Travel Lessons

Here are some things I learned on my vacation, for what they’re worth.

Drugs and blogging do not mix.

Being in the mountains is lonely.

I am lucky to be alive.

People are easily swayed by a pretty face.

I was invited on a trip with a local community college anthropology club. I’m a geek, so that’s the kind of vacation I like. I jumped at the chance. There were 11 of us. 7 women and 4 men in a van/bus thing creeping around the mountains near the border of Colorado and Arizona. We had quite an age spread, the youngest being around 22 and the oldest being well into his 60s.

One young guy who was a liberal whacko needed the smack-down put on him a couple times (I love the smackdown). He kept talking about people deserving to get killed or put away forever. Remember the Hmong guy in Wisconsin who killed the hunters?  The one who he says harassed him? This guy on our trip said if the hunters had harassed the Hmong hunter, then they deserved to get shot. And remember the story about they guy who forgot his toddler in his car while he went to work? The child died, but our young turk thought the father should be locked up, “People can’t forget about kids. That’s insane. He had to know that kid was in the car. He deserves to be punished.”

My immediate response was to suggest that finding your baby dead in the back seat of your car was probably a pretty harsh punishment for the guy. And to suggest that verbal harassment probably didn’t deserve the death penalty. We had this sort of goofy relationship where I asked if he had never done anything stupid, made a bad judgment, but gotten lucky and not been punished. He had never done anything THAT stupid, he was pretty sure.  I got to know him better over our trip, and ladies and gentlemen, he had too done things that stupid.  But I didn’t kill him.

I sometimes worry about getting killed or having some huge terrible consequence come of a moment of stupidity. My first night in the mountains reminded me just how dumb and lucky I am.

We had just finished a harrowing and stomach churning ride up to Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is right on the mountainous border between New Mexico and Colorado. As the name suggests, it is a mesa (a table, or a mountain with a flat top instead of a point). Driving in the mountains is stunningly beautiful, death-defying and full of all the wrong kinds of motion. If I kept my eyes directly on the horizon, I could keep my headache and nausea in check. Mostly. But we drove all day. And by the time we arrived, I was exhausted. All I wanted was a place to lay down that didn’t move or look over a steep gorge.

We dropped our stuff off at the rooms and had orders to meet back at the (still stale and full of effluvia) van in five minutes, to go down to the lodge for a meeting. I emptied my bladder, dumped out my stuff (a compulsion of mine), brushed my teeth and headed back to the van. I climbed in and noticed it was only half full. This wasn’t a mandatory meeting. I had an awkward moment while I considered the impression I would be giving if i looked into the van, checked head-count and declined to go. I went with them to the lodge, figuring I could walk back to the hotel/cabin place after a polite few minutes.

I was draggin’. When we got to the lightly peopled and somewhat odd bar (it was more like a portable wedding bar than anything else), I could hardly even be politely social. I was plain old tired. I confessed my error in judgment and said I’d just mosey up the mountain and back to my little hotel room, the key to which was in my pocket. Right.

So, it’s dark now. And misting lightly. Surprisingly cold for late May. The next morning we’d wake up to snow, as it turns out.  I could see the road we came down from our cabin on. I started walking up it, back the way we came. I could see a row of cabins around the curve of the road, but there was a grassy patch with a path right through it. That path goes right towards the first row of cabins without going the long distance along the curve of the road.. I decided I’d cut through the grass and between the cabins, to come out in front of that row.

Halfway up the path I realize a few important things. First, I have no idea if this is the only row of cabins, maybe there are more rows beyond the curve. Second, I have no clear recollection what our room number is. Third, the number isn’t printed on the key (security reasons). Fourth, aren’t there things called mountain lions which live in the mountains? And don’t they sometimes eat people?  And wouldn’t that big dark opening under the cabin to my left be a perfect den for one to pounce out of?  Yes, and yes, and yes.

I keep walking because maybe I’ll recognize the row of cabins and I’ll hear the people who didn’t go to the bar meeting. Plus, it’s a long way to walk back. And as I pop out between the cabins, it’s very well lit and totally generic. Looks like every other row of cabins up and down the mountain. And damn! It’s cold! I decide the least I need is the room number. I’ll have to go back and ask for it.

Couple problems. First, coming out of the bright row of cabins into the mountain path darkness, I cannot see the path. I came up it two minutes ago, but it has disappeared. If I look off to the side of where it should be, it pops out, but when I look for it, it goes away. It’s like I’m in a dream.  Secondly, it’s slippery and cold. I look to a spot just alongside where the path should be.  Walking down it, I start to berate myself. Why, oh why and I so stupid?  Why?

When I slip and fall in the icy drizzle on the side of the mountain and am eaten or not by the mountain predators, won’t people think I was asking for it by venturing out in the dark drizzle alone? Yes they will. But if I live through this, I will not say such callous things about those who die from lack of better judgment.  I decide I will also be grateful for my life and not do stupid things again. The mountain has mercy on me and I make it back to the lodge.

Looking back, I think I must have had altitude-induced hardening of the brain because I actually made this trip twice, returning after I checked the room number with my crew in the bar and realizing that there are many identical rows of cabins and since I have no idea what the system is, the room number doesn’t help me.

The second time I went up two rows of cabins and ran into the proverbial mountain lodge maintenance man, you know, the one who kills people in the movies, whose truck had actually driven by me on my way back to the lodge the first time. He had a box of wrenches and a truck with some reassuring maintenance-ish thing on the side.  I fessed up to him that I couldn’t find my cabin.  He offered to drive me back to the lodge after he fixed the shower in the unit I was in front of.  His truck looked warm and dry.  I declined.

I headed between the cabins back into dark.

Flying Drug-free

I am a phobic flier. I am armpit-pricklingly sure I am about to die.

I start to get nervous before I leave home. One way I cope with this is I do not look at my itinerary until the last possible moment. I’ve never bought my own plane ticket, usually a man in my life takes care of that (isn’t that old-fashioned and cute?). That man knows my schedule and tells me the day and approximate time of day I will fly.

