When people asked why I was going to Germany for five days in late November, I had a few standard replies: I’m going to see where I used to live; I just want to go to a country where I speak the language; cheap tickets. I only told a select few the truth: I was going to find my dead father.
Three years ago, during the wake after my father’s funeral, a family friend said she felt my dad’s presence. She’d been standing at the kitchen sink, washing some glasses as more people arrived. “I felt like he was standing right behind me,” she said. “Like I could turn around and he would be there.” A few hours later, another family friend said something similar. The next day, my sister said he visited her in a dream. I asked my sister when would I get to feel the presence or have a dream visitation.
I have never been a spiritual person, but I also don’t discount the possibility of an afterlife (growing up in the Bible Belt starts to rub off on you after a while). I hoped maybe I’d feel something–an inexplicable breeze beside me, a fuzzy aura, a dream with Dad that feels so real that I have to convince myself it wasn’t upon waking. My sister said I was too overcome with shock and grief to allow anything to happen. “You have a wall up right now,” she said. “When the wall comes down, he’ll come.” My therapist also suggested that I would be one of the last people Dad would want to say goodbye to.
A year following my father’s death, my mother said he visited her in a dream. I threw my hands in the air. My mother is less spiritual than I am, so if either one of us would be “open” enough to have a spiritual visit, I thought it would be me. Even if the whole ‘he doesn’t want to say goodbye to you’ thing was true, wouldn’t he come at some point? Why everyone else and not me? Would I ever get a visit?
If you’ve been following this blog, the rest you already know: a little over a year after my father’s passing I left the US and moved to Thailand. Then I moved to Portugal. As I near one year of living in Portugal, I’m taking more opportunities to travel throughout Europe. A few months ago, I realized I needed to use up some vacation days before the end of the year. I am not even sure what led to my decision, but after a week of looking up flights to Prague and Malta, I suddenly saw tickets to Frankfurt and thought: I can find Dad there.
My father was an art teacher for the US Department of Defense. His job is what led to me living part of my childhood in Cuba and Germany. In Germany, Dad and I lived in a small town about an hour and a half outside of Frankfurt. The town had just one gas station, a train stop, and nary an English speaker in sight. When I played with the kid who lived across the street, all we did was name objects in our different languages.
When I think of my childhood, I think of Cuba and Germany. I think about spending whole days with my dad because he taught at my school, so we’d ride the train into the city together, he’d drop me off at my class, and I’d spend my free time and after school time in his art room. Even speaking German was something Dad and I shared as well as a continued love for German food and culture even after we moved back to the US to be with my mum.
As I typed my information into the RyanAir site, I kept shaking my head. I’d been back in Europe for over six months. How had I not thought about this before? If I were to ever feel my father’s spirit, I was sure it would be in Germany, specifically in the small village where we used to live.
When I landed in Germany, I was surprised at how much it felt like home. Anytime I arrive in a new country, even if it is one I have been to before, there is that feeling of “this is different.” Whether or not it’s an English-speaking country, signs are still written a bit different than how they are in the US; there are different brands, different foods, different ways of dress, etc. Obviously, whenever I fly back to the US I don’t get this feeling because it’s my country, my people, my culture, and just all around my familiar. In Germany, I felt the same as if I’d landed in the US: like this is my home.
I spent the afternoon in Frankfurt and then took a train up to a town called Lollar. The town where Dad and I lived, Kleinstadt*, is so small that I couldn’t find a hotel or AirBnB. Lollar, about 7 km south, was the closest town I could find. I figured I could walk to Kleinstadt.
The next morning I set out for Kleinstadt. My walk led me across the river from Lollar, through some farmland, beside a small highway, and into another town. I walked for over an hour before realizing I’d somehow walked in a full circle and was back on the path to Lollar. I turned around, chose a different direction at a fork-in-the-road, wove my way through quiet neighborhoods, and accidentally followed a teenage girl for about twenty minutes.
The neighborhood streets suddenly disappeared as I crested a hill. I looked down and gasped. Just beyond the hill, through a wall of trees, and across a highway, was a small, open field. The field was bare except for grass, making it look perfect for a football pitch. Bordering the field were trees and a quiet river. Across the river was a car park and a train stop. I stared at the field, taking in every single detail as if it was a historic painting. I hadn’t realized until that very moment that it wasn’t Kleinstadt I’d come to see: it was this field.
Because I’d taken the wrong turn and come in through a back road, I ended up being beside my old house in just two blocks. I was surprised at how little had changed: there was a new gate and a sporty, red car in the driveway, but everything else looked the same. The barn was a weathered white and brown Tudor design. The apple trees in the side yard were shedding their leaves. The house stood wider and taller than I remembered. Rubber snowflakes covered the windows and a plastic red and yellow hot air balloon hung from one of the porches. The house sat on the sharp, blind curve of the town’s main road. Dad always warned me about leaving the house alone because speeding cars would never see a child crossing at such an acute turn.
I walked past the house and down the street towards the town’s only gas station. Just before crossing the bridge that would take me out of town, I turned to the right and into the open field I’d seen from the hill above.
When we lived in Germany, my dad walked our dog in this field every day. One of my most distinct memories as a child is waking up early in the morning during one of the first weeks that Dad and I had moved to Cuba. I was about six years old. It was still dark out and I went looking for my dad. When I saw I was alone in the house, I was convinced he and the dog had gone back to Cuba without me. Determined to catch them before they went back to Cuba (or maybe I thought I could head back to Cuba myself) I put on my jacket and rain boots and started walking down the street, sobbing the whole time.
I reached the bridge and heard the familiar jingle of dog tags. I called out my dog’s name. The jingling stopped. I called out the name again, and my father responded. I ran across the field to my father’s voice, much to my dog’s delight and my father’s dismay (re: dangerous, blind corner). I told him I thought he’d left me for good. Dad said he walked the dog in that field every morning. “You’re usually not up at five,” he said.
As a 31 year old adult, I thought about this early morning childhood memory: the complete devastation of being abandoned in the house, followed by the shock, relief, and utter joy of finding my dad and dog in that field.
On this day, no one was in the field but me. I walked along the edge, letting the wet grass soak the cuffs of my jeans. I imagined taking the same steps my dad had every chilly morning. My father’s military dog tag, which I wear when I travel, clanked against the zipper of my coat. The sound reminded me of the jingle of my dog’s collar, and I imagine see her sleek black and gray body zooming up and down the small mounds of grass around the field.
The sky was overcast, coloring everything with silver light. I’d been wondering why I felt the siren’s call to come to this town in November of all month’s and it suddenly hit me: if there was a Heaven, this is what my father’s Heaven would look like: cold and overcast so that he could wear one of his favorite Icelandic sweaters, quiet, surrounded by nature with a small village just up the street. Dad wasn’t a sun and beach person. He liked the countryside and mountains, where he could light a fire and take long, cool walks with his dogs.
There is a point in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild where she scatters her mother’s ashes and finds a small piece of bone. “I put her burnt bones into my mouth and swallowed them whole,” she says. When I read this years ago, I remember thinking that that was strange. How would swallowing the bone make you feel better? Wouldn’t it hurt going down? Scratch up your throat or make you nauseous? And the bone wouldn’t stay in your body forever–so why?
After my father’s death, I get why. One month after he died, I got a tattoo of his artwork and art signature on my shoulder. I wanted to carve the reminder of him into my body, but even that didn’t feel like enough. Like Cheryl Strayed, the loss was so great that I wanted to absorb the memory through my skin and into my actual muscles and bones. I wanted to swallow it whole.
Walking around the field in Kleinstadt, I thought about digging my hands into the mud and eating it. Instead, standing at the far edge of the field, at a spot where I was sure Dad had stood while he let our dog have her fun, I said, “Goodbye.” I said ‘goodbye’ out loud and over and over. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Dad the day he died. I didn’t get to say anything because his death was so sudden and unexpected.
Each time I said goodbye to the field, I felt the knot in my chest that has squeezed there for three years and three months loosen just a bit. It didn’t disappear, though. It never will. Grief doesn’t vanish. Instead, it absorbs into your life. I don’t honestly know if I felt my father’s presence in the field in Kleinstadt. I just know that it’s the closest I’ve gotten to feeling something, and for right now that’s good enough.
*Not the real name.
There are many things to regret about dating a gaslighter. You regret being naive, you regret selling yourself short, you regret the years you probably took off your life from the stress of someone continually making you question your own mind. When I first met the Gaslighter, I was swept off my feet. He was charming, funny, and seemed as interested in me as I was in him. Five months later, I was having regular panic attacks and questioning whether I could trust my own memory because of how often he convinced me I didn’t say that or you’re imaging things and you’re just being difficult.
For those who don’t know, to “gaslight” is to manipulate someone into questioning their reality. The term comes from the early 1900s book/movie: Gas Light. In the story, a husband tricks his wife into believing she is losing her mind. At one point, he makes the house gaslights flicker. When the wife asks why they are flickering, the husband tells her they’re not and that she’s imagining things.
A gaslighter distorts someone’s reality so much that they, the victim, no longer trust their reality or their own mind. A gaslighter does this (whether intentionally or unintentionally) by constantly telling the other person that the way they perceive things is incorrect. They’ll accuse someone of “overreacting” or “making things up” or “being too sensitive.” Overtime, the gaslighter will repeat these claims so often, and mix it in with some positive reinforcement, that the victim will start to question if they really are just overreacting or if what they are feeling is valid. Did they mishear the gaslighter when they said they’d come over Saturday? Because now the gaslighter says his plan was always to go to Pattaya with his boss and you are being controlling if you say that that hurts your feelings. Whose memory is correct?
It took me longer than it should have to permanently kick the Gaslighter out of my life–and I only managed it when he said something unbelievably cruel about my 12 yr old Thai students. When I did, I was able to so clearly see the red flags that had made me miserable during my time in Thailand. I scoured my journals and found all the breadcrumbs of “Gaslighter said this, but I don’t think that’s true…but maybe it’s me? Am I being unreasonable? Maybe I phrased my concern the wrong way and he misunderstood.” I wanted to jump back through the pages and slap my past self.
Now, living in Portugal and seven months removed from the Gaslighter, I have a gnawing fear that somehow I will get into this situation again. I have a heightened awareness that the moment a date does or says something that rubs me the wrong way, I bolt. In the past, I’d let moments of rudeness slide. Now, with an emotionally exhaustive cocktail of grief from a death, a major breakup, and someone making you legitimately question your sanity for nearly a year, I’ve found that I am more blunt than I used to be.
Which brings me to an event from a few weeks ago: the second worst date of my life (still not the No. 1 Worst, but it came really close).
The Awkward Engineer and I met a month and a half ago. I give any guy I date a nickname: Gym Boy, the Marine, One Lung, The Tall One, The One I Actually Like, etc. Awkward Engineer earned his nickname because a) he’s an engineer and b) on our very first date he kept constructing houses out of Legos as we talked in a bar. I liked the Awkward Engineer right away. He was smart, easy to talk to, and asked me questions about myself–something that has been severely lacking in my dating life in Portugal. We ended our first date by playing foosball against another couple and having a last drink at a rooftop bar.
For our second date, Awkward Engineer came over to my apartment. We had a few drinks, a good conversation, and he fixed a piece of IKEA furniture that I had failed tremendously to put together.
Our third date was less than spectacular, but I chalked it up to my mood. I’d not only been toiling under a deadline at work, but I’d also recently started tutoring a colleague in English. Our class that day had completely drained me. Awkward Engineer is Portuguese and his English is decent, but at times he has to pause to search for words or asks me to define and re-explain. After eight hours of work followed by 1.5 hours of teaching, I didn’t have the energy to explain to someone that sea and ocean are the same thing and no, I don’t know why we use both in English–English is dumb.
For our fourth date, Awkward Engineer called me before my evening run. “Do you want to take a beer?” he asked.
“How about wine at my place?” I suggested.
At 9:45 p.m., Awkward Engineer was at my door with a bottle of vinho branco. By 10:00 p.m., I was debating whether to pay him back for the wine and throw him out of my apartment, or just throw him out and keep the wine.
The date began to teeter when Awkward Engineer asked how my tutoring was going and I said that my student was improving, but slowly.
“Your student is doing fine,” he said.
“Your student: he’s fine. He is doing better than you think.”
I pulled the cork from the bottle. “Yes, I know that?” I said. “He’s doing well, but the vocab he has to learn for our company is hard, so he’s struggling.”
