. This time it took even longer: we got stuck in stop-and-go traffic for an extra hour, meaning we arrived at the Buffalo airport 20 minutes before our plane was supposed to depart. We sprinted to the gate...only to discover that our plane hadn't left Baltimore, and would be leaving for Chicago two hours late. This meant we'd miss our connector to Oakland, but when we tried to rebook the tickets, the very nice lady at customer service said rebooking was impossible as her system showed that our flight to Oakland was delayed and we would be able to make it. In the air on the way to Chicago, the flight attendant reassured us that we had definitely missed our flight to Oakland...but there was a flight going to SFO leaving 20 minutes after we were set to touch down and it had three standby seats left. The minute we hit the tarmac, I called Southwest and they reissued boarding passes for the SFO flight, and Sky and I sprinted to the new gate. After a $100 taxi ride from SFO to where we were staying in Oakland, a) Southwest lost Sky's bag and wouldn't tell her where it was for three days, and b) BART went on strike for the first time in 17 years. Also when I got home, I discovered my cell phone provider charged me $1.50 a minute in international roaming fees for all the frantic calls we'd made to Southwest trying to rebook tickets. Air travel in the U.S.: it's the gift that keeps on giving.
  4. I do not remember the details perfectly, but I do remember being 12 years old and in Europe with my mom, and a flight cancellation or delay resulted in our being stuck in Charles de Gaulle airport for an extra ten hours worth of layover. I am sure that travelling with a pre-pubescent dork could not have been fun for my mom, and I was bored out of my skull. To this day, I have a strange aversion to CDG.
  5. Guatemala, 2008. My friend Colleen and I, certain we knew what we were doing, were baffled by the lack of direct service from Panajachel to Tikal -- all the buses went back south several hours and had a layover in Guatemala City. So we decided to travel the way the locals do: on increasingly tinier minibuses, heading into increasingly more dangerous road. Eventually we wound our way along a road that was unfinished; deserted construction equipment nestled against the edge of the mountain on one side, and our tires slipped along the gravel road as we peered out the side window down the sheer drop that did not seem to faze the driver. We had a full load, including some people sitting on other people's laps, and I was wedged so tightly between Colleen and the guy sitting next to me, it was hard to raise my arms to cover my eyes when the tires occasionally ran off the road. Then it started to get dark. And rain. We got there eventually, but it took a very long time and probably several years off my lifespan.
  6. Cozumel, 2006? I don't remember exactly when this was, but in an effort to bolster my dying marriage, I booked a 6-day package holiday to Cozumel, with the reasoning that, hey, I'd never been on a package tour before. Our flight from Pittsburgh to Houston was delayed...and delayed...and further delayed by a mechanical error which turned out to be a problem with the windshield wipers. So we left super late and couldn't make up any time en route...which meant we were left with 15 minutes to make it from the domestic to the international terminal in Houston. I honestly have never run so fast in my life. We made it to the jetway with literally three minutes to spare, and the flight attendants applauded when they saw us bolting for the gate. When we got on board, there were people sitting in our seats and while we stood there waiting for them to move, I almost keeled over sideways into the aisle. It took about half an hour for my heart to stop pounding. CARDIO.
  7. Somewhere along the highway in New York, 2006 or 2007. We were driving back to Pittsburgh from Ontario in the winter, and as everybody who knows the nexus of bad weather that is Buffalo can attest, Buffalo is an infernal hellhole of lake effect precipitation. It snowed harder and visibility got worse as we got past the border...to find that the freeway south had been closed. And all the hotels in the area were booked solid by people who were smarter than we were. "But the Red Cross shelter still has some space," the toll lady said. We elected instead to push on through the snow, until we were the only vehicle on the small road except for monstrous snowplows and ice trucks, passing us like leviathans in the Marianis trench...with just about as much visibility. Still, Jeff was used to driving in Minnesota, and we felt like we were winning against the weather gods as we edged closer and closer to Pittsburgh, certain the lake effect snow would stop once we got far enough from Buffalo. Instead, we hit a patch of black ice, spun out into a snowdrift at an exit ramp and totalled the car. We were all fine, but had to walk up to the toll booth at the end of the exit ramp and wait there while they called a tow truck, which were working overtime from all the accidents. We waited for two hours when a tow truck driver arrived and drove us to the closest hotel he knew of that might have a vacancy. It did. We collapsed into the one small bed and the next morning called a friend in Pittsburgh to drive up and pick us up. The car was a write-off.
I am sure there are more, but that's all I can think of at the moment. I've had surprisingly good luck, given all the travel I do -- let's hope I never have anything worse to add to the list, like my old acquaintance Jessamyn, who was once in a bus in India that rolled off a cliff and she staggered out of it covered in blood that wasn't hers.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Crawled from the Internet Archive

