On Being Uncomfortable: The Akha Ama Coffee Journey

Posted in Travel with tags , , on April 15, 2014 by ilikemountains

To reach Maejantai, you start with a songtaew. It looks like a word scramble, I know. How about: to reach a rural Thai village, you start with a taxi-bus-truck. You wake up early on a typically sunny morning in Chiang Mai and catch a red local songtaew — a complicated-looking name for a truck with two rows of benches in the covered bed that functions as a public bus. Have your driver drop you off at the Akha Ama coffee shop, where you and twenty other people will crowd into two bright yellow, privately hired songtaews (pronounced “song-tow” – rhymes with “ow,” not “toe”) and drive north into Northern Thailand’s mountains.

After several weeks of travel and research, a whirlwind island romance, some jerks stealing my purse and everything important in it, and two nights crashed on my friend’s tiny couch, I arrived unprepared and exhausted at Akha Ama for the two-night Coffee Journey. The participants, roughly two-thirds foreign travelers and one-third Thais, sat sweaty thigh to sweaty thigh on the vinyl seats as we set off. Lee, the 25-year-old entrepreneur who founded Akha Ama, handed out motion sickness pills like candy. The back of the trucks had an outer low rack used for a step, a luggage rack, or, in Lee’s case, for extra passengers. He stood easily on the back, holding on to a rail with one hand while the truck whooshed up the highway.

Maejantai, Lee’s home village, sits up where an arm of Thailand stretches into a culturally shared space with northern Laos and Burma, as well as China’s Yunnan province. Even northern Vietnam almost gets a hand in there. Long the region of ethnic minorities, the mountainous area was coined Zomia by a historian in 2002. Willem van Shandel noted this region has historically stayed beyond the various government controls in the lowlands, and despite political boundaries many of the ethnic minorities still share languages, customs and cuisines.

Zomia is one of my favorite places on the planet. I’ve always been drawn to mountains and mountain people, and Zomia (feels like home-ia!), with its green mountains, red dirt roads and strong-backed locals carrying baskets of firewood on their backs, has consistently called me back. I feel a kinship with mountain people, even if I can’t really call myself one. I love the smells of wood smoke, the thin morning fog in the hills, and the steamy pleasure of a hot cup of green tea in chilly mountain air. It sounds like a cheesy Folgers’ commercial, but I really mean it.

The region is notoriously poor; the laws may have a harder time reaching hill tribes in this no-man’s land, but then so does the money.

Enter Lee. Lee is Akha, an ethnic minority that resides in Burma, Laos, Thailand and China (where the Chinese government classify them as Hani). Lee’s family straight up walked down from China several generations ago, and have been living in Maejantai ever since. Lee is the only person from his village to go to college. With his shiny black bowl cut, skinny jeans and broad, charming smile, Lee looks as urban as any 20-something Thai kid in Chiang Mai. But behind his typical Thai smile, Lee is seriously commited to pulling his village out of poverty by organically and sustainably growing the planet’s favorite upper: coffee.

Our yellow songtaews pulled up to a dirt parking lot in Chiang Rai, where five small 4×4 trucks were waiting for us in the shade of tall leafy trees. “Okay, we go!” Lee said, with a round-up motion of his arm. We climbed into the open beds and perched on the edges. From there we headed straight up into Chiang Rai’s surrounding mountains. The black, dirty trucks rumbled up impossible roads constructed mostly of mud, potholes and rutted red dirt; I felt like I was in a 4×4 commercial. The trucks kicked up a steam engine cloud of dust, so that everyone but those in the front truck was constantly doused with a gritty film of dirt.

I’ve always thought of myself as a good traveler, one who takes things in stride. I’ve found that broken-down buses, bad roads, hard-as-cement pillows and food poisoning are just part of the experience, and the experience is what I’m after. But after the previous two weeks, my resilience was down. I’m embarrassed to say that despite familiarity with tough car rides, trekking and uncomfortable sleeping situations, I had an ego-shatteringly rough time in Maejantai.

It took us two hours in those trucks to get to Lee’s village. Every time we hit a bump, there was a collective groan in the bed as our heads bobbed and our sit bones were pounded. I eventually stood up and held on to the bars over the cab, which allowed my knees to bend and absorb the bumps.

We arrived at the village around 5:30, just in time for sunset. A collection of wood homes high in the hills, Maejingtai is typical of villages in Zomia. Same look, same feel: soft rolling mountains, with tracks and red dirt roads popping through tall, green trees. The shady hillsides are a coffee plant’s happy place.

We had stopped for lunch at 11:30, and by 6 p.m. my blood sugar level was uncomfortably low and I was woozy from the ride. We stood around as Lee assigned host families and sleeping situations, directing participants to places like “the third house around that corner.” Lee’s own home was two stories — the ground floor was really just the foundation and used for storage, with chickens and dogs scratching around the dirt floor. Upstairs was an open room with mattresses lined along the wall. Sacks of coffee beans were piled in the corners. His mother and sister cooked outside behind the house.

