The Only Mzungus At Market Day

Hawkers selling garlic, fresh ginger root, vividly colored fabrics, flip flops manufactured from recycled tires, and second-hand clothing lined the muddy thoroughfares as Rebecca and I soaked up another sensory-laden scene in Tanzania. The steady Indian Ocean breeze didn’t reach the inland market; the sun beat down on my uncovered head (thank you 50 SPF).

When you’re the only mzungus in a place, you’re going to attract attention, regardless of where you are in Africa. (As a side note, mzungu means “those who wander without purpose” in Swahili and is a term applied to just about all white people in East Africa–this is confirmed by both Urban Dictionary and our host Roy). But we were also with Agnes, our host’s wonderful Malawian housekeeper, who had generously agreed to accompany us; luckily, she likes outings and it’s clear she enjoys showing Western visitors the lay of the land. This made the experience a little less intimidating for us.

Visiting local markets is something we enjoy doing in every country we visit, but this one was the only one we’ve been to as the ONLY visitors/tourists/travelers (at least that I saw), and we did attract attention, some of which didn’t feel positive.

It was certainly a strong reminder of what it can be like to be an outsider, a position that privileged white folks like us rarely find ourselves in by choice or chance. And we have chosen to be in this position. There’s little equivalency between our own feelings of discomfort compared to those who have no choice whether or not to be persecuted/critiqued/harassed/questioned based on their skin color.

Imagine being the lone person of color in a classroom, working in a small office, or married into a racially homogeneous (lily white) family. There’s no doubt that skin color is noticed first, versus the other facets that make you human. Over thirteen years in the classroom, I saw assumptions about skin color play out class after class, day after day, semester after semester, both among students and towards teachers–including myself. Educator Rafranz Davis, who was often the only person of color in her classes growing up, sums up the phenomenon quite well:

Anyone that says that they “don’t see color” is lying. If you say that…stop saying it. You do. Try placing one color of skittles in a bowl. Now place one skittle of a different color in the same bowl. Shake them up and I dare you NOT to see the difference first. That doesn’t make you racist. It makes you aware and that is okay. On the other hand, put yourself in the position of “the different skittle”. You are also fully aware that when people see you, they see that you are different first before really “seeing you”.

That is what it is like as the only person of color in the room.

There’s no doubt that the locals at the market saw our whiteness first. It’d be impossible not to. And with that whiteness undoubtedly comes assumptions about wealth, money, etc. In East Africa, mzungus, almost by default due to pervasive poverty, are extremely privileged.

Taking pictures in this market also felt inappropriate, if not tacky. People trying to scrape by and make a living aren’t at the market for foreigners like us to gawk and document. But being in a place like this is also completely exotic for me, and I enjoy sharing our impressions of places and people. I tried to be discreet in taking some of these images and after our excursion, I came across this blog post by Amanda Machado explaining six questions you should ask yourself before taking pictures in developing countries:

  • Are my intentions for this photograph only about myself?
  • Does this photo represent a stereotype of people from this country?
  • If a tourist in my home country took a photo of me in this same situation, would it make me uncomfortable?
  • Do the photos represent people with dignity?
  • Have I tried building a relationship with the person I’m photographing?
  • (Most importantly) Have you asked permission?

During the market trip, I honestly didn’t ask for permission, but I tried to capture “scenes” representative of the feel of the place, and I can say with a little confidence that if I were a random person going about my business in a market at home and ended up in a tourist’s photo, it wouldn’t bother me. Overall, I feel OK about the images I took. And the above list is a good one–these questions are among those that swirled in my head during the market excursion.

The bottom line is this: For Rebecca and myself, being in a non-touristy place in Africa provides endless opportunity to reflect upon our privilege, issues pertaining to race, and what it means to be in a minority group, among other things. There’s no better educational curriculum than traveling on the edge of your comfort zone.

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Working To Live Is Worth A Try

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We try to work enough to pay the travel bills and little more. Here’s one remote “office” we utilized in Oman.

We wake up, and I make some coffee in a French press. We skim the news online, which is sometimes curtailed if the daily barrage of American political madness is too much. We play with Mrs. Norris the cat. I usually drink two cups of coffee and enjoy a light breakfast. I step outside on the balcony to check the forecast, then we settle into our respective workplaces on the large brown sectional couch in my aunt Jane’s Dubai apartment. Depending on what remote work assignments we have, we take care of a few hours of focused work–at least we try. And after a late morning workout, we do whatever we want.