It doesn’t seem weird to me until people start asking me, “So when do you leave on Monday?” and I have to answer, “I don’t know, it’s in the afternoon.”

When the car hits the exit for the airport, my stomach starts to hurt and I have to pee. I ignore these warning signs. I know it’s irrational, I’ve read the books. I know the whole the-drive-to-the-airport-is-the-most-dangerous-part-of-your-trip deal. I’m phobic, not stupid. All that ever did for me was make me nervous about driving.

In the airport my face starts to feel numb, and my hands and feet start to sweat. It’s weird. I feel like I’m about to be in really big trouble, and there’s no escaping it. And once I’m at the airport, there is no escaping it. I kind of like going through security. Kind of like being scanned, taking off my shoes, etc. That feels to me like a sort of momentary reprieve from my ugly fate. I suppose I’m the ideal customer. I actually hope they find something dangerous on me. Hope they pull me into a room and strip-search me. Hope they pull up my dossier on the all-seeing-bush-o-tron and deny me entrance onto the plane. But they never do. This is about the time I like to take my Ativan.

On the plane, I still have to pee, even if I already went in the airport. And my stomach is full of prehistoric butterflies from hell. My feet sweat more, my hands get clammy. Once the Ativan hits my system, I feel like I’m going to die, but well, aren’t we all? And probably I’ll be asleep. I doze and stare into space. I shop the sky-mall and find things I really, really need. It seems unfair that such important and wonderful things are only available on a plane. Aside from some pestering little terrified homunculus whining in my ear about tin tubes carrying people way up in the sky, and what a long way it would be to have to fall, I’m pretty calm.

My last flight was drug free. Jodi from Normandale (who is both brilliant and kind) offered to sit next to me and hold my hand. She hardly had to at all. We talked a little about our kids and schools. I warned her that I would be counting while we took off and for a while after that and would only be able to answer questions with numbers.

There were only a couple of questions she had to answer about , “What was that noise? Why is it doing that? Are we on the wing? ” Jodi was a trooper. “No, we’re not right by the wing. That noise was the blahblah system, they were just testing it, they do it all the time. Doesn’t it sound kind of like a dog barking?”

She lied about the wing. Probably figured I’d obsess about it if I knew. I had way more important things to obsess about than the wing. I counted to 400 while we took off. If I lost my place, I had to start over. It got me through take-off without blubbering. I wanted to write on the computer while I flew, but every time I went to bend over to get my laptop, I’d get hit between the eyes with dizziness and nausea. I had to sit back and close my eyes.

Eventually I was able to get the laptop by reaching down without lowering my head. I pulled up some photos of my last trip. Jodi had me tell her about my trip, my kids, my neighborhood, my schooling. We talked politics and religion and the demography of the suburbs and the city.

I used the bathroom once, whereupon Jodi said I was very brave. She was way afraid to use a plane bathroom because she was afraid she’d get sucked out of the plane. Thanks a lot Jodi.

As we approached the (lovely and wonderful, sweet-smelling and wholesome) Twin Cities, the pilot announced that there were “A few thunderstorms in and around the Twin Cities area. We’ll be shifting our approach just a bit on account of those storms. Flight attendants, I’m going to ask you to be seated and fasten your seat-belts.”

I started deep breathing (in through the nose, out through the nose as well) and counting with my eyes closed. I did these things while holding on to my seat. The back of my seat. I had my hands on the back of my seat, my head bowed, my elbows bent. I was covering my ears with my arms.

It turns out those pesky storms were in the process of eating Hugo and a pieces of suburban MSP. Andy says he was watching the plane on the computer, so he’d know when to come and get me. He saw it heading for the airport one minute, then turn 90 degrees, and 90 degrees again. We were avoiding tornadoes.

It was so, so loud. And so vibratious. And so long. I breathed. I counted, but backwards. If I lost my place, I had to start over at the last number I could clearly remember. This time I have no idea how far I counted. I think I started at 400. I couldn’t tell exactly when we landed, it was all so bumpy. But eventually we slowed and Jodi patted my hand.

That’s when the trembling started. I couldn’t get my hands or legs to stay still. I should have been elated to be on the ground, but I was upset. I was sure I was going to cry. Jodi asked if I was OK and I nodded. The guy across the aisle from me kept looking at me like he was worried. I tried to be busy gathering my things, but the more stuff I had on my lap (purse, laptop) the more obvious it was that I was not at all OK.

Cassie (also from Normandale), two seats down from the worried guy looked over and said, “Hey Lisa, you did it! And you seem much better than before we left.”

Worried man looked at her and said, “Are you you kidding? Look at her. She’s shaking all over. She’s not better than anything. Are you OK?”

I nodded, but I was afraid I might cry. People being nice when I’m upset always makes me want to cry. Then where would we be? “I, I, I don’tliketofly.” I told him quickly.

“Oh well, you did fine.” He insisted I get off the plane before him. He was very nice.

I didn’t cry until I got into the truck with Andy, but I only cried like, two tears. I don’t have a good theory about why I didn’t get really upset until it was all over. I suppose there’s a technical reason. Since I am never traveling again, we have no need to think about what I will do next time.

In case you forgot, “It Is OK, Many Things Do Not Fly. Rocks, Trees, Sticks…” Me.

More Trip Excerpts

July 27th

Digging on the first day didn’t start until probably 1pm or after. That was because we got the lectures from Graeme. The lowdown, the procedures, the big picture and the small details.

The thing about Graeme is this: He’s handsome and funny with an accent that blows yer moynd. He says Yeahs (what we call yaz) when he means years. Every thing he explains takes twice or three times longer than strictly necessary. He’s got a story about everything. Sometimes relevant, sometimes not. But it doesn’t matter, because I want him to keep talking and never stop. Which he does.

We get stories about a (volunteer archeologist, like us) woman who fell face first into a drainpipe and had only her legs sticking out. They pulled her to safety right after they snapped a few pictures. We get all the various iterations of the security system at the museum, which ends up explaining why we have a key and lock.