As the sun sank behind the hills in a goodbye wave of tangerine, it got cold. We’d traveled in the open sunshine in t-shirts, but now we stood shivering and hungry. Lee directed me to my host’s house: a very small one-room shack with a packed dirt floor. A small kitchen area behind that room housed a smoky twig fire on the ground and in front was an oversized outhouse with a water hose attached to a propane tank.

My two roommates were cheerful Thai girls from Bangkok, one improbably pudgy. “Hello!” she boomed. They chatted with our hosts, an older, broad-faced couple with strong cheekbones and deep lines at their eyes. I wondered what their relationship was with Lee’s family and how they felt about Akha Ama and the burgeoning coffee venture. After showers in the exposed night air, the three of us walked up the hill to Lee’s home, where his sister and mother served us hot soup with greens, savory pork, and bowls full of fluffy yet sticky rice. We sat on the wood floor and leaned against the solid coffee sacks, then men outside on the porch and the women inside under a bare bulb that cast shadows behind the bulging bags.

One man, a coffee importer from Australia, brought his young Thai companion, a girl with braces and sparkly gold toenail polish. I wished I understood Thai; I felt uncomfortable with the idea that she might be hired, and wondered what Lee thought. I was curious about the dynamics; what did the meticulously made-up, high-class girl from Bangkok think of this coarse escort?

I left dinner early and walked down to my host’s home with my headlamp clamped to my forehead. I could see faint white lights coming from the clutter of homes I passed. When I walked in to my house, a crowd of villagers sat on the edge of the platform that held our mattresses. They huddled shoulder to shoulder, mostly men in long-sleeved shirts smoking cigarettes under a weakly blue light bulb. The center of attention was a small boxy TV with rabbit ears and a Thai soap opera on the screen.

We did the smile and nod routine, and shoulders parted to let me crawl up to my pillow where I’d stashed my small backpack. I pulled out my toothbrush and pajamas, and flapped out in my sandals to the bathroom.

I immediately regretted my choice of sleeping clothes: tiny jogging shorts and a tank top. Thais are pretty conservative with their clothes: your average Thai goes swimming fully dressed. And this was a rural mountain village. I thought about the handful of men in there, and how uncomfortable I was going to make everyone. Why hadn’t I considered my sleeping situation before I’d left the city? I knew better than to assume I’d have my own room, but I hadn’t given anything a thought.

I crossed my arms over my chest and scuffed back into the house, my toothbrush in one hand. Nods, smiles. Shoulders parted, shoulders rejoined, and I crawled into my bed and covered myself with a lumpy blanket, the TV audience at my feet. It was chilly, and I wondered when the blanket had been washed last – and I disgusted myself with these thoughts. I swallowed a melatonin, put in my earplugs and then read a book with my headlamp.

***

I love the sound of roosters in the morning, because their aggressive caw and weakly garbled finish always make me smile. Plus, I am always traveling when I hear them, so waking up to a rooster means I am waking up somewhere new and different.

I woke at sunrise, around 6 a.m., to roosters. My bunkmates cheerfully popped out of bed and showered, but I just waited my turn for the bathroom hut and changed into the same dusty clothes from the day before, trying not to get my pants and feet wet on the bathroom/shower floor.

I noted a funny twinge in my lower stomach but ignored it. Breakfast, on the wood floors of Lee’s home, was Thai omelets and rice, plus greens from the night before. The twinge got worse during breakfast, and I knew the signs of at bladder infection well enough to recognize I was in trouble.

I never travel without specific pain pills and antibiotics for my predictable UTIs. But again, I wasn’t thinking much before this trip. I made my way around the mingling group after breakfast, asking each Western woman, “Do you have any pain pills for a UTI?” No one did. Finally, I approached Angie, a young Thai women helping Lee out with the trip. I was about to cry, still tired from the journey and being uncomfortable with my surrounds.

Sweet, pixied, wide-smiled Angie! That girl jumped on it. While the rest of the group set off hiking to the coffee fields, she got Lee’s brother to drive me down the lumpy road to the next village in a rusty sedan. The village’s clinic was open-aired and dusty, and I squirmed in a plastic blue chair while Angie explained my symptoms in Thai. The doctor, a greying Thai man wearing frameless glasses and a faded button-down shirt, slowly dropped pastel pills into miniature plastic bags. He handed them to me and Angie explained.

“These ones for pain. These ones for antibiotics.”

The pain pills looked like basic Tylenol. I asked if they had any of the kind that make your pee turn orange. They didn’t. I didn’t trust the Tylenol but I didn’t have a choice – I just hoped the antibiotics would get to work right away. More than anything, I just wanted them to work so that I wouldn’t be THAT person — the high-needs girl hogging attention and resources. Also, I hoped Lee, whom I considered a friend in Chiang Mai, didn’t think I had an STD.