We are working to live rather than living to work. I don’t know how long this can feasibly last, but for now it’s sparking plenty of reflection, possibility, and gratitude.

I know this isn’t commonplace and our current situation comes from a serious place of privilege, as our employment status isn’t a matter of survival and realizing our basic needs. But it also emerged after dealing with fertility challenges in our quest to start a family and also some bold moves–jettisoning half of our belongings, renting our home out, quitting our full time jobs, and embarking on a journey with no itinerary. We had very comfortable lives in Louisville, a small, vibrant, and affordable city. Great friends, good jobs, and benefits.

After all, once you get into the American work grind as an educated professional, everything feels like default. There’s no obvious “opt” out clause: You’re going to work at least forty hours a week, likely having a mortgage or rent payment that requires both you and your partner work full time. Hopefully squirreling money into retirement accounts. The relentless march towards upgrading homes, cars, and toasters.

It has always felt like bullshit to me, at least to an extent.

I don’t like the idea of a constant striving and material accumulation, with the possibility of free time, adventure, or even following a passion being reserved for some distant future, during which old age and other inevitabilities make it less likely to realize these dreams. As Rolf Potts encourages in Vagabonding, you can “take control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.”

Accordingly, I’ve always admired those bold enough to live off the grid, embrace minimalism, or leave desk jobs to become organic farmers, among other lifestyle choices. Even the tiny house movement has some appeal to me, though this escapist fantasy comes with plenty of challenges.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone on a default “American Dream” path–had we gotten pregnant and had a two-year old child right now, I’d probably put health insurance, future college and retirement accounts on a higher pedestal. Due to our love for travel, I suspect we’d be considering what it might look like to live abroad, even with a growing family, but who knows? There are long term world travelers with kids out there, and that’s awesome.

While it’s highly possible that we’ll reinsert ourselves back into a version of the “grind” sooner rather than later, traveling has opened up new thinking about what it could look like when we settle again more permanently. Will we both try to have full time jobs? Since we own barely any furniture, would we really want a large apartment or home and the cost/stress of filling it up? Do we desire the flexibility that being self-employed allows?

And I’m not sure that my reentry to the workforce be as a classroom teacher. It’s tough to avoid feeling overworked, overburdened, and overcommitted as a public school educator, and I was always cognizant of a work-life balance–whatever that means. A few years ago, I blogged about the idea that being busy is a badge of honor for so many Americans, often manifesting itself, perhaps, as a form of humble bragging, a way of showing off of how many plans, family obligations, work e-mails, and dinner parties one manages to cram into a hectic schedule.

Yet ironically, many professional Americans actually have more leisure time than they think. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Tim Krieder writes.

I’ll pass, thank you.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t so busy? What would it look like if you cut your work hours in half? Where would you have to live in order for this to be feasible? How would you spend your time? What choices would you now be able to make and what would you sacrifice? If you jettisoned more than half of your belongings, what would you dispose of and what would you keep?

Almost four months into our travels, we are nearly even, finance-wise, chipping away on various remote projects in order to sustain our temporarily nomadic lifestyle. For the first time in my adult life, I’m not worried about stacks of bills. Or sifting through mail. We’re never busy in the way modern life often saturates us with “to-do” lists. I’m not trying to save money for my retirement fund or for the down payment on a bigger house that I’ll have to put more stuff in to make it look presentable. We are, however, making some kickass deposits into our experience account.

I find great joy in recollecting and retelling poignant experiences stumbled upon or planned while on the road. Meeting the local vintner and sharing many glasses of wine in a Slovenian village, as he smiled and scrolled on my Google maps app trying to locate his home. Playing Bananagrams with the proprietor at a bed and breakfast in a holler at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Zooming on a motorbike up a hill on Thailand’s Koh Mook island, with the final treat a delightful family-run restaurant and the best green curry I’ve ever had. And the list goes on…

On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

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Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

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Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

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With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

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Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

Oman Road Trip Blunders: An Imperfect Travel Tale

Before Paul and I started our adventure, friends and family implored us to keep them updated in one way or another. The easiest, and perhaps laziest, way to do this is via social media. And admittedly, I’ve wholeheartedly said “yes” to this type of sharing. Each time I post a pic of where we have been, which is quite regularly now, I am cognizant of how difficult it is to avoid extreme ends of the perception pendulum, either trying to present a flawless portrait of our experiences or doing the opposite, cramming people’s feeds with complaints and irritations.

