My best friend Don

During my time touring the US, I found a job in a hostel near Miami. I am not going to lie, that was one of the worst jobs ever. But I stayed anyway, for the people. Being an employee in a hostel is a wonderful social experience. Yes, it’s tough because you have to say goodbye a lot. But you get to meet so many cool people, and you have the special power to be the one who regroups everyone because you are the person everyone knows. I hung out with all kinds of people there. My new best friend from Sweden with cool tattoo sleeves and a shaved head. The dude with an eagle on his chest and a record. The Florida guy who was taking a vacation from the Zombies. The Swiss dude with the long hair, smoky voice and Harley Davidson. That young American couple who went food shopping for me and put little notes all over my stuff. That sweet German guy who used to cook me pasta. But the one I want to talk about here is the particularly odd one.  The unlikely friendship.

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Street art in Miami

There was this older dude. He was kind of living at the hostel, kind of living in his van. He was using our showers and eating at our tables. Always shitty food, always by himself. That looked lonely.

So I started to ask if I could sit at his table, a little, in the evenings. And when he got comfortable enough, he started talking. He was a sweet man. But OH MY, the things he had to say.

He talked about aliens. Area whatever, instruments of some kind that allowed him to see and recognize things we couldn’t see or recognize. I was amazed, and kind of fascinated. I mean, it sounded completely insane but at the same time it was such a caricature.  You know, of these Americans we make fun of on TV.  With the tin foil hat and whatnot. He told me about famous psychics that he knew. How he was some sort of channeling master. How one of his girlfriend got pregnant (and then un-pregnant) by an alien. How he participated in the dismantlement of a prostitution gang with his shaman friend from Louisiana. Sometimes I listened, fascinated by that level of craziness, sometimes I was uncomfortable and shot desperate glances at the eagle dude so he would come and save me. But all in all, I loved my talks with Don. He was sweet and alive in his ideas. I could tell he really appreciated our time and the company, and that made me glad. And you know what ? When I had to leave, who drove me to the airport ? Was it the cool motorcycle guy ? The eagle man who was hitting on me the whole time ? No. It was good old Don. I didn’t ask for anything. He just got up in the morning and offered to drive me.  That was the sweetest thing. He deserves to have his story told. The odd ones are always the best ones.

Mystical Angkor and tuk-tuk driver love

First article published on a travel website ! Check it out here !

I don’t remember how I ended up in Siem Reap in the first place. It wasn’t in the plan and I don’t remember it ever being on THE LIST. But here I was, in the middle of the jungle, in the middle of the temples, drinking it all in. Cambodia really took me by surprise. I didn’t quite expect the mystical of it all, the adventure feeling of the jungle, the quiet splendor of lost temples from forgotten times. Nor did I expect the simple kindness of the people, the dignified politeness, the sincere sparkles.

Now, it’s already been established that I am not a touristy person, and that a thousand people in my face is closer to my vision of hell than anything else. So it won’t come as a surprise that Angkor Watt was not my favorite part of the trip.

IMG_20150716_173050What I really loved and appreciated, what really spoke to my soul at Angkor was the quiet ruin of it all. The silence of the jungle gaining on what humans had once conquered. The mystic of the trees growing on top of walls and monkeys sleeping where monks once lived. I didn’t feel any of that at Angkor Watt. Thousands of tourists with loud clothes and selfie sticks prevented any kind of feelings beside annoyance. And the temple in itself was one of the more “clean” and well preserved one. No trees there, no jungle wining back its turf. It was old stones and I didn’t see anything special in it. But temples like Ta prohm really took my breath away. Torturous trees growing through walls, on top of roofs, destroying it all oh so quietly and slowly. Nature takes its time but will always conquered what was hers. And then there were places with more trees than walls, completely conquered by the jungle, very remote, my favorites. You just get a special feeling. Being somewhere unique. I liked all of the smaller, less impressive temples, where sometimes I was by myself. You just hear the ruffle of the leaves and the creatures moving out of sight. You hear your footsteps in the sounds of the jungle. You climb inside the temple, or the walls, through the windows and you feel quite alone in the world, discovering something all by yourself, with nothing but your tiny backpack and water, your military pants sticking to your skin, sweat dripping down your back, the air hot and moist around you. Delicious adventure and quiet contemplation. I remember sitting in the middle of what used to be a room, completely broken down by the trees, with absolutely no one around and thinking : how can I stop ? How can I choose to go home and stay there. And not see all of this. Not explore more.