Lee’s brother, who didn’t speak any English but smiled a lot, drove Angie and through I Maejantai and along winding dirt roads to the coffee fields. No one made a big deal about my absence, and I blended right in, spending the rest of day picking coffee cherries under light clouds, the primal, berry-picking side of me taking over.

The rest of the weekend played out like the first 24 hours. It was chilly, I was tired, I wanted to cry, and I was ashamed and embarrassed at my discomfort. Here I’d thought I was a seasoned, tough traveler, yet I was struggling when everyone else on the trip seemed to be just fine. I felt privileged and snotty, and worried I was a voyeur. I wondered what Lee’s neighbors, many of whom bought into Akha Ama but several who hadn’t, thought of his venture and of him bringing outsiders twice a year to the village.

On the last day, we repeated our journey in reverse: down the mountains in 4x4s and into the yellow songtaews and the heat of the lowlands, as though Chiang Mai was sucking us back. I came home to the apartment I rented only the day before the journey, and fell happily into my large bed.

 

2013 Crow Pass Crossing Race Report

Posted in Alaska, Sport with tags , , , on February 19, 2014 by ilikemountains
Look, this is the trail.

Look, this is the first half of the trail.

I’ve decided that each year I want to do one thing I never thought I could do. 2013 was Crow Pass Crossing, a roughly 23-mile trail race with about 6000 feet gradient in the Chugach mountains behind Anchorage. It’s a tough trail – rocky and full of tree roots and crossing many streams and one quarter-mile wide glacial river. There’s no support and a six-hour cutoff time (the registration form is worth a read, if only for this quote: “This race is not for beginners. It is not designed for ‘recreational’ runners, ‘hikers’, or people who listen to the song ‘We are Young’ and sign up for an event that they are not properly conditioned to undertake.”)

I hadn’t been able to train the way I wanted due to recurring calf injuries, and because of a bear/moose kill that closed the trail mid-summer, I hadn’t actually run the entire course through.

Here’s my race report:

I woke up that morning sure I was going to die. Every fiber, every nerve told me not to run this race. I wasn’t ready, my calf might give halfway through, I hadn’t run the entire course, and the river was higher than normal, high enough to sweep me away. Worst case scenario I could actually DIE. My intuition kept telling me no.

I ignored it. I climbed down from my loft in the 4:30 a.m. Alaskan sunlight, pulled on my black running capris and my lucky Portland Marathon t-shirt. I zipped up a gray hoodie, brewed a half cup of coffee, ate a banana and filled my water bladder. I drove down to the grocery store in Marisa’s mother’s car, where I picked up three other runners and drove us down to Girdwood. Esther drank a half-gallon of carrot juice and both she and her fiancé Peter devoured breakfast sandwiches. Kyle chattered from the front seat the hour’s drive down Turnagain Arm in the misty drizzle, which made time pass quickly and allowed me to ignore my nerves.

The previous day I had written to Matthew about my fear of the race. He gave me sound advice: “You’re allowed to be concerned for your safety, but you’re not allowed to be scared. And you’re not allowed to be either until you toe the shore. Put another way, I think you need to employ some mental compartmentalization.” I tried to take that to heart — “I’m not allowed to be scared” — and not think about the glacial torrent waiting for me at the halfway mark.

We were able to get the last parking spot at the trailhead, saving us a long walk up the gravel road to the trail. We checked in, showing the race director that we were carrying the proper gear (wind/rain jacket and pants, long underwear top and bottoms, hat and gloves), and then tried to stay warm until 7 a.m., when the race started.

The crowd was fit. Far more fit than I. Men with quads as thick as my waist jogged up and down the road, while women with tiny shorts and the chiseled cheekbones of a lithe runner stretched out. A creek rushed under the wood bridge at the starting line, reminding me of the river I had to cross.

At 7 a.m. the gun went off, and we charged up the trail. The first three miles of the race are steep and racers are required to make it up to the pass in an hour. Two weeks earlier I’d made it to the Crow Pass sign with 45 seconds to spare on a sunny day. I hoped my adrenaline would carry me up quickly enough.

Hitting the pass at 59:15 on a sunny training run. Raven Glacier in the background.

Hitting the pass at 59:15 on a sunny training run. Raven Glacier in the background.

I ran where I could and hiked where I couldn’t. The trail was rocky, crossing boulder fields slick with rain. I used my hands on my legs to help push them, but my heart was pounding and I couldn’t keep my breathing steady. Thirty minutes in my friend’s husband Doyle, who is 52, passed me. “We’re doing great,” he said. “We’re in a good spot for thirty minutes.” I looked behind me and only saw two people. The entire race was ahead of us. “There’s nothing to see back there,” Doyle said.

