An effort to stay afloat while determining which way is up

Posts tagged ‘Travel’

Ever Aloft

I was drifting, yes, but I had a trajectory.  My mind was full of grids and vectors, my heart cautiously lightened with the hope of obtaining a new plan.  I knew of a landing point where I might find that plan.  It had been a deceptively short journey fueled only by the blind mechanical movements of my courageous legs, who brought me to the aircraft as I continued to assure myself that this time, I’d be able to figure it all out.  A tangled swath of lank hair streamed away from my wind-burned face as I descended toward that world I had aimed for, the knuckles of my fingers dry and gnarled from clutching tight the whole way to my pathetic bursting bundles wrapped up in twine, those value-less yet indispensible things I must always carry with me.  Cities jumped in and out of the mist as I descended.  I held tight with numb hands to my bundles as the wind buffeted past and I descended.  My mind inactive, everything on auto-pilot, ever in transit.

 
Upon touching down, I looked around to find a jumbled, empty version of the places I left, like a ransom note constructed of an entire town.  Where I expected discovery, I find repetition .  Where I expected challenge, I find tedium.  I set myself afloat to find some slot in which to fit myself, but touching down here I find I’m just as confused as ever about which direction to take.

 
Welcome to Calais.


It’s not that I don’t like this town.  There are some truly lovely parts of it, and it is filled to the brim with welcoming people and interesting history.  My job is going fairly well.  The teachers and students are nice enough to me, and to tell the truth they require a ludicrously small amount of work from me in exchange for my salary.

 
And it’s not that this place isn’t beautiful.  The beauty of it is simply superficial when you are experiencing it alone.  It all seems pointless when there’s no one to share it with.    This whole time I’ve known that outside of songs, love is not all you need.  I’ve known that women who depend on their relationships are weak, and that unless I want to be one of those weak women and regress the population, I’d better get independent, fast.  And yet, coming here alone has made me realize how much of my new concept of “home” lives with Mark, and how much I want to return to that home.  All I know about what I want to do with my life is that it involves him, which rules out a lot of possibilities I had previously considered.  How annoying.  I had expected more strength from myself.   What bitter disappointment, then, to find that all this time I have been taking part in some dull, predictable love story.

 
The whole point of this “adventure” of mine was to stall for time.  Time to figure out where my life should be going and experience to point me in the right direction.  I was stalling for time in my job last year.  I was stalling for time in the Peace Corps.  I was stalling for time in college.  My entire adult life is essentially one titanic effort to dodge that stupid, age-old question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And so, with these new developments in what I do and don’t want in my life, I drift as aimlessly in France as I did in America, always subject to the whims and inconsistencies of the wind.

 
I don’t know what I should be or what I want to be.  I don’t know what to do with this life that I’ve got.  My only idea is to sit in tree tops and catch more of the thin, lacey sunlight that strains to find this city.  You see, the sunlight you find here is not the same character you see in other parts of the world.  In  Phoenix, the sunlight hammers on you as you step outside, a solid presence binding you in a comforting, near-mummification of heat.  In Denver, it dances and whirls elegantly around you, sparkling off lakes and city structures.  But in Calais, it flutters down insubstantially, occasionally draping over the gray and forest green color palette of the city, only to slide off seconds later having warmed nothing at all.  I want to sit on the highest branches of the tallest trees and gather it around me like gauze, like tule, so I can finally make something substantial of it.  I want to forge the watery sunlight here into something brilliant and useful.  I want to gather it all to make a bright and shining craft light enough to lift me back off the ground.

Wrenched by Toto

Well, I had been sleeping, finally sunk down into the body surrounding me and floating on the darkness, until I was reawakened rudely by some inconsiderate explosions from the computer screen, these directed at Mark and his need for constant entertainment.  I turned to my other side, wiping small amounts of drool off of my face, to eventually see an episode of Family Guy come into sleep-blurred focus on the screen across from the bed.

Now, I tend to enjoy humor rooted in intelligence, rather than jokes created for shock-value and in-jokes that make people feel special because they remember obscure bits of pop culture from the 1980’s, so it’s safe to assume that I do not enjoy this show very much;  however, on this night I had been jarred out of the complex sequence of launch codes required to fully journey my way into dreamland, so while the gears and switches were being reset to hopefully restart the process, I had no choice but to listen to this episode.

