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adventures

This is the first spring in three years that I am not planning an exciting summer adventure. My adult brain is stepping in and reminding me that I actually don’t have the funds to spend another summer galavanting working in Europe, as much as I would love to. So, although I know this is the logical step to take, and as much as I know there are fun and incredible things I can do in California this summer, I’m already overcome with nostalgia for my Swiss mountain home, and for the freedom of traveling.

38661_10150240076045724_7492892_nThere is a unique type of nostalgia for traveling. Somehow, it’s a different flavor from College Nostalgia, High School Nostalgia, and even Childhood Nostalgia. While traveling, the identity you find, craft, and receive is so different from all others. It’s the ultimate freedom- all you have is yourself and your suitcase, and all that truly matters is your passport. I can’t help but liken the experience of travel to nighttime skinny dipping- you get to experience all the joy and freedom without ever worrying that your companions will notice or care that you’re not actually wearing a bathing suit.

The relationships you form are short-lived, so, in a way, you get to be yourself more completely than other moments. You can live to greater extremes, because you’re not so concerned with impressing others, with forming positive impressions for the “future,” because all that exists is the present.

I look back on friendships forged overseas, and they almost seem more genuine than those I have at “home” because they are so simple, and based so lightly upon the mutual fact of existence. Every day, every conversation, every bite you take, is a moment you can never have again, so every second counts. You can’t help but fall in love with every city you find, because, despite its imperfections, you may never be there again, and seeing the flaws brings you nothing.

394390_3969868718538_275028618_nI suppose that what I’m nostalgic for is this extreme living, loving, learning. As much fun as it is to be a tourist in your own town, there’s no way to surround yourself with the same community of travelers and diversity that one has overseas, there’s no way to step straight into a world and a reality vastly different from your own. You can’t help but feel that someone has turned the lights on during your nightswim. Yes, the philosophies can be carried forward, the random encounters and new experiences, but LA smog is somehow far less bearable than the pollution of Beirut, and the rolling brown hills of California will never quite compare to the extreme craggy green of the Alps. I miss the close hot humidity and musically unending cacophony of Beirut, the soft green fog of Swiss mornings, the still, stifling heat of Rome, the low-hanging grey of London, and all the promise that foreign mornings hold.

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In September, I wrote a bit about the reverse culture shock of coming home from my big adventure and trying to re-create my life. Since I stopped writing those posts, it’s safe to say that I did successfully find myself again in California. I stopped watching hours of television during the day, started working at both jobs, took an art class, and even reconnected with friends I’d grown to love before I left. In the intervening months, it’s safe to say that I haven’t done much else – I’ve started adhering to a workout plan and took over the marketing at the wine shop, but besides that and my friends, not much has been happening. Until now.

gradschoolNow, dear readers, I have finally made myself a plan, and it certainly does feel good to be working towards a goal once again. Not only have I decided to train for a half-marathon, but I am applying to grad school. That’s right, this is actually happening. On February 20th, I start my official GRE prep class, and, until then, I am learning long, complex vocabulary words and writing personal statements for postbaccalaureate programs.

While I would never claim to enjoy studying, throwing myself into something, working towards a specific, concrete goal, is downright exhilarating. I’ve had these pre-made GRE prep cards sitting under my bed since I moved home in 2011 and I never made it past the C’s because there wasn’t a specific goal at the end of the GRE. Now, there is a goal, and it feels great to dust off my study habits.

So, here’s to starting again, and taking the first step on the long path that is a big-kid career.

All trips have high points and low points. This much is inevitable. Usually my lowpoints are days of low energy or moodiness – those moments while being a tourist when the only fix is food, caffeine or alcohol. My last week in Lebanon, however, marked the most definable low points in traveling that I have ever experienced. To be fair, they were coupled with equally memorable highs. Regardless, week 12 of my travels will be unforgettable.

We began the week with a trip up to Harissa, a religious monument to Our Lady of Lebanon in the mountains with a stunning view of the coast. You take the teleferique, a ‘gondola lift,’ from the coast to the mountains, which covers a fair expanse of mountain and highway alike. We had the unpleasant experience of hopping on board just before the power cut (which happens for a couple hours every day), and were left, swinging precariously, directly over the highway. After a few panicked minutes, the generators kicked in and we continued to our destination.

