I was a fifteen year old bridesmaid at my cousins Robin and Jeff’s wedding. A skinny teenager in a chocolate velvet and satin gown with a sweetheart neckline that hid my flat chest. The newlyweds took six months off and packed their backpacks – off to India. They explored the subcontinent and took striking photos that still hang on their walls today – nearly twenty years later, as the eldest of their three boys prepares for his Bar Mitzvah.
A few years later, ready to bust out of my awkward teenage life and see the world, I headed to Costa Rica on my first backpacking adventure. Robin lent me her backpack for the trip – a green canvas Serratus front-zip with two side pockets and smaller zip sections on the front. Fifteen years and dozens of adventures later, I am still carrying Robin’s pack. She has travelled the world with me and has seen me outgrow my awkwardness and become a confident, mature woman. It’s time to bring my baggage back to the motherland: back to India. I feel as though I am taking an elder statesman on a final tour of duty.
Robin’s pack has held my stuff in diffefent climates and continents. We have hiked in Australia and hitchhiked in Iceland together. Travel buddies and boyfriends have come and gone, but she has been my constant companion. In 2002, fragile and worn out in a Genoa train station at 3AM, I huddled behind her bulk while a man raced down the platform pursued by fierce police dogs.
Twice she has been lost in transit. In 2008, Robin’s bag arrived two days late in Lisbon, and I spent the afternoon in H&M acquiring a new wardrobe courtesy of Air Canada.
In 2004, she disappeared en route to Belize. I whiled away a long Caribbean day with some smiling Rastas who worked for the airport hotel, listening to music and acclimating to the lilting patois in their tin roofed shanty. Meanwhile, my mother frantically called the aiport and airlines. She located Robin’s bag at Pearson, never having taken off because the baggage tag had been zipped inside the flap that covers the straps to prevent them from getting caught in the conveyor belt. I had to head upriver the next morning, having arranged to WWOOF for a month at Maya Mountain Research Farm near Punta Gorda. Luckily a previous volunteer had abandoned most of her torn & filthy wardrobe in the bedroom above the open-air kitchen. A week or so later, Robin’s backpack arrived in a dugout canoe, pushed upriver by our Mayan neighbours.
But the backpack is no stranger to canoes. Summer after summer, I paddle and portage her around Algonquin Park, then hang her in the Canadian summer sun to to air out the smell of campfire and damp.
She has scars and stitches, missing buckles, and a few mysterious stains. In New Zealand in 2011, I stored peanuts and muesli bars in the side pockets. While I slept in my tent on the Abel Tasman trek, hungry birds pecked through the heavy canvas for a midnight snack. This past year in Bali, she hung in the closet of my bamboo house at Green School growing mould.
In January, I left Bali with my partner Scotty Ze to take this journey to Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Nepal and, at last, India.
I nearly parted with Robin’s pack when I bought a knockoff Northface 75L in the market in Phnom Penh. The new bag looked flash, but the straps dug, the material was thin, the frame buckled in the hollow of my back. So I reloaded old Serratus, with everything in its right place. Books and rarely accessed items at the bottom. Ziplocs full of clothes next. Shoes in one side pocket, toiletries in the other, and various sundry items (leatherman, headlamp, tampons, sewing kit, chargers) in the small front sections. And I checked her in for the flight to Chennai.
I know it’s just a thing. A dirty old bag with a blue ribbon on its handle and a pink fake flower safety pinned to its lapel like a rumpled old dandy. Stitched, faded, worn and stained – a deterrent to thieves on Indian sleeper cars. But while I have lived in Toronto, DC, Byron Bay, Montreal and Bali, Robin’s Bag has been a constant home. My hermit crab shell when the ocean of the world swells around me. Offering logic, comfort, a place to sit and rest on a dirty sidewalk.
