Doors Slamming Closed

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

Where we are: Tokyo, Japan

Doors Slamming Closed

Suddenly, with no warning, Lee and I have (by necessity) gone from being nomads to being expats.

Much is made of these distinctions, within their respective communities. On the surface, the differences probably seem trivial. But they don’t feel trivial. Out of the blue, we find ourselves having to drill down and figure out how to get medications and new contact lenses and food delivery—tasks that we don’t usually have to navigate because we’re generally gone before we have time to really get settled. Besides, we can usually just wait until we get back to the US. But at this point, we have no idea when that will be.

We’re shifting gears in the middle of a pandemic, when nothing around us is normal. Here in Japan, pretty much everyone is wearing a mask in public. We already don’t know the culture; with the masks, a lot of the visual cues are gone. We’re usually pretty quick to drop into a community, explore, figure it out, but that feels both risky and tone-deaf right now.

We’re not exactly flailing—we’re actually kind of reveling in the convenience of UberEats and Amazon deliveries and the luxury of a fancy Japanese toilet—but we’re definitely feeling a little discombobulated.

It has been slow to sink in, but we’re finally processing the reality: travel is off the table for the foreseeable future. It’s not that we feel stuck, per se, because we definitely chose to be here—it’s not as if we have somewhere else we need to go—it’s just that travel, for us, is a mindset. It’s the structure around which we’ve organized our lives.

It’s a hard habit to break. Lee keeps looking at flights—just out of curiosity, he says. I keep thinking, well, next month. In June. This summer.

Where to next?

But then we read about countries closing their borders. Banning foreigners. Cancelling flights and trains. Halting all movement, even internally. Doors have slammed shut, all over the world. Japan will no longer allow visitors from seventy countries—and just like that, there are no more flights from here to the US.

It’s a weird, limbo-ish moment in which to be a digital nomad. A lot (not all, but a lot) of people who live like we do are younger than we are. A lot of those folks packed up and went back to their home country; many have moved back in with their parents. That’s not really an option for us, even if we wanted to—our parents are the last people we’d want to expose.

I feel particularly awful for all the bloggers who were actually making a living on travel, all those little solo operators, just getting by. It feels as if the entire industry just dried up overnight. I know it wasn’t really overnight—it was weeks—but I’ve been so focused on my own logistics that I didn’t really process the bigger picture implications. It’s too easy to do that: to get so caught up in the minutiae that we never realize how the details fit into the whole.

I couldn’t possibly complain—I’m safe and comfortable and perfectly happy to be in Japan—but I do find myself wondering what in the world to write about in these emails. Do I just carry on with my regular content? I keep going back and reading the essays I’ve already written, and they all seem sort of hollow, under the circumstances. How could anyone possibly give a hoot about my rambling observations about bowls, or some random village in Morocco/Ecuador/Vietnam? I’m not even sure I can get myself excited about those things.

From where I’m currently perched, it feels like the world is on pause. So I guess we’ll just wait. I’ll sit quietly, and look inward and gather energy. Maybe I’ll even try to use this time creatively. It’s not as if any of us have a choice.

Let me know how you’re using this pause. And of course, stay healthy.

From my writer’s notebook:

If you’re looking for an interesting diversion during the lock-down, or you want to expose the kids to something vaguely cultural, lots of museums around the world are making virtual tours of their collections available for free right now. There’s a list in this article to get you started: https://www.cntraveler.com/story/all-the-museum-exhibits-symphonies-and-operas-you-can-enjoy-from-home

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.

Turning On a Dime

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

First of all, let me say thank you to everyone who reached out after last week’s email, to check on us, or report on things where you are, or just to say you were thinking of us. I’ve never been more grateful for all of you, and for the internet that enables us to feel your love.

I’ve thought a lot about what to say today; I want to choose my words very carefully. So in the interests of full disclosure, and in order to reassure our worried loved ones, here’s the story. 

The last few days have been a bit of a whirlwind. I thought, after five years of digital nomading, that I had wrapped my brain around what it means to be untethered. It turns out the one eventuality I hadn’t really considered was a significant problem that encompasses the entire globe.

We’ve been willing to go to places that some people would consider questionable, thinking, well, if it gets scary, we’ll just leave. So right off the bat, let’s just get this out of the way: Yes, I realize that I am only able to say that because of the extraordinary privilege that makes my life possible. Yes, I realize that I did nothing to earn that privilege: I was born with this skin and this passport. In the entire history of humanity, few have been lucky enough to live the way Lee and I live.