“Come on, he is improving!” Awkward Engineer insisted. “You need to be patient.”
I stared at the Awkward Engineer. I wanted to ask where in my sentence did I sound like I wasn’t being patient? Also, what did he know about my teaching or my student without ever being in the room? “I am being patient,” I said. “He needs to learn English for his job, so I feel a lot of pressure for him to do well.”
“He is doing well,” Awkward Engineer said. “You should calm down.”
In Bangkok, the Gaslighter would constantly twist my words or ignore them all together. I would tell him that it hurt my feelings when he ditched me to get drunk and high with his boss. Once, we slept together and within five minutes he was leaving my apartment. “My boss wants to get a drink,” he said.
“But I thought we were hanging out?” I said.
“No, no–you’re tired.”
“I drank coffee just to hangout with you. When did I say I was tired?”
“You are very tired.”
“But I’m not.”
“Okay, get some sleep. I’ll see ya later!”
This is just a snippet, but Gaslighter would constantly tell me I felt one way, when I was sure I didn’t. In fights, he’d even reference stuff that I said–stuff that I was positive I had not, yet he said it with such conviction that I wondered if maybe I had said it? Or maybe I phrased something the wrong way and he misinterpreted? Towards the end of our relationship, I started recording our fights on my phone just so I could listen to them later and understand if I was losing my mind or if the Gaslighter was just screwing with my mind (turns out, it was the latter).
As the Awkward Engineer continued to tell me how my student was progressing, despite not knowing a bloody thing about my student, I realized that that’s what had bugged me on our third date as well: he kept explaining to me the way that I felt. I said I was stressed from teaching, he said I wasn’t. I said I was worried about a hurricane hitting my hometown in the US, he said I wasn’t. I felt my mood slipping and slipping, but, because apparently I am a slow learner, I just shouldered the blame and figured something was wrong on my end, not his.
The Awkward Engineer and I cheers’d our glasses of wine. “My student is fine,” I said, with a bit more annoyed emphasis than I intended to. “I think I can judge it myself.”
“You sound like Trump.”
I choked on my wine. “Excuse me?”
We sat on my couch, which is really just a twin bed in my living room
“You sound like Trump.” Awkward Engineer smiled widely.
“Because we both have northern-sounding accents?” I asked.
“No, no,” he said. “You’re very direct in the way you talk. You say something and then you are like no one can tell me I’m wrong.”
“Because I said I’m being patient with my student? You don’t know anything about the student or how I teach–”
“And your vocab is similar,” he added.
“WHAT?!” I asked if he was joking just to get a rise out of me. “Donald Trump has the vocab of an eight year old. That’s insulting to say to a writer.”
Awkward Engineer said he wasn’t joking. “You use small words,” he said. “Very direct.”
I wanted to tell him that his English wasn’t good enough (and my Portuguese is shit) for me to use my typical vocab, but I didn’t want to be rude.
“Let’s change the subject,” I said. “Tell me about your new job.”
Instead of telling me about his new job, Awkward Engineer proceeded to tell me how, as an American, I must like Trump and I obviously voted for him. We went back and forth on how not every American voted for or likes Trump. Awkward Engineer then said how Hillary Clinton would have been worse.
“I don’t want to talk about politics,” I said. “Seriously–tell me about your new job.”
“Come on, you can’t think Hillary would have been good for the US.”
“What I think is that we should change the subject.”
Awkward Engineer then shared his opinion about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“That’s great,” I said, finishing my glass of wine. “At least you left one President off of your list.”
“Obama?” Awkward Engineer furrowed his brow. I held my breath. “That’s because he wasn’t a president. He was a ‘yes-man.'”
I threw my hands in the air and stood up. “Are you trolling me?” I asked. “What the hell is happening with this conversation?”
Awkward Engineer scoffed. “You can’t tell me you like Obama?”
“OF COURSE I DO. I think that’s obvious. For the love of god, change. The. Subject.”
“But this is all I know about America.”
“Why do we have to talk about America? We’re not in America. We can talk about anything. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR NEW JOB.”
“There is cool architecture in Los Angeles. The buildings are made to withstand earthquakes. I like that.”
I went into my kitchen and grabbed the bottle of wine.
“I also like New York,” the Awkward Engineer continued. “If I could go to any city in US, I would go to New York and then Los Angeles.”
“Yes, those are cool cities.”
“But I would not go to Chicago.”
I stopped mid-pour. “Why?” I thought of the Chicago city flag hanging above my bed.
“It is an ugly city. Not nice at all.”
“Have you been to Chicago?”
“No, but I hear things.” He made a face as if he were throwing up. “Chicago is a shithole.”
“Do you remember where I’m from?”
“So why would you say that? I would never say something negative about Porto to you.”
“Yes, but I am speaking in facts. When you compare the three: Chicago is shit.”
I downed half of my wine glass in one swallow and checked the time on my phone: 10:00 pm. Normally, this is when, out of sheer politeness, I’d let a date just keep talking and talking, and I would just nod and half-listen. I’d probably also drink more and eventually kiss the guy just to make him shut up, rather than actually tell him how I was feeling at that moment.
Instead, as Awkward Engineer proceeded to bash on a city I love so much I have a small homage of it in a tattoo, I thought about the Gaslighter. From the beginning, Gaslighter said things that upset me, but I just let them slide because…well I have no idea why. When you’re still coping with the sudden combined losses of a parent and a man who was practically a fiancé, you do stupid things to avoid thinking about all the loss.
Obviously the Awkward Engineer wasn’t saying anything directly mean about me, but the Gaslighter’s comments had also started off light: people who take antidepressants are weak (me); people from developed countries are weak (me); you obviously slept with your male friend when you traveled to Malaysia together, and then you probably hooked up with that Pakistani guy when you got back (again: me).
I pulled a chair up to the couch and sat facing the Awkward Engineer. “Do you realize that in the span of ten minutes you’ve compared me to Trump, insulted Obama–who I happen to really like–and now you’re telling me that a city that I love and consider home is a shithole, even though you have never been there?”
Awkward Engineer spilled his wine on himself and sat up. “But New York and Los Angeles are cool. New York also has those buildings that just collapse. Do you remember 9/11?”
“Tell me you’re joking right now.”
“Those towers were built to fall in on themselves.” He held one hand straight up in the air and used the other as an imaginary plane to crash into it. “Isn’t that cool?”
“That was a tragedy,” I said. “I think it would have been cooler had it not happened.”
Awkward Engineer shrugged. “Yeah, but think about it–”
“I don’t want to think about it.”
“They could have fallen to the side–”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“They would have taken out so many more buildings!”
“I cannot express enough how much I do not want to talk about this.”
“But instead they collapsed in on themselves.”
“Stop talking! Não falas!”
“How great, right?”
I again threw my hands in the air. “WHAT is wrong with you? Are you understanding me?”
“Shhh you are having fun right now.”
“This is not fun!”
“I am only speaking in facts. It’s logical. Think about it: if the buildings had fallen to the side–”
I put my hand on his mouth. “I get your logic,” I said. “If the buildings had fallen to the side, then all of the people in the buildings would have died and the people in the surrounding buildings would have died, too. I get the bloody logic.”
He smiled and nodded, glad to have me agree with his point of view just like the Gaslighter was always happy when I finally conceded to his side of an argument: yes, it’s fine that you stood me up to go get drunk and high with your boss; yes, it’s reasonable for you to accuse me of sleeping with someone else because it just means you are insecure and I have to make concessions for that; yes, it is okay that you have threatened to hack into my email and Facebook account because you are just “too in love” and don’t know how to handle it. In my head, I could hear one of the last fights Gaslighter and I had before I accepted my new job in Portugal. Gaslighter had gone back home to India for a short visit and told me he was on Bumble “seeing what was out there.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say to me,” I’d told him. “I’m your girlfriend. That hurts to know you’re essentially looking for someone else.”
“You always see the negative,” Gaslighter said. “That’s how you are. Can’t be helped.”
That specific fight with the Gaslighter was the one that made me realize he was manipulating my mind. Was I a negative person? Was it normal for someone in a committed relationship to be on Bumble “just to look”? Was I being unreasonable or looking for problems where there weren’t any?
Obviously, the answer was no: I’m not a negative person and it is not normal for someone in a committed relationship to be looking through Bumble to “see what’s out there.” That’s a shit person doing a shit thing.
Logically, I knew Awkward Engineer was not the exact same person at the Gaslighter, but I was also tired of continually taking someone’s feelings into account, especially when there seemed little regard for mine.
I took my hand off Awkward Engineer’s mouth. “Speaking in logic,” I said. “What do you see happening after this conversation?” I drew an imaginary line between us.
For the first time, Awkward Engineer seemed to actually listen to me.
“I think you won’t want to talk to me again?”
“That would be correct.”
“But I am only talking in logic!”
“And, logically, I think we’re too different.”
“How are we different?”
“I care when I am upsetting someone. You don’t. This night is over.”
There was some pushback from the Awkward Engineer, and he managed to make me feel some guilt by saying that he really enjoyed the few times we’ve hungout, and that he does “care,” but the spell was broken. When he left, he accepted the fact that we’d never speak again.
I am not calling the Awkward Engineer an outright gaslighter by any means, but something about his insistence on knowing how I felt and his refusal to listen to me just made me think he was more than simply oblivious. I’d already spent nearly a year with someone else making me constantly question my own thoughts and feelings–I didn’t want to spend even one more evening doing that again.
A year ago, I wouldn’t have been so upfront with the Awkward Engineer. In fact, I probably would have just been slightly annoyed without really knowing why. After a night like the fourth date, I would have continued to answer his texts and I probably would have even seen him again because sometimes I swear I do not have a backbone. Now, however, I do have more of a backbone and I can (somewhat) more easily pinpoint when I think someone isn’t being considerate or caring.
I’m not saying this is a fantastic new trait of mine, nor am I saying I’m very graceful about it, but, out of everything that transpired from dating a Gaslighter, I am at least glad that it taught me to finally start speaking up when I should and recognize even small hints of gaslighting behavior.
I didn’t have a lot of expectations when I drove up the winding road leading to Monsanto. I passed two of the town’s famed giant boulders at a narrow turn and I could see the beginnings of the beige stone walls that I associate with quaint, European towns. My GPS had stopped working an hour ago and the blue triangle that was supposed to be me floated on a road-less expanse.
When I first started telling people I was driving to Monsanto for a long holiday weekend, most of them said: Monsanto? Like the drug company that causes cancer? Portuguese friends said: Where?
I learned about Monsanto from my Lonely Planet guidebook. After a month of living in Portugal, I was antsy to take a trip that didn’t involve another visit to Lisbon for an embassy appointment. I don’t know how I landed upon the two-pages that talk about Monsanto, but within thirty minutes I’d booked a car and one of the few accommodations I could find.
Monsanto is a town built around boulders. Homes and shops are squeezed deftly between massive stones, giving the vibe that the town is trying to camouflage itself. In 1938, the village was voted The Most Portuguese Town in Portugal. They received a silver rooster, the symbol of Portugal, to commemorate the honor.
As I entered the town, I passed a few buildings: some with brand new white stucco and others in the typical beige/gray stonework I’ve seen around most of Portugal. The street narrowed and the incline grew steeper. I finally stopped the car after turning a sharp corner and realizing I was on a street where, if Google Maps was wrong, I could only reverse to get out.
One of the owners of my guesthouse, Nuno, met me outside my car. I followed him up stairs that didn’t look like stairs, but rather rocks in the ground that just happened to form an unsteady upward path. Around one corner was a bolder twice the size of my rental car. A small, rocky stone path led up and around the massive rock, to what I assumed was someone’s home. Nuno and I turned away from the rock, walked a bit further down a small path, and then up four steep steps into the guesthouse.
Honestly, I have been struggling to write this post for months because I don’t know what to say about Monsanto other than go there now.
Why? Here are a few reasons:
Go to Monsanto if you like:
The town looks like something out of a fairy tale book, not because it’s your typical quaint, quite, stone-housed village, but because the boulders make everything look just different enough that it’s like you’re in a magic realm.
The town is also just so charming. There is no other word: charming.
Because Monsanto is the highest spot for miles, the views are spectacular.
Despite the fact that I am a self-proclaimed city girl, I also love hiking in the countryside (I just don’t want to live on a hiking trail). If you like hiking, Monsanto is an ideal location. The town is situated on a cliff and just walking around the town is a bit of a hike because there are so many ups and down.
