Winding Down

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Seventeen months ago I began this blog, full of expectation as we began a long-awaited adventure. We were in the process of packing our belongings for storage and becoming nomads for a time. As I wrote, I wondered how the journey would change me. Who would I be without the anchoring identity provided by a place in the world, the roles I played in life, and the structure that had evolved around it all?

Our original plan was to travel the perimeter of the United States in our little RV, Casa Blanca. The first leg would be the Eastern seaboard. Because we had a commitment in Florida (my mother-in-law’s 80th birthday party), we would cover the southern part first, and later in the summer do the Northeastern coast.

Best made plans. The very first day out, we experienced the inevitability of change, when a dramatic storm flooded our world right before our eyes. Amazed, we waited in the driveway from which we would soon depart for the last time. As the rain finally let up, we navigated though the deep creek that had recently been our street. Shortly thereafter, our vehicle began to misfire. Some wires had gotten wet. The next day (somewhere in Delaware) we learned that since the needed parts weren’t readily available, Casa Blanca would be unable to get us to the party in time. We made the drive to Florida in a rental car, feeling more than a little deflated from the anticlimactic start to our journey. Still, the family gathering was wonderful, and we were off to a good start. We retrieved Casa Blanca, and eventually completed the Northeast through a long and glorious summer. By November, we were ready to retire Casa for the winter and head for Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We would continue our drive around the states in the spring, or so we thought.

While in Mexico, though, we changed some of our plans. Maybe it was the water, the heat, or a combination of the two. Somewhat impulsively we decided that summer would not find us on the road, but in the skies. We booked flights to Bali and Europe, which, if you have been following this blog, is old news.

Admittedly, I have some mild regrets about not completing our journey around the US. I still don’t regret our changes in plans. What a gift it was to be able to be flexible and see and do so much! Not following our original plans was an important step. It freed us in a way that we couldn’t anticipate.

Why am I rehashing this now? Since winding down from our whirlwind summer adventures, we are slowing down. Coincidentally, I am blogging less and less. While we will not be settled into a new home before Christmas 2016 as we once thought, we are thinking more about the future. Increasingly, we find ourselves looking forward to the day when we will have a place of our own. Aside from our camper, we have slept in multiple hotels, rented spaces, and as guests in the homes of countless friends and family members. Even as I celebrate the achievement of having become unencumbered, a sense of being displaced has been its companion.

We are slowing down. We spent almost two months in New Jersey after returning from Europe. Now we are back on Isla Mujeres for a three-week visit before spending the winter in Vermont. Winter is a good time for ideas to incubate, and we hope to make some wise decisions about our future during that time. Certainly the cold winter will be conducive to decisions about nesting, just as the Mexican “winter” gave us permission to make loco decisions about new adventures.

My last two blog entries have felt different to me, as I have shifted internally from wanting to focus on my geographical meandering to reflecting more on my inner journey. When I completed my last entry, Full Circle, I felt that if this blog were a book, I had just written the last chapter. In spite of this feeling, I didn’t decide anything. I’m learning to let things percolate.

So here I am. I have missed writing more frequently, missed the responses I get, and the feelings of connection they bring. You can’t begin to imagine how meaningful your comments are. Please keep them coming! I’m not sure where my reflections will bring me now that we are slowing down. Maybe my blog will become boring –  I’m hoping not. I’m expecting that being still may be even more insightful than moving. Sitting to write helps me focus on what the lessons are.

Speaking of lessons, I want to end with a story, a true story about something that happened here on Isla Mujeres late yesterday morning. We were driving down the road along the ocean in our golf cart, on the way to hunt for sea glass. Just another day in paradise. Charlie looked out over the water and saw a vulnerable little boat tossing about the waves. As it came closer to shore, we could see that it was inhabited by about fifteen people. A crowd was gathering, because, as we had surmised, it was a boatload of Cuban refugees and it was about to land on the shore right in front of us.

Cuba is ninety miles from Isla, and it is a well-known fact that refugee boats arrive here with some regularity. If the refugees are lucky, they disappear into the fabric of the island. But we had never seen this with our own eyes. As the crowd gathered, I felt sick to my stomach. A police officer had arrived and was radioing for backup. Onlookers had their phones out and were taking videos and photos, as these desperate and defenseless people were carried on the waves directly toward the sands before us.

I could only imagine how fervently these people must have wanted to escape their country to endure crossing the sea in a small boat with a plastic tarp for a sail. They wanted freedom, but as the police gathered it looked as it they were going to be captured. I didn’t want to watch, but it was happening so fast that I didn’t really have  a choice. The boat scraped the sand and the Cubans were scrambling in all directions. Some got away, others were caught. At least one officer had a weapon drawn. It was surreal.