So almost twenty years after she took her maiden voyage, the old dame is back in India. Maybe I should abandon her to float down the Ganges, toward some life beyond this corporeal existence of endless lugging and straining. Or maybe Robin’s backpack still has one more canoe trip in her…
I’ve been home for exactly two months now, and I have something to say to all my friends in faraway places: I don’t miss you.
Sure, I sometimes laugh out loud walking down the street, when I think of the time we nearly drowned bobbing for apples. Or the time we scoured the grocery store for mac and cheese dressed like someone’s fairy godmother in drag, then threw in some turmeric because the cheese wasn’t orange.
Every time I ride my bike, I think about how you sang at the top of your lungs as we pedaled through town with roadies. How we navigated our little pink rental car through the rain and fog.
It’s not that I forget the way you’d sit in silence on your balcony watching the boats in Darling Harbour. Or the way your voice formed otherworldly sounds in the shed-temple in Goonengerry. I have no trouble recalling the way you looked, calm and smiling as a Buddha as the Indian ocean crashed around us at Canal Rocks, and I can still taste that last pavlova at the Augusta Motel.
But I don’t miss you.
That phrase has been rendered meaningless by overuse. Friends I haven’t seen in a week, because we’ve both been busy with work and life, text, “I miss you.” Don’t take this to mean I love you any less, but that’s just not true. What really bothers me about “I miss you” is not so much that it’s often thrown about without meaning, but what a meaningful usage of the phrase implies. It implies that somehow my life is less than complete when I don’t regularly see all your beautiful faces.
I wish the time differences weren’t so extreme, so we could talk more regularly. I wish I could definitively say that I’ll see you again soon…or at all. But I am my whole self, whoever I’m with – or without. One of you taught me that knowing you’ve got a loving group of friends, rather than tying you physically to the people you care about, instead frees you up to be a bit nomadic. Having good friends in lots of different places keeps your heart rooted as you move around.
Last week, I was driving home from the cottage alone on a Sunday evening. Bob Dylan’s “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind” came on – a song I’ve heard hundreds of times but never really listened to. I played it twice and really listened to the lyrics:
Perhaps it's the colour of the sun cut flat and covering the cross-roads I'm standing at. Or maybe it's the weather, or something like that, but mama you've been on my mind. I don't mean trouble please don't put me down or get upset I am not pleading, or saying "I can't forget you". I do not pace the floor, bowed down and bent but yet, mama you've been on my mind. Even though my eyes are hazy and my thoughts they might be narrow where you've been don't bother me, or bring me down with sorrow. I don't even mind who you'll be waking with tomorrow; mama you're just on my mind. I'm not asking you to say words like yes or no please understand me; I have no place I'm calling you to go. I'm just whispering to myself so I can't pretend that I don't know: mama you are on my mind. When you wake up in the morning baby look inside your mirror - You know I wont be next to you; you know I wont be near - I'd just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear as someone who has had you on his mind.
That last line really gets me. Some of you helped me to see myself more clearly than I have in years. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been trying to keep that self-image in sharp focus before the light gets all blurry and warped with stress.
I hope my friends are as fully engaged in whatever they’re doing – be it working in an ADHD clinic, getting it on with a Dutch chick in the Balkans, or practicing violin in a campervan – as I am in my present life.
Here’s hoping we meet again…but in the meantime, you’re on my mind.
Whenever I hear Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now,’ I am transported to the early 1980s, a passenger in my mom’s old copper Audi. I hear her trying to mimic Joni’s range as I rest my forehead on the window and superimpose images of ice cream castles on the storefronts of my Toronto neighbourhood. Some people change keys for effect…my mom is not one of them. But despite her less than perfect pitch, this song was a gift my mom gave me. Its lessons on perspective, on change, on “tears and fears and feeling proud” have comforted me throughout my child and adult life.
Now I am behind the wheel, and both the clouds and the lessons are more real. I just got back from a whirlwind two week trip to New Zealand. True to form, I booked a flight without researching my destination at all, and left it up to the fates to colour in my sketchy itinerary.