There was some kind of flashback scene in the episode requiring a cheesy, dated feel, so of course the writers choose to play that staple of 1983, Toto’s “Africa” to get the right atmosphere as well as some cheap nostalgic laughs.  I, of course, couldn’t laugh because the moment the song started I wasn’t in my bed anymore; I had been wrenched out of my bedroom and my country and time itself, back a year and a half ago to an open-air dance party celebration in Hamdallaye, Niger.  Cement below our feet and thatched roof above, we milled around the chair-encircled courtyard, swimming in the yellow incandescent light of the night with sodas in hand as we talked and joked and celebrated our achievement: we had all survived three months of training to become Peace Corps volunteers.  Prior to this night I had never even heard of the song “Africa”, but standing then on the red soil of the continent it sings of, that was soon about to change.

Our silly American dance party was fast becoming a silly American karaoke party as ipods were whipped out and hooked up to the stereo.  Performances were typically over-dramatic and chock full of nutty fun as my friends sang off-key and gesticulated wildly to songs like “Welcome to the Jungle” and “She Wolf”.  Then Heather stepped up to the microphone and did what she always does best: with bravery, skill, and honesty, she told a story.  She had talked about how long ago at some college party, she had heard and been inspired by this next song, and knew that one day she would come to the place it spoke of, and maybe take some time to do the things we never have.  Cue Toto.

It was cheesy.  It was also true.  Most importantly, it meant something, damn it.  It meant something to Heather then, and upon hearing the song again on an unremarkable night in my unremarkable bed, it means something to me now.

One of the few consistent lessons I’ve learned in my life is that most of the experiences you think will be the great, meaningful monuments set in stone in your life’s timeline will come without pomp and ceremony, and they will fall disappointingly flat, while other more inconspicuous moments will in retrospect come to mean more to you than you ever thought they would; these moments are almost always inextricably intertwined with cheese.  Hearing that song again, laying on my side forced to endure a cheesy 80’s montage on a sub-par TV show in place of my own fantastic dreams, I felt the same thing Heather felt those years ago.  I don’t care what it takes, I have to go back someday.  Call it the thirst for adventure, or maybe affluent American naivety, or something as cliche as “trying to find myself”.  The simple truth is that I saw too many beautiful places and  met too many beautiful people to let that world rest unexperienced and unexplored in my life.

I know its cheesy to listen to that song and find inspiration in it, but I won’t let fear of sentiment stop me because on that night it became meaningful to me.  All things meaningful are by nature cringe-inducingly cheesy; I have come to embrace this fact, as I would rather lead a meaningful life than a cynical one.    I will have to wait until after this year’s France program, but, harnessing the power of as many cheesy cliches as possible, with god (and Toto) as my witness, I vow to return one day to that place, to once again see my sneakers stained by its ancient red soil.

“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”

In Transit

Image

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a certain tendency which I don’t find in many other people.  I’m always most content while I’m in transit between two places.   Almost to the point that I dread ever reaching my destination.  When I was young I would live for long car rides, and, like the effects of any gateway drug worth its salt, this caused me to later move on to  buses and trains and air planes and anything else I could get my hands on.  In Niger I spent half an hour on a donkey cart just going from one end of town to the other, and I loved every second of it.

There’s something beautiful about trains that no other form of transportation possesses.  Standing on deserted train tracks, you can look in either direction and see your way almost to infinity.  The simple, unalterable path of the train reflects the unalterable progression of time, or , at least, time as I perceive it.  I tell myself there are no symbols in real life, but a train seems too close an analogue to living to ignore.

Sometimes while in motion I feel very strongly that I’m falling sideways.  That my movement is not my own choice, but the result of an external force acting upon me.  Making my third trip between Denver and Phoenix across all that flat, shadowless land, the heights from which I was falling were almost nauseating.  Perhaps that’s why I find it comforting.  It reminds me that I’ll never be as big as the forces of physics acting on me.  It’s like being hugged by math.

In a practical sense, you could say that I find transportation to be comforting because it means that wherever I’m going, I still have a chance to prove myself.  Until I’ve arrived at my destination, I have a blank slate to work with and all the potential in the world to be or do something great.  The longer the trip, the more the potential.  However, as soon as I arrive at whatever destination I’m headed to, any action I take immediately rules out others that I could have taken, and already my potential is diminished.  I’m happy being in transit because it is the time when I am the least defined.

And in a far less practical sense, I can explain my love of transporting myself between locations with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  As I understand it, the more you know about a particle’s velocity, the less you know about its location.  Therefore, if I know and I can feel exactly how fast I am moving between points, maybe eventually I’ll have no location at all.  I’ll be nowhere and everywhere all at once.  Something about this idea greatly appeals to me.  I know its probably scientifically unsound to extrapolate the laws of physics like that, but it’s a beautiful thought, anyway, so I’ll keep it.

