Cows, Tigers and Boars! Oh My!

Cows, Tigers and Boars! Oh My!

Getting to the Ranthambore National Park felt like entering a ticket line at an amusement park. There was one road that lead through the city and lining the streets were trucks painted in a plethora of colors, bright and festive like carnival stands. Boars wandered through the gutters and cows were parked in front of buildings with yellow bindi marks on their foreheads. The animals served the role of the actors dressed as cartoon characters, wandering through the manufactured streets, waiting for their photo op. 

img_7085img_7091img_7230

We had been picked up in topless jeeps from our hotel and from curving roads, to stops and starts in traffic, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I was only waiting for the giant cobra to rear its head and dive for us on a shaky bridge road. Instead I was headed towards the next best thing: Tiger spotting in the jungle.

img_7089
Concession Stands

img_7093

As the city passed behind us, the one road turned into a landscape of large boulders, sparse green plains and cracked earth. What kind of jungle was this? We lurched up the hill than dropped down the other side of the mountain, emptying at the entrance to Ranthambore where we paid our entrance fees through our driver and continued to sidle in our jeeps on through to the real show, the jungle itself.

img_7102
Entering the park

img_7099

Finally the landscape was changing. There was tall green grass, more trees, thickets and bushes. Wild animals started to be spotted. A peacock unfurled it’s tail like a giant blue fan. Spotted deer gamboled through the trees nibbling on grass. Birds flitted in and out of mud puddles. Was this Bambi or the Jungle Book? Where were the tigers we paid to see?

img_7154

img_7137

Our guide, Raj, warned us that on some trips there wasn’t a single tiger spotted. We were in the wild after all. It might feel like an amusement park but amusements were not guaranteed. There was no way that they could ensure that a tiger would be seen, we could only follow drivers hunches and where other guests had spotted something a day or two before. Unlike the Serengeti, this jungle ride was not as sprawling. There wasn’t a large savannah reaching in all directions around us. We had only so many roads to follow.

img_7122

We ended up in a line of jeeps, trailing along a river on a dirt road. There was only one path to follow, a track so to speak, and there were signs that this track was the right one.

img_7161
Tiger footprint spotted

Suddenly the jeeps ahead started to slow. We stood up and peered over the top of the metal bars, whispering between our two jeeps. What was it? Why are we stopping?

“Tiger,” someone spoke from up front.

The jeeps fanned out in a line so that everyone could get a view. Directly in the middle of the dirt road, a large tiger lounged, taking a nap and stopping all vehicles.

img_7165

img_7170
Any position to get the perfect photo, even straddling between two cars.

We got our cameras out and shot like it was nobodies business. This was big game hunting, the catch of a lifetime. A real Bengal tiger in the wild. The drivers refused to get any closer. This tiger was the biggest one in the park and his name was the Cruel One. Rumors said that he got this name because he was the only tiger to have ever attacked anyone in the park.

Was this story true or just something the drivers told us to make the trip feel dangerous, making our visit special in some way? Was every tiger the Cruel One? I don’t know, but it worked. We gaped at the large beast as it suddenly rolled upwards, yawning in a large circle and stretching its limbs like a lazy house cat.

The Cruel One lumbered up and began to walk down the road. The engines of the jeeps roared to life and slowly we inched closer, keeping the same distance between car and tiger but following him down the path nonetheless.

The tiger moved to the side of the road. He stopped, he turned slightly and squatted over a mound of dirt on the side of the road. The tiger took a dump right in front of us as if saying, this is what I think of you and your jeeps and cameras.

img_7181

After a sufficient amount of picture time, the drivers decided that it was time to go. We wouldn’t be able to make our way past the Cruel One so each jeep had to do an intricate reversal and head back out the road we came on. As we made our way out of the jungle, a pilgrim walked through the woods with his belongings balanced on his head. Apparently there was a pilgrimage site dead in the jungle and for religious reasons, those who sought it were allowed to travel freely through the park. The drivers warned the man that a tiger was just down the road but he didn’t seem to care or hesitate. Barefoot, he continued on down the road, making his way to make his blessings.