He has an unnerving throat-clearing-cough tic which other people have had enough of, but I don’t care. I can’t figure out what movie star he looks like, but I want to bring him home with me. His wife can come along. She’s brilliant (which means awesome or great in the UK).

The stories made the instruction so pleasant, so effortless. But the truth is, he could have simply read the manual 3 times and I’d have listened to him happily. He says Americans can’t imitate his accent without sounding like dihtty scots. And it’s true, it sounds like a burr to me. But don’t tell him that. He says it’s a Geordie accent, going back to supporters of king George.

July 28, 2007

Breakfast was Cocoa Chex, I mean Shreddies.

Lunch was leftovers of dinner last night. I broke down and ate one of the hard-boiled egg sandwiches. Wait didn’t I mention the hard-boiled egg sandwiches? Oh yeah, that was part of the weird smorgasborg dinner last night. Baguettes with cherry tomatoes and sliced hard-boiled eggs.

It makes you wonder, why don’t we eat hard boiled egg sandwiches here in the US? No it doesn’t. We don’t eat boiled egg sandwiches here because they’re stupid. Eggs need the love and care of mustard and mayo or at least olive oil and vinegar. They are not meant to be eaten lonely and dry on a cheap roll.

But the digestives almost made up for it. Digestives don’t sound all that great, do they?It’s further along the alimentary assembly line than we like to associate with food, digestion is. It’s a little known secret that the British call chocolate-dipped graham cracker cookies digestives. The put them in plain wrappers and call them digestives. Then the kids don’t nag for one during your tea-break.

Other revelations? ‘Youse’ is a British dialectal variant which seems like it is similar to “you-all”. No maybe not. The quote, oddly enough, is this, “Dew yews have nicknames on y’ credit cahds, then?” It’s too fookin cute.

The number one most annoying thing about the country of England is this: there are no public trash cans anywheres. Not at the train station, not at the bus station, not at the coffee or the sandwich stand. It’s bizarre.

Today we got the first explanation of why this might be. Terrorists. They can’t put a bomb in your trash can if you don’t have a trash can. A guy on the train comes down the aisles to pick up the trash. He wears rubber gloves and carries a clear plastic bag.

I ate a crumpet today. They’re like bad, super-spongy pancakes cooked only from the bottom. So the top is all bubbles, and the bottom is brown. They make squishing noises when you chew them. Very strange. But if you have good jelly, you can eat it and enjoy it.

July 29th

If I die here, it will likely be because I looked left instead of right. These whackos drive on the other side of the road. It’s really dangerous. I don’t have a good conscious grasp of left and right, but I learned after numerous humiliating experiences that I do have an unconscious grasp of it.

If not, how do I explain trying not once, but twice, to get into the driver’s side of someone’s car when they offer me a ride? I am so embarrassed. Damn!

How do I explain 100 percent of the time looking for oncoming traffic the wrong way. I had no idea that I looked consistently and unconsciously to the right direction when crossing the street. (Now that I ‘m home, I couldn’t tell you what side is the correct side to look to, but I always do it correctly. In England, I always did it wrong. Unless I talked myself through it, which looks dumb, but not as dumb as jumping back to the curb when a car sneaks up from your other side.)

You can’t count on looking how the cars on your side are parked, either. They parked all over the place, every which way. If you go to that part of the world, be verrry careful crossing the street.

Two of our team mates are Sam and his grandma Helyn. Helyn is in her 80s and Sam is 18. Helyn has traveled all over the world. She’s smart, intellectual, sharp and serious, but not unpleasant.

Sam is beautiful. He’s got a mouthful of beautiful and straight teeth, a mop of shiny and curly brown hair. He’s thin, really thin. He looks kind of like a supermodel, only a boy. He’s serious also, but cheerful. He seems to be content to be here with his grandma in a way that I imagine is rare among 18 year olds. He won’t touch meat, and eats a lot of mustard and lettuce sandwiches. He’s a complete idealist, in a way only 18 year olds can be idealistic.

He’s affectionate with his grandma in ways that surprise me. Does things like touch her shoulder as he walks into the room or rub her back while she sits and takes a break. He fixes her jacket when it’s buttoned wrong. It’s sweet. He watches out for her when she crosses the street and she muses about how on earth he’s going to get along in the world if he can’t keep track of his keys. They’re both sort of offended that the other is so patronizing.

July 30th

Our job consists of coming in, getting our buckets and equipment (brush, tiny wood handled, flat mason’s trowel, dustpan and shove, gloves and knee-pads or kneeler), heading out to the field that used to be a Roman military fort, supply base, barracks, compound, iron age roundhouse or Victorian neighborhood, depending on how deep you’re digging at the moment.

We take direction from and are watched over by Roger. He is a pot-bellied, hunchbacked, red-faced, monkish archeologist. He hums a lot, loud. He sings. He’s got a beautiful singing voice, it turns out. He’s cheerful, but clearly sad and lonely. He’s gentle and pleasant. His accent is so pronounced that it seems like he’s putting us on. His voice is a lot like Igor from the old Frankenstein movies, but his accent is different. He pronounces Graeme (which we would pronounce like the cracker, and some people pronounce like game with an extra r) as if it were “Grime” and never seems to actually open his mouth when he talks. He is a delight.

He gives us instructions. So far both digging days have been spent uncovering a stone substrate. A road of cobbles about the size of two fists together. They haven’t seen daylight since about 160 AD. It shouldn’t be hard, but it is. Physically it’s hard to kneel, bent at the waist and scrape away spoils and sand. But figuring out how far to go and where to stop is a little harder. He instructs us like this: “Y’tayk off the tope layeh of th’ greeynish sand and stope when y’ gate tew th’ reddeesh maytreex.”

Well Yeah. But it’s all sort of brown, there’s no reddish matrix, no greeyneesh anything. It’s sand colored. It pops up a little better when they wet it all down, which they do a couple times a day, prompting all sorts of snickers about who’s holding whose hose and whatnot.