I continued climbing. I didn’t think I could make it in an hour. The trail inclined up to a lake where the Crow Pass Cabin sits and I crossed my first creek, charging through the icy water up to my shins. I thought about the chances of me making it up in an hour. I thought I had a 15 percent chance. I began to make plans to turn back. I thought about not even bothering with trying for the pass – hadn’t my intuition been telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, anyway? I was killing myself trying to make it up the mountain.

I had locked Marisa’s keys inside the car, and she was going to come pick it up later with a spare set; she’d ridden to Girdwood with friends and would drive the car back to town, while a different friend, KB, was meeting me at the other side of the trail in Eagle River. I figured I could run back down to the car, put on all my long underwear, rain gear and hat and gloves, and stretch out on the ground and wait for Marisa. I wouldn’t have cell phone service; I hoped Marisa hadn’t come yet. I also hoped she wasn’t going to wait until noon to retrieve the car.

But even as I entertained this daydream, I kept pushing. I thought about my friends on the other side, and the shame I would feel in dropping out. But then I would swing back: I shouldn’t be doing this race. It’s not safe and it’s disrespectful to the racers and organizers. What if one of my calves get injured eight miles in and I have to turn and walk back? But suddenly the trail leveled out and I was close to the pass. I started running and saw a couple of people standing ahead in blue and red rain jackets against a gray cloudy backdrop. I heard cheers. I checked my watch as I ran through the checkpoint: 57 minutes! As I passed, the trail began to slope down and the valley opened up below me and I forgot about turning around. I also forgot to look at Raven Glacier, arguably one of the most beautiful sights along the trail.

A few hundred feet down from the pass, I ran by Doyle. As I went by, he slapped me on the ass and said, “Go get ‘em, kid. I’ll see you at the finish.” A Doyle Woody ass slap! I actually smiled and felt my adrenaline surge. I was going to run this race.

The eight miles or so down to the river are a blur. I felt strong and tried not to worry too much about my footing. I came across another rushing creek, this one up to my knees. I tried to hurry across it, slipped, and fell in sideways up to my shoulders in icy water. A runner stopped to check on me – I felt like an idiot and let him know I was okay and he ran on. I wondered if my iPhone, diligently tracking my mileage in the front pocket of my hydration vest, was still functioning after the dunking. I stood up and paused in my dripping clothing, wondering what to do. I started running. I barely registered the mountains around me, don’t remember crossing Thunder Gorge and have no idea if I yelled for bears or not.

As I passed a few runners, I became determined not to let anyone pass me back. I thought about barreling down Mt Marathon and the skills I had built doing that. I ran through pushke so dense I couldn’t see my feet and so tall I had to raise my arms to run through it. Two men ran behind me, intermittently conversing with each other, and I refused to let them pass me. I ran hard. I knew I wasn’t supposed to use all my energy at the beginning of the race, but I wanted to use it while I had it, and so I willed myself to run like I was strong, making my posture reflect that. “I am healthy, I am strong,” I chanted to myself with the rhythm of my footsteps and breathing. “I am healthy, I am strong; I am healthy, I am strong.”

The trail flattened out, became sandy and then the river came into view. “This is it,” I thought. My stomach began to feel upset. I came upon the crossing at about three hours, a bit faster than I thought I could and still enough time for me to make the six-hour finish cutoff. The volunteers posted there were preparing to cross the river themselves and run to the finish – a bit ahead of schedule, I thought, worrying a little about Doyle, who isn’t a whole lot bigger than I am. I watched runners charge solo right into the river, but I knew I couldn’t cross it by myself. I ate a few sports beans and waited for the two men behind me, who I had gained 30 seconds on. They arrived and I asked if I could cross with them. We debated the best setup; they suggested lining up with our hands on each other’s waists like a perverse conga line, but settled on linking arms side by side. I took the middle and we entered the silty, rushing river.

Amara entering the river in July

Amara entering the river in July

I didn’t let myself pause and I didn’t let myself think as I started pushing through the water. It was cold, but I ignored it. The water rose to my knees, then my thighs, then my stomach, and finally to my sternum. I saw a chunk of ice from the glacier a mile upstream shoot by. I heard boulders tumbling down in the current. I wondered if my phone was going to get wet again, and how deep this fucking river actually was. At its highest, just below my chest, my feet left the bottom and I began duck paddling, only the arms of the two racers keeping me on track. My feet hit bottom again, and the water receded to my stomach, my thighs, my knees and finally my ankles. The cold hit and my feet began to ache wildly, so much I cried out.

I turned back to the river to look for Doyle. A woman in a fluorescent yellow wind jacket was crossing by herself, the current pushing her sideways. She had made it almost all the way across; she was up to her knees when she went down and began to skitter downriver.

“Stand up! STAND UP!” Did I yell this, or think it? Did someone else yell it? I started back towards the river but one of the guys with me sprinted out to her and yanked her upright and they stumbled to the shore.