Having said all that, never once have we felt nervous or unsafe or unwelcome, anywhere, in five years. And then, this virus showed up.

As far as I can tell, it has no interest in privilege, or skin color, or what my passport looks like. That has been sobering, to say the least. I’ve tried hard to be cognizant of my privilege as I move through the world, to appreciate it and not abuse it, but when we left our quiet, remote little hotel in the Guatemalan jungle, for the first time in five years I felt very, very vulnerable.

And as I’m sure a lot of you will agree, I didn’t like that feeling. Not one bit.

Like I said last week, we’re planners. We had a plan, so we were just folllowing it. It’s what we do. Oblivious, right? Yup.

I mean, we were totally taking it seriously—washing our hands till the skin was raw, using our elbows to push elevator buttons (turns out that’s my superpower; I’ve been waiting years to uncover it), staying as far away from all humans as possible.

But we kept reading the news, and things got worse, and then more worse, and then I was pretty much hyperventilating several times a day. Things are worse everywhere. We weren’t even sure how to process that. When you are lucky enough to have the kind of options we have, what do you choose?

And what happens if you make a mistake? What happens if you choose wrong? Doors started slamming shut around the world, and we looked at where we were, and alarm bells started ringing in my head. Actually, they sounded more like klaxons. Or those nuclear warning sirens.

I have a friend who is an epidemiologist, and over a several-week period, she kept emphasizing the importance of infrastructure. Mexican infrastructure is . . . a work in progress, let’s say.

So I got off a phone call at 8pm on Saturday, and Lee said, “We could go to Japan. There’s a flight in the morning.”

I agonized for about 2 minutes, then started packing. The taxi picked us up at 3:15 Sunday morning.

We used a LOT of Clorox wipes & hand sanitizer & wore our masks when we were around people. Luckily our layover in San Francisco was so short we never had time to sit down.

And now—we’re in Tokyo. We have no idea what’s going to happen here, but they’ve been dealing with it for 2 months, and haven’t (yet!) had any huge spikes. Plus the infrastructure & healthcare are ultra-modern.

Even so, it was such a hard decision. What do you do, when your every instinct is to go home, but you don’t actually have a home? It’s a fun game to play, in theory: Hey, if you were Bill Gates, and the apocalypse was coming, where would you hide out?

We’re not Bill Gates, but we don’t have a fixed address, so that gives us flexibility to actually make a deliberate decision about where best to ride this out. Theoretically, the world is our oyster. It’s just that, right now, choosing an oyster feels more like Russian roulette. Sorry for muddling those metaphors, but hopefully you know what I mean.

Like I said at the top, this pandemic has forced us to think—even more—about our notions of being untethered. About what home really means, about what it means to feel safe, about both the advantages and disadvantages of the lifestyle we have chosen.

We’re not the only people making decisions like this. We may be the only ones you know, or we may not, but believe me—around the globe, there people who live in one place and work in another, or travel for work, or work in one country while their families live in another. There are diplomats and students and business people and teachers and doctors and aid workers, and people who live like Lee and I do, all over the world, not sure where they ought to be right now. We have friends who live on boats who’ve been told to drop anchor and stay put. We have friends who’ve moved into vans and driven to the hinterlands. No one has the right answer, only the answer that is right for them.

What finally swung the decision, for us, was that one word: infrastructure.

So here we are. Things are still functional here; we’ll see how long that lasts. We booked 3 nights in a hotel (literally, from the car on the way to the airport), so we’d have a day or two to figure out where to go. We finally decided to stay in Tokyo, at least for now; if it doesn’t get locked down, perhaps we can enjoy it a little bit, since we’ve always wanted to, but if it does, well, instant noodles are instant noodles, whether you’re in Kyoto or Tokyo or the back side of beyond.

We have no idea what’s next, or what the world will look like 3 months from now, but if we’re going to get stuck in a lockdown, this seems like a pretty good place to do it.

I hope all of y’all are well, & not too stir-crazy. Please stay in touch. Now, more than ever, this magical little screen is our portal to community and family and friends—to normalcy.