And so, in the spirit of being “real” and presenting a more balanced view of things, I am choosing to share the first day of me and Paul’s self-drive road trip in Oman, which was full of blunders and tested our resolve to embrace the unknown.

To preface the story, I will admit that Paul and I travel well together. It’s a good thing, because if not, this little global jaunt that shirks concepts such as long-term planning and certainty would have stalled out pretty quickly. That being said, spending most of your time with someone in spaces much smaller than your prior residence certainly magnifies specific behaviors and conflicting preferences. For example, Paul has this otherworldly ability to torpedo out of bed in the morning, energy radiating off of him in waves. I really prefer to ease into my enthusiasm for the day, meaning that I don’t really want to vocalize anything but grunts and yawns for at least a half hour after I wake. Paul and I also have very different work styles. He can concentrate in the midst of any distraction. Other people talking loudly. NBD. Playing music with words in it. A cakewalk. A 50-pound jackhammer motoring away next door. Child’s play. To put it simply, I prefer silence. Prolonged, uninterrupted, pure silence. This can make me a barrel of laughs to be around when I am working, as you can imagine. So, you can see how things can get a little dicey.  

Paul and I had high expectations for our self-drive Oman tour. Preliminary internet research talked about the country’s diverse terrain of mountains, desert, and coastline, as well as its warm, welcoming citizens. Bloggers specifically raved about the picturesque wadis (valleys) dotted with deserted turquoise swimming pools. All one had to do was rent a 4 x 4 and venture onto the road. This immediately conjured up images of us being amatuer explorers, stumbling upon previously undiscovered areas of inimitable beauty. We would arrive and bask in the utopia we found, gazing over the pools, untouched and stippled in just the right amount of sunlight.

Airport Delays

We got a late start the day we planned to pick up our 4 x 4. We had been spending the last three days in Muscat with potentially the nicest airbnb host ever, Mohammed, an incredibly wise, 45 year-old Omani man who speaks quietly and listens intently. Mohammed truly delights in deliberate and enthusiastic cultural exchange. He went snorkeling with us, he brought us dolphin watching, he introduced us to his acupuncture tools, and finished off our stay with one of his favorite hobbies, massage. On the day of our departure, we of course wanted to share one last homemade breakfast with him, even though it changed our schedule.

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Early morning breakfast with airbnb host, Mohammed. Feeling good about the day.

By the time we arrived at the airport to pick up our car, we were met by the grim faces of the people waiting in line in front of us at the rental kiosk. One individual exuded the stereotype of a tightly wound, reserved, middle-aged white guy who is used to optimal efficiency and logic at all times. He paced back and forth, sitting down with an audible sigh and then standing up to hover over the rental car counter where a delayed transaction was taking place. The other man was grumbling about how they were renting out cars with over 120,000 miles on them. Figuring we were in for a wait, I asked both of them how long they had been standing in line. Uptight guy was apparently too worked up to respond (Yes, he did speak English). The other guy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and said, “I don’t know! Too long!.” So that was that. “Well,” I thought, “Paul and I are in no hurry. We aren’t tethered to silly conventions such as time!”

Thirty minutes later we made it to the counter, only to find out that there were no GPS gadgets remaining. Undeterred, we figured it would not be a problem; we could buy a map since our international data plan was mysteriously not working in Oman. Besides, this was a freewheeling ADVENTURE. If we had too many directions we may never happen upon previously undiscovered locations!  The rental car attendant, clearly not privy to our visions, looked a little concerned and suggested that we buy a SIM card.

Heeding his advice, we picked up a map and went over to the appropriate counter to buy one. Seventeen dollars and an introductory lesson on SIM cards later, it was becoming apparent that it may not work for us. Everytime we inserted the delicate piece of plastic in one of our phones, an error message popped up on our screens, taunting us with its power. The employee who sold us the SIM card brushed these error messages aside, all we had to do was go somewhere with free wifi in order to activate the SIM card and it would work.

Problem was, the free wifi in the airport emitted a very weak signal, and was not registering on our phones. We were directed to the airport information booth, only to meet with a befuddled employee who recommended we revisit the SIM card booth. At this point, we were making slow, stumbling laps around the arrivals section of Muscat’s Airport. Attempts to get password and login information from any of the independent businesses in the airport failed. After a friendly Omani/American citizen (a totally different story that deserves another blog post) and his brother took up our cause with marginal success, our hopes for the SIM card solution dwindled and we committed to the paper map.