At the peak of the mountain, about one kilometer straight up from the town, are the ruins of a castle: Castelo de Monsanto. To get to the castle, you have to hike up large slabs of rocks, which make you wonder where did the boulders originate from and am I about to create a landslide? From the castle, you can see the entire surrounding area. You can even see Spain.
The surrounding countryside also provides a lot of hiking opportunities and the Camino de Santiago even runs through this area.
I traveled to Monsanto solo. At the time I was desperately missing Thailand and my community there (still am, honestly). I wanted a weekend away to myself to decompress and collect my thoughts about my recent move across the world. The owners of my guesthouse, Nuno and Carla, however, were having none of my solo-ness. Every night when I arrived back the guesthouse they were waiting for me with a glass of wine by the fireplace. When I said I was allergic to red wine, they opened a bottle of champagne. One night they invited me to have dinner with them and we dined on fire-cooked salmon, vegetables, and potatoes.
In front of the fireplace, Nuno, Carla, and I covered a wide range of topics. I learned they met while working in a bank in Lisbon. They’d only opened the guesthouse recently, which is why it looked so much like an actual home rather than a guesthouse. They’d hosted less than twenty guests. Nuno was from Monsanto and was torn between wanting more people to discover the Most Portuguese Town in Portugal and wanting the town to remain the same. Animal statues on their dining room table were turned away from the door, which Nuno and Carla said symbolized good luck.
In addition to Nuno and Carla, each person I met was incredibly nice and accommodating. On my first night, I went to one of two restaurants in Monsanto that stays open past 7 p.m. The owner sat me at a window table, and then proceeded to tell every other person who entered that they couldn’t be seated without a reservation. Maybe I took someone’s reservation by mistake, or maybe I just looked so lost the woman took pity on me. A cafe owner was also patient as I stumbled through ordering a galão. I know I am particularly biased towards Monsanto hospitality because of Nuno and Carla, but every single local person I met was just extremely nice. I cannot 100% say that of the other places I’ve been in Portugal.
Despite its physical appearance, Monsanto is just unique in general. During our fireside chats, Nuno regaled me with much of Monsanto’s history. He told me that it is not only The Most Portuguese Village in Portugal, but it is one of twelve official Historical Villages of Portugal. Most of these villages played a strategic role in defending the country from invaders throughout the centuries. Because Portugal is such a small country, much of this strategy didn’t come from mass, brutish soldiers, but instead cunning ploys that made use of limited resources.
Monsanto, for example, had been under siege by the Romans for over six years during the BC era. When the citadel eventually got down to its last sack of grain and last calf, all looked lost. Knowing they were on the brink of surrender, the village leader decided to feed the entire bag of grain to the calf. He then threw the calf over the castle walls. When the poor animal exploded in front of the soldiers, they were amazed at how much food the village must have if they were willing to waste so much so spitefully. The Romans couldn’t afford the standoff much longer, so they headed home. Monsanto commemorates this victory at the beginning of May every year, but now they throw flowers over the wall instead of fatted calfs.
Nuno also told me that the population of Monsanto is about 80, and the median age range is about 80 as well.
“They closed down the school three years ago,” he said. “There aren’t any kids to attend. No one is young enough.”
I wanted to ask Nuno if he and Carla would have kids to put in that school, but it took nearly my full stay to riddle whether they were coworkers or a couple (spoiler: they’re a couple). Despite a severely aging population, Monsanto doesn’t have a hospital, and a pharmacist and physician visit the town only twice a week.
“What if someone has an emergency?” I asked.
You will not like Monsanto if you like:
As I said: the town has a population of 80 and a median age of 80. From what I could tell, there were three restaurants (Nuno said only two, but I swear I saw a third), a handful of cafes, and two or three shops. The latest any restaurant stays open is 8 p.m.
Monsanto is ideal for couples who just want to snuggle and be romantic (my weekend boyfriend was my Kindle). For people who want some semblance of a rockin’ nightlife? You should probably just keep driving to Lisbon…
The village of Monsanto is about 2,400 ft above sea level (750 m). I realize that to some people that’s like barely a hill, but if you’re like me and you grew up at 9 ft (3 m) above sea level, then 2,400 is A LOT. Even though I once lived at 7,500 ft (2,290 m) above sea level, my lungs are sea level lungs and they are probably still swirling with Bangkok smog. If you’re someone who is not fantastic with higher altitudes, just be aware and drink water.
All I’m really saying is…
Go to Monsanto.
In the five months that I have been trapped in Portugal due to visa legalities (more on that later), I have visited seven Portuguese towns. Although I know I still have more to see, Monsanto remains my absolute favorite place. In Thailand, I had one treasured place that I made a point to return to before leaving the country. As of now, Monsanto is that same place for me in Portugal.
Last night at 4:30 a.m. I sat in the back of an Uber listening to my date talk about the differences between football and futsal. He held my hand, tracing swirls between my fingers and palm. It was our fifth or sixth date. We’d just spent the evening in downtown Porto grabbing drinks and dancing at a local club.
Exactly two years before that, May 4th, 2017 11:30 p.m. EST, I lay on the floor of my graduate school apartment, unable to catch my breath as my boyfriend of nearly seven years told me, over the phone, that he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He had been the last pillar keeping me upright after the sudden death of my father just ten months before that.
Marking an anniversary can be positive and negative. There are happy anniversaries: weddings, birthdays, the date of a big move; and sad anniversaries: a death, break-up, the day you lost your job. Since my father’s passing, I’ve added a whole slew of anniversaries to keep track of: my parents’ wedding anniversary, so that I remember to always send my mother flowers; my father’s death, which I don’t acknowledge except to be sad and call in sick to work; the day I left the U.S.; and May 4th, the night my ex dumped me.
Last year, I dreaded the one year anniversary of May 4th. Of all the anniversaries, it felt like the most significant. My father’s death had been traumatic and devastating. My ex had been the metaphorical three-legged stool I was still able to stand on. Without him, I didn’t think I would survive the grief. And quite honestly, I didn’t want to.
In the weeks leading to one-year anniversary of May 4th I woke constantly with night terrors. Images from that night rolled through my mind on a loop: falling off my air mattress, which I used as a couch because I’d sold most of my furniture in preparation to move with my ex; calling friends to my apartment because I didn’t know what else to do; smashing a picture frame and throwing up in the bathroom. Most of all, I remembered the feeling that I’d never be happy again. It was like a line had been drawn through my life: my happy life and my life now. I’d lost my father without warning and now my best friend, the person I thought would be my life partner. How do you recover from that?
I moved to Asia and tried to recover. I built a new community, started new jobs, and found that I could make it without a partner by my side. To mark the first year anniversary, I went to a tattoo parlor with a close friend and got a semicolon tattooed behind my right ear. As a punctuation mark, a semicolon represents a sentence that has nearly come to an end, but not enough to warrant a period, and thus continues. As a symbol: a semicolon represents someone’s struggle of wanting to die, but continuing to live. I spent the evening drinking and dancing with friends at a Star Wars themed club.
I felt both proud and sad: proud for all that I had done, but sad that I still didn’t feel totally like myself. Grief changes you and the way you live your life, but the ‘not myself’ feeling still felt like more than that. I figured much like the date of my father’s death would always feel heavy and sad, May 4th would forever feel like a clusterfuck of emotions: anxious, proud, sad, determined, and also a bit angry.
This year, about a week before the end of April, I made note of May 4th. I opened my Google calendar to find a good weekend to go on a day trip. When I saw the weekend of May 4 and 5 I thought, I better make sure I’m busy that day. Just like in Bangkok, I figured I wouldn’t want to be alone. Or would it be better to be alone?
And then I forgot.
May 4th came and went, and I didn’t even notice until the afternoon of the 5th when I scrolled through Cinco de Mayo posts on Facebook. Even on the 4th, while friends posted the usual May the Fourth Be With You statuses, the fact that the day was the anniversary of my life’s turning point didn’t even cross my mind. Instead, I had a truly fantastic day: I’d slept in, made decent progress on a new essay, met two friends for a coffee and a long walk, wrote some more, met some fascinating women at a friend’s going away party, and ended the night dancing for hours with a Portuguese man who is so attractive that I have to resist just staring at him.
Besides noticing the date for a brief second in my Google calendar, I hadn’t thought about May 4th at all. The weeks leading up to the date hadn’t been full of nightmares. Recounting the night of May 4th, 2017 didn’t make me want to curl into a ball beneath my bed.
I hadn’t been in Bangkok for long when I first realized that my ex did me a favor by breaking up with me. All along, one of our biggest differences had been my love of travel and his apathy towards it. I wanted to live in different countries and see as much of the world as possible. He didn’t. With each new experience I had in Thailand, and with each new country I visited, I knew I never would have had any of those things had I stayed with my ex. If we’d stayed together, I wouldn’t be in Portugal right now having achieved the long-held goal of mine of landing a full-time writing job. I wouldn’t have met any of the friends I now have and, let’s face it, my ex and I would have broken up (or divorced) eventually because I never would have been happy with his small town life and he never would have been comfortable with my adventurous one.
May 4th will continue to be a significant anniversary for me, but not for the reasons I once thought. Grief is a process. Whether it’s a death or a break up, it takes time to learn how to live with it in your life. My one year May 4th anniversary felt both happy and sad because I was still trying to find my way while shouldering two loads of grief. Now, on my second May 4th anniversary, it’s easier to see not just all that I’ve accomplished on my own, but how much more I will continue to accomplish.
Last week I moved from Bangkok, Thailand to Porto, Portugal. This marks the 19th move of my life, a number which includes moving state-to-state, country-to-country, and just from one neighbourhood to the next (I only did that once; every other time I’ve at least moved out of state). Each move is relatively the same: right before I leave a place I suddenly look at it through rose colored glasses and think, “Oh my god I can’t leave here! I love it here! Will any other place be as good?” I spend the transit time freaking out; I feel sad and anxious my first week in my new home; and eventually I even out within ten days.
Leaving Bangkok was different though. Leading up to my move: I felt nothing. Not sad, not anxious, no rose colored glasses. I felt absolutely nothing.
For the past fifteen months Bangkok acted like a bandage for me. I moved there after the worst, most devastating year and a half of my life. I booked my one-way ticket to Asia shortly after a rock bottom night because I worried that if I didn’t make a drastic change I wouldn’t see 2018. A friend recently said to me that Bangkok isn’t where people go to live; it’s where they go to escape. For me, this was true, and throughout most of my time in Bangkok I felt like I was still in a fog–no longer a suffocating fog of grief, but some sort of “this isn’t real life” fog (or maybe it was just the air pollution).
In the weeks leading up to my Bangkok departure, I figured this is why I felt almost numb to the move: I knew the Bangkok bandaid would come off at some point. You can’t wear a bandaid forever.
Ripping the bandaid, however, was a bit harder than I expected.
In the 24 hours before I left Bangkok I was fortunate enough to see most of my friends. There were dinners, coffees, drinks, and lots of I hope we meet again soon. Personally, I am a fan of the “Irish goodbye”–one moment you’re there and the next you’ve slipped out the door without a word to anyone. I’ve learned that this isn’t the kindest way to leave friends, so now I make a point to see people before I leave. Unfortunately, seeing everyone just reinforces the community you’ve made and what you’re leaving.
The day I left I saw a few more friends, gave back the keys to my apartment, and then waited for my last friend to go to the airport with me. The moment he showed up I started crying. In the weeks, days, and hours leading up to my departure I hadn’t felt that sad at all. Now suddenly I couldn’t stop.
I’m not even sure what I was crying for. I liked Bangkok, but I’d never loved it. Every day felt like a battle to appreciate Bangkok. I had friends who adored Bangkok, but, to me, Bangkok never stood out from any other city I’d traveled to or lived in. Bangkok was just another metropolis: lots to do and see, with the added annoyance of being pushed all the time and the disgust of watching western men treat Asian women like they’re sex robots (or “pretty little pets” as one guy said to me).
Still, as I rolled and dragged all of my possessions to the elevator I couldn’t help but think of what I’d miss about Bangkok: my apartment, my routine, the food, chatting with coworkers in my classroom, grabbing cheap beers with friends. I’d miss the convenience and thrill of moto-taxis. I’d miss traveling around Thailand and traveling around Asia. I’d miss the wats. I’d miss the relaxed Thai beer gardens. My students had frustrated the hell out of me, but they’d also been slightly entertaining. Was I going to miss them, too? Oh god–am I going to miss Thailand?