img_7198

On our way out, we made our own blessings. As we idled in the jeep waiting for a herd of spotted deer to move across the road, we reflected on seeing an actual wild tiger. Had this just happened? Was this a hologram? No, this wasn’t an amusement park after all. This was the real thing. A buck with giant horns stared us down. It was time to move on, we were beginning to overstay our welcome.

img_7210img_7219

We exited the park and on our way out of town, we spotted children on rooftops flying kites. It was like the end of the day at Disneyland where children queue up to watch the fireworks at the end of the night and the characters parade down the road. Only we were the characters, we were the ones being watched as we drove out through the city. We, too, were part of the show. 

img_7228

img_7229

Sleep with the Fishes

Sleep with the Fishes

It was about the size of a golf ball, translucent, purple rings concentrated in the center, like small little tussock bellflowers. The water was a bit murky, clouded with sand, but there was no denying that the thing bobbing at the surface was not trash, it was a jellyfish.

img_2364
Moon Jellies. Photo by ArielleJay on MorgueFiles

We were staying in a resort at the docking point of Ao Muong Bay in Ko Tao, a world famous snorkeling site and the beach was all ours. It was before 9 a.m., the tourist boats started arriving each day around 11, unloading hundreds of people onto a beach that was only about 100 feet long. Mornings were our time to try to beat the crowd, be the only people in the water swimming with the wildlife.

img_8060
Before 11 a.m. © James 
img_2623
After 11…view from our balcony

Only the full moon and the tide had different plans for us.

“James, there’s jellyfish.”

“I think we’ll be fine. We’ll just go this way,” he said walking around the other side of the pier, snorkel in hand.

Hmmm…curious. But I let fear stop me in the past, many times over and I thought why not let his confidence buoy me up. We would be fine. And I wanted to see those fishes. After all, aren’t some jellyfish fine to swim with. Maybe these little guys would be of that variety. Ignorance is bliss right?

I stepped in. So far so good. No jellies. The water was clear. The sun was coming out from behind the morning rain clouds. This was going to be okay. My goggles were on, snorkel in mouth and I was off.

There were little electric blue fish that popped against the brown and green rocks. Bright orange fish that looked like plastic toys that could be found in a child’s bathtub. Large parrotfish  nibbled the rocks below us, the crunching sound echoing through the water. Skinny angelfish cruised between rocks and coral. There were flat, skinny fish, translucent with only a thin line of neon yellow racing along their side. They were almost invisible and it felt like a treat when they came into focus along the bottom of the ocean floor.

We were taking in the sights. Enjoying the calm of the water, still the only two people to be floating around this patch of paradise. Maybe we had been in the water for twenty minutes, no more, when I heard a popping sound in the water. It got louder and started to fill my ears, like Rice Krispies when milk enters the bowl. Then suddenly I felt a searing pain on my arm. I shot up, treading water to stay afloat. My neck hurt, my arm. The jellies!

James popped up at the same time.

“I’ve been stung!” I yelled then magically propelled myself back down into the water and took off like a torpedo from a submarine. I could have probably matched Mike Phelps with the speed at which I swam to get back to the shore. I saw little white spots of light start to form in my eyes and I started to worry that I might pass out in the water. James wasn’t far behind and we both made it to shore, no fainting. It seems he had been stung as well.

I had a giant white welt slashed across my upper left arm like a whip lash. My neck was covered with small red dots. A similar rash was spread across James’ torso at various locations. The jellyfish had attacked after all.

An attendant of the hotel came over to fix our umbrella and James motioned to our stings trying to ask the man if they’re the type of jellies that kill you. The man looked confused. James made the motion of slicing through his throat, you know, the universal sign of being killed, whacked, put to death, sleep with the fishes, then pointed to my arm. The man shook his head and said no and kind of laughed, walking away, leaving us with our self-inflicted injuries. He was probably thinking, “If you chose to go swimming with jellyfish, you deserve to die. Darwin Award.” But you know, in Thai.

We laid on our beach chairs admiring the view and licking our wounds, so to speak, when we began to notice that no scuba boats showed up that day, no water taxis full of tourists looking to snorkel. Apparently we didn’t get the memo that today was not the day to go in the water.

img_7928

Later that night, I woke up with a start, convinced that I had been stung by an eel, as well as a jelly. It didn’t make sense that I heard electric popping. The sting on my arm was much larger, one solid oblong shape and white while all the other stings were small red dots spread out like a rash. I had to have been stung by something else. I searched and searched on the web but could find nothing about what an electric eel sting looked like. They didn’t even seem to live in Thailand so that removed them from the location altogether. It was just one mean jellyfish. I later learned that it was a moon jellyfish, one of the most common jellyfish to be stung by. 

