A Haunting

Posted on 10 June 2018

My most vivid memory of Saint Petersburg is this:

Listen. The cold sun glares at me as I walk along the Fontanka embankment. I walk southwest to where the canal meets the Neva, and then turn around and walk back on the other side. I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead and step in time to the music in my ears. The grey of the streets and the buildings blends with the blue of the sky where the white light of the sun rubs them together. As a woman, I stick out with my flat shoes and casual clothes, but I’m stopped and asked for directions anyway. I’ve been here long enough, have been walking around long enough, to often answer.

Fontanka Embankment

I walked a lot. I walked from school to where I assisted English classes to where I DJed at a club to meet friends at various chain cafes to where I stayed. At the time, it was a compulsion, almost. I didn’t know what else to do and I did not want to be anywhere. Walking was being alone, it was creating a space for myself with my music, floating through the public but detached, aloof, closed.

Specific sites were ignored for whatever streets I knew I could follow and not get lost on. But I walked through courtyards that struck me more than any palaces. They had a story I could relate to somehow, some way. They spoke to me and did not affront me with their grandiosity as men with piss-wet pants lay and old women prostrated themselves on the sidewalk before them. The contrasts frightened me. I was stabbed to the core. Fellow students drank in bars as I sat with them counting my cash and choosing the cheapest drink on the menu. I let myself withdraw from the frivolity and the laughter. I couldn’t.

Discomfort dogged me where I stayed. Resentment at my hosts for picking on my misunderstandings and American accent spun into resentment of myself: what are my struggles when they survived the Siege of Leningrad? So I turned this fury outward again, wishing I could spit at the people lining Nevsky as Victory Day approached with posters of Сталин, наш герой—Stalin, our hero. People pushed me on the tram, on the metro, as I waited for friends in front of the bookstore. Move, girl, they said. Pushed me to the side like everything else, away.

Frozen Fontanka Eternal Flame, Mars FieldI looked at everyone else through a sheet of glass. I couldn’t quite make contact. Maybe it was language, maybe it was my disturbance—or should it have been labeled political awareness? I was apart from those who were having a good time, and I was apart from those who were truly suffering, or who had across history. Ghosts following me batted at my head, “you don’t deserve sadness.” As I lay with my upper body spread across the kitchen table, my hosts, ghosts in their own way, repeated: “you haven’t seen life, you don’t deserve sadness, don’t drink.” I would retreat to my room and, where no one could see me, place my fingers on my throat in the shape of a gun.

The conclusion came to me: I’m weak. I should be having a great time, this is a special period of my life, and yet. Undeserving. Unattractive in my gloom. Unwanted. The sunset grabbed onto the sky for extra time as the May days lengthened. I walked down the embankment, flowers for my hosts, the blokadnitsi, in hand as fireworks burst over the rooftops in celebration of ending a period of death that really did not end. There was a group of men at a corner by my house who stuck their cell phones in my face and took photos as my hands shot up, blocking them, blocking them all.

Victory Day Fireworks 2009

Disturbance reverberated in me, and why? I increasingly separated from others because they didn’t have it. The annoying it, that made me half a second too slow to smile, that oozed from me and polluted everything. Perhaps it was my novelty, but a Russian group of friends continued to invite me to events and I was grateful in a way, as I glided along with them like a shadow, watching. Or maybe a black hole, absorbing.

As the days grew lighter, as the sun became sharper, nearly all of the novelty from the slushy and dusky winter of my arrival had worn off. I packed my bags as the semester ended unable to comprehend my exact feelings about leaving. In the early morning, the moist air sat heavy and cool on my shoulders I sat across from the statue of Pushkin waiting for my bus to Helsinki.

Pushkin Statue, St. Petersburg

Months later, in the village pub, one of my professors looked at me very earnestly, with a caring that I could rely on, and said, “since you’ve returned from study abroad, you’re so much more confident. You just don’t care what others think anymore.” And though, at that time, it wasn’t yet fully true, maybe the battering had hardened me somewhat. But there were still raw wounds. Every so often over the years, a scab will break and there’s an open pit beneath it, and I can tumble in. Russia did not give me that, but it did scrape off a scab.

Throwing oneself around the earth has implications. If done well, it can be molding. One can absorb and learn and be better, only there’s much of this world that is harsh and if you face it and draw it in under your skin, and if you have that pit where it may fall – there’s that.

I was there.

Posted on 27 May 2018

Tupiza, BoliviaTupiza CactiRoad through SW BoliviaA lonely mountain, SW BoliviaCute grass puff!Mirrored MountainsBolivian AndesLaguna not so VerdeStorm over Laguna ColoradaSW Bolivia SettlementLonely rock, SW BoliviaLaguna HondaBolivian FlamingosAltiplanoRock pillars, SW Bolivia

It’s easy to forget. I decided to look through a batch of photos in my collection from almost six years ago. Many hadn’t even been edited. The beauty of where I’d been jars me. It echoes better in my mind now that I scroll through these images again. I am not sure if I’ll ever be in as stunning of a place as southwestern Bolivia again. Everywhere you look is a shock to the soul. The vast and varied altiplano with its scattered settlements is so far removed from my daily life. But, I was there. I was there. I was there.

