"And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home."
Wendell Berry

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

It's Been Awhile

Hi there,

I can't believe it's been so long since I've updated this thing!

I'm back in New York City, and every time I look at this photo (taken when I rode the Staten Island Ferry with my mom), I want to start singing "Empire State of Mind." Because I'm a dork, and because it feels so dang good to be home.

A lot has happened in the past four months, and I just haven't been able to keep up. Here's a bit of what's been going on since I last posted:

1. I finished my round-the-world trip with a safari in Tanzania, and saw, among other things, 21 lions in the wild.
2. I came home from traveling internationally, and immediately started jetting around the U.S. (Michigan, New Hampshire, Florida, California, Oregon, upstate New York, and Maine) for work research, moving boxes and boxes of books, and to attend lots of lovely weddings with old friends.*
3. I moved in with Ad. Or rather, we moved into a totally awesome garden apartment together, in my old Brooklyn neighborhood.
4. We hosted several close friends and family members in our new place.
5. My little sister moved to NYC to start the Teaching Fellows program, and we've been getting some quality hang out time in. So sweet to have some family nearby for the first time in six years!
6. I started coaching with Girls on the Run--a terrific after-school program that gets young girls moving and feeling good about themselves. It also motivates me to keep training for those two half marathons I signed up for...
7. I realized I need to actually learn how to be a freelancer and have spent a lot of time getting my files, taxes, healthcare, and workspace in order.
8. I've been working on (and am almost finished with) another exciting writing project. I'm also pumped that Witch & Wizard: The Fire is out in just two more months!

Now I'm really looking forward to a quiet, homey New York autumn, spent working diligently at my new office space, strolling around my neighborhood farmer's market among the changing leaves, snuggling up to the bf (and the cat), and watching way too many movies.

A longer recap is coming soon, I promise. I lost my netbook computer cord, so haven't been able to access the photos from the last leg of my trip, but hopefully that situation will be remedied shortly and I can post a ton of great pics and tell you all about Zanzibar, the Serengeti, and how I felt at the end of seven months of solo travel. For now, I leave you with this:


*Black and white photo credit: Mikey Barringer. Everything else was taken on my very old iphone, which explains the quality.

Monday, May 30, 2011

King Tut's Will

I’m in Tanzania, finally, and oh man, is it hot here. The monsoons have just ended, so I thought the post-rain would be a bit cooler than at other times of the year, but it’s still scorching. The air is sticky, heady with scent that is car exhaust and good food smashed together, and it feels like you’re breathing underwater. There are people everywhere weaving between the cars and dusty streets: men in tribal dress with sandals and walking sticks; women in smart suits wearing heels and carrying baskets atop their heads; women in loudly colorful scarves or head-to-toe black towing small children; a boy in a Barack Obama t-shirt swaying under three huge wooden fishing nets balanced on his shoulders. Beyonce gyrates through the radio.

When I stepped off the plane at 5am, the sun was just rising, lighting dark grey and turquoise clouds from below with an eerie hot pink and silhouetting the palm trees and frenzied cars. I felt perky with anticipation, but with little sleep and three days of travel, also a bit disoriented upon reaching my hotel. Thankfully, the very helpful manager let me use an unoccupied triple for a few hours of sleep until my room was vacated. Now it’s early afternoon and I’m set up in my own mural-covered room with a big bed and a mosquito net. I’ve also had a fine curry lunch, ventured out to buy an adaptor, booked a ferry ticket to Zanzibar, inquired about safaris (expensive, turns out!) and (re-)purchased malaria prophylactics. It’s amazing how just forcing yourself to go out and get stuff done can instantly make you feel like things are nowhere near as difficult as you might imagine. I’m incredibly excited to be in Africa for the first time and to have an appropriately dramatic end to my round-the-world trip, but a lot has happened since I left Athens on Friday, too…

My stopover in Egypt was unexpected and bizarre—in a good way. I mean, I had expected a layover in Cairo, but I’d also expected there to be a transfer to Dar Es Salaam a few hours after I arrived, which turned out not to be the case “because of the revolution.” Apparently several flights were cancelled months ago, no one was told, and none of those flights were rebooked. Which, while at first seemed incredibly confusing (particularly since my luggage had somehow continued on without me), it meant that Egypt Air put me up in a schmancy hotel and plied me with free food.