The next day the jellyfish seemed to be gone. We took the early morning boat over to to Koh Nang Yuan. The water was the temperature and color of a bathtub. We paddled about, took pictures, laid in beach chairs for 75 baht a piece (you can’t use towels as it will take the sand away from the beach–or so they say) and decided to go snorkeling. The coral was mulch, just shredded under people’s feet in one long gray coral boneyard, but somehow there were still fish swimming about and munching on the leftovers.

img_8001
Koh Nang Yuan devoid of people. So lovely before the onslaught of bodies.

img_8002

We cruised out towards the scuba divers and suddenly (irrationally) I heard the popping sound again. I was traumatized, hearing things that probably weren’t there and freaking out. Later that afternoon, I was determined to brave my fears. Our “private” beach was full of tourists again, everyone splashing about in the water. Everywhere I turned I saw jellyfish, or what I thought was jellyfish. It was just the detritus of a busy tourist day, plastic trash bags or plastic food coverings of one sort or another were bobbing in the water. On previous days I had tried to scoop anything out that I had found, but this was too much and it was making my heart race every time I spied one. I went to the shore. I would be safe at the shore.

img_8015

And the shore gave me a treat. A school of small silver fish were swimming in circles right between the water taxis. I could sit in the water and they literally did circles around me, every time I reached a hand out, the school would conform and push it’s collective body out and away and then come back again like there was a magical barrier that protected the fish from me. Sparkles of yellow, green and blue would glint off their silver scales. The circles they did made me feel like a Disney princess in an underwater tale, like they were going to spin so hard that I would rise from the water and flick my hair back while being held aloft by their sheer numbers. It was beautiful and mysterious and magical all at the same time.

I’ll never know where that popping came from, and I’ll try to remind myself that jellyfish come in at the full moon in the future, but I’ll forever be thankful for the little glimpses I got of ocean life before I was stung. I will also be extremely grateful for the fact that it wasn’t the type of jellyfish that makes you sleep with the fishes…permanently.

Featured Image by Agarianna on MorgueFiles

Race to Gaggan

Race to Gaggan

It was 5:35 pm. We were standing on the corner in front of our hotel. A wall of cars in front of us, not moving.

I tapped the Uber icon again, the car spun in circles, not moving from the same spot, just spinning in space like an icon that tells you your computer is slow.

He was so close we could walk to him. But then what, sit in the car for an hour, not moving, waiting for everyone in Bangkok to leave?

Our reservation was for 6 p.m. at Gaggan. The number 1 restaurant in Asia. The 23rd best restaurant in the world. The one that I had emailed for weeks and called at 1 in the morning multiple nights in a row from America, trying to get a reservation after seeing it featured on the second season of Chef’s Table and learned that I would be traveling to Bangkok.

I made sure I booked our hotel within a safe distance of the restaurant. Without traffic it would have only been five minutes away, but nothing was moving. All my punctuality nightmares were coming true.

My boyfriend used his American phone to call long distance and let them know we would be running late. This is a restaurant that times dishes for a three hour seating. There is no late.

A man answered the phone, “How long are you going to be?”

“Thirty minutes.”

James was answered with silence.

“Realistically 30 minutes,” he repeats.

“Try to get here sooner,” the man hung up.

I canceled our Uber. I would try for another. 8 minutes and spinning. I watched the minutes creep by and we were still on the same corner. All the cars were moving in one direction but the road on the other side was completely empty as well as the direction we needed to go.

We crossed the street and I hailed the first empty tuktuk that passed by. I had my map at the ready. “Here. Can you take us to here?” I point to the restaurant on my Google Maps app, “Gaggan.” All the taxis drivers in Thailand always want to call the place that you are going and have someone explain to them in Thai where they have to go. We didn’t have time for that. We needed this tuktuk driver to know Google Maps.

He looked at the map. He nodded his head.

