Saturday, June 30, 2012

This is my Story


This is my story. The story of a small town girl with big-time dreams and a deadly (contagious) case of Wanderlust. I'm seeking life's most important question: what I want to do with the rest of my life and how to get there, while chasing samurai and wearing French berets, all the while differentiating between foreigner, gaijin, and Étranger...

When I first wrote this caption, I was 14 years old. I did not know I would be living in Japan. In fact, the word gaijin was a different word, whatever the Afrikaans word for foreigner was. As you may recall, I was promised a placement in South Africa for my first exchange. Then 5 months prior to departure, someone called me to congratulate me on my acceptance to East Asian nation of Japan. I never quite found what happened.

Clearly, time went on.

My year in Japan flew by, I returned to graduate high school and flounder with the idea of going to college. This resulted in another youth exchange abroad to another country. The word I added after foreigner and gaijin was initially the Spanish word for foreigner. I was going to Argentina; at least this was what I was promised. Needless to say, like South Africa becoming Japan, Argentina became France. I have many ideas and theories to explain why other people successfully chose my country for me. All I know is that what makes our fate is often not part of our control.

I am 21 now. I wrote that passage above 7 years ago. A third of my life ago. Every time I come on this blog, I read it over and over again. To me, it seems flawless, the true tale of my life summarized in the words of a little girl. But the more I read it, the more I wonder if I should change the words somehow.

I guess, technically, I am not a girl anymore. But I still think like a girl, and look like one according to most people. I still dream vividly about faraway places, and hope and pray I will get the chance to see them. You might be able to argue that I am not really seeking life’s most important question anymore. I know who I am. Sure, I do not really know where I am going, but I have the right idea. I still have another 10 to 20 more years of being a travel bum. At least that is part of the plan now. Who knows after that?

So what am I doing for the rest of my life?

In approximately 10 months, I will graduate form Clemson University with a Bachelors of Science degree in Secondary Education (History.) I am pleased with my decision to pursue education. I love teaching and I was born to be an educator, and in true Julie Garner fashion, the decision to enter this major was not really made by me (well, it was, but under unusual circumstances.)

I entered Clemson under the degree program of Language and International Trade with emphasis in Japanese and French. Sometimes I wonder why I did not stick with that program. There are two things that I need to point out: my freshman year of college at Clemson, I joined a sorority. For the first time in my life, I actually felt like I belonged somewhere. I was accepted into a group of girls, friends and sisters, for better or worse. When I was made a sister, I decided to change what I am for this fantastic group of girls, who finally made me feel like I had a purpose in the United States of America. I diligently learned how to wear the right clothes, how to wear make up, and how to impress boys at parties. I began sharing the same dreams as my sisters: a Southern husband, a tailgating spot for Clemson football games for the rest of my life, a big white wedding, a white picket fence and a golden retriever chasing my kids around in the yard. I had spent most of the last years living abroad and living a life deemed by most to be unconventional. Maybe it was time to be conventional.

But all of this was not the only reason I switched majors. Ultimately, I realized my skills, as a person would be better suited to educating children, and not dealing with pompous businessmen.

At the end of my freshman year, when I switched majors; education, which would allow me a conventional normal life seemed to be the best option. I am thankful for the switch now. I can go abroad and teach easily. Although my reasons for switching into the education no longer really apply. I do not mind business and I will never ever lead a conventional life. White picket fences are the scenes of my nightmares, and I no longer feel that I need to a be a different person to be accepted. I have had a change of heart about my sorority. I have a wonderful group of friends that loves me for who I am, conventional or unconventional.

I read the above passage again.

I am still chasing Samurai too. On July 29th or 30th, I will be heading back to Japan, after 5 years. The continuation of my summer of the islands on Shikoku, Japan to return to a land that has been calling my name since the moment I left. Then, mais oui, the French beret (symbolism for what I really mean to be the bad habits I picked up in France) I carry with me at all times.

So, I guess I am not changing the passage, the story to my story. As a person, I have certainly not changed. The road I have taken to get to this point throughout these past 7 years, have made me think in a new way and see a good part of the world, but I am still me. Still just a girl with a serious case of Wanderlust.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Room is Spinning



I am only 21! This cannot be happening.

No, my hair is not turning grey. Wrinkles have not sporadically appeared overnight. I still think prunes are disgusting, and I have not received an AARP card in the mail yet.

But I have been subject to a recent bout of something I used to make fun of my parents for. I will never forget my mother’s own inability to walk straight through the hallways of the Disney Cruise on her first night, or her incapacity to ride any given ride that contained even just a hint of circular motion. I used to make my Dad feel ancient when he would tell me his vertigo was acting up and we could not take the motorcycle up.

Thus far, in this summer of the Islands, I have been struck with a bad case of vertigo at the bottom of the ocean in the Maldives and am so motion sick right now in the Mediterranean that I think I am honestly going to have to sleep in his fetal position on the floor.

When did this happen?

The first time I got seasick was in 2008, on a fishing trip with my Dad off the coast of Maryland. To be fair, I did not get sick. I just stayed below deck and slept and tried to read a book while fighting off what I now know is the feeling of a bad hangover. The boat was sailing through the tail end of a summer squal and the waves were impeccably high and rough. No one faulted me for my seasickness. They even mentioned that I was quite the trooper. My sister had a much more violent case of seasickness the day before which resulted in a christening of the Ocean on several occasions.

Now I get seasick anytime there is a slight zephyr that rocks the boat on gently. But seasick is different for me. I have always had a stomach of steel, so my seasickness usually feels like I have had too much wine and the room is spinning. I suppose I really should not complain that I can ‘get tipsy’ without drinking anything, but I am complaining. When a 5 year old and a 3 year old are running around at top-speeds and you are trying to catch them, looking and feeling like a drunken sailor, well, it’s just not a good experience, and the bruises on my bodies are proof. Dramamine just makes me sleep, so that does not solve my dilemma with the boys either.

