Sunday, 23 December 2012

When It Ends

So, I’m working on a new theory.

To be fair, I actually stole the theory from Newton and just applied it to things that don’t involve math because, let's face it: math's the worst. But I think I'm onto something.

You’ve all heard of Newton’s Principle of Inertia, right? You know, "the resistance of any physical object to a change in its state of motion or rest, or the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion." 

Or for my fellow Communications majors out there, the catchier (and easier to understand): “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, objects at rest tend to stay at rest."

Well I say this theory applies to more than just physics. I think it applies to emotions and lifestyles as well. 

I call it “Emotional Inertia.”

Take us for example (because everything, even the laws of physics, comes back to me):  before we left for our year-long trip, we were “at rest” in Switzerland. We had a good life, a comfortable life, and it was really hard to leave it. We were at rest, and despite our excitement about traveling the world, there was a part of us that tended towards remaining at rest.

It took us a little extra force to get going -an emotional shove out the door, if you will- but once we got “in motion,” we were set. Like a marble on a slanted surface, we started out slowly, but built momentum as we went. As the trip wore on, we were rolling faster and faster: the more we traveled, the more we wanted to travel. The more we talked about a nomadic life, the more we talked about living abroad, about living in a van, etc. etc. etc.

Then, towards the end of the trip, as we were rolling the fastest, we saw something up ahead: The Wall. Our return flight. Our stopping point. There was no removing it, no pushing it back (believe me, we tried; we even called the airline to extend our trip but our ticket had a fixed return date.) The closer we approached that wall, the more we dreaded it. We didn’t want to stop rolling, to stop traveling. We were happy “in motion,” and never wanted it to end.

Then we ran into the wall. 

We stopped. We had to. The stopping point was exactly as you would expect: a slamming halt. A violent, emotional crash.

At first, the crash was slightly softened: we were welcomed at the Marseille airport by Vincent’s entire family, yelling and laughing and crying, holding up signs and drawing curious stares from passersby. That night, the blow was softened further by a wonderful meal with the family, during which we ate all of the products we had missed during the past year and told stories about our trip late into the night. Imagine our marble slamming into the wall and bouncing backwards from the force of impact. That evening was the slow roll back down to the wall.

The next morning though, the wall was still there, and we were stopped at the base of it. We woke up in Vincent’s childhood bedroom and looked around at all of our belongings that we hadn’t seen in a year: my books piled high on the shelves, our clothes hanging in the closet, our wedding rings in a box on the desk. Then we looked at our backpacks, still unpacked on the floor, slumped against a wall in the corner.

And then I started crying. Deep, shuddering sobs of mourning and loss, my head buried against Vincent’s chest as he rested his chin on the back of my head, struggling with his emotions in silence.

We were both overwhelmed: how do we reconcile all of these things, these objects of our past, with the dirty, crumpled backpacks on the floor? More importantly, how to we reconcile the two worlds they represent?

But, as all emotions do, the fear passed. After a day or so of bewilderment and anxiety, we finally worked up the courage to start unpacking our backpacks, organizing our belongings, getting ready to start over. We both put on a pair of jeans for the first time in a year. I wore leather boots, and a real bra, marveling at the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror. Slowly, we were getting back to normal.

That was a week ago. Today, we are more or less “at rest.” We are starting to think about what we are going to do next, starting to think about the future. We are easing ourselves into it all by planning to travel around a lot in the next few weeks to visit friends and family, but we are beginning to accept that that too has to end. We have to stay at rest for a while.

And, as Newton predicted, now that we are at rest, we are ok being at rest. We still want to get back into motion again in the future: we are already talking about doing another big trip in a few years. But first we need to settle down for a while, at least long enough to save up for the next adventure. And now, for the first time since we left for the trip, settling down doesn’t sound so bad. To our surprise, there’s a small part of us that looks forward to being in one place for a little while. It looks forward to having a home again, to resume building our lives together. We are at rest and we will stay at rest.

