Author: BC

Peanut Butter Moments of Life

Standing tall on High View Point, 4,122 meters up, sun barely coaxed from its sleepy horizon bed. Wind whipped face cracking frozen smile across chapped lips, weather weakened fingers wrapped round cold metal spoon, struggling to mine sweet deposits of wealth from the precious sticky jar and deliver to a head drunk with exhaustion and exhilaration and altitude. Sweet bite of achievement. Soul filled to the brim on this perfect mountain morning.

It all started very early. Or maybe very late. Pitch black, and ground winking at the starstreaked sky. Everything sparkles in the Himalayas at night: crunchy footfalls of twinkling frost and freezing rocks slicked over with glitter and the Milky Way smiling down on it all. Headlamps highlight shimmering highways, clouds of hot breath steam locomotives up, up, up, slow and steady, rugged pace of icy predawn. Molten cores cool instantly on thin mountain air, muscles scream for reprieve after three days and nearly 13,000 feet climbed.

But sunrise waits for no one. Scramble up the slope now, three points of contact at least on loose rocks and slick grips and uneven strides. Breath delivered in great steady gulps to desperate lungs feeding fresh oxygen to crying red blood cells. When you feel you can no longer go on, you’ll know you’re halfway there.

Two hours up, dark ascents and glassy scrabbles give way to the first sensation of flat: Low High Camp, equipped with roaring fires and cozy tents and tin cups of hot tea. Inviting as the Sirens, impossible as Medusa’s stony gaze: resist, press on, there’s a dawn to catch, after all.

Keep trudging forward, legs robotic, eyes fixed on leading heels. Up and up and up. Minutes masquerade as hours. But then! First sunny starbreak from the East, low line of deep blue and dark orange cut by jagged black blade, slicing the horizon in a brilliant unbreakable streak. Troop of sentries, always watching, even when they can’t be seen.

And now a thin outline of Machapuchre to the North! And now, due West, great gorgeous Annapurna South lighting up her broad eastern face! What a dual vision: Proud Machapuchre’s twin peaks standing tall on a perfect triangular base and gentle, forgiving Annapurna, Goddess of Harvest and Nourishment, with arms spread wide, welcoming all into her bountiful breast. To watch the rising sun color her soft rose and increasingly vivid white is ecstatic. Cold breath caught in awestruck throats, frozen in a moment of majesty.

And every day there is a sunrise. And every day, Annapurna is there to reflect it, whether or not there are eyes there to witness it. And so it was and so it shall be toward infinity, for ever, even after the last man crawls from his muddy bed begging for Nature’s reprieve. Annapurna blushes not for the specks of dust drafting past her eternal view. Drift where you will, little mote, for I Am and always will Be.

And there is nothing else to do in this ethereal gaze than weep. Enveloping acceptance of a mother’s gentle heart, weep for its unquestioning embrace and all the lessons it teaches at once with one flicker of first light.

And when you come to, realize your body must be fed too for the work it so labored through to nourish your soul. And that beautiful taste of peanut butter, first sustenance of a long, cold morning, breaks the fast and reverie of the truly divine with small earthly reminders of the world’s perfect sweetness.

Five Frenzied Days In the Paranoid Heart and Passionate Guts of Hong Kong

It wasn’t officially declared a war zone when I got to Hong Kong. Not yet. But it wasn’t far off.

It’s why I decided to go in the first place, visit the frenzied and forlorn city instead of trekking the jungles of Laos.

I had jumped in just before the powderkeg weekend that would juxtapose the 5th anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution with the 70th birthday of Communist China. Something would go down, everyone knew, but what, and when, and how big was anyone’s guess.

I was just a two-hour flight from finding out for myself. Screw it, I thought. The jungle can wait. Can I say the same for the civilized world?

When I first stepped off the plane, it took a moment to shake off the dust of ten weeks in Vietnam. Things were different here. They whizzed and flashed and screamed for attention and moved without asking, all sterile poetics.

That frenetic pace is the lifeblood of Hong Kong, a Big City with Big Plans, powerful piston of capitalism that keeps Red China rolling.

I had come for the first-hand Civics lesson but didn’t know where to look for it, so I went searching for answers with the other students at Hong Kong University.

The city’s superb subway system delivers you directly to campus and straight into the heart of the movement: a mosaic of post-its and posters and cardboard scraps splashed with English and Cantonese, pleas for peace and destruction, strange symbols of budding revolution, Winnie the Pooh and Pepe the Frog and Guy Fawkes and gas masks and bloody eyes and raised fists. The floor is reserved for political mugshots, where visitors can tread on the face of the powerful.

As I took it all in, a student took it upon himself to add to the exhibition, spray-painting a long Cantonese credo in front of a ghastly depiction of Tiananmen Square. Curious, I asked a fellow onlooker if he knew what it meant.

‘The first part explains his thoughts on China,’ he said, ‘The last two lines say “Liberate Hong Kong. Revolution of our Times.”’

A popular slogan, screamed in the streets and shouted on the walls, it had roots in the Umbrella Revolution of 2014, doomed peaceful movement when Hongkongers last made their demands against China known. Its method was occupation, its symbol adopted from one small act of defiance: a councilman daring to open an umbrella at a ceremony honoring the 65th anniversary of the People’s Republic. Nylon yellow call to arms, it ushered in several months of nonviolent revolt. But the sit-ins couldn’t stand up to sustained police intervention, and the People never fully forgave the Force for their role in snuffing things out.

My fellow observer colored this context for me until we caught up to the present, social shades of grey and all the psychological underpinnings this time around. It took hours and we’d barely begun.

But nevermind all that, there would be time for history later. For now, there was a demonstration to get to: a rally for victims of police brutality. They’d be speaking out tonight, in Edinburgh Place, just downtown. Would I like to go?

The event had received the rare blessing of Hong Kong police, so the act of being there wouldn’t be considered a crime. Still, there were a few things to know before going.

Hongkongers have a phrase to describe their demonstration approach: ‘Be like water,’ a nod to the Daoist concept of The Way, a reminder to take to the streets with inherent flow. It means the action stays fluid, breaking gladly against any damming scenarios. No resistance. The crowd simply moves where it will.

Tactically, this keeps police on their toes too, tiring a competitor that far outpaces the movement when it comes to training and weaponry. Emotionally, it keeps rather cool blood pumping through a potentially wild heart. As long as you stayed present and kept moving, my new friend told me, you’d be alright.

‘But you can’t really understand it until you experience it,’ he added. ‘Did you happen to bring your own gas mask?’

Before things got started, my new friend and I went on a quick tour of Kowloon, stopping for toast and eggs at a locally-famous establishment.