I don’t know what happened to those who were apprehended. Perhaps they were treated with dignity, perhaps not. I only know that this saddened me deeply. Here I am, reflecting on creating the next chapter of my life, on building a new home. I have never known the hardship behind the drama that played out before me. I was going to look for sea glass!

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Instead, the sea brought me an indelible image of human suffering, the fear of cruelty side by side with the hope of liberation. The refugees can no longer be seen. Some went with the police, and I hope others found shelter. The little boat still sits on the shore.

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Life is never as simple as a stroll through paradise. We must remember this, and most importantly, we must remember to maintain our humanity and compassion above all. I appreciate any reminders that my concerns are miniscule in this cosmos. ©

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Ciao!

Greetings from Seiano, Italy. Today is the 10th of July, exactly a month since my departure from Philadelphia to Bali. I don’t know what we were thinking when we made these travel plans, back in the month of January when the heat of the Mexican sun was melting our synapses. Possibly, we weren’t really thinking at all. All I know is that within a space of two weeks we booked a trip to Bali and a trip to Europe……and that our return from Bali would allow us only a precious six days home before we once again boarded a jet for an overseas flight. And during that six days we would not only pack (three suitcases) for the next (complicated) leg of our journey, but also attend a family wedding that would require an overnight stay at a hotel, the very night before our travels. As I said, I don’t know what we were thinking. If we were thinking at all.

So this first week in Italy has not only been a feast for the senses, as a trip to Italy must be, but it has also been an opportunity to sleep, to recover from the previous weeks and months of emotional and physical upheaval. For, we have not only been going-going-going, but in the midst of this we have faced some personal crises that have taxed our resilience, with Charlie’s loss of his dad being paramount. What this has meant in real time is that, in between long walks and climbs in the Mediterranean heat, and languishing meals consisting of pasta and wine – and did I mention pizza? -we have slept. Long deep sleeps that have surpassed any sleep in my recent memory. Sleep very much needed, and most restorative.

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A Slice of Rome

We spent three days in Rome, and it was freeing to know that we did not need to see ‘everything’, because our previous trip in 2006 had provided the opportunity to do that. This time we could roam the streets more aimlessly, making sure to allow time for another visit to the Pantheon (and the caffe granita loaded with whipped cream at Tazzo d’Oro nearby….a treat that puts Starbucks to shame). We also made sure that we visited the Trevia Fountain (a short walk from San Crispino – the best gelato in Rome). And before our departure on Friday, we had to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, because how can you go to Rome and not pay the Vatican its due? While in Rome for three days, we clocked about twenty-four walking miles, and consumed I cannot say how many calories. Because who can count calories in Italy?

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Vesuvius

If we walked in Rome, we have climbed in Seiano. This is a small town on the coast south of Naples, with a view of Mt. Vesuvius. But the coast of Italy is different from the beaches of our east coast, and even more extreme than northern California. Formidable rocky ledges and cliffs, with little beaches virtually inaccessible beneath them. Except that the Italians did not comprehend the concept ‘inaccessible’…..they set out to prove it a lie, and so there are steps, and/or treacherous winding narrow roads that provide access to the water, as long as one is sufficiently determined. And so we have descended in the footsteps of generations to the water’s edge in Seiano, and refreshed ourselves in the Mediterranean Sea, only to again climb the stairs that were long ago etched into the precipitous coastline, this time upwards. A word to the wise – the beaches one reaches after the descent are small and crowded. One must arrive very early to stake a claim on that prime real estate. Which we did not, because, as I alluded earlier, we slept in.

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Prime Real Estate

As this is not so much a travelogue as a record of my impressions and contemplations on this journey, I must now share those. As I sat at water’s edge at a little cafe, which gave us a welcome respite in spite of having arrived too late to have a place to sit on the beach, I reflected on the vicissitudes of travel. Sometimes, while traveling, I have felt like a welcome guest, and other times, I have felt like a tourist. There is a difference. I think that for me, a big part of that rests on how well I can communicate with the people who are sharing their home turf with me, a stranger. It doesn’t matter whether I have command of their language, or they have that of mine, but it is communication that is key.

Here, I have felt a sore lack of connection in spite of pleasant encounters with many hospitable locals. Surprisingly, their command of English is (at best) slightly better than my non-existent Italian. Others may disagree, but I have felt the language barrier to be an isolating factor. We are traveling through, taking in the sights and sounds and tastes, but not partaking in significant discourse with our amiable and gracious hosts. This is a loss, especially to me, a person who had dreamed of becoming fluent in many languages when I was younger.