I LOVED this post from meish.org, which is now, sadly, gone...so I crawled it from the Wayback Machine via the Internet Archive. By Meg Pickard.

So, Glastonbury festival is off

So, Glastonbury festival is off this year. Well, not to worry. Just because Michael Eavis (the man with an upside-down head) isn't going to oblige, doesn't mean you have to miss out on all the fun. Just follow my handy tips below, and with the help of a very obliging friend, you can be well on your way to recreating the Glastonbury experience in the comfort of your own home....

  1. Duck out of work early on a thursday, and then go and sit in your car for seven hours. Don't go anywhere, just sit there. If you have heating, even better: whack it up to full.
  2. When it gets dark and you're nice and sweaty, go around to the back of your house and enter by vaulting over a hedge/climbing in the windows/shinning up the drainpipe. This will be your method of entry and exit to the house for the next four days.
  3. Arrange in advance to have a friend distribute your furniture, posessions and various random bits of taut string around the house in your absence. Also, tell them to remove all your lightbulbs. Upon entering your home, stumble around blindly for an hour or so before you find your bed.
  4. Insert four or five large rocks under your matress.
  5. Take an aspirin.
  6. Wait for nothing to happen.
  7. Go to bed.
  8. Arrange for a friend to wake you up by pissing on your duvet.
  9. Eat a mars bar for breakfast.
  10. Go and stand outside your toilet for an hour and a half.
  11. Use toilet (not paper)
  12. Arrange for your friend to stand at the bottom of the garden holding up a CD jewel case of a band you aren't really that keen on.
  13. For true authenticity, arrange for another friend to stand directly in front of you and shout.
  14. Put the radio on very quietly. Keep this up for six or seven hours.
  15. Queue up beside your kitchen cupboard for two hours.
  16. Pay £4.50 for an authentic Thai meal (pot noodle)
  17. Take an aspirin.
  18. Wait for nothing to happen.
  19. Arrange for your friend to accost you naked on the stairs and jabber wildly at you for an hour.
  20. Stand outside your toilet for an hour.
  21. Give up, go into the garden and pee under a bush.
  22. Repeat steps 12-14.
  23. Throw £15 into your neighbour's garden. Roll up some bay leaves and sage in a rizla. Light. Choke. Repeat.
  24. Take an aspirin.
  25. Wait for nothing to happen.
  26. Go to bed.
  27. Discover that someone (possibly your obliging friend) has pissed on your bed.
  28. Sleep fitfully while your friend plays bongos two feet from your head and shouts "Oi-OI!" every ten minutes.
  29. Repeat steps 8-15
  30. Pay £8.20 for an authentic organic Mexican Veggie burger (8 Linda McCartney Spicy Beanburgers, 99p from Tesco)
  31. Take an aspirin
  32. Wait for nothing to happen.
  33. Become amazed when you actually do start to feel a tingle in your toes.
  34. Neck half a bottle of White Lightening Extra Fearsome Cider.
  35. Find a puddle.
  36. Dance in it for twelve minutes, even though you can't hear any music from where you are.
  37. Find a bush.
  38. Throw up in it.
  39. Repeat steps 19-23.
  40. Watch your friend (or other random person) to twirl fire balls while wearing a silly jester's hat and no shirt.
  41. Say "wow"
  42. Repeat any of the above steps.
  43. Go to bed.
  44. Discover that someone (probably you) has thrown up on your bed.
  45. Sleep fitfully while your friend throws buckets of water at you, shouting "Glastonbuuuuuuuuuury!" every five minutes.
  46. Repeat steps 8-15.
  47. Pay £6.40 for a plate of chips.
  48. Repeat steps 16-24.
  49. Go to bed.
  50. Discover that someone (probably your friend) has stolen your bed, your clothes, and, in fact, everything you own.
  51. Climb down the drainpipe and over the fence, and sleep in your car.
  52. Wake up uncomfortably and then sit in your car for nine hours, with the heater on full blast.
  53. Go directly to work.
See? Nothing to it! The authentic festival experience in the (dis)comfort of your own home. Who needs Madonna anyway?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Is this the hell that this is?

