Despite a limited travel schedule, I set out on the long and varied journey to Emden, built to spend a day and a half with Alice because it’s been 8 years and she is important to me. As I get older, I more heavily realize the importance of key people in my life, and how it keeps getting harder to stay connected while proverbially adulting. It is still beyond me how so many years have passed and I didn’t even realize it until we sat on the couch and did the math together. This globe sure spins fast sometimes.
I go to work at 6am to try and cram all of my projects in by 11am in order to leave early to drive from the Oakland Coliseum area to San Francisco International Airport. I hadn’t been able to find a reasonable flight from Oakland Airport, 5 minutes from the office, to Springfield, Illinois during Thanksgiving. It didn’t help that I was too busy to properly shop this flight in the first place, so flying out of SFO ended up being the best I could do with the time and budget I had.
Before setting out I kept second guessing the time I had allotted for the drive to the airport, concerned that I’d underestimated any complications and potentially miss my flight. I would only have an hour to complete the commute and make it comfortably to my gate. My housemate had recommended that I skip driving altogether and take BART, but that was estimating an hour and a half with a few too many transfers for me to have confidence that I wouldn’t make an error with my novelty to Bay Area public transportation, plus I couldn’t leave work that early anyway. Google Maps claimed 45 minutes to the lot but with it being the day before Thanksgiving I knew that could swerve at any moment.
Fate appeared to be with me as I hit very little traffic and made record time. I discovered the SpotHero app the night before so I was able to secure parking in advance at nearly a 3rd of the going rate. We got a nice windy rainstorm thrown in to the scenario so crossing the Dumbarton Bridge with limited visibility slowed everyone greatly. Miraculously I still made it to the lot in 35 minutes and breathed a sigh of relief.
My relaxing state was short lived as I fought with the barcode scanner for 10 minutes before finally calling tech support. I had researched to ensure that this app was valid, and saw it got a thumbs up from Forbes and other renowned tech and business outfits so it caught me off guard to be hitting this snag. The free minutes I’d gained on the commute were quickly slipping away and my anxiety increased as I saw the shuttle I intended to be on drive past me to exit the lot, as I realized that I had no idea how often it ran, or how long it would take before I figured out how to get into this damn pre-paid parking situation.
Luckily, tech support was spot on. There was another machine that had signs all over it warning “Do Not Take Ticket If PrePaid Online”. Peyton assures me, despite the signage, I should take a ticket so I can make my flight and we’ll get the barcode snafu figured out when I return from my trip. As I go to retrieve the ticket I see a help button as well, which she encourages me to engage, and the voice on the other side nonchalantly reports, “Yea that machine always gets weird when it rains”. He confirms the plan to take a ticket and figure it out on the return. Tech in the rain, go figure!
While waiting for the shuttle I have the pleasure of helping the next two people stuck at the gate with my newfound knowledge. The shuttle finally arrives after about 20 minutes and we’re off to the races. I will never stop praising my Global Entry card, especially in moments like this. In airports of any size I am at my departure gate in a matter of minutes with my shoes, toiletries, and electronics remaining exactly where I originally placed them. Magic.
After an hour drive, a finagling of parking, and my first flight under my belt, I change planes from a sardine stuffed Boeing 777, to a scarcely populated puddle jumper landing me in Springfield, Illinois. Upon arrival, Alice and her sister Marie pick me up for another hour drive to their little country town.
Even though it’s 11pm by the time we near her home, it doesn’t stop Alice from giving me a local tour of Hartsburg to show me her school house and the local sites of her youth. It is a literal school house, the likes of which I’ve only seen in western movies, and I feel transported in time. Next, we drop off Marie and then arrive at Alice’s where we gab on the couch past both of our usual bedtimes. By now it’s been 10 hours since I began my journey, but the time change would have you believe 12 hours if you look at a local clock, and Alice has some stunning antique clocks in her home. I can’t stop staring at how beautifully intricate every detail is. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her that I don’t want to miss a moment in her congenial presence, but our eyelids put up a fight and we call it day.
We sleep until our hearts content the next morning and enjoy tea and toast as we slowly come to. It’s Thanksgiving day but we accidentally miss most of the televised Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, instead catching up with the stories of the past near decade. It’s already 3:15pm by the time we realize we’re about to have company and better get the food going. The doorbell rings.
Alice is a self made woman and at 76 years young she still doesn’t need a thing from anyone. She seemingly effortlessly handles the entire meal while I get to know her sister, brother-in-law, and his son. She finally accepts my pleas to help and lets me carry the finished dishes to the dining table.
Everyone is chatting as if we already know each other. Marie even starts to wonder if she’s met me before. I wonder too, but it isn’t so. The day turns to night and after swapping tales and stuffing our gills, we clean up and part ways. Alice and I don’t make it as far into the wee hours this time, and I sleep like a log in the quietest home in all of Illinois.
It’s only been about 34 hours since I arrived but I’m leaving this next day. I want to cram in as much as possible. There are some pretty big bird feeders outside that I’m hoping to fill while Alice is still sleeping, but she’s hidden the seed from the resourceful country mice, and consequently me, so I can’t find it anywhere. While searching, I go outside and find there is a cemetery right here on the property. Alice’s house is a converted church, next to the old railroad depot. She told me Seth was buried here, but it was dark when I arrived and we never ventured out of the house the day before. I had wondered if it was commonplace to have a backyard burial in the state of Illinois. Stepping outside and realizing where I was, it suddenly made a lot more sense.
