The Simplest Answer

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

“De donde eres?” the taxi driver asked.

I had to think about it for a second, do the laborious conversion of words from Spanish to English that precedes any kind of real understanding, the rote memorization of the early stages of language learning.

Oh! Where are we from?

“America,” I said confidently, pleased with myself for having plucked meaning, a question, from the foreign-sounding words, and for knowing how to answer in a way he’d understand.

He glanced at me in the rear view mirror, a look hovering somewhere between sly and reproving.

“And where is America, exactly?” he asked in perfect English, with only a slight Peruvian accent.

It happened again, in a cooking class. And in another taxi.

Aaargh. 

I can’t tell you how many times in the last four years, particularly in Asia, I’ve answered that question with either US or USA or United States, and been met with a blank look. It took me a long time to retrain my brain, and learn to answer America. It’s just the simplest word.

Except when it’s not.

In Latin America, everyone is American. Some of us are from the US, some of us are from Mexico, some of us are from Peru, or Bolivia, or Ecuador, or Argentina. And some of us are from Canada.

Yes, I know we are using the word America as shorthand—it’s short for United States of America. Of course. But leaving aside the heavily (oh so heavily) loaded inflections it carries within our borders, what does it say when we travel beyond those borders? It is, after all, an entire continent. Two, really. That’s the piece that I failed to think about, before we arrived in Peru.

It turns out the rest of Latin America identifies just as strongly with that word, America, and I don’t get to own it. It took my brain a few weeks to unlearn the response (damn it—I was so pleased four years ago, in Vietnam, when I finally figured out how to answer the taxi drivers in a way they understood—I was getting somewhere! I was having actual communication with actual local people!). For basically all of this past July, whenever someone asked me where I was from, I would just sort of stammer and make weird noises, usually followed quickly by a hot flash. Quite a few kind souls jumped into the breach and offered the appropriate answer, which I still have difficulty pronouncing smoothly: Estados Unidos

In all our travels, all the places we’ve been, I haven’t been called out that bluntly on any other faux pas I’ve made, and there have been many. 

It’s kind of interesting: I don’t know of any place in the world, other than the US, where people identify themselves with a label that is so inaccurately broad. I’ve never met anyone from another country who claimed their continent first, rather than their country. When the question is ‘Where are you from?,’ the answer generally starts with the country, then maybe drills down to a more local level, depending on who is asking.

It turns out that figuring out how to identify myself requires more, sometimes, than just figuring how to communicate in a way that makes me understood. There are subtleties and contexts that I, with my generally-oblivious-to-human-subtext observation skills, often fail to pick up on.

‘Western’ is another word I struggle with, as in western-style hotel. This is a phrase I use a lot, usually when I’m cranky and sniping at my spouse, as in “Why can’t we stay in a normal, western-style hotel??”

When those words popped out of my mouth in Bolivia, I had to stop and think. The vocabulary dilemma was almost (not quite, but almost) enough to distract me from my rant about our hotel. Bolivia is solidly in ‘the west’ (although, come to think of it, west is a relative term. West from where?). But there was nothing about that hotel that resembled a quaint boutique B&B in a charming French village, or even a Holiday Inn.

So what word was I looking for? There was a time, in the early days of social media, when lots of people used the phrase ‘first world problem.’ It’s cute—to those of us in the ‘first’ world. I wonder how people in the ‘second’ world felt about it? Or the ‘third’ world? Turns out they have Twitter too.

Developing world? I know there are official definitions of developed vs developing. I’m not quite sure what the parameters are. Germany is clearly developed. The Gambia clearly is not. There’s an incredibly wide range in between those two, though. I certainly don’t know or understand the issues.

Lee uses ‘organized.’ By our loose guidelines, if there are no sidewalks, it’s definitely not organized. If there are sidewalks, but motorcycles drive on them, it’s somewhat organized. If motorcycles stay on the road and stop at traffic lights, it’s more organized. I’m not sure if this is truly any less judgmental, but we mostly only use it between ourselves, so hopefully no one will take offense.

I’ve heard quite a few tour guides, leaders, taxi drivers, instructors, etc. just call it what it is: poor. ‘We are a very poor country.’ ‘Your country is very rich.’

Well, yes, but that’s the kind of thing that I was raised never to comment on.