My brain is kind of a jerk.
This is what it felt like inside my brain. Too many languages.

After spending almost six months cramming it full of French, trying to revive my high school grammar so I can successfully use the subjunctive and don't just sound like I'm either terminally shy or inarticulate while living in Montreal, I decided to take it to Spain. I don't really speak Spanish. I never studied it, in school or elsewhere, and the last time I went to a Spanish-speaking country, my friend Colleen and I were very proud of ourselves that we understood our tour guide when he spoke in the equivalent of kindergarten-Spanish. "THIS...IS...A...VOLCANO," he would say to us, very very slowly. We'd nod our heads, then he would light his walking stick on fire. We couldn't ask why, so we just applauded.
Obligatory photo of the Sagrada Famiglia.

However, apparently, what I *do* speak is Italian. I spent 3 months in Italy when I was 16 years old, and haven't spoken Italian since then. I was actually in the northern part of Italy, in the Dolomiti, the gorgeous rocky mountains famous for being home to Italy's Ladino population, who are famous for not speaking Italian. So I went to Italy and stayed for three months with people who don't speak Italian, and yet somehow managed to pick up enough Italian that my mind very cheerfully said "ARE YOU SURE YOU DON'T MEAN MOLTO BENE INSTEAD OF MUY BIEN?" every time I tried to communicate in Spanish. Basically, I spent my entire time in Spain with my brain throwing out exciting phrases in four languages at once: Spanish, Italian, French, and English. Sometimes I also got some German, which I have also never studied.

Then we went to Morocco, and fortunately, I have forgotten almost all of my vocabulary from my university Arabic classes, so I could be left in relative comfort to speak either English or French. I did spend a few hours on the train to Fes writing out the Arabic alphabet to see if I could remember it (yep, all 4 H's still accounted-for) and my journal is full of little frantically-scrawled notes of "What the hell is the stupid "th" anyway?" (hint: depends on if you mean the soft th or the hard th). So in Morocco, I could read the signs, but not decipher what they meant. Fair enough.
One of the only words I know in Arabic: mdrsa (school)