I walked up and down each aisle, marveling at the worn carved words on mossy, tilted gravestones from the early and mid 1800s. There was a cemetery on my high school campus at Andover, and I was that weird art kid that used to go there and write poetry at all hours. I don’t know what has always drawn me to old cemeteries, but my perception heightens and I am reeled into the stories of the souls here in this shared sacred space. I hadn’t spent time wandering a cemetery this way in decades, but it was somehow natural for me to stop at each headstone and imagine the lives and times of the dearly departed solely based on the names and dates engraved in stone centuries ago.
I arrive at Seth’s Stone, but actually see Alice’s first which startles me for a moment. I hadn’t imagined her passing yet. She’s absolutely spritely and it simply hadn’t crossed my mind. Next to her stone lay both her husband Jeffrey and son Seth. I take a deep breath and have the conversation I’d been needing to have with Seth for 11 years. There was a lot to say and in my sadness I simultaneously feel gratitude to feel his presence and express the thoughts I’d been holding that I could never tell anyone but him. I cry, then regain my strength, and go back to my task of trying to fill the bird feeders.
I fail yet again at this final attempt to find the bird seed and cave to asking Alice, resilient Alice that needs nobody’s help, but I just wanted to do this for her! She is so selfless and caring and I somehow have nothing worthy to offer her. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer even though she protested multiple times the day before. I am so amped up on this task that upon seeing her I practically demand to know where the bird feed is kept, not realizing that she had barely wiped the stardust out of her eyes and didn’t need me sassing her first thing in the morning. So I drink my tea while she has her breakfast and we enjoy more great conversation. After breakfast, she shows me the secret stash, a big metal trash can that I walked by a half dozen times in the garage. I had actually looked in another trash can at one point, and it was literal trash so I hadn’t proceeded with that curiosity again. We drag it out and fill the giant feeders together. I’ve always been a bird enthusiast so it’s exciting when they come flitting about the window by our cozy spot on the couch.
After a tour of Emden, a quick visit to say hi and bye to Marie, and then a tour of Lincoln where Abe is eternally revered, we head back to Springfield Airport. I’ve been to tiny airports before, but I’ve never experienced one that had no personnel present and every gate is locked down. For a moment I panic and question if it has been cancelled for some reason. Emden is in the middle of Springfield, Peoria, and Bloomington, all of which I had been referred to. Had I booked a hacker fare leaving from a different town and forgotten? I call Alice and asked her to wait a moment so I can get my bearings before she heads home, just in case. She has only made it to the stoplight down the road so I’m assured that I won’t be stranded as I navigate this ghosted airport.
A few minutes later a man with a PPE vest emerges from a staff door and I ask him, naively, if the airport is operating normally. He informs me that the earlier flight had been canceled so the staff dispersed, but he believes the evening flight is planned to depart as scheduled so people should be showing up shortly to open the airline kiosks and security gate. I call Alice back, feeling a little silly, and she is on her merry way once again.
Now reversing the route, I calculate that the amount of time spent traveling to and fro Emden, Illinois adds up to more hours than I spent awake there. Nevertheless, the commute was shorter than the 8 years that slipped by, and worth every minute.
Ahhhhh Tulum. While a weekend isn’t much time, there is plenty to get into for a relaxing or exciting weekend in Tulum, whatever you’re going for! For me, Tulum was the gateway to Belize. I love watching the countryside roll by on road trips, whether it be by car, bus, or train….so taking the long, relaxing way to Belize was the ticket for me, and I had the added bonus of checking out this hot to trot destination along the way. Getting there was an interesting journey in itself.
I started with a one way ticket from Austin to Cancun for $112 plus taxes. I would’ve used points, but I’m planning a bigger trip (always, amirite?) so I want to save up my miles a little longer. For the past year or so I have been buying direct from American Airlines because I have a strong account with them thanks to my business travel, but I recommend Skyscanner if you want to find the best deal, especially if you have flexible dates. Skyscanner has pretty much become the new “matrix” if anyone remembers that little secret a while back. At some point it seemed like the matrix became Google Matrix, but Sky Scanner has nailed it at this point. Check out the wiki for some interesting history on the company.
My flight was scheduled for later in the day because I was leaving on a Saturday and was overbooked until my departure, so I needed most of the day to settle my affairs before leaving the country. For this reason I decided to spend the night in Cancun, but you can catch the ADO bus right from the airport to Playa Del Carmen or Tulum and go direct. I love sleep and I hacked a free hotel so I was good to call it for the night in Cancun and get up early for the lil bus ride to my fist destination.
When you arrive in Cancun, there is a flood of tourism hosts to greet you as you head out of the airport. I needed to find out where to go to find the free shuttle that the hotel provided so I ended up talking to one of these guys. As I have sat through a pitch before, I knew exactly what he was leading up to. He was offering to pay for my taxi in the morning to a newly built hotel, give me a free breakfast while likely try to get me to buy a timeshare, and then give me free private transport to Playa Del Carmen or Tulum, whichever I chose. At first he wanted $30 for all of this and a mere hour and a half of my time in the morning, which he then whittled down to $20 because I’m a tough sell. Looking back, I spent slightly more than this between breakfast and the ADO bus but this was marginal. The main reason I didn’t go was because I was excited to start my vacation and was planning on taking an earlyish bus to Tulum and didn’t want to lose the time on the sales shenanigans. But, much time was lost, as you will soon learn. I might actually take him up on it next time. If you have a little time to kill and know how to say “No” at the end of a sales pitch, this actually is probably worth all the freebies, especially if you are looking for travel hacking ideas or are budget traveling.