To rub salt in the wound, Turkish Airlines waited until I was at the counter with all of my stuff to inform me that I couldn’t buy an extra bag. Online, their website said I could pay for an extra bag, but only at the check-in counter. At the actual check-in counter was a different story.
“You have to pay overages fees,” the flight desk guy said.
“How much?” I asked.
He typed some numbers into a calculator and showed it to me: 986 Euros.
I felt the same I had when Enterprise suddenly tripled the price of my Hawaiian car rental: are you fucking kidding me? and I don’t have another option, do I?
Luckily, the desk guy read my horrified expression and suggested shipping a bag through a third party located in the terminal. I ended up using ThaiPost. My friend and I threw open my bags and started chucking every non-fragile item into a large box (i.e. 80% of my wardrobe). By the end, I’d completely emptied one large suitcase and half emptied the other. Every valuable item I owned (i.e. art and electronics) was shoved into an almost unable-to-lift-because-it-was-so-heavy duffel bag. I paid for fast shipping and prayed that everything I’d been warned about ThaiPost’s reliability was wrong.
Back at the Turkish Airline desk, the original guy I’d tried to check-in with was busy so I was passed off to a lady; a lady who I will call Frau Bitch. First off, Frau Bitch informed me that my reservation had been flagged as being over the baggage weight limit, so she made me weigh my checked and carry on bags. “Still too heavy,” she said, snatching the boarding pass from me least I sprint through the airport and run through security and Customs before anyone stops me? Seriously? Get a life, Fraulein.
My friend and I threw my bags open once again and shoved whatever I could of my carry on into the checked bag. When we’d finally appeased Turkish Airlines’s insanely stringent standards (btw, Turkish Airlines, I hate you) we dragged my emptied suitcase and sloppily thrown together duffel away from the check-in counter. I repacked my duffel to make it easier to carry, and while I did I saw Frau Bitch watching me as if she thought I was going to pull a fast one and shove more items into my bag. FROM WHERE? WE PUT IT ALL IN THE CHECKED BAG IN FRONT OF YOU YOU HEARTLESS PIECE OF TOAST. WHY DO YOU INSIST ON MAKING AN ALREADY PAINFUL PROCESS EVEN MORE PAINFUL?
I said goodbye to my friend, stepped on the escalator leading up to security, and bawled. The check-in process had been so stressful and I’d been so unprepared that all the anxieties I’d been numb to suddenly flew to the surface: what was my new job in Portugal going to be like? Could I afford to start a new life in Europe? Half of my funds had just gone to ThaiPost. Would I ever see my clothing again? Was I leaving Asia too soon? Had I even given Asia a chance? Was I making a rash decision? Why can’t I just stay in one place for once?
I left panicked WhatsApp voice messages to friends as I rushed through security. The unpacking, packing, and shipping had eaten up so much time that my flight was due to take off in one hour. At passport control I was taken into the terminal to the Thai police area because I had overstayed my Thai visa by two days. While two women tutted over my passport and made faces like I’d committed a horrendous crime, I watched the time ticket down to my flight’s departure and briefly considered what if I stay?
Staying wasn’t a real option though. I was moving to Portugal for a full-time writing job with an expat organization: aka my career goal and dream job for the past ten years. I love Europe. I’ve lived in Europe before and I’d always talked about moving back. Landing not just a job in Europe, but a job writing for the expat community?? Maybe part of my panic was that the whole thing still felt too good to be true. There had to be a catch, right? Maybe the hassle just to leave Thailand was a sign that I shouldn’t go.
After I paid a 1,000 Baht fine to the police I rushed through the airport. I called my mother and told her everything that had happened. The moment she heard my voice start to crack with my typical pre-move jitters she said, “I thought this was all going a bit too easy.”
At the gate the original nice flight check-in man scanned and ripped my boarding pass. Something in Thai flashed on the screen. He checked the ticket again and then called out to a coworker. My jaw almost dropped when Frau Bitch appeared and motioned to CHECK MY BAGS AGAIN. I threw my hands in the air as if she was a cop with a gun pointed at me. “Are you kidding me right now?” I snapped. “I’m not sneaking anything onto the plane! What is your deal?” Normally I would never snap at someone like this, but at this point I felt like this woman had absolutely no life and for some reason had made it her mission to make my transit hell.
Ten minutes later I was on the plane, buckled in my seat. Nineteen hours later I landed in Porto.
I’ve now been in Portugal for one week and a day. All in all I like it and I think my fondness will only grow, but there have still been a few moments where I’ve had sudden why did I leave Bangkok panic. For starters, finding an apartment is akin to The Hunger Games. In Bangkok you can look at ten apartments and move into one the next day (hell–maybe even the next hour with some places). I never needed a Thai person to vouch for me, but twice now I’ve had to have a Portuguese national sign a document saying they know me. As is to be expected, even though Portugal is fairly cheap compared to other western European countries, things like rent are hiked up and, as a foreigner, I’ve been asked for six months rent in advance. Thailand, and most of Asia, is also just very convenient. There are moto taxis every few feet, there are free public restrooms in all of the malls, and let us never forget the beloved 7/11s. Portugal is like being back in the US–stores close at a reasonable hour, there’s not a plethora of super cheap food stalls around every corner, and you can definitely forget about paying a stranger to let you jump on the back of their motorcycle (but maybe I should try?).
Still, I think I’ll like Porto. I’ve already met a handful of very cool people, and my Bangkok friends have been tremendous at answering all of my calls and texts.
We had our differences, Thailand, but I’ll miss you.
Just a smattering of all the people who helped make Thailand memorable. (My apologies to those who I don’t have photos with! Come to Portugal and we’ll take a selfie.)
Thanks, Bangkok. Next.
The blue destination dot on Google Maps seemed far away as my two friends and I crawled out of the minibus at the Kanchanaburi bus station. It was nearing 8 p.m. We’d left Bangkok around 4:30 p.m. The driver shut the door and drove off, leaving us standing dumbly in the street. My two friends, one a fellow expat also living in Bangkok and the other a friend visiting from the US, looked at me. I’d planned the trip. I’d booked the accommodations and looked up transportation options. What I hadn’t done was confirm that the mini bus would drop us near our hotel for the night. I tapped ‘directions’ on Google Maps. The blue line scrolled up the screen. We were still 50 km away.
Kanchanaburi is home Erawan National Park, one of Thailand’s three national parks. It borders Myanmar and is most well-known for the infamous Death Railway and “bridge over the River Kwai.” I’d originally planned the weekend getaway to show my visiting friend a part of Thailand that wasn’t Bangkok or a touristy island. I thought we’d spend the weekend just floating on the river and tromping through the jungle: peaceful and relaxing.
Then, days before my friend arrived, I broke up with a guy I had been dating exclusively for a few months. The split was drawn out and messier than I’d expected. My US friend was visiting after splitting with her husband. I invited my Bangkok friend along the moment she texted about her own love travails. Just like that, the trip to the River Kwai flipped from a “hey let’s lounge, eat, and sleep” trip to a “girls rule, boys drool” therapy session.
Three men at the bus station approached us. They asked where we wanted to go. I showed them the map on my phone.
“Oh very far,” one man said.
“Is there a way there?”
The hotel was in the countryside. We weren’t staying at the floating resort the first night because longboats stopped at 6 p.m. I’d booked a stay at a place nearby.
“You can take taxi,” the man said. He pointed across the parking lot.
My Bangkok friend and I looked at each other. Thai taxis are either solid pink or green and yellow sedans. The only vehicles we could see were motorbikes and songtheaws (pick-up trucks with cage-like roofs over open beds).
“Is he pointing to that songtheaw?” I asked my friend. She shrugged. “Are you pointing at the songtheaw?” I asked the man.
“A songtheaw all the way to the hotel?”
“Yes. About one hour.”
I looked at my Bangkok friend for advice. “I think it’s our only choice,” she said.
We told the man we needed to run to the 7-11 first.
“Are we going to need beer?” my US friend asked.
The longest songtheaw ride I’d ever taken was about twenty minutes. The open beds contain only two long metal benches. Songtheaws are meant for quick hop on and offs, not long distance travel.
“We’re definitely going to need beer,” I said.
The next morning we learned we were still nearly 40 km away from where we needed to catch a longboat. A man from our countryside hotel offered to drive us, and by noon we finally arrived at the River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort.
I’d learned about the resort from friends who had stayed there during a long Thai holiday. I didn’t know what to expect except the resort was on the river and supposedly an elephant lived nearby and liked to frequent the river.
The River Kwai Jungle Rafts Resort floats on the bend of the river. There are about 100 bamboo rooms each with a double bed and a twin bed. The rooms rest atop buoys tied together with twine. Small bridges connect each section of rooms.
We tried to go for a swim, but ended up being swept away by the strong current. I managed to grab the last ladder of the resort and pull myself onto the dock of a room. My Bangkok friend grabbed a buoy further down. Two Thai men lifted her out of the water. My US friend missed the resort completely and ended up at a beach a few yards away. The Thai men (who we termed the official “farang catchers” of the resort) told her to walk through the woods and swim where a rope tied the resort to the bank. We gave up on swimming after that.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing: sleeping in hammocks, reading, writing, and intermittently spilling our problems to each other. A German tour group arrived and for two ours we watched them excel at jumping into the river, floating to the end of the resort, pulling themselves up the same ladder I had just barely grabbed, and repeating the process over and over. Had they been around to witness our swimming kerfuffle I would have taken their machine-like jumping and floating as bragging, but I think they were just smarter.
Outside of the kitchen, the resort didn’t have electricity. As the sun set, staff members lit oil lamps and tiki torches. The only sources of light in our room: an electric candle, a battery-powered lantern, a small flashlight, and our phones, which we used sparingly since they couldn’t be recharged. Once it was dark, we followed the torches to the riverside dining area. All room reservations come with set breakfasts and dinners included. A waiter brought us six different plates of food. Tiki torches and oil lamps don’t provide the most ample lighting, so I have no idea what we ate, but I think there was chicken, veggies, maybe fish, and rice–always rice.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and gin and tonics. We joined some of the waitstaff as they sang old rock n’ roll songs on guitar. Everything was pitch black except the orange orbs of the oil lamps. Tokay geckos chirped periodically. I once thought they were supposed to be a sign of love, but seeing as the three of us were nursing broken hearts, what love were they a sign of? That we’d made the right choices in our relationships? That we didn’t? That we should love ourselves?
I’m about to get really cheesy here. Try to stay with me…
As the tokay geckos called to us and we started to ad-lib songs with the waitstaff, I thought about the power of female friendships. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot since my boyfriend of seven years dumped me unexpectedly. After he dumped me and I (quite literally) felt like someone had chopped an arm and a leg off my body, women from every avenue in my life came out to send me love and support.
First, there were my female college students: they didn’t know what had happened except that their teacher (me) was unable to show up for their final exam (because he dumped me over the phone on the eve of final exams). A dear friend of mine subbed the exam timeslot for me, and told my students, “If you care about Ms. Georgia, send her some love. She wanted to be here today, but she got some bad news last night.” Three of my female students emailed me to say how much they enjoyed my class and appreciated having a space where they felt they could open up and confide in a teacher. The wife of one of my colleague’s messaged me to tell me what a strong, adventurous person I am, and that even though we hadn’t had a chance to hangout much, she wanted to send along words of encouragement. Female acquaintances from undergrad reached out to me, family friends, etc. One of my best friends flew from Wisconsin to help me move; past coworkers from Chicago and Colorado reached out; a previous boss sent me her Spotify account so I could listen to her breakup playlist; friends from undergrad, grad school, and a seasonal summer job drove hours just to spend weekends with me; even brand new female friends at my temporary summer job took me out for drinks and checked up on me throughout the summer. The out-pour of love and empathy was astounding, unexpected, and so so needed.