On the Road

Finally on the road, our next step was to get ourselves out of Muscat. With Paul manning the wheel, I was in charge of the navigation piece of our journey. Maybe not the best arrangement. Can I please point out that paper maps can be quite unwieldy? Unfolding and refolding our primary navigational tool, cursing it as it crinkled itself into different, awkward shapes, I anxiously scanned the area of Muscat as Paul whizzed on down the highway, guided by my instructions, which included precise phrases such as, “Ummmm…there may be a roundabout coming up, er, OK, not for awhile, wait, Oh, here it is!  GO RIGHT!” Needless to say, if we were contestants on the Amazing Race (which I sometimes like to pretend we are in) we’d be packing our bags. After a tense 45 minutes accompanied by a bundle of expletives, we spit out victorious onto the coastal road. Our road warrior journey was beginning! On to the wadis!

Our general plan was to meander down the main northern coastal road, traveling east, until we reached two destinations, the Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. Type these names into Google and you will find an endless screen of idyllic images, an explosion of sparkling pools, brilliant sunlight, and palm trees, all ensconced by rugged mountains. Things were going well, we had found “The Nation’s Station,” the English-speaking radio station in Oman where no musical genre is neglected. Bopping along to tunes that ranged from Celine Dion to early Dr. Dre to Christmas carols, we felt redeemed after our morning delays.This was until we noticed two things: 1) That the names on our handy-dandy paper map were not exactly matching up with the road signs that we were passing and, 2) That the coastal road was the opposite of isolated.

Road Trip Reality

Bloggers had mentioned how you can camp anywhere in Oman, finding yourself the only one on a long strip of beach. As we drove, we were realizing that EVERYONE must have received this memo. Tents and families lined the coastline. It’s funny how you can hear things and completely dismiss them until their sudden importance smacks you in the face. Airbnb Mohammed HAD mentioned to us that it was a long national holiday weekend. The reality of this fact became apparent as we passed teeming crowds of holiday revelers.

Our radio station sing-a-long quieted by the scene outside of our car, we managed to find the Bimmah Sinkhole, whose signs spelled it differently and did not refer to it as a sinkhole. Due to this, the crowds of people were a boon, as all we had to do was follow the line of cars streaming into what looked like a park of sand and shrub. Despite the fact that the Bimmah Sinkhole was clearly a favorite holiday destination, we decided to take a look. The area around the site has been built up for tourism, and loads of large families were sharing meals under the shade of small trees.

In retrospect, it was nice to see people spending quality time together with their loved ones, but at that moment, we were inwardly cursing these family gatherings. This was not the type of destination for daring adventurers such as us! The Bimmah Sinkhole is stunning, even though we were seeing it flanked by teenage girls posing for 10 minute selfie sessions. Men jumped into the naturally occuring ocean pool from daring heights, prompting yells of encouragement and clapping from the crowd. Paul took a dip in the delightfully warm water. I snapped a few pics. And then we left. Don’t get me wrong, the Bimmah Sinkhole is an unforgettable sight even when it is swamped with people; however, we were a little deflated that we did not have the more isolated experience that we had constructed in our minds.

Onward to Wadi Shab, a valley where people had told us you can swim through a cave and be gifted with pretty much a modern-day version of Eden. Ever the optimists, we actually believed that Wadi Shab would possibly not be enveloped by holiday throngs. Once again, the enormous amount of cars, not the road signs, guided us to our destination, only to be presented with lines of people waiting eagerly to aboard small boats that would drop them off at the entry of Wadi Shab. Allowing our frustration to get the best of us, we decided not to venture into the chaos. I briefly got out of the car to take a few snaps of roadside goats, only to be met by impatient honks from the traffic jam of cars behind us, and then we hightailed it on out of there.

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Goats. The only thing we snapped a picture of at Wadi Shab. Insert car honking in the background.

Turtle Reserve Redemption?

It was now almost 4:00 pm, and so we decided to drive to our hotel for the night, sulking in a soup of disappointment, and nervously wondering if this was an omen for the next nine days of our trip. Although we had 99% surrendered to the limited success of the day, we knew there was still time to turn it around. For tonight, we had plans to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, and if mama turtles laying eggs on the beach can’t turn a frown upside down, I don’t know what can.