As I mentioned, the hotel had a free airport shuttle. Most of them do, so if you’re doing the hotel circuit don’t hesitate to use this service! It is easier to set this up in advance if you aren’t planning to get a local sim card for your phone. If you do have a sim card you can just call them when you arrive. Another useful thing to note is that Skype allows free 1-800 calls from anywhere in the world. This saved my arse in Thailand when my bank card stayed behind in the ATM in Chiang Mai, but that’s a story for another post!
I arrived at my free hotel just in time to grab a late dinner and get some free drinks from a hilarious and quite toasted gal I met who happened to be there because she got kicked off the plane trying to leave earlier that day. Brawny, like the paper towel, was how she introduced herself. She didn’t seem entirely sure why they wouldn’t let her on the plane, but figured it was likely because she was too intoxicated. She decided to continue the trend throughout the day so by the time I arrived at nearly 10pm…let’s just say the next hour and a half was very entertaining to say the least. Cheers for the beers, Brawny!
I have two methods for acquiring free hotels. First, I have an IHG rewards Mastercard. IHG – International Hotel Group, has a huge line of partner hotels and I get one free hotel per year just for having the card. I use it for my daily purchases and the points rack up to get me multiple free rooms throughout the year. The trick here is to pay your credit card in full every month so you don’t incur interest charges. I also have mine set to autopay the minimum so I never get late fees, but I usually pay the balance before it’s due to make sure I don’t get hit with the interest. Don’t overspend! Live within your means and you’ll be fine. You don’t need all that shit sitting in the garage anyway. Cancun Day 1 expense tally: $22.77 for my fancy dinner including 1 beer and a tip…Camarones al Ajo – soooo gooood.
Good Morning, Day 2! This was way more “interesting” than intended. I never realized how flexible I was until I met someone that I realized might not be able to handle fluctuation the way I can. Before that I couldn’t understand why everyone isn’t as in love with travel as I am. I guess it’s not for everyone. If you can’t roll with the punches I can see how travel could be stressful, especially in foreign countries. I’m so grateful for my sense of adventure and creativity. Whenever my travel plan goes awry, I typically laugh about what a good story I’ll have to tell. There are certainly exceptions in the moment, especially if you’ve ever been sick on the road (!) but overall the pros always outweigh any type of derailment I’ve ever encountered, by a landslide. So, for now, let’s get onto the day’s derailments!
I had a nice mellow start by sleeping in and enjoying the breakfast buffet with beautiful garden views. I speak very broken half Spanish (I’m working on this!) so the waiter amusingly corrected me when he asked me how I was and I answered, “Buena”. He explained the difference between Buena and Bien and then told me I was both. Ha, thanks, buddy. I then took the free hotel shuttle back to the airport where you can get the ADO bus. Again, I made the decision not to “wait”; you typically have to change busses in Playa Del Carmen but the ticket lady told me there was a direct bus – but not for an hour and half. I declined and hopped on hoping to make up that time at my destination. Well…
I’ve mentioned this in previous posts: bus travel in just about any country besides the US is classy and comfy. Only in the US do we have a level of classism that you have to drown in the stench of urine to be economical in travel. In most countries, there are many affordable travel options. Mexico’s busses are no exception, clean, cool, and spacious. There’s even the added bonus of free internet at the bus stations so you can use the waiting time to get your plan sorted out or touch base with friends online. Awhooooø!
I arrive in Playa and buy my connection pass at the ticket booth. She pointed out “AU” to me, but I wasn’t following what she meant. It seemed easy enough though because it was a tiny station and there was a sign above one of the bus stalls that said “Tulum”. I only had to wait a half hour for the bus so I walked down to the beach, took some snaps, and bought a magnet to add to my collection. When I came back a bus had just pulled into the stall. It was 15 minutes until the scheduled time of 1pm so I thought that was my bus arriving in time to get everyone loaded up for an on time departure. I want to preface this with the fact that at the onset of this trip I was beyond exhausted. I recently had a medical diagnosis and a slew of other personal onslaughts that have not been supportive of me being my normal, chipper self. In my unfortunate state, I became an easy target for whatever chip this driver had on his shoulder that day. I asked him if it was the bus for Tulum and he said “No, that leaves from the other station”. I didn’t even know there was another station but I immediately thought that must’ve been what the woman at the ticket counter meant when she pointed to “AU”?? This “concerned” driver said he was passing that way and could get me to my bus that left in 10 minutes. I was so grateful and simultaneously nervous about making the bus. This moment felt stressful but I knew I was on my way to the beginning of some much needed travel therapy so I persevered.