I was feeling heartsore and weary after six months spent away from home depending on the generosity of friends and strangers. All I knew was that I needed to look at love and life from both sides. I figured that Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand meaning something like, “land of the long white cloud,” was the perfect place to do this.
Now, let’s get one thing straight: depending on others is not a bad thing. I was all down on myself for a while about being such a “taker” until a wise friend told me, “You’re not taking, you’re receiving.” For the last year, I have been receiving primarily through Couchsurfing.org. For those of you who don’t know about CS, at its most basic level it is a social network where people all over the world open up their homes and offer travellers a place to stay. There is no money involved, and no expectations on either end besides a safe space and a cultural exchange. Beyond that, people use it to connect with friends and to share rides, flats, activities and advice.
It has opened me up to places most travellers never see, freed up money for my over the top cheese budget, and provided valuable cultural exchanges with strangers who quickly become lifelong friends. My CS friend Lisbeth laughed at me when I told her it affirmed my faith in humanity, but I swear, this is not an overstatement. Couchsurfing has made me feel at home anywhere in the world.
Anywhere, that is, except New Zealand. I spent my first four hours in Auckland killing time and returning every once in a while to the lobby of my hosts’ building, pressing their (broken) buzzer. Finally, feeling abandoned, hungry and really needing to pee, I checked myself into an unfriendly and overpriced 8 person dorm room that smelled like 8 pairs of damp hiking boots. Strike one.
I consoled/distracted myself by deciding to go buy myself a proper meal. I speak 5 languages (badly) but am reluctant to use them. But I was feeling so alienated in Auckland that when I heard Hebrew (from a block away), I clung to it like a lifeline and turned around to ask the approaching posse of dreadlocked Israelis if I could join them for what turned out to be an incredibly entertaining sushi dinner.
I spent a half day in Auckland visiting the Art Gallery and wandering around “Auckland’s hippest strip,” grabbing a coffee at Agnes Curran and fish & chips on Ponsonby Rd. It was nice, but I wasn’t feeling the Auckland love and was excited to get out into the countryside.
The next night I was supposed to meet a French CSer in a coastal town called Tauranga, where we were going to begin a 4 day road trip around the North Island. She had arranged hosts for us in a few towns, and had her own car. All I had to do was pitch for gas and keep her company. I showed up in Tauranga and my host was waiting for me. Male, mid 50’s, a bit sketchy looking, and right off the bat he tells me “Your friend isn’t coming tonight.” Strike two.
I made sure to suss him out over falafels before agreeing to go back to his farm. Turned out to be a solid guy with no ulterior motives, lives on the family farm next door to Ma, sponsors Latin American kids through WorldVision…totally trustworthy.
My road trip buddy showed up the next day, all smiles, and we headed off. We visited the thermal pools at Rotorua, did a couple short hikes, drove through a relatively depressed part of the country with a large Maori population, wished it wasn’t freezing and rainy as we cruised along the beautiful beaches of the East Cape and Bay of Plenty, took pictures in front of a giant kiwi, and surfed with some wonderful hosts in Opotiki and Gisborne. She taught me to drive manual in her old beater hatchback, which it turned out was dangerously low on oil.
It was pleasant enough, but the weather was crap and I was itching to be in control of my own destiny. I headed down to the South Island with a brief stop in Wellington where I surfed with a super classy host who fed me vegetable mash and recommended some excellent but inexpensive local wine. Before catching the Interislander ferry, I checked out the impressive Te Papa museum and had a great lunch at Fidel’s on lively & colourful Cuba St.
The mid-afternoon ferry ride was gorgeous. I stared out at the blue water of the Cook Strait as one of my favourite travel themed songs, Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al” ran through my head.
A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the third world
Maybe it’s his first time around
I arrived in Picton & grabbed my car – a sturdy mid-1990’s navy blue Nissan Sunny sedan. For some reason I instantly felt like her name was Penny. I rolled down the windows, turned on the radio and experienced a moment of serendipity as “Call Me Al” struggled through the static. I was so relieved I started to cry as I cruised toward Nelson and on, beside the setting sun, toward Motueka.