Context is everything, so if my goal in life is to be kind, which it is, perhaps it would be better if I refrain from categorizing or labeling when attempting to communicate over a language barrier. Stay in my own lane (which, obviously, is a figure of speech that works only in ‘organized’ countries).

All of which brings me back to my response to the taxi driver in Cusco, when I cheerily proclaimed my American-ness: context is everything.

Take care,

Lisa

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What I’ve Effed Up So Far

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

When we went to Vietnam the first time, early in our nomad days, we were still at the beginning of a steep learning curve. We were (perhaps unconsciously) trying to figure out what kind of people we wanted to be in the world. We didn’t think about it in those terms, of course—we were busy thinking about how to buy cotton balls, and how to get the laundry done, and why did my underwear come back full of holes?

We stayed in a lovely little hotel in a lovely little town named Hoi An. It’s a very touristy town, because of the well-preserved colonial architecture in its compact center. The hotel was beautiful, the staff could not have been nicer, the town was a respite. We liked it so much we extended our stay, and then extended again. We wound up spending a month there, which we look back on with great fondness.

Except for one thing.

Breakfast was served every morning in a room looking out at the pool, and the jungle beyond. We sat in that room for hours every morning, on our computers, drinking Vietnamese coffee and working. It was truly a tiny little hotel, with maybe about eight staff people, and we were sort of odd visitors, staying so long. Everyone was so very kind, and we started to feel quite attached to them. I’m still FB friends with Mai.

The egg guy in the breakfast room (there’s always an Egg Guy) was a very enthusiastic young man who was trying hard to learn a few words of English. Every day he made me two eggs, scrambled with cheese, not runny, and by day three had memorized my order. A couple of weeks in, he invited us to his other restaurant. He gave me the name.

Great, we thought. We’re in with a local! So off we went.

When we arrived, we were surprised to find that it was not, as we had expected, “his” restaurant—hello, language confusion—but the restaurant in which he worked when he wasn’t at the hotel. But we were still thrilled. It turned out to be an NGO-sponsored training restaurants, which is our favorite kind of place to support, so that was a huge added bonus, in our minds.

When I went to wash my hands after we arrived, I saw “our” chef in the kitchen, and gave him a big wave and a thumbs-up. We’re here! We’re rah-rah cheerleading on your behalf!

Later, after we’d read the back of the menu (all about the NGO’s mission and fundraising) and had a delicious lunch, the American who had founded the place stopped by to make sure we’d enjoyed our meal. He was great—we felt as if we’d met a kindred spirit, but one who was much more willing to live his beliefs. He’d started this place in order to train at-risk youth in an employable skill. He was working on fundraising in the US, so that he could open a similar place in Ho Chi Minh City, focusing specifically on helping gay street kids. That’s a mission that’s near and dear to my heart—I was so impressed with his work.

The food was fantastic, I told him. I told him all about the great job the young man at our hotel was doing—he was a credit to the training program, representing well in the industry. I told him all about our kid in culinary school, and our concerns about LGBTQ rights all over the world. He told us about the American ambassador to Vietnam, and what a great guy he is.

We went on our way.

A couple of days later, as I was finishing my breakfast, the young woman who helped Egg Guy in the dining room came to my table. 

“He wants to tell you goodbye,” she said, pointing back toward Egg Guy, who gave me a small wave.

In my utter obliviousness, I gave him a huge smile. “Excellent! Where is he going?”

We stumbled through the translation for a minute, but with growing horror, I realized what I’d done. Part of his contract with the NGO is that he’s not allowed to moonlight. I’d ratted him out to the boss, and he’d been given an ultimatum: quit at the hotel, or get booted out of the program.

The waitress went on to tell me how hard it was—his wife having a new baby, and all.

I was gutted. Back in our room, I cried, wanting Lee’s sympathy—I didn’t know what to do with this guilt I was experiencing.

“It’s not about you,” he pointed out. He was right. I had made a mistake—one that had real consequences for someone else—but that would impact me in no way whatsoever.

I wasn’t sure what to do with that. It was a sobering lesson in . . . what? Unintended consequences? Look before you leap? A reminder that there are always real people on the other end of our actions, and even if we don’t know them, they’re not so different from us? It’s possible to break things for other people without even realizing we’re doing it?

All of the above, I suppose. It was a hard lesson, but I’m pretty certain it was much harder for Egg Guy than for me. The harder question, though, is this: what else have I broken, without even realizing it?