We arrive at the other station and I have 5 minutes to spare. Nice. I go to a counter to find out which stall I should go to for the bus, and the gentleman there tells me I need to go to the other station. Excuse me? The station I just came from…but…noooooooo. When I explain that the driver told me to come here and omg halp, he says I have to go to the ladies at the other counter. The ladies at the other counter tell me I have to go back to him so he can exchange it. He says he can not (will not) exchange it. Nobody. Will. Help. Not sure what the bus driver was after by derailing me. Now that I know better about how to read the bus tickets I see that it states the station on the ticket, but the driver was so convincing that I didn’t even look. MY BAD.
Finally another man comes over and is helpful. He exchanges the now gone bus ticket with one that leaves in an hour and half, “for sure” from this station. He seems legit and even refunds me a few pesos since it’s a different bus line. Since I’ve just been had I want to confirm it online, plus, said busline, Oriente, has had a single bus sitting there the entire time – not coming nor going – while the ADO lines are in and out every 5 minutes. I’m super skeptical at this point. I go online and find, as I had thought, that the other station has busses leaving for Tulum every half hour, and, I discover, I could’ve easily walked the half mile back and made it to the 1:30 departure, but these guys had no interest in informing of that option and I am lost in a sea of Mexico without a clue at this moment in time. So I did what any tired travel gal would do, facebook message your favorite bilingual latino back home to make you laugh and co-create new spanglish terms while you wait impatiently for a bus that may or may not come. Hector to the rescue. lolito. And then the hour and half flies by.
The bus came! A tiny working class man in front of me is kind enough to compare his ticket to mine and I am assured that I am finally going in the right direction. This guy was covered head to toe in paint and drywall dust and had the biggest, friendliest smile in the world. I really needed that humanism right then. My joy was renewed.
You think this day is done? Guess. Again.
I trek to the hostel from the station, a mere 2 blocks. I confirmed my walking directions on google maps before heading out and tilt my puppy head to the side in minor confusion when Google Maps states that this location is “permanently closed”. That can’t by right, I think. I just booked it last night on Hostelworld. Alas, I arrive, and that ish is legitimately locked down with one of those city official posters on the front. The ladies in the restaurant underneath are like, yup, no bueno. Can this day get any longer? At this point I am seriously regretting not paying $20 for personal service at the expense of an hour and a half timeshare pitch.
Baaaaack to ADO to use the internet I go. I find one that looks decent, The Mayan Adventure. On the way there I pass one or 2 and decide to pop in to check one of them out. Closed. I get to Mayan Adventure and it has a big ole wrought iron gate with a padlock. My half size backpack starts to feel heavier than it is. There’s a doorbell and a European girl comes in, gets my MO, and then flits to the back to get the owner. When she returns, the owner has gone but I am welcome to wait for an hour or so, probably, but she’s not sure if there’s availability because she is just camping in the back and the place is kinda under remodeling. Thanks, you’re sweet, but no thanks. It’s time to unload. She recommends a spot that I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye down a side street around the corner. I head that way. They are open. They have rooms. The are appropriately named: The Weary Traveler. This place clearly magically appeared to eradicate the details of my day. Alejandro gets me hooked up at the front desk and I settle in, grab some grub, and enjoy the free caipirinhas happy hour they offer every night. Gracias.Gracias.Gracias.
My minimalism mission meant it was time to go separate ways with my sweet Kelty Redwing 40 hiking pack that I got when I was traveling in Vermont. I bumbled around the gorgeous state and then took a long beautiful train ride down to NYC after about a month or so of walking the long country roads (getting chased by viscious cows), watching the leaves change every shade of red, yellow, and amber, and discovering maple everything for the first time. I took my Redwing to many United States, and rocked it especially hard in my grand finale state, Alaska. I traveled with it to Europe for 6 weeks of early winter all over the continent from Ireland to Hungary to Portugal and beyond. It is abundantly roomy and the compression straps can suck it down to feel like a daypack. It fits in the overhead bin of a plane, or under the seat of a train. When I’ve been lucky enough to get both seats on a long bus ride through Western Europe it sits by my side and I’d fall over onto it like a perfectly sized mushy cuddle buddy. Sometimes it was even my pillow on the New York Subway after a long day of urban trekking.
I have discovered that I have a little bit of a bag obsession. As I pare down in my glorious minimalism, I have found that I simply have too many bags. Too many ways to carry and stow and trek. I know this because most things, like my wardrobe, have been a cinch for me to downsize. I hate clothes for the most part. I am too rough and tumble to be fashionable. I get into an overwhelming tizzy when I have to shop for anything fabric related. Forget sewing! Textiles have a mind of their own and I can not handle the way they change form and shape without warning. Give me power tools over a sewing machine any day. I am OCD clean at home but what happens after laundry is washed? I can’t seem to find it in me to simply hang these things on a hanger and be done with the task. I dump the basket on my bed so I am “forced” to put them away before I go to sleep ~ but NO ~ this does not happen. Putting the clothes away simply never happens with ease. Later, tired and ready to go to bed, I grab the heap and throw it on the lounge chair and go promptly to sleep. The next day I am shuffling through the mad pile to dress myself and the shit goes spilling all over the floor. After a few days the dirty is starting to get mixed up with the clean and, DAMMIT, again, Amy?! Anyway, it’s a nightmare. So I promptly got rid of all but a capsule wardrobe in about 4 whole minutes when I decided to do the 100 Thing Challenge and go hardcore minimalist. So now I have no clothes. I have BAGS. Holy Cats! I’m a bag lady! Ummm…
SO. I was having the hard talk with myself and realized it’s time for some tough love. I simply must downsize, even my precious bag collection, for my ever inspiring minimalist lifestyle. As a Tiny House Movement Wannabe, it just makes sense. Less is more! How many hiking bags do I really need? I already got rid of 3 lightweight generic backpacks. Along with this Kelty I still have a North Face pack and my trusty Lowe Alpine that I got in 1990 when I first started hiking and climbing in the Pocono Mountains. Home turf Pennsylvania say whaaaat! I also have a gym backpack, a beach tote, a waterprood gecko swim bag, a messenger bag…needless to say there are many more vessels in my collection.