How easy it was in those moments to believe this was just another night in a new city. The streets hummed with neon. Buyers bought. Sellers sold. People got about their Fridays at an urban clip. Inside the restaurant forks scraped on plates. Bills tallied. Orders rang. Kitchens buzzed. Remarkable normalcy, one could stay lost forever in the stainless steel shine.

But just a few blocks away under overpass shadows was the Mong Kok Memorial, standing tribute to the movement’s respect and suspicion. Blossom of violence, it was erected on behalf of three protestors widely believed to be killed during a late-August clash with police. The department denies these claims but also refuses to release the surveillance footage that would put them to rest. The best-case scenario, many Hongkongers believe, is that the three have been Disappeared.

On the far side of the monument, under vigilant candlelight, is a running tally of protestor suicides reported since June. The figure has climbed high enough to raise more than a few suspect eyebrows.

And just 10 minutes by subway was the night’s Big Event. The victims would speak of abuse they saw and suffered through at the city’s most notorious prison, the only one in town without CCTV, where more protestors were reportedly being detained due to ‘space issues’ at the handful of half-empty jails closer by.

The rally was a sea of black, the color of protest, and the sparkling stars of 50,000 lights lifted as One. The new Hong Kong anthem played and bounced off the walls of towering industry, echoing deep through the canyon of wealth. The twinkling black tide chanted and made its demands known. Autonomy. Freedom. Justice. When it came time for the speakers, every person sat down, listening with a quiet as intense as their rally cries.

It had been a peaceful success. Afterward, all anyone wanted to know was why.

Where were the police? Were they lying in wait? Or just waiting for later?

There were plenty of chances for clashes this weekend. Would they strike harder during tomorrow’s Umbrella Movement anniversary? Or Sunday’s March Against Totalitarianism? Surely they couldn’t strike hard against both. (Or could they?) Too much violence would just encourage too many more to join the movement. (Or would enough force quash momentum?) But surely, surely they’d have to do something. This weekend was far too important for China to lose any face.

Hong Kong’s foundation of resistance is built on this miracle of cumulative guesswork. In the long, fine Asian tradition of collectivism, it rests its strength on the masses, producing, through sheer force of will, an astonishing leaderless gameplan.

AirDrop and Telegram and Twitter and Whatsapp send digital smoke signals and word of mouth does the rest. Revolution of Our Times, indeed.

It all functions as impressive thoroughfare, but along the way the route twists with rumors, and any government response is an untrusted detour. All the keen instincts of paranoia keep the thing gassed up through the ricochet switchbacks of Revolution.

The only thing anyone seemed to be sure of that night was that Tuesday would not be good. The National Day of the People’s Republic, and the new nation’s 70th birthday to boot.

A military procession befitting the grand round number was on tap for the streets of the capital. The last thing Beijing would want was for the island ruckus to rain on its martial parade. But most Hongkongers had their umbrellas ready.

Saturday night and my heart is pounding. I’m on my own, not too far from the front line at Admiralty.

Would tonight be the Big One?

It was the Umbrella Revolution anniversary party and everyone was waiting for the guests of honor to arrive. The protest started at seven. The police, everyone seemed to know, somehow, would be there by nine.

The venue was the first scene of the original movement, a brutalist government complex buttressed by an MTR station and a wide swath of highway, tangled seam of overpasses and tunnels keeping the sprawling site stitched together. It was empty of the familiar grey suits of daylight. All that remained were the ones dressed in black.

The scene was quiet save for some small sounds of destruction, ringing hammers on metal and brick, sidewalks and fences being pillaged for city-funded fortifications. It tolled like a bell keeping uneasy time.

I looked at my watch. Three minutes to nine. Were our police friends the type who arrived early, or fashionably late?

I’ve been shaken before, physically shocked into submission, but this was something new. Never had the potential for violence existed so far outside of myself. It gave the terror free run of my imagination: nervous anticipation, an unseen circling Jaws, movie monster known only through the fear in the eyes of its victims.

A sick thrill, I thought in those eerie quiet moments of approaching dissent. That roiling stomach condition you love so well. Fuck. This isn’t even your fight. What are you doing here? These people are willing to bleed and burn and die for this. Are you willing to do the same?

It was just then a courteous protestor interrupted my queasy thoughts.

‘The police are coming now,’ he said. ‘The front line is just there. You need to get safe.’

And suddenly there they were, faster than rising panic, a wall of black riot gear, heavy helmets and bulletproof shields. They waved the Red Flag: Stand down, or we will charge. The front line bucked at the sign like angry bulls.

‘Murderers!’ they taunted in Cantonese. ‘Gangsters of the State!’

The hacked up fences, traffic cones and other junk spilled across empty streets, obstructing the path to pursuit. Things got louder. The flag switched from Red to Black: A warning, I had learned, that the next move was teargas.

It came in billowing waves. A few booming shots and a smoky flood of chemical pepper, a sting that stuck in your throat and made you well up despite yourself. Running from it only meant sucking it down harder.

‘Know your exits,’ my friend from the university had told me the night before. And before the party started that night, I had studied them well.

Many fled at the first familiar sound of doom. I darted with them through the station’s worm tunnels, emerging at a safe space where I could observe the action through bleary eyes at a breathable distance.

The hardcore frontline held firm while the police were busy preparing their next trick: the firehose loaded with capsicum-laced water and spiked with blue dye, anointing protestors with burning skin and an easy mark.

The fight didn’t last long after that. The frontline gave the signal to fall back, be like water, disperse.

I didn’t feel like water. I felt like cold sweat and burnt lungs. All the demented excitement of cats and mice. A chewed up raw nerve of adrenaline.

In the end, seasoned protestors told me, the rally didn’t amount to much. They would come hard tomorrow, it was decided. Tonight was a warm-up round. Get your rest.

You can hardly run into anyone in Hong Kong these days who doesn’t have a tale of brutality. And their stories all follow the same basic arc: I was doing nothing wrong. Walking too close to a protest, maybe. The wrong place at the wrong time for sure. And then there was pepper spray, forced searches, sharp questions.

Anything perceived as evidence can and will be used against you.

These stories came to me from everywhere, people who bled for the movement and people who barely cared. Eager young faces born into dissent, waiting to catch frontline action, hold the police accountable for crimes they could barely remember. Grizzled expats reading graffiti prophecies, bleakly speculating when The Money would flee and send the whole island to its knees. Students and mothers and fathers and grandparents, wondering How Much More the People can take.

This disillusioned tessellation of faces packed the street by the hundreds of thousands the following day. The March Against Totalitarianism, a demonstration much different than ones I’d seen in the states.