The Maldives was rough. I especially think of the Night Ferry, Deen and I took from Kuredu to Male. When I got up to get my jacket, I truly though I was going to die. If not for preoccupation with worry over freezing to death, I think I would have climbed aboard to boat and jumped off. It was that bad. Then there were those Scuba trips out into the atoll, where spontaneous squals would hot and the baot would jump up and down in the waves. It always felt better when I jumped into the water, but until that point, I felt like a drunken sailor, not exactly a model scuba diver.

So far, my stomach and my mind have had a crazy trip. In Rome, I was assigned 3 year-old duty one afternoon. This meant about 12 turns on a carousel in the local park. I will say very little about how I felt after this, excect that I had to take a taxi home (a mere 10 minute walk) and then proceeded to sleep for 3 hours in the middle of the day.

The Venice canal boat ride was horrifying. We were in the grand canal, and it appeared as though every boat in existence was zipping by us, forcing us to drive through their wakes. My employers said they had never seen anyone turn so red and then so green so quickly.

And now? Oh lord. Now is by far worse.

Before the giant cruise ship left the port of Venice I asked Megan, my stewardess f I would get seasick or motion sick, or whatever they were calling it. She laughed at my seriousness and said, “the water of Med Sea is like glass! You won’t even feel the boat move.”

False.

This evening there is a strong Westerly wind coming off of Africa. The boat is rocking so much that even the cabinet doors can not stay closed. I was fortunate that one of my employers gets seasickness far worse than me, so I was released early from babysitting. I headed back to my room, plopped out of the floor with a wine bottle, a pillow, and a pen and paper to write my last will and testaments on. This is going to be a rough night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

People With Money (or at least act the part...)



Thus far, on each of my Summer 2012 voyages, I have befriended the maids, stewardesses, island hosts, shopkeepers, chefs, etc. It has always been hard not to. They seem to be the only people I can really relate to, in spite of me being the vacationer and they being the employee.

Despite the negative reactions of my employers to their maid aboard the cruise, I adore mine. Megan from South Africa is not the world’s greatest shower cleaner, but she has a sense of humor, supplies me with extra alcohol and diet coke, and indulges me in my complaints about the rich people. Megan is working aboard this boat because of her student loans that need to be paid off somehow. She is a student of hotel management and hospitality. But as far as many of her guests are concerned, she is an impoverished slave that can accept all complaints. She was telling me some of her more interesting questions by guests. “So do you ride lions and tigers?” “Can you speak English?” “Are these schools in Africa?” She tried very hard not to blame the entire country of America for the world’s stupidity, but the implication is definitely there.

“Julie, when I tell most American people I am South African, they ask me why I am not black?” These are wealthy, well-to-do people, I might add.

Perhaps we should start with this. Rich people. Or better yet, people who act rich, which is probably just worse. People who think they are smarter and better than everyone else. My fellow passengers, and probably most people that travel; aboard a Seabourn vessel.

I am so fortunate to have the opportunity to have this ‘working vacation’ aboard the Seabourn Odyssey. The cruise line clearly caters to the upper-class, so the cruises I have been on in the past; Disney and Carnival, have not prepared me for the antics of the ship. The itinerary is this: Sibenik, Croatia; Kotor, Montengro; and then several other islands in Greece (I realize I should know them, but since leaving the boat is not really an option, I have not really bothered to concern about it.) The food is brilliant, the scenery is gorgeous, the boat is luxurious, but my fellow travelers seriously suck.

One meal spent in the café or the outdoor grill will confirm this for anyone. First of all, since I am on a working holiday, I am usually with the boys, a rambunctious typical 5-year old, and an energetic 2 year-old. Our fellow passengers seem to forget that they had children once too, even if they just handed them off to their nanny’s. When the little one makes a loud noise, excited about something, people inevitably stare and some even complain loudly about the children. Now I can normally relate to these people if the children are having tantrums or behaving badly, but the kids could simply be talking loudly, and the death glares appear. It is absolutely ridiculous. More than once I have found my quiet non-confrontational self, shooting fellow travelers dirty looks or responding with something, “Seriously, he is 2! Get over it.”

Then there are the looks of disgust aimed at me. Guess what? They moved my trip up by a week, a grand total of 2 days after I got back from the Maldives. I did not get a chance to pack. Nor did I get a chance to actually look into the cruise itinerary. All I knew was that I was told CASUAL is the primary attire. Casual means shorts and a t-shirt. Apparently, not. It means Polos, skirts, high-heeled shoes, and classy sundresses. At dinner time, when I wear shorts and a t-shirt, well, if looks could kill I would be sooo dead. It really embarrassed me at first that so many people stuck of their noses at me. Not only did I not drink my Ralph Lauren Polos and high-heeled Manolos, but I DON’T OWN ANY OF THEM. I like my $9 Walmart shorts (bought for the Maldives because they are long!) and my beaten up sorority shirts. I am comfortable, and that is all that relly matters.

The complaints to the staff and crew are fantastic, as well. Apparently room service does not offer enough options (seriously? TWO PAGES of SURF AND TURF options alone.) The onboard shopping does not have enough labels. The wine just is not the caliber that is expected about a Seabourn cruise. The list goes on.

I got to thinking. Does having money automatically make you better than everyone else? If no, why do they think that? Why does merely being able to identify the exact vineyard in Napa your wine came from make you better than your maid? Why does spending an absurd amount of a Seabourn cruise (which keeps the riff raff out) make you better? I do not get it.

I miss the middle class people. I miss the people that refuse to spend 26 euros on a sandwich, or 1000 euros on a fancy hotel room when the hostel down the road costs 25 euros. I know this is not a product of the Maldives Experience. I think this is really just me. Stuck in the middle of extreme opulence and downright poverty. The Middle Mindset.