I’ve had a few things sitting on Craigslist for the past month collecting dust and trolls and I didn’t really feel like dealing with that forum so I decided to try posting it to a local Facebook garage sale page I recently began following. I couldn’t remember what I paid for it, at least $150, possibly $180. I posted it for $50. Then I looked it up and it is selling for new on Amazon for $264, and it’s an older model. Whoa! Did I pay that much? I never did think too much about what I spend on quality outdoor gear. I barely shop as it is so when I do go for a high ticket item it’s usually worth it. Still, even though I bought it in 2012, 4 years ago, all of those trips I took it on tallied to only about 6 months of use. I take great care of my gear. Wiping dust off with rubbing alcohol, shaking out the debris regularly, keeping the excess straps bound neatly to prevent unnecessary wear and tear. I always hang my hiking bags in the closet between uses, all zipped up and compressed, so pretty. I copied the Product Description and Bag Features from Kelty and posted it with a couple of pics. To my surprise I had a nearly immediate hit. A woman liked, commented, and sent me a direct message shortly after I posted. Well, that was fairly easy.
We agreed to meet at a nearby coffee shop the following afternoon. I slept as hard as ever since I’m now doing bricks to train for my first triathlon. I woke up at 5am ready to conquer the to do list and saw the appointment on my calendar to sell my Redwing. I suddenly had a hint of seller’s remorse. Not as much of a hint, really – more of an onslaught. “This thing is in excellent shape,” I thought. “Have I been underutilizing this bag?” “Should I sell the Lowe Alpine instead? The Kelty is newer technology! What am I doing??” I continued to wonder if I was doing the right thing as I dragged myself out of my house to deliver it to its soon-to-be new owner. Maybe she won’t like it. Maybe she will find it awkward. Yet, lo and behold, when I met her, I couldn’t help myself: my REI member-salesgirl persona came tumbling out all over as I excitedly showed her all the cool features. How it was so big and so small at the same time. The trick velcro side pockets that opened up for tent poles or walking sticks. The secret camelback compartment that opened through the top while doubling over enough to still keep the rain out. Comfy, slim straps for the female torso and an external spine that distributes the weight absolutely perfectly. So much back padding! The perfect bedroll straps, the countless carabiner loops on the bottom, the compartments, the top loading ~ OHEMGEE~.
It was a hard break up, but at the end, my knapsack was starting a new love affair. The best part came when she told me she will be using it to hike the Continental Divide!!! All of a sudden, I was ABOUT IT. YES. So much YES. “Prior to the trip, planning, preparation, and training can take anywhere from twelve to eighteen months. The trip itself takes about six months on foot, when averaging 17 miles per day.”** I am grateful to provide something so useful to this woman’s incredible journey and the look on her face told me she was super pumped! Kelly got her Kelty and I am stoked to know this Redwing has many more adventures ahead. Bon Voyage!
It’s been 11 days and 3 (or 4) countries since I left the US. I barely know where to begin to transcribe all of the amazing that has occurred since I landed in Dublin. The freshest memories are the newest so I’ll start here in the middle, writing from Warsaw. It’s pretty amusing how I spent my first few days getting sorted in this latest foreign language.
I flew to Gdansk, Poland from Edinburgh, Scotland much to the surprise of many fellow travelers I’ve met in Europe. It is apparently rare for an American to go from the UK directly to Eastern Europe, even skipping England completely. If you know me at all then you know I’ve never done anything by the book. I like to do things my own way and I especially like to stay off the beaten path whenever I can help it. My decision to skip over the pond to Poland was easy. For one thing, despite the fact that I am a typical American mutt, I’ve discovered that I am 1/4 Polish from my mother’s side. Coming from a broken family, I wasn’t raised with much culture or genetic awareness and I’ve recently become interested in unearthing the mystery and tracing my roots. It’s a funny thing not knowing much about one’s own ancestry, a bit like floating aimlessly while also being very grounded in pure biological humanism. I haven’t gotten too far into the search yet but it is fascinating to look around at these Poles and see similarities in cheek bones and hair texture to the extent that many look as if they could be my cousin. On a simpler note, the other incentive drawing me to Poland is that my buddy, Daniel, whom I met while we were both traveling in Alaska, lives here in Warsaw and it’s always fun to visit with a fellow traveler. We are a special breed and I always enjoy that unique brand of comaraderie.