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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Trying to Hold it Together

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

Where we are: Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Trying to hold it together

When we left the US last June, we decided that our year in Latin America would be a grand experiment in Not Planning. We wanted to be the spontaneous kind of digital nomads—the ones who can take advantage of bargains, or drop into a city, decide we love it, and stay until we get tired of it.

That lasted about ten minutes.

We figured out very quickly that we’re happier when we have a plan. Scuba divers have a mantra: plan your dive, dive your plan. That’s how I like for my days to unfold—according to plan. I suppose it’s not an accident that when our eldest child was about two years old, he started waking up every morning and immediately asking, “What’s the agenda?” Sorry, sweetie—our fault entirely. 

It’s not that I can’t be flexible. I’m fine with the small bumps: a different brand of dental floss, putting the toilet paper into the bin instead of the toilet, drivers that don’t show up. Once, we even got to an airport and found out that our airline didn’t exist. We rolled with it. See? Flexible. It’s the big stuff that I need to have in place—we’re here for this amount of time, then we’re going to go there for that amount of time. I particularly like having my year anchored by our annual May visit to the US. It’s how I keep my life organized and my mind grounded.

And now here we are, living at the intersection of anxiety, full-time travel, a mild compulsion to plan, and a global pandemic. All of our plans are up in the air. We have no choice but to take it one day at a time, because that’s the deal right now, and not just for us. 

I assume I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping?

Obviously, we can’t just pretend it’s not happening, but it’s difficult to know how to maintain normalcy. No, I don’t have kids out of school, and working from ‘home’ is nothing new for us, but other than that, I have the exact same worries and concerns as everyone else. I’m just having them in a slightly different little square on the map.

One of the things we’ve learned in the last five years is that the world really is a global community, all 7.8 billion of us. People keep saying viruses don’t respect boundaries. I know it sounds like I’m just wringing my hands and repeating sound bites, but that particular nugget really is true.

We’re in the Yucatan right now, about to head to Mexico City and hunker down in an apartment, and I’m hoping that will help me get my head on straight, because honestly? I’m kind of a mess.

I’m having trouble focusing on writing in the face of all the headlines and messaging. Throw in the economy, & it’s way too easy to let the stress get out of control. I basically have a chronic, low-level headache. Every hot flash makes me worry that if anyone’s looking, they’ll think I’m feverish. Then I think, oh shit—am I feverish?

I’m writing this on Wednesday afternoon, the 18th. Mexico isn’t panicking yet, at least not that we can see. I’m not watching local news, because my Spanish isn’t that good, but I check the embassy website every day, as well as that of the Mexican Health Ministry, because I don’t want to be irresponsible. But even that little bit of information is almost more than I can handle at this point.

My anxiety has been spiraling for several weeks now, and I’ve had to seriously scale back my mental exposure to this thing. I’m trying to find some kind of balance between awareness & obsession, common sense and fear. I’m limiting my Facebook time; instead, I’m trying to communicate directly, via messaging or voice, with the people in my life that I know could use a check-in, as well as the ones who make me feel less alone.

I’ve also set very (okay, sort of very) strict limits on my news consumption—in the morning, it distracts me, and in the evening, it keeps me awake. So there’s a window of about two hours, at lunchtime, when I can maybe scan the headlines, check the statistics, and look at the Johns Hopkins case map. All of my usual podcasts are doing episodes about the virus, so they’re on hold—I’m listening to audiobooks instead. (Fun aside: I have, over the years, listened to a LOT of audiobooks about pandemics. Those are also off the agenda right now—no thank you.) The current one is about a couple of 19th century explorers/diplomats who wandered around in the Yucatan documenting Mayan ruins. They did get sick a lot, but not by coughing on each other, so it’s tolerable.

Perky music is good, and old episodes of Schitt’s Creek. And of course books, for me:  I’m sticking with unchallenging books that also happen to be optimistic and upbeat (currently The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper; last week was The Bookish Life of Nina Hill and The Girl He Used to Know).

Apparently, not every one is quite as freaked out as I am. The town we’re in is full of American vacationers. There are probably a few Canadians, and I know I’ve heard a tiny bit of German, but really, most of the guests are from the US. It’s definitely much quieter today than it was when we arrived on Sunday, but it’s hard to know if that’s just the normal ebb and flow of a hotel. Our last hotel (in Puebla) was also very quiet midweek, and then a huge wedding party arrived, and the weekend was all hugging and kissing and carrying on in the elevator.