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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Lessons Learned in 2019

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

In the spirit of December wrap-ups and January new beginnings, I offer my list of Things I Learned in 2019.

We left the US in May with a plane ticket to Peru, and an apartment booked through mid-July. It was our intention to learn to embrace our spontaneous side, picking destinations on the fly, in the moment. That’s how lots of digital nomads (*cough* young digital nomads) function. It turns out we don’t have a spontaneous side. Give me some internet and I will plan a delightful year of travel. Tell me to wing it, and I will curl up under the bed and cry. That is who I am, and I see no need to change.

While we’re planning, I need to be more assertive about where we go. If not, my beloved spouse will drag me to all the places that it turns out I never wanted to visit. No, I’m not going to tell you where. Just because I don’t want to go there doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Possibly related, but maybe not: after twenty years on anxiety medication, I tapered off it this year. I’m not so sure that was a good plan, and I reserve the right to change my mind. Perhaps even spontaneously.

Also possibly related: I think it’s time to do some research concerning hormone replacement therapy. We’ve reached the point where my hot flashes are governing our destinations and accommodation, which seems a bit out of whack.

I desperately miss seeing my children. I’m not sure how to solve that one—it turns out the empty-nest adjustment is hard, even for those of us who no longer have a nest.

The things that frighten me most are not the things I expect. Protests, teargas, fires, pickpockets, flat tires, getting stranded, being alone in a strange place—these are not the things that bother me. Losing my mobility? My hearing, my eyesight, my balance, or my doctor’s approval? Those are the things that wake me up at night. I think it might be because I’m more realistic than I used to be. I have finally realized that the real risks are not the ones we read about in the headlines, but the boring ones that no one really wants to focus on, like high blood pressure, or driving.

I am still however, unreasonably frightened of sharks. But only when I actually see them, so that’s progress.

Other than sharks, I love-love-love seeing animals in the wild. That was such a surprise—I’ve never thought of myself as an animal person. But last January, when our youngest and I drove into a national park in South Africa and a family of warthogs crossed the road in front of us, I laughed so hard I thought I’d rupture something. I was smitten. I want to see All The Wild Animals. (Even the sharks.)

Stray dogs, though, or even just free-range dogs who aren’t exactly stray but are definitely loose, are NOT the kind of wild animals I want to see. The next time we head to a small, rural community that has lots of dogs (and we have such a place planned in February), I’m going to take a walking stick. I’m calling it my emotional support stick.

I boast about being an introvert, and I definitely am, and I boast about not needing any more human contact than just my husband, but I think maybe I need more than that. I worry that I am doing myself a disservice, living like this—I’m not very good at staying in touch with people, and I fear I’ll regret that eventually.

I’m happier when I’m writing.

I would like to think that this life is making me a more tolerant and open-minded person, but sometimes I wonder if it’s doing just the opposite. Recently I have found myself judging customs and cultural differences in ways that make me a little ashamed of myself. I don’t want to be the traveler who leaves home and complains that home is better. I have a working theory about why I’m behaving this way, and what to do about it, but I don’t think I should claim to have it figured out. I might not. It might be something I just have to work on, in the long, difficult, messy process that is personal growth.

What about you? What sort of personal growth is awaiting you in this brand-new decade?

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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In Which Lisa Digs Deep

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

I fear that I am beginning to sound obsessive in these pages. I keep revisiting our time in Puerto Lopez. You’ll have to forgive me—it was weirdly memorable, from the first moment to the last.

As a matter of fact, I should’ve known, from the minute we got off the plane, just how surreal it was going to be. Our pre-arranged transport never showed up at the airport. It was a two-hour drive, and the fare would’ve been significant, so we were a bit perplexed. More than a bit, actually. In four and a half years of nomading, this was the first time someone has just not shown up. (Once our airline didn’t exist, but that actually turned out to have a simpler solution than how-to-get-to-Puerto-Lopez.)

We got off the plane, made our way outside, and watched as our fellow passengers were greeted, some by squealing grandchildren, others by hotel drivers. One by one, they got into cars. One by one, they departed, until we were the only passengers left in the parking lot of this tiny, one-gate airport.

What to do? *shrug*

It should have been a sign. We should have seen the proverbial writing on the wall. Instead, we hailed a taxi. He didn’t speak English, but I used my sad Spanish skills to ask him to take us to Puerto Lopez.