Daniel has a job during the week so the plan was to meet up on the weekend. I found a ticket to Gdansk for about $20USD so that seemed like a good place to start on my own. Daniel suggested Poliskibus from Gdansk to Warsaw so I busted out my iPhone to check it out. Google Translate immediately popped up to assist but the translation was some combination of Polish and English, or at least it was some mixture of letters that appeared to be in either language, and the result was completely nonsensical. I fought my way through it for a spell but then I decided to cross reference the budget airline RyanAir and sure enough I found a flight from Gdansk to Warsaw for another $20. I booked directly on the app from a pub in Edinburgh while enjoying a half pint of Innis & Dunn and still succesfully avoiding Haggis…I’m just not brave in that way. When I got around to telling Daniel about my plan he enlightened me to the fact that the airport I booked, Modlin, is quite a long way from the city center. I didn’t really mind. I figured some days are longer than others and I’ve never been afraid of a little extra hike. It typically gives me time to catch up on reading and journaling.
When I flew into Gdansk I hopped on the 210 bus into town and it was about a 30 minute ride. The bus was a bit crowded but it was modern and easy to follow the stops on the digitized scroller. When Brama Wyzinna showed up I knew it was time for me to pop off and then it was an easy 1km stroll through the main plaza. My hosts were hilarious and kind. They made me pierogies and bought me a special honey beer that was delicious. I was provided with a bicycle the next day and biked down the river and all around the town. I adore architecture. I didn’t ever realize this until I moved away from Philly a decade ago and found myself complaining about the buildings. I thought it was an odd thing for me to be going on about but I realized how lucky I am to have grown up in one of the original 13 colonies with so much care and craftsmanship in the architecture. Many modern US cities have bland square buildings that were just assembled quickly and cheaply and it’s quite unappealing to anyone with a creative eye. The old buildings on the square of Gdansk are lovely and feel like a movie set. They are colorful, super tall, and flat in rows. At the top they are curved and had a real eastern european feel. I could go on but I don’t know enough proper architecture terms so you’ll just have to come some my photos when I get my cafe up and running. I’ll have lots of travel pics up as part of the main decor and I’ll be doing a series of exhibits from time to time.
Fast forward to my flight out of Gdansk which was scheduled to leave at 6:40am. I’m no stranger to early flights so I was unphased until I spent what felt like eternity trying to find out what side of the road the night bus runs. Everyone had a different opinion because Brama Wyzzina is a new addition to the night route and also there was some construction happening there. I had 2 reputable sources disagreeing with each other so I decided to walk around to the bus stops and see which one listed the “N3” at the stop itself. It rained all day but it was a soft misty rain so it was irritating but not driving enough to sour my experience. I walked to all the covered stops on both sides of Brama Wyzinna and none listed the N3. I then walked down to the central station and checked the 8 or so consecutive covered stops and only one listed the N3. You would think this was a relief, but it was on the same side of the street as I arrived and I was uncertain if I could trust if it was a pickup and not a drop off location, especially with the locals arguing about it.
I don’t want to spend this whole post complaining as that’s not my style so I will try to summarize the issue briefly. I’ve flown other budget airlines in Europe so I know it doesn’t have to be this way but this would be my 2nd flight with RyanAir and I was starting to discover the hassles that they provide. You can check in with their app but with a US passport they will not provide a digital boarding pass and then as I found out you have to pay an additional $20 to print a boarding pass at the airport. I could’ve printed it beforehand but I’ve never heard of such a thing before and had no foresight the first time. Additionally they want you to be at the airport 2 hours early for some reason. I thought this was all because I was entering the country the first time, but then it was repeating itself as I tried to prepare for my flight to Warsaw from within the country. This meant I had to catch the 4am night bus and the boulevard is so wide that if I missed it for being on the wrong side of the street then there would be no way to recover. I finally said screw it and ordered a taxi to pick me up at 4am. This would cost 50PLN, $13US. If I had done the conversion early I would’ve realized that my sanity is certainly worth that low amount but I was still having a bit of culture shock and was simply taking too much in to realize. Besides I typically like taking the local route to get that extra dose of culture but screw walking to an unknown bus stop at 3:30am.
I messaged Daniel in my exasperation and he informed me that the bus from Gdansk was only 44PLN and drops me at the metro line 10 minutes from the location where I was planning to stay. With the flight it would cost 50PLN for the taxi and the airport was an hour out of the city and would take a shuttle to a train to a metro to get to my place. I don’t know the cost of all the combined transportation from Modlin to Warsaw but the answer was becoming clear: burn the flight and take the bus directly….like Daniel said from the beginning. HA!
SO! it took me a day to get in the groove with transport in Poland but a few days later I’m finding my way fairly easy. I’m living it up now, learning some history and local customs, a few key words, discovering the arts and local scene while meeting lots of fantastic people in cozy boheme cafes. Flow has been achieved.
I’ve had many adventures since I left Austin, so many that it feels I’ve been gone for weeks. The train ride was awesome; I made a couple of buddies along the way that were handy in keeping things interesting, especially as cabin fever set in. The ride itself was much faster & more comfortable than I anticipated. I was directed to a lower cabin car which has wider seats, more leg room, & only 12 seats. This cabin had 5 riders besides myself so I had two fat seats, with more leg room than I have legs, all to myself, making a generally pleasant ride with the exception of “The Queen of The Train”: a woman in her 50s who rides the rails often and ruled our car with her giant vocal chords which were active most of the time and usually had nothing interesting to broadcast.