I checked one more time for Doyle – he’d run this several times and I was sure he knew what he was doing – and then turned back to the path and started running on my numb yet aching feet across the rocky sand. I crossed several more ankle-deep braids of the river, my feet screaming each time I got out.

But I did it! I didn’t die! I was too tired and too intent on pushing myself to celebrate internally, but even as I ran my eyes welled up in relief. The adrenaline surged again and I felt my posture get just a little bit more upright. The race was halfway over.

The next 12 miles of the trail were mostly flat, following the contours of the river along a soft brown trail cluttered with fir trees and crossing the occasional glacial stream and boulder field. There were places where it became briefly, intensely steep. Ladders and ropes allowed me to give my legs a bit of a break and use my arms. A large log was set across yet another raging stream, Icicle Creek, with a rope strung between two trees for balance. I crossed, feeling like such a badass and wishing for a moment that someone I knew could see me. Fuck those contrived Tough Mudder races — this was the real deal.

Hikers crossing Icicle Creek on one of my training runs

Hikers crossing Icicle Creek on one of my training runs

The woman in yellow and the two guys who helped me across the river passed me. I passed them. They passed me. We chatted now and then. I sucked my water bladder nozzle and swallowed a berry-flavored gel. I had added two types of electrolyte powders to my water bladder and now the only thing I wanted was clear, pure water. I couldn’t handle any more sugar. I came across a clean shallow stream and squatted on shaking legs to scoop water into my mouth. I had been running with the guy who’d gone back into the river for the woman in yellow, and he stopped to wait for his buddy while I ran on, my belly full of cold water. I didn’t see him again.

I ran and waited for the five-mile mark, a well-established campground, to reveal itself. I was at four hours but didn’t want to pause to check my phone for the distance. At this rate, I figured I could still make the six-hour race cutoff. But the campground didn’t come and it didn’t come, and my posture began to wilt. I felt myself collapse inward, my steps becoming smaller, my shoulders hunching and my arms swinging across my body instead of charging out in front and pumping back. I got turned around on a boulder field. The woman in the yellow jacket passed me. We got to a straighter stretch and I passed her. I told her I saw her fall in the river and couldn’t believe she had crossed by herself. She said, “I figured I would have to and so I just did it.”

I did a quick scan of my body. It ached, but my injury-prone calves felt fine. “Is this the hardest thing I’ve ever done?” I asked myself. The answer came without thinking: “Nope – this is way easier than divorce.”

I heard yelling and cheering in front of me and rounded a bend to the campground, where several women stood on stumps, clapping and handing out sports drink. I forced my face into a grimace of a smile, thanked them and ran on. Five miles left. I was at four and half hours.

The only thing to do now was make my feet push me forward. “Lift your legs,” I told myself; this is always the point in my exhaustion where I trip over tree roots. I kept my eyes on the trail and thought about keeping my feet far enough from the ground so that I didn’t fall and knock my teeth out. I tried to stand up straight.

At three miles my friend John appeared, pulling a large pack onto his shoulders and preparing to lead a couple of small children out. “Al-most there! Al-most there!” They yelled and clapped. My posture straightened itself out. I pictured the finish, and the people there. The trail became rocky and I had to sort of jump from rock to rock, my wet feet squishing around in my shoes. I became aware of a blister on my heel and looked down to see blood.

A thirty-something man walked toward me on the trail and asked if I had seen a woman in a yellow jacket. He looked so worried I was excited to tell him that she was just right behind me. His face transformed into relief and he cheered me as I run-limped by.

As I got closer to the Eagle River Nature Center, the trail widened and smoothed. I went faster. I checked my watch – I was going to finish before six hours. With about a mile left, KB appeared. KB! KB was here! She and her dog Benson began running back with me. KB asked questions about the race and the trail, but I could barely answer. She chattered on, letting me just run. I kept trying to pick up my pace.

I rounded a bend and there was the final uphill slope. Josh and Janet were there and I willed myself to finish as strong as possible, not sprinting but lengthening my stride as KB faded behind me.

And then I crossed the finish. I remember making eye contact with a runner I’ve seen around, before I bent over, clutching my thighs and trying to catch my breath. Someone handed me a Snickers bar, the Crow Pass equivalent of a medal or t-shirt. I limped over to a picnic table and laid down on the bench and sucked berry-flavored water. All I wanted was regular water and for someone to spoon-feed me easily digestible food. I ran the race in five hours and thirty-five minutes.

View from the Eagle River side of the trail

View from the Eagle River side of the trail

It was at least a half an hour before I managed to put on flip-flops and waddle over to the hose and rinse the mud off my lower legs. I could barely change my clothes in the Nature Center bathroom. I peed for the first time since starting the race six hours earlier; my urine came out nearly brown despite all the liquids I drank.