Until the next trip.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Provençal Road Trip... in South Africa

As I sipped my glass of crisp Chenin Blanc on the terrace of a local winery and looked out over rows of vines, blue lavender and olive trees to the low, rocky mountains beyond, I found myself thinking:

“This is Africa?”

Where were the lions, the elephants, the giraffes? Where were the Masai tribes and the head dresses? I should be eating mashed lentils with my hands in the bush somewhere, not eating fresh oysters and Camembert cheese on a sunny terrace. This wasn’t the Africa from the pages of my dad’s National Geographic magazines. Hell, if it wasn’t for the language, I’d think we were in Provence!

But, you know, maybe it was a blessing in disguise that the area we explored in South Africa, the wine and coastal regions east of Cape Town, so closely resembled the region of France that we would be returning to within days. Maybe it eased the transition between traveling and being back in Provence. Maybe that two week road trip helped us to mentally prepare ourselves for Europe.

It certainly helped us prepare our stomachs.

Two weeks in South Africa’s most fertile region, not to mention a visit to its famed Winelands, was enough to help us gain back all of the weight we had lost during our trek in Nepal. We gorged ourselves on lovely French-style cheeses, home-made ostrich stew, fresh Knynsa oysters, barbequed sausages, our first sushi meal in a year.

And wine. Obscene, embarrassing, disgusting amounts of wine. 

Although it felt like it sometimes, we didn’t spend the whole two weeks just eating and drinking. We drove a bit, first along gorgeous winding coastal roads with stunning views on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, then through dry, rocky mountains further inland, and finally, through lush green farmland covered in grape vines and blooming lavender. We didn’t have to drive far out of Cape Town for landscapes that were at once varied and beautiful. 

We also did several day-hikes, during which I insisted that we both carry “baboon sticks” in case we came across any baboons during our walk.  You laugh, but those things were everywhere and I wasn’t about to risk getting attacked by an aggressive, disease-infested, red-bottomed baboon during the last week of our trip. No, thank you, no nasty-ass baboons for this girl.

Those baboons better not f- with me, I got my Baboon Stick.
A baboon-free hike along the coast

Baboons weren’t the only wildlife we saw during our road trip; we also got up close and personal with a colony of penguins and some ostriches. True, it isn’t exactly Discovery Channel material, but we were still pretty excited. That is, until one of our guesthouse hosts told us that ostriches are really mean and will use their claws to rip open your stomach and eat your intestines while you are still alive. Charming lady, really…

At least he won't try to eat my innards
When we had had enough nature in all of its threatening, organ-eating forms, we hightailed it back to Cape Town, with a two-day detour in the wine region to do tastings and essentially make our bodies hate us. Imagine my liver giving me the finger before packing up its things and jumping in a taxi- that’s what two consecutive days of wine “tasting” did to us.

In Cape Town, we did what we always do in a new city: we got lost. We wondered around aimlessly until we eventually found ourselves in the adorable neighborhood of Bo Kaap, known for its candy-colored houses. Every home was painted a different bright color, every street looked like Disneyland, everywhere we looked was another photo opportunity. It was fuckin’ adorable.

On our last night in Cape Town, the last of our year-long adventure, we went to an Ethiopian restaurant in the hope of finally feeling like we were in Africa, even if just for one meal. Everything was going well: we had Ethiopian honey wine to drink and we ate with our hands. There were even mashed lentils on the table. After two weeks in “Provence,” we were finally in Africa. We finished our typical Ethiopian meal and were about to congratulate ourselves on this authentic experience when our waiter came to our table.

“And now, for dessert,” he said with a flourish, as we eagerly strained to see what Ethiopian sweet would finish the meal. “Mediterranean baklava with ice cream. Enjoy.”

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Game Over

It’s almost over.

