Erin J. Bernard / erinjbernardphotography

Packing for the Apocalypse: Advice for Overloaded Travelers

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I have seen a good bit of the world, which for some reason has cultivated in others the mistaken impression that I might be a good source of counsel when it comes time to pack for a trip.

Let me assure each of you that this is not the case.

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Letter to a friend: Life since J-School

So I wrote this letter to an old professor of mine.

Professor Vos:

So I’ve been thinking the past week or two about the request you made in your previous e-mail – for to tell you about my travels since I left the J-school.

I’m always sort of baffled and intrigued by the premise of Summing Up. As you may recall, my grad thesis was 178 pages long, when 78 may well have sufficed. Brevity has never been my strong suit. Despite that, or perhaps even because of that, distillation in any form strikes me as a useful, if slightly maddening, exercise. So I sat down and started writing out an answer and I guess in the end it was mostly a letter to myself but I’m going to send it along to you for posterity and whatnot. Onward!

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Home and Other Unexpected Orbits

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So it’s timorously early here in Portland, around 5:30 a.m., and I’m sitting awake in the dark of my bedroom. I spent the night lost in dreams of Northern India. I was wandering the dusty roads of the Himalayan foothills, meeting elephants and smoking charas and looking for a friend I’d somehow lost along a steep and winding trail.

I got home four days ago and this persistent, overpowering sense of semantic disorientation has thrown me for a minor loop. It took two days for my ears to stop ringing thunderously. I sleep weird. I wake up too early. I’ve only left the house a couple of times and whenever I do the world feels big and overwhelming and empty.

I work mornings in my pajamas, then I go on walks and hear people talking to each other, quotidian conversations that always catch me by surprise with their dailyness and their booming tenor.

“Americans!” I’ll think, and turn to have a look, because we met fewer than half a dozen of our brethren during our five weeks in India, and the accent became a wary kind of touchstone.

Then I remind myself that everybody is American, here, and I stuff my hands into my pockets against the February chill and keep moving, to the co-op for a $7 turkey sandwich, or the doctor’s on Alberta to have these itchy, itchy bites inspected. (Not scabies. Sand mites.)

I’m trying to figure out my taxes, to return phone calls, to pay bills, to return to Planet Earth, but I’m stuck in this otherwordly orbit, looping aimlessly.

I suppose I am struggling to distill my experiences into something interpretable, and I hadn’t expected that. This sort of muted and tiny feeling that comes over me when I’m dreaming, or waking, too early. I’ve been away from home for far longer than this before, and my returns have always felt sort-of-triumphant and mostly easy peasy. Even after a year or two away, home felt beautiful and natural.

“Sailing ‘round the world in a dirty gondola / oh, to be back in the land of Coca-Cola,” as Bob Dylan would sing. That’s been me. All beautiful things here in America, all well. I love my home, truly, and, rejecting the vitriol shared by some of my countrymen, I am never sad to return to it.

“Go spend time in one of the real shitholes of the earth and then come back tell me what you think of America,” I used to hiss at aforementioned haters, when I was younger and infinitely wiser and nastier. Now I just nod and accept that how you think of Home says more about the times you’ve left it than it does about the times you’ve chosen to stay. That Home is a fluid kind of thing, connoting, mostly, your relationship with Otherness.

After India, I seem to have adopted a duality of thinking when it comes to what, exactly, constitutes Other. India is the Ultimate Other. But so is Here, once you’ve spent time There. And both places will go on with their messy general business of living, with our without me and my pointy-headed, liberal arts school philosophizing. That makes me feel small, but in all the right ways.

My phone rings a lot. People call to ask how India and Sri Lanka were. I tell them: wonderful, filthy, beautiful, disgusting, overpowering, the ultimate ultimate. Airport fires and chai and cockroaches and charas and masalas and Technicolor sunsets and tiny little brown children shitting atop garbage piles and filthy, filmy beauty everywhere you turn, in your nose and eyes and ears like a saffron-colored vapor, so ugly it turns back into beautiful, and then switch that and repeat.

I’m already halfway planning to go back next winter, maybe give the North a real shot this time around. India is definitely not a one-off deal, that much is for sure. Nah. This one’s gonna take some serious doing.

Tuk Tuks

Current counts

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So we’re back in Palolem, India, and settling into that tremulous and mystical moment in a longish trip away when time and travel sort of slow down. Lately, life has been less about recording and more about observing. Also, less about moving and more about standing still. We’ve no plans to leave the beach anytime soon, because life here is comfortable and warm and the big cities in this part of the world strike me as a bit haggard and harried and charmless, just like the big cities in every other part of the world I’ve visited. Cities make me nuts.

I’m also working remotely, now, so my days are a strange brew of big thinking and non thinking, in punctuated intervals. We’ve got a bit more than a week left of the trip, though, so perhaps our physical and mental slowing is a way to prolong the magic.

The current count:

One morning of dodgy stomach

Two countries and about a dozen cities and towns visited

One headlamp lost

One gigantic cockroach discovered in my clothes

One blister packet of Diazepam

Two packs of cigarettes (jeez, I know)

One journal three pages from full

One bag full of exotic spices stinking up my luggage like nobody’s business

A pocketful of trinkets for friends and family

Four postcards purchased but neither written on nor mailed. Sorry, guys. Not my strong suit.