Part of me wishes I could feel some of that nonchalance, or at least maybe less anxiety.

Six or eight years ago, the first time Lee went to Cairo, he noticed one afternoon that people were gathering in the street outside the apartment he was staying in. He stood at the window, with our friend who was traveling with him, and watched the crowd grow larger and larger. The two of them grew increasingly concerned that something awful was happening—a protest, or an insurrection, or whatever other awful things American minds can conjure up in a place like Egypt.

It turned out they were just gathering for Friday prayers.

Each of us sees the world in our own way. My feelings are mine to own and to cope with. Your feelings are yours. So whatever you see when you look out the window, be it a post-apocalyptic wasteland, or just a faster commute, know that we’re all in this together. Wherever we are, and whatever stories we’re telling ourselves.

From my writer’s notebook:

I’ve got nothing this week. Not in the mood to contemplate dastardly deeds. Instead, I’ll just be over here looking at pretty pictures of spring flowers and tropical fish. You should probably do the same.

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.

It’s 10pm; Do You Know Where Your Bowls Are?

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

Where we are: Puebla, Mexico, one of the great food cities in this country of great food. Puebla is also known for its pottery, known as Talavera. Don’t mind me; I’ll just be over here gorging myself on chilaquiles, and coveting the table settings.

I wrote the following last year, while we were in Morocco.

On Bowls

It has been interesting, over the last few years, to watch my relationship with things change with my environment.

When we were downsizing, one of the challenges I kept bumping up against in our house was bowls. We had a LOT of bowls. Maybe we just ate a lot of bowl-dependent food? Soup and oatmeal and pudding are three of my favorite things. Bowl food.

But we had to get rid of all those bowls. They were mostly hand made, pottery we had collected, one piece (or eight) at a time, individual pieces of art that made me happy every day. I remember feeling a little bad about the work and creative energy that had gone into all those bowls, knowing that we were just offloading them all like a stack of old newspapers or a pair of worn-out rubber boots. They went to good homes, of course, but I let them go with a vague awareness that the letting go was easier than I’d expected.

Now I eat out of whatever bowl is available in whatever airbnb we’re in, or at a hotel breakfast buffet. I barely notice the bowls (except in Tbilisi, where our apartment only had two bowls—and 32 shot glasses). Mostly, though, a bowl is just an unremarkable vessel for oatmeal. I don’t need it to be anything else.

Most days, my bowls are just a vague memory. I rarely think about them, except occasionally, when I’m looking at a display case full of bowls in a museum.

I challenge you to find a museum that doesn’t contain at least one bowl. They’re what we humans make, what we collect, what we leave behind, and what we assign value as artifacts. They’re everywhere. Gold, silver, bronze, porcelain, wood, clay, marble, brass, alabaster, china—you name it, I’ve seen bowls in a museum made of it.

Sometimes I go to a museum and take pictures of bowls, just in case. My thinking is that if I ever unexpectedly start to miss my bowls, I can console myself with pictures of meaningful, important bowls, the kind that connect us to our shared human history. The reality, though, is that I text the pictures to Lee and make jokes about how I used to think giving up my bowls would be a loss, rather than the freedom it has actually been. 

I tell myself it’s emotionally healthy, that I’m a proper minimalist, that I don’t need any more than what I can carry. That I’ve found nobler sources of beauty than the greedy acquisition of stuff that marked my old life. That I don’t need retail therapy—I can go to a museum, any museum, and gaze fondly at all of human history, summed up in bowls. Most days I believe it.

But really, who am I kidding?

I’m walking around Essaouira drooling over babouches and lamps and little boxes decorated with this spectacular handmade marquetry. I want them all.

Mostly, though, I want the bowls. Stripey bowls and flowered bowls and bowls with every intricate, swoopy geometric pattern you can imagine. Pink and lilac and turquoise and apricot and the palest daffodil yellow. Tiny little bowls with perfectly matched miniature spoons, for salt and pepper, perfect for a spring dinner party. Big bowls that would hold the dough for bread to feed a family—my family—for days. I WANT ALL THE BOWLS.

From my writer’s notebook:

Last October, a multinational operation (called Pandora III, which I think is kind of awesome) targeted the illicit trade in cultural artifacts, confiscating something more than 18,000 items (some of which must have been bowls).

