21 September 2008

You know you're out there when...

Cabela's doesn't have what you need.

Some of you may be aware of my food obsession - the do-it-yourself trend. I make my own jerky (beef and venison) and yogurt. I even tried my hand at soft cheeses using black market milk. Don't get me started with enzymes and curd making. (No details to be provided in a public forum, but rest assured, public health was not compromised. And it tasted great.)

Last November, I purchased a smoker, and have used it with great success. It provides the taste of cooking over an open fire, without the drawbacks of traditional camping, like mosquitoes, and I still get to sleep in my own bed at night. To complete the picture, my cousin has recently provided me with a smoking jacket. My smoker already had an insulating jacket.

Now, my deep love of dairy is colliding with my deep love of smoke flavored goodness: smoked mozzarella. Cheese melts at the temperatures typically associated with smoking meat. You must keep it under 90 F to avoid disaster. Google an assortment of terms, and you quickly come to the realization that there is not a commercial product for this. Do-it-yourself cold smoker instructions abound on the web. (Who would have thought I'd ever find myself wanting to purchase a hot plate?)

So, I'm not the only one with this obsession. But it does give me pause to need (or at least want quite badly) something so niche.

I'm reading "The thing about life is that one day you'll be dead" by David Shields. He states that "Older people are more susceptible to distraction, have trouble coordinating multiple tasks, and have decreased attention spans."

So let me express my concern in another way: How will you know that I've finally lost it, when I've always been way out here?

10 September 2008

Woo- Hoo! Life on Earth was NOT Annihilated by Physicists

So the Swiss have built the world's largest particle accelerator. And they tried it out today. Various crack pots were convinced that they would start some sort of reaction that would wipe out matter on earth.

Now that it's been tested, and we're all still here, I can go back to my rant. The US will spend billions on a war, and we can't invest in the hard sciences?

21 July 2008

I have rediscovered...

I have rediscovered one of the joys of driving: Singing "Birdhouse in Your Soul" at the top of your voice while riding through town.

It does seem a little less controversial than my other recent selections: George Carlin, may he rest in peace, Richard Pryor, and Mark Twain.

20 July 2008

So let's recap...

I attend the Unitarian Universalist church in Urbana. (Try saying that fast three times.) Over the summer, their services are lay-led. Today, I gave the sermon. It was about what I had learned while I wandered around. It's a bit of a read, but I trust you'll find a spare 20 minutes to blow off work.

There are two readings, followed by the sermon itself.

Title: 3,100 photographs later: How circumnavigating the world has changed my perspective.


I have two readings.

The first is from “Video Night in Kathmandu and other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East,” by Pico Iyer. Published in 1988.

“I went to Asia, then, not only to see Asia, but also to see America, from a different vantage point and with new eyes. I left one kind of home to find another: to discover what resided in me and where I resided most fully, and so to better appreciate... the home I had left...

"To mention, however faintly, the West’s cultural assault on the East, is, inevitably, to draw dangerously close to the fashionable belief that the First World is corrupting the Third. And to accept that AIDS and Rambo are the two great “Western” exports of 1985, is to encourage some all too easy conclusions... In place of physical imperialism, we often assert a kind of sentimental colonialism that would replace Rambo myths with Sambo myths and conclude, that because the First World feels guilty, the Third World must be innocent...

"This, however, I find simplistic... often, what we call corruption, they might be inclined to call progress or profit...

"If the first World is not invariably corrupting the Third, we are sometimes apt to leap to the opposite conclusion: that the Third World, in fact, is hustling the First. As tourists, moreover, we are so bombarded with importunities from a variety of locals – girls who live off their bodies and touts who live off their wits, merchants who use friendship to lure us into their stores and “students” who attach themselves to us in order to improve their English - that we begin to regard ourselves as beleaguered innocents and those we meet as shameless predators.

"To do so, however, is to ignore the great asymmetry that governs every meeting between tourist and local: that we are there by choice and they largely by circumstance; that we are traveling in the spirit of pleasure, adventure and romance, while they are mired in the more urgent business of trying to survive.

My second reading is from Po Bronson’s book, “What Should I Do with my Life?” The chapter entitled “Uncomfortable is Good; rehearsing for life’s improvisation”

"I corresponded with numerous people who were traveling in different parts of the world, hoping that while away, they might figure out what to with their life. Some returned with a new courage, and an insight into themselves... Many didn’t though. They had a good time, saw the world, and often wished they could keep traveling for the rest of their years. Insight into what they would do with themselves if they had to stand still? They weren’t able to milk that rock.

"So when it helped, how did it? What was the causal link?...

"Being uncomfortable is good. If you remain comfortable, you remain more or less yourself. The quickest way to make yourself uncomfortable is to travel alone. I found high correlation between traveling alone and milking the rock. It takes courage to change your life. Sometimes, doing so, you feel all alone in life. You can get used to this scary feeling by traveling alone...

"It also helped to travel without a plan... [it’s] a way to rehearse the improvisational approach, and opens your mind to the sense of adventure. You learn to trust the laws of chance. Perhaps, when you get home, you’ll be willing to do the same.

"When you subdue these fears, they no longer guard the gates, and you invite the truth into your life.


In the late 1960’s, my father wanted to see the world. Dad joined the Peace Corps, went to India, and met Mom. A secret courtship and bribery of a cabinet-level official began their life together. Next year, they’ll celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary. I tell you this for two reasons. First, so that you know that I consider myself to be, quite literally, the product of American idealism. Second, there’s a fine family tradition of wandering the earth to find yourself.

In September 2005, I quit my engineering job to backpack by myself around the world. My mother was frantic. My backpack was the size of a carry-on piece of luggage, and I had a day pack too. I had four pairs of underwear. I packed light.