Monday was my first definable low – we had a relatively low-key day, baking and relaxing before returning  to Beirut for the rest of the week. After a while, I realized that my phone had been missing and found it in the soapy depths of the sink where it had been sitting for several minutes. Try as we might, there was no revival, which was mildly concerning considering the fact that I was to spend the rest of the week alone in the apartment in Beirut. That evening, we toured downtown Beirut, which was abuzz with Eid lights and celebrations.

Tuesday was one of the most incredible days of my entire summer; Hady picked me up early in the morning, and we headed to his favorite spearfishing beach, further north even than Byblos. We arrived at a completely deserted stretch of pure, turquoise Mediterranean. We spent the day snorkeling, sunning and sipping chilled rose, before returning to Beirut for dinner and drinks. Never before have I experienced a beach like this one – water so warm it was like swimming in a spa, and so clear you could see the pebbles on the bottom from the rock formations above.

Wednesday we wandered Beirut by day, spending time in some of the lesser-known areas with uncharacteristically low traffic and pollution, and architecture that could pass for Paris or Rome. Wednesday night was another lovely party in the mountains, where I reunited with three of my favorite Lebanese from Caux, Hady, Joy, and Eliane.

Temple of Bacchus, my favorite Roman deity

Thursday was a day of recovery and relaxation before heading inland for our final and most incredible adventure, Baalbek. When I planned my trip to Lebanon, Baalbek was the one must-see item on my list, and the one adventure that seemed to keep getting foiled. Cars to borrow and rent were in short supply – it seems that, with the influx of Syrians to Lebanon due to political upheaval, cars were being rented and not returned. After a week and a half of trying, we finally found out that we could take a bus, which was pleasantly cheap and convenient. I had been feeling relatively ill for the past few days and wasn’t exactly excited to sit in a small, smoke-filled bus for two hours, with no possible exit along the way, but once we were on the road, things started to improve.

Raja, if you look very closely, and the six remaining columns of Jupiter’s temple

After a mere hour and a half, two bus rides and a taxi later, we found ourselves agape at the threshold of Baalbek, the largest Roman temple of Jupiter, which was built on a site that has been continuously settled for as many as 9,000 years. Baalbek has been built upon and occupied and excavated by generations of empires, from pre-Romans, to the Romans, to the Mamlukes, to the Ottomans, and even the Germans, and was apparently a Hezbollah target in the 2000’s. Remarkably, the event that did the most damage to the ruins was an earthquake, which demolished the majority of the 54 columns of Jupiter’s temple, to the point that only six remain. Columns and mosaics were taken to the Hagia Sophia, but the grandeur remains, and I was just as amazed as I had hoped and expected. Our guide was incredible, regaling us with stories and history, explaining the symbolism of the architecture and details of the epic parties of the priests and vestial virgins in the Temple of Bacchus, and of course, professing his love for us. The tour was incredible, made more so by a know-it-all priest, the rare breeze, and the constant cacophony of a nearby military training ground. These sounds were initially highly unnerving – Baalbek is, after all, only 30 km from the Syrian boarder – but quickly faded into the background.

There are two kilometers of underground caves and passageways, currently filled with wine.

After we’d taken in our fill of the ruins and snacked on cri cri, my favorite Lebanese nut (peanuts roasted with a crunchy shell), we boarded yet another bus, heading west to Ksara, one of the biggest wineries in Lebanon. We tasted the wines and were given a tour of the caves, remnants of the labyrinthine passageways that the monks who previously inhabited the site had left behind. We began our return trip to Beirut, and after an hour or so of sleeping, I awoke feeling distinctly unwell. We made it back to the apartment before I became sick in earnest, but then spent the rest of the evening vomiting what was surely every bite that I had eaten in the country. My saint-like friend Raja stayed with me until I finally fell asleep, and I awoke a few restless hours later to the news that my grandmother had passed away. While I had made my peace with my grandmother’s inevitable death before I departed in June, the news, and the proximity to my return, were upsetting, and I have never been so happy to land on US soil as I was the evening of the the 26th.

While I will always remember my two weeks in Lebanon with fondness, I am overjoyed to be home, reunited with my friends, family, wine shop, and dog. As mind-blowing and amazing as this journey has been, I am happy to remain in California for the foreseeable future and make my time here as incredible and adventurous as my three months in Europe and the Middle East.