“How much?”

“400 baht.”

Way too much, but I didn’t care. We hopped in and started down the road, my hope that while not as fast, a tuktuk could maneuver between the cars like a motorcycle.

A minute later we were stopped again. A new wall of cars. Another blockade of traffic. There was a wide gap between two cars, motorcycles flooded all around us with girls in miniskirts hanging off that back.

“Can’t you go between them I asked?’

The driver just laughed then turned his motor off and waited like he had all the time in the world.

“Why go so far?” he asked in the rearview mirror. “Good places to eat here. I can bring you.”

“No, no we have to go to Gaggan. We have reservations.”

He just shrugged and calmly turned back to stare at the rear lights in front of him.

I watched our non-movement on Google Maps. Our driving trajectory was still thirty minutes away and it was already past 6. I switched it to walking. We could literally walk to the restaurant in twenty-five minutes. I looked down at my nice dress, my heels, thought about the hour I wasted getting ready, doing my makeup. Could I do it? Could I really run to the restaurant in this Bangkok humidity. What other choice did we have?

We came up with a plan. We would walk until we got to the next clear road, the blue one only five minutes away, then hop in another tuktuk until the end of the park and walk the last five minutes. Easy.

“We’re going to get out.” I told the driver. We had only made one turn and had maybe been in the tuktuk for five minutes, at most ten, not even half way, not even a quarter to where he was suppose to take us. “How much?”

“300 baht.”

I have never been a haggler. I hate haggling. I understand the concept but I have never in my life been able to confidently do it.

Until now.

“What? You said 400 for the whole way. We haven’t even made it half way. I will not pay 300 baht.”

“200.”

Every minute that I spent arguing was a minute wasted.

“Fine.” I pulled out the bills and we hopped from the cab into the stream of, essentially, parked cars and began our run down the road. James took my hand to pull me out of the way of another onslaught of motorcycles. (I can never get that driving on the opposite side of the road thing down–always looking the wrong way.)

As fast as a pair of Tom’s heels could take us, we ran down the tourist-crowded streets. Me muttering under my breath at old white men to get out of my way and him checking to make sure I don’t get myself ran over. At a six lane intersection we turned back to take the pedestrian overpass and I clipped my ankle on a pillar. I couldn’t concentrate on the pain but as we made it to the clear street without a taxi or tuktuk in sight, I could feel the ankle start to swell.

We kept moving, turning to look back every few feet. Is there a taxi yet? My dress was soaked with sweat and clung to my chest. We just had to keep moving. It was already 6:30.

Would they give the reservation away? Did people wait for cancellations like buzzards circling a fresh kill?

The park ended. The final street was in our sights. We could do this. We could run through the streets of Bangkok from our hotel all the way to the number one restaurant in all of Asia. We had to. What other choice did we have?

We were so close. I watched our blue dot move closer and closer, two minutes, one minute…we passed it. We turned back, in an unassuming alley was the large sign reading “Gaggan.” We were there.

At 6:45 p.m. those doors pulled back and air conditioning never felt so good. Not one but four people greeted us, laughing at our spent breath, our soaked clothing. They happily took us to our table and brought us chilled, wet towels and the first starter, a pickled plum soda with cherries. It was the best thing I ever tasted, not because it was Gaggan, not because it would cost us 200 dollars a head, but because we had worked so hard to get there, because we wanted to be there more than anything, more than the pain in our feet, more than the price to our clothes or our dignity. We wanted to eat at Gaggan enough to run through a city to get there.

I propped my swollen ankle up against my other leg, sat back, had a chug of water and a sip of wine, and I enjoyed every single one of the 18 dishes we were served over the course of the next three hours. Because I could.

13920364_10154422420326882_6153545375383219878_o
A few courses from dinner
13988022_10154422427261882_848732516207322793_o
A dish named “Charcoal”

Side note: We later surmised that we could have rented a ride on the back of one of those motorcycles as if it were a cab and probably should have done it. We also saw another group of girls come running into the restaurant late and equally soaked so we weren’t the only ones and it must be a common occurrence with the regular traffic of Bangkok.