So Ray and I went to Spain and Morocco. We realized after the trip was over that we had somehow managed to stay in literally every possible sort of residence while we were there. In Barcelona, we stayed with Ray's friends Rob and Aleta, who had recently moved from San Luis Obispo and had almost no furniture in their gorgeous wood-floored Spanish apartment. We sat on the floor around cardboard boxes and they drank wine while I read aloud from the past winners of the Ig Nobel prizes...as you do. In Sevilla, we stayed in our first AirBNB room, a tiny brightly-colored place in Triana, across the river from Sevilla proper and with a lot more character and fewer tourists. Our one night in Tangier was spent in a typical ratbag Moroccan pension, where the beds have been compressed to the density of walnuts by years of people sleeping on them and never having their sheets changed. This pension was right next to the Grand Mosque, which made the middle-of-the-night call to prayer somewhat noisy. It seemed to go on for quite some time, too, after which Ray muttered, "I knew they were doing a call to prayer, but I didn't think they'd be doing the whole service!"
Medina in Fes
In Fes, we stayed in a riad: a super-fancy, super-swanky old-style Moroccan hotel with a central courtyard, elaborately-painted wood ornamentation, zellij tiles, and two extremely friendly Moroccan concierges. We were right around the corner from a hammam, where I ended up drastically overpaying to have a tiny elderly women scrub all the dry skin off my body and then force me to wear someone else's clean underwear back to the hotel. In Marrakech, we found ourselves in a generic mid-level hotel: clean sheets, hot water, and almost nothing else. Right off the Djema el-Fna, it was mostly just our launching point for getting the hell out of Marrakech. After our flight to Essaouria, we found ourselves in a hippie hostel next to the seawall; populated entirely by long-term traveling backpackers, we shared communal meals and someone played guitar and sang literally every night we were there. They had two pet ducks on the roof and encouraged guests to paint on the walls. A quick flight back to Madrid and we spent two nights in an artist's home (again via AirBNB) in Chueca, the gay quarter populated by cheerful Eastern European sex workers checking their phones in 6" heels and tight pants.
Hanging lantern in Green Milk dormitory

Seedlings at Green Milk...isn't Art Mode pretty?
I don't have many Exciting Stories to tell about this trip, really. We saw a lot of Gaudi architecture, and were inspired to create mosaics. We ate a lot of amazing food. Rob and Aleta took us to their favorite restaurant in Barcelona (Bodega La Palma, mmmmm) where they know the waiter. We would order something, and he would bring us something else, saying, "You didn't want that other thing. You want this." A wheel of fresh raw cheese with homemade blackberry jam...he was right, we DID want that. When we ordered dessert, we got tiramisu and then asked him to recommend something. His brow furrowed and his face got serious, then he nodded and wrote something down; it turned out to be nougat ice cream doused with an anise liqueur, so good we almost cried. We staggered out into the street after that, moaning and holding our stomachs. It was worth it. On my birthday in Madrid, I had the best mushroom risotto I have ever had in my life, and some goat cheese and honey ravioli that I would have married if that sort of thing was legal.
Our host's kitchen in Madrid: knives & dudes kissing

In Morocco, we mostly just ate a lot of tagine and doughnuts. Food in Morocco is really only impressive and exciting if you can eat meat and you don't mind consuming your own weight in sugar. The mint tea, for example. I saw a woman make mint tea in her home in Rabat back in 1999; she took her tiny teapot and threw in a handful of tea leaves, then added a sheaf of mint. Then she went to the giant block of refined white sugar in the corner of the kitchen, took what looked like an ice pick and hacked off an enormous chunk, wedged it in the mouth of the teapot, and poured the boiling water over it so it slowly dissolved into the tea below. Mint tea ("Moroccan whiskey") is more like a decorative syrup than a tea.

We spent a lot of time walking. We realized that one day in Sevilla, we walked nonstop for about ten hours. We needed something to do before the restaurants opened for dinner at 10pm, so we just walked and looked at things and talked and sat and ate lunch and walked some more. We found an Ai Wei Wei exhibit and looked at it. We found some cafes and sat in them and read books. Ray fell asleep in an armchair. We found parks and sat in those. We ate gelato. You may notice a theme in this trip. If you did not, let me point it out to you: walking. And eating. That's pretty much it.
Ai Wei Wei: pretty.

After I lost my phone in Sevilla, Ray let me use his camera. This turned out to be a mistake, because I decided my favorite setting was Art Mode, which produces gorgeously supersaturated photos with blown-out colors. The rest of the trip was mostly just us wrestling the camera away from each other and changing the settings back and forth. The photos mostly just look as though we went to two very different places: one looks sort of like Europe, and one looks like the inside of a Disney movie. Say what you will, I like contrast in my photos, god damnit.