Prior to embarking upon our Oman adventure, I had scoured the internet for details about the turtle reserve and found that it is somewhat controversial, at least for the Trip Advisor set. Although there were positive experiences, many reviewers complained about the beach’s upkeep (where the turtle’s nest) as well as the potential stress felt by the turtles from being gawked at by enormous amounts of visitors. These concerns resurfaced in my mind as we drove to the reserve. Paul and I were planning to eat at its restaurant (it also has a hotel), as in another falter for the day, we had run out of cash and discovered that the limited meal options in the area typically did not take credit cards. An ATM was nowhere to be found.

Arriving around 6:30 pm at the reserve we were told by the front desk employee that we had been assigned to Group Two for turtle viewing and that, “At some point around 8:30 pm,  maybe 9:00 pm, maybe 9:30 pm, all individuals who were assigned to our group would be called to then come back to the counter to purchase tickets.” I found it a little odd that we could not just buy them at that moment, but was distracted by the fact that I was hungry and wanted to eat my increasingly gloomy feelings. We sat down to the buffet provided by the restaurant, which was good, but certainly not worth the 50 dollars it ended up costing.

By the time we re-emerged from the restaurant, we were greeted by pandamonium. The reception was crammed with people all clamoring for a chance to maybe see some turtles. Children ran around, people cut in front of me as I tried to wait in line for the internet passcode,and cars continued to flood the already full parking lot. As Paul and I read the rules for turtle viewing, which stressed how imperative it is for viewers to be quiet as to not stress out the turtles, a crescendo of kiddie cries filled the air around us. There was no way viewing was going to be quiet. We also predicted that when a group was called to purchase tickets at the counter, any attempt at orderliness such as lines would be pushed to the wayside. Giving each other looks of surrender, Paul and I promptly turned around and left. We had been hemorrhaging money all day and figured that we would just need to let go of the fact that we visited the turtle reserve just to eat a mediocre fifty dollar buffet.

On the way out, the road in to the turtle reserve was illuminated by the headlights of a long line of cars. Feeling tired, annoyed, and clearly INCREDIBLY melodramatic, Paul said something like, “Well, at least we still have our health.”  I slouched in my seat, thinking mean, undeserved thoughts about holiday goers who just wanted to create memories with their families. It was not our best travel day and we were not at our best. Luckily, by the time we settled in back at the hotel, we could laugh about it, promising ourselves that we would make the next day, no matter what, better. Because if this was a bad day for us, we are doing pretty all right.

It turns out that our first day on the road in Oman was anything but indicative of the rest of our trip. We more than redeemed ourselves over the next week, and plan to share more about how amazing the country is in a future blog post, accompanied by some road trip tips that we learned along the way.

The reality is that the sticky, uncomfortable parts of travel, the ones that include getting sick, getting lost, or just plain getting tired, are the ones not frequently displayed via social media, where photos undergo a digital form of plastic surgery before being posted, accompanied by a series of comical, inspirational, or philosophical remarks. People embarking upon their own travel adventures, including myself, fall into the trap of romanticizing the entire experience, and turn optimistic hopes about travel into rigid expectations. I’ve fallen victim to curating that one, envy-inducing travel shot, maniacally scrolling through the Insta filters and brainstorming various witty one-liners before sending it off into the digital stratosphere. Just as there exists a cult of satiny suburban mom accounts (How is she perfectly toned, impeccably dressed, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she has three kids!?), Instagram and Facebook are also filled with flawless photographs documenting the wanderings of seemingly unburdened travelers.

Travel IS awesome, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that Paul and I have. But it’s not just awesome because it has the ability to introduce you to new and wonderful people, experiences, environments, and ideas. It’s also awesome because it can be hard, unexpected, and is always imperfect. I’ve found that it’s these aspects of travel which have left some of the most indelible marks on my perspective and overall mindset, and have benefited me in enormously positive ways.

The Grape Harvest and the Waterfall

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Bakvha welcoming a neighbor, a bull, and more grapes.

Strung between two pear trees, the shaded rope hammock beckoned me. My legs were cramping–the feeling brought me back almost 20 years to high school football two-a-day practices, when seemingly endless bear crawls, up downs, and sprints dehydrated the heck out of us aspiring gridiron heroes. I’d been hauling forty to sixty pound containers of grapes for a few hours, and the only route from field to press was a single-track path alongside vineyards sagging under the weight of Tsitska and Tsolikouri grapes, two of over 500 hundred varieties grown in Georgia.

There would be no tractor, no wheelbarrow, no cart. Just two legs, a sore back, and determination. The grapes had to be picked and pressed soon: rainy days followed by sunny weather primed the fruit. The bunches were bursting with juice.