When I described my itinerary to friends and family in May, the final destination of Lebanon raised the most eyebrows. From an American perspective, I begrudgingly understand this; before I worked in an international NGO I had never met a Lebanese person, I knew “Beirut” as a drinking game rather than a destination, and I didn’t understand that all the delicious Mediterranean cuisine I loved so much came from their region. Three summers in Caux, however, found me itching to see the sights all my Lebanese friends described so lovingly.

My initial impression of Beirut was mixed. While the young man in passport control had told me I was beautiful, should get a job in Lebanon, and didn’t charge me for a tourist visa that the website claims they demand, I found the city overwhelming – as if LA and New York had been pushed onto the island of Manhattan, plus Arabic, heat and humidity, minus street signs and traffic laws. Half an hour after putting my suitcase down in the apartment and taking a service (French pronunciation – ser-VICE – a taxi that takes you anywhere within Beirut for 2000 L.L) to Hamra and digging into my first ever authentic Lebanese meal, I was completely won over. Seriously. The food alone is enough to make me a convert.

We had a late lunch in Hamra before meeting up with Joanne’s college friends in Zaituna Bay, a grouping of pubs and restaurants on the water, for drinks and desserts. Like all the Lebanese I have encountered, Joanne’s friends speak flawless English (and usually French, as well) and have advanced degrees, from places like Cambridge and Cornell. (no big deal) As it was getting pretty late, we headed north to Byblos, where Joanne’s family lives, to spend a few days on the water.

Byblos is one of the oldest cities in the world, and is the root of “Bible” and latin words for “book” because of its papyrus production. It is home to ruins galore – from the Romans to the Crusaders. We spent the days wandering the ruins, and the nights in the bars and souks. Joanne’s mom introduced me to the kind of home-cooked splendor you wouldn’t find in restaurants, and her sister introduced me to the infamous “doudou shot” – a shot of vodka with lemon juice, tabasco and an olive. Try as I might, I still despise olives, though the shot itself won me over instantly – refreshing and invigorating.

After a few days in Byblos, we made our way back down to Beirut, before another one of our Caux friends, Hady, rescued us from the heat and escorted us to a gorgeous party in the mountains. On Friday, I was introduced to even more culinary delights at Barometre, a hole-in-the-wall leftist restaurant in Hamra which makes some of the most delicious fattoush (my favorite salad ever), spiced potatoes, sausages and chicken livers I have ever had. I guess I’ve also never had chicken livers before, but they are shockingly delicious – all soaked in a thick, sweet sauce, eaten scooped up in a pita, washed down with a cold glass of arak, an anise-flavored Lebanese specialty similar to ouzo. Saturday was a day of rest, followed by a visit to Centrale, a beautiful bar/restaurant in Gemmayze. It was built inside a tube made to look something like a military bunker, I’ve been told, and was designed by Bernard Khoury, one of the most famous architects in Lebanon, who also designed BO18, one of the best-known nightclubs in the world, inside a refurbished bomb shelter.

More updates and adventures to come – for now we’re off for a day in the city, and are planning our final adventures before my departure, Sunday morning.

The past week was, predictably, busy, but in an entirely different way than the first 9 weeks of my journey, filled with more firsts and farewells than ever.

The weekend marked my departure from Caux; as always, I was absurdly nostalgic to see the Caux Palace fade into the distance, but was happy to be making the journey down the mountain with Dorothea, one of my fellow Communications Assistants, and Shawn, an Australian conference participant we had gotten to know. The three of us stayed at Dorothea’s apartment in Geneva and celebrated the end of the Fetes de Geneve (two weeks of Swiss National Day celebration) together. We arrived in Geneva around 10, at the beginning of the fireworks show, which lasted for an hour. It was the sort of show that was so loud and so big, you could feel the echoes in your chest. We celebrated our departure from Caux with a round of mojitos on the river, and then wandered into the ethnic district, where I was treated to my first ever sighting of prostitutes. I don’t really know how I’ve gone 23 years without ever seeing one, but the street corners of Geneva were my first encounter. On our way home, we stopped for a drink in what appeared to be a regular sports bar, but was actually a Thai Karaoke bar, called Jame’s Pub (not James or James’, but Jame’s).