At first, it seemed like a fortuitous turn of events. He was happy to stop and let us run into the mall, to pick up a few items we thought might be hard to come by in a small town in a developing country. (Non-instant oatmeal, because that’s not a thing in Ecuador. Also a couple of large jigsaw puzzles, because it turns out you can’t just pick those up in any old place. See also: bubble bath. Category: Useless Extravagances Lisa Has Searched For In Places The Electrical Grid Has Not Yet Reached, Thus Labeling Herself Most Oblivious Tourist Of All Time.)

We left the mall, having added several bags of ‘essentials’ to our luggage, and headed toward Puerto Lopez, along the coast road. It was fairly scenic, winding along the tops of the cliffs, looking out over the Pacific—not quite the Pacific Coast Highway, but interesting enough to hold our attention.

Apparently it wasn’t enough to hold our driver’s attention, though. At some point, about an hour in, I glanced in the rear view mirror, and could see his eyelids drooping. I’d been so distracted by the views, and the twisty road snaking along the cliff tops, that I hadn’t even noticed. HE WAS FALLING ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL.

I should mention, at this juncture, that I was once in a cab from JFK into Manhattan, and my driver actually did fall asleep, and smashed into the barrier in the median. We were in very slow traffic, so it was no big deal—he jerked the car back into the lane, and we were both fully awake after that. But I’m a little paranoid about sleepy drivers. Doubly so in places where it looks like the medical care might be, shall we say, not what I’m used to.

Anyway, I elbowed Lee, and he watched for a couple of minutes, and we huddled in the back seat and considered our options. Theoretically, we could’ve asked him to let us out, but it was truly the middle of nowhere. There was no way we were going to find another taxi. My idea was to get him a coffee, but the little settlements we passed through were basically a couple of shacks, a couple of residents with tables set up on the roadside, selling fish or papayas or liquor bottles full of gasoline, and a fat fishing rope lying across the road to slow the cars down. There were no hipster coffee shops to be found. I would’ve happily bought him an instant coffee from a gas station, but there weren’t any of those, either.

Lee’s brilliant idea was to talk to him. The only problem with that was the impenetrable language barrier. Oh, and Lee speaks exactly three words of Spanish (which was actually more than the driver spoke in English). So I would have to be the go-between, with my approximately 47 words of commonality.

Just for the record, I have spent the last 25 years (no exaggeration) telling my children that I AM NOT THE ENTERTAINMENT. These days I find myself telling my husband this very same thing.

But he looked at me and said, “Now you have to be the entertainment.”

Let me tell you, I had to dig deep.

What’s your name?

How old are you?

Where are you from?

Do you have a wife?

Do you have children?

How old are they?

Do they like football?

Dude—I’m a writer. Can I turn four verbs and a handful of nouns into half an hour of conversation? Why yes, it turns out I can.

After 40 minutes of racking my brain for Spanish words, while Lee fed me topics, I thought I had run out. We sat in the back seat, whispering.

Lee would say things like, “Ask him what he’s going to do tomorrow,” and I’d say, “Are you kidding? That’s in the future—that’s a whole different tense! I have no earthly idea how to conjugate that!”

And we’d both glance toward the rear view mirror, and see his eyelids drooping again.

Finally, I whispered, near panic, that literally the only thing I had left in my Spanish ammunition, the only words I knew that I hadn’t yet used, were “El bebe es feo.”

The baby is ugly. Our lives were dependent on my turning that sentence, the best-ever example of utterly useless high school language lessons, into something resembling conversation. In my entire life, I have never needed that sentence, in any language. Except at that moment, when our driver was beginning to swerve between oncoming traffic on one side and a sheer drop on the other.

If it hadn’t been so alarming, it would’ve been really funny. In 4.5 years of travel, I’ve never been that concerned for our safety (and that includes the fire in Chile). I really, really didn’t want to get into a car accident in rural Ecuador.

Google Translate to the rescue. Pardon the product placement, but I really don’t know how we could manage this lifestyle without Google Translate. I popped in a couple of words I was unsure of (when, were, high school—okay, most of the words), and cobbled together a little story about how our kids took Spanish in high school, and the craziest sentence they learned was “El bebe es feo.” It was totally pointless, but it worked.

At least, I guess it worked. We didn’t go hurtling off a cliff. He looked a little perplexed, but I tell myself that was because he was working to understand my terrible pronunciation, not because the sentences were a grammatical catastrophe. He stayed awake long enough to get us to our Airbnb, anyway. I like to think he made it back to his town, and his kids, and still tells the story about that wild-eyed gringa lady who sat in his back seat mumbling about an ugly baby.