And here I am in the middle of this madness. A frumpy American girl avoiding the pool area, the buffets, the breakfast rooms, or any area where I have to spend time with the rich people. Although I do not care if they think they are better than me, I do not want to give them the satisfaction. I would rather hang out with Megan and the other maids and see how the normal, down-to-Earth people actually live.

“I gotta admit, I do not know much about South Africa. But do you speak Afrikaans? Like are you bilingual?” I asked Megan today. She smiled, and said that was (sadly) the most intelligent question anyone had ever asked her about South Africa.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

An Entire Box of Chocolate Liquers


“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liquers in one go.” – Truman Capote

So... my hotel in Venice. Let's talk about this for a second.

Overlooking the stunning church of San Giorgio Maggiore and the azure Venetian lagoon, the hotel is situated on the Eastern tip of Giudecca Island. Opened in 1956 by Commendatore Giuseppe Cipriani, it is furnished with vintage pieces and fabulous Fortuny fabrics and has featured in a host of films including Casino Royale. Bond. James Bond.
The guest list is as decadent as the decor: Johnny Depp, the Coen brothers, Sir Roger Moore, Keira Knightley and Angelina and Brad are just a few recent visitors.
The hotel has a few of its own mischievous stories to tell - the vineyards which surround the grounds are known as 'the Casanova orchards' as it's said that this is where the renowned Lothario seduced girls who were being kept in seclusion in nearby monasteries. 





Friday, June 22, 2012

Why I Suddenly DON'T HATE Italy, and instead hate the bus


This seemingly cheap cost us stupid bis tour Americans over 100 Euro. Why?  Targeting tourists.

Some of you that have followed me on my adventures throughout the years might remember my first time in Italy. It was in 2009, part of the famed exchange students Eurotour, where in the span of 11 days I managed to hit: Reims, Munich, Linderhoff, Innsbruck, Milan, Verona, Venice, Monaco, Dijon, and probably several more but I have long since forgotten about those places. Why? Because it was a bus tour. I hate bus tours almost as much as I used to hate Italy. (And that's saying something, trust me.)

Tour buses are about as adventurous and educational as watching a week’s worth of infomercials. They are the sole reason Americans get off the plane in JFK and try to kiss the ground they walk upon (well certainly not the sole reason...) They are an absolute tease, as well. Oh hey, let's take you all around London, but just when we pull up to Westminster Abbey and I tell you all about the famous people buried there and all the fantastic history and you think, "Wow, I really want to go inside!" we are gonna drive away reallly really quick!

I consider myself one of the young, independent-minded travelers and thus I tend to see the tour bus as a rolling retirement home, shepherding flocks of Bermuda-shorted retirees from tourist trap to tourist trap while spoon-feeding them a watered-down version of the local culture. "Ciao, Bella! Eat some pizza while you're in Italia!"

But what if you have to take the tour bus?
I certainly did. 

Last summer, I went to England, Ireland, and Scottland on a tour bus with my Nana. I was the youngest person on the bus by about 45 years, not collecting Social Security, and was by far the least social. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with my grandma, but if I had to hear one old-fart complain about British food being bland or the Beefeaters looking ridiculous in their bear-fur hats, I was going to threaten to walk the rest of the bus ride.

My Eurotour that first brought me to Italy was not quite as bad. I was surrounded by several like-minded individuals that wanted to experience the place fully and truly. But the bus presented us with several other problems. Hey, guys, we’re going to Venice! We know you want to see everything and do everything, and we are so happy to be able to give you that chance. But, be back on the bus in 45 minutes! Yeah, it was pretty bad.

I think that’s why I truly hated Italy that first time. The bus dropped us off in the minefield of tourist hell, where the pickpocketers frequented, the scams ran high, it cost the equivalent of $10 to pee, and it was right smack dap in the middle of the high season. Venice smelled like a Port-O-John in the August heat. Veronians ripped a bunch of us for a good 100 euros on one small meal. Locals threw things at us in Venice and called us ”fat stupid Americans.”  I hated Italy with every fiber in my body. I swore I would never go back.

Now I love Italy.

Why?

I am not hindered by 4 wheels and a stigma towards big oversized tourist buses. My hotels have been smack dap in the middle of the city. I have gotten up early everyday just to walk around and explore the city on my own, with just a small guide book in my pocket. I eat at the hole-in-wall places that cost very little and taste amazing. I karate chop the scammers and pick pocketers that target my baggy shorts and messy hair as a tourist. I pretend to not be American and speak French when I can tell English is not a welcome sound. In Rome, I missed the Colesseum, but I know the Spanish Steps and all those side streets almost as well as I know the streets of my beloved London.

I am a tourist, but I am not anchored to a bus.

The Loneliness in Being Alone


The day before I left on the Pappas Family Vacation, I had one of my classic DMC’s (deep meaningful conversation) with my meillure amie, Mere OT, part-time sorority sister, part-time therapist, and full-time confidant. It seems that both of us have reached a serious point in our lives, where both stand at 2 opposite ends of the road having to make difficult choices.

Although I do not think it is my place to tell Mere’s story, I think a slight background detail is in order to understand how each party stands. Mere and her long-time boyfriend decided to break up, well; they termed it a summer ”break.” Although it is both of our opinions that summer is automatically a break. This takes it a step further.

Mere is that friend that when asked in a tipsy joking rage, “Gah, when was the last time you were even single?” And you expect, no… you HOPE in that cruel schadenfreude type of way, that the last time she was single was not that long ago so that your pathetic life does not seem that pathetic.

But then as she sits back and tries to remember all the way back into her early high school, maybe late middle school days, it hits you.

You are pathetic.

And Mere has not been single since the pre-Bieber era, when the OC was still on television, and everyone still used AOL instant messenger.