Overall, the trip was gorgeous: restful and calm, we spent a lot of time actually BEING ON VACATION, which is something I rarely do. I usually work or plan or develop skills or something, I rarely travel just for the sake of travelling. This was completely unplanned, except for roughly when we wanted to go where, and even that changed when we got to Marrakech and hated it. We kind of sort of knew what we wanted to do, but we played it thoroughly by ear. I haven't been to Spain or Morocco since 1999, so we also spent some time revisiting things I first saw when I was 19 years old, which means I was constantly saying things like "Wow! That's changed a lot!" And then eating a doughnut.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

From the archives: Hair Wild, Heart Wilder

This is a chunk of diary from my trip to Morocco in 1999, when I met and was travelling with Wolf. Wolf with the curly hair and ice-blue eyes, Wolf who became so radically different when he drank that I didn't understand until years later that he was drunk and abusive, not just emotionally volatile...that I hadn't done something wrong, other than watch him down a bottle of Jack's alone on the beach in Cadiz.
But at the time I wrote this journal entry, it was June of 1999 and I was in love, so much in love that I was practically on fire. Not just in the loins region; in the heart, in the letters I wrote home. We'd fled Morocco to Spain briefly, once Wolf finally retrieved his second-time-lost passport. Desperate for cheese and not to be leered at, we wandered the rocky Andalucian coast, slept in a hostel with a green center courtyard in Sevilla, woke up late. But I decided I wanted to be in the Sahara for the last Summer Solstice of the millenium (yes, I know the last year of the millenium was actually 1999, but what were YOU doing in 1999?), and so we made the trek back to Morocco. And I wrote this.

Hair Wild, Heart Wilder

A solid thirty-four hours of travel: leaving Sevilla at 6:15 yesterday morning, and going through Algeciras, Tangier, Meknes, and Rissouni finally got us here, to the patio of Auberge Tuareg, looking at the amber dunes of the Sahara desert behind the palm trees. They change color in the light, so they are never the same twice.

A young man in Rissouni played his luggage cart as a drum...smiling brightly, and with a wave to us, he pulled a puppy seemingly out of nowhere and cradled it against him as he walked away. Desert people are different people; the hassle in Rissouni was unbelievable, but still somehow more acceptable than the hassle in Tangier.

Why the rush, you might ask? Well, because we wanted to be here in the desert for today, the Solstice; the last summer Solstice of this Millenium, if you want to let that whole 2000 vs. 2001 thing slide. It was important to both of us, so important that Wolf told me not to mention it when we were traveling, in case one of the touts tried to rook us when he saw our desperation.

The heat is like riding into a blast furnace but it doesn't bother me as much as it did before, although I did get dehydrated and sunburned my nose (again). Now I've drunk about three two-liter bottles of water ("Said Ali" brand, meaning “Mr. Ali”). We saw the sun rise from the bus—it was very huge and orange over the flat horizon; the phoenix reborn from fire.

Arriving in Rissouni early early, we tried to get transport to the dunes immediately—of course we got fourteen different stories ("Oh, my friend will leave in an hour, his truck is right here" only to wait and wait and see neither friend nor imminent departure) and finally we just took the public bus at 2, and rode on the roof. A friendly boy told us about it and so we stuck to him like glue, and were rewarded with watching the dusty desert surround us. Other trucks crowded with blinking tourists and wrapped-up desert folks traveling from tiny village to tiny village would careen blindly past us out of the dust every now and then, but mostly it was sand, and tire tracks, and the hot, hot sun. Every now and then, a sand-colored village that looked empty rose up before us. The windows are cut in archways and the roofs have stepped decorations on them; a flapping of blackness as the women descend carrying vegetables or water or whatever it was they needed they couldn't get. Amazing, to live here in a town that doesn't even have a name.

The city/village of Merzouga fades right into the desert like a second child ignored by a vivacious older sibling. It’s an ugly town: grey-tan squat buildings, all in squares, surrounded by white-bleached dirt, everything bone-dry and glaring with the reflection of the sun.

Sitting in a cafe staring out the door at the dunes, they seem to glow. They change color in minutes, so trying to remember them is hard. "I don't like sudden changes," he said. Let the slow hot move of time bury us until we're scuttled over by scorpions and beetles in the immense desert silence.
The town is ugly, yes, but you could never call it that to its face. The sky, like everything else, is bleached white.