In case I haven’t made it clear, working at the site is incredibly fun. I say that without irony. I love it. The only thing more fun is digging in the spoils pile for things that I think are cool, but have been discarded. I do this when I tire of eating cookies and drinking tea at the mandatory tea breaks.

July 31st

Dinner yesterday was a pitiful set o of chicken wraps with rubberized, chopped, formed chicken product with breading. Wrapped up with lettuce, red onions and some sort of French (But not really French) dressing drizzled over it. All in a cracking and dry-edged flour tortilla. There was rice. Maybe a sort of Spanish rice. If by Spanish rice you mean cracking open a box of Tio Ben’s and mixing tomato sauce in it. There were brownies for dessert. Bleah. Not good.

Dinner today was some abomination that was comprised of (yeeeash) green peppers stuffed with green olives and feta chunks and cheddar cheese. There was also tortellini with chicken puree inside it, marinara sauce and mushrooms in an onion sauce. My god, what have I done to deserve this? Just writing it down is making me spit up a little. Dessert was jell-o pudding cups with white foam on the top.

I realized today that I’m going blind. I can’t see the stuff I have to write with a number 3 pencil. At home I don’t notice because I just turn up the light, or I’m dealing with familiar stuff so I don’t need to see that well. I wore my shades all the time, though. What can you do?

August 1st
Digging and drawing today. Mary and Roger found tons of stuff over where they’re digging, pieces of pottery… Carol found a full femur of a something.

I just found dirt, rocks, a head of a femur and lots more dirt.

We cut out early and crossed the Tyne river to go and look at the priory. It looks like a castle ruin to me. That was a really wonderful ruin, but it was closed by the time we got there, and it was starting to rain just a little. We went to a pub and had a little sit-down. The bartender made a shamrock in the foam of Dad’s Guinness, as he poured it, or tapped it or whatever one does with a beer on tap. It was stylin’ and impressive.

We trecked a long, long way to see this priory and it was closed. Helyn was with us, she’s very healthy, but she’s 80 something. She’s a little slow. Roger was in front, being all Australian and engineery. He kept trying to herd us by example. Disappearing from time to time because he was so determined to keep moving. He got blocks ahead of us.

Which would have all worked out if he had a clue where he was leading us. Or if we were all under 70, maybe. Or if we weren’t hungry. But he didn’t, we weren’t and we were. Richell and I took turns hanging back with Helyn who was getting pretty damned crabby by this time. Sam had stayed back at the Inn. At least she had an umbrella. We all ended up hating Roger for a couple hours. Helyn might still hate him.

A group of us finally mutineed when he told us he was POSitive he knew where there was a place for fish and chips just up the road a bit. We smelled an indian place exactly right where we were and we went for it. The service was slow, slow, slow but the food was good and we were sitting and dry. It turned out that Roger’s place wasn’t serving fish and chips. We were glad we didn’t traipse around after him more. We calculated we walked about 15 miles. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me.

People here say “as well” instead of “too”. It makes them sound smart.

August 2nd

Bridge collapsed yesterday around rush hour. That was 11 at night here. I can’t picture where it is, except it’s in Minneapolis. Too, too close. It’s very creepy to be so far away and watch people on the news talk about your home. We worked today on counting heads back home. Seems like all our people are accounted for.

August 3rd

Today was a normal breakfast. Lunch was cold cuts and hot English mustard. More cookies with tea. God we have so many tea breaks, it’s crazy. STart at 9, tea break at 11, lunch around 1, tea break around 2:30, go home at 4:30.

Dinner was cold broccoli and cheese quiche with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, corn, olives and cucumbers. There was cole slaw with onions in it (nasty trick, that). New potatoes cooked in pickling spice, so they smelled like cloves and cinnamon and allspice. Dad was deeply disappointed in dinner. I was pretty bummed too, but I ate.

Excerpts from My Trip Journal

The first thing I put in my travel journal is the food. There probably aren’t going to be any great one-liners or profound truths laid out for you here, but you can see some of where my mind went:

July 24, 2007

In the airport “World Club” we had brownies which were way better than some of the crappy brownies I’ve had in my day. I would give them a B+. The plus being because they were both Frosted and Free with business class tickets. As they were pretty good, I was sure to eat 2 or 3 of them. They were very, very tiny. About an inch squared. Fer real.
I ate some of those gardetto’s crunchy things which were too, too salty but also free and better than pretzles. My dad had brownies, string cheese and a capuccino.

On the plane we had an appetizer after the OJ and champagne. Did you hear that? We had OJ, champagne and newspapers before the plane even left the ground. It was real weird flying business class. Ever see that Eddie Murphy SNL skit that was “White like Me”? Where he puts on white-face and gets on the bus, and as soon as the last black guy gets off the bus, out pop some ladies with trays and drinks wandering the aisles and smiling. It was like being in another world. Funny. And clever. For an extra hundred bucks they make you feel like royalty.

Not so much by being so nice to you. But by reminding everyone else that you are special. “The world perks lounge is only for world-perks members and business class passengers” and “Coach class passengers, Please do not use the restrooms in business class. There are 4 perfectly fine horrible and smelly, average and plain lower class lavatories for your convenience in coach class.”

Back to the appetizer. It was a canape of sorts. It seemed to be a fold of lox with a squish of some cheesy herb mixture pastry-squeezed onto it. The lox and cheese-stuff had the world’s smallest slice of lemon, not just a zest of lemon. A tiny-teeny slice of lemon with peel and a caper. All of that business was was riding on top of some round base that may or may not have been a bread product.

Really there are few places I have been where I had to think long and hard about what I was eating. Very few. And none of them good. For the most part, food should be pretty much recognizable, don’t you think? If nothing else, at least once you taste it, you should know what it is. This was one of those times for me. And I never did figure out what all that prettiness was.

It had a texture that made it hard to identify, but leaned towards either bread or some meat-based thing. Like a blood sausage. It was heavy and dense for being bread, but awfully dry and flavorless for meat. I find the inability to discern between bread and meat deeply troubling.