Where as Mere might have trouble remembering what it is like to be single, I have absolutely no problem helping her fill in the blanks. Being single come natural to me, like breathing or eating. In fact, being in a relationship is where things get really fuzzy and questionable for me.

We all have that asinine friend who has to make the inevitable comment, “I just don’t know how you can be single! I can’t imagine life without [insert name]!” Well, to respond, I cannot imagine having to deal with [insert name]! It terrifies me to think I have to answer to someone, among other things. So I might get a gold star for being a good single girl, but I think more credit ought to go to the people in relationships. Now that, my friends, is a terrifying concept. To put it in simpler terms: I'm not really open to the potential of missing out on opportunities because of obligation to another person. It’s not fair to me or that hypothetical other person.


The truth is, I have been single since I came into this world, and at the rate I am going, will probably be single when I exit it. This is not some pity party where I cry and walk around the streets, screaming, “I am going to die alone!” I am single because I choose to be. I do not have any interest in dating at the moment, even though the thought has crossed my mind several times in the past few years. Oh, I’ll admit, I let my guard down a few times and got my feelings hurt. So, it is not for lack of trying to date. I like to think I’m not butt-ugly (then again beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, or so I am told, and I’ve always been attracted to the pleasantly plump type.) So, who knows? Certainly not me, and I am not overly concerned at the moment.

The other night, during our DMC, the concept of my “Honeymoon with Myself” came up. I told Meredith my theory on life. I am getting used to all these travels alone. I am getting used to going Scuba Diving solo, walking up and down the Spanish Stairs with only myself, and answering “yes” to the questions of whether I would be dining alone. This is the utmost truth. I really do not mind being alone either. I have always been a big fan of the “me time” and as long as I have a good book, I am perfectly to be solo.

Or am I?

I never thought about things like this, but I am pretty shaked up when Mere told me that my theory of being alone made her really sad.

Her exact muttering went like this, “Like, I spent all of my Paris trip sad because I felt like I couldn't share it with anyone that mattered, that I was having this life-changing experience, but I couldn't share any of it with ppl I loved, ya know?”

I never thought about things like that. It makes sense. When I returned high on life from Japan, no one could relate to my ramblings about the greatest country on Earth. I lost a lot of friends because all I wanted to do was talk about Japan Japan Japan Japan, and no one else did. I thought it was because they were bad friends to start with. Now I am thinking that things were different.

On that foreign exchange, I was solo on what I will maybe always term as, “The Best Year of My Life.” And yet the only people I have to share the memories with live thousands of miles away in Japan. Maybe Mere OT is right.

I am really confused about being alone right now. I used to think it was a godsend, but now I am reassessing my whole thoughts about everything. I am not entirely sure Italy, another capital of honeymoon hell, is the best place to do this soul-searching, but it is what I have right now.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Have Fallen For Rome



For a girl who loathed Italy even before I stepped foot here the first time in 2009, I am pleased to say that my irrational yet easily explainable Italian detestation is gone.  Since the very first second my feet landed on Roman soil, I fell head over heels for this city of noise, chaos, energy, and spirit. A city of contradictions and yet effortless conciliation, where the ancient and modern bump up against one another, the old and the young get along, the frantic and the indolent coexist. Everyone is always in a hurry except, that is, when they're not.

This is a city that is brimming with warmth, smiles, happy people, and overall enjoyable attitude. I feel it in the steaming syrupy black espresso I drink when I am out for people-watching in Piazza Navaro, in the laughter of the gangs of smartly dressed friends, in the shrill laughter of little children chasing pigeons on te Piazza del Poppolo, and in the ancient stones in every magnificent building and cobbled street. Even the hustle and bustle of tourists piling on to their buses, makes me smile. I do not know what it is but Rome is simply magnificent.

How do I explain this newfound love for Rome? There are a few simple explanations that I can come up with: I just recently returned from tremendous poverty in the Maldives and am now surrounded by excessive opulence and wealth. Could this be it? No, I don't think so, I have never been one to choose being wined and dined over making a difference. What about how Rome reminds me so much of two of my favorite things: the city of Paris and my meillure amie, Mere OT. Could this be the reason I love it? Perhaps, it makes sense! Rome is like Paris with much warmer weather, more smiling faces, and less French people letting their dogs defecate all over the street. And the people-watching in Rome makes me think of Mere OT. But, alas, I do not think that is why I love Rome so much. To be honest, I do not know why I have become enamored with this magnificent ville. Only that I have.

One of my favorite movies of all times is Roman Holiday. And my bella hotel is situated atop the Spanish Steps, so you can probably imagine where I've perched myself in great awe. As I was sitting there this morning, bright an early to escape the flock of tourists that descend upon the Spanish Steps, I got to thinking about all the greats that had been to Rome before me. That is what is truly fascinating about Rome: walking the narrow cobble stoned pathways that Julius Caesar ruled, as well as along the streets made famous by Audrey Hepburn a top of motor scooter. 

I am leaving Rome tomorrow for Venice, which makes me sad because I am in love with Rome and I did not have a good previous experience with Venice. But one thing I feel is relaxed. I am in no rush to see things and do things even though my hours are dwindling in the eternal city.

If I do not see the Vatican while I am here, ah well, maybe next time?

Despite the chaos and the compelling booming tourists-y culture, it's a city that somehow encourages me to take things easy. I am normally one of those travelers that get serious remorse when I have missed a crown jewel attraction while on my holiday (still pretty hung up about missing the Eiffel Tower climb.) But in Rome, I do not feel like going to a museum and I am not suffer tourist guilt — the streets are steeped with and history. Indeed when there's almost too much to do, it becomes a matter of duty to simply stroll the streets or linger longer over lunch and imbue the atmosphere.