In The Right Place

Posted on 8 May 2018

My awareness was fraying at the edges. It was morning in Brussels, but per my internal clock, who knows? Three nights in Ohio skittered by, each one wonderful but marked by progressively less sleep. Next was a transatlantic flight, which was marked by more anxiety than sleep as I sat isolated, thanks to a kind flight attendant, blasting music into my ears so I wouldn’t hear other passengers retching on the bouncy flight. I got off my string of flights in Brussels eager to spend some time exploring on the ground, but also a little jumbled, not entirely aware. I glanced at the train track number for my train to Brussels from the airport and climbed onto the first train that pulled up.

Brussels Bike Sign

About half an hour passed and I realized something wasn’t right. “We’re not going to Brussels are we?” I asked my seatmate. “No…. sorry…” she replied. Well, shit. The conductor called out that our next stop was Antwerp. I disembarked. Good thing Belgium is a small country; I bought a ticket to Brussels and got on the correct train this time, and the detour was only a bit over an hour. Had I continued on the wrong train, I would have hit Rotterdam, then Amsterdam. Next time.

Brussels Grand Place

I arrived at Brussels Central Station, finally, a bit disoriented, plodding under the weight of my backpack. I circled the station, crossed a street, climbed stairs to a lower street. I met my partner, Ben, at the door of the building we were staying in and climbed up the narrow and uneven stairs to the top floor. I was landed in Brussels, a bit shaky, more than a little tired, but eager because here I was.

Brussels Church

After dropping my packs on the floor and neatening up a bit we walked out into the city. I didn’t know what to expect, really. This was my first time in Belgium (airport aside), and I hadn’t done a whole lot of research. I had no notions of what to expect. My tiredness was gradually shed, especially with my first waffle, and I rapidly came to greatly appreciate Brussels.

During our couple of days in the city we wandered around on almost exclusively on foot, from the historic squares in the center to the European Union buildings through parks scattered in between. I also went on a run with a local running club in the Sonian Forest, which stretches out for acres to the southeast of the capital area. These simple activities highlighted part of the reason why I enjoyed Brussels so much: it’s a human-focused city. It’s easy and safe to walk around. Many streets are closed to cars, and many of those that aren’t have little traffic anyway. The public transit is great, both within the city and across the country, as I had accidentally found out. Green spaces are easy to reach. And, though this has nothing to do with city planning, I adored the food – namely the waffles and fries.

Brussels Arc de TriompheMake the Planet Great Again

On our first night in town, we walked to a restaurant about ten minutes away where I enjoyed a dining on a veggie burger and eavesdropping on the various languages being spoken around us. On our stroll back, we ducked down into a dungeon of a bar, which was a delight. The mood, set by the staff, was friendly and goofy, an expanding lamp-like glow in the dim underground bar. This feeling swirled with me the rest of our time in Brussels, despite the rain that persisted. We simply strolled around and enjoyed ourselves.

Mont des Arts Brussels Street

Brussels is a city for people. We weren’t doing anything special there, or going after any particular sites, really; we were just having a nice time. My mind solidified as we alternated between exploring and relaxing and I regained my sharpness without a press of anxiety. I felt no pressure to see certain things; only to see. I could watch the ducks, or sit and eat some fries, in one of the many parks or squares just and experience this place. There’s something to say for that.

Burning Light

Posted on 15 April 2018

Playa Carrizalillo Sunset

I stepped out of our car and the heat dripped off me. I squinted my eyes against the sun. We had arrived in Puerto Escondido. Everything seemed to shimmer.

I’m not a beach person. I prefer cold beaches to hot ones. I’m not even a water person. Even so, we drove through and then descended the hills of Oaxaca state from the regional capital to the coast to introduce ourselves to another part of Mexico. Discomfort is worth the knowledge and experience.

Puerto Escondido was the most touristy place we’d visited, and I can see why. We walked down the stairs to Playa Carrizalillo as the sun was setting. The bay, the clear blue water, the sand; I had to admit this was a fine beach. Back atop the cliffs, eating dinner, we were treated to a strange bit of magic as the sun’s last rays pierced through the dark in stripes.

Playa Carrizalillo Sunset 2Playa Carrizalillo Sunset Stripes

Luminescence everywhere, in the sky and the water. Nearby Laguna de Manialtepec shimmers with plankton at night but we visited under the sharp sun. The narrow strip of skin I failed to coat in sunscreen was found and burned. But we cut through the water and I was glad, spotting pelicans, ospreys, herons, kingfishers, ducks, and more amid the tangled roots of the mangroves. Trees perched atop their elongated roots. We stopped on a strip of beach, uncovered only in dry season to separate the lake from the sea, and sipped on coconut.