Society dictates women to be caretakers and communicators. This can obviously be a bad thing when we get into the “women are taught to be too nice and never stand up for themselves” area, but it can also be wonderful. Women not only have a tremendous amount of care and empathy to give to the world, but there’s something about a woman in distress that brings other women to the frontlines. My friend from the US and I had spoken only sporadically over the past three years. Most of what I knew about her came from Facebook and Twitter posts. Still, the moment I learned of her divorce I invited her to Thailand without hesitation. My Bangkok friend, too, was someone I’d only seen a handful of times over the past year. Our schedules rarely aligned. Once she divulged her own love troubles, inviting her along for the weekend getaway felt like a no-brainer. In the week and a half I’d been single, every girl friend I’d made in the past twelve months showed up to let me vent, cry, groan, and just generally be a bouncy ball of emotions. I’m someone who takes a while to fully open up to people, but lately it feels as though I should treat every new female friend like a close family relation, because that’s certainly how they’ve been treating me.
I’m not saying guys don’t turn up for each other, nor am I saying that I’ve never received any support from guy pals (because that would be a blatant lie–thanks Mike, Simon, Roe, Rob, and Carl–to name a few), but there is something about women coming to the aide of other women that just feels powerful. And I can think of a million examples where this has happened in my life even before my breakup with the seven year bf. When my father passed away, three of my best girl friends from high school were at my door in 24 hours. Two of my mother’s girl friends were there within about 10 hours, and I’m still not even sure how they found out so fast. Women turn up when there’s a tragedy–no matter how big or small. And, actually, that’s part of the beauty of female friendships. They never treat any tragedy as small or insignificant because we know that to the person who is hurting, that hurt doesn’t feel small or insignificant.
Maybe, as women, we show up for each other because we know what it’s like to have strong feelings and emotions that are often pushed aside as “crazy,” “too much,” and “just get over it already.” Maybe it’s the knowledge that I’ve been there, too. Maybe it’s an unspoken sisterhood among the whole sex. Or maybe women are just awesome. Either way, I think all ladies should spend their next girls getaway trip along the River Kwai.
Before I moved to Porto I looked up the logistics of shipping my goods from Thailand to Portugal. Reviews and blog posts screamed: DON’T DO IT. My packages were held up in customs for months, one man said. I had to pay extra tax, despite already paying tax when I bought the item, another blog stated. It was abundantly clear: carry everything on the plane.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Turkish Airlines made me ship nearly 80% of my belongings from a ThaiPost office Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. Transferring the contents of my luggage wasn’t so much of sorting as it was just throwing whatever wasn’t art or electronics into a box until I hit the maximum weight. When I had to get a second box, my friend opened up my carry-on duffle bag and started tossing even more things. I saw a flash of a colorful top and stopped him. “But that’s my favorite,” I said. Having traveled and moved so much, I know which comforts I need in order to feel at home. “You’ll see it in a few weeks,” he said, balling it up and shoving it in the box.
Two Weeks Later
Two weeks later, I was still without either box in Porto. The boxes had arrived in Lisbon one week after me, but they were held up in customs for inspection.
The contents of what made it to Portugal were slim, but manageable: yoga pants, racer-back tank tops, tennis shoes, a rain coat, one scarf, and an assortment of summery dresses and bathing suits because I’ve been living in one of the hottest cities in the world for the past fifteen months.
The mail service that would deliver my boxes once customs released them emailed to tell me that the process would take time. I asked how much. They replied: We inform that, due to the high number of parcels, the customs clearance process is still running, and we ask you to wait.
So I waited. I got an email saying I needed to fill out declaration forms declaring what was in each box and the value. I did.
Then I waited again.
Three Weeks Later
Near the end of my third week I got an email: you need to re-submit your declaration forms.
Again? Okay. So I submitted the forms again: sender/receiver, personal goods, worth 100€.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
…sender/receiver, personal goods, 100€.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
I added more detail to the form: clothes, blankets, knickknacks, books, a plush chameleon.
You need to re-submit your declaration forms.
FOR THE LOVE OF–I called CTT Expresso. I spoke with a very curt man. “I’ve sent the forms,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?”
“You need to list the sender and receiver,” he said.
“I did. They’re both me.” I explained the chaos of shipping everything from within the Suvarnabhumi Airport.
“You need to list your Portuguese tax number.”
“I did that, too.”
“You need to list what items are in the box and their values.”
“And I did that. Was I too vague? Do I need to be specific?”
“You need to tell us what is in the box.”
At this point I was frustrated with Portugal in general. Three weeks in and I was living in a nice, but dark and cramped hotel room. I had been wearing the same three outfits to over and over. I was freezing. My visa process was becoming more and more complicated, and my workplace had turned into a dramatic debacle that reminded me of my students, but this time I couldn’t solve things by sending someone out of the room or taking away an iPad. I missed my friends in Bangkok. I missed my routine and the stability. Hell, I even missed my students.
I tried to keep my annoyance from seeping through the phone. “Do you want me to actually list: one pair of black pants, one red dress, one multi-colored dress, and things like that? Or is writing clothing, books, and knickknacks good enough?”
“You need to be specific.”
“But that’s the problem. I don’t know what’s in each box. I have a general idea, but not every single item.” I reiterated the chaos of shipping the boxes.
“You need to tell us what is in the boxes.”
“And if I can’t?”
He didn’t respond. Instead I heard (or imagined) the clicking of a computer mouse. “It says here you valued the boxes at 100€.”
“It’s all used. I have no idea what it’s worth.”
“You need to reevaluate the price.”
I felt like I was back in Asia. “Are you saying the price is too low?”
“You need to reevaluate the price.”
“And the tax I have to pay will be based on that amount, right?”
“So what you’re saying is I need to pay more money?”
“You need to reevaluate–”
“Yeah, I got it. How much do you want me to put?”
“You need to–”
I thanked the man and hung-up. I was dying to take my frustration out on someone, and this guy was curt enough to warrant it, but I also knew that a) he was standing in between me and wardrobe changes and b) I don’t want to live up to the “rude American” stereotype.
Four Weeks Later
I didn’t itemize the declaration forms, but I upped the price on everything. A few days went by and my HR manager got involved. She called CTT Expresso and spoke to a Brazilian woman. My HR manager talked with the woman about what it’s like to try to move to Portugal and how alienating it can be to leave your original country and start all over in a place with new customs, culture, and language. She was right. At this point, I longed to hear the tonal sounds of Thai over Portuguese. I didn’t want croissants or pastel de nata. I wanted pad kra pao and khao soi.
The Brazilian lady filed a complaint. Two days later one of my coworkers gasped and poked her head through the staff canteen. “Georgia,” she said, “your box is here!”
I won’t lie: I practically ran. I know we’re all supposed to be zen and not care about material possessions, but after having lost nearly all the contents of my apartment due to Hurricane Irma a little over a year ago–well screw it I want my freaking clothing back. I paid a 100€ in tax and then finally I had at least 60% of my things.
Having one box arrive, I felt confident I’d see the other one soon. In the mean time, I zipped down to Lisbon to apply for a police background check through the Thai Embassy, and my company hired an immigration lawyer for me because it was becoming increasingly obvious that the visa process was too complicated for me (living in Thailand for over a year has given me an extra set of fiery hoops to jump through).
Five Weeks Later
A week after my first box arrived I got an email from CTT Expresso asking for yet another declaration form. I sent it (again! 6 times now–6!) and received a reply that the box had finally left customs and was on its way to Porto.
Six Weeks Later
The box didn’t show. My HR manager called again. This time she spoke to a man, who I suspect was the original curt guy I’d dealt with. She told him about the email saying the box was on the way. The man told her that that wasn’t possible; the box was still at customs. I hadn’t received any such email. My HR manager insisted that I had and the man basically called her crazy. I don’t know the specifics of the rest of the conversation because it was all in Portuguese, but my HR manager suddenly stood up very straight and got very loud. Very, very loud. One of my coworkers messaged me: “She be ANGRY.”
When she hung-up the phone she turned to me. “I don’t know where the box is,” she said. “I don’t think they know either.”
By now I had moved into an apartment. I’d unpacked everything and finally had an idea of what I was missing: all of my favorite items of clothing. I could still envision my friend at the airport going into my carry-on duffel bag and grabbing top after top. You’ll see it in a few weeks.
A few days after this angry phone call, I traveled back down to Lisbon, this time to start my FBI background check with the US Embassy (don’t even get me started on why I couldn’t visit both embassies on the same day). Neither my HR manager, nor I, nor, it seemed, customs or CTT Expresso knew where my box was. I had resigned myself to just not see any of the items again.
As the train approached Lisbon it occurred to me that the box was somewhere in the capital. I looked up the location of the customs office, which was just a mile and a half from the train stop I was approaching. Without much of a thought, I grabbed my backpack and jumped off the train.
The customs location was more warehouse-like than I had expected. I took a number and then explained to a woman behind the counter that I was there to claim a package. She didn’t speak any English and I can’t speak Portuguese, so we fumbled the exchange until I pulled up the declaration form on my phone. The woman told me to wait. A few minutes later she came back with another declaration form and asked me to fill it out.
“But it’s right here,” I said, pointing at my phone. “You…you see it, right?”
Still, she held a pen out to me.
I waited for another fifteen minutes before my number was called again. When I saw the second box I actually squealed. I wanted to say to the entire room: “Do you know what I had to do to get this? Do you know the only reason I’m here is because I took a 6 a.m. train from Porto and I have two hours to kill? Do you know that apparently NO ONE knew where this box was and yet it was magically found in under twenty minutes? DO YOU KNOW HOW SCREWED UP THIS IS?!”
Instead, I took my 20 lbs box and waddled out of the building. I carried it a few blocks to a Decathlon (like an REI, but cheaper) I’d passed in between the train station and customs. I bought a duffel bag and unpacked everything in the middle of a coffee shop. Since I was the only customer, the two baristas watched me bemused as a cheered every time I pulled something out: omg I missed this! And I missed this! AND I MISSED THIS.
I then had about forty minutes to store the bag somewhere, because you can’t take anything that large to the US Embassy, and make it to the embassy for my appointment. And just to make sure I wasn’t feeling too good about myself, it started to pour right as I walked outside.
And finally that was that. I had all of my stuff. It took a lot of perseverance, and never before have I walked into a government office with the sole purpose of demanding something, but it worked! I can change outfits once again, decorate, and start to make my way-too-expensive apartment feel like home.
And let’s recap: my initial choices were to pay 986€ to carry everything onto Turkish Airlines. I chose to ship, which cost about 550€. I then had to go through emotional hell to get one box back, four weeks and another 100€ later. I then went through mental hell (but only 6€ this time? The pricing makes no sense) and had to travel across the country (granted it’s a small country) to get the second box.
All of this for stuff I actually owned! Some of it for nearly ten years! Also, were any of the boxes even opened? Were they inspected by customs? No. So why the six week delay?
As an added note: when customs receives something of yours, you have sixty days to get it from them or they send it back to where it came from. I asked if the sixty days was included in the time it took them to “inspect” the box and continually email me that they were “processing” it. No one even answered that question so I think the answer is: sixty days is sixty days no matter what.
When it comes to shipping things to Portugal: Don’t. Or, if you must, resign yourself to the fact that you may not see it ever again unless you get downright pushy.
Many people told me to watch The Beach before moving to Thailand. The scenery was to die for, they said, and the story was a classic expat-moves-to-Thailand tale. Maybe I would relate? I saved the film in my Netflix cue, but never got around to watching it before my move. During my year and a half living in Thailand I continued to skip it because I had yet to travel to Phi Phi (the idyllic filming location) and thought the story/scenery would make me envious. When I finally did watch the movie I was surprised. I was not filled with the idealistic wanderlust I had been expecting. Instead I couldn’t stop sighing and rolling my eyes. I hated the story, I don’t understand the moral, and I would have been happier had nearly every character died (except maybe the French guy, but, let’s be honest, everyone in that movie was a gigantic tool).
The Beach tells of a group of expats, all white and western except for a single token minority, who have laid claim to a small inlet on one of Thailand’s famous islands. They’ve chosen the spot because, to them, it is the absolute definition of “paradise.” Just like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love inspired thousands to trek to Bali, Indonesia, so did The Beach (book written by Alex Garland) inspire hoards of western backpackers to traipse down to Thailand’s southern islands.
The spot made famous by the movie is Thailand’s Maya Bay, a small crescent shaped alcove on Koh Phi Phi Leh in the Phi Phi archipelago. Even if you’ve never heard of Koh Phi Phi or The Beach you have seen Maya Bay. A generic Google Image search of ‘Thailand’ brings up the bay as one of the first five photos. (It’s also worth noting that thousands of tourists have traveled to Maya Bay because of the movie, and they’ve subsequently trashed it so much that the Thai government barred any further tourism to the site in the hopes that the native marine life will have a chance to thrive once more. So good job The Beach.)