I LOVE STREET FAIRS

The next day, we departed for brunch, eating in the sunshine, before wandering a street market, riding a ferris wheel, eating delicious gelato, and finally settling into chairs on a lawn, where they showed Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind on an enormous, inflatable screen, Lake Geneva in the background. Now, before I begin on the next part of the story, I’d like to point out that I had to pee an hour before the movie started; by the time it ended at 1130, we had to rush to our first of three buses, since they don’t run very late on Sundays. By this time, all three of us were in need of the facilities, and when we reached our final bus stop, we realized we had a half hour to wait before the next bus arrived. I was beginning to get desperate; Geneva isn’t the sort of city that offers private bushes or wooded areas, and few cafes and bars are open late on Sundays. Finally, we ran into a pair of women who directed us to ‘the Palace,’ a pub that was apparently always open. We should have been warned by the first glance that something was awry – there were two bouncers outside, and after some discussion, they permitted us to enter one at a time, but instructed us to go straight upstairs to the bathroom. Since I was incredibly uncomfortable at this point, I ran upstairs, not looking left or right. I did find it a little odd that the place was full of pounding music and mirrors, but didn’t question anything until I returned outside, at which point Dorothea grabbed my arm and apologized profusely for sending me in alone. As it turns out, I had had my first glimpse of a strip club without even realizing it. If we had approached it from the opposite direction, we probably would have noticed the red lights and the fact that it was actually called “Petit Palace,” though ‘petit’ was spelled backwards so it shared the ‘p’ with palace – ‘titePalace’ – get it? Tit palace? Anyhow, after this minor trauma, Dorothea and Shawn opted to find a private garden, and we made our way homewards, feeling exceptionally lucky that I had been so goal-oriented that I didn’t notice the activity of the bar.

We returned to Dorothea’s apartment for a final night in Switzerland before heading east, to Lebanon, on Monday.

 

The word connotes boredom, monotony, monogamy. I used to be so pro-commitment that I was confident I would marry my high school boyfriend. Five years later, I can’t even decide which color I prefer my hair. For a while, I admired this less-dependent, more capricious version of myself. I felt more confident, I was at liberty to pursue whichever inane impulses flitted across my brain, and dismissed anything that required much forethought or contemplation.

Am I actually limiting myself by being footloose and fancy-free?

Lately, however, I’ve come to realize that my inability to commit hasn’t made my life more interesting and carefree, but a bit more dull. A little less exciting. More quotidian, run by the need to pay my rent and plan for my so-called “future.” I find myself thinking, if only I had taken that gap year in college, or decided to be an au pair in Italy, or joined the Peace Corps, I would be having an amazing adventure. The application process, the planning, the idea of thinking a year or two in advance, however, always stopped me. The thought, what if something better comes along – what if I’m struck by the notion that I’m actually meant to be a painter or potter or playwright – always stopped me from taking the next step. The fear that I actually didn’t know what it was that I wanted, that I would change course midstream and find myself stranded and unable to fight the current, brought me back to reality.

And yet, every moment in my life that I reflect upon with pride, that marked the beginning of an exhilarating, mind-blowing, self-defining and perspective-expanding journey, has been marked by commitment. Applying early decision to Wellesley College. Accepting an internship in Switzerland. Embarking upon a three month trip.

While I was informed, I plunged into a relatively unknown abyss. Although those experiences are marked by nostalgia and homesickness, hatred of Massachusetts snowstorms and the Swiss’ insistence on using dairy in every single meal, I’ve never looked back. I’ve never reflected and thought, god, I wish I’d spent that summer lifeguarding at home, like the past four years. The times when I waffled, where I let my indecision make the decisions, are the times that I’ve been most disappointed in myself – my lack of a real career back home, that trip to Colombia that I never took, my absolutely average academic performance the first two years of college. So now, I’m ready; I’ve decided that it is officially time to commit, to take the plunge, and (hopefully hopefully) do something absurd, like move to India.

Is my desire to go everywhere the same thing that kept me stuck in one place?

So this is the crossroads. An opportunity is in front of me, and when I first contemplated it, I wasn’t certain that I was interested. Forty-eight hours later, I am so desperately in love with the notion that I know I’ll be heartbroken if it doesn’t come to fruition – not so much for the moment (although that is clearly a huge component), but for my future self. I can already feel my middle-aged regrets seeping in, and I’m putting it in writing lest my adorable house and amazing dog and that boy back home who I have a huge crush on tempt me to stay the carefree course.