As I tried to silently sob in my brother-in-law’s tiny Spanish apartment, my partner exasperatedly mumbled, mostly to himself, that maybe he would just stay in Spain longer and I could head home early, which made me cry even more, which made it even harder to cry quietly. Why was I crying? I was in Spain! On our pilot friend’s buddy passes no less! But I just didn’t want to be there.
There are two times of a school year that are particularly trying for a teacher. The first two months, when you are coming off the bliss of summer break and creating the routines and getting to know your students and the last month of school when you are running on empty. To make this jaunt to Europe happen at my Thanksgiving break, I scheduled parent/teacher conferences for a Saturday and Sunday, finessed my principle and pep talked myself into thinking I could handle the jet lag on top of the teacher lag. By Thanksgiving break I am usually ready to collapse for five days, rising only to shove turkey and gravy and pie into my mouth. But, my husband was lamenting how much he had not gotten the opportunity to travel(which was true) and his brother would be living in Spain for a limited time and we were offered the pilot friend’s perks that would get us both there for $500 and well, I could stay home and shove turkey in my face or take the chance when the chance was presenting itself.
I spent a lot of the trip tired and crying, and then feeling bad about being tired and crying. All the beds were hard, I didn’t pack appropriately for how cold it was in November, overly hopeful for some sort of magic weather that was akin to what I had experienced traveling to the south of France in July. Normally the peppiest of campers when adventuring, I was now the shivering wet blanket complaining about a sore back.
Mosquitos dive bomb your head as your dinner spills into the campfire. You return from a lovely day out in Paris, a bit tipsy from the wine at lunch, to discover your passport is no longer in that super secure spot where you left it in on top of the dresser. You see zero wildlife on the jeep safari you shelled out for, except for the sticker of a tiger on the dashboard. Your stomach gurgles with the beginnings of something that probably means you will be spending the next two days glued to the toilet and not climbing Machu Picchu. One of the hidden costs of adventuring is that there are going to be some boondoggles, some snafus, some doozies and some utterly terrible moments where you just don’t want to be there.These however, are ultimately what make the meal memory of the adventure. Those stolen passports and stomach bugs are the painfully spicy ingredient; that super hot pepper that was hiding under the beans- it will burn your mouth at the time and make you think you are going to throw up on the quaint beachside bistro’s table, but it will also will singe your memory with a char that makes it uniquely delicious.
Sometimes it’s who you’re traveling with.
When I excitedly slid the couple thousand dollars over to a travel agent (this was the early 00s, those had not yet been replaced by Kayak) for the Iceland Viking Challenge Tour my friends suggested, I was not thinking of the random girl from Long Island who would attempt to hike over volcanic lava rock in platform flip flops, loudly asking the group to wait up for her as all the puffins flew away in fear of her accent. She was someone I was randomly paired with, someone who just happened to think the Viking Adventure looked good too. My chosen travel companions and I got along swimmingly, knowing when to sleep and when to chat and when to shut-the-fuck-up and share the silence and when to laugh uproariously and in solidarity when one of us bombed the bathroom after partaking in too much of the fresh lobster tail the night before. Yes, poop can smell exactly like shellfish and it’s disgustingly hilarious. Even tried and true travel companions can wear on each other. After a magical trip through India, a dear friend and I spent the last night laying in bed watching Indian cable and arguing about who should call the front desk and arrange our car for the airport the next morning. Sometimes, you just get sick of people, even best pals.
Sometimes it’s the food.
I lived in Japan for a year and never ate sushi. That is correct. Never. Ate. Sushi. I was staunchly vegetarian and it was a lot of foreign-ness all at once, including my first full time job out of college and my first apartment on my own. I know twenty-eight year olds that still haven’t grasped how to grocery shop. Try figuring that out at twenty-two, in Japan, where every aisle seems to be the fish aisle, and you’re culture shocked and homesick for pizza. I lost fifteen pounds until my mom’s package full of boxed mac & cheese arrived. No one’s happy when they’re hungry. I learned to throw just-add-water rice pilafs and granola bars in when packing to travel somewhere I think the food may overwhelm me. I can politely roll, knowing when to set my personal comfort aside to honor a culture or receive a gesture of generosity. I once sweated off eyebrow hairs when some kind Indian folks invited us over for “real” Indian food, but it’s good to have some comforting snacks along for the ride.
Sometimes in the pursuit of adventure, you make a dumb, expensive, and/or life threatening decision.