One more day before we fly home. In 36 hours, we’ll be in the plane heading back to France. The trip, our year-long adventure, a project that has been in the works for over two years, is almost finished.

This year has flown by at an incomprehensible speed. The trip has gone so fast.

Too fast.

We don’t fully realize that it’s over. It just hasn’t hit us yet. What’s weird is that almost exactly a year ago, I was saying the same thing about leaving for the trip: that it hadn’t hit us, that we weren’t emotionally prepared, that we were scared, and excited, and a little sad. Now, that familiar, bittersweet mix of emotions is back; only this time, instead of it being the beginning, it’s the end.

Funny how life can be so perfectly symmetrical.

But maybe it isn’t the end. Maybe we have such a strong sense of déja vu because we are on yet another brink, about to embark on yet another adventure. It is the end of the trip, but it is also the start of whatever comes next.

What that is, exactly, is a little more unclear.

You see, when we were planning this journey, we expected to come back with clarity, with life goals. We expected to come back with a plan.

As you might have noticed from the glaring lack of any blog posts about our future, we don’t have a plan. At best, we have a vague idea of next steps that we hope might eventually evolve into a plan, but as for where we will be and what we will be doing in two months’ time, well, your guess is as good as mine.

But maybe that’s a good thing. I really believe that part of our anticipation and excitement about this new chapter in our lives is a direct result of the fact that we have no idea what that chapter will look like. If we knew for sure what we would be doing and where, if we were already looking for apartments or organizing job interviews, maybe the end of the trip would be hitting us much harder than it is.

Not that it’s not hitting us at all. We are both really, really sad to end this adventure. I can’t think of a better word for how we are feeling: we are just sad. Sad that this incredible journey is over: a journey that has consumed the last two years of our lives and has shown us the most interesting, enlightening, challenging, educational- and just the most fun, damnit- times we’ve ever had. Of course we are sad. We have loved this trip. Loved every part of it. Even the parts we hated.

Throughout the trip, we have tried to make sure we always appreciate what we are doing and to never let our frustration or discomfort cloud our gratitude for this unique experience. We’ve never gotten sick of the trip, or wished time would speed up. We never looked forward to it being over or to going back home. In the past year, neither of us has felt even a fleeting moment of resentment, even a twinge of regret, that we made this decision. As we start realizing that the trip is ending, our affection for and attachment to this journey only grows stronger. We just don’t want it to end.

But it has to end, and we accept that. Our dismay about the trip being over is partnered with a sort of resignation that there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s going to end whether we want it to or not, so we better just accept it and try to have a good attitude about it.

And it’s not all tears. We are excited to see our families and friends. Excited to spend Christmas in France and then fly to the States (and London, and Amsterdam, and Switzerland- we have a lot of people to see.) We are excited to see how much all of our friends’ babies have grown and hear about everything we’ve missed in the last twelve months. We have been lucky enough to have this incredible experience and are lucky enough to return to a lot of love and support. So, sad or not, we have nothing- and I mean nothing- to complain about.

It’s still too early to say how this trip has changed us. We know it has, but it’s all still so fresh that we don’t know what is temporary and what will have a lasting effect. We need time from it, time to take some distance from traveling and let everything we’ve experienced sink in.

And I also need time to catch up on the blog.

Even though this is the end of the trip, it’s not quite the end of 360 Degrees in 360 Days. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting about our time in South Africa, and our return to Europe. As my thoughts about the trip and its effects on us start to clarify, I’ll share those with you as well. There will be a lot to reflect on in the near future. A lot of things to do, to think about, to plan.

But before all of that, we still have one more day left on this trip; a day I'm not going to waste worrying about the future. 

It's one of the many lessons I've learned from this experience, one that I hope stays with me forever. We should never let the anticipation about what’s next distract us from the enjoyment of what is now.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Into Thin… Crust Pizza

There we were: Annapurna Base Camp, altitude 4,130m (13,549 ft). 
A five-day walk from the nearest road. Surrounded on all sides by enormous mountain peaks, each one of them higher than any mountain in the US or Europe. The tallest in the area, Annapurna I, still jealously hoards the frozen bodies of victims who have died trying to summit her.