Leo DiCaprio learns of “the beach” after a crazed Scottish man gives him a hand drawn map. This man later dies and it’s left to the viewer to decide whether it was by murder or suicide. When Leo and his two french companions finally make it to the beach they are immediately treated as intruders. The self-professed leader of the expat colony (because, let’s call it like it is, these beachy expats are a not so subtle reference to colonization), Tilda Swinton, is immediately suspicious of Leo and his friends and demands to know how they found the beach and if they’ve told anyone else.
Here is where my annoyance with this story begins. Tilda Swinton’s character tells Leo that their colony has made a deal with some local farmers and that as long as they don’t allow any other expats onto the island then the colony is allowed to stay. However, Tilda still seems to think that they (the expats) “own” the land. That it is inherently theirs to take and give.
There’s a certain type of backpacker who comes to Asia who feels that Asia is their “calling.” They’re into yoga, wear Om necklaces, talk about how “this way is the right way of life,” and refuse to eat anything processed. When they come to Asia they feel like they really get Asia because Asia is chill and meditative and not at all consumer obsessed or fast-paced like the West. These are the type of backpackers who come to Thailand and immediately head south to Phi Phi, Koh Pha Ngan, and countless other islands so that they can live off the bare essentials, smoke up, and live some naturalist lifestyle that they would never admit was only made possible because they have some form of financial security back home.
First off, these people irk me because they believe their view of Asia and Asian life is so open and worldly, but it’s not. When they’re in Bangkok, do they even bother to look at the myriad types of malls and shops every few blocks? What about the night markets? How about the fact that walking in Thailand is like playing Frogger 2.0 because not only do you need to watch for vehicles, but you also need to watch for the adult man who just stopped mid-step heading down a BTS staircase because he’s too engrossed in the game on his phone. How about my students who were given the question: “would you rather live forever without human touch or without ever touching an electronic again?” and THEY ALL CHOSE TO LIVE WITHOUT HUMAN TOUCH. ALL. OF. THEM. Asia isn’t a consumer obsessed society? Ummmm…no. Grow up, look around, and stop treating Asia like it’s made of 4.5 billion sitting-on-top-of-a-mountain monks.
Asia is chill? All of Asia? All of Thailand? Again: it’s not billions of swamis out here.
On the topic of forcing preconceived notions upon an entire populace, the other reason I cannot stand the idyllic The Beach colonizers is because their colony is only considered a tropical paradise until it behaves like a tropical paradise. Naturally when you have a film set near/on an ocean, there’s gotta be some sort of ocean-related catastrophe. In The Beach, three expats get attacked by sharks. One dies immediately. Another is gravely wounded. What happened to the third? I don’t remember, nor do I care. When the wounded one begs to have a doctor come to the island Tilda Swinton forbids it. “No one can know about us,” she says. So no doctor can come.
I’m sorry, but you guys established a colony on a beach, where your primary source of food is coming from the ocean. Sharks aside, what about the lethal box jellyfish known to Thailand? What about slipping down a waterfall a breaking a leg? Sun poisoning? Dehydration? The flu? Maybe I’m too much of a cynic and maybe I was placing too much reality into this movie, but a tropical paradise still comes with bugs, humidity, heat, sharks, and just normal bodily processes that require medical attention here and there. So you planned to have a paradise where no one ages and it’s impossible to get hurt? And you don’t even have room for a Plan B?
When the injured shark fisherman’s moans become too much to bear the colonizers move him to a tent in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind. Now: their version of paradise, in which no one can die or be seriously hurt, is restored. (This is where the French guy proves to be a slightly redeeming character. Leo’s character? Leo’s character can go jump straight into the jaws of one of those sharks.)
The movie eventually ends with more people being killed, Leo briefly going savage, and the colonizers leaving after they realize just how insane and delusional their leader (and their lives?) has become. The last shot is of a photo of all the colonizers on the beach and the general heartfelt message of “we will never forget how lucky we were to find this paradise.”
Is this what the British thought when they left India? What a swell time that was! I will forever be grateful that I experienced it! What a paradise! What an exciting time to live life to the fullest! If I were Leo’s character I would be ashamed. Deeply, deeply ashamed because not only did his colonizing and naivete lead to at least six deaths (the one shark fisherman wasn’t totally Leo’s fault, but he was still an accomplice), but he was entitled enough to think that he could lay claim to land in a country where he didn’t even help contribute to that country. Again, I get that this movie is fiction and I need to jump off my reality high horse, but how many of us know of people who glorify this movie? Or doing things similar to this movie because to live off the grid is more “authentic.”
I want to know about the Thais in the movie. What about the farmers? Were they really cool with a bunch of expats just staking claim to their land without forking over any sort of benefits? Or, in reality, did the farmers probably assume the expat colony wouldn’t actually last that long?
I heavily support immigration and welcoming people from all over (screw Trump’s wall), but when you’re a visitor to another country you need to appreciate and respect that you are–up to a certain point–a guest in that country. You can’t just go around and plant your bloody flag on a beach alcove and be like “this is mine now. I love it, so it’s mine.” It also belongs to that country and to the people of that country.
Would I have such a problem with The Beach if the colonizers weren’t white? Honestly, I don’t know. Would I have found the idea of a beach colony more romantic had I never been to Thailand and been surrounded by idealistic-to-the-point-of-being-naive backpackers? I don’t know that either. Maybe my annoyance is a combination of living as an expat in Thailand, my age (I think the colonizers in the movie are supposed to be about 18-25), and having gone to a very woke college where we practically flip tables the moment a group of white people do something even remotely privileged.
Or maybe my assumption that The Beach was a happy romance about living in Thailand was wrong. Maybe The Beach is just a story about shitty people doing shitty things.
For the past few years I’ve listened to friends choose ‘anchor words,’ which they use to ground themselves for the New Year. They choose words like “courage” to remind them each month to be brave, or “persistent” to encourage them to strive for what they want. Since being surrounded by wordsmiths in graduate school I’ve thought about choosing my own anchor word, but never did because I’m crap at keeping New Years resolutions.
This year, however, I fiddled around on Dictionary.com and see if anything spoke to me. I’m about to embark upon another new job, new country, and new community–why not try a new tradition?
I thought about the areas I lacked in in 2018, and what could I improve. I stopped at my second search: tenacity.
I found tenacity after searching for synonyms of drive. Drive–“an innate, biologically determined urge to attain a goal or satisfy a need”–is something I’ve always had. I’m a driven, goal oriented person. The past year in Bangkok, however, my drive has slipped. Some people said it’s because I’m a first year teacher. While teaching 102 just-reaching-puberty boys does wear you out, my drive has been puttering like a sedan with two wheels and a missing transmission ever since my father passed away.
In my last year of graduate school, just six months after my father unexpectedly dropped dead of a heart attack, my drive was so minuscule that the school psychiatrist put me on anti-depressants. The Wellbutrin did it’s job kicking my energy up enough to teach, complete my thesis, and work towards other goals and opportunities, but I still had the gnawing feeling that I used to put in more effort. I used to write more and submit more. I used to carve out time for projects and friends. I knew what it felt like to care about things, and I didn’t anymore. After graduate school I kept making and reaching goals, but the caring still wasn’t there. Fake it til you make it, I thought, but it’s hard to fake a drive that used to be your life-force.
Thus I figured drive was the word I should hitch my metaphorical boat to for 2019. Being the writer that I am, I wanted my anchor word to be jazzier, so I thought of determination and tenacity. I Googled tenacity first. I expected to browse the list of synonyms for something with more pizzazz, but the Dictionary.com definition of tenacity stopped me. To be more specific: the third definition stopped me.
1. the quality or fact of being able to grip something firmly; grip.
2. the quality or fact of being very determined; determination.
3. the quality or fact of continuing to exist; persistence.
Following my father’s death, I struggled to want to exist. The grief and trauma was so foreign and consuming it was hard to see a way out of it. Then my boyfriend of almost seven years dumped me equally as unexpectedly, and I just simply didn’t want to exist. I was angry. I was distraught. My drive for life had already been teetering on a cliff, and my ex kicked it right off the ledge and attached a lit stick of dynamite to finish the job. I made destructive decisions, completely aware that I was on a solid path to not see the next year. I told my grief counselor, “I’m not going to survive this.”
“If you keep saying that,” she said. “You won’t.”
I shrugged. “Good.”
After a particularly rock bottom night in which I should have killed both myself and my dad’s dog, but miraculously didn’t, I booked a one-way ticket to Asia. I didn’t think it would make me feel better. I just needed something different. I hoped the stark change of scenery would reset me somehow.
Bangkok has reset me, but not in the ways I thought it would. When I meet people who’ve lived in Thailand for multiple years they say things like: I found my peace or I finally learned how to relax and enjoy life. That’s great…for those people. For me? I became more selfish. I broke social engagements. I led some dates on because I didn’t feel like having the confrontation that comes after ‘it’s not working out.’ My focus slipped. I worked, I made friends, I wrote, and I traveled, but I felt detached; as if I was still faking the ambition. I worried that I was turning into a person without drive, goals, or an ounce of caring.
Then, somewhere around the end of December a flip switched in my mind: I wasn’t a different person. I hadn’t lost my drive. I was just sad. And for a year, I let myself be sad.
Death and grief sucks. There’s no other way to put it. It fucking sucks and none of us are taught how to process it, even though it’s something everyone on Earth experiences. We’re mostly led to believe that grief is something you just “get over.” To not get over it seems weird and tragic. Because of this, people who are grieving feel self conscious if they’re “sad for too long.” You stop talking about your grief; you stop talking about the person you’ve lost. To the outside world, your decreased conversation implies you’re moving on and enjoying life again, which maybe you are, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still be a bit sad. Death sucks–be sad.
Leading up to the turn of the New Year I worried that there was a lot I did wrong in 2018, but now I see that there is a lot that I did right. Sure, my normal ambition took a backseat, but I took that energy and put it towards acknowledging that I’m sad. And I let myself be sad. That doesn’t sound like something that should warrant any energy, but for me it did. It meant spending an entire year replacing my normal bending-over-backwards-to-please-people attitude and replacing it with if-I-want-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix,-then-I’m-going-to-stay-home-and-be-sad-and-watch-Netflix. Some people might find that depressing. Others may find it liberating. I found it to be necessary.
If 2018 was all about allowing myself to live the life I have found myself in, then 2019 will be about morphing it back into the life I want. Yet another reason for the word: tenacity. After you’re socked with grief, you not only have to be tenacious about picking up your broken pieces, but you have to be tenacious in putting the pieces back how you want–or don’t. Be tenacious to do whatever you want. After a year of feeling detached and letting myself drift, I’m ready to be tenacious: tenacious about life, about art, about travel, about friends, about relationships, about whatever the hell I want. I’m going to be determined and firm and I’m going to exist. I’m going to be so tenacious that I’m not going to feel self conscious or regretful about ending this blog on such a cheesy damn note :).*
In case anyone is interested:
synonyms of tenacity: persistence, determination, perseverance, doggedness, strength of purpose, tirelessness, indefatigability (this cannot be a real word…), resolution, resoluteness, resolve, firmness, patience, purposefulness, staunchness, steadfastness, staying power, endurance, stamina, stubbornness, intransigence, obstinacy, obduracy, pertinacity
*JK I regret that ending.
When you’re jet lagged and running off maybe two hours of sleep, you forget to check the open/close hours of the place where you booked a rental car in Honolulu (which you only booked because it was so much cheaper than picking up at the airport). You take a city bus to the rental place. The bus driver continuously gets off the bus to help people on/off because “it’s Christmas,” he says. His sweet gesture causes you to arrive at the rental place at 12:03 only to learn that they closed AT NOON, and, despite them being inside the office, they will only talk to you through the glass door and say there’s nothing they can do for you (because a magical elf locked the door and they can’t possibly unlock it? Fuck off). You call corporate and cry because you are so damn jet lagged and you just want a bloody car and for fuck’s sake you were only three minutes late and those three minutes were from the bus driver helping two elderly people onto the bus and into seats.
Corporate says you have to go back to the airport to pick up a car and the cost has now gone up SIX times. A security guard helps you call a taxi. The people in the rental place still watch you from behind the glass door, and you resist flicking them all off.