Oh Roma, what have you done to me?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

I Don't Speak Italiano



I have a sneaking suspicion I know why people think Italian is romantic. And not just more than the ‘romance’ language romantic. The kind of sound that makes American girls swoon while searching for an Italian boyfriend, and tons of people claim that they want to learn Italian, an incredibly useless language spoken in one declining European country. (On a slightly less relevant topic, I am not a huge fan of Italy, although as my time in Rome moves on, I feel myself letting go off this strange irrational dislike. More on that later.)

This is my theory: In Italy, regardless of whether or not the Italians speak English, and the majority do speak it, they answer you in Italian.

“Thank you!” I tell the concierge after he has pointed me in the direction of the Coliseum.

“Grazi,” he says, not as your welcome but as a way to correct my language. The bloody vile Queen’s language. (Additionally, everyone here thinks I am British.  Then again, I do not try to correct them on this one. Daft fools.)

Here is the thing, Americans are not used to being usurped of their language in a foreign country. They are used to disgruntled Parisian waiters responding in pigeon English, followed by a sardonic, “les Americans…” afterthought. Or Germans not even giving Americans the chance to attempt German, “Oh ya! Hello, American are you?” They are used to the entire world catering to them in their native tongue. English is, after all, the worlds truly internationally language, regardless of what the anti-English speakers say.

Not so in la bella Italia.

That humbling moment when the Taxi cab driver says, “no English,” is the moment when Americans begin to fall in love with the language they want so badly to speak. I wonder if perhaps other countries refused to speak English to Americans, there would be a new found need for foreign language teaching. I doubt it. Italy is an exception.

I have not yet determined if it is all just an act for the American tourists that descent upon Rome, and Italy in general, like swarms of mosquitoes. If I were not positive that France was the world’s most popular tourists attraction I would swear to you that the city of Roma was. I think if America were to make Roma the 51st state, an impossible delusion on my part, there would be little change. I honestly, do not think I have seen so many American gathered in one place since the South Carolina State Fair. Although I have yet to try it, I think if someone broke out the Start-Spangled Banner at the Spanish Steps, the whole of Rome would sing (some in English, and some in Italian, of course.)

This brings me back to my initial point: why Italian is romantic. Americans and their loud boisterous travels to Rome come with little more than Italian than the back of a Ragu box. But when they leave, most think they are well on their well to becoming fluent. It amazes me, but they are not inherently wrong. The Italians refuse to speak English to them. It is absolutely hilarious to watch an American family at a café trying to sign language, “CHECK, PLEASE!”

I have a little bit of a secret myself. I love my country, but I also enjoy watching my fellow Americans squirm when conversing with a troublesome Italian, refusing to speak English. But I am doing my part to regain some glory for my countrymen. At a café, when the waiter comes to me in Italian mode, I respond en Français. It usually throws the waiter off, and it is quite comical to watch their facial expressions assess the situation.

Since French is not wholly dissimilar to Italian, they often think either: a) I am an Anglophone actually trying to speak a beautiful language, or, B) I am a French speaker, who will not tolerate this rude Italian attitude and will not be able to converse in Italian. Suddenly, these waiters appear to speak English fluently, “Erm… I do not speak your language. English, okay?”

Why, yes, English is fine.

I have never though Italian was a beautiful language. I still do not. One romance language is enough for me. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Things I've Learned, The Places I've Gone


I've been to 25 countries now, but I only write about the places that have truly made a difference to my life.




Australia taught me to embrace my inner adventure.

Japan taught me how to be happy.

France taught me that simple things are the sunshine of life.

Germany taught me indulge in life’s pleasure.

Italy taught me that it was okay to be unconventional.

England taught to laugh at myself.

America taught me to let go of the past and move forward.

The Maldives has taught me that I am stronger than I know.



The Vacation From Vacations

Arrival to the JFK airport was met with a bear hug from my over protective father, along with a question about whether I wanted to bend down and kiss the good old American soil.

No.

But I am glad to be back. I have already eaten my weight in wheat bread, vegetables, Nutella, and Dove chocolate. I have read 3 books I have never read before. I can finally understand English, without having to actually think about what I am hearing and then processing (sorry, Deen, your English is great but it gives me a headache!) I don't have air condition here, but that't is more than okay! I'm wearing a long-sleeve shirt and chills run up and own my spine. My skin is still brown with sun-scorched island, and my stomach has been hurting from the reintroduction of normal American food. Life is good, stateside.

But... alas, this vacation from my vacations is about to end.

At 4:50 tomorrow, I head off to Rome. It's a working vacation, I promise. The little boys I have been babysitting for for the past 5 years need someone to hang out with in Rome, Venice, and then a cruise around the Dalmatian Coast and Greece. I was happy to oblige.

This time I know how to pack too. Same stuff I wore in the Maldives with an additional 5 t-shirts, actual medicine, and aloe vera (Aloe should be required on all voyages.)

I've also thought about something.

Summer 2012. May in the Maldives. June on the Dalmatian Coast and Greek Islands. August in Kochi, Japan. Summer 2012 is the summer of the islands.

Guess I better suck up my distaste for island life for a little while longer.

In Another Life


The Maldives.
I am currently sitting at a coffee booth in the middle of Male International Airport. Even though I have not left the Maldives, I still feel as though a weight has been taken off my chest. I think that fact I just paid $13 for a sandwich, rather then 10 Maldivian rufiyaa might have helped.  Or maybe it is that I am no longer sticking out like a sore thumb surrounded by Maldivians gaping at my golden hair and blue eyes and remarking, “foreigner!”

I look around and I’m surrounded by sun burnt British tourists. It feels a little bit like being back at Kuredu. All these people look content, like they have had a wonderful holiday and are now pleased to return to their rainy wet island out of the sun. My freckles and sun burnt skin make me one of them, until I open my mouth and let the American accent come out. Back to being a foreigner. Back to being that stranger in a strange land.