We were in college, so of course we were going to go to Amsterdam from Paris. It was the late 90s, and weed being legal was super exciting, so of course we were going to bring some back to the City of Light with us on the train. Very. Stupid. Decision. While no drug sniffing dogs busted us, I spent the entire train ride imaging a “Brokedown Palace” type situation without the being released part. My friend said she spent it picturing the disgrace it would bring to her father’s political career. The friend who was living in Paris slept like a baby. To each their own.
You’re not always going to pick the right hotel, drink “just the right amount,” walk a safe street or trust the right person. Of course we strive to find that just-so balance of swash-buckling adventure and prudent decision making, but occasionally you are going to choose the wrong door.
Not long in Sulawesi, Indonesia, when approached by the Frenchman in the cafe, we half-heartedly committed to his offer to take us snorkeling on his boat. We didn’t yet know how small the town was and that he would know exactly where we were staying. The next day, he found us at our spot, reminding us of his prices while gesturing to his boat that was parked at the beach below our bungalow, so we agreed to have him come round the next morning.
His boat, was, something. He had built it himself with an old car motor as its engine. While certainly cool, it was 100% jenky and certainly did not inspire a sense of seaworthiness. There was no sending him home now, so we climbed aboard the S.S. Dennis (pronounced more like Denise with a French flair). A bit red-faced from more than just sun, he had the air of someone permanently on spring break. He took us over to the island across the way, and the snorkeling was incredible. Magenta coral and turtles, moving clouds of technicolor fish. Dennis assured us (maybe too much?) that his friends snorkeled all the time; the sharks, they do not care about you. You are not the food they are wanting.They only swim in the middle, in the deep waters. You snorkle by shore, it is safe, completely safe. I had, however, already heard David Attenborough deliver an ominous litany about the Sulawesi Sea Snake, a poisonous ocean dwelling reptile that swims in swarms. When I legit thought I saw a slithering knot of those, I mean, we were actually in Sulawesi, I clambered out onto the stern and felt like I had seen enough.
While making our way back, Denise suggested we try, what I came to think of as French Water Skiing. He had two long ropes with a “handle” that was a piece of plastic tubing the rope was laced through that you could hold onto. Each of us would hold on to one of these and he would pull us behind the boat. We eagerly jumped in. While the natural instinct to close my mouth kicked in, I certainly would have taken on an ungodly amount of sea water if I had opened it even a sliver. My shoulders seemed one tug away from dislocating and all we really saw was plant fauna rushing by as the motor and wake we created sent all sea creatures swimming in the opposite direction. And then, I lost my husband.
Kevin’s grip slipped off the plastic handle and he was instantly 300 meters behind the boat. We both frantically called out to Denise to stop and he slowed the boat down. Seeing the fear in my eyes, he helped me back on the boat. Kevin recounted that this took a literal eternity. He was in the middle of the shark and snake infested Flores Sea, the deep part, treading water, with no life jacket on. Dennis seemed to be in no hurry to fetch him, though we were headed that way. I kept my eyes on Kevin as if the will of my stare could save him from his own rendition of the opening scene in “Jaws.” We eventually swooped him up, paid Denise his rupiah, and kissed the sweet, sweet sand upon returning.
Amateur hour drug smuggling and French water skiing. Sometimes, you just don’t make the right call.
Sometimes shit goes wrong.
When I was living in Japan, my friend lost her house key and it cost her an exorbitant amount of yen to get her entire front door replaced as for some reason they could not just replace the lock, but had to replace the entire door. I checked into a hotel in India and the biggest, hairiest spider leg I had ever seen was sticking out from behind the tile of the shower wall. Friends spent a night puking in their Prague hotel room, convinced the next day that they had been slipped some sort of drug in their beer. Your ATM card doesn’t work, anywhere. Sitting in a cafe alone sipping a latte feels just straight up lonely and not at all romantic. You’re in Nepal and a significant earthquake hits. Your girlfriend decides your three week trip to Brazil is the perfect time to allude to wanting to break up in a vague email. There’s a plan, and sometimes, shit just does not go according to it.
Sometimes you’re sick of everything being strange and hard.
The world is simply getting more filled up with folks. I mean, “The Beach” came out in 2000, and even then Leonardo was searching for that elusive Thai island that was yet to be tarnished by tourists. That was eighteen years ago. After landing in Bali, we hoped finding a piece of quiet paradise in Indonesia wouldn’t be as difficult as Leonardo’s quest considering how far from most places it is and that it is composed of over 17,000 islands. With some internet research, a flight, and an eight hour car ride, we arrived in Bira, which was not much to speak of at 9pm in the pitch black. Rolling in at that time we were fretting about finding food and if the place we thought we were heading to really existed. It did, and the kitchen was still open. Some young Australian travelers spilled out of hammocks they had strung up on the balcony, and it was one of those perfect travel moments- you finally get there, the food is incredible, the host has a million dollar smile that warms the inner recesses of your soul, the beer is cold, and you’re in the thick of the traveling fellowship, sharing tips and tales in the open air restaurant as the breeze flickers the candles. You dive into the strangeness of it all- trying new foods, conversing until the late hours and relishing the many miles you trekked to get to this undiscovered gem, as they have made it all the sweeter.