What’s interesting about this, in my mind, is the methodology: undercover officers “searched auction houses, art galleries, airports, archaeological sites and private residences . . .”

That’s not exactly Indiana-Jones-style swashbuckling, a fact which I find intriguing. Mysteries are all around us, right under our noses, just like bowls.

(Quote from The Art Newpaper; if you want the full citation, let me know. If you want to point out my lazy lack of proper MLA format, don’t bother—I’m aware, and I’m still lazy.)

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.

Going local

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

Where we are: We’re currently in Guatemala. Today we’re off to see the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikal; I’ve always wanted to see them, but going at this exact moment in my life may prove to have been a mistake. I fully anticipate dying of heatstroke. We spent most of the week in El Salvador, where I found our hotel about as comfortable as a hair shirt, so I thought I’d pull out a rant I jotted down this time last year, at another cranky-making hotel, in Fes, Morocco. Also, occasionally I need to remind myself that being cold is a real thing.

Going local

I like to think we’re the kind of deliberate, thoughtful people who are careful to put our money into the local economy, but sometimes we just stay at the Hilton. I love a Hilton. The Riad we’re currently in? Definitely not a Hilton. I’d give up my right arm, or maybe even one of my children, for a Hilton right about now.

For starters, it’s cold. Everything is tiled and high-ceilinged, and so very cold. It’s beautiful, but so. damn. cold.

Because it’s a Riad, and these are historical buildings, designed around an internal courtyard, there’s little-to-no natural light. This is the second one we’ve stayed in, so we got smart this time and asked for a room that opens onto the roof-top terrace, so we have some outside light in the middle of the day, but the nicer, internal rooms, and the communal areas, have only artificial (read: dim) lighting.

In other words, it’s cold and dim. Welcome to the 19th century. Have you ever dreamt of going back in time? I hope you like sweaters.

Our room has one of those useful pod-style coffee makers, but no pods, no cups, no glasses, no drinking vessel of any kind. We ran out of toilet paper this morning. The shower leaks. The only chair is a straight-backed wooden torture device that discourages actual sitting. The safe is locked; we can’t get it open in order to use it. Breakfast is sort of . . . whenever. Turns out that means whenever it’s convenient for the staff. Yesterday it was white bread, in four different forms. I have to trek down 2 flights of stairs to get more hot water after every cup of tea. Mostly, though, we’re just cold, and those of us who are sunshine-dependent are getting a wee bit cranky.

Sometimes authenticity is highly overrated.

When we first arrived in Morocco, we spent a month in Essaouira, a small town on the Atlantic coast. We had a beautiful apartment in a brand-new building, fully furnished by IKEA, with all the modern conveniences. Our balcony looked out over the corniche, and the beach. The weather was a bit chilly, but we had several space heaters. It was not a problem. It was also completely generic—we could’ve been anywhere in the world. IKEA has that effect. We certainly weren’t in the medina. We wandered through the medina every day, and that was enough.

We’re currently debating where to stay when we go to Lima in a couple of months; Airbnb seems like an excellent bargain there, but then we go back to the weather forecast, and kick it around some more. We have no idea what to expect in Peru, but I know my limits, and in case I had forgotten them (sometimes I do), the last few days in Morocco have been a pointed reminder. If the weather is going to be cold and damp, we’ll probably be happier if there’s at least a chance of some kind of heating system.

Our desire to go local, stay local, be authentic is all well and good until the wheels come off, & “authentic” bumps up against the edges of our tolerance. Hot water is one of our necessary items. Local people don’t have hot water? I’m very sorry to hear that, but that’s where I step right off the “local” path and revert to my own authentic identity: privileged white lady, just passing through.

From my writer’s notebook: Because we’re in Maya territory at the moment, I’ve been reading a book about the two white explorers who ‘discovered’ Maya culture in the 19th century, John Lloyd Stephens (who later worked on the Panama Railway) and Frederick Catherwood. Stephens, it seems, ‘bought’ the Mayan city of Copan (in Honduras) for fifty dollars, intending to move it, by ship, to museums in the US. Luckily, his plan didn’t work out, but so many similarly reprehensible schemes did. That’s why we now have European and American museums stuffed full of antiquities, while the actual countries they were taken from are left with little-to-none of their own cultural/historical patrimony. And the battles rage on . .  .

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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