After the awards ceremony and a few weakly chewed oatmeal raisin cookies, I got in the front seat of KB’s truck. We sped down the road through Eagle River, when I noticed a sign with my name on it. “Hey!” I yelped. “Turn around!” KB swung around and we found a giant sign propped up next to the road that read, “Congratulations, Catherine Bodry! You did it! You crossed the river!” A crabby woman came out of her house and informed us that the sign was on the wrong side of the road. We moved it, I posed for some photos, and we drove off (forgetting to take the sign).

I totally did it! I crossed the river – intuition be damned.

Cake is for eating

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Writing on November 28, 2012 by ilikemountains

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d — you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction

before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart.

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you;

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands towards you.

                                             Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road, Verse 11

My job gets a lot of reactions – nobody ever hears what I do and then says something bland and polite. Not surprisingly, especially when I’m leaving for someplace exotic (and particularly if it’s during an Alaskan winter), I hear a lot of “you have my dream job – I’m so jealous.” I don’t necessarily correct people, because to be honest, I kind of like the ego boost. I don’t talk about economy class and overnight bus rides and food poisoning and bug bites and impossibly hard pillows. But the most thoughtful reactions are the ones from people who realize that travel writing is a job, and that there are drawbacks to what I do. Most obvious is the toll on personal relationships.

“You can’t have everything.” Someone said this to me in passing last night – a small piece of a larger conversation that was dropped nonchalantly. But it stayed with me and I heard it over and over again all night and this morning. “You can’t have everything.” I keep trying to make sense of that sentence: what does it mean? My first thought is to wonder what it is I want, and what I appear to want. In the context of the conversation, I wondered what it was the speaker thought I might be asking for that I couldn’t have. Outside the context, on a larger scale, it’s a sentiment that has been repeated to me in various forms over the past few years. Dating is interesting: many guys are enamored by my lifestyle, but I know they’ll make the same mistake my ex-husband did: assume that some day I’ll change. I know that these guys aren’t interested in me in the long haul, even though it might take them years to discover that. And when I mention this to my friends, there’s always the inevitable “have you thought about sticking around for a while? How do you expect to have a relationship when you’re always running off somewhere?” No one ever says, “have these dudes thought about dropping their careers and traveling with you? Have they considered changing jobs to make the relationship easier?” No, of course not.

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” This sentiment also gets passed on to me, the assumption being that my work and my relationships are mutually exclusive, and that I can’t have one if I have the other. As though it is preposterous to even try on my part to maintain what I’m good at and passionate about. As though my career is frivolous.

I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my was-band early on in our relationship. He’s a super talented artist, and he told me that woodworking is what gets him out of bed in the morning. “It’s the one thing I’m really good at,” he said. I felt kind of sad for a while – I couldn’t think of anything like that in my life. And then I realized: travel is what I’m good at. This was long before I was a travel writer, and so the discovery that what got me out of bed in the morning was the anticipation of a new culture, new food, and even the smell and energy of an airport seemed a bit tragic and wasteful. Teaching seemed to be the only logical way to use my graduate degree. But then, with surprisingly little effort on my part it seemed, I was a Lonely Planet writer. And it was a job that made perfect sense – until my marriage deteriorated.

The thing is, I tried to change. I thought for sure that being in a quiet place would quiet my mind as well, that I would fall into the rhythm of a schedule and routine and appreciate my simple life in my small town. Instead I found that the lack of stimulation and variety drove me crazy, especially during winter. Anchorage — and its international airport, and Asian grocery stores, and movie theaters, and places where you could buy pants — was over two hours away on a road where I totaled my car my first winter living in Seward.

There are people who are good at managing people, good at being moms, in love with crafting, don’t enjoy travel. They’re finding their places in the world, doing what they love and what they are good at. They have successful relationships. My friends are incredibly successful people that amaze me at their abilities to grow. Their lives are relatable, tangible, and many fall into categories that our culture understands. Me not so much. I’ve wanted so much to be like them, to WANT consistency, and to be able to reap the benefits of stability. I’ve spent many lonely nights in buggy hotel rooms typing on a slow, tiny netbook, thinking about how if I had a regular job I could have money for a Mac, and a gym membership so that I could fit into (and afford) sexy jeans, and an awesome, successful boyfriend. In this daydream I drink a lot of wine and go out to eat a lot and take weekend trips, because isn’t that what you do?

Thankfully, Thailand has offered me a new crop of girlfriends, ones who are more like me (and here I am not discounting my incredible lady friends back home). These ladies are single, smart, savvy, and successful (apologies for that horrible alliteration). Independent and motivated, they lead lives that I can understand. One of these friends pointed out recently that our lives are flexible to a degree that makes most of our back-home friends uncomfortable. I realized how true this was when my bank account went into the negatives yesterday. But that flexibility allows us a freedom that most people can’t understand, and I think that that freedom is the reason behind what we do.