Deen visits the Maldives' national
mosque.
Today has been a strange day for me. Deen and I had been anticipating this day for so long, that it sort of snuck up on us. Not such a surprise for me, because my flight is late in the evening. But for Deen, it sort of just came out of nowhere (flight is to Colombo, Sri Lanka.) When he knocked on my door this morning to wake me up, I angrily cursed him out for waking me up. It was 5 AM. Deen wanted breakfast.

Thinking I would probably regret my little burst of sleepy anger, I took a quick shower and was ready to eat for 6am. I figured it would be completely pointless. To go eat as no Maldivian actually works at 6AM. Most won’t work till 10 AM, if they even bother to work at all. Somehow Deen managed to locate the one breakfast shop in the whole capital that was owned by Indians. Indians wake up to work. Deen found us breafast.

It was my last Roshi Mashuni breakfast, and I must say eating the onion and Tuna mixture wrapped in Naan bread, and I felt my first pang of sadness. I would be leaving in a few hours. I would not be having Mashuni for breakfast tomorrow. I looked to Deen to receive some sympathy, but I received none. Deen was already 1,000 miles away in his bean-shaped, Tamil-talking, home island called Sri Lanka.  I was still in Male, and would be for at least the rest of the day, so I enjoyed my Mashuni in peace.

Rikie came to collect us after that. Deen asked him to come to the airport with us, and Rikie was happy to oblige. We took the Taxi to the ferry station, and hopped aboard. I noted that Deen did not look back once at the city of Male looming on the horizon. At the airport, he bought me coffee in exchange for 3 American quarters (would be a fair deal in Naifaru, but in the international airport he was getting ripped off good.) He became completely fascinated by the little silver coins that I could not help but laugh. Two of them were state quarters and trying to explain Arkansas in the context of the United States proved to be quite a challenge for me. But I got to feeling that Deen was really just stalling. He did not seem to be in Sri Lanka at that moment. He seemed to hold on to each and every one of my words, laughing at unfunny things, and reminiscing about the last month we spent together on a scorched island.

Goodbye to Deen!
I think the moment Deen stepped through the departure gate, is the moment that I really left the Maldives. My best friend and the only reason I stayed, survived, and flourished was leaving the country. He was going home. So was I, not just yet, but it felt right.

Before Deen left, he handed me a notebook, which he had people write, “Deen testimonials,” in. It was sort of like a yearbook for his journey, I suppose. Writing it and I could not help but laugh. I reminded him of all the good times: the counting down of the days till departure in meals, Lucia’s coffee, our DMC’s at the harbour, the night ferry from Kuredu, his creepy stalker skills, his exceptionally annoying habits, his weird sound effects when speaking English, “sitting and discussing,” his appalling pronunciation of the word ‘schedule.’

He offered his hand as a gesture of farewell, but I decided I did not care about his religion’s rules. I jumped into his arms and gave him a big ol’ American hug. It definitely caught him off guard, but he responded well with a back pat and a promise to see me again.

He left over 11 hours ago and he has already called me once, spoken to me on Facebook through messages, and chats. I have no doubt that I will see him again. I have no doubt that even though our perspective countries ar eon the other side of the world, Deen will still find ways to drive me insane, to make me laugh, and to be a good friend regardless of the distances.

“You missed that I cried in immigration. I miss you already too” he said on Facebook chat after he arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka. “We must have been friends in another life.”

I think Deen might be right. I think we must have been friends in another life, and not just strangers in a strange land becoming friends through necessity.

Friends in another life.
I think back to my first blog post in Naifaru. I chuckle as I remember Deen displaying his impressive stalker skills through the Internet. I wrote on that blog post, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Oh how right I was.

The rest of my day was unimpressive. I visited a local island, but I am little tired of island life. Deen swore he would not go near the ocean for at least a few months. I am not that extreme, but I know what he means. I am drained out from the island life.

My plane is being called. The mass exodus of British holday-goers is heading out on to the tarmac.

I am finally going home. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

Last Days

Views from Naifaru/

June 12th.

A date that has been lingering on my mind since I arrived here in the Maldives. A date which has been brought up and revisited excitedly on daily basis by my favorite Sri Lankan, Deen, as he anxiously awaited his departure from our sun-scorched island. Of course my countdown methods were a little different, maybe a bit conventional. I usually remember the day from before and then count down from there, "13 more days!" Deen, however, would count our remaining days by the ticks on our meal card, and say, "39 more meals!"

Regardless of his fatty countdown methods, Deen and I both would tell you June 12th could not come fast enough. For him, 3 months of life in Maldives would come to end, 1 month for me. Both agree that it is absolutely time to go home. The countdown might not have been so anticipatory if it has not been for our NGO completely ignoring us and not giving us anything to do but sweat our butts off and twiddle our thumbs... oh and count down the meals to departure day.

On June 11th, I left Deen on Naifaru to train his replacement volunteer coordinator, while I trekked off to Kuredu once again. I just could not pass up free scuba diving and one less day on Naifaru. When I got back, Deen and I headed out to the harbor to have one of our DMC's (deep meaningful conversations.) We both discussed exactly what is on our mind: in respect to the volunteering and making a difference to the Maldives aspect, did we fulfill what we came to do or did we waste a month of our life?

When I think about my whole experience, I can not honestly say I do not regret a thing. As far as personal growth is concerned, my one month in the Maldives has taught me more than any and all of my past travels. I can survive anything and I can flourish in the worst conditions imaginable. But I did not come to the Maldives for personal growth. I came here to teach English to underprivileged Maldivian youth, and I did very little of that. So, I succeeded and I failed; I regret nothing and I regret everything. I have also dabbled in the growing industry of voluntourism, and I feel that I can now voice my opinions and concerns bout the practice.

Deen and I with the volunteer coordinator.
I explain this to Deen, and I think, even though he regrets coming more than I do, he feels the same way.