There are also the times when the adventure seems to maliciously turn against you. I had woken up shivering in the 80 degree tropical climate and was convinced I had contracted some horrible Indonesian flu that would kill me before I made it back stateside. The thought of the nine hour car ride ahead of us, through pot-hole riddled roads was sounding undoable, and we were contemplating waiting another day, but we had found a German couple to share the ride with and sometimes you gotta get on the train when the train is leaving. While my husband made energetic conversation with our German companions about politics and food and Pearl Jam and the differences in the health care systems, I curled up in a ball and tried to sleep, which wasn’t so much sleeping as checking out. There can be the pressure to have the camera constantly at the ready, see all the sights, meet all the people and TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EVERY MOMENT. This is exhausting. Mix in some not so delectable road side eating options, plus Indonesian flu bug, and while you should be having a cross cultural experience with your car mates, while laughing at your Indonesian driver’s jokes about boobs, you sometimes just want to cinch your hoodie up over your face and pretend to nap.
Once we arrived in the lake town, the stop over destination for the evening, all I wanted was a hotel with a few important letters on the sign- AC and HBO. Our driver tried to get us on board with his cousin’s place, but I held my ground and we found a hotel, that looked under construction in a way that made it look a little dangerous, but it had cable and cooled air. While I crawled into the bed and started scanning through the channels, Kevin asked if I wanted to go walk around and try to find the lake. As I settled on “The Princess Diaries,” I communicated with my face that I would not be going anywhere. The door clicked behind him and I hunkered down with a Sprite, an emergency granola bar for dinner and the soothing sounds of Ramadan evening prayers mixed with Anne Hathaway’s quippy dialogue—who says I wasn’t experiencing everything Indonesian culture had to offer?
Kevin came back with a million amazing stories about the Indonesian people he had met and pictures of shy Indonesian kids waving at him from doorways. He procured a black, plastic bag of noodles and some greasy corn chips for my dinner and another Sprite just in time for “Herbie- Fully Loaded” to come on. I cranked the AC up a notch and fluffed my pillow.
The next day, I was feeling rested and ready to take on the next adventure. I engaged with a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs swimming in red sauce with a cheerful and upbeat attitude. Come at me, travel! Weird food? What’s next! Back spasm inducing car ride? Bring it! Giant spiders? Hand me the Indonesian Raid! Our next hotel had a pool and was framed by lush tropical mountains. We had a lovely dinner with the German couple, laughing about how awful the wine was and what were we thinking to order a cheeseburger? Afterwards, I effortlessly arranged our guide for the next day off a phone number passed on by one of the Australian travelers. “Ask for Henrik. He’ll show you everything you need to see and at a fair price.” Sometimes, you’re in the flow.
The next morning, the German couple were laid out. Apparently, the lake fish they had eaten, after choosing it out of a plastic cooler on the side of the road, had not treated them well. Kevin had skipped the fish to come to tend to me, and I had been making do with street noodles and granola bars. We didn’t see them the next few days as we took in all the sights. We both never got sick. I’ve traveled to Mexico, India, Indonesia, Cambodia. Never a stomach bug, not the faintest bit of Delhi Belly. But my last two nights at an awesome Mad Men style hotel in Hawaii where I wanted to drink my weight in Mai Tais? I could only leave the room, feverish and shaking, to buy overpriced Pepto Bismol and popsicles from the lobby store while losing seven lbs in two days. Even a classic beach vacation will have some potholes on the path.
Instagrammers promoting their idyllic, mid-century modern van life where they work from unpopulated, turquoise watered beaches. True adventure has the screaming family of seven just outside the frame, the dog barf in the uncleanable seat belt buckle crevice, the red lashings of a run in with a jelly fish. What is the hashtag for the pungent stench of unwashed sheets, people bathing with a washcloth and a Nalgene, a dog who rolled in kelp mixed with the paper mill down wind? It’s all part of the adventure that isn’t always easy, but is unarguably worth it. My favorite Thanksgiving will always be that rooftop in Seville, Spain, laughing while sharing a tiny-ass hot tub at the Hotel Amadeus, swigging champagne out of the bottle with my husband and his brother. The water was at best, lukewarm, but it was also the perfect temperature.