I failed to achieve this goal, because life took me in other directions. I am not one who is prone to offering unasked-for advice. However, if any of my readers are the age I once was when I dreamed of being multilingual – in my twenties – please consider this. I have no regrets in my life regard things I have actually done. My only regrets are related to what I have not done. I wish I had followed my dreams more, and not allowed the random fluctuations of life to lead me astray. I wanted to travel when I was younger. I did not, and I am making up for that now. But who knows what experiences may have taken me on an alternate path if I had done so sooner? I wanted to be a writer……well, I am writing now, but how many years were wasted? And I wanted to learn languages, and let’s face it….no matter how hard I try, my capacity to do so is far less than it was back then.

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Steps

So be it. My life is good. And I am hoping that next week, when we meet Charlie’s cousins in Sicily, the feeling of connection will be unquestionable. ©

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Words Fail Me

A few days ago, my daughter Ellie told me this story: She was exiting a local business, when she encountered a little boy. He looked up at her and said, in that earnest way that only children can pull off, “You look like a nice lady.”  She answered him, “And you are a nice boy.”

The image of this encounter delights me. I have revisited it more than once over the last few days. A chance moment between an adult and a child, a few kind words spoken that did not need to be said.  And now, joy in the telling and retelling. So simple.

Funny thing: when I was sharing this story with Charlie last night, I realized that, though the incident happened in Westmont, New Jersey, I was imagining a Mexican child. I saw a boy of about five, with wide dark eyes, silky black hair and an open face. Every time I encounter a Mexican child, which is several times a day, I fall in love a little bit.

Which is one of the main reasons I grow frustrated with my laborious acquisition of the language. Lets face it: I’m turning sixty years old in less than two weeks. These old synapses are not as flexible as they were back when I should have been more serious about learning foreign languages. I have continued to work on my Spanish, but I will have to be much more committed if I am going to get further. It’s really true that immersion is the only way, and I haven’t tried hard enough to engage with the people on a daily basis. I’m always afraid I will end up out on a limb of incomprehension.

Having long flourished in the world of verbal expression, it is difficult for me to try to communicate with only a limited arsenal. I dread that moment when I run out of words, wanting to express a thought or question for which I lack the vocabulary. It’s like starting to cross a bridge to a splendid place, and discovering that the bridge has not yet been completed. You can see where you so fervently want to go, but instead of a road to get there, you face a churning river. Maybe there are alligators, or you’ll drown. So jumping in and trying to swim doesn’t feel like an option. That’s me trying to speak Spanish.

Beyond not being able to befriend small children, another major frustration for me involves taking cabs. I HATE riding in cabs. Many of the cab drivers don’t speak English, and I feel like the ugly American, sharing in silence a small, almost intimate space with someone who is performing a service for me. Yesterday we took a cab downtown for dinner. The cabbie had cheerful instrumental Latin music playing, and I said, “Me gusto la musica.” He laughed and I could tell he appreciated my comment. It was a little bridge, so we were humans together for a moment. The ride was very pleasant.

But I can’t always create that little bridge. Or I get so far, but no further. Case in point: Yesterday Charlie and I were in the artists’ market – this week, a fantastic artist’s market with artisans from all over Mexico is on our island. Charlie was buying a lovely hand-stitched shirt while I was at a table nearby, perusing amber jewelry from Chiapas. Charlie came over to me and asked, “How do I ask him where the shirt was made?” So I (momentarily…) left the amber table, and asked Charlie’s vendor, “¿De donde es la camisa?” The young gentleman smiled widely and said, “Isla Mujeres.” It was made right on our island! A little surprised, I asked again, “¿Isla Mujeres?” He pointed at the colorful sign at the front of his table, “Isla Mujeres.” And then we had what I call a bobble-head doll moment, when we smile and nod our heads in lieu of communicating more deeply. I would have liked to ask him more. Who makes this beautiful clothing? Is it sold anywhere on the island regularly? My inquisitive mind works faster than my words can communicate, and I get frustrated, and turn into a bobble-head.

Last weekend we were on our way into the big supermarket, Chedraui, and happened upon some vendors selling pottery on the sidewalk in front of the store. We decided to purchase two mugs, and made our selection. Alas, we did not have small enough bills and the vendor did not have enough change. I had a simple request – can you hold these mugs for us while we go into the store and do our shopping, because then we will have the right change? But I could not communicate this effectively, although I did my best. We ended up having Charlie stand down there with the two mugs in his hands, while I went up the escalator, into the store, on the cashier line, made change, and went down to complete the purchase. Awkward, but we got the mugs.