They also served nut cups and feta with sun-dried tomatoes. Before dinner. It was a long flight. For dinner I ordered the beef dinner. It was pretty bad. Charred and supposedly with a horseradish crust (what was I thinking?). The guy who put the horseradish crust on maybe had seen a horseradish, but he definitely didn’t put any into the crust which was not a crust, but more of a sludge. Yuck.

July 25th

Breakfast in first class was a fruit cup consisting of blueberries (which are a superfood), apple and some sort of green melon that had been magically converted into styrofoam. There was also a warm scone with jelly and something that was at least partially made of butter. Fruit juice and tea.

Lunch was fish and chips with mushy peas in London. My first fish and chips was OK, not great. Heavy on the grease, skin on. Mushy peas are a British thing. Take peas and mush them up. Serve them with fish and chips. These particular peas had microwave accident written all over them.

do you know of what I speak here? Where the outer edges are bubbly and weird enough to make you not want to use the microwave for a while?

Tip for later trips? Lemonade in London is Sprite or 7-Up with a slice of lemon in it. Not Lemonade. Whacked if you ask me.

Walking down the street, we were handed a free smoothie. It was free, pink and smooth.

Dinner was stellar. Pub food of the highest order. Call me crazy, but I ordered the bangers and mash with onion gravy. The sausages were juicy, but not greasy. They had been browned on the tops and bottoms until those parts were mahogany colored, but not burnt. The potatoes were real and buttery.

The onion gravy c was rich, not heavy, with only cursory nods to some bits of caramelized onion. That and the sausage, sitting on the potatoes was a marvelous combination. The gravy soaked some of the carmelization off the sausages and it soaked into the potatoes, like some kind of comfort food massage with a happy ending. Dang, that was good stuff.
July 26th

English Breakfast. Yum. We ate in the Thistle Victoria Hotel.

Thistle room

The Thistle Victoria is attached to the train station. So you can pretty much get off the plane, do something which drugs have made unavailable to me*, and land in a train station where you walk 20 yards and check into your hotel.

You check in and go through this fabulous Victorian lobby and up to the world’s smallest hotel rooms. To me, it’s just perfectly ideal. Room for your bed, a closet, the dresser, upon which rests your TV and a chair. There is a small bathroom, which adds about 50% to the size of the room. It’s cozy and quiet and just about perfect.

After a lovely night’s sleep, we had a full English breakfast buffet. It was great. It had food that I recognized and food that I didn’t. But when I asked the staff they were able to tell me that the blackish round slices of stuff was “Black Pudding”. The waiter was disconcerted, but polite when I asked what is in black pudding. In case you want to know, black pudding is made of blood and other stuff. It’s very delicious, says he. Says I, it’s not as awful as it sounds, but not good enough to make me forget that it’s coagulated blood inside a sausage casing.

I did try some, two little discs. It wasn’t delicious, it wasn’t terrible. It was kind of dry and kind of icky, but not horrible. There was so much more to try that I didn’t go hungry. Broiled tomatoes, scrambled or sunny-side eggs, baked beans (not sweet like our baked beans), mushrooms, good sausage, English bacon, scones, toast, jam, juice and tea.

Let me just wax poetic a bit about English bacon. It’s like a cross between Canadian Bacon and American Bacon. It’s mostly meat, salty and smoky, but with enough fat that it isn’t dry, and it fries up nice. It is really, really good with baked beans, mushrooms and broiled tomatoes. I never thought I’d be writing any sentence that said anything good about broiled tomatoes where garlic and cheese were not involved.

Dinner at our final destination was a strange conglomeration. Our bed and breakfast usually only does, um, breakfast. So they hired out to have dinners catered for our group. The caterer brought the following and laid it before us.

There was: cold pizza (frozen, cooked and refrigerated), cold chicken drumsticks, olives, pasta salad, falafel balls with onions in them, garlic bread, cold little sausages which looked like nothing as much as the dismembered fingers of naughty, dirty, pudgy british children, olives, carrot sticks, salad, tiny tuna sandwiches on little hamburger buns, and an onion and cheese quiche (cold). It was really weird. We tried to figure out the connection or theme (other than the obvious cleaning out the fridge) . Drew a blank, but bonded as a group.

*I take Ativan when I fly. It makes me stupid and makes chunks of time just disappear from my memory banks. It’s cool and scary at the same time. But I’m starting to be less scared to fly, because I can’t remember how scary it was. Genius.

July 27th

Breakfast of horrible wheat-flake cracker-cereal-biscuit stuff that looked and tasted like particle board, cereal in tiny boxes (Shreddies! that’s what they call Chex cereals), yogurt, fruit, croissants with and without chocolate, tea and juice.

Lunch was horror of pressed lunch meat, buns, crisps (new English word for potato chips), cheese, mustard. It was aptly described by my dad as cheap picnic food. That pretty well nails it. The only fun part was that English mustard is loaded with horseradish, which makes your nose burn and eyes water and makes me laugh every time I eat it. If you ever wonder if you’re dead or not, eat horse-raddish. You’ll know if you’re alive.

Dinner on my husband’s birthday was like revenge of the birthday karma from hell. I missed Andy’s 40th birthday and so I had to eat bangers and mash again. But this time it was so, so very bad. Floppy, mealy sausages in a viscous gravy that could stretch like no other food product I’ve ever seen or eaten, or imagined. The veggies were melt in your mouth tender, cooked so that the broccoli, cauliflower corn and green beens all had pretty much the same taste and texture.

There’s more, but you’ll just have to wait until I hit another manic phase and type it in.

Yet More of England

Here are some thoughts I had in England. Most were not valid thoughts that panned out upon further consideration.

When I was inside our bed and breakfast, looking out on the British people, not working directly with them, I remember thinking, “Look at all those people out there just being British without even trying. Just walking around as if it were no big deal to be all British and everything.”

That one hung on even after I beat it down with a thorough can of intellectual whoop-ass.

“Those people aren’t being British. They’re just being. They’re going to work, doing their thing. Like you do.”

Yeah, but they do it with an accent. And bad teeth. And tea breaks every two and half hours.

“But they’re not being British, any more than you are ‘being American’ in your everyday life.” But even my inner grown up can’t argue with the tea breaks and the teeth.