There were hardly any clever signs begging to stand out. The crowd instead thrived as one: All in black; all carrying umbrellas; all towing the line.

Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong! the streets sang out in a thousand-part harmony. The tenor of the words rang deep in my bones. I had been wrong the night before. This was my fight. This was everyone’s fight. Justice. Liberty. Equality. What else in the world mattered?

I stopped to rest a minute the mangled ankle and broken toe I’d brought with me from Vietnam, gift of speed and steep switchbacks and stupidity on a motorcycle ride a few weeks earlier. I sat down next to two girls. They were 16 years old. Dressed in black. Faces swaddled in paper masks.

They spoke to me in words beyond their years about the power of protest, the free future they hoped for, the fraying ties with police. Did I know they said up to 20 percent of police actually wanted to quit? They were too scared to actually do it though. There was a lot to be scared of nowadays.

They asked if I’d be okay on my bad ankle. They told me they had to be home in time for dinner or their moms would be worried.

As the movement passed by, they sketched out for me its finer details: communication was stunning and simple. A signal for stop, one for go, one calling for medics. Human chains stretched vital gear down city blocks, one pair of hands at a time.

When police make a move and the front line backs off, the crowd begins chanting: Yhut, ngee! Yhut, ngee! ‘One-two! One-two!’ It keeps a steady pace of retreat, keeps the panic in check, keeps each other away from a sad trampled end.

I understood then what my friend had said about the movement’s intrinsic mechanics of zen. Everything flowed, effortless. Float the river of dissent on the raft of the masses. There’s no need to panic. They can’t be bigger than all of us. We are Water. Mighty force that’s turned so many mountains to mud.

But the storm’s backend soon collapsed on its sweet eye. Chaos. The police were here. Somewhere, we sprung a leak.

The girls had gone home for the night, safe, I hoped, on their way back to dinner. I was standing on top of a highway median, watching the major arteries of a major city blocked up with a thousand black cells. And soon they were rushing past, throbbing heartbeat of a movement in retreat from the promise of pain and detention.

In that moment, there is only room for instinct. Scatter. Slide. Sprint. The hoses were out. The booming guns sounded, first tendrils of teargas snakes.

Put your mask on. Find your exits. Run. Run. Run. Turn left. No. Cut right, hop over the fence. Back into the street. Hands waving wildly, calling for medics, signaling police positions, sharing news down the line. Yhut, ngee! Yhut, ngee! The pacing cry was delivered at a gallop.

Fearsome front liners held their ground, and tonight they were ready, matching brutal outbursts with their own firepower. All teargas waltzes and firebomb sprints, the streets exploded with Molotov cocktails and a hailstorm of bricks.

I had no helmet, no press vest, no gasmask. I fled for cover in the nearby district of Wan Chai, old Westerner haunt where the gweilo went looking for Hong Kong’s darkest corners and cheapest thrills.

Soaked with sweat and pouring tears, I stowed myself inside a Mexican restaurant, horribly thankful for the color of my clothes, the color of my skin, the assimilation and all its presumed innocence.

The Rugby World Cup was on. The A.C. was pumping. The clientele were drunk. The game was news. The protest was noise.

A few mildly curious customers pulled away from their margaritas long enough to eyeball my entrance, and one or two even wandered over to the door. Hongkongers clad in black were running from something. Running from what? Why was everyone around here so goddamn edgy?

Eh, who cares. Another try scored! Another round, waiter. More salsa and chips.

The violence stretched long into the night. Entire streets were hacked apart. Vengeful and brutal writing on the wall. Thudding bricks on police car roofs and teargas shots and angry shouts.

Down the way, some small fires burned. But waking up Monday, you’d never know.

Accustomed to the fierceness of natural storms, the stuff man can come up with is nothing for Hong Kong streetcleaners. Sidewalks were restocked with tomorrow’s brick weapons, fires reduced to ash marks, posters peeled away, all in a matter of hours. Only the graffiti remained, and the heavy dust in the air.

Hongkongers went to McDonalds and went to Mannings and went to work, dressed in white and dressed in colors. The subway ran, its impartial hum carrying students and bankers and doctors and lawyers and store clerks and me.

Tomorrow was The Big One. But today was therapy. Today was needed. I ignored the writing on the wall with all the rest. I wore flip flops. I did tourist things.

How easy to hide in the comfortable patterns of waking and working. A great invisibility cloak of the mind. Perhaps this compartmentalization was all part of it: A reminder of the peace on the other side, dull droning societal serenity worth a revolution.

Or maybe it all boiled down to divine denial. Surely, such ire was hardly sustainable. Maybe the trick of prolonged rebellion is keeping it in the calendar margins of nine-to-five.

Many have spoken of this movement as an Example, and I began to understand then the many ways in which that was true. Hong Kong was a nation of Weekend Warriors. A strange syncopated step keeping perspectives in check and full-on war at an arm’s length.

Demands could be listed and grievances aired, but the Ship of State sailed on, buoying all with some small sense of security.

Maybe this, too, was Being Water.

Whatever the cause, I was grateful. Calm enough, even, to indulge a bit.

There had never been a better time in my life for yoga. Luxury of release for mind, body and soul, a few stretches, bends, folds in the corner of my tiny room, an emancipation of anxiety and raw nerves and doubt.

My own moment of Being Water, finding, once again, a personal flow. Recenter. Breathe. It’s going to be okay. All you have is this moment. And all you can do with it is the best you can.

Priceless gift of the universe, free energy to manifest as you please. And tonight, I choose to manifest peace.

But it was short-lived. Tuesday’s alarm was the sirens. Just a precaution, distribution of fire trucks down the line.

The day had already been called high advisory. From a meteorological tilt, heavy pollution would stifle the air.

No relation to the heavy vibrations of protest. It was a National Holiday, the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic.

Nearly everyone had off, free to watch the whole showy parade on TV if they wanted. But the real action would hit much closer to home.

The demonstration officially started at one, but the MTR had been shut down that morning, keeping all movement to the island a highly-monitored nuisance. The Water sprung up instead in a wellspring, pools of protestors burbling dissent all over both sides of the Harbor.

I was there in the heart of Hong Kong. As the fates would allow, my hotel sat snugly on the parade route du jour, just between Central and Admiralty, the city seats of financial and government power.

I had a window seat to revolution, two stories up. Not that I used it. Not at first, anyway.

The previous day I’d acquired a gas mask. Gift from a fellow reporter, though they were sometimes on offer from protestors too. Funny fluid currency of the Hong Kong free market. It helped me breathe easier. I stuffed it in my bag and met my University friend for lunch.