We went to the dunes yesterday night, with water bottles wrapped in our Moroccan scarves, right before sunset. Night settled like a rock as we scrabbled through the sand, aiming for the top of a particularly largish dune. Halfway up, we laid out our clothes in the moonlight to lie naked, side by side. Too cloudy to see many stars, and the moon itself was covered soon, leaving us completely wrapped in darkness.

A windstorm blew up, almost burying us in sand, but it wasn't frightening, only sandy. We got dressed and made our way back along the dune ridge, heads wrapped in scarves, hand in hand, Wolf leading the way. Along the way, he conversationally mentioned that he was allergic to scorpions; fortunately, we didn’t meet any.

Back at the hotel, the staff was playing drums and singing wild droning nasal music and smoking kif. A boy who remembers Wolf from when he was here before brought us a double mattress and pillows so we could sleep on the terrace. Our shower that night was full of grains of sand, as though it was pieces of our skin or our souls, washing off us and running down the drain.

A camel walked by the arched doorway of our hotel, barely visible through another storm, perfectly framed for an instant. Wolf ran for his camera, but I only watched as it moved on like a princess: head high, thousands of years of practice inbred to the very bone. 
 
On the roof of our auberge, he took me in his arms and was as tender as a new lover, until I froze. "What is it?" he asked me. "The owner's son," I said, and there he was, a little grinning man, standing at the top of the stairs down to the main floor, clearly ogling us as we lay there. Wolf only smiled, but I cringed at the thought of him watching us; it would only have taken a few minutes for him to gather a crowd and sell tickets. In his ardor, Wolf dragged me across the roof, where the bricks are rough straw: there is an abraded scratch down my spine from mid-back to hips, raw and bleeding.

I walked from the shower to our room without a towel later, five feet and the door was closed behind me, and his face was incredulous. "What were you thinking?" he said. "Anyone could have seen you!" 
 
We went walking in the Hammada, the black desert, which stretches all the way to Algeria. Acres of volcanic rock dotted with the occasional tan cluster of houses or tents, or brownish camel. It was so hot with the sun above and the black desert below that I felt short of breath and inhaled in gasps through the constant dust storms; there's no sand in the Hammada, only rock, so the storms are of dust. It’s the color of late sun, and it gets into everything; your hair, your eyes, your clothes, your teeth.

Leaning against a wall at one point and looking up blinking as the storm receded, we found ourselves surrounded by brightly dressed children and women, staring and laughing. We inspected a herd of camels (their front legs are tied up bent so they can't run away) and were invited by numerous Berber children to shelter in their house for the next storm. We picked one: mud walls, bamboo-type roof, sticks in the walls holding clothing, about eight kids. Oceans of tea through storm after storm. The old man, our host, mixed the tea seven times for each serving, pouring it out and back into the pot. He gave us dates, and his son ran out shouting into the storm; he was chasing their camels, who had somehow broken free and were speedily heading for the Algerian border on only three legs.
When we got up to go, the oldest girl blocked our path, demanding first 40 dh and then 100dh. We didn't have much with us, certainly not 100dh, and mistaking filthy lucre for hospitality made us sad. We gave her what we had and left, stopping once in another storm for me to pee behind a dune.

The call to prayer starts. "No," he says, "I just love your body and your mind and your spirit."

You are a gift to me, but I am worried: there is not a gift that exists that is not more precious when it is given away.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For today I am a robot

Sometimes, I am disoriented.

I walked down St Hubert earlier, with Adam, the biting cold turning our faces red. My scarf was freezing to my upper lip as I breathed; my glasses kept fogging with a thin layer of ice as condensation from my exhalations froze and thawed, froze and thawed. But dizzily, I thought I was in Northbridge. My mind flashed, "We'll pass Gelare up here on the right, and then I can...no, wait..."