New Vibes

New Vibes

Hello Everyone! I am freshly back from my vacation in Thailand and between the bombings that rocked the country, my slew of injuries and the different experiences that I had over the two weeks, I’m not quite ready to process the experience and synthesize anything for this format yet.

That being said, I thought I would take the time to re-brand, in some sense, since it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything.

It’s only been five months since I started this blog (Whoa! Not that long but still kind of amazing how the time flies) and I’ve been blown away that you, the reader, are actually reading it. I may not have thousands of followers (yet 😉) but the fact that the number of people following the blog keeps increasing, never ceases to amaze me. So thank you!

I have learned a few things since I started. One being that I wasn’t that great on continuing to suggest a book tied to the country I was visiting. I think this has something to do with not wanting to do more work in this arena outside of my day job. It felt too stressful and not the part I looked forward to each week. So I will no longer be doing that, not that I was anyway.

The other thing I learned was that by keeping myself to a weekly deadline, some posts would be inherently better than others and that I have a tendency to default to what elementary teachers would call potty humor. I’m not saying I won’t continue to do this but it has made for some interesting conundrums when thinking about fellow colleagues reading the post, parents of my students or possibly even the students themselves. But I am a librarian, so freedom of speech and access to information takes priority. While I may be aware my content isn’t kosher for everyone, I may not stop writing with controversial comparisons either. We’ll see.

So how shall we move forward? I would like to hear from you. What have been some of your favorite posts so far? What did you like about it? What countries would you like to hear more about or do you want to hear about countries I haven’t written about yet. On my travels around the world I have been to Italy, Greece, France, Australia, St. Marteen and more. Maybe you’d like to hear about some of these places. Let me know.

I also try to shy away from itineraries and travel suggestions as this site is more about sharing an experience through writing than the alternative (and there are so many other bloggers that do that sort of travel writing better than I do), but if you would like to have something more in the form of a list of places visited or what I liked when I was there, you can tell me that too and I’ll consider it for a mid-week post or something to put as a resource on the blog.

I’ve also gotten these really cool business cards. The first ten people to leave me appropriate comments about what your favorite articles were and why and what you’d like to read about next will receive a signed photograph and business card.

IMG_8151IMG_8152

Well, I hope you keep reading and traveling. I hope to hear from you all in the near future! Until next time…

Madonna and the Whores

Madonna and the Whores

Disclaimer: All photos taken on my phone. I apologize for the static and blur.

The girls were all wearing cowboy hats and glitter spread across their cheeks. They had cropped halter tops and plastic pacifier necklaces straight out of a 90s rave, only this was 2016 and we were nowhere near a DJ. It was a Wednesday night at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo and the party girls were hitting the empty dance floor alongside two couples in their mid-late 60s doing intricate line dances in their high-waisted denim. I asked one of the girls if their outfits were for a party and she said, “Every day is a party and we’re ready to party,” while not discreetly rubbing her nose. I have never done coke and I had to wonder if this was one of those coded references to gage whether I was “cool” or not. Without a response from me on my level of partying, the girl followed her two friends to the bar to park herself on a pink vinyl seat and wait for five other skinny blonde girls in equally strange outfits to join them.

IMG_5851
Paparazzi of the paparazzi

 

I became obsessed with finding out how they had come to be at this roadside attraction dressed the way they were. Was it a bachelorette party? A reality tv show with hidden cameras? I let my friend Instagram while I leaned in closer to the bar and eavesdropped with all of my hearing capacity. One of the girls told the bartender that they had been their for a modeling shoot. Was it legit or was it porn? They had that special brand of seediness that was either girls on drunken holiday or sex worker.

IMG_5846

 

One thing was certain though, the Madonna Inn was the perfect place to find them. It had a mixture of nostalgia, kitsch and a special brand of loneliness that can only be found in dive bars in cities that have no real industry. People huddled in dark corners or whispered over their shoulders, the customers were all slightly large like images one conjures of Middle America. But all of this was surrounded by bright pink leather, fake grapes hanging from ceilings, large rock fireplaces, and hidden gum ball machines. It was like the hotel was one large 90s rave, taking itself a little too seriously but only to those on psychedelic drugs.