A strange diner scene, far different from my first night in town. Protestors streamed past the window, staring in at the zoo. We stared out, sipping last-minute tea at one of the last places open in town, a rendezvous point for another friend on his way.

Conversations with other trapped diners filled the tense lull. We all knew what was coming. Knew and didn’t know. How bad would it be?

‘If they had only given us what we wanted at first…’ an elderly patron began. ‘But it’s all too late for that now.’

Those fatalist drifts seemed to seize the whole city. No one was willing to predict how this thing would end, but no one was betting on Peace.

My new friend’s friend arrived then and we plunged back into the scene. The flow was a bit quicker, but steady. The movement pressed on.

Paper money littered the wind, a traditional offering for the recently dead. It symbolized the passing of the Power of China.

A few black flags waved. A few black-clad protestors snuck off to cover the street with more posters. A few preferred spray paint.

‘We’re not vandals, we’re artists,’ one t-shirt proclaimed. ‘Expect victory and you make victory,’ another read.

‘Ideas are bulletproof,’ the walls declared. ‘Break the System. Free Yourself.’ ‘Fuck Chinazi.’ ‘Never forgive. Never forget.’

My new friend’s friend had seen this before. He was there in 2014, the thick of it. He hadn’t forgotten.

‘Five years ago, we thought we had to justify the means,’ he said, voice muffled under paper mask. ‘Now all that matters is achieving the goal.’

Shifting tides of sentiment had pulled protestors to one of two poles, he explained: the more peaceful movement, called the Central Gang, who preferred the Umbrella methods of sit-ins and civil disobedience; and the Mong Kok Gang, frontline fighters who saw increasingly fewer problems with returning shots fired.

The groundswell was behind the latter group, or at least generally trending toward radicalization. Even those dedicated to armistice had become frustrated at its limited outcomes.

‘We saw our peaceful methods fail last time,’ my new friend’s friend, a member of the Central Gang, said. ‘And they react to the violence. When one million people come out in the streets and the government does nothing, then two million come out and still nothing. What more can you do?’

But the kind of attention attracted by violence has a funny way of doubling down on itself. We had been walking back West, back toward Admiralty, when the signals flared. Police ahead. Fall back. Yhut, ngee. Yhug, ngee. Then, from behind: police spotted, too. Water cannons and tear gas guns on both fronts.

Trapped. We had been funneled straight into an impossible well. Panic. What good is knowing your exits when you’ve been surrounded? We may have been water but they were a moat.

A frenzied sprint broke out in every direction. Frontliners fell back to defend every flank. Those caught up in the middle scrambled for hope of open cafes, Circle Ks, alleyways. Anywhere a person could hide and ride out the fury of a passing police storm.

My hotel was just a few blocks away. I grabbed my new friend and his friend in the madness and we started to run.

‘Stick to the walls,’ one of them shouted. ‘You’ll have at least one side covered that way.’

We dodged flailing bodies and barricades, rounded tight corners, hopped fences, slid through shoving waves of fear. The final dash was teargas frogger, one last sprint across the riptide of a seven-lane ocean. We set eyes on the target and took a deep breath. We made it inside just before the bombs went off.

Upstairs in the air-conditioned lobby, we watched the world burn. The bay windows lent themselves to the awesome view.

A battering ram of riot police brutalized the street. Frontliners backpedaled but didn’t retreat. The two fronts collided just outside the hotel. The air exploded with assault on both ends. Teargas glistened with queer Molotov glow.

And on the computer, another fresh horror. Live ammunition used in Kowloon. One person hit square in the chest. Alive or dead? Nobody knew. No further reports.

Civilization scrambled in a Rubik’s cube spin. We sat there, too stunned to reassemble the pieces.

The scene outside was nearly as swift as it was violent. The front line fell back. The action kept moving upstream, in a teargas blitz. An army of cops, dressed in black, cleared the path. More police cars than I’ve ever seen made up the rearguard.

Behind them was nothing, barren streets of dystopia. Sooty skies and smoldering sidewalks. No one left to put out the fire that had started to creep toward the gas station.

The noises of discord faded steadily East. We looked around the room at each other, still processing.

Even my new friend’s friend seemed shaken.

‘Really nice hotel here,’ he said finally.

An hour or so later, we surveyed the ruin. The fever had mostly broken by then but the night was still hot, thick with sweltering pollution that clung to the day’s toxic fumes.

Potholes pockmarked ash-slicked sidewalks. Broken glass shroud the steaming street. Not one inch of wallspace was spared from graffiti. Bricks and empty teargas canisters led a breadcrumb trail of dissent all the way down to Causeway Bay.

The leftbehind garbage of panic and revolt fell at our feet, a flurry of paper masks and protest pamphlets and umbrellas. More paper money blew in with the wind. For the death of Chinese rule, and maybe some innocence lost.

People heavy with caution and curiosity wandered the empty streets in apocalypse daze. Eyes wide but not seeing, or at least not believing.

The dead-stopped heart of a world-class city. Did my friends think this scene represented the pinnacle?

I don’t see how that’s possible, they said. The stakes were much too high now for either side to back down. Not freely or willingly, anyway.

‘How does this all end then?’ I said. A question I had asked countless times that week.

We stared out at the devastation, not knowing the answer.

A Day with the Traveling Sisterhood

I had only one living grandparent by the time I was born: my mother’s mother, a stooped and gregarious Italian woman I called Nonny.

She died when I was very young, just seven or eight, and my memories of her are sparse but deeply sewed: The smiling face in the second story window of the Brooklyn brownstone, waving as we walked in a circus troupe toward her door; the laugh and special trio of kisses that would always greet me once I climbed up her stairs, one-two-three, down my cheek in the line of a traffic light.

Her meatballs were famous. Her couch was coated in crunchy plastic. One night she had me sit around the kitchen table with my mom and my sisters and we played poker for pennies.

I can only guess what she may have thought about my travels in Vietnam. But I think she would’ve liked Hue.

It was a beautiful morning. The heat had settled just enough to breathe with a bit more conviction and the tropical sun was blessedly laced with clouds.

A climatic gift, if only a small one. Invigorated, I set out in the opposite direction of where I’d been.

Back pointed to the Perfume River, I traveled something like Southwest, away from the nerve center of town, down a straight shot of local market that gave way to a long row of local shops that eased into a quiet neighborhood straddling one of the tributaries that weave through the area.

I took a left. I took a right. I followed the path of the water down a shady lane. Lined with sleepy homes, it dead-ended in a small temple overrun with low-slung palms. No one was there. A few paces away, a man swung in a hammock tied up on the riverbank.

‘Hallo! Hallo!’ he said.