Now, the second thing I think about when  remembering Siem Riep is my tuk tuk driver. The only way to get around the temples was to hire one. He would drop you at the entrance, you would walk around, do your thing, and he would meet you at the exit, ready to take you to the next temple.

My tu tuk driver was AWESOME. He was so cute and adorable, so happy to pick me up every morning at my hostel. The tuk tuk drivers all had hammocks in their tuk tuk and they would all takes naps while their client were inside the temples. My one big dread was to find him sleeping and having to wake him up … But it never happened. He was always ready right when I came out, driving up to me and waving “Mary, Mary !”. I loved him for it, I didn’t have my glasses and I would have been lost otherwise. He told me that he liked that I took so much time for each temple, people usually went in and out. And on the last day when all the temples were visited, we sat for a while and he told me about his life and his family and his two jobs. He was really sweet, my favorite person there.

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Texas and the complexity of the hospitable South

I had a very strong opinion of Texas before going there. It wasn’t even on the plan but somehow I got talked into it. And I can honestly say that I loved Austin. Houston not so much. What I really want to talk about is my special evening with my new Texan friends. In the end, they were kind of everything I was told a Texan was supposed to be. Both good and bad.

I was drinking a beer with my new friend on the back porch when her husband came home. And he looked at me and said “you are drinking my beer ? On my back porch ? Chatting with my wife ?”. A pause, and then, with a big smile and a tap on my back “ah, you are FAMILY now ! if you ever need anything you can always call us”. And that’s all it took. From then on I was their best friend. They took me with them on the birthday diner, and I slept in their daughter’s bedroom, and somehow I ended up going out partying with them and their friends. And that night says it all. I arrived there and everybody was insanely friendly “you come from EUROPE, woow, what are you DOING here of all places ? You want a drink ? Let me get you a beer”. And asked cute questions and were interested in what I had to say. Drove me around, paid for my drinks, were just so completely and perfectly lovely. And this is the south. The south, in what I experienced of it, is full of kind hearted people, ready to drop everything and help you out. Opening their homes, cooking heavy food for you, telling stories. It’s about belonging to a community and the simple stuff in life.

But south is ALSO the rest of that evening. “So, I heard you didn’t have a real good opinion of Texas before coming ? How come ?”. Well you know. Back where I come from we always think Texas is the worst state. You know with guns and … “Guns ? Yeah, guns are important. I mean I have 4 of them upstairs. You got to be able to defend yourself”. Mm, ok. And then it was a lot about all those immigrants coming in to steal their jobs, even though they come to collect the food stamps in Cadillacs (“every one of them I swear !”). I was asked if I had a boyfriend, and then, with a suspicion frown, if I had a girlfriend. Then they talked about the confederate flag and even between themselves they were not quite clear on whether or not it’s ok to have it in your garage.

I guess what I am trying to say is, I really loved my experiences in Texas, and in the South in general. I found people absolutely lovely, so ready to help me out, so open and lay back. But that evening made me wonder if I was able to experience all those things because I was a cute, white, young female. And I just wondered for a second if my black, Mexican or gay friends would have as much good luck here as I did. And that made me sad.

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Street art in Austin, Texas

Surfing in Mexico, winning the battle

I always thought surfing was cool. It’s all about the ocean, and that definitely speaks to my soul. It is about braving the waves, spending time at the beach, getting salty hair and sandy toes. I love, at least in parts, the philosophy of surfing, the lay back attitude, the chilled out spirit. I spent a whole year in Australia, THE country for surfing, and yet I didn’t get the chance of trying. I spent a lot of time in California and still nothing.

But when I made it to Mexico, the water was so blue, so warm, so delicious. I was told it was the best place for learning since the waves were smaller and still you could surf on them. My new best friend was up for it and one day, we got down to the beach and just rented two boards.

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I think you could right away guess what our level of success was going to be by watching me helping my friend carry her board to the water because it was too heavy for her. That first surfing for me was basically an hour of getting beaten down by the ocean. Hanging on to my board for dear life, and just a general unwillingness to give up. A lot of surfer dudes type were coming up to me and asking “you all right ? I surf, you want me to give you some pointers ?”. And I would just generally reject everybody saying “I’m fine, I’m fiiiine”. And I would get back on that board and wait for the next wave and paddle paddle paddle, and fall down, and underwater, and get hit by the board in the ribs or the legs, and spit salty water, and pant, and moan. And still, I would get back up on the board and paddle away. After an hour I managed to KIND OF get up on the board for some seconds, and I’m pretty sure that counts.