Now for a very Dembowski anecdote: Upon checking in, I was given a mysterious key by the 18-year-old boy at the reception, with the awkward explanation of “because you are very beautiful.” Ha! It should be said that though the check-in counter had been a madhouse and I’d been quite smiley (free food! hotel! pyramids!), I am not the type of girl that gets those type of perks. So skeptical, I ventured down a smoke-smelling hallway… and opened the door to paradise. A living room suite! Two huge, flatscreen tvs! A kingsize bed! Two bathrooms (one with both Jacuzzi and steamroom)! All for me! I was jumping up and down and squealing, and left such incoherent messages on both my parents’ and Ad’s phones… And then I got kicked out. …Yep. I totally should’ve known not to push my luck, but, already in bed, I stupidly called down to the reception to ask for the WiFi password. The manager was extremely confused as to why I was staying alone and for free in a suite that apparently hadn’t been checked in, and he and Mr. Suave (who, naturally, totally denied his involvement), showed up at midnight to escort me down the hall like a criminal. It was, all in all, extremely funny. And while I didn’t get to stay in my palace after all, I still got much fancier than I would’ve paid for myself, complete with bathtub. And I ate THIS while watching movies on cable:

On my free day in Cairo (my flight wasn’t until 11pm), I wasn’t really allowed out on my own since I was “in transit” and they’d confiscated my passport at the airport, but I did get to go on a sweet sightseeing expedition arranged by, again, Egypt Air. I spent four hours visiting the Nile, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx. I only expected to get a whiff of the airport in Egypt, and instead I got to see the freaking Pyramids! Looking up at them was puzzling, more than anything. Though there they were in front of me, I still had trouble believing they really existed and weren’t just part of a movie set (my brain was seriously playing through a constant roll of “The Mummy,” the opening scene of “Despicable Me”—maybe they’re blow-up toys, I considered—and that weird Sesame Street movie where Big Bird has to, like, save King Tut or something). It felt kind of like looking up at the Himalayas, only somehow crazier, because someone BUILT them. My hands feel way wussy in comparison.
Do you guys want to know what I learned?* Because, though I hadn’t anticipated this surprise World Wonder trip and didn’t read up beforehand, my guide gave me pop quizzes throughout the tour, so now I’m bursting to share. Okay: There are 114 pyramids in Egypt, 9 in Giza. The three most prominent were built for a king (whose name escapes me), his son, and his grandson, are around 5000 years old, and took around 25 years to build—who wants to bet the slaves didn’t even get a thank you note? The first is the largest at 146 meters high, and is made up of over 2.5 million blocks of limestone, each weighing 25 tons. 25 TONS! Each! The second has a white triangle on top; this is the remains of the white limestone cover installed to make the surface smooth and shiny. The third pyramid’s cover (also almost totally destroyed) was made of red granite, which had to be hauled from 1000 kilometers north down the Nile, and was super expensive. Some kings built their wives and mothers mini pyramids; other wives and mothers apparently didn’t cut it. I went inside the tomb of one of the wives. It was totally creepy and made me feel like Cass McBride, and if I were the least bit claustrophobic, I would have been reduced to please-don’t-bury-me-alive whimpers. To mummify people, you take out the stomach, intestine, lungs, liver, and kidneys and put them in a little box first. The brain is pulled out through the nose (you don’t need that gray BS for your next life!), and the heart stays with the body, so your dead peers can take one look through your rotting zombie flesh and tell if you were a good person and whether or not they should now socialize with you in the afterlife. The Sphinx faces the sun head-on and protects the tombs of the kings with her fierce lion body. Egyptians like the lotus flower (symbol of upper Egypt) as an alternative to Viagra.

Now I’ve got one more day in Dar, and then I head to Zanzibar for a bit. Then, who knows?

*Note: All these tidbits were brought to you by my oft-questionable short-term memory, and from the mouth of my at-times-a-little-sketch guide. So no promises that this is 100% fact.

"Readers are winners."

This feels appropriate to post today, because today is my mom's birthday. Happy Birthday, Mom! Bobbie D is, hands down, the most voracious reader I know--an appropriate adjective as she seems to devour the things, and is never without a paperback in her purse. "No one understood when I started panicking because I forgot my book for the weekend up north!" she recently lamented. But I understand, because Mom also instilled in me this great love, and it's a love I've sadly neglected in recent years.

Now, because I no longer read and edit manuscripts for a living and have been spending a disproportionate amount of time on planes, I’ve had a chance to read quite a few published books. Seeing as how, in the not-so-distant past, I found it impossible to tackle even a book a month for lack of time, this is a serious novelty. Since I left in December, I have read 17 books, actually (excluding guidebooks, etc). I don’t really have an update for my last two weeks in Greece except to remark that I’ve been writing a lot on Naxos Island, so I thought I’d take a minute to give my quick thoughts on those books (and where I read them):

ON THE ROAD (New Zealand): fittingly read for the first time on the start of an epic journey, and still stirs the wanderer’s spirit 60 years after it was written.