He motioned to the red plastic chair set nearby his perch. An invitation to join. Another man was there peeling tapioca root like string cheese and rolling the strips into small balls. A woman was there, too, and a soot-black shepherd named Li, all pink puppy smiles and curious eyes. Idling away an afternoon growing thick with lazy humidity.

I sat for a bit petting the dog and responding to their Vietnamese overtures with a handful of random English: ‘Yes, yes. My name is Bridget. U.S.A.? How are you? Nice day today. River! Beautiful! Yes!’

‘Num la?’ was the only response, repeated again and again as the reclining Buddha snug in his riverside hammock rubbed his sweaty big belly and gave out a great laugh. Everyone was ‘num la’ – the tapioca fiddler, the river, me, the houses, the woman, the dog. Bales of laughter erupted. It got funnier every time.

When finally there was no ‘num la’ left, I said my goodbyes to cheery waves and big smiles.

Another dusty road, baked red dirt cutting through luscious green palms and small farms and rows of weatherbeaten homes.

I turned another corner and saw them right away: a bustle of motion, a small dust storm in the distance, the busiest thing on this tropical afternoon.

They had commanded an entire front patio of a corner store, a gaggle of grandmothers crowded around a small plastic table. The thick wool blanket draped across it did nothing to dampen the sound of cards being slapped down with a fury. Even the oppressive air gave way to their glorious cackles.

There were six of them smiling and chatting, women of a certain age with bright laughing wrinkles and steamed-up glasses and thick greying buns tied at their napes.

They saw me. They pointed and whistled and waved. Once again I was invited to join.

A chair was pulled up for me around the table. We exchanged some pleasantries, lost in translation. They hugged me and patted my hair. ‘Pretty! Pretty! Sit! Sit!’

But even my entrance couldn’t distract them too long from the game.

Nimble hands shuffled and scooped up and sorted cards in a simultaneous flash. Each player wound up with 10 of them—strangely oblong to my Western eyes and painted with Egyptian-looking patterns and all the dirt of a thousand such afternoons.

Cards were thrown down in pairs, with a thwack and a monosyllabic cry: ‘Bo! Sui! Ba! Gat!’ The action danced around the table in no discernable pattern, and in just under a minute, the dancing was through.

The community pot was dipped into by the smiling victor. Folds of small bills were unearthed, added to and subtracted from. Flies disturbed by the quick action were swatted away. More shuffling, scooping, sorting, hooting happy cries, ‘Sui! Bo! Gat! Ba!’ thwak! thwak! thwak! and another round through.

So beat the rhythm of the afternoon. My companions would sometimes wrap arms around my shoulders, try a few more questions in Vietnamese, explain the game to a hopeless foreigner in a foreign tongue, let me hold their cards for a few rounds and laugh good-naturedly at my clumsiness with them. Mostly I sat contentedly, lulled by the happy percussion of the day. I felt safe, accepted, wrapped in maternal warmth.

Over the course of the day’s hottest hours, the porch got more crowded. At least a dozen women came to watch or take place in the action and play charades small talk with a stranger whose verbal language no one could speak and whose presence at the daily cardgame was running through the grapevine like wildfire.

One woman, far older than the others, came strolling up in a silk lilac shirt and matching pants. Her cigar smoke broke in waves against her wide-brimmed hat. I offered her my chair and she shared with me her tapioca root, making sure I got the bigger half of every piece she tore off.

The woman next to me, who let me hold her cards, called out to the store keeper, and soon I was holding a Nước Mía, the scrumptious sugarcane drink mixed with kumquat juice and a touch of salt. A small taste of cool heaven on a scorched afternoon. She made the ‘Drink up!’ motion and smiled at me.

A short while later, another townswoman came by with lunch for the whole crew: a huge plate of steamed noodles and shrimp and rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves. I was handed a hot bowl and a fork before anyone else and before I could say no and instructed with gummy smiles to ‘Eat! Eat!’

Occasionally, a man would pass through on a motorbike and, spying either the stranger or the commotion of the game, park nearby and follow his curiosity onto the porch, only to be passively iced out or actively shooed away by the Sisterhood. Tongues clucked, smiles cracked and eyes rolled after each hasty retreat. The hooting and teasing and fast dealing wound up again.

I thought of my mom. And my sisters. And the grandmother I didn’t know well enough and the grandmother I never knew. That night long ago playing poker in the kitchen in Brooklyn. I wondered if I would play cards with my girlfriends on hot afternoons like this when we got older, gaggled together over the same type of giggling table. I thought: I have to learn how to play this game so I can bring it back with me. I watched and watched and still made no sense of it.

After enough rounds of insatiable play, the air finally broke with the shade of setting sun and it was time to go. Money was cashed out and collected and goodbyes were said.

On their way out, each woman took time to hug me and fuss over me one more time, pinch my cheeks, pat my hair, smile, share a bit of love with a grandmotherless granddaughter. One even gave me a kiss, one-two-three, down my cheek, in the line of a traffic light.

Maybe not so grandmotherless, after all.

Vietnam Vignettes: Saigon on a Hot Rainy Night

Heavy rains and heavy vibes in Ho Chi Minh City, as heavy news pours out of the West.

The heavens thunder open and the coffee shop is full. Small hot cups of refuge offered in exchange for a handful of U.S. cents. Motorbikes fly by like locusts splashing swarms of poncho-clad pedestrians who pay them as little mind as the drops falling from the sky.

Life beats on to the rainy season rhythm. But 44 years ago Saigon fell to the North, and 34 more Americans are dead from a terrible violent streak…

The news of the twin shooting sprees hits on my first full day in Vietnam, on my way to the War Remnants Museum, an austere structure in the heart of the city’s District 3, ringed by taxidermied U.S. Army tanks and planes.

El Paso and Dayton, back to back, attacked by a pair of geeky extremists. Strange baggage to carry into a place designed to unpack all the ugly truth of the mid-century assault on Southeast Asia.

Inside, the exhibits are placed in descending chronological order. Start at the top, with the story of French occupation and America’s decision to help their European cousins cling to power in a far-off land. Proceed downward, as the French acquiesced and the U.S. took over the butchery, its gory glory captured in grainy black and white and, eventually, splashes of blood red and Agent Orange as the world moved toward a Kodachrome view. Continue through the aftermath of a nation sprayed with bullets and poisons, rebuilding what scorched earth was left to it, and arrive, finally, on the ground floor, at something that resembles peace, or at least Victory.

Somewhere along the second level, about halfway down the brutality ladder, is an exhibit on firearms used in the war. Sounds of shots fired mingle with vibrations of menace still hotly radiating from the heavy artillery surrounding the room.