Exhausted, my friend and I gave back the boards, sat up on those swings at the beach bar and started ordering a steady flow of Coronas.  Victory tasted de-li-cious.

The next day people were asking me with a shocked expression “what HAPPENED to you ?!”. I had bruises and cuts over 70% of my body. I didn’t care. That’s battle scares. Mexico was only the beginning of what I imagine will be a long and brilliant life of surfing.

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To dreaming big and screw ups. We’ll always be the next big thing

I’ve spent my life making choices. We all have. And yes, I’ve chosen to leave right after my studies, take to the road, discover the world. And yes, those years made me who I am. They made me fearless and open minded, flexible and not afraid of getting dirty, happy and creative. Now I am back home, trying to figure out what to do. It feels like I have spent months sending resumes to vaguely media or communication jobs. Not really enthusiastic about any of it, but still, I wanted to give it a fair shot. Yes, I have panicked, and looked at the next ticket for Bali, but this time I am not running. I want to travel some more, but I don’t want to be back home at square one.

It feels like I’m spending my time apologizing. Apologizing in my cover letters for those years of wanderlust. “Yes, I have traveled, but it made me bilingual”. “Yes, I have traveled, but it made me flexible”. Apologizing to my family and friends, “well, yes, I do want a job, I’m not finding one. Well, no, I would not like to have a job right here forever. It’s all temporary isn’t it ?” Apologizing for not wanting to stay here. Not having a saving account for my future apartment. Not wanting to get married before I’m 30. Not settling for something that I do not want.

“Well, you have to realize, this is real life now”

Real life. What the heck is real life anyway ? Is real life coming home from work and watching tv while playing candy crush ? Is real life being in a relationship for the last 10 years and having nothing to say to the other person anymore ? Is real life saving up to buy a house ? And suddenly, after 7 months of it all, it just came to me. Like a revelation. Like I snapped.

I’m done. I’m so done. I’m done apologizing. I LOVE my choices. I don’t regret a single one. I refuse to stop dreaming big because everybody else is pulling me down. I refuse to apologize for having seen the world. For wanting more out of the whole experience. This is who I am. Come on, some people make it to being movie stars. Athletes. Astronauts. Why can’t I just want a little bit more ? A little bit more than working at a shitty real estate job because that’s all I can find ? A little bit more than diner with the same people over and over again ? A little bit more out of life.

 

What the hell am I doing here ?

I talk a lot about the beauty of traveling, about what a magical experience it is, about how everything folds into place. And mostly, it does. You just have to trust your lucky star, and always keep moving forward.

But don’t get me wrong, there were a couple of moments, during my time on the road, where I wondered, for a mere second really, what the HECK was I doing.

For example, I remember distinctively arriving in Cambodia. I was pretty exhausted after a six hours stopover in Singapore. I was emotionally on edge because I just left Australia after a glorious year of sun and beach and making friends everywhere. I stepped out of that airport and the sky seemed to be falling down. It was pouring rain like I’ve never seen it before. It was a couple of months since I experienced any kind of rain in the first place, so that was quite impressive. And I didn’t have time to register any of it because an army of Tuk Tuk drivers were fighting over my attention. I finally found the one send by my hostel. I was embarrassed by my heavy bag, had to repress the urge to explain to him that I was already traveling for over a year, otherwise of COURSE I wouldn’t have that much stuff, I’m usually a light packer I swear.

When my bag and myself were safety inside the Tuk Tuk, merrily away we went. Under the heaviest rain of my life. On the mud roads. The tuk tuk broke down after about 10 minutes and the driver had to call a friend to come and pick me and my enormous bag up and drive us to the hostel.

So, all in all, it was about 20 minutes of tuk tuk driving to get to the city. And during the ENTIRE time I was just looking at the mud, the muddy fields, the people half naked working them, the dogs, the cows passing us buy, the scooter where 4 people would be SOMEHOW sitting, the other tuk tuk full of fruits for the market, the chaos of it all. And I just kept thinking, what in the WORLD was I doing here ?! what was I THINKING ?! By myself ?! I wasn’t really sacred, I was just uncomfortable with my decision. Somehow hearing what my mother would say if she could see me. Wondering if I didn’t bit off more that I couldn’t chew on. You know those few seconds, minutes, were everything is questionable, where you wondering about why you are here, can you really do that, are you strong enough, tall enough, are you not a little bit insane after all ?