A few highlights:
I did part of one of NZ’s Great Walks in Abel Tasman National Park, camping in the rain but waking up to sunshine that warmed my toes and dried my pack. Unfortunately, on that stunning hike I forgot my camera in the car and am still waiting for my new friends to send me their photos when they get home to Bourgogne and Manitoba.
In Hokitika, I camped at a small seaside hostel and was moved by the sunset on the beach. Sometimes cliches are still powerful. The town itself was totally weird – dead quiet except for the ubiquitous jade stores and the quirky Sock Making Machine Museum. The hostel had a cosy fire in the living room and I made friends with a German woman who kept me company for the drive to Franz Josef the next day.
In Franz Josef, I decided to forgo the expensive glacier tours and to do a couple of independent hikes. The first one was a 5 hour hike, a lot of which was up a poorly maintained rocky trail. It too slippery in the rain and I was afraid I’d lose sunlight considering I didn’t start until 2pm. When the only other people I encountered on the trail decided to turn back, I did the sensible thing and turned back with them. I was disappointed but as a solo hiker (without proper gear) it’s best to play it safe. I took my time getting back, bonding with the moss along the way.
Then I set out for a shorter hike to the foot of the glacier (actually a disappointing 500m away from the foot of the glacier), where I jumped over the rope to find a private rock to sit on and have a moment with Bjork, the queen of glacial music.
At Milford Sound, Fiordland (sic) I splurged on an all day kayaking excursion, where I paddled past sunbathing fur seals, waterfalls, glacial peaks, and a cliffside shadow that was a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen.
We hiked a short part of the Milford Track and saw a fuschia tree whose fruits ferment and get the bush pigeons drunk. We also moved as quickly as possible through the place considered by Maori legend to be the birthplace of the sandfly.
The week was a blur of negotiating hairpin turns in the dark, waking up early to hike, and taking breaks whenever I turned a corner and was gobsmacked the views. I waded into many freezing turquoise streams and restocked my fuel and food in many underpopulated towns.
At 5’10, I push the upper limit of car-sleepability, and I dutifully tiger balmed my aching knees every morning after sleeping scrunched up across the back seat. I lived on PB&J and apples, smelled like a hobo…but I was free. I was alone by choice, operating on my time, following my inner compass. I talked to myself, saying some things I had never uttered out loud. On a few occasions, I made myself laugh; just as often, I made myself cry. I had imaginary conversations with unattainable crushes. I pulled over to scribble down lines of poetry or to draw images that popped into my mind.
In other words, I spent a week with my head in the clouds. Literally and figuratively. I saw Joni’s ice cream castles at sunrise from the lighthouse at Cape Foulwind. I saw clouds that looked like they were designed by Zaha Hadid from the ferry across the strait. The little fluffy clouds perched atop the southern alps looked like my Auntie Pearlie (z’l) after a visit to John the hairdresser. Others looked like they had been placed there simply to accentuate the vivid blues.
Both Sides Now
I reluctantly returned the car in Queenstown. Having fully inhabited it, it took a while to clean my stuff out of all the pockets and compartments – rocks and shells, maps, scribbles on scraps of paper, peanuts and smelly socks. I met my CS host in town and went to his place for dinner. It was St. Paddy’s day and Queenstown had been green since the pubs opened. I had to go out for a Guinness or two – when in Rome…
By midnight I was bored and starting to get self righteous and cynical about the drinking culture, so I took my host’s keys and let myself in while he stayed out to party. I was awakened at 3:30 by him, quite drunk and trying to force himself into my bedroom. When I told him I was uncomfortable, he cursed and yelled at me and threw me out on the street. Strike 3.