Stepping into the metro the other day, I waited for the recorded voice message to say "Station Ploenchit" before realizing I wasn't in Bangkok. I woke up thinking about going to yoga class and, before I opened my eyes, found myself picturing Wild Rose's courtyard, pulling down the ramp on my no-speed bicycle and chaining it to the bamboo fence. I fell asleep a few nights ago wondering why I couldn't hear the Armadale train zipping past every few minutes, and caught myself thinking They must be working on the tracks again.

Part of it is reading "The Slap", a book written by a Greek-Australian that is so vivid in its descriptions of barbecue, driving around, the slang, the attitude, that I find myself shocked when I go outside and encounter the frozen unfamiliar landscape of Canada. I think it's just so different to me, given that I haven't lived here in so very long, that my mind is compensating by throwing up all these other places I've lived and loved, in an effort to make Montreal familiar.

As I was walking towards Mont Royal earlier this evening, a flat of thirty local eggs from Jean Talon market wrapped in newspaper and rattling safely in my backpack, a man stopped me. "Excusez moi," he said, "ou est la station de metro?" Where's the metro station?

I pointed ahead of us. "C'est juste la-bas," I said. It's right over there.

At least I know where I am some of the time.

Monday, January 7, 2013

New York and back again

The Adirondack Trailways bus from New York City to Montreal costs $84 and takes approximately 9 hours, unless you are unlucky and it is snowing through the mountains, or you have any dark-skinned people on your bus. It is a well-known and never overtly stated fact that over-land customs guards, particularly entering the United States from Canada, do not like you to be brown.

It used to be that I was frequently "randomly selected" for "screening" at airports and US border crossings. Despite my dual citizenship and tidy booklet of passports, my bizarre outfits, spurious companions, and, at the time, inscrutable bags of musical instruments and bellydancing swords meant that I was probably a drug dealer. One customs agent tried to have a heart to heart with me (this was after Burning Man, to be fair, and I was driving across the US-Canada border near Vancouver, with pink hair, pounds of dust on my car, and a bumper sticker that said "It was on fire when I got here") and said, "Do you have any narcotics in the car? You can tell me if you do. It's better if you tell me than if I just find them." Does anyone actually fall for that?

Naturally, after September 11, 2001, a slow steady bias against brown people crossing the border started up; my friend Jake said he once sat at the crossing to Vermont for 2.5 hours, while customs interrogated the dark-skinned Canadian citizen who had been born in Iran. Everyone has to get off the bus and go through screening and get back on, so the entire bus had to wait for this one guy. On my last trip to New York in November, with the Russian Mafia (don't ask), the one dark-skinned girl on the bus spent forty minutes trying to convince them that, yes, she was in a doctoral program to be a museum curator, and yes, that was a real job. They didn't believe her. They put a lookout on her file because they were convinced nobody could make a living being a curator. Probably accurate, but that's more a factor of how North America values art than a cover for a smuggling ring.

So this time, I was hanging around outside the customs stop, breathing the fresh air. The waiting room inside was full of Amish people and smelled like handmade sausages, and I'd been on the bus for about 7 hours. A young man with a tidy goatee came out and lit a cigarette. "Did they ask you a lot of weird questions?" he said.

They hadn't. For some reason, customs is always very VERY interested in my interpersonal relationships. In November, they asked me why I was going to New York. "To visit a friend." You have friends in New York? "Yes." Why are you coming from Montreal when your residential address is in Ontario? "I have friends there too." You have a lot of friends, don't you? "I guess so?" This time, I just got: Why were you in New York? "To visit friends." Do you visit them a lot? "Whenever I can?" It's nice of customs to be so concerned with how often I see my social circle and what I do while I'm there. Maybe they just wanted to be invited the next time we go for dim sum. Or I could have taken them to a museum and shown them what a curator was.

But goatee guy was olive-skinned, and I said, "What kind of questions did they ask you?"