Oh, yeah, and half a dozen bizarre and elaborate dream sequences, courtesy of my anti-malarial pills. In the best-worst of these, I was wandering the countryside barefoot and in tears because I’d lost both my travel partners and my shoes. The solution was easy: I put on an old pair of shoes I’d forgotten I had in my backpack and then kept on moving alone. There’s a metaphor in there. Plain sight, but it’s got nothing to do with this trip, or my travel partner, Emily, with whom I am getting along famously. Probably, it’s more about needs versus wants, and stomaching losses with minimal wailing and gnashing of teeth in general. In the “Real World,” to which I will soon return, and where I struggle mightily to stay centered and calm.

The hope is always that the lessons will make their way home with you, and continue to work on you well into the future. Adversity begets character, for sure. Even the good kinds of adversity, the kinds you hurtle at yourself, just to see. Like traveling to rag-tag countries full of wild smells and sights. Pretty much a sure thing.

Goodbye to the Big Rock Kandy Mountain

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Last night in Sri Lanka and we’re spending it in Negombo, a little beach town not far from the airport. We left Kandy early this morning on a second-class train that seemed to spend as much time moving backwards as it did moving forwards. I’m not sure why, but we passed the many hours making friends with a little bindied Sri Lankan baby seated next to us. He spent most of our time together trying to eat our hands and faces, and we placated him in return with coconut biscuits and mixed nuts.

Negombo is pretty but hot and bizzy and mosquito-y and we’re more than ready to get back to the India beaches. We just ate some amazing street food – kotu and rotti – and dudes are setting off M-16s in the lobby of the hotel. Shit is crazy!

So this week I get back on the work wagon. I’ll be editing remotely from the beach till we return home and am a bit conflicted about the occasion. It’ll be nice to get cashflow going again, but vacation … I haven’t had three weeks off since I finished grad school in 2009, but I’m so quickly acclimated to doing nothing it should be a crime. Anyway, lots to report, but I am desperate for a shower and sleep so it will have to wait.

Colombo – Bangalore – Goa tomorrow. It’s gonna be a 12-hour experience, for sure!

Photo gallery: Sri Lanka and a bit more of India

India – Quick picks!

India: Dispatches from the In Between Place

Today marks one full week here in India.

It has been seven days packed full of revelations, to be sure. The biggest and most mind-altering revelation so far has perhaps been how quickly you can accept an altered state of reality when you land in a place that is so utterly, bafflingly, bewitchingly foreign. How the instinct is always to start plotting out coordinates, even after the map has been wiped entirely clean.

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India: Crash landing!

Coming up on 24 hours in India and already time has sort of taken on an irrelevant dimension. Everything here takes either five times longer than you think it will or is completely simple and straightforward. Street signs exist or they don’t. People are kind without expectation of recompense or they trail after you for blocks, demanding rupees, chocolate, attention. It’s never what you expect. Except when it is. Etc.

Last night, on the way to the hotel from our airport, we embarked on a 2-hour taxi-bus mission to locate our crumbling, colonial digs. It was wild, on account of it being New Year’s Eve, and perhaps this just generally being India. Traffic snarls like you’ve never imagined, horns and fireworks and everybody shouting “Happy New Year” and “Happy Christmas” into our windows, rolled down to let in the cooler nighttime air.

And, yeah. The smells. Intense, mostly sulfur and fish and burning rubber and rubbish heaps afire.

We spent a good 10 minutes in one particular traffic snarl, sort of stalled out in a busy ten-way thoroughfare. I watched a homeless family of probably five or six kids and the two parents, squatting in the gutter, eating the remnants of a birthday cake. Untouchables. They were filthy and brown and very ragtag, perched at the edge of the road, right outside this huge, clean, well-lit pizza parlor filled up with rich, drunk Indians smoking cigarettes and shaking hands as the new year began. It was called “Pizza By The Bay.”

I watched the father carefully pick bits of dirt and trash out from the mangled cake, then lovingly feed the pieces to a tiny girl seated in his lap. The mother was holding a very naked, very bald, very filthy little baby and the older ones sat in a loose circle, feeding themselves. I watched them scooping up tiny fistfulls of chocolate cake and white frosting and stuffing them into their mouths with a universally recognizable gusto.

Cake is cake, after all, even if it comes from the trash. Even then.

They were eating and eating and the crumbs were getting everywhere and I was just staring at those brown, sticky smiles, that little family welcoming in a new, bad year without thought or ceremony or self-pity. All of it just was. Them, and those self-same skinny pups limping along the edge of the streets behind them, searching for scraps, or shade, or something. Them, and the mange-pigeons building nests atop air-conditioning units covered with white, dried-up shit, and the Mumbai upper crust in the pizza joint beyond, loosing their belts and blowing little party whistles and cooing at the fireworks out over the bay.

I think if you looked too long or too hard at much of anything around here, you’d probably cry. India will break your heart.