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While on the subject of Chedraui, I recall that early in our stay here we needed to purchase a frying pan. Charlie found one there that seemed nicely heavy, which everyone knows is a good quality in a frying pan. The pan was covered in a colorful cardboard wrapper with a lot of writing on it, then covered again in cellophane. Charlie couldn’t read the writing on the cardboard, but it was clearly a frying pan of the size we desired, as we could tell by the contours and the handle sticking out from the packaging. He brought it home, and upon unwrapping it we discovered that it contained not only a frying pan but about two pounds of powdered chicken broth, which actually comprised the weight of the parcel. It was actually a flimsy, lightweight pan! Well, we thought, who knew that chicken broth came free with the pan???

A couple of months later, when shopping again, I discovered several of the very same packages on the clearance table. With the Spanish I had gained in the interim, I was able to discern that we had NOT purchased a pan with free chicken broth, but rather, we had purchased chicken broth that came with a free pan! Such are the perils of shopping in a foreign country.

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Getting back to taxi rides: I need to vent. As I explained early on, our transportation on the island is a tapestry of walking, bike riding, rental golf carts when we have guests, sometimes being lucky enough to catch a ride with friends, and, as a last resort, the occasional cab ride. I’ve already expressed the hatred I feel about this option, but it seems important to elaborate. To begin with, there is a lot of negative feeling about the taxi business on the island. The drivers have a union, and, I’m told, a good deal of political clout. It is suggested that the taxi folks don’t always use that power for the common good.

That being said, I have nothing against the individuals who are struggling to earn a living providing this service. In spite of all the popular complaining about the cabbies, I have observed that the drivers are struggling just like everyone else…their lifestyles are just the same as their neighbors’, they work long hours, and no doubt deal with some very unpleasant customers in the bargain.

Added to my frustration with not being able to communicate sufficiently with the drivers while sharing their space, there is another sticking point: the fares. Not because they are expensive, but because there is such a strange dynamic involved. When we were first tourists on the island, we would dutifully pay the driver what they asked of us, and we felt we were getting a fair price. As we spent more time here, we began to realize that there was a wide chasm between what the tourists paid and what the locals were charged. Often a local will ride up front with the cabbie while another fare sits in back, so that essentially the driver collects two fares on the same trip. No problemo. It makes things more interesting.

As we grew to be aware of the two-tiered fare system, our local ex-pat friends gave us the scoop: “Don’t ask the cabbie what you owe them, just give them 30 pesos,” and, “Ask them what the fare will be before you get in the cab, and refuse the ride if it is too much,” and “Make sure you have the right change.” While I found the whole ordeal more than a little uncomfortable, Charlie embraced this approach. (After all, he has family in Sicily.) After a year or so of experimentation, he now has this down to a science. Before we leave the house, we gathers 30 pesos, exactly. Then we hail a cab, and when we arrive, as I disembark, he hands the driver the money and we say adiós. The cabbies accept this – even though, had we asked them what the fare was, the answer would have been anything from 40 to 70 pesos, sometimes even more. Apparently, by just handing them the exact change, the assertion is, “I know what this costs, don’t pull one over on me.”

For me, the word-woman, this is just a little too nonverbal, too posturing. The other day, as we were vamoosing out of a cab, I said to Charlie, “I feel like we’re Bonnie and Clyde and we just pulled off a heist.” I just can’t shake that feeling, with two consequences. One, I always let Charlie be “the man” and pay the money. Two, I refuse to take a cab by myself, because, as much as I don’t like the method, I’m certainly not willing to revert to paying the turista rate. So, in this one aspect of travel on the island, I am not an independent mujer. I have been known to walk three miles in the burning sun to avoid that experience. Crazy, I know, but we are all allowed our little quirks on Isla Mujeres.

As I write this, we have one week and one day remaining on this beautiful island. We have begun our process of taking leave, as we discuss what restaurants we want to visit one last time, how to spend our diminishing days, and how hard it will be to take leave of this place that has become another home for us. If I have one regret as I write this, it reverts back to my disappointment in the slow development of my fluency. If I had these four months to live over, I would spend more time immersing myself in the language by speaking with the locals more and the English-speakers less. You can get by on Isla Mujeres with little or no Spanish, but you miss out on getting to know many wonderful people, with stories to tell that are truly the fabric of this magical place. I am sorry for the stories I have not heard, and hope to hear more next time.