At the airport rental place a young girl says you look like you had a rough day. You tell her you just flew in from Thailand and three minutes has just fucked your bank account because does your US account even have $1,000+?? She walks you outside. She puts her finger to her lips and whispers “let’s give you a free upgrade.” Again, your eyes water because you’re tired and foggy, and this girl is so nice, but also still screw those people behind the stupid glass door.
And that is how you end up in a sexy convertible VW bug in Hawai’i.
Stay tuned for the sequel: How Jet Lag Made Me Steal A Bottle Of Water From Dunkin Donuts.
When a desk agent from my Hanoi hostel asked if I wanted to book a hiking trip through Sapa I thought, Sure. Why not? I’d hiked plenty of times. I had a limited amount of time in Vietnam and Sapa was supposed to be a “must see” place. A hike seemed like fun.
The journey started with a 5-hour overnight sleeper bus to Sapa. Hours before I was to board the bus I felt an unexpected wave of panic. I knew nothing about Sapa. It was in northern Vietnam and had mountains and rice paddies, but what else? How hard was the trek? How long was the trek? I’d signed up for a two night/three day tour. Did the night on the bus count as one night or was I staying in a homestay for two nights? Was the homestay someone’s house or was it a hostel? Was it going to be cold or hot?
The sleeper bus arrived in Sapa at four a.m. The guide said we could continue sleeping until six a.m. When we did leave the bus, different guides held signs with names on them. I was paired with a young French couple. Our guide, Hun, took us to a local hotel where we could shower and eat breakfast. After breakfast the French couple joined their day-trip hiking group. I waited in the lobby for the rest of the travelers who’d also signed up for the overnight hike.
Sapa was colder than I’d expected. I had two long sleeved shirts and a winter jacket, but I didn’t have a hat or gloves. My socks were thin and holey. The lobby had a NorthFace pop-up store and I bought thicker socks and a warm hat. Across from the new, shiny NorthFace gear was a basket of worn, muddy, green camouflaged rain boots.
Before I left Thailand, a guy I’d been dating told me about his own hike through Sapa. “They’ll have boots for you to rent,” he said. “Sapa is muddy. Rent the boots.”
“I have perfectly good hiking boots,” I said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“They’ll be ruined,” he said. “I threw mine away. You should rent the boots.”
I glared at the basket of mud covered boots. I didn’t want to do something this guy had advised. In just forty-eight hours of being in Vietnam we’d fought twice. Both arguments were petty and mean and left me crying in the hostel stairwell. Quite honestly, he was ruining my trip. In Sapa, I planned to leave my phone on airplane mode in the hopes that being out of contact would allow me to enjoy Vietnam rather than feel miserable over a guy (and, consequently, feel doubly miserable because I felt miserable over a guy).
Hun walked over to the boots. He told a nearby couple that they should rent a pair. “The mud is slippery,” he said. “It is deep and hard to walk through. You will want boots. Your shoes will be ruined.” The woman asked if Hun was exaggerating just to make more money. Hun shook his head and repeated that normal hiking shoes wouldn’t suffice. I noticed he sported his own pair of the camouflaged Wellies. I decided to be smart rather than petty and pulled out a pair that would fit my massive feet.
The overnight hike consisted of me and three couples: an Indonesian woman and an Australian man, a German girl and an ex-US Marine, and a Swiss couple. Hun gathered us around a map as we waited for a minibus to take us to the trailhead. He pointed to Sapa. “We are here,” he said. He traced his finger south. “We’ll hike here for lunch. We should arrive around noon. Then we’ll go here,” he moved his finger west, “and stay in the homestay. Tomorrow we’ll hike north to where the bus will pick us up and bring us back to the hotel.” We all nodded. “This is an intense hike. Everyone can do that?”
No one nodded. Hun looked concerned. “This is the most intense hike through Sapa,” he said. “You know that?”
“I knew we were going hiking,” the Indonesian woman said.
“Someone at our hostel booked this,” the Swiss woman added. “They didn’t say anything about the hike.”
Hun’s expression dropped.
“My guy just said I’d spend the night,” I said. I didn’t admit that I still didn’t understand where I was spending the night.
Hun drew a line on the map from where we stood to our lunch spot. “This is ten kilometers,” he said. He drew a line to the homestay. “This is seven.” The terrain would be rough, he explained–lots of mud, steep ups and downs, and narrow, rocky paths. On the second day we would hike seven more kilometers. He gave the various altitudes in meters, but my non-metric American mind couldn’t commit them to memory.
“What about the other hikers?” someone asked. At six a.m. there’d been about twenty buses full of travelers ready to explore Sapa. Surely the hikes were made for all skill levels.
“Those are day hikers,” Hun said. “Not many do the overnight.”
We looked at each other wide-eyed. No one had been warned about the intensity.
“Does everyone still want to go?” Hun asked.
“Is there a shorter route?” the German woman asked.
Hun looked at the map. “When we get to lunch, there’s an option to do fewer kilometers.”
“Maybe four kilometers instead of seven.”
Hun looked at us like we were toddlers who’d yet to master potty training. “Let’s see how we get through today.”
Our hike started in a field just below the town. A group of local women intersected with us and followed behind. They wore traditional colorful, woven skirts and jackets; clothing that reminded me more of Peru than Vietnam. Some of the them carried baskets on their back. One woman had a five-month old baby strapped to her.
The hike seemed deceptively easy. We tromped through calf-high grass and crossed streams over narrow logs. There were a few tight pathways and a slight incline, but nothing strenuous. Maybe the hard part was the distance, not the terrain, I thought. We stopped at an overlook that gave a great view of the town and surrounding mountains. We left the overlook and headed down into a tree covered valley.
Beneath the trees the path suddenly changed. Rocks stuck out of the ground like weeds in an unkempt garden. Hard dirt turned to mud. We walked more cautiously as the path started going up and down randomly. The women with the baskets grabbed our hands at particularly dicey areas. It soon became obvious that each one had sort of “claimed” one of us and had taken it as their personal duty to keep us from falling. The girl helping me, Min, looked fifteen. She was shy and seemed to be new to the whole “helping bumbling tourists” gig. She offered me her hand whenever there was a big step or jump. When the ground turned to slick mud she held my hand until we reached dry, solid earth.
Two hours into the hike we were still four kilometers away from the lunch spot. Hun’s face was that of someone who is annoyed, but trying not to show it. Clearly we weren’t making the progress he was used to.
When we did finally reach the lunch spot town, we said goodbye to the women. Min told me she had to go back to her village. “You will buy something from me,” she said. She held out a collection of embroidered wallets and bags. Where was she carrying those? I’d expected to give her a tip, but a bag was okay, too. Other children, younger than Min, appeared. They held up colourful bracelets and shouted prices. The three couples on the hike also bought scarves, bags, and wallets from the women who’d helped them. I left with two wallets, a purse, and a bracelet. The wallets I bought; the purse and bracelet were gifts from Min.
At the lunch spot we ate noodles and discussed whether we wanted to take the short hike or the long hike. A taxi drove by. “What the hell, there are cars?!” the Indonesian woman exclaimed. “Why aren’t we in one of those?” We watched groups of other hikers walk by. We judged the intensity of their hike based on how muddy they were. Mostly everyone was cleaner than us.
We finished lunch and told Hun we wanted to take the shorter hike. Our legs were already sore and we knew we weren’t hiking fast enough. Hun looked like he didn’t understand the question. “You said there was a shorter hike,” the Swiss woman said. “Four kilometers instead of seven?” Hun continued to stare at us. He had a pretty good poker face, but his eyes twitched as if he might laugh.
I gasped. “You tricked us! There’s not a shorter route.”
Hun smiled. “The hard hike is done,” he said.
“What we just did? That was the hardest part?”
“And it’s seven kilometers?” the German girl asked.
“Is it flat or is it more up and down.”
“It is easier. Some flat; some up.”
“Is there another way to the homestay?” the Indonesian woman asked. She pointed to the road. “There was a taxi. Can I get there by car?”
Like with the question about a shorter route, Hun’s face was blank, but in his eyes you could see him weighing whether to tell her the truth or not.
“You can take a motorbike,” he said. She would still have to walk with us to the next town. From there she could hire a bike.
The Indonesian woman clapped her hands. “Great! I’ll be waiting at the homestay for you guys. I’ll get the drinks ready.”
We said goodbye to the Indonesian woman and started the last leg of Day One’s hike. We headed up. And up and up and up. We were on pavement and going through towns, but the incline became so steep that I wondered whether I should just crawl using my hands.
An older woman dressed in the traditional Sapa garb appeared beside me. She asked my name and where I was from. She looked strong, but weathered. I guessed she was about eighty years old. Just like the women before, she carried a large basket on her back.
The pavement ended as we entered a bamboo forest. The ground once again changed to mud, but worse than before. The mud was slick–very slick. We slipped and slid as though we were on a sheet of ice. When our feet sank, the mud held until you used both hands to wrench your leg free. Twice my foot came out of my boot. The mud reminded me of my father’s art studio, where we made “slip” to stick pieces of clay together: wet, mushy clay that acted like glue. The older woman held my hand throughout most of the walk, occasionally pulling me straight up a few feet.
I thought about Hun’s promise that the hard hike was behind us. He either lied again or this was unusual. The first ten kilometers had been hard, but the bamboo forest was excruciating. My body wanted to collapse. I slipped and tripped; saved from falling only by the freakishly strong older woman. My legs felt like toothpicks trying to support a coffee table. My pants were covered in mud from the constant spray of stepping in puddles. I couldn’t look up so I had no idea how the others were fairing. All I heard were groans, grunts, and the squish of boots in the mud.
We finally reached a waterfall just outside our homestay. We caught our breath and looked at one another like we wanted to blame someone for the misery, but who? Hun stood to the side. He looked dry, fresh, and energized.
“I thought you said the first half of the hike was the hard part,” I said. He smiled sweetly. For a moment I hated him.
The video is shaky because I hit ‘record’ on my camera and kept walking. It was too slippery to not have both hands free.
Tired, muddy, and drenched in sweat, we trudged into our homestay. We took showers, drank beers, and sat at a riverside pavilion, while our host and Hun prepared dinner. We chatted easily for hours. Vietnam was my first time really solo traveling, and it amazed me how well we all got along after only having met twelve hours before.
We all ate dinner together: the three couples, Hun, the host, her husband and young son, and myself. The spread was large and delicious with spring rolls, fried pork, salads, tofu, maybe some dumplings, and other Vietnamese dishes. I was so hungry I didn’t care what we were eating. The host brought out a bottle of “magic water.” She and her husband poured shots for everyone. As soon as our cups were empty they poured more…and more..and more…I think there were eight shots in total. Somehow I got away with only doing five. I still don’t know what the liquor was, but it looked and tasted similar to moonshine.
We slept in a loft on side-by-side mattresses. Each bed had a white, gauzy mosquito netting, and the most plush, fluffy, soft comforter I have ever used in my life. Seriously–if I could have taken that comforter with me, I would have.
The next morning my legs felt as though someone had run over me with a motorcycle and then dropped a boulder on each thigh for the hell of it. I’d slept on the bed at the end of the row and I got up before everyone else. I didn’t want anyone to see as I slowly and awkwardly lifted my body off the ground using only my hands and arms. Going down the ladder that led to the loft, I held onto the hand railing tightly, again making my arms do all the work.
Hun finally had pity on us (or maybe he was just tired of fighting) and said we didn’t have to hike again. We could chill at the homestay until eleven, when we’d head out of the valley and meet the minibus on the main road. The walk out of the valley was still longer and steeper than my legs wanted, but at least we were done with the mud and the rocks and the slipping.
One thing I will say for Sapa, it did make me forget about my torrid dating life for about twenty-four hours. There’s nothing like torturous exertion and boot-camp-like exhaustion to get your mind off boys.
If I had the option to do it over again, would I take the same hike? The hardest, most arduous hike of my life? The hike that left me limping and unable to walk up and down stairs like a normal person for four solid days? The hike that made me sincerely hate our sweet guide for about one hour?
(For those keeping up with the blog: biking 470 km in India was still more painful than this trek.)
While flying down an Indian highway at 100 km/h, I didn’t have the normal thoughts someone would have during their first trip to India: This is awesome! I’m in India! On a motorcycle! Why is there a cow in the road? Instead, at nearly 11 p.m. at night, after driving 470 km, all I could think was: Oh my god. I’m 30.