And we were eating a pizza.

“Pizza at 4,000 meters” might as well have been the motto of our 10-day trek in the Annapurna mountain range in Nepal. Don’t get me wrong, the trek to Annapurna Base Camp (or ABC, as it’s called by trekkers too lazy to say the full name, yet somehow motivated enough to hike to it) is not a walk in the park. It’s a pretty strenuous endeavor: 10 days of hiking 5-7 hours a day over mountains and down deep valleys until finally going up, up, up to above 4,000 meters. It’s not for the light-hearted or unfit.

That said, it’s not inaccessible either. We saw all types on the trail: young, old, in-shape, flabby. Tanned, fit Germans in full trekking gear flew past us in a blur of Gortex and trail mix right before we passed a group of 15 senior citizens from Russia who were moving so sluggishly that if they had been going any slower, they would have been going backwards. A group of Japanese teenagers, all trendy sunglasses and neon colors. A horde of Korean tourists- so many that the trekking lodges served kimchi and Korean noodle soup on their breakfast menus. Really, we saw everyone. I even met two kids from Missouri!

Despite the diversity and sheer number of people on the trail, it wasn’t difficult to escape the crowds and have time to ourselves as we walked. We planned our itinerary and walking rhythm to do just that: avoid the guided tours. While the vast majority of other trekkers - probably 90%- were doing the trail with a guide and porters to carry their bags, we decided to go at it alone. 

And we never regretted that decision. While others had groups to wait for and guides to plan their departure time, V and I were able to go at our own rhythm and beat the crowds. 
A typical day was as follows:

5:45am-- Wake-up call. At the first alarm, I would stretch out of my cozy, warm sleeping bag into the cold room to retrieve my trekking clothes, which I would put in my sleeping bag to warm up while I snoozed another 10 minutes

6:00am-- Snooze on the alarm goes off. We both do our best to change into our now-toasty trekking gear while still in our sleeping bags. Once up and dressed, we pack up our stuff and shove everything into our backpacks, which each weigh around 20 lbs.

6:30am-- Breakfast. We carried our own breakfast items to avoid paying the high prices (and understandably so- everything is brought up by porters) at the lodges. We would order a small pot of hot water and enjoy our Breakfast of Champions: oatmeal with peanut butter and honey, instant coffee and a glass of water with vitamins. AARP card not included.

7:00/7:30am-- Departure. As most groups didn’t leave before 8:00am, we always had the trail to ourselves for the first few hours of the day. You can just imagine how proud of ourselves we were for being so clever.

7:00-11:30-- In the mornings, we would walk for 4ish hours at a pretty good pace with small snack and water breaks. We would carry 2-3 liters of water each, which we purified with iodine tablets, along with trail mix and dried fruit.

11:00/11:30am-- Lunch break. We would stop in little villages or lodges, of which there are many along the trail, for a hot tea and a typically Nepalese lunch of Dal Bhat: hot lentil soup poured over rice and mixed with curried vegetables and spicy pickles. Delicious, nutritious and filling. Just like our oatmeal. Huzzah!

12:30-2:00pm-- More walking (and, let’s be honest, farting. Dal Bhat does that to you…) We usually arrived at our stopping point for the day around 2:00 or 3:00pm so as to be sure to find a free room before the groups arrived. We never had a problem finding accommodation and managed to find places that were always very cozy and comfortable.