Photos from the war show guns pointed at temples, triggers primed to squeeze, and all the bloody aftermath, brutalized corpses, laying in ditches or carried over shoulders of still-teenaged GIs. Pools of blood ooze from women and children and elderly farmers with no flesh on their bones.

The throughline of violence hits me then, like the bullets used to send someone else’s solutions through the thickest of skulls.

The American obsession with the brute force method: that confused philosophy conflating Strength with Rightness, a quick flash of muscle to hide a weak mind and shield a glass ego. There is no soul to save.

The bespectacled pair of scum behind the weekend’s attacks afflicted with the same demented mentality as Robert McNamara, and Richard M. Nixon, and Lyndon B. Johnson… one that smacks of all the assumed power of Manifest Destiny and the inherited order of White Man Knows Best.

It was once that only whole branches of government could command enough deadly force to bring this Civics Lesson to the masses, but like much else in the era of globalization, the awesome power has been cheaply cloned and can easily squeeze through Internet signals. (Strength, after all, can be bought for $59.99 in the back of a Walmart and Rightness, mined in your favorite hate forum, is never more than a few clicks away.)

M-16 fire ricochets off the glass display cases that keep the instruments of death around me at bay. I imagine what it must’ve been like to run from the same bloody sounds in Dayton and El Paso, the scene captured by New Age War Correspondents wielding phones that compress the color of corpses and chaos in fleeting real time and send them around the jaded world in a wink.

The courtyard of the museum smells like popcorn. Crowds of tourists pose for selfies in front of anti-aircraft artillery. They smile for the cameras, flash a peace sign for their followers.

In a nearby park, two children frolic jovially in the first wisps of downpour, jabbering on in French, blissfully unaware of what the building across the street says of their forbearers. Discarded museum entrance stickers mark nearly every open surface with the image of doves flying over three dropping bombs.

The walk back to the hostel is muddy and full of clouds. I’m ready for something to take my mind off the day.

Upon arrival to my temporary home, the opportunity comes: the single-serving friends I’ve met are grabbing dinner at the night market, then drinks at the Backpacker Street. Great, I think, wash it all back with some hot food and a cold beer.

But the ocean of neon only makes those black & white memories more vivid. The Backpacker Street is a rave, filled with sweat and cigarette smoke and strange pyrotechnics, where people go to drink and fuck and get their cheap thrills. A perfect frenzied tribute to whitesploitation (or maybe just Westsploitation?), with foreigners still acting as if this land serves no higher purpose than supporting their needs, though instead of the tungsten and coal sought by their predecessors, they’ve moved on to all the ugliest whims reserved only for some far-off vacation.

And behind them all the while are the Vietnamese employees, dutifully keeping the booze flowing and the toilets mostly free of bahn mi-twinged puke stains.

Liberation at last?

If the locals are raking in their fair share of chips, (And are they? Who, really, sees the profit here?) is this the truest manifestation of the freedom fought for so brutally in these streets or a mockery of it?

Impossible to tell on this hazy night in Saigon. The group orders another round of drinks, and I take a deep sip.

A Song for Singapore

[mood| traveler’s high]

[music|Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats – I’ll Cut You Down]

So here I am in Singapore… curled up in some sort of cafe-lounge, digesting the questionable-looking cheese-and-tomato sandwich that was the freshest thing I could find that was also vegetarian and also available at these hours…

Here at the Singapore Airport, where everything is sponsored by Changi – the push carts, the random ‘Become a Millionaire!’ giveaway in the main thoroughfare, even the gat damn internet. Must find out the story of this corporate overlord… or what I’ve just traded away for a chance to ~connect~ . Pray tell, Changi, what dark secrets of mine are you now privy to? But oh, thank you so, for the sweet Internet…

[UPDATE: ‘Changi’ is apparently the Singapore airport’s Christian Name. Difficult to track down any other connection to the word, corporate, cultural or otherwise. But oh, what’s in a name, after all?]

4:24am and about 11 more hours to go before takeoff…

The coffee machines whir and whirl, comforting sounds of the traveler’s office… the sweet smell of cappuccino makes its way over even to this strange corner where I sit amongst the 35 pounds of on-the-road life that’s all I have in the world, spread out around me in ruins. Plugged into a cube about 2 meters away where a family hovers around the small tabletop, personal devices all affixed and barely using the cushions they’ve commandeered but for a bit of anguished-looking attempts to lean back on them…

But it is nice on the floor, over here in my nook. I can lay down at last. Stretch my body out and in a few opposite directions than the ones it just so patiently sat through for some six hours on the way out of Melbourne.

Headphones in. Shoes off. Chai latte at an arm’s length. For whole moments at a time I can almost forget I’m in a public place.

And that is the beauty, isn’t it? Finding yourself, wherever you are. Making a space out of whatever you’ve got… some small patch of purple rug nestled next to a couple of potted plants with a fine window view. Ah yes, and the sun is just beginning to peak over the horizon now…

A fresh influx of bodies; another flight landed safe here in Singapore. The family is gone and a quartet of plucky British women sit in their place. They discuss the local gossip of Elizabeth’s husband and Pollyanna’s niece in uppercrust accents. They leave their garbage behind them when they go.

Plenty of hours yet to spend here in Singapore. Maybe time to find that basement train straight into the city for a proper breakfast in the fresh air before making my way back to that recycled stuff in my second tin-can ride of the day.

And Now, It’s Time for Australia’s Number One Game Show!

Coming to you live from Melbourne, it’s everyone’s favorite game: The Most Superfluous Thing in My Backpack Is!

Today’s contestant: Two giant spiral notebooks that make no sense to carry around in this digital age!

Weighing in at 200 pages and some 0.4 pounds, these two – yes, count ’em, two! – giant spiral notebooks that make no sense to carry around in this digital age take up an impressive 11×8.5 square inches of space each!

This is space that could otherwise go to snacks, water, guide books, or nothing at all if I knew what was good for me because weight is a real life thing and I already have too much of it in my pack!

Now tell ‘er what she’s playing for, Jonny! –

Well, Bill, that’ll be a tripworth’s supply of Peace of Mind!

And about 12,000 Bic pens.

When I first saw the size of the notebook my friend who would be hiking the Pacific Crest Trail grabbed off the shelf, I had a strong reaction.

She was leaving the next day for her trip and decided she wanted something to log it, but only, really, as an afterthought, which is how she wound up picking something last-minute from the sad collection at Target. Among a few reasonable options, she selected a child-size trinket, practically made of tissue paper.

The logic was impeccable. I couldn’t understand it.

The thought of that malnourished thing being held responsible for containing all the mess of that trek was distressing.

And so I make the space for it, a peace tax on prime real estate.