We arrived in Los Angeles at about 7am on Friday, June 6th. Considering I hadn’t had coffee yet and no food since the night before, it seemed like an eternity for me to get my bike out of train storage. The brand new box I put my bike in in Austin was beat to hell and buried under 30 giant boxes belonging to a family of 5 that were moving to California from the East Coast. I twitched in anticipation of getting my sweetheart out from under that heap. Finally, after a gazillion years, I ripped through the little pieces of cardboard that barely remained on my bike and swiftly straightened my handlebars and put my pedals back on. Passengers aren’t usually allowed in the receiving area but that didn’t stop me from test riding my bike in giant figure eights in the belly of L.A.’s Amtrak station. Now that my bike was working I was ready to go get lost, which I did swiftly!
I wanted to ride my bike the 13 miles to the hotel in Westwood but now it was 8:30am and I still hadn’t had coffee. Additionally, upon lifting my bags, I realized that somehow they were heavier than I planned for them to be. Some gremlin must’ve stuffed some extra tools in there while I wasn’t looking. So I asked around about a bus only to learn that the folks in LA are either confused or confusing when it comes to describing their bus system. After 3 failed attempts at understanding the bus in my caffeine free state, I tied my luggage onto my bike rack with bungee cords, did some strange maneuvering of my limbs, and managed to get on my bike. I then used nothing but will power to make it go, without falling over, through downtown traffic, during rush hour, all the while kicking myself that I didn’t shell out the dough for some paniers to balance my heavy load. My GPS picked this moment to go apeshit and kept telling me I was in the middle of a dirt field in Indiana and other blatant lies. Literally, Indiana. Again I had to rely on the vague descriptions of the people of Los Angeles. OK Go straight. Turn left on 7th street. Got it.
After 9 wavy uphill miles of 7th street where I crossed 3 freeways and hit a dead end before finding the street I was supposed to turn on from there, I had to practice my broken portunol (a rare mix of portuguese and spanish that I learned in Brazil) with an old Mexican man walking his granddaughter to school. He told me I was ass backwards. I turned around and went a few blocks while questioning my language skills. A lady was watering her roses and spoke some English. She confirmed that I was ass backwards and gave me a bottle of water for my crazy/stupid bike ride. She didn’t exactly say that, but her face said it. Somehow the 9 mile return was also a steep uphill. I mean STEEP – like really really hard without a load & impossible with 60 pounds on your back. Was it 60 pounds? It felt like 60 pounds. It was too early for this, I didn’t have enough water, and my bags weren’t packed right so any further description of this segment would just result in a lot of cursing.
I finally found myself downtown again and GPS was toying with me as to which bus to take. I was a couple of blocks from where my droid was telling me to go and standing directly beneath a bus sign that said Westwood. I decided to listen to the sign. The fascinating adventure of bussing in LA shortly ensued. Lifting my monstrously heavy bike with the bulk of my belongings strapped onto it onto a bus where the driver is too pissed off at her lot in life to lower the bus was only the beginning. Yay, more pre-coffee oddly shaped exercise for me. Huff. I get on. She hits the gas pedal and immediately starts yelling at me that I put my bike on wrong and it’s going to fall off. So I stand there, helplessly watching it wobble and waiver while waiting for her to stop driving like a maniac so I can go fix it before the bus rolls over it. “Get behind the yellow line!!”, she screams as she continues to torture me for three jerky, stop & go, city blocks before stopping to watch me lift, twist, & lift my heavy life properly onto the bike rack. I finally get to squeeze me & my overstuffed turtle shell of gear through this sardine can to ensure my place among many indescribable smells & sounds. I try not to look completely overwhelmed but my eyes are bulging and I spastically keep leaning forward to see the names of the upcoming streets, hoping & promising to turn my back on atheism if my stop comes soon. I think I picked the busiest bus with the longest route in LA, and for all the whining I’ve done about how Austin lacks diversity, let me just say, I found it all on that bus. That delectable intimacy lasted about 45 minutes.
I get off the bus and it wasn’t soon enough so I continue to turn my back on god. The hotel is a mere block and a half away and I begin to feel relief but it is snatched out of my heart when the grumpy old imbecile behind the counter tells me my room isn’t ready and he doesn’t know when it will be as he practices facial twitches which indicate that I am the bain of his existence. He was almost as much of a brat as the bus driver but I have yet to get coffee and all those smells on the bus have made me testy and impatient. I proceed to gently put him in his place for being a bad human. He backs down and helps me put my belongings into a storage closet. Me & my empty bike go out for coffee. Finally.
After two hours of ambling through the UCLA area my room is ready. I unload, catch up on some breathing, and soon I’m driving with my long lost cousin and her precious offspring. I spend the next two days getting to know my young, thrice removed cousins and biking the area. My favorite ride was to Santa Monica Pier and all along the beach down to Venice. The bike path is just the right distance from the actual scene that you’re close enough to laugh at it without actually having to touch it. On the way back to the hotel I stopped for Persian Ice Cream which is potentially the most divine flavor I’ve ever tasted. Then, ZAP!, I’m off to the jobby job in Thousand Oaks. Getting there, accomplished.