Turns out he was Jordanian, but living in New York to get a degree in Communications at Columbia. He was obviously from a rich family -- his mother bought him the fanciest new Samsung phone for Christmas, and bought his sister a Blackberry and a jacket from Barney's. How do I know all this? He told me EVERYTHING. Chain smoking furiously, he sighed and said, "I'm really glad they didn't search me. I have a prescription bottle full of different kinds of Xanax. I already took 80mg so I could sleep on the bus." He took another puff on his cigarette. "I don't think I should do any coke tonight, after that much Xanax. I just have this crazy high tolerance, you know?"

"Maybe because you take so much of it?" I pointed out gently. He grinned.

We had a lively conversation, so much so that he sat next to me on the bus when it reloaded. He told me about his copious drug use, his heavy drinking, his mother's recent 2-month visit in his one-bedroom Upper East Side apartment (another clue that he's rich). He said he'd woken his roommate up at 5am the previous night crying because he was convinced he was fat and therefore couldn't go to Montreal.

"I would have killed you," I said.

"I knoooooow," he squealed.

On the bus, he told me about his recent HIV test (negative), and the sex education he'd received afterwards, which he was very happy about. "Did you know you shouldn't use two condoms at once?" he said, entranced. "I always do that! Not anymore! Also you're not supposed to use Vaseline for lube! That's the only thing I use!" He had a cheerful tone and pitch to his voice which I wouldn't have minded, if all the Amish people had not gotten onto our bus. Directly in front of us was a young Amish couple. The woman was holding a baby. Guaranteed they could hear our discussion of anal lubricant. I didn't even bother trying to shush my new friend.

"Just get some of that silicone stuff," I advised him. "Use a lot and you'll be fine."

He told me a bit about his love life, how he was tired of being the downlow guy for every straight man who wanted to explore his sexuality. He told me about his blind date from OKCupid, who turned out to be so boring that Jordanian guy put a Xanax in his own drink at the bar, and the date became convinced he was about to be date-raped and left. He Skyped his friend from Montreal on the spotty bus wifi. He was a bundle of energy for someone who'd just taken 80mg of Xanax.

When we got to the Gare de l'Autobus, he unloaded his bags and bags of stuff, wrapped his scarf around his head, tidied his stuff. I gave him a hug. "Good luck," I said. "I hope I don't find you passed out in a dumpster tomorrow morning."

He smiled. "That wouldn't be so bad," he said.

Some people don't like the bus. If you have the time to spare and the proper attitude, you get the best experiences.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Fast away the old year passes

Out the front window of my apartment December 27
December marks a month of change for me; instead of following my usual nomadic lifestyle of the past five years, I rented an apartment in one of the worst places on earth to rent an apartment in the winter. Sixteen days after I moved in, we got a record snowfall for Montreal (50cm in one day), and when I left Montreal for New York City, where I currently am, the sidewalk outside my apartment had still not been plowed, meaning you had to plunge through thigh-deep snow just to get to my stairs. The day it snowed (I feel that should be all capitalized: The Day It Snowed), I went to my friend Chris' house to visit and stayed for a few hours; when I left, I missed the bottom step in the drifts and fell head first into a three-foot pile of snow.

My Australian dog
2012 was generally a year of change for me, as you have noticed. I left Australia, and a two-year relationship, and all my friendships. And my dog. I came back to Canada to stay (for now, anyway). I stood up with one of my oldest friends as she got married on the beach in Prince Edward Island. I asked someone to marry me for the first and probably only time in my life (he said no).

And now, even though I am ostensibly settled in Montreal, my nesting skills spreading their wings, I find myself in New York City, in someone else's house again. It was my choice to come here: I'm here to see Amanda Palmer and her musicians play Prince's "Purple Rain" and ring in the New Year with a friend I've known for four years. I'm also here to visit other friends...see a new baby, see an old baby, make some bad decisions. Nothing says "New Year's Eve" like doing things you promised yourself you wouldn't do. When I think about how I spent my last two New Year's, staying up all night with Jason in the hot Australian evening, walking the streets, buying chickens, this one seems like it might be a bit tame! I'll probably be in bed by two.

Someone should definitely take this kettle corn away from me, speaking of bad decisions. Urgh.