Not Goodbye, Just See You Later


[music|The Shirelles – Will You Love Me Tomorrow]

On my very first night back in New Zealand I was approached, at a bar, by a bull of a man. He was a boisterous Maori bloke and asked, for no particular reason, if he could buy me a drink. I was there with friends and declined the kind offer but neither him nor I had piqued the bar tender’s attentions yet so we continued standing there, next to each other, while we waited to place our order.

He didn’t even ask about my accent; he knew I was a foreigner, and he immediately began welcoming me to the country. ‘Do you know about the breath of life?’ he said.

I had seen it performed but never knew its name: the Hongi, the traditional Maori greeting, constituting of the touching of noses and foreheads. Western culture writes it off as akin to a handshake, but its meaning goes much deeper than the sly contest of strength that seals a deal or asserts a first impression of dominance.

The greeters are meant to share a close space to experience something together. Each inhales simultaneously, drawing nourishment from the same air, and breathes back into it their own life force, replenishing one another and refreshing the ancient energies that make up the very universe and always have. We Are All One, the Hongi says, and I cherish you as I cherish myself because you are me and I am you.

We performed the breath of life then, the Maori man and I, and the calamity of the bar around us fell away for a moment to a smaller, quieter plane of existence.

‘Welcome to New Zealand,’ he said. ‘We’re happy to have you here.’

…And just like that, I’m preparing to leave once again. Sweet New Zealand, my second home and safe harbor, where, ten years ago, I first found myself, and, two months ago, I began to heal myself.

It never gets easier to leave this place, and each time I do, a larger part of my heart gets left behind. But in its place, I carry a larger part of the special energy here, and it flows more deeply within me, my small peace to keep.

I exhale what once was myself and breathe in the beauty of Aotearoa. I am New Zealand and New Zealand is me.  

The Best Laid Plans Of Fashion and Function…

[mood| warm coffee buzz on a cloudy day]

[music| Shana Cleveland – Night of the Worm Moon]

I’ve come to realize something in these past six weeks abroad: I’m a horrible backpacker, because I love clothes.

Minimalism is good. It forces you to pare down, bare down, get down to the dirty essentials. It’s what separates the boys from the men…and the light-wash denim with the holes in the knees that are high-rise bootleg cut from the light-wash denim with the holes in the knees that are boyfriend fit.

How many outfits can one person create from the precise geometry of an artfully ripped knee hole? (The question Dylan never asked us, but totally should’ve.) Is that preferred hemline literally worth its weight?

When the closet is shrunk down to 50 litres and you’re charged with lugging it around, you start living with these existential questions in an entirely different way. And the answers are all blowin’ in the wind…

Still, I sadly have to admit it: I miss having style.

I miss the way it would feel to walk out somewhere with the confidence of knowing that I looked good because I had very deliberately chosen all the pieces that worked together to create that look.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but suitcase living is its rotten stepmom. A zip pouch limit on the means to express yourself.

An outfit is so much more than a shirt and maybe some pants. It’s at once a marriage and measure of mood and personal taste. It’s a declaration: This is who I am and how I want to be seen, right here and right now. And a good one lets you project that self-assured energy out into the universe, reeling in respect and opportunity like magnetic magic.

Travel arrives at that solution with an inverse equation: The confidence—and ability—to move seamlessly through any number of cultures, climates, and weather events starts with acknowledging these outside factors first, before working back toward the way you choose to cover your body in light of them.

Problem solving for all those practical matters leaves little remainder for a personal touch. And on a trip that will span from the Hague to the Himalayas, through seven months or more of winter and rainy season and across beaches, cities, and uncut paths, there’s even less room for superfluous flair.

Which brings me to my current wardrobe: one pair of jeans (medium-wash, no holes), three pairs of leggings, one sweater, one scarf, one pair of shorts, two pairs of light-material pants for hot, sticky climates, two long-sleeve shirts, two button-ups and two tank tops for layering, a t-shirt shouting out California and one promoting Princeton University in case I feel like openly courting a conversation, a bathing suit, one ‘nice’ shirt for any weird occasions when I may need to ‘go out,’ one long skirt, one sundress, two jackets – one for rain and one for warmth, boots, sneakers, and sandals. And all that is probably a luxury of goods that may yet be further streamlined. Editing doesn’t only exist in writing.

To be left with such a limited range of ways to express yourself is strange. But even stranger is that the sum total of your options–how you’ll look, to yourself and to others, and how you’ll feel–is dictated by the prevailing mood of just a few days.

And mine was a strange one for sure.

While packing for this tour, I was going through some shit, simultaneously sorting the rest of my clothes to be sent to three separate locations, plus loading the rest of my life into a 6×10 storage space and the hatchback trunk of a 2012 Prius, among a few thousand other things.

Exhaustion ruled and emotions swelled and I couldn’t channel them all toward release – not on a page, not through an amp, not heated up and dispelled on a long run or workout. The levee burst when I opened my closet door and flooded my bedroom with an ocean of fabric and color, my personality dismantled and floating, disjointed, through the mess like the debris of a shipwreck.

From this sea of synergistic possibility I plucked missed opportunity, each item tucked away one less way to see or be seen for months on end. Each beautiful thing I consigned to the dark corner of storage a part of me that would likewise not see the light of day until my return.

In so many ways, my fate has been sealed by the whims of that weird week back in May. And yet, it presents a worthy challenge for my present-day being: To accept where I am, and what I have, now. To make it work. To get creative. To lose the ego. To give up the need to control every detail. To search even deeper for that comfort and confidence. To find myself anew, every day, in the same old clothes.

Mad Ramblings of the Caffeinated

[mood| ready to go]

[music| The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Waltz Limp]

Hello, all three of you who stumbled here by accident! It sure has been awhile since I’ve screamed my useless thoughts into the Void, and it feels good to be back.

…So where have I been?

Mostly holed up in a quiet suburb of the Auckland supercity called Manurewa, about 17 miles or 40 minutes by train southwest of the city center itself.

What have I been up to?

Resting, mostly.

This leg of the journey was always designed with that aim in mind, but the jetlag and epic amount of upheaval preceding my flight here seemed to have taken more out of me than I anticipated. I’ve never slept more deeply in my life. A return to REM, which I’ve been direly missing.

I also made quick work of trying to see everyone here who I know and love. And that is not a small number of people.

There was the rock show the night of the day I landed, a bit of scheduling serendipity that allowed me to see some sweet friends on tour from California take on a perfect venue in the wonderfully seedy part of town. And the 30th birthday blowout bash the day after that, where I got to catch up with a number of old university mates, ask a bona fide rocket scientist how much longer it will be until there are more satellites circling the planet than space for them, sample some accidentally-as-strong-as-Absinthe gin home-distilled by the birthday boy himself, and even have a pre-made ‘Quick Fuck’ shot, an intentionally-ironic offering as a noted drink of choice for 21-year-olds, thanks primarily to a funny name that can double as a pick-up line in times of desperation. It tasted like college. Sad irony achieved.