 

We had found out there would be dancing in the bar when we checked in for our one night stay at the Madonna. My friend once tried out for So You Think You Can Dance and teaches salsa classes and I am an ex-cheerleader so we had a certain type of club level dancing in mind that was instantly shattered when we entered the Dionysian bar that night. The music was from a live band and it was of the swing and blues covers variety. One of the couples dancing was celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary and had met in the pink dining hall of the Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse on that very dance floor. I tried to imagine what it must have been like 40 years before, at its height of popularity. Was this a destination? Did young men and women come here to mingle, to meet their future mate? Was this still the case? Did the party girls know something I didn’t know?

IMG_5857

My friend and I did our own twirl or two around the parquet floor then headed back to our Sweepstakes room for the night. I found myself slightly disappointed. I had come for kitsch and wanted kitsch to the max. There were a few paintings of racing thoroughbreds and curtains with horses on them. Part of the wall looked slightly like a stable and there were old lanterns surrounding our bed, but that was it.  I was hoping for a faux-horse hair sofa or a chair made out of a saddle. There should have been trophies lining the walls and images of jockeys. The walls should have been large stripes of bubble gum pink or lime green. The sheets should have been satin. I was paying for the experience to be overwhelmed by the over-the-top. This was underwhelming at best. The brochure tells us that the Madonna Inn has “whimsical decor and a timeless elegance.” The timeless quality is apparent but without a visit to the more expensive suites, I had yet to see the whimsy my heart desired.

 

Alex and Phyllis Madonna dreamed, designed and opened the inn in 1958. The Inn is still family-owned and operated and it has the feel of a legacy that you can’t touch, that you aren’t allowed to touch.

IMG_5879

Keeping tradition alive seems to be important at the Madonna, and it should be. The Madonna wouldn’t be the Madonna without it’s strange little quirks and it’s unprofessional aesthetic. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I don’t want more. Keep the spirit of the original but add something that goes even further to each of the themed rooms. Go big or go home, right?

IMG_5830IMG_5856

My friend had childhood memories of the place so when we soaked in the hot tub with a family that makes a special trip every summer, trying out different rooms, the enjoyment of the hotel made that much more sense. A bed housed in a boat would be the coolest thing you experience that summer or sneaking into the boys’ bathroom to pee in the waterfall urinal would be a thrill you would remember the rest of your life. In a 1982 New York Times article, Aljean Harmetz shared “Some guests come for a week and change rooms every night. The first woman to sleep in all 110 rooms took seven years and finally made it in 1977. Several others have done it since then.” There’s something reassuring in that what made the hotel so odd during the year of my birth hasn’t changed since then. 

IMG_5868
The Men’s Room, infamous for the waterfall urinal designed by Hollywood set designer Harvey Allen Warren

Personally, I loved the cakes.

IMG_5893

The Madonna is also famous for it’s pink champagne cake, a monstrosity the size of your head that looked like the skirt of a Barbie doll on it’s way to a Gone with the Wind themed ball. It was covered with shavings of white chocolate, half of it dyed pink. Apparently there was a pink chocolate shortage (who knew such a thing existed) and the pink cake was temporarily on hiatus. Behind the glass case in the Copper Cafe there were other giant confections from yesteryear. A german chocolate cake. A toffee cake covered with broken pieces of something that looked like a Butterfinger bar. Lemon and cherry cake with perfect Maraschino cherries resting on top. This was my cocaine and I was happy to dive in. We bought four slices, each in a different flavor.

IMG_5888

When our checkout time arrived, we packed up my car, parked right outside our door like the true motor lodge that the Inn really is. In the morning sunshine, there was no sign of a troop of girls in iridescent bell bottoms and cowboy hats. The sun washed away the strobe light vibe of the hotel and left a patina of barnyard and pink gables instead. This was a family affair and you could see that in the daylight. Maybe one of the girls met their man of 40 years on the dance floor that night or maybe one or two just met a John. Either way, we were all embraced by the loving arms of the Madonna family that night, welcoming us into their 110 room home.

Rosé and Cigarettes

Rosé and Cigarettes

Warning: Not to be read by those under 18. Do not do as I do! I mean it, I’m looking at you. Don’t even think about it!