Regardless of how we personally reflect on this whole adventure, our final meal on Deen's countdown meal card was enjoyable. We both has Tuna sandwiches, which we ate on the jetty at Kuredu, where we anxiously awaited the departure of the Kuredu Express. I had originally planned to take the Seaplane or the Naifaru overnight ferry, but due to my lack of funding and our NGO's lack of planning, we were placed on the Kuredu Express instead. I could have also stayed in Naifaru another night, but Deen and I had planned to leave together. Truth be told, Deen had met his wits end to Naifaru and there was no possible way for him to stay another day on the island. It worked out nicely.

This about sums up the final meal.
The Kuredu Express left Kuredu at 12:30 and arrived in Male at 6:30. Several things need to be said: the ocean was extremely rough and I got seasick. At about 1:30 AM, when it was time to dig through my suitcase to find my jacket, I truly thought I was going to hurl. Deen was sympathetic, but it is not like anyone can do anything. Secondly, the air condition was set to 45 degrees. My body has finally adapted to the searing Maldivian heat and lack of cool air condition, so needless to say I froze my ASS off. But I was not alone. Seated about a meter away from me, Deen shivered throughout the voyage. Somehow, however, he crept closer and closer to me throughout the night until we were pretty much snuggled together trying to keep warm. Thank goodness I had the sense to pack a coat (never thought I would have to say that after my sun-scorched island life.) Despite this, I generally enjoyed the ferry, Deen did too.
Male.

When we arrived at Male, bright and early in the morning, sleep-deprived, but still thankful to be far and away from Naifaru, I followed whatever Deen did. Getting to the bloody hotel, is all I really cared about. From ferry to trolly to dhoni boat to taxi, we finally arrived at the hotel. Deen and I first went to find some breakfast before nap time. (Deen had created this obnoxiously perfect schedule and order of activities to follow for our one day in Male. What he did not know was that I had absolutely no intention of following it.) When finally back to the room, after a hot shower, a cool room, and a diet coke, I realized there was no way I was going to sleep. While Deen took a nap, I decided to do a little exploring at my own pace, without an overprotective Sri Lankan telling me what to do while I roll my eyes at him and do the opposite (perfect description of me and Deen.)

The city of Male is the capital of the country, as well as its communication and administrative hub. Occupying a tiny island of one square mile on Male atoll, the bustling city has a population of 120,000 people, about half of the total Maldivian population. My first impression was excitement. I am finally in a bustling place where island life does not dictate everyone's mindset. Well, it might have also been that I would have been excited anywhere as long as I was off Naifaru.

Male is like nothing I have ever experienced, sort of like my whole adventure in the Maldives. I always imagined the first time I saw Bangkok, I would experience the very feeling I felt in Male. Culture shock mixed with excitement at this completely new and strange place. My brief stroll down the main Magu, or street, must have been amusing for Maldivians as my mouth was open the whole time.

This is the only way to describe it: everything that makes the Maldivian culture bad and everything that makes cities bad is jam packed onto a minuscule island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Horrifying pollution, poverty juxtaposed with extreme wealth, urban infrastructure falling in itself, busy lifestyles, traffic congestion that is truly endless.

And yet, I can not help but like it.

It's a major world city but it's no more than a small town. It the world's largest city in regards to population density (arguably. Many people count the surrounding islands as part of Male, even though Maldivians do not.) Comparatively, the area occupied by the ENTIRE Maldives is about 1.7 times the size of Washington, D.C. It is constant movement and constant relaxtion. It is bright colors and ramshackle houses. It is everything that people think of when they think of bustling Asian cities.

It's Male, the only place that Maldivians have means to escape to....


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Through the Eyes of the Shark

The mysteries of the sea.

The familiar clink of the vibrating metal.

The SCUBA instructor in charge of our group is trying to get my attention as I swim below him exploring the little crevices and alcoves of the bright reef, where scorpionfish dart in and out of anemone. The computer on my wrist says 27.5 meters. Too deep for my qualifications, but I do not care. I am not afraid, which is the big problem with the depth of scuba. People panicking when they have gone too deep.


I look up into the direction where the sound is coming from, expecting to receive the brief hand gesture signaling me to rise. It is one of my problems with SCUBA diving. Even though I am only certified for 20 meters, I find myself drifting closer and closer to the deep bottom of the ocean where the water is cooler and the fish life is vastly more interesting. The Scuba school at Kuredu does not seem to have a problem letting me go below 20 meters, even though my license forbids me from going any deeper. But there is a law in the Maldives that people are not allowed to go any deeper than 30 meters, and I tend to flirt with that line a little more than I care to admit.

Exploring the reefs of Kuredu
Instead, as I look up, I come face to face with the cold black eyes of a Grey Tip Reef shark.

***

My true passion in the sports world is running. I could go on and on for hours about how much I love running. Unfortunately, I have not run in several months. My body needed a nice long break after my 39.3 race, and I had no time with student teaching. I know I will get back into running. My body yearns for the sweet ache in my calves and feeling of accomplishment that carries me forward after a nice long run.

I just cannot believe how much I love SCUBA. I did not love it this much when I received my certification in 2009. I did not do one single dive since my 5 initial certifying dives, because I simply did not care that much. Maybe because I am in a different environment here in the Maldives: the great translucent blue ocean; rather than the opaque uncertainty of a South Carolina lake. Maybe because I am older and more appreciative of the opportunities offered by diving. Maybe because my discount at Kuredu as a volunteer means free scuba. I do not really know. All that I am sure of is how head over heels I am in love with diving.

Even though I'm a classic amateur, I can't deny how much
I love Scuba diving.
That is not to say I am an expert at it. I logged a total of 6 dives on this drop: one orientation dive, one afternoon dive, and 2 two-tank morning dives. This brings my grand total of dive numbers to 11 dives. My inexperience was apparent. My first dive I got a massive case of vertigo. My second dive I surfaced and got a terrible bloody nose for no reason other than not equalizing enough. My next two dives, I sucked the air out of my tank so quick that I had to surface 10 minutes earlier than everyone else. It was daunting to me that I seemed to struggle with diving, but I had to remember that everyone else on  my trip was logging over 100 to 200 dives. I was diving at one of best scuba schools in the world with experts.