Then there was the dinner the following weekend. More old mates, these some of my closest, from the days when I spent more time on the outskirts of the North Shore in a huge rented house nicknamed ‘The Palace’ than on university grounds. A notable party establishment in its heyday, The Palace had featured a ‘Wall of Fame’ and ‘Wall of Shame’ art exhibit-cum-photo collage, documenting all of its wildest and weirdest events. I had featured on both, as had most of the others who came out that night. We reminisced about these sweet old times and so many others, and caught up on where everyone was now, ten years later: Excitedly pregnant with child number one; being groomed to run a multi-national corporation; designing the future of Internet infrastructure in New Zealand; designing the future robots of the world; and me.

There were also a few roadtrips thrown in for good measure. One, along the Queen’s Weekend, which took me to the gorgeous Coromandel, a strange jut of peninsula due east of Auckland, rightfully noted for its remoteness and beauty. And another, a week or so later, with one of my closest friends from New Zealand days, a southerly tour that included hometown stopovers, another big party, and the chance to explore some abandoned gold mines from the 1800s.

Between all this, I’ve also been trying to reinstate some semblance of schedule. Pockets of time where I can rest assured work will get done, exercise will be enjoyed, sleep will be had. Maintaining balance is my forever struggle and this first month in The Land of the Long White Cloud has decidedly weighed more heavily on the side of sloth.

But one can only take so much taking it easy, or maybe all that rest has worked its magic after all, and I feel myself ready to start participating again. Actively.

Among things not previously shoehorned into these lazy days was much time for reading and writing, something that’s going to change. (New goal: finish the 601-page tome The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers Volume 1, Strange Tales from a Strange Time, a nearly-complete collection of works by one Dr. Hunter S. Thompson from the years 1964 to 1978, a totally deranged and completely necessary thing to pack when both size and weight of a bag are of paramount concern, so I may part ways with it before I go in order to return my overstuffed sack to some impression of stasis.)

I’ll be here for another month, filled, hopefully, with more personal work, a few quiet adventures, and spending as much time with friends as possible.

I love this country. I have been here many times and been fortunate enough to see very much of it. And I know I’ll be back many times more before my time here is through. What concerns me now is not sight-seeing, but seeing the ones who knew me when, and for some questionable logic or total lack thereof, still love me despite of that.

As for the work, there’s a lot cut out for me. This blog is still very much in a pre-natal state. Entries are scattershot at best, in terms of timing, tone and text, and I have no idea what I want this to be, or, more importantly, be about. And I especially have no idea why anyone would want to read these mad ravings. Dear reader, your presence is as appreciated as your motivations perplexing.

For now, at least, there is the sweet caffeine, and the return of motivation.

So hopefully as these last few weeks in Aotearoa wend on, I will find some surer footing as I populate this thing with the 10 or so diatribes on the nature of travel that have been jangling around in my skull. (Stay tuned for only the finest in ham-fisted self-exploration!)

Then it is off to Australia, for a bit more relaxing to the tune of a different accent, before heading off to see the rest of the world at a bit more of a sprint. Future schedule: TBD.

The Cards Have Spoken

“Oh also- what are your thoughts on tarot?”

It wasn’t a message I was expecting to get, but one I wasn’t upset about getting.

We had otherwise been talking the less cosmic details of airport pickups. What time are you due in? What’s your flight number? Do you take your coffee black or with sugar and cream? Ticking this logistical box was a strange and happy bonus.

“I love it,” I typed back into messenger. “Why? Did you want to get a reading??”

“Erm, no,” my friend Ally replied. “I do them. I have my own set. I’m not that great at it, but I just had a message from a friend saying part of a reading I did for her came true, so I am super excited!”

As was I.

I had decided about three months before that all my stuff would be going into storage, the donation bin or my backpack, and that I would be going to travel the world, with no clear direction and a muddled intention at best. Guidance, in any form, was a welcoming thought.

At that moment, all I had to cling to was a half-coherent system of packing piles. I was halfway through the sweaty chore of sealing up what had once been my own little world. A mental tax as much as physical, sifting through memories and cherished totems, wondering exactly what the hell I was doing.

What does one hope to get out of such a trip, besides the utter wipeout of their savings, a couple cool photos and perhaps a nice souvenir?

It’s a question I’ve been asked many times, not least of which by my own better judgement.

A world of opportunities, I typically told the others. I’ll figure it out when I get there, I privately told myself.

“There” would be New Zealand. I knew at least that much. My sweet second home. My safe space. In my mind, it had always represented the recentering point of this journey.

It was also the first leg of this journey, but it took nearly everything I had just to make it there. The three months between deciding to go and going were a Rube Goldberg gauntlet of my own hellish design, fraught with all the logistical Tetris of closing down the apartment, transferring the job, getting the car across country—after a separate road trip that entailed its own spate of planning, getting some sort of working budget together, figuring out the phone thing, figuring out the digital storage thing, and maybe remembering to eat every once in a while.

Yet the payoff was always there. A beautiful soft landing in Auckland. Lovely Ally at the airport, waiting with my coffee. (Black.) My own room to stay in her lovely house. A bed and four walls between which to let my mind whirl around strange subjects in relative peace.

And a few Welcome Home cocktails. Among her many talents, Ally makes a famous martini, so good it comes with its own set of rules, including the highly important policy: You may only have one in a night.

One is enough. And apparently enough to inspire some less-conventional party games.

“It’s time for your reading,” she declared at the bottom of her glass, despite my jetlagged, prostrated protest. “The spirits help conjure the spirit.”

It wouldn’t take long, she said. Just a one-card reading. She shuffled the deck. I cut it, then let my subconscious left hand choose my destiny.

The Four of Swords.

“Oh,” she exclaimed right away. “What an interesting card!”

We looked it up to be sure.

Representative of fear, anxiety and stress, the card signifies mental, physical and spiritual overload. Problems may exist, it reminds us, but they aren’t as overwhelming as they may appear in our exhausted state.

Breathe, relax, and recenter, the Four of Swords implores us. Take advantage of what peace, quiet, and sanctuary you can and your path forward, and purpose, will start to ring clear.

Even through the martini swirls I felt newly reassured. Maybe this is where I’m meant to be after all. Somewhere to catch my breath, gaze at an upside-down moon and figure out my next move, just like I had imagined all those months ago.