IMG_8025

I made it 30 years without ever smoking a cigarette. I was very proud of this. In high school I would thumb my nose at all the smokers and feel very holier than thou when I announced that I would not smoke, did not smoke, that not one cigarette had touched my lips. In college, I was a loner. I didn’t smoke cigarettes and the only reason to go out into the snow at 7 pm at night in Boulder, CO was to smoke a ciggy and I would not do that, so I was alone.

And then there was Portugal.

Oh Portugal. Europe on the cheap. Who needs the French Riviera when you can have the Algarve Coast?

I was traveling with my work friend Caroline and we needed a well-deserved break from the school year. And what was the best way to relax, by drinking rosé and smoking cigarettes on beaches in Lagos, in parks overlooking orange rooftops in Lisbon, in al fresco restaurants in Cascais.

IMG_8360

Cigarettes were everywhere and I needed them. They went perfectly with sardines and potatoes. They complimented our chilled wine while we were warmed by sun on our shoulders. They circulated why we played card games with Germans and Italians in hostel backyards. I couldn’t say no and I didn’t want to. I was a chain-smoking queen.

2014-07-04 17.53.38

2014-07-06 14.13.24

I would love to say that this piece has a moral to the tale. That I learned that my lungs were heavy with tar and I couldn’t stop coughing for a week. That I felt my skin getting loose and my breath tarnished with cigarette taste for days. I would be amiss not to think about the death of my grandfather from lung cancer and hang my head in disgust. While all of this is true, that is not this piece.

Instead, cigarettes became a lesson in mindfulness on my Portugal adventure. They slowed me down. They made me appreciate the moment. I could just be. Just sit and experience everything in a heightened sense of awareness of this one particular instance of time. It was now and would always be now and I damn well appreciated it. I was doing nothing other than tasting the Tremoços, peeling their skin off with my teeth.

2014-07-08 18.32.21

I was sucking miniature snails from their tiny little spiral shells, letting condensation run through my fingers as I held a glass of wine in the heat, feeling my legs grow warm as my feet sunk into the sand of yet another beach. Each cigarette kept me locked in that moment, slightly high on the heat, the wine, the heady hit of the tobacco. I was here, in Portugal, enjoying the small pleasures. And what pleasures they were.

 

2014-06-29 11.51.16

In Porto, we wandered into a charcuterie restaurant for dinner then meandered down a cobblestone side street to have one last drink for the night. By the time the drink was over, a band had started playing fadó and suddenly the small room was packed with dancers.

On a wine tour of the Douro River Valley, we were taken to a small boutique port vineyard and were handed apricots straight from the trees. They were the sweetest things I had every tasted until we were ushered into a small house from the 1800s and escorted into the parlor where skinless plums shaped into balls were waiting for us. I thought I would never stop eating those plums. But then I had the bread, with the cheese or the olive oil, it didn’t matter, both were delicious especially paired with the ports that varied from white to a deep blushing red.

IMG_8088

IMG_8083

IMG_8114

IMG_8112

In Albufeira, we sat by the ocean and ate large chunks of fish from a stew called caldeirada. The briny broth trickled down our chins and we laughed as the waiter tried to translate all the different seafood we would be eating in our stew.

2014-06-29 21.10.24

I had my first taste of pastéis de nata with a coffee by the seaside port of Lagos. I had avoided it for days but the yellow egg custard pastry was surprisingly refreshing after a night of drinking and for the rest of the trip I would make sure I got one every day.

IMG_8387
This is specifically Pastéis de Belem

After a long afternoon of walking the Alfama, we stopped at a nondescript restaurant and had grilled octopus in a butter and lemon sauce before making our way back up the hill to the Bairro Alto for drinks at Pharmacia while the sun set and waiters brought blankets over to warm our bare legs.

2014-07-08 20.36.46

Outside at night in the beach town of Cascais, I accompanied a Brazilian guitarist at our hostel with Sublime covers. My favorite phrase to say was “Caracois in Cascais” after a local Portuguese man boiled up some snails and had us eat them for the first time. And through all of this, we were accompanied by cigarettes and a summer rosé.

2014-07-07 21.39.16

Would I do it again, just as I did then? Yes. Do I allow myself to smoke cigarettes now? No. They are not the same. I don’t know if it was the Portuguese tobacco or just that summer, but I never get quite the same feeling anymore. It’s not worth it. Could I have enjoyed the small pleasures without them? Probably. But at least for now, I can say I truly had the European experience.