But don’t you think they’d think I was affecting my midwestern rounded O‘s and curly R‘s just a little, to sound like a movie character or a sitcom person? I think they would. They’d wonder that I could stand to drive 3 blocks instead of walk, and eat big macs and wear bright clothes.

“Until their inner grown-up set them straight. ”

Whatever. Even the kids have English accents. Perfect little accents. How do they do that? Isn’t it cool?

” Yup. It’s cool.”

And it is cool. The accents were enchanting and fascinating. If I could have brought home one thing that I didn’t, it would have been a recording of them all talking in their different Englishes. The geordie, which sounds to the untrained ear (mine) for all the world like a Scottish burr, but don’t let them hear you say that.

The Welsh, the cockney, the BBC, the real Scottish, the Irish, the Indian… It’s like music. I know that’s corney, but it’s true. I love the way people talk, people different from me. But keeping my little mimicry habit under wraps was tough. I was walking around repeating everything anybody said to me.

And living in dread of having to open my mouth. Because I was outed the minute I did. Otherwise I could sort of blend in. But if we were in a group, talking amongst ourselves, I’d catch people looking at each other and smiling or smirking. A couple people sort of tailed us and hung around just to listen to us talk like Americans. One lady in a thrift store actually touched my arm and said how she loved to hear the American accent. Her husband had spent many fine years in America and she’d grown fond of it. (veddy fônd indeed).

The joke was on them though, because I was busy repeating whatever they said in my head. Even if they were talking about my accent. It was a wonderful wonderful place. I fell in love with almost all of the country.

More of Jolly Old England

As can be seen from the pictures in my last blog post, travel makes me weary. It really does. Look at me in front of platform 9 and3/4, and then look at me in front of Tottenham Court Rd. The first picture is me on the first full day of travel in England. The second is me on day15. It’s probably hard for the untrained eye to see, but the second picture is just slightly less flattering.

This is for a multitude of reasons including, but not limited to, not having a private bathroom for 2 weeks, getting my period right on schedule, but totally unexpectedly (I can’t think of everything), sharing a room with a morning person who watches TV to fall asleep and to wake up, using travel shampoo and conditioner, missing my family, neighborhood and kitty-people, constant threat of immediate death due to the fact that I always looked the WRONG way when crossing the street and almost walked into traffic… It wore me out.

I traveled in style with my dad. He is what they call a seasoned traveler. And aside from when the flight attendant in business class took his champagne glass before he could take the last swallow, he’s a pretty good natured and reassuring guy to travel with. Ive never been to Europe before, so it could be that my reactions are the height of naivete. But take them for what they are worth, which is probably just a few minutes of your time.

Here are some things that impressed me and that I might share more about in future posts:

But before I wander off down those tangents, I must go and research what is the bloody difference between England/English, Britain/British, and the UK and United Kindominian. Roit back, then? Curious?

Got all that? Good. Let me say right now that I don’t have it all down and I’m sure to screw it up. So set me straight if it makes you feel better. But I’m unlikely to remember it until I’ve spent WAY more time in England.

England

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This is me. I was thinking I’d get clever and original as long as I was in King’s Cross Station. Won’t my kids be tickled when I get a picture of myself in the space between platforms 9 and 10? Hmmm. Methinks I’m not the only one who has thought of Harry Potter while visiting King’s Cross Station.

Other Harry Potter moments? One of the trains was labled as “St. Mungo’s”. There is a train that stops at Charring Cross. Tottenham Court Road is a real place as well:

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I’m trying to get some stuff up here since I’ve been back for a week. I’ll share maybe a little at a time. Those are the only pictures with actual ME in them. All the others were taken by me. England was fabulous. England was wonderful. The British are a delight almost without exception.

Here I Go Again: England

Well, I’ve done it again. I’ve comitted myself to travel. What is wrong with me?

It should be a fabulous trip. I mean that. The activity is right up my alley (archeological dig with Earthwatch International). The climate is temperate (72 for a high and 50ish for lows), the language is one I speak fluently (English, albeit a British variety), the company couldn’t be better (my very own Dad). I even know one person in the nearest big town, Newcastle upon-Tyne.

The food promises to be familiar, yet strange. I have a feeling lots of the experience will be like that. What with BBC in the evenings, Good Neighbors, Fawlty Towers, The Full Monty and my own son’s penchant for appearing British… it will probably seem like being in a movie. I’ll let you know once I’m there.

I have lots to do before I leave on Tuesday night (7pm). This trip has been in the works for months. Actually, it was another trip that was in the works. We were going to go to Peru. The Peruvian crew tried twice to get their act together and twice had to cancel. Both times it was cancelled just a week before we were supposed to leave. The English trip already had the permits together and was actually less expensive than the Peruvian one.

We can drink the water (so I’m told) in England. Bathroom facilities seem to be available (not so much in the Peruvian trip). No Scorpions or Black Widow Spiders (affirmative on both counts in Peru). We get to fly out overnight, business class. Seems like an upgrade, doesn’t it? Yeah, well.

Here are the drawbacks: Since they speak English, how am I going to impress my dad? Speaking Spanish was my only real qualification for the last trip. And it was the only thing I would be better at than my dad. Dang.

Plus, in Peru, I would stick out. Period. No amount of dressing like the locals would help me blend in. So my trip clothes were mostly light, layerable and disposable. No worries about fashion sense or looking like a clod. I would have always been excused as a Gringa. But in England? Well, I’m sure I’ll stick out. But it might be because I look like a crazy person. Dressing just close enough to normal that I don’t look like a foreigner, but far enough away that I don’t blend in at all.

I seem to recal the in Europe people wear much quieter colors than we do here. I think I’ll be OK, because I usually dress in more neutral colors. But what if only lunatics wear ankle socks? What if the layered look is a subtle signal to people that you’re a prostitute? Oh my god, what if people in the UK iron their clothes? What if zippered pockets is a shibboleth for the lesbian underground?