I understand that by eating the cake, it means you can’t have it — it’s gone. So you truly can’t have your cake and eat it, too. But I can’t just sit and stare at it. I’m going to fucking devour it.

On being published

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized, Writing on October 4, 2011 by ilikemountains

Note: this is a piece I came across from early 2009, so it’s 2.5 years old. It was saved in my drafts queue, and I kind of liked it so thought I might as well publish it. Enjoy.

Alaska - coming soon to a store near you!

Alaska - coming soon to a store near you!

This year, I will have five books out there with my name listed as a contributing author. I haven’t seen any of them yet (though Pacific Northwest Trips is available for pre-order on Amazon – order your copy today!), and having them on the shelf is both a source of pride and anxiety. Why I’m proud is obvious – being a travel writer is a goal I methodically and passionately worked towards for several years. My anxiety is multi-faceted, but mainly it’s the the fact that now I’m out there for the world to see – and judge.

There was a moment on my Thailand research trip when I realized that as a traveler, I had sort of come full circle. The moment came when I was unceremoniously deposited from a local bus into the rain – one of those scenes where the bus doors hiss shut and the wheels toss muddy puddle water onto me and my luggage. I knew what town I was in, but had no idea where in this town I was.  I called the guesthouse I was supposed to stay at, but we couldn’t communicate so I shoved the phone at a Thai guy standing near me. He shouted into the phone for a few seconds, then handed it back to me. I gathered through the broken English on the other end that I should cross the street and someone would come to pick me up.

I wasn’t necessarily in a town, but a sort of highway stop on the outskirts. Everything was a rain-slicked cement shade of gray, and a giant pedestrian overpass loomed above. I sloshed across the highway, pulling my wheeled bag through the water, to a Thai-style tire shop (ramshackle, housed in what Americans would normally view as a large storage locker) and stood waiting for a few moments. Realizing I might be waiting more than just a few moments, I eventually took a seat at a small table.  I wasn’t worried or nervous or impatient; I had complete trust that someone would come to get me eventually. I knew that I stood out as I sat in the rain outside the tire shop, but Thais are notoriously friendly and polite, so we all just smiled at each other and then went about our business.

Flash back almost exactly ten years: here we have 21-year-old Catherine who has never traveled, and – sadly – has never really even rode the bus. With no real forethought to self-preservation, she’s embarked on a solo trip through Europe, and everything both delights and frightens her. The trip is marked with lots of crying (beginning with the sobbing breakdown upon landing at the Athens airport), but also the huge self-esteem boosts of figuring things out On Her Own.

But right now we see her in Germany, in a spa town called Baden Baden. Though she made a few friends at the hostel, she somehow lost her swimsuit at a hostel in Switzerland (don’t ask) and so can’t join her new friends at the non-naked baths. So she takes a bus to the clothing-optional baths, frolics around naked with a bunch of middle-aged German men (not as pervy as it sounds), then catches the return bus to her hostel. Throughout this trip, she’s relying blindly on her Western Europe Lonely Planet to tell her which bus to take, which spa to go to, etc. She hops the bus, but doesn’t realize it’s going the wrong way (how this happened, I have no idea. Blame it on the  heady elixir of being massaged while wrapped in a heated blanket at the end of her spa visit).  Eventually, the bus gets to the end of the line. It’s near midnight, and there’s no other passengers. The bus driver doesn’t speak English, but he makes it clear she is to get off the bus. She cries (as usual), and eventually he communicates that she should cross the street and wait.

So, at midnight on the outskirts of an unfamiliar town,  I did just that. And I sat on that curb and sobbed, wondering how the hell I was going get myself back to my hostel without being mugged. My only solace was that the bus I had disembarked sat across the street, the driver reading under the fluorescent light.

Twenty minutes later, the same bus makes a u-turn, picks me up, and resumes its route in the opposite direction. Why that driver made me cross the street and sit on the curb for twenty minutes I’ll never know, but I made it back to my hostel just fine.

So now I’m in Thailand, watching teenage boys fill tires while I wait in the rain for a ride. I can’t help but think of the symmetry of the two trips, the crossing and waiting, the not really knowing if a ride is coming, and the perfect time span of an exact decade. And as I mentally pat myself on the  back for becoming such a calm traveler, I have another realization: now I’m writing the guidebook.

That’s a lot of pressure, but thankfully I have the memory of 21-year-old Catherine and all her anxiety. Because of her, I know I’m going to make sure all the bus information is correct. Because, at 27, she had to hitchhike to a hospital in the middle of the night in Panjim, India, I’m going to make sure to find out where the hospitals and clinics are. I’m meant to do this job, and I know I can do it well.