You can't tell me that seeing this is not incredible.
Despite my relatively inexperienced scuba skills, the dive instructors kept insisting that I go on the more difficult dives. I was not going to argue either. The more difficult dives were where we would see sharks, rays, and dolphins. Even if I wondered whether my dive instructors were crazy or not, I would not miss out on these opportunities.

On my last dive, I knew I had to at least ask what made me special. Why I kept getting assigned to the more advanced classes. On the boat, we made the 45-minute journey to a special channel and canyon where we were sure to see some sharks and eagle rays. All the divers aboard discussed their previous dives: shipwrecks off South Africa, Great White cage diving in Australia, deep-sea diving, etc. They all logged over 100 dives each, compared to my menial 11.

“So, I am really fortunate to get this advanced opportunity. I get that. But I am not good at SCUBA, and I lack experience. Why am I here?” I asked Alex, the diving instructor that would be leading us.

She smiled. “You’re right. You lack experience. You lack certain knowledge about the depths that the rest of us have. You being here is extra work for me, because every time we go below 20 meters, we break the law with your certification. I have to monitor you, and I seem to always be instructing you to get closer to the surface.”

Ouch. Okay, I suck. That hurt.

“And yet,” she continued, “You have no fear. I saw you on that first dive when you got vertigo. You did not panic. You did not make an emergency rise to the surface.  You did the right thing even though you did not know how. Panic is what ruins most divers. And you swim right up to the reef and come face to face with moray eels, and you do not freak out, like our other guests. You are gifted with fearlessness. And since we know you want to see some sharks and turtles, it’s best that you come on this dive.”

Wow.

To me, Scuba has never been about fear. I never even thought about being afraid. Maybe I should have. It seems to be what rational people do. Me? I just threw on my mask and fins and jumped straight into the water, letting the weights sink me deep into the blue.

In fact, to me, Scuba has been freedom from fear, and not letting fear dictate decisions. Fear does not allow me to stay on the surface, while the other divers get to experience the wonders of the ocean. Fear does not keep me on the boat. It is defying the laws of nature deep below the surface where any number of bad things could happen at any moment. Fear does not have any part in my thoughts during diving.

I think about all that could go wrong in Scuba: decompression sickness, running out of air and getting internal damage, poisonous air in the tank, malfunctioning equipment, changing currents, being mistaken for food, and this just few of the many things that can go wrong. When you really stop to think about all these things, who is right mind would ever go scuba diving? Certainly, no one with a good head on his or her shoulders.

And yet, there is nothing quite like floating along with manta rays, watching little fish that you have only ever seen on the Discovery Channel dart in and out of anemone, swimming with turtles, and quoting Finding Nemo practically on the set of the film. There is absolutely nothing like facing fear and looking it straight in the face.

That shark was simply curious about me. My shiny hair had attracted it, and it wanted to come investigate. I looked at it, and I think it looked back at me, though I could not tell with those cold black eyes. It was a tiny little shark, but its teeth could inflict some damage nonetheless.

‘Wow’ I thought, ‘this is amazing.’

It’s curiosity satiated, it swam away into the ocean blue, as I watched in awe, un afraid.





Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Sailing Through the Atoll



Two things to note in this picture: 1) the effects of humidity on my hair;
2) the sourness of the fruit as symbolism for my time in the Maldives.
With just 2 more full days left in the Maldives, I realize it is still a bit too early to do my “coming to terms with the voyage.” But as I sit atop this Maldivian dhoni, or boat, holding tight to the railings and trying to stare at the horizon to prevent my seasickness, I cannot help but do a little reflection upon the last few weeks. Maybe this is because I have long associated travel with reflecting upon voyages, or maybe to keep my mind off the sinking pain in my stomach of seasickness. I don’t really know.

Reflective face?
This boat ride is a bit different than the boat journeys I have taken so far here in the Maldives. At some point, I will pass an imaginary line in the middle of the atoll where I’ll be closer to Naifaru than Kuredu, where Deen and the memories of the majority of my Maldives adventure await me. I am sailing on the free ferry from Kuredu, where I have just spent an afternoon (I spent 4 days and 3 nights here last week) on the resort island. A fantastic vacation, I might add, full of relaxing mornings and adventurous afternoons exploring the bottom of the atoll.

We sailed across the atoll to steal a tree from another
island. This is not a joke.
The symbolism is not on lost me during this reflection, during this crossing of the atoll. I am somewhere sailing along in the middle of atoll, feeling that this is the perfect spot for me: somewhere in between the impoverished island of Naifaru and the high-end luxury of Kuredu.  Somewhere in the middle of the struggling to make ends meet kind of people and the wealthy lavish-spenders. Somewhere in the middle of appalling living conditions and 5-star opulence. Somewhere in the middle of conservative religious mindset, and liberal non-theistic thinkers. Somewhere in between women in headscarves covering all part of their body, and women in dressed in little more a thong bikini. Not here or there, but somewhere.

Either way, my mini escapade between the two contrasting lands of Naifaru and Kuredu, has taught me many things. The first and foremost is, simply put, I can survive and even flourish in both kinds of conditions; the 5 star resorts and the 5-foot long hovels. But I would prefer to be somewhere in the middle: somewhere like Kochi, Fixin, Verona, or Clemson. Somewhere that I have once called home. I want to wear flip-flops, long knee shorts, and not worry that my outfit is causing some serious cultural tensions, or makes me look a nun. I want to walk around with my camera and my cell phone and not feel like the envy of neighbors, or the comparing eyes of tourists who have “nicer phones or cameras.”