And then you breathe in. It suddenly dawns on you where you truly are, and what you are truly accomplishing. That you can’t be nothing but proud. That everything is going to be just fine. Because you are made of tougher stuff. And in the end, you’ll shine that much brighter.

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Buying my first car

When I arrived in Australia, I had a very European, naïve way on how I was going to do things. Like, well, I was going to take the bus, and the train everywhere. Then I realized (especially arriving  in Western Australia), that the distances between cities were hours and hours, that the buses only made it to major populated areas, and that I was due to work in farms and national parks and getting there was going to be way more complicated than anticipated. I was used to everything being connected. I was used to cheap buses, carpooling and always finding a way to get somewhere. I was NOT expecting houses so lost that their mailboxes were completely elsewhere so that the postman could kind of reach them better. To people going shopping in the “big city” once every three weeks because it took two hours to get there. The sheer distances in Australia are mind blowing. It puts everything into perspective.

I realized soon enough that a car was going to be a necessity if I was to explore like I intended to. I could reach the cities with the bus, but the cities were not what I came for. I came for the endless beaches and forgotten tropical forests. For the outback and to truly get lost.

The thing was, I never bought a car. I didn’t know a single thing about cars. I didn’t know what to ask, what to look for, how to not get ripped off. I guess what I SHOULD have done is browse, see a couple of them, ask a bunch of questions, read stuff online.

What happened in real life though was, a friend of my boss was selling his car. I decided to have a look, asked my coworkers to come with me since they “kind of” knew some stuff about cars.

They did everything. They opened the hood, they asked the questions, they even took the car for a test drive since I didn’t really see the point of me driving it (what was I looking for ? What should I try ?). The ONLY question I asked was “can I connect my ipod ?” cause, let’s face it, when you intend to drive 8 hours a day, you NEED music.

I didn’t look at any other car. I loved it for the moment I saw it. My friends told me it looked good, I trusted them since I didn’t have any other choice anyway. Plus, I COULD connect my ipod. So, I bought it.

And that car was and always will be my favorite car. Her name was “Baby”. A little tiny SUV, bright red, so cute and adorable. It drove me through the desert and into the outback. It didn’t look tough but, just like me, it really was. We drove 20 000 km together and I never had a single problem. Selling it was heartbreaking and I refused a couple of dudes because they didn’t appreciate it enough. I ended up selling it to a cool girl, we stayed friends and she updated me on the car. Cause life works out sometimes.

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A thousand lives : My time as a winemaker in Napa, California

Arriving in Napa, California, was a little bit like going back home. Going back to “civilization” as only a European snob can say it. I just came from two months in the south of the US, where, let’s face it, everything is either fried or deep fried. Where all the restaurants are the same kind of joints, serving the same kind of food, with the same kind of accent.

I got there, and it was instant love. It’s just the cutest, most distinguish little town. It’s all European deli with really fancy delicate food. It is restaurants with a “concept”, with a nice decor, imaginative menus. It’s Americans at their snobbiest. The kind of Americans that spend every holiday in south of France or Italy, and talk about wine and fine cheese and traveling. California was for me like being back in Europe, expect sunnier, wilder and little bit more “in your face”.  Napa was the easy lay back small town, with distinguished rich people, talking about culture and being snobs.

It was my first stop in California because I found a job there working in a vineyard. That was always one of the things I regretted not doing in Australia. One of the arrows missing from my quiver. Working in the fields, in wine. The dream.

I absolutely loved it there. My bosses were this couple of retirees who had spent a fair bit of their time traveling in Europe. I would spend my days with my little cowboy belt, working on the vines with my secateurs, cutting the little regrowth so the main vine would have more strength. It was a long and tedious job but painless and easy. And I would work alongside people. Either my boss, talking to me about what we were to eat. My boss’s wife, talking to me about books and movies. Or their only employee, talking about his studies and Mexico.

For lunch the boss would always take me to town, we would go to this fancy Italian deli, buy the best food, come back home with fresh bread and pastrami, delicious expensive cheese and salad. And in the evening after work, if it was a good day, he would open one of his own bottle of red wine, offer me some fancy cheese and crackers, and we would sit there, in the delicate color of the evening, surrounded by vines. I loved the work, I loved the wine and I loved the people. They were brilliant. Old travelers, cultured, with their vineyard in Napa and their beautiful house in San Francisco. They were living the life, quite comfortable about what they had achieved, in what they were doing, and in the glorious and easy future ahead of them. And I just thought, well, I wouldn’t mind being here, quietly working the fields, when I’ll be their age. Winemaker it is.