Summer makes me crazy

Posted in Alaska, Travel, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on July 29, 2011 by ilikemountains

I’m continually amazed by summer’s ability to both energize and exhaust me. It’s the same every year — just like with abundant daylight and and winter’s lack of sunlight, it’s something I always comment on even though it’s super consistent.

On overstimulating summer days like the one we had today (70 degrees!), I find myself daydreaming about fall harvests: canning, freezing, cooking, storing. I’m ready to pick berries already. I need that focus, the kind of primal attention that centers me. I need to stock up on salmon. I’m craving sleep.

There’s a possibility that I’ll be in Thailand for two months this fall, and while I’m excited about it, part of me wants that autumn period to quiet and calm down. Thailand is for late November and beyond, when I want to wear warm, humid air on my skin instead of an extra layer of wool long underwear. It’s hard to imagine jumping from an intense Alaskan summer to an intense tropical country.

I suppose most of this kind of mental craziness stems from my inability to be fully present in the moment: though I love it, I’m constantly thinking ahead (and also behind) to other seasons and times. Also, the kind of intense daydreaming and planning I dive into keeps me from getting very much work done. My house is a mess and I’m not where I want to be on my Lonely Planet write-up, yet I’m Googling canning recipes and thinking about buying 50lbs of tomatoes for sauce. I’m making self-improvement lists, forgetting that having a clean house and productive work life would probably improve a lot of things for me, particularly my stress level. But it’s not a coincidence that I’m choosing this moment to write a blog post after ignoring it for nearly three years.

On that note: back to work.

Korea’s Incheon Airport rocks my little world

Posted in Travel, Writing with tags , on January 29, 2009 by ilikemountains
My bed for 5 hours

My bed for 5 hours

Despite my best intentions over a six-week trip to Thailand, I wrote very little for personal reasons since I was writing a lot for business reasons. My detailed journaling stopped after about a week and a half, and I even stopped taking a lot of photographs with my crappy, blurry, out-of-date camera. Nevertheless, I kept track of things I wanted to write about, so following is one of those topics.

We all know that air travel can be a degrading, soul-sucking experience that can turn even the best travelers (me) into enraged, tantrum-throwing toddlers (me after my seatmate not only monopolizes the armrest, but also my personal space both with his elbow and his smelly farts).

I arrived in Seoul after such a twelve-hour flight, which was preceded by a wedding in Santa Barbara and not much sleep. I miscalculated some times – as usual – and what I thought was an eight-hour layover en route to Bangkok was actually twelve. I grabbed a blanket from my flight, preparing myself to find a corner somewhere and sack out on the hard floor. But as I plodded through the airport in silent pre-dawn, I immediately noticed that this airport seemed different from the chaotic mess of many travel hubs. Sure, it was early and therefore less crowded than usual. But it was also polished and clean, with some of the spic-n-span-iest Asian restrooms I’ve been privileged enough to sample.

I wandered into a large hall and saw a sign that read “Rest and Relaxation.” That sounded exactly like what I needed, so I followed the sign and took the escalator up to a small area furnished with leather cots. A few other travelers were sleeping, so I decided to look no further and passed out for a few hours. I should’ve kept going, as leather cots weren’t the best thing yet. After I woke up, I explored the floor a little further and found a clean and bright spa, complete with a shower room, massage chairs, and salon. Further on were tables and leather lounge chairs, with nearby outlets that I used for my laptop. Free wireless meant I could entertain myself with the Internet for as long as I wanted. Leather recliners looked out over the main hall, where shops like Burberry and Coach glam it up. There’s even a transit hotel – I didn’t look into prices but I wish I would have. Twelve hours is long enough to warrant a hotel room rental, especially when I’m traveling for work.

Though the airport is a bit sterile, there were still little memory cues that reminded me I was in Asia: despite air conditioning there was a slight humidity in the air. Every now and then I’d catch a familiar savory scent from a restaurant. Little clues like that got me excited for my upcoming trip; they were small, familiar sensory hints of what was to come.

I still can’t get over the fact that Incheon caters to travelers who are in transit. I mean, it’s not such a novel idea, yet this is the first airport where I haven’t spent a long layover either crashed out on the floor or wishing I practiced yoga as I tried to mold my body around the inconveniently-protruding armrests of the dirty seats at some departure gate.  I slept and worked – comfortably – free of charge for a whole 12 hours.  Plus, as I noted on my way back from Thailand (and therefore a 6-week-deep coffee deprivation), you can buy a decent Americano. There’s not much else I can ask for of an airport.

My booty makes its Internet debut

Posted in Alaska with tags , , on December 10, 2008 by ilikemountains

In September, I took visiting couchsurfer and videographer Nick Vivion on a berry-picking jaunt up Mt. Alice. Nick was researching Seward for Trip Films, which produces video guides. I (or, my booty) happened to make it into some of the footage. Enjoy!

more about “Berry Picking in Alaska Video – Sewar…“, posted with vodpod
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