If anything, my biggest problem with the life I have now is that there’s not enough transit time.  I’m stuck in one city, and none of my daily commutes allow me enough time to really think.  That’s the draw of transportation after all.  It’s an enclosed system where you’re allowed to sit quietly for long periods of time while simultaneously being able to see and participate in the world around you.  The unspoken rules of society allow for you to keep to yourself unless you desire otherwise, so you can just sit and think quietly while images of landscapes bombard you like warm, heavy rain.  Entire stories blur past the window and continue without you, but at least you were a part of them for a split second.  You were a part of something.

This lack of transit time is reflected in my current state of mind.  Until I receive word that I will have the opportunity to move to France next fall, I will be stuck still, my direction chosen but no momentum to take me there, a broken train car on an abandoned track looking toward infinity, hoping to one day see the end.  So far, I haven’t been able to think of a proper contingency plan if I never hear from the French program, which, I guess, would mean that my train car would be left on that abandoned plain between two lives and allowed to rust and rot.  Every few years some wild animal might come to steal the stuffing from the seat cushions. The wheels would sag on their axles and the window panes would fall out after their wooden frames finally rot to nothing.  The unrelenting sun would chip the aquamarine lacquer on the outside of the hull, while inside the patterned carpets fade to a uniform grey.  And all this time its singular passenger would sit quietly and stare out the window, suitcase by her side and gloved hands folded in her lap, waiting for the day the landscapes will once again fall past her, or she past them.

Unstuck

Last Friday I was at work, wiping down tables sticky with spilled milk and using a rag to brush off constellations of crumbs from the same cafeteria pizza they’ve been serving in public schools for the last twenty years at least.  They’ve assigned me to lunch duty, which I knew they would, even if it’s not in the job description.  I don’t mind.  It makes the day go faster.  This is life now.

Rewind to one year earlier when I was curled up on the most uncomfortable airport chairs imaginable trying to get some sleep in Madrid on an 18-hour layover.  There are no cushions on the chairs, and the arm rests are fixed in place and  close enough to the seats to render me the singular option of to contorting around them, determined to reach some kind of unconsciousness.  I know that my music player only has a few minutes of battery left, so in addition to my Spanish sleeping arrangements, I know if I don’t drop off the edge soon before the music dies, the brain’s autopilot will be discontinued and I’ll start thinking myself in circles again.

Rewind again to the day before.  I’m sobbing in a very ugly manner on a train somewhere between Rabat and Casablanca.  I’ve just said goodbye to all the friends I thought I would have years to get to know.  One good friend saw me off at the train station.  The rest had either left already, or they were eating their last breakfast in the unusually fancy hotel we had been housed in for the past week.  We had both done our best to make light of the situation, but the tears came anyway.  A nice Moroccan man gave us each a dirham as a souvenir of our time.  I already had a few left, not to mention several thousand CFA, but I was grateful nonetheless.  I’m holding on to that dirham looking at the countryside tumble past.  My luggage is sitting on the seat between me and the window, so I can make it appear as though all that land is falling interminably into my suitcase.  I’ve become very good at packing.

Rewind one last time to the week before when we all find out we will be forced to leave West Africa after developing a love and reverence for the land and its people in only seven months.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote a book about becoming unstuck in time, a concept which, since I read about it, has stuck with me ever after.  While separated by some distance, all these moments are somehow part of the same simultaneous crash.

The word “evacuation” is finally and definitively delivered from our friend Tondi’s mouth.  Crash.

The attendant comes to punch my ticket and help me figure out how to get to the airport, even though I’m in such a state I can hardly remember a word of French.  Crash.

I wake from an unsatisfactory twenty minute sleep and notice that my drooling has left a mark on my new Moroccan bag which remains there to this day.  Crash.

A bell rings to call in the next grade for lunch at a school in a town where I never thought I’d be in a profession where I never wanted to be.  Crash.

Or perhaps more appropriately, ding.

Today being the 22nd of January means my Peace Corps service ended over a year ago and I am once again a listless drifter with no particular goal in sight.  I will remain this way until April at least, when I will hopefully be accepted into a French work program.  My primary mission now is to survive the next three months of feeling worthless.  Hopefully writing about things will help.  All the details will come to light eventually.

For now I’ll just be treading in some mighty metaphorical waters.