Laguna de Manialtepec PelicanLaguna de Manialtepec Beach StripOaxaca Hills from Laguna de ManialtepecLaguna de Manialtepec CutieLaguna de Manialtepec MangrovesView toward Puerto Escondido

That afternoon, we went back to Playa Carrizalillo and swam. The waves pushed and pulled me, the water deep even close to shore. The water was warm and the atmosphere too. We emerged from the ocean, wrinkled by the sea, in time to sit and watch one less sunset. And then, it was time for one more dinner, highlighted by salsa de cacahuate. Streetlamps buzzed and cut through the dark and we moved our way through it. It was still hot for me, but I still smiled.

At breakfast I overheard a Mexican woman explaining to a little girl why she chose to live in Puerto Escondido. “It’s the only place I can walk around barefoot!” Would that we all could shed a layer of protection and find our way through the darkness to some streak of light, even though sometimes it can burn.

Playa Carrizalillo Sunset 3

A Tree and Water

Posted on 6 March 2018

We parked near the town plaza of Santa María del Tule and approached the square. The greenery of an enormous tree towered ahead of us, utterly overshadowing the church beside it. This tree, El Árbol del Tule, is the world’s widest tree and is, at the very least, over 1,000 years old – and some believe it is much older than that. What no one needs to believe, though, because it’s obvious, is that this tree is majestic. After paying the few pesos’ entry into the square, we circled the trunk. It was impossible to capture the its size in our camera frames. So we walked under the outstretched branches and just did our best.

El Tule Trunk of el Árbol del Tule Trunk of el Árbol del Tule II

El Árbol del Tule, given its age, has seen not only the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, but also the arrival of the Aztecs to Oaxaca state. This tree has lived at least a dozen of long human-length lives. Here it stands, surrounded by our artifice. It seems silly, to think this about a tree, but perhaps it shouldn’t be: I hope this tree is happy in a tree way. After all, trees communicate and do all sorts of things the average person just can’t see happening, so I wish this particular tree-comfort and tree-satisfaction.

We walked across the street to eat at the neighboring market hall and after doing a round through the building, pushed through with calls of quesadillastamalestlayudastacosmemelas we settled on a stall. I ordered a vegetarian tlayuda (a crunchy, toasty tortilla covered in beans, vegetables, cheese, and meat for the non-vegetarians) and it was far better at this random stall than the one I had the night before at a spot in Oaxaca that was recommended in a guidebook. Ben had a quesadilla with quesillo and squash blossoms. We were more than satisfied.

Santa María del Tule Plaza

Next up: about an hour-long drive, switchbacks on a sometimes-bumpy road (the newer toll road was closed but we didn’t mind) to Hierve el Agua. The name means “the water boils” but the water is, in fact, a bit cold – especially the further away from the warmish springs you swim. Hierve el Agua is a natural spring area that was modified and used by the Zapotec people for irrigation after they created a series of terraces and canals over a thousand years ago, traces of which remain. The calcium carbonate in the water has left deposits on two hillsides, creating “waterfalls”, cascada grande and cascada chica, which can be hiked between.

Hierve el Agua Tree Green Pool, Hierve el Agua Cascada, Hierve el Agua

The pools of Hierve el Agua vary in color and in size. I unquestionably had to swim there and despite the chill, I paddled around in perhaps the world’s coolest infinity pool, ringed by slight ridges – the canals – built ages ago. The complex is, of course, a tourist attraction, but not overwhelmingly so. People padded around the pools in their flip-flops and took turns taking photos at the most scenic spots. We wandered around for some time before I changed out of my wet bathing suit and, with a few last photos – it was hard to turn my back on this beautiful spot – walked with Ben toward the parking lot. We stopped at one of the vending stalls along the way and got fruit treats – jicama, pineapple, watermelon, and cucumber sprinkled with chili pepper. We sat in the parking lot by our rental car, savoring our snacks, before driving down out of the hills back to Oaxaca City.

Blue Pool, Hierve el Agua Bush, Hierve el Agua Green Edge, Hierve el Agua

There was more to this one day; this was only the second chapter. The first was visiting Monte Albán. The third was traipsing the nighttime streets of Oaxaca City, popping into mezcalerias and staying at one in particular, spending time chatting with a staff member/mezcalier. The days we elongated there, and the days I wish I could add, are but fractions of drops in the grand bucket of the history of this place, but for me in my one life – they’re outsized.

Smaller pool, Hierve el Agua View from the hike out, Hierve el Agua Tree, Pool, Tourists, Hierve el Agua