Also, in London, where we’ll spend the night and one dayI think, hmmm. Let me explain something here– I can’t memorize or study my schedule for reasons which are unclear to me, but have to do with my general mental health. And as an aside to the aside– in many instance I pass for a perfectly normal person. I’m serious. Lots of people don’t understand the precariousness of my mental health. But this is between us, right?

About the schedule. I can’t memorize it, cant study it, can’t ponder it much. My dad explained it to me in quite a detailed way. He was excited about the trains running right on time, and some hotel being right upstairs at the train station. I took notes, and I will refer to them if I need them. But picturing the actual journey in any detail makes my stomach hurt. So I don’t do it.

But in London there are drawbacks. Things like red double-deckered busses, or red shiny phone booths, things which are iconic to London. Like those one fuzzy-hatted guys who don’t smile. Like Big Ben and the Queen. Those things have two aspects about them which make me very nervous. First, at this moment they are mere figments of my mind. Things I have seen pictures of, heard about; but might not, in fact exist. Are you with me? There is something about me being in that place, with those things, that seems very wrong. Partially because I know for sure I exist. And putting me in a picture of London seems quite wrong.

More seriously and concretely, I am terrified of dying on foreign soil. I don’t know why, it is inexplicable, but I am afraid of dying on a trip. I’m pretty sure (and please bear with me here) that if I get on the tube, or in a red phone booth or a double-decker bus, that I’ll die in a tragic accident or terrorist attack. I don’t watch TV news, don’t generally read the paper or news magazines. So it isn’t news overload.
Maybe if I heard about some other people’s irrational fears I wouldn’t be so frozen. And I don’t mean someone’s uncle Edgar who’s afraid of his own toes. I mean people who pass for normal until you run into their particular phobia. I like to think of mine as pretty normal phobias. They are:

Anything with more than 4 legs, the more legs, the worse the phobic reaction, except for a few exceptions.

Crowds of people. I hate crowds. Even in my own house, crowds make me nervous, but crowds in public places make me very certain I am going to die.

Public spaces such as the Mall of America. I am very afraid of dying in a place like the Mall. It has something to do with dying in a stupid place, and being associated with it for my eternity. I think it’s a coping mechanism. If I hear of some building collapse at a discotec, I immediately tell myself why those poor people are not like me. Well, first of all, I don’t go to the disco…

And I know if I die at the mall, some person like me will be saying, “I hate the mall, I hardly ever go there. Poor bastards, shouldn’t have gone to the mall.” But I will be dead and unable to defend myself by saying, “But I had to meet my relatives there. It’s not my kind of place.” The short answer to that phobia is to say not to distance myself from the victims of tragedy. But in doing that, my heart breaks wide open. That’s why I stopped reading the paper.

Flying. Flying is not right, it’s not cool, it’s terrifying. That ‘s my most paralyzing phobia. I get stomach aches about a week before I fly. The exit to the airport makes me feel sick, even if I’m just picking someone up or dropping them off. From the time I get on the plane until I get off the plane I am certain I am going to die.

And if dying weren’t bad enough, I am going to fall a very long way or burn alive before I die. It kind of goes hand in hand with my last phobia.

Heights. I know of people who are afraid of heights because they think they’re going to jump. Can’t understand it. I am afraid of falling. Whether I jump or am pushed or slip or my plane malfunctions, doesn’t matter. Falling is very bad. And don’t even start with the whole, “falling is easy, it’s landing that sucks.” Because I disagree. The falling makes it way worse.

So the next three weeks will almost certainly involve me worrying and fretting. It’s fun to watch. I’ll share. I’m happy to take advice. But I’ve found that taking drugs is more effective. So I fly in a drugged state. I am told by my husband that the drug is Ativan, but it tends to give people amnesia, so I’m not all that sure.

Señorcito

What you should know about Ambato is this: It’s like Quito, but without any nice hotels. And we hated everything about Quito except the hotel. Dang. And I suppose the hotels are decent by someone’s standards. Just not ours. And we may be whiney Americanos, but even our resident guide was put off by the rotting flesh smell. She also said that it wasn’t typical for two rooms to be connected by a wall that didn’t go quite to the ceiling. Especially when they are bathrooms in two adjacent rooms. I know the used condom on top of that wall wasn’t standard.

All of these perks came in our second hotel. We checked out of the first one after a couple of hours. It was worse. Stinky and sleazy with a door out onto a precarious ledge that was just behind the buzzing neon sign, overlooking one of the busiest, noisiest, stinkiest corners we had seen. The door to that little balcony wouldn’t close all the way. The sheets had hairs on them that weren’t ours. It was bad. We checked back out, giving them 10 bucks for the trouble. They were gracious about it. I suspect it may have been the kind of place people rented by the hour anyway.

Probably the lowest moment of our trip was in the restaurant El Gran Alamo on one of the main drags in Ambato. Built to look like a log cabin, but with giant, pastel flower cut-outs stuck on to the front of it. It had giant open air windows with shutters flung open to the sidewalk. So a person could sit in a table that had an open window right alongside it. We chose a table by a window to do some people watching, but not in the middle of it all.

We were hungry, tired and overwhelmed. And depressed about our hotel choices. But the restaurant was nice enough, even if it was empty. We stopped taking this as a bad sign because our schedules were way off of the rest of Ecuador. When we were hungry for dinner at 6pm, the Ecuadorians had already had their main meal around 3pm and wouldn’t be hungry for anything other than a little soup around 8.

Cloth table cloths, candles and a window onto the street. We tried to relax. The food was forgettable. The mood wasn’t. Hunger brings into my family a kind of brittle fragility, just this side of panic. Jasper was whiney and wilted, Zach was resentful and superior, Andy was distant and slow and I was nervous and agitated. We were all shaking our feet under the table, looking around from our new, secure viewing station and fighting over the pre-dinner rolls.