I landed in Jaipur around 1 a.m. Friday morning. After some confusion with my hotel shuttle looking for a Mr. Georgia rather than a Miss, I arrived at my room and collapsed onto my bed around 3 a.m., but I couldn’t sleep. I was too ecstatic. India, along with climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, has been at the top of my Travel Bucket List since the fifth grade, when I learned about Travel Bucket Lists. I don’t know what it is about the country. I could go with the cliche the colours, the people, the landscape, the food, but I honestly can’t pinpoint one single thing. I suppose it’s like my love of Chicago or the Greek Isles: sometimes a place just borrows under your skin and stays there.
Because of my new job, I could only stay in India for four days. That’s crazy for a country as large as India, right? Normally I’d wait until I had much more time off, but I’d been given the opportunity to meet a friend, K, in India. K, who is Indian, had just spent ten days biking through Jammu-Kashmir. He asked if I wanted to meet during the last few days of his trip. I wanted to respond like a teenager who has just been asked to the prom by her crush: YES OMG I WILL GO TO INDIA WITH YOU I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK LET’S LEAVE NOW.
Instead, I went the less psychopathic route: “Yeah cool. Let me see about tickets and if I can afford it.” So chill.
Going to India has been such a long-held dream of mine that I’ve struggled with what to write about it. The one thing that keeps sticking in my mind is expectations. I had a lot of expectations for India; so many that it made me nervous. You know how you can build a place up in your mind, and then when you get there you realize it’s not as great as you’d expected? This happened to me with the Moulin Rouge. I loved the movie, loved the romanticism, and just the spectacle of the dance hall. When I saw the real Moulin Rouge, however, my body physically deflated. It was so shabby and seedy looking that I didn’t even care to stop and take a closer look. I snapped an obligatory picture and left, feeling mildly depressed the rest of the day.
India had been built up in my mind just like the Moulin Rouge, but–because it’s a country and not just a building–quadruple-fold. As I waited to meet K in the hotel lobby the morning after I’d landed in Jaipur, I couldn’t stop fidgeting. I had really high expectations for India. Expectations that were maybe too high and could easily be shattered.
Expectation #1: Food
Who doesn’t love Indian food? People without taste buds, that’s who. To me, Mexican food and Indian food are the best cuisines in the world (sorry, India, you get beaten out because the American in me still wants all the cheese all the time). I could eat both every single day. When K and I sat down to our first meal in Jaipur, he said that we would only eat Indian food during the four days. I had zero qualms with that.
The food in India varies depending on which state you’re in. Jaipur is the capitol of the Rajasthan state, which is extremely arid. Limited water means there’s a limited variety of fruits and vegetables. Instead, Rajasthani food has a lot of dairy and game meat (for someone who doesn’t like game meat, I have never eaten so much lamb in my life, although K later pointed to a group of goats and said, “Mutton!” so who knows what meat we were actually eating).
If you’re going to Jaipur, I’d recommend Chokhi Dani, a mock traditional Rajasthani village (think Epcot without the Disney stuff). There’s dancing, music, magicians, shops, etc. At the end of the night, you can eat at one of four different dining areas, all of which serve traditional Rajasthani fare: two indoor dining halls, an open air dining hall, and a royal fine dining place. K and I ate at Jeeman Khas, one of the indoor communal options. We sat in a hall without about twenty other people. We each had a large tray made of leaves and handmade clay cups. For an hour, waiters scooped ladles full of paneer, aloo, masala, and some other stuff that I don’t know how to search on Google, but it was delicious.
Expectation #2: Bargaining
Bargaining is standard in most of Asia. A street vendor will quote a price to you, you quote something lower, they go mid-range, and eventually you agree on some amount.
I am shit at bargaining. Not only does it make me feel rude, but the one time I tried to bargain I countered with a price that was just five Baht less, and I agreed to my own price before the shop owner could even give a counter offer (but why would she have? I took off five Baht. That is the equivalent of $0.15). I hate bargaining. Maybe it’s because I grew up helping my parents do art shows, where no one bargains because it’s handmade art, and if you bargain you’re likely to get a pot thrown at your head. Or maybe I’m just too polite…or a pushover.
K bargains. It’s either ingrained or a source of pride or both. He told me to let him know whenever I wanted to buy something, and he would bargain with the shopkeeper. Before leaving for India we had watched a YouTube video of a girl who traveled around the subcontinent for a month. In the video she held up a beautifully beaded tunic. “I got this for three pounds!” she says. K paused the video. “She got it for 3 pounds. I’ll get it for one.”
Unfortunately for K, my inability to bargain spreads like a cloud of perfume and clings to anyone in the immediate vicinity. As we walked past shops I would see something I liked and point it out to K. (Honestly it was hard not to buy everything. Colours, patterns, and sequins? India will help me realize my dream of becoming a Lisa Frank notebook.) K would speak with the shopkeeper (in Hindi), and then tell me the price. I would then pull out my wallet, and K would stare at the ceiling trying not to roll his eyes. Apparently the bargaining hadn’t actually happened.
At one shop, while the shopkeeper packed up whatever I’d pointed out, K said, “You are really bad at this.”
“What did I do?”
“You pulled out your wallet. I can’t bargain if he knows you’re willing to pay.”
“I thought you’d already bargained.”
“No! We were just talking.”
“You were speaking Hindi!”
“We could have gotten much lower.” K had one of those fake smiles where you’re annoyed, but you want others to think you’re happy.
For the rest of the trip, we used a code word.
Expectation #3: Animals
I expected to see cows in India, but I didn’t expect to see so many cows. I lived in Estes Park, Colorado for a summer, and that town is ruled by elk. If an elk wants to cross the road, everyone stops until his royal elk-ness has sauntered by. India is the same with cows–they are everywhere and they have the right of way. I’m not even sure if anyone owned any of the cows or if they were just free cows. Like the elk of Colorado, the cows did lose their allure with me after a few days (maybe I’m still scarred from being charged by elk for no reason). K had to screech to a halt to avoid hitting one on the highway. We left our shoes outside of a temple and had to wait on a cow walking down a flight of stairs to get them back. On the streets of Pushkar, a cow head butted me into a motorbike. Since cows are revered in India I squeezed out of the way to keep from getting completely knocked over, but I wanted to push the cow and tell it to shove off.
(Photo credit: Kishan Mishra)
We encountered camels, dogs, monkeys, and a weird furry pig, and a line of elephants at the Amber Fort, but the animal I lost my mind over were peacocks. Wild peacocks. I am ashamed to admit it, but I never thought about peacocks being wild. I’ve only ever seen them roaming around zoos as if that’s where they came into existence. When K and I biked up a mountain one night I heard high-pitched caw-caw sounds from the trees. I knew the sound was familiar, but I couldn’t remember from where or why. Then, when we came upon a muster of mating peacocks (the collective noun for peacocks is “muster”–you’re welcome) I heard the sound again: “Oh my god there were peacocks in those mountains?! PEACOCKS ARE WILD HERE?!”
We found the peacocks on a drive up to a Sikh temple. I was so shocked I may have shrieked. The males had their tail feathers in full fan mode. They bounced their butts and slowly approached disinterested females (been there, girl). Some of the guys tried to pair up and sandwich a lady peacock, but she’d just peck at the ground as if dirt and bugs were way more fascinating than overzealous bro peacocks. It was like watching frat boys at a house party continually strike out.
Expectation #4: Attention
In case it’s not obvious, I am white–very, very white. Picture the most generic white girl you can think of and that’s me: blond hair, blue-eyes, skin-that-turns-red-after-fifteen-minutes-in-the-sun-and-gets-burnt-through-a-tinted-car-window white. Because of this, I do get stares in Asia (and some photos taken of me). Even K, after we ate at a South Indian restaurant in Bangkok, told me that I’d probably get some attention in India and that I should refrain from wearing shorts or tank tops.
On our first day in Jaipur, K and I explored the Amber Palace and Jaigarh Fort. When we walked between the two sites, I took off my tunic (I had a tank top on underneath) because no one else around and it was really hot. As if on cue, a guy and a girl suddenly appeared and asked to take a photo with me. Then, inside Jaigarh Fort, three other guys asked for photos as well.
Had I been on my own I would have agreed to every photo. Why? Because it has been ingrained in me as a woman to be polite least you make someone angry and they take it out on you. Would I have wanted to take the photos? No. The photos I’ve taken with strangers are typically people who I’ve at least chatted to for a bit and then they ask if we can take a selfie. These guys, though, didn’t even say ‘hi.’ They’d just come up and ask for a picture. (K also mentioned that the guys possibly wanted them for raunchy purposes, which definitely turned me off of taking any photos.)
I ended up only taking two photos: that guy and girl we came across when I took off my tunic and a mother and her child (that one wasn’t creepy!). The rest were scared off or snapped at by K. On our first day in Jaipur, lots of guys asked to take a photo and were surprised when K said something in Hindi. On the second day, when K dressed (according to him) “more Indian,” (jeans and a t-shirt rather than Thailand-backpacker elephant pants) I’d see pairs of young guys look at me, talk to each other, pull out their phones, and walk in my direction. They’d turn the other way the moment they noticed K.
Finally the Un-Expectation: Pain
K wanted to rent a motorcycle so we could travel to Sambhar Lake (80 km west of Jaipur) and the town of Pushkar (148 km west of Jaipur). We rented a Royal Enfield bike. We traveled on the highway for half of the trip, and two-laned potholed roads for the other half (for my midwestern friends: think of Michigan’s roads).
Before traveling to Jaipur, the longest I’d ever spent on a motorcycle was 45 minutes. I don’t know how to drive a motorcycle and, apparently, I don’t know how to ride one either. I should have treated it like a horse and lifted myself before every jump (aka pothole). Instead, every time K hit a pothole or speed bump I’d fly off the seat and come down hard. My tailbone felt bruised and fractured after hours of this. When K stopped short I’d fall forward, straining and pulling my torso and tailbone even further.
This is when I thought: oh god I’m thirty. I landed in India just five days before turning thirty. I had many typical moments of: OMG I AM AN ADULT. SHOULDN’T MY LIFE BE MORE PUT TOGETHER THAN THIS? I’VE SCREWED EVERYTHING UP. Then I’d remember that life is short and you should do what makes you happy. Seeing/doing as much as possible and having adventures (and something to write about) is what makes me happy.
Still, riding a motorbike for eight hours (EIGHT. HOURS.) is a fantastic way to remind you that maybe you don’t feel older than twenty, but your body is older than twenty. A decade older. K is not only used to motorcycles, but he’s a few years younger than me. I tried really hard to act like I wasn’t in pain and that riding the motorcycle nearly 500 km was totally fine. However, by the end of the journey, K had to stop every half hour so that I could get off the bike. At the last stoplight before we reached our hotel I cried.
The next morning, K asked if I wanted to bike out of Jaipur again. I’d once mentioned wanting to see the Chand Baori stepwell, which is featured in a lot of films. The stepwell was in the village Abhaneri, about 94 km outside of Jaipur. Did I want to get back on a bike that felt more excruciating than when I got my IUD? Hell no. Did I want to seem like a cool, adventurous person, who was totally not feeling like oh god my body is getting older and I can’t recover as quickly as I used to? Yes. So I agreed to go.
We never made it out of Jaipur. Maybe there is a god who knew that if I rode that bike for even another 20 km I was going to break in half. We ended up getting turned away at the entrance of the highway. A toll booth worker said bikes weren’t allowed, but he gave no explanation. I have never been so grateful for an inane rule.
We were then pulled over by a cop. K went to the police stand in the middle of the road while I stood on the shoulder with the bike (right next to a set of speed bumps, where I got stare after stare after stare as cars and bikes slowed down). The cop asked where K was from, where I was from, and what we were doing. He told K that I shouldn’t be on motorcycle on the highway. It’s no place for someone like her. When K told me this, suddenly I wanted to get back on the Bike of Pain and drive as far as we could go until we had to be back for our 10 p.m. flight. I can’t ride a bike on the highway? Screw you, sir, I already went nearly 500 km. I will ride that bike until I can no longer feel the lower half of my body!
Instead, K paid a bribe and we left.
There you have it! Four days in India: forts, food, peacocks, cows, bribes, and a broken body. Did it meet my fifth grader’s long held, exceedingly high expectations? Absolutely. I loved India–love India. My next trip will be longer.