2014-07-04 20.50.40
How uncomfortable do I look holding that thing?

 

Rather than a book suggestion this week, I offer up a movie for your perusal, Coffee and Cigarettes by Jim Jarmusch.

We Were Here: A photographic essay

We Were Here: A photographic essay

 

We reach Sigiriya and there are signs everywhere warning us of hornets. Each sign shows scared, cartoon-like men racing away from the finger print of hornet wings.

IMG_7796

 

IMG_7809.jpg

This impending sting attack has us on our toes and every buzz sends a tingle up my spine and adds an extra jaunt to my step. We needed it too, because we have 750 steps to climb to make it to the top. I don’t necessarily have a fear of heights. I have a fear of falling from rickety things or open ledges. A fair amount of these steps are screwed into the side of the rock and spiraling up the cliff face, trapping us in with a metal cage around the outside.

IMG_7824

We were here.

The Sigiriya Frescoes, around 7 painted ladies, bare chested and pinching flowers between their fingers adorn the protected wall on the side of the giant rock. These murals have survived 1500 years and display only a small sampling of the supposedly 500 wives the King Kasyapa kept in his harem. I don’t know if any of you watched Big Love but juggling 3 wives was hard enough for Bill Paxton’s character. I guess if your water palace is on top of a 660 foot rock with a 114 foot statue of a lion as an entrance, 500 wives doesn’t phase you. The women were other-worldly and slightly alien in their green hue. Their full-orange breasts reminding us there must have only been one fashion style for the wife of a king on an island that reaches 86 degrees at the height of the summer (#naked).

IMG_7820IMG_7819

We were here.

Now, the war may have kept tourists out of the country for the last 30 years, but this wasn’t always the case. The mirror wall has graffiti from tourists dating back to the 9th century. We weren’t the first ones peeping these lady paintings nor the first ones to be marking up walls with our thoughts. At least in the past, the entries were a lot more poetic than “Nicole 4 Eva” but that’s not to say there wasn’t the 11th century’s Sinhalese version of “We were here” either. Some phrases are as old as time and forever applicable.

IMG_7826

And then there were the paws. Oh the lovely ginormous paws.

IMG_7829

Ruins are fantastic. I love being able to imagine what something looked like from the past, but even more so I like seeing the real thing. I’m glad the paws are there, but I’m not going to lie…I really wish the full lion still existed. It would be like one of the grand entrances from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones when you see the Braavosi statue standing over the waterway. I want that. I want that in real life. I suppose these paws are the closest thing to that. At least in the shadow of their claws, you can feel the presence of the full statue, the magnitude of it’s size and the awe it would have struck in visitors to the fortress.

IMG_7831

I felt it even more so when trying to descend the stairs that were no better than a loose ladder and kept seeing myself plummeting into the lion’s grip like a cat toy being batted from paw to paw.

IMG_7847

We were here.

And then it was over. We took our pictures. Made peace signs in front of the paws like the Japanese tourists in front of us.

HS_38455
© Michael Goode

Snapped shots of the painted ladies and shots of other people taking shots.

IMG_7823

We snacked at the top of the fortress and looked out over the water gardens below, gazing on the manicured lanes and the giant Buddha statues.

IMG_7841

We made our way down the 750 steps and out past the ancient rock walkways strewn with yellow petals.

IMG_7854

We reminisced about the time we spent looking at carvings of elephants at the Isurumuniya Temple in Anuradhapura.

IMG_7635IMG_7642

We pondered whether or not the bodhi tree was really grafted from the tree Buddha found enlightenment under and whether or not Buddha’s tooth was really being housed in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy.

IMG_7655IMG_7928IMG_7934IMG_7961

We stood in the chilled caves of Dambulla and crooked our necks at the ceiling, covered with ancient paintings to rival the Sistine Chapel.

IMG_7717IMG_7723

We ate as many rotis we could get our hands on at the Agricultural Market and rode on the back of an elephant.

2013-07-29 02.58.13

And then…

MillenniumElephant-3
© Michael Goode

We were gone.

I have yet to read it but if I were to go back to Sri Lanka, I would grab Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje as my beach/train read.