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No one ever walks : welcome to the US

I will always remember my very first day in the US. I arrived in Florida and worked near Miami. I asked where was the closest supermarket and I was told the nearest Wal-Mart was about 30 minutes away by bus. I asked if I could walk there and I was told “nooo, it’s too long a walk”. On my phone it was about 15 minutes away, so I happily put on my brand new little white shoes and went on my shopping trip.

15 minutes it was but there was NOWHERE to walk. Not one sidewalk, not one bicycle lane, nothing. I walked on the side of a road for about 5 minutes and suddenly I was confronted with two massive motorways. I tried walking by the side of it, a little farther away, in the grass. It was uncomfortable and loud and after about 5 minutes I feel into a puddle of mud, up to my knee. So much for the pretty white shoes.

Then I came to the point where I was forced to cross those motorways. I had to run across them, it was highly dangerous and probably incredibly illegal. I arrived at Wal-Mart exhausted, sweaty and disgusting. And that was just one way.

But that’s the way it is in the US. There is just nowhere to walk because, well, let’s face it, no one wants to. I found that the lifestyle was, for the most part, very lazy. Everybody owns a car there, because that’s the only way to get around. And then their whole system is built around that. I went to a burger place one time, and wanted to go to the ice cream place across the road for dessert, and there was LITERALY no way for me to walk there, I had to take the car and DRIVE those 100 meters.  And since they are driving everywhere, they are getting pretty reluctant about leaving their cars. That’s probably why they have drive-in for everything. And I do mean everything. Drive-in for MacDonald’s and burger king, ok, fine, we have those in Europe. Drive in for Starbucks, well, why not. I mean, the line was always so long that if you would have just PARKED your car, walked out, ordered your coffee, walked back, you would have been 10 minutes faster than just waiting in the drive-in line, but I guess that’s just too much commitment for coffee.

I saw a drive-in for an electric company, so you can pay your bill from your car. Drive-in for the post office. Drive in for ATMs. So you can get into your car and, without once getting up from it, get cash, spend it at the fast food place, get a coffee for dessert and go home. All of that from the comfort of your leather seats and AC environment. Well. After all. Isn’t that what we are talking about when we are yearning for the American dream ?

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Yallaboroo or how I arrived in heaven

At one point during my Australian adventure, I decided to go on a 3 days boat trip through the Whitsundays. That’s a story for another time. It was marvelous, and absolutely exhausting. I’m writing this to tell you about the little things in traveling. Like arriving to a new place and finding it better that you have ever dreamed it could be.

So my boat arrived at the harbor late afternoon. I was exhausted. I didn’t shower for 3 days, my skin was salty and dry, my hair were blonder than ever before, I didn’t like a single person on that boat but for the friend I came with. I wanted a shower, a nice meal, 3 litters of water and to NOT be around people all the time.

20150501_161620But no rest for the warrior, I had to drive 2 hours to my next job. And of course I wouldn’t start working right away. But it’s always the same thing when you arrive in a new place. You have to be “on” all the time. And polite and nice and funny. Make a good impression, present well. Get up and do the dishes, help around, offer your service. And I was just exhausted, and uncomfortable in my skin.

So I drove the 2 hours, didn’t find my farm because of course it was in the middle of nowhere, had to call the people so they would help me on my way.

And then, something wonderful and amazing happened. I was suddenly and instantly home. The house was the nicest, so calm, comfortable, clean. I had my own room and, what never ever happened before, my own bathroom ! And I’m not talking about a shady shower outside of the house (because THAT happened). A full-on bathroom with a tub and a big mirror and made of marble. Now I know that I may seem overly excited over something that is, after all, pretty common. A bathroom. But when you are on the road for as long as I was, you really, TRULY appreciate those things. Not sharing the space with 10 other backpackers showering at the same time as you do. Not having to pack all your stuff every single time you take a shower. Not having to precariously balance your products so they don’t touch too much of the floor if it’s disgusting. Not worrying about the camel dudes barging in when you are in the shower. Your own space. Were you can leave your stuff. That, my friends, is pure LUXURY.

My new boss made me a yummy diner, didn’t ask anything out of me “you just rest darling. You look exhausted”. The conversation was easy and floating. I talked and I listening and none of it was awkward or forced, none of it was politeness, it was instant friendship, and instant ease. My whole body and mind relaxed in those first hours and quite frankly, it was like arriving home. And believe me, when you are on the road for two years, this is a rare miracle indeed. You have to appreciate to the fullest, every comfortable, easy, and fuzzy second.

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