I somehow arrived in the Bay Area in a completely different situation than originally planned. Everything was rapidly crumbling and the words “lost” and “stranded” kept shouting at me. While initially disturbed, I refused to allow more than a brief pout. Sadness has expired and would not be tolerated. It was true that this particular leg of the trip was not fully planned. It was impossible to plan. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why I was here. The reasons I had last month were vastly different than they were now, not to mention there was a sad truth uncurling that for the first time in my life I did not know exactly who I was. I could not, at this time, justify the junction of my confusion. Yet while all of this mystery was occurring, I ignored my troubled mind as my survival depended me to do. My stubborn mentality was doing something useful, saving me from a meltdown.
Since I was so fervently living in the moment, I quickly turned my head to realize that while I was stuck in deep Oakland, I had landed in an enormous dance studio. I was alone for the first time in months, and the very walls of the building were demanding Missy Elliott into the stereo and the worries that had been crawling on me be thrown out the window. I complied; I danced.
I hadn’t danced since July 13th, 2004.
I have never been good at not knowing. I am made completely of curiosity and an insatiable hunger for learning. I dissect everything that passes me, from electromagnetic fields to the psychology of fashion at LAX. There is not enough time in the day to learn everything I want to know and I can’t decide if that is a flaw in Pope Gregory’s design or the fault of the moon. After some hearty self-analysis, I decided to do an experiment in unknowing. I made bold moves. I bought plane tickets. I stopped calculating my expenditures. I talked to strangers like I knew them for years. I forgot to worry. Sometimes my decisions could be considered unwise but they screamed of necessity anyway.
The biggest of these twists was renting an apartment in Ocean Beach while I was working in five other cities and did not have any prospects in San Diego. I paid rent but never lived there for more than one weekend. I had tons of work and stability in Austin but I was experiencing an undefined aversion and fled. I could not decipher if the discontent was brewing within me or if I had too much disagreement with the city itself. In the past I had always stopped and faced my demons. This time I ran from them, ignored them, beat them around the corner and hopped on a boat before they could get to the dock. Was it smart? That remains unanswered but it was definitely liberating.
I still have several days to kill before I get to work in San Francisco. I’m running out of money, bored with myself, and spending an exuberant amount of time in coffee houses expecting to be fulfilled and surprised like I was when I was graduating my teen years at The Last Drop in Philly. The next thing to do was always found at that vortex of 13th & Pine, even if it meant just sitting on the stoop at 13th & Pine. You could get drunk, get drugs, get a boyfriend, get dumped, get coffee, get inspiration, get philosophy. You could link up, meet up, hook up, grow up, grow dreads, shave your head. The world was completely available and if it wasn’t cheap, it was free.
These days I don’t tend to expect much more than a good cup of caffeine. Some tasty grub helps the experience and good tunes certainly don’t hurt. I suppose that was what I was expecting when my friend recommended Muddy Waters on Valencia. To be fair, he hadn’t been here in a decade and said he couldn’t really vouch for the current operation, but the last time he was here they made some damn good coffee. That is true. The brew is so thick I had to double my creamer.
Since even the suckiest places in San Francisco have delicious food, I wasn’t expecting my egg & cheese bagel to form in less than a minute with the egg shaped like it popped out of a plastic mold and the orange slice of Velveeta shockingly unmelted. I thought Velveeta was born melted. I did not want an egg & cheese bagel in the first place but the menu is sadly limited and even Dunkin Donuts can pull those off with a smidge of flavor. Judging by the cute butch in the Anti-Racist Action shirt sitting next to me and the fact that one of the baristas looks like a Palestinian Freedom Fighter and the other looks like a quintessential seventies feminist at a jazz lounge, young punks and anarchists surely adore this place. The walls haven’t been painted in at least twelve years and they only take cash, which means they are really stickin’ it to the man. The paintings on the wall have rage and potential but they are lazy and unfinished, which does not stop them from being overpriced. Most of the time there is not an ounce of sound outside of the boisterous table near the window but every once in a while the barista gets bored and starts watching youtube on her iPhone which is connected to some dime store speakers behind the counter. It is a dim and distant sound and within nanoseconds the phone rings, or a customer comes in, and she turns it off, keeping her dine-in audience feeling distraught and discombobulated, a perfect emotional stratum for a protest on the square.
Recommended for anyone with an abundance of angst or a simple taste for coffee to go.
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J.R.R. Tolkien
Ahhh Tolkien, author of the echo of the incessant nomad. We defend ourselves in this quote, the wandering, carefree, roaming travelers. If not, we are “running away”, “hiding”, or “lost”. Those addicted to routine, hidden behind statues of finance that dictate how money is allotted, with travel listed as a non-priority, these sweet regular folk can’t perceive the how or why. Some envy us, others judge us. The pictures aren’t big enough and you can’t smell geography. You have to GO yourself to understand why we expedition junkies must gallivant extravagant itineraries, why we must submerge in foreign cultures just to grasp what human really is, and our suffocating need to breathe so much pure oxygen in untouched landscapes. Honestly, YES, sometimes I do run or hide but rarely am I lost. If ever I am, it’s certainly the best way to be found. Most of the time I am running, though, it is to, not from. It is to explore. It is to discover. It is to unearth. It is to grow. Every time I roam I ascend. I conquer fears and disappointments. I vanquish the confusion produced from the western daily grind. I go to and I get my damn priorities straight, effortlessly, as I witness exquisite beauty from coastlines to kinsfolk. I wander and I am found.