TRAVELERS' TALES THAILAND (New Zealand): a valuable collection for its introduction to the country and some very intriguing essays—(notably the one on collecting birds’ nests for the expensive soup)—though others felt misleading in their insistence on the two-facedness of Thai hospitality.

THE BLIND ASSASSIN (Thailand): part noir, part sci-fi, part historical love story, all Atwood in top form.

STRANGE THINGS (Thailand): reliably smart, feminist essays on literature of the Canadian North, featuring wendigos, "Grey Owl Syndrome," isolation, and insanity.

CAT’S EYE (Thailand—yes, more Atwood!): with cruel accuracy , brings you alarmingly back to those moments in childhood in which you were bullied at the hands of so-evil-they-weren’t-even-aware-of-it ten-year-olds—even if this doesn’t explicitly parallel your life.

[There is another book in here read upon arrival in India that I can’t for the life of me recall.]

GRACELING (India): an exciting dystopian YA page-turner about Katsa, a kick-ass, morally-conflicted heroine with a killing grace—yes, there’s a hot boy in it, too.

TOUCHING THE VOID (Nepal): Joe Simpson's 'tude is at times a bit hard to abide, but his first-hand account of against-all-odds survival while mountain climbing in the Peruvian Andes in indeed terrifying and immensely readable.

THE BOOK THIEF (Nepal): set during the Holocaust and narrated by death, this is an exquisitely-rendered old favorite about love, life, and wonder through books—better and more heartbreaking with each read.

THE FEAST OF LOVE (Nepal): U of M prof Charlie Baxter's charming and honest stories of love from several first-person narratives, along with a nostalgic glimpse into Ann Arbor neighborhoods.

SOLD (Nepal): McCormick’s succinct and cutting first person narrative of a thirteen-year-old girl taken from a hilltop village in Nepal’s Himalayas with promises of a job as a maid, only to be sold into child sex slavery in Delhi’s brutal underworld.

THE KITE RUNNER (Nepal): disappointing after the hype; true, it pulls at the heartstrings and yes, it gives a window into a culture ground underfoot, but read after A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS, it feels a bit contrived and verbose.

WARM BODIES (Israel): angsty yet believable teen zombie love in an unfeeling world; funny and well-done, though puzzling that it was released as an adult novel.

WHAT I TALK ABOUT WHEN I TALK ABOUT RUNNING (Greece): though at times Murakami’s brisk, candid voice feels almost anti-social, the account is most valuable for the glimpse into his writing process, and for both the admiration and intense desire to put on a pair of running shoes it inspires.

WOLF HALL (Greece): a fascinating, engrossing, often gruesome fictionalized but seemingly historically-accurate look at Thomas Cromwell’s life during his rise to power under Henry VIII.

THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH (Greece): thankfully more Fitzgeraldian than Caulfieldian; the language crackles, the dialogue smirks, and you both love and hate every so-real-they-could-spit character Art Bechstein comes across.

DREAMS FROM MY FATHER (Greece): through an early memoir about his absent father, pre-president Obama opines on race and inheritance, and in the inspiring voice and intelligent, strikingly well-crafted sentences, it’s impossible not to glimpse the seed of what was to come.

*These are my opinions only, and do not reflect those of my publisher, Hachette Book Group, or of James Patterson.

** I kind of miss the days of Book It, where you used to get a free personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut each time you passed a level. I dominated that competition, because it combined my two favorite things of all time: books and greasy food.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Month Five

My fifth month on the road was the definition of globe-trotting. I visited six countries (Nepal, India/Turkey [less than a day], Israel, USA, and Greece), spent 42 hours on planes and an additional 21 hours in airports for layovers, took 5 ferries, travelled in countless cabs—including a memorable ride in the back of a pick-up, answered approximately one million personal questions at customs, and even rode the New York City subway. I also made lots of new friends, got to see some of my oldest, hung out with my mom in a foreign country, and spent some quality time with my boyfriend after not seeing him for almost three months. And I got a new tattoo!
So…maybe you can understand why it’s a little hazy.

I do have some news, though… After having a bit of a rough patch during the last month and struggling to make sense of why I wanted to keep traveling alone, I came to a tough decision: I’ve decided to come home a bit early, in mid-June instead of at the end of July. After already missing out on South America, I wasn’t quite willing to entirely give up my first trip to Africa, so I’ll still have three weeks in Tanzania and on the island of Zanzibar. Without that extra month and a half, I’ll still be missing out on Uganda and South Africa, which is a shame, but if this trip has taught me anything it’s that a) I will be a lifelong traveler, and b) instinct is the most important thing. And right now, my gut says it’s time to go home. It’s going to be a glorious summer!