The moral of the story is this: Pay attention in school, kids. You never know when that useless trivia will come in handy.

Here’s hoping you never need this gem from my German lessons a few years back: The bear ate my fish.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
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‘Tis the Season

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Occasionally we cross paths with tourists or expats and get to chatting, and they ask if we’re going ‘home’ for the holidays. Setting aside the issue of how one defines ‘home’—that’s another tale, for another day—I’m always a bit flummoxed by the holiday question. No, that’s the last time of the year I’d choose to go to the US.

The weather is generally unpleasant, people are insanely busy, expectations are unbearable, and the pressure to give people gifts they neither want nor need makes me very uncomfortable. It’s all so in-your-face. Don’t get me wrong—I love a little Christmas music, a nice slab of fruitcake, maybe a few twinkly lights. (Do not tell me you hate fruitcake. Do not. Them’s fightin’ words, in my book.) There’s much about Christmas to love.

But it’s not conducive to actually spending quality time with our friends and family, which is our priority when we go to the US.

This is not a new way of thinking for me. We did the whole festive insanity thing when our kids were small, for as many years as it seemed necessary. Then one year, one of them developed an allergic reaction to the tree and got hopped up on some kind of machine that dispensed albuterol, and Lee got out of the hospital just in time to be stuck in bed, and it was cold and rainy and rainy and rainy, and the other kid cut open a lip and bled all over everywhere, and the damned tree fell over, and we were not having any fun at all.

So after that Year of Christmas Misery, we chose to go south, as often as possible. Christmas is way more fun—for me, anyway—when there’s sunshine and sand involved. Or at least a hotel pool. 

And we discovered an unexpected benefit: our children learned that different people celebrate in different ways. Some people don’t celebrate Christmas at all, because they’re not Christian. Some people celebrate even though they aren’t Christian, because it’s the commercial holiday that has spread around the world. Some people go out in the back yard and slaughter the cow they’ve been hanging onto for months, so that they can have a special meal this one day of the year. Some people check into a fancy hotel on a tropical island. Some people get up in the morning, put on a uniform, and go clean the rooms in that same hotel.

Since we started traveling full time, we’ve spent Christmas in Bangkok, Sri Lanka, and Cape Town. Each one had (obviously) a different celebratory flavor. In Bangkok, Christmas feels much more like an American-style holiday—it’s all twinkly lights and shopping, and mostly just for show. In Sri Lanka, we kind of stepped into the local British expat community and their celebrations, which was surprisingly comforting, if not especially Sri Lankan. We had a particularly memorable lunch, cooked by a British chef—turkey with all the trimmings. It was like something your grandmother would’ve made, except there were monkeys in the tree tops. And in Cape Town, we had the best-ever Christmas cake from a local bakery for breakfast, then ate lunch at a fancy Indian hotel, then went to see a penguin colony. Because if penguins in springtime don’t say Christmas, I don’t know what does.

I’d love to spend the holiday in Germany one year, hanging out at those magical-looking Christmas markets drinking mulled wine and munching on pfeffernusse and stollen. But when I look at the pictures on Instagram, it always looks so cold. If I were applying a theme to our Christmas destinations, it would be Not Cold. So that’s a maybe-one-day-if-I-lose-my-mind possibility.

This year, we’re in Buenos Aires. I get the feeling Christmas here is pretty low-key. We’ve heard no Christmas music, except the playlist on my phone, which I’ve been playing to get the persistent Evita earworms out of my head. The special Christmas treats seem to be limited to dry gingerbread cookies, dry panettone, and epic cheese plates (but I think those might be omnipresent anyway).

This year is the first time neither of our kids will be with us, which makes me a little sad, but Lee’s family is joining us, so we’ll still be joyful. And isn’t that the point, really?

The best thing about Christmas in Buenos Aires, though, is that there’s no line to visit Santa. At 7pm. On a Saturday. Ten days before Christmas. So the grown-ups have free rein for goofing. That’s festive enough for me!

I hope you have a delightful holiday season, however and wherever you spend it.

Take care,

Lisa

P.S. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share. If you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. And if someone forwarded this to you, thank them for me, and go to 
https://bookwoman.com/ to subscribe.

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