After a week of feeling strong, independent, and in control, I fell into a place of fear and darkness. It was deeply upsetting. Even though I had stood up for myself and refused to take any blame for this horrible situation, I still felt disappointed in humanity and upset that no matter how confident and experienced we are, female travellers are always vulnerable. It’s unfair that I can so easily be made to feel unsafe, uncomfortable, defensive, and objectified.
I started to wander into town, gripping my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket and sobbing. As I pounded on the door of a hostel, a woman walking home from her bartending shift approached and asked if I was OK. I told her what happened, and she took me home, poured me a glass of water, and gave me a warm and safe place to sleep. Mary and her roommates offered me to stay on with them but at this point, I did not want to depend on people anymore, and checked in to a hostel the next morning.
My energy was slowly rising, and was boosted by some of the great people I met in the hostel – Irish brothers who shared a civilized dinner of green lipped mussels, and the two middle aged women in my room who sat cross legged on the floor until midnight talking and laughing about life’s ups and downs.
The last couple of days were transit days. My only experience of Christchurch is sleeping with all the other backpackers on the airport floor before catching our early morning flights.
New Zealand was exactly what I wanted. The lows kept me in check, reminded me that life isn’t all well-maintained trails opening up to dazzling blue vistas. Sometimes we slide downhill in the freezing rain, and arrive to find clouds obscuring the view. Abusive jerks make us appreciate that most strangers are kind and trustworthy. Loneliness is a reminder of how important it is to be self sufficient. We need both sides to appreciate how good life can be.
But don’t take my word for it; I really don’t know life at all.
Getting out of bed this Monday morning felt like stepping into a vast canyon of time. For hours I wandered, listening to the echo of my footsteps and watching the tumbleweed roll past. All of a sudden it was Monday night and I was pulled out of my shadowy canyon by a tribal belly dance class.
I’ve been working weekends and my weekdays stretch out ahead of me full of possibility but utterly devoid of purpose. I spend hours searching for jobs, catching up with people at home, and trying to stay focused on the journey and not let aimlessness spiral into depression.
Almost a month has passed since I arrived in Sydney, and while some days I don’t feel like doing anything, I can say with certainty that there is still tons to explore even in my little inner west neighbourhood. The best way to get out of the canyon is to race straight up the rock-face on my darling little purple bicycle, whom I finally decided to name Violet Velo (elle est une bicyclette francaise, bien sur). Purple has never been my favourite, but with Violet Velo and the jacarandas in full bloom, I’m gaining a whole new appreciation for the colour that used to be associated with Barney and fat kids’ sweatsuits.
Violet and I explored Newtown’s alleyways this week and discovered street art ranging from the pop cultural to the political. I don’t know any of Sydney’s street artists yet but I am starting to recognize people’s styles and with a little old fashioned googling, I think I can attribute this little one to Ears:
Cruising next to the train tracks along Bedford, I stopped at the corner of Chelmsford and couldn’t help smiling at the sheep of a different colour on the rainbow facade of the Twenty10 building, a community organization that provides support and a safe space for LGBTQ youth and their families.
Continuing on, there’s a monochrome coffee coloured mural by Syke with some verses from Howl, reminding me that even if I do sometimes find myself in a canyon, madness gets much deeper:
I did a bit of digging on the door pictured below and turned up this article about Lisa Marie Smith, the fugitive daughter of a wealthy British insurance exec who was accused of drug smuggling in Bangkok in the 90’s. According to these signs she is now living in Newtown under a different name.
There are also these little plaques commemorating people and events in Sydney’s queer history. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of them around the city.
On we rode, Violet and I, looking at stencils and and posters and Where the Wild Things Are murals, down laneways full of beautiful garbage, and through back alleys that even on garbage day still smell more like jasmine than trash. It’s all good in the hood with my new best friend. She’s a bit quiet, but I think we have lots of adventures ahead of us.