Favorite place: Naxos, Greece
Favorite experience (tie): Lounging with Ad and the New York Times in Central Park; watching the sunset in Naxos with Mom
Favorite meal: Pequena in Brooklyn, NY (I know, I’m predictable. There have been so many phenomenal culinary experiences—Hummus in Israel! Feta in Greece! Momos in Nepal!—but my love for the “Little” TexMex standby will never falter.)
Favorite saying: “Bravo!”
Favorite lodging: Aroma Suites, Santorini, Greece

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Feta! Olives! Yogurt! Wine! Greece!

I am currently on Naxos Island, in Greece. It’s the definition of idyllic here, and I have to admit that blogging feels a bit wrong in this environment. I have a little place at Despina’s Rooms, which is run by the aged and unbelievably kind Despina, who keeps the place charming, spotless, and cheap. I can see the Aegean Sea from my window, write on the roof, and walk to the beach. It’s steps from the old, crumbling castle perched over the island. My days here are simple: I get up early to run along the beach, eat creamy yogurt for breakfast, have a cup of the strongest coffee (until now, I thought “so thick you can stand a spoon in it” was just hyperbole), work through the hottest part of the day, have a Greek salad with fresh veggies and the best feta, read on the beach for a bit, have some sort of just-caught fish for dinner, work more, sleep. Rinse and repeat. This morning as I was walking back from my run along the turquoise water, sweaty and happy, a very large fish startled me by jumping up out of the water several times, as if it were just so ecstatic with its own bewildering existence it needed a way to express its joy. Regardless of its true reasons (even bigger fish in pursuit?), I thought, “That! Is exactly how I feel!” and I started running again at a clip, splashing through the water and yelling all by myself on the beach.

The last couple months I’ve felt sort of dazed (will get to that shortly in my monthly recaps), but I’ve had a great week and a half in Greece—with the one notable exception of putting up with all the honeymooners smooching freaking everywhere, when the BF is so far away in New York. My mom met me here, appropriately, on Mother’s Day, May 8th. Her luggage was lost, as it is on every trip and, to her utter dismay, returned to her sans packs of Newports. I absolutely love traveling with my mom; we have terrific fun together! We’ve had the opportunity to do quite a few little mother-daughter getaways over the years, and she’s my ideal traveling companion in that she wants to see a few sights, but is content to mostly just wander around a new place, exploring tiny streets and unexpected corners, and most importantly, reserves plenty of time for relaxation. We always play a lot of Scrabble, read for hours side by side, eat very well, and drink gallons of red wine.

On this particular trip, we spent two days in Athens visiting the Acropolis with its impressive Parthenon, milling about the National Gardens, witnessing the changing of the guard, and just walking around, where we were constantly stumbling upon things that were thousands and thousands of years old. The mind boggles. There was also plenty of time spent rebuffing the advances of men—the Greek men LOVE them some Bobbie D, let me tell you. After Athens, we hopped on a ferry to Mykonos (okay, let’s be honest, here, in a classic Mom-and-Jill moment, we MISSED our ferry by two minutes—picture us running wildly with luggage…there were tears—and hopped on a different, longer ferry with a detour), accepted a very entertaining ride from a toothless man, who stuck us in the back of his pick-up with Victor, an excitable German Shepherd with an unfortunately poopy butt he was eager to wipe on me, and caught another boat to finally arrive at the justifiably gushed-over Santorini.

Santorini…wow. The jagged, imposing cliffs rising out of the sea (caused by a major volcanic explosion), the extraordinary sunsets, the elegant white and blue buildings perched along the Caldera…it all creates quite a dramatic impression. It was very windy and more than a little chilly when we were there, so we didn’t have the days of hanging out on black sand beaches that we were imagining, but we still had a fantastic time. We stayed in the incomparable Aroma Suites, which included cave-like rooms built right into the Caldera cliff front, a hot pink princess bed with a gauzy wraparound veil, and over-the-top welcoming service. It was a bit out of my normal budget, but worth the splurge for just a few days. We rented a car and zipped around the island one day, and, after a 20-year break, Mom rediscovered her talents for driving a stick shift, channeling Speed Racer as she handled the tight curves on roads with no shoulder and 500 foot drops to the sea. Highlights included a monastery and the small town of Oia at the northern tip. On the last day, we walked down the many steps from Fira to the Old Port, and then hiked back up the cliff side in mid-day heat past the procession of “the donks.” Luckily, wine awaited us at the top.
After Santorini, we headed for Naxos, where the sun finally made its glorious appearance. There we had two days of classic Greek Island beach lounging, complete with thatched umbrellas, lapping waves, and the occasional Pina Colada. And, a bit begrudgingly, some buckling down to work. It was a great week, but, too soon, my mom had to return home. Now I’m here for another two weeks, with three goals: get an insane amount of work done, consume as much feta as possible, and run every day. And then…Tanzania.