After our jugos (pureed fruit and juice served with every meal) arrived I looked out across the 4 lanes of traffic and realized we had made a terrible mistake in choosing our table. I made eye contact with an indigena woman who had a baby on her back and a small girl in tow. She was short, like all the indigenas, with dark skin and bulging eyes. She wore the traditional fedorah and wool skirt and shawl. I saw her across the street, she saw me. Then I saw her cross through the traffic looking right in our window at us as she did. Unaccustomed to carrying change for beggars, we brought just a 20 dollar bill to pay for our dinner. Nothing else.

Jasper was across the table from me, close to the window. He had cried the night before after seeing a toddler sleeping in a doorway with his little arm over his eyes to block out the sun. Seeing beggars and poverty really took a toll on Jasper, more than anyone else.

She went for his side of the window and leaned in, “Señorcito, una monedita, Señorcito, por favor. Ayúdanos un poquito, Señorcito.” She was talking to him, staring at each of us in turn. Staring. Her lower lip out in an exaggerated pout, which was the tone of her voice, like a pouty whine. Jasper had been resting his chin in his hand. He lifted his head and looked at her then at me, shrugging, palm up, desperate.

Andy and I had been saying in muttered English to the boys, to just tell her no and look away. I looked at her and told her no, we didn’t have anything. But we did, we had dinner coming, and our bread in the middle of the table, a life, a home, cash in a hotel room (even if it was a skaggy hotel room), and money enough to pay for dinner. But no dollars or coins. I set my jaw, told her no and waved her on.

She leaned further into Jasper’s window, “Por favor, Señorcito…” The windows had panes that could be swung shut. We closed our side and I told Jasper to close his. He reached for it and started to close it. But her fingers were hanging over the ledge and there was no way for Jasper to close the window without smashing her fingers. He looked back at me with a “mom, make this go away, I don’t know what to do” look.

She never looked down at her hands, just kept staring into our eyes, as did her daughter, although the girl sometimes looked at her feet. I got up finally and walked over to the manager. I asked him if there was a way to get the woman to leave. He apologized profusely and marched out the door towards the woman, who had already begun to cross the street again.

I feel sort of like the ugly American incarnate when I say that beggar woman ruined our day, our whole trip to Ambato. We all wanted to put our heads on the table and teleport back to St. Paul, where a window-side seat allows us to wave to people we know and watch the rest of the world go by.

Part 2 of Why I Am No Fun

I realized a few things while I was traveling that I hadn’t consciously understood before. One was that I’ve spent my adult life accumulating things and systems in order to prevent unpleasantness. Call these creature comforts or the trappings of an unhealthy mind… They aren’t accidents.

I live in the kind of neighborhood where the cops come if your party is too loud. I live here on purpose and if your party wakes me up in the middle of the night, I will call the cops. Then I will sleep, and when I wake up, my mental health will be relatively more stable. I may plot your death while I wait for the authorities, I may seethe at your nerve for treating my front yard like an extension of whatever bar you stumbled out of. But in the end I will know you are an idiot and the law is on my side.

The parties in Banos started at about 11am and quit around 4 or 5am. Easter is an especially big party weekend. The house across the park from our hotel inflated an enormous (two story tall) beer bottle every evening and started playing the dance grooves in the late morning. “Hoy es la Noche del Sexo” was the theme song except when it was “Borrachos Hasta La Amanecer” (these are songs about Jesus rising from the dead, but with a heavy backbeat). The idea of calling the cops was utterly ridiculous for two reasons. For one, there were cops on every corner, armed police all over the place, tapping their feet to the beat.

For another, the idea of offending someone else with your music is simply not on the menu of things to get upset about in Ecuador. Beggars in your restaurant harassing your patrons? Yes. Drunkards fighting over the last tender morsel of cuy? Yes. Armed robbery and picking pockets? Call the cops. Indigenous people fighting the latest trade agreement by blocking off the main roads? They’re on it. Music? Give me a break.

In Ecuador loud is the name of the game. People walk up and down the streets singing out their wares or their pleas for your charity. The dogs roam in packs and have gang-warfare at night. Loud gang warfare. And even the dogs that walk on a leash along side the armed guards for the various hotels and hostels are encouraged to bark a lot. It keeps the guards on the night shift awake, plus it sets off the car alarms. If your car is not parked inside a locked parking facility, it most surely has an alarm. Those alarms seem to be working pretty well, or pretty hard anyway, because they’re always sounding. Roosters start anticipating the sunrise at about 3am, even in the city.

Drivers honk their horn in a conversational way to let you know they are about to pass you on a steep mountain pass. They honk at entire throngs of people because they recognize one person. They honk because you’re blond. They honk because you’re going too slow, because they’re going to run you down as you try to cross the street, or because they want you to go ahead and cross (sucker). It’s a different world.

And don’t even talk to me about earplugs. They are worthless for two reasons: one, they make it possible for bad guys to sneak up on you without you noticing, and two, they expand in your ears and make you feel like your head is going to very quietly explode. Don’t think I haven’t tried the obvious on that front.

At home, my computer is in a room away from other people because I am very private about what I’m writing until it’s done. Even after it’s done, I must send it quickly because I immediately think it’s crap. I am unable to write in front of people. So I don’t.

I also don’t like to do internet research with another person watching. I do a lot of internet research. My daily research is another peak at my potential mental troubles. Since I do a pretty good job at researching until I feel reassured, no one needs to know what I’m worried about.

But in Ecuador there are Internet Cafes. Internet Cafes have all the computers facing the main desk. So if you need for some reason to search “shistosomiasis” or “travel induced constipation” or “water-borne intestinal parasites” or maybe even “noise ordinances in Baños” or“Baños holy week festivities”, your research will be up on the screen for all to see. And all the websites seem to have banner headlines like “Do You Have Shistosomiasis?” or “Don’t be Embarrased About Constipation!”

Just because I’m wondering about symptoms of shistosomiasis doesn’t mean I think my kids or I have it (pretty sure after some research that we don’t). I’m doing research and it’s nobody’s damned business why. It makes me feel better, OK?

So not only was my trip a period of sleep deprivation and nausea, but I couldn’t even deal with the stress by writing about it (Well, I do have a little notebook) or researching it. I might do it again, but not for fun, and not anytime really soon.