It’s hard being new in town. When the few friends you’ve made are otherwise occupied, you have a choice: sit around on facebook and think about how much fun everyone is having back home, or get out and do something on your own. Thursday evening I was in a negative state of mind: bored, purposeless, and lonely. I was aware of all kinds of things going on around Sydney but had nobody to go with. I sat on my new mattress in my windowless room getting bummed out, and finally made the executive decision to get out of my head and onto a train heading downtown.
I got off at Central and walked to Darlinghurst to check out a market. On the way, I found an amazing store called Reverse Garbage, a non-profit co-op that sells industrial discards to the general public and runs workshops teaching people about landfill diversion and recycling.
I had a ball rummaging through the lampshades, polyester banners, wires, helmets, tiles, and fabric scraps. I dropped $3 on a halloween costume – I’m going to be a bag of coffee. I’m going to make a dress out of a burlap coffee sack (organic and fair trade of course) and then I can tell all the boys that I need a little sugar.
Next stop was my original destination, which was a bit disappointing. The Eat & Meet pop-up market was pretty quiet in the rain. There were a few food stalls offering vegan laksa, ethical fro-yo, paella, and some delicious chutneys. There was a DJ spinning and some artists doing their thing, but it was grey and rainy and I didn’t stick around long.
I wandered along Oxford St. through Darlinghurst and Paddington. Thursday night here is the only night stores are open past 5 pm, so I browsed some of Paddington’s boutiques and bookstores before heading to a gallery opening at Kind Of Gallery. The solo show by Aoife Milson was called Trout Mask Replica Replica, a series of paintings and drawings that the artist created while listening solely to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica album.
The gallery’s website describes the result as a “conversation between Beefheart and myself…documented through the production of my art. Belief systems that become relate-able, beef systems that are rebate-able, this becomes a reaction to Beefheart in all his glory.” The paintings were large scale, played on iconic holy family compositions with fractured neon geometric patterned halos and of course, tout masks. Beautiful people drank beer and mingled, and I shrunk right down into myself feeling like a stranger, but mostly feeling hungry.
I finished my night with a $10 carb & grease overload at Mother Chu’s Taiwanese Gourmet in Chinatown. The place was busy, looked clean enough, and the golden Yu Tiao beckoned me from the font window. I had a peppery hot & sour soup and an order of Yu Tiao, which are are deep fried breadsticks (like Chinese churros) wrapped in a chive pancake.
I felt a bit less lonely saturated with carbs and decided to call it a night. Of course, as soon as I got on the homebound train, a friend called telling me she was in Paddington…
Two great new dairy discoveries today in Sydney:
Enjoyed some passionfruit & mango yoghurt on Bondi Beach. The crunchy seeds are so satisfying!
A few hours later, after meeting a friend for really spicy Thai food in Newtown, I went to check out an apartment in Enmore. I made all kinds of discoveries walking down Enmore Rd….live music (and real live Mexicans – a rare sight in Sydney) at El Cuervo Cantina, belly dance classes at the Newtown Middle Eastern Dance Centre, and a few good looking restaurants – from authentic Indian and Turkish places to foodie hot spot Pickwick’s.
Even though I was not remotely hungry, Cow and the Moon artisan gelato was so darn cute I had to step in and browse the flavours. I was sampling strawberry & balsamic, pear & lychee, and having a grand old time when the girl behind the counter asked if I wanted to try her favourite…lo and behold, I have discovered SPECULAAS GELATO!!!!!
Speculaas are Dutch biscuits, crisp, caramelized, flavoured with cinnamon and ginger. This summer, we discovered speculaas butter (looks like a jar of creamy peanut butter, tastes like cookies – molecular gastronomy at its finest) at Albert Heijn in Amsterdam. I loved it so much I bought a jar to take home, knowing that it might tip the scale and make me pay overweight. Worth it.
Cow and the Moon’s speculaas gelato is more subtle – crushed cookies in a creamy base. Like I said, I wasn’t even a little bit hungry, but I had a long commute back to Bondi ahead of me so I sprung for a small cup. Worth it.