* Oh, also: I did not win the lottery for the NYC Marathon this year, but decided to run a different one anyway. Hopefully this fall, and hopefully with the very impressive Suzi. More on that later, I’m sure, but for now, let the training begin.

** And! My toenails have almost completely grown back already, getting progressively less Hobbit-like every day. I know you’ve been on the edge of your seats awaiting that news.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Home is wherever I'm with you.

With Skype and the hubbub of the holidays and work, we managed the first few months okay apart, but by the time Ad met me in India at the end of February, I knew there was no way I could last another five months without seeing him. So, in one of my more irresponsible spur-of-the-moment decisions, I bought a round trip ticket from Israel to spend five days in New York City in the end of April. But oh, it was worth it. What a fantastic weekend! Beyond the usual ache of missing Ad, I had been feeling increasingly travel weary and homesick over the last month, and a whiff of New York Spring was just the breath of fresh air I needed to revive my spirit.

I arrived Friday morning, and immediately got in a run around the Central Park loop, which was fragrant with new flowers and marked with amusing chalk drawings of athletic fish that made the miles go by faster (thank you, La Vega, whoever you are). Not an easy run—I was hobbling a bit the following day—but it was one I’d been craving for months, and I was pleasantly surprised I could still finish it without stopping after my months away from running. It definitely swayed me to take my sweet new trail running shoes back with me on the road.

Friday night Ad and I were totally spoiled by Bryn at Pure Food and Wine, the ultra-fancy and excellent raw vegan restaurant near Union Square, where she works. I wish I had a picture of the “<3 U Jill+Ad” she scrawled in apple cider reduction. Fantastic meal that included everything from enchiladas to mushroom/ramp croquettes to sushi. We were then lucky to catch Erik’s In Tall Buildings show in the East Village with Karl. So good! I’m more impressed every time I hear Erik play.

Saturday included the double treat of brunch with Emily at Olea in the old hood and milling around the Brooklyn Flea with her and Ad and Bryn. Notable scores: rhubarb popsicles and hot Brooklyn Salsa Company salsa (I’ll have to wait until June for McClure’s pickles). Ad also picked up a used Tom Rush record—who his parents weirdly know! We got a big kick out of listening to it at home that night.

I also got to (awesomely, briefly) see Manny and Tanya right before getting a tattoo at Brooklyn Tattoo. Willy is absolutely the best artist I’ve ever been to; he listened to exactly what I wanted and did a perfect job with the really thin lines. After having a not-so-awesome experience at New York Adorned last fall (so bad I left sans tattoo and hefty deposit), I was relieved, to say the least.

Sunday was reserved as paper-coffee-park day with Ad, which was everything it should be. Then we headed to Brooklyn for a Tex-Mex dinner with Ad, Karl, and Patrice at my ultimate favorite, Pequena (the absence of which had given me such traumatic withdrawal I couldn’t even discuss it on this blog), followed by a fun neighborly shindig at Sharon and John’s (my old apartment, notably, which I still miss).

Monday we saw Hanna, which was pretty good, as movies go, but which I probably disproportionately enjoyed both because I love a good kickass girl movie and because I really, really love going to the movies, and have missed that a lot a lot—I’m eager to resume my regular movie dates with Patrice. Then we had superior NYC pizza at Patsy’s with both Dorit and DANA, who just moved to New York to start Teaching Fellows! I’m so very excited to have my little sister in not only the same state, but the same city (and hopefully the same neighborhood) for the first time in about a decade. It’s going to be amazing.

I even made it to the Hachette office for a few minutes on Tuesday to squawk excited hellos at Connie, Kate, Pam, and Andrea as they headed off to a major meeting. Then Tuesday afternoon I had to go. It was such a brief whirlwind of a weekend, jam-packed with friends, family, and lots of BF time. I wish I could’ve taken it a little slower, but in the end I was so glad I got to see everyone and get to all the places I’d really been missing. It also, surprisingly and pleasingly, made me really excited to return to New York and sign a new lease. Last year I didn’t think I could ever live in the city again, but after some time away, I realize she’s still got quite a big chunk of my heart.

*Note: I was too intoxicated on love and friends and subway fumes to remember to take any pictures during my time in NYC, so I'll have to make do with some post-trip pics. Thanks, LuluBugJewelry, for sharing your design for the tattoo!