Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Don't hate me 'cause I'm warm


On the rare occasion when my sister and I indulged in girl talk and described our dream weddings, her choice of elopement to Vegas was criticized by me as being too elaborate. City Hall for me, please: badaboom badabing, you’re married, next! I don’t know where my disdain for circus weddings comes from or why it has never altered throughout the years; I have been to many large weddings and found them quite enjoyable. I guess I’m just wary of any enterprise that involves detailed planning accompanied by heaven-high expectations. I like planning stuff—it satisfies both my need for order as well as my sense of imagination—but it’s the expectations that get you. As soon as something has to be perfect, it’s no longer much fun, far as I’m concerned.
As many people will tell you, some of the best moments in life are unplanned. At the same time, as few of those same people will admit, some of the worst moments in life come from lack of foresight. For all that travel writers like to brag about throwing away maps and guidebooks and just winging it, this strategy does not always yield brag-worthy results. I didn’t bring any maps or guidebooks with me to my current location—Lance aux Epines, Grenada—not so much out of a sense of adventurousness as a desire not to do a whole hell of a lot all week. The BF is teaching at St. George University this week, in a gig that seems like a textbook definition of “boondoggle,” if there were textbooks on such subjects, but it isn’t; it’s a legitimate winter-session class for veterinary students, where they study such topics as oh who cares it’s all-expense-paid for him and a guest and I’m the guest. Not much more you need to know.
Because the BF is in classes all day, I’m largely on my own. I’ve been on my own in foreign countries many times, something I had to remind myself of on this trip lest I become complacent and spend the week inert on the patio in a seaview trance. It would be too easy to do nothing here, to just enjoy the fact that it’s nearly 80 degrees warmer than it was the morning we left, that the constant sound of waves on shore means we’re no longer landlocked, that the biggest decision I have to make this morning is whether to have the chicken roti or the grilled fresh catch of the day for lunch. No, the solo traveler in me says, don’t be so lazy and scared. This isn’t a cruise ship—you hate cruise ships, almost as much as circus weddings. There’s a whole new island out there to explore. Get moving, so you’ll have something to boast about when you go back to your frozen landlocked home.
I’m writing this on the patio, by the way, listening to the waves, thinking I’ll go with fish for lunch.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not quite at peace with the universe. Me being me, there’s still that nagging sense that I’m wasting my time, that there’s something else I should be doing, even though I’m feeling quite a lot of contentment right now, even though I’m getting a lot of work done on my latest writing project and reading a lot of good books, even though I’m getting in some good running workouts (I’d forgotten how hilly volcanic islands can be) and, hell, I’m warm, for goodness sake. If nothing else happens this week in mid-January, the tropical temperatures alone are a victory. And yet, the nagging. What stories will you have to tell envious friends when you return? What photos will you post on facebook besides that one requisite “Here’s my view, aren’t you jealous?” shot of the scene just off the patio? How can you live with yourself knowing you squandered a great opportunity to explore a whole new place?
Quite toastily, thank you.
And I did get to explore this place, albeit not through any sense of daring or adventurousness on my part. Faculty members at the university working with the BF this week invited us for lunch at their home on Sunday; they own a farm way up in the mountains, and to get there we were driven through a wide range of neighborhoods—from luxurious estates to clusters of corrugated metal shacks—that gave a pretty good sense of what island life is like for the vastly different groups here. There were sheep that looked like goats, there were dogs that claimed right of way, there were many times I can’t believe we didn’t get into a massive accident or go plunging into a ditch because the roads at their widest can accommodate approximately 1.47 cars. I admit feeling alarmed when we finally got to the road that would take us to the farm and were told we might want to “hang on” as the road was windy, muddy, and steep, and who knew if we would make it to the top.
We did, and it was worth the racing pulse to get there. The farm grows just about every tropical thing imaginable, it seemed: mangoes, papayas, coconuts, breadfruit, sapodilla, various types of banana, all sorts of citrus, avocados, pumpkins, cacao pods, coffee beans, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and a few other things I’m either forgetting or don’t know the names of. They made us a meal from foods gathered from the farm, including buttery guacamole and a pumpkin soup so exquisite we all went back for seconds, might have gone back for thirds if it didn’t seem unseemly. To drink there were freshly squeezed juices and ginger beer made from—you guessed it—fresh ginger. We ate and drank on the deck. There was a view, yes. I’d describe it but it’ll just make you unhappy.
It was one of those experiences travel writers adore, because it’s inaccessible to the ordinary folks who come in on cruise ships and eat wherever the rest of the sheep graze. The point of travel writing, after all, is not to describe a place but to boast about the writer’s amazing adventures there. But this particular amazing adventure happened because I was lucky, not intrepid or a smart planner. And lest you somehow get the idea that everything so far has been “perfect,” it hasn’t. It has rained every day, unusual for this time of year, and I’ve gotten quite drenched several times, which means I’ll likely be bringing back a suitcase full of exotic souvenir mildew. Being in the tropics, if you’re from latitudes far more northerly, means adjusting what you think of as “clean”; as soon as you wash off the day’s sweat, sunscreen, bug spray, and curry sauce from the muffler-size roti whose fragrant filling could not be contained by the chewy wrapper—well, you’ve immediately got to douse yourself with more chemical goo lest you be at risk for dengue fever. Then, goo’d up, you go out to do some ocean kayaking that ends up becoming ocean dunking because waves, like weather, have a funny habit of doing what they want despite your plans—or even despite your sense of planless daring.
After you travel a while, you start to learn something important: the experiences you have aren’t going to be perfect; they’re going to be different. There may be things you’ve never seen or done before, or they may actually be very similar to what you’ve already seen and done many times, only you’re now seeing and doing them a new way. Eventually, you come to see “different” as more desirable than “perfect”—mainly because it’s so potentially life-changing even while it is so very easily attainable. You don’t even have to seek it; all you have to do is be open to its possibility.