2:30-5:00pm—Shower (sometimes even hot ones!), laundry, reading, generally relaxing. The thing that amazed us about the lodges along the trail was just how comfortable they were: private rooms, often Western toilets (aka, ones you actually sit on, as opposed to squat over), sometimes even hot showers. Most of the treks we have done in other parts of the world have had accommodation that included camping and sleeping in communal rooms on the floor. This was completely unexpected luxury. And I haven’t even told you about the food…

5:00-7:00pm—Food! We would generally order dinner around 5:00 and eat within the following hour or so. And this is where we were really shocked. They had pizza. And pasta. And, I kid you not, enchiladas. In a tiny lodge in the Himalayas at 4,000 meters above sea level where the food was cooked over a wood fire and brought up on the backs of porters wearing flip flops, I could order a burrito. It was insane. We really, honestly expected that the only food available for 10 days would be dal bhat and curry. We were almost disappointed to realize that that was no longer the case. Of course, that disappointment vanished as soon as we got our pizza.

7:00-8:00pm—Talking to other trekkers, playing cards and -just to make sure we were well within the Nepal cliché- reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air about a disastrous expedition on Everest. Mind you, Annapurna Base Camp is not Everest. It’s not even half of Everest. But you better believe that as we hiked up to ABC on our well-defined path with the sun shining, we were both imagining ourselves slogging through waist-deep snow during a blizzard at 8,000 meters. I think I even referred to our arrival at the base camp as “summiting.” Yup, I’m a douche.

8:00pm—In bed. Lights out. I’m not even kidding.

So that was what we did, day in, day out, for ten days. There were the occasional unscheduled surprises in our itinerary: a few half-days with long lunches in the sunshine, some natural thermal baths, stopping to talk to farmers and peasants working on the millet harvest, a village celebration during which we danced in the streets with a bunch of old ladies drunk on local rum.

A nice old lady we met who explained to me with hand gestures what she was doing with the newly-harvested millet
This woman was a dancing machine! And probably wasted...
OMG!!: Taking time out from the party to text
These ladies were hilarious: just cozied up on the street, drinking and laughing.

But mostly, it was just lots and lots of walking.

And we loved it. Absolutely loved it. The scenery, as you would expect, was incredible. You know how much I love describing landscapes with all sorts of quasi-poetic, flowery nonsense, but I’ll spare you the adjectives and instead show you the pictures.

But before I do (you should have known you wouldn’t get off that easy…), let me tell you how impressed and awed we were not just by the beauty of our surroundings, but also by their diversity. We walked through terraced rice paddies and drying millet fields, through picturesque villages with stone houses (oh no, here come the adjectives!), through sub-tropical rainforest complete with ferns and monkeys, on to temperate forests blanketed in warm, autumnal colors (Blanketed? Really, Elissa?), then up through bush-covered mountainsides until finally reaching soaring snow-covered peaks. Every day the scenery changed completely, which made ten days of walking and oatmeal a lot less tedious than it sounds.

Now here are the pictures:
Adding a rock to a cairn and asking the mountain for safe passage
And what trek in an Asian country would be complete without adorable little kids?
Porters carrying the weight of our enchilidadas with a strap over their foreheads

The crown jewel of the trek was, of course, the Annapurna Base Camp, which is set in a stunning “sanctuary” surrounded on all sides by enormous, snow-capped mountains. 

Amazing Annapurna Base Camp Heartly!
Awestruck at Annapurna I
Showing Krakauer how it's done.

It was humbling to look in every direction and see such powerful, and such beautiful, forces of nature, knowing that several of those mountains had claimed the lives of many, many people who tried to conquer them. The camp sits at the base of Annapurna I, which, at 8,091m (26,545 ft), is not only the tallest mountain in the Annapurna Range, but also holds the macabre honor of being the most dangerous mountain in the world. The mountain’s ratio of number of deaths (56, as of 2005) to number of successful summit attempts (103) is the highest of any other mountain. Into Thin Air, indeed.

Buddhist prayer flags in front of Annapurna I

Standing at the foot of that giant, knowing that the majority of its victims were still up there, buried under the snow and ice, gave us the chills.

Or maybe we were just cold.  Forget those doomed souls, we’re gonna go get a pizza.