I drew some cool water from the well, watching the metal bucket descend almost 70 feet down, clanging the concrete walls as it dropped. I quenched my thirst and settled into the hammock, but I had a hunch that the break would be curtailed. If Bakhva, the vineyard’s patriarch, spotted me lounging, he’d surely grin and point back to the fields, where hundreds of kilograms of harvested grapes awaited transfer. He didn’t seem to tire, plus he was making the roughly quarter-mile round trip in blue rubber sandals. Time and time again.

Sure enough, Bakhva spotted me after about five minutes, gestured for me to follow him, and I gladly pulled myself up. I had to step up my harvest game and push through.

Being in this Georgian village at Baia’s Wine on a brilliant autumn day and being welcomed–for a second time –by this incredibly kind and hardworking family make all the tedious aspects of travel worth it. The waiting around, stumbling through transactions due to language barriers, occasionally being ripped off by cab drivers, wearing the same outfit over and over again (I’m looking good in shades of blue and gray, let me tell you): it’s part of the tradeoff for seeking cultural exchange and insights into places far from our own comfort zones.

Rebecca and I are in transition and feel privileged to be on this open-ended journey, of course. But it came about after a series of unanticipated scenarios. We’d always thought that by now, we’d be moving back to New England with a child in tow. But some significant fertility challenges interrupted our plans. We also thought we might end up in New Zealand for six months next year, but my Fulbright proposal wasn’t accepted. So that’s the hand we were dealt.

Soon after hearing about my Fulbright disappointment, a friend recommended the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. This text was a game-changer and seemed to reaffirm some of the impulses we felt to hit the road. Even though New Zealand was no longer in the cards, we still felt a strong pull to uproot ourselves, and Potts encourages everyone to eschew the traditional mindset of waiting until retirement or the perfect situation when making the choice to travel.

“We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none. Settling into our lives, we get so obsessed with our domestic certainties that we forget why we desired them in the first place,” Potts writes. This really resonated with me–it’s so easy to put off travel, adventure, and choices that will significantly alter your trajectory. Straying from the steady march of moving to a bigger home, climbing the career ladder, accumulating things, and being too busy to enjoy the only currency that doesn’t discriminate based on demographics–the amount of time we have each day–can feel so freakin’ hard to do. But it can be done, and I also realize that it’s easier for me to say this without having to provide stability for a child.

Potts also extols the virtues of earning your freedom. Rebecca and I saved money for this journey, but we are both working remotely with hopes of paying our way as we go. So far, so good. Almost five weeks into our travels, we haven’t spent one cent beyond what we’ve earned, perhaps helping to dispel the notion that you must be independently wealthy to travel the world. Granted, Georgia has a very low cost-of-living, but we also want to test out the theory that it’s possible to commit to remote work and live well.

So here’s Roads and Revisions. Roads, of course, representing movement, the literal and figurative journey. With Revisions, there are usually positive connotations involved with actively making changes, whether they be to an essay, a lifestyle choice, a goal or plan. Several years ago, we thought we’d be at a certain point in our lives. We aren’t. That’s ok. We’re certainly embracing big changes for now.

Back at Baia’s Wine, the work ended when the sun set. Feasting commenced shortly after. Huddled around several low tables, we volunteers and guests feasted on khachapuri, eggplant with walnut puree, lobio (beans in a clay dish), fried chicken, and other Georgian staples. Lots of wine, of course.

After numerous toasts to peace, to family, to Georgia, and to Georgian/US relations, among other missives, I asked Bakhva’s daughter Gvanca to ask her father something for me. Over the course of two visits, we had developed a series of grunts, grins, and gestures to communicate, as I can’t speak Georgian or Russian and his English is lacking. I wanted to tell him how impressed I was that he never seemed to get tired during the physical labor of harvest and that I appreciated the opportunity to help out.

The table fell silent as he delivered a lengthy reply, as it is Georgian tradition for the Tamada, or toastmaster, to be shown deference at the dining table. According to Gvancha, he said “If you think about water, a lake or pond doesn’t move. It gets dirty over time. But a waterfall is clean, strong, always in motion. I prefer to be a waterfall.” What a response!

Rebecca and I may pine for a more stable life with full benefits and a permanent dwelling sooner than we think. I really have no idea. But for now, we’re embracing the Road, Revisions, and the continuous action of a waterfall.