I started in China, and worked my way west. I climbed on the Great Wall of China, dived in Bali, took cooking classes in Thailand, bought a sleeping bag in India off of eBay. I took a boat ride down the Nile in Egypt. Quite out of character, the only airport I couldn’t figure out was in Germany. Much of Europe is still “classified.” I had a recap of the trip in the British Museum in London. I crashed with friends in Cork, Ireland whom I had originally met in Xi’an China. I eventually flew home from Ireland in May 2006, with over 3000 photographs.

When I got back, there were certain questions everyone asked:

Question: What place did you like best? Answer: India with the family, and Croatia of all places.

Question: What was the weirdest thing you ate? Answer: I had several meals that were “point and eat.” So I guess the answer is “unknown.”

Question: How were the bathrooms? Answer: Ingenious in their own right, but unspeakable.

But there was one question asked of me only once, and it stopped me in my tracks. Question: So, what did you learn? I think this sermon is my answer.

It’s taken a while for me to work this out – which changes were permanent and which transitory. In the first category, I don’t always refrigerate my cheese, and I still have an affinity for mass transportation. In the transitory category, I can take a drink of water from the tap without a sense of amazement and incredulousness. And I no longer consider the purchase of a box of cereal to be a long-term commitment.

But I think that the greatest lesson of my travel has been both the gift of distance, and the gift of connection.

The gift of distance is “perspective.” Now, when I find myself in situations that would have really bothered me before – losing my cell phone – I can remain strangely calm. I can nearly always think of a time that I was hotter, colder, wetter, more uncomfortable, more awkward, or more helpless.

I admit that I had an emotional crutch on this trip. There were times that I was emotionally drawn out, homesick, or overwhelmed by all of the unfamiliar. This crutch was a Snickers bar. It’s the only thing I found that was the same everywhere. The taste of Coke will differ country to country. But not my Snickers bar. They were not easy to acquire, so their consumption was reserved for my most dire of moments.

I was walking through the town of Mammalupurum, in southern India, a place famous for its rock carvings. I stopped to consult the map of the park, and when I looked up, there was a baby monkey in the path. Having friends who would certainly enjoy a photo, I stopped to snap a picture. The next thing I knew, I heard a loud hiss, and looked down to see the alpha monkey, claws raised against me in intimidation. In one swift movement, it swiped the plastic bag tied to my day pack. This bag held all of my snacks. Some bananas, of course, crackers, dried fruit and nuts, as well as my prized Snickers bar.

It was gone. My father’s advice returned to me, instructing me, “never confront a monkey.” They could have rabies, and it was best to give them wide berth. I could not fight this monkey for my food supply. I had no recourse. All I could do was watch as a monkey ate my Snickers bar. He even removed the wrapper before he ate it. I am not too proud to say that I harbored ill will against him, hoping it would at least make him sick. But I did get a priceless photo.

It’s quite laughable now, but I was emotionally devastated at the time... But I lived. And it’s just one of the moments from this trip that’s make it far easier for me to take a step back and figure out how big of a jam I’m really in. I can distance myself from a trying moment. Perspective is a very valuable gift to have.

My other gift was the gift of connections. Understandably, I had a lot of friends and family who wanted to keep track of me. Technology was the answer, and, unexpectedly, it helped me make a better connection to the places I visited.

I may have packed lightly, but I did have a camera, an international cell phone, and a blog. I was issued strict rules about my communications. I had to post to my blog every two to three days. I had to say where I was and the next two to three expected destinations. If I couldn’t find a café, I had to call a trusted friend who could post an update. I had to call my parents once a week, sometime during their Sunday or mine.

The system worked well. While in Egypt, all of the Aussies in my group received text messages asking if they were ok. Bewildered, they tapped back a “yes” in reply. We were able to find an internet café. A quick check of bbc.com uncovered the source of worry: a ferry had sunk off of the coast. Before the East Coast of the US woke up, I was able to post to my blog and assure everyone that I was alive and well. It wasn’t until I actually reached Edinburgh – seven months into my trip - that I found out that my mother didn’t actually read what I wrote. She just looked for new headlines to verify that I was alive.

In some ways, I felt like a reporter. If I had to do all of this communicating, I wanted to say something. It wasn’t enough to describe my wanderings. I wanted my friends and family to glimpse what I was experiencing. I couldn’t just check out. There was no insulating myself from where I was - the place itself. But because I worked so hard just to scratch the surface of the place, I ended up way out of my element.

I was in India. It is mentally overwhelming to travel for days on end, alone in a place so different from all you’ve experienced, to see that level of poverty. The touts were everywhere with their cries of “Hello Madam!” I felt “that the Third World, in fact, was hustling the First.”

I needed a mental break from the unfamiliar. The streets are lined with shops. Set aside quaint visions of glass storefronts. Think of rows of concrete single car garages with sidewalks full of people and hawkers. The shops are open to the streets. I entered one such place to have a glass of fresh squeezed grape juice. It was to be my oasis that day. I sat at the edge of the shop and saw a woman in the street begging for money. I felt like Iyer’s beleaguered innocent meeting shameless predators – yet another person trying to separate me from my cash. I was certainly uncomfortable. I couldn’t move past the notion that it was not my responsibility to act.

And this is when I learned what to do with my discomfort when someone “mired in the more urgent business of trying to survive.” begs you for money. A woman in the shop walked out into the street and gave the beseecher a few rupees. I felt shamed. I knew my bank account was most likely larger than hers, and still, she gave. In a country without a safety net, here is the social contract. There was no government program, only an expectation.

It was not charity in the way we consider it. Dignity is the word that comes to mind. Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines dignity as the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed. It was a dignity I saw again and again. Millions of people, making their way in the world with all the dignity they could muster.

Out of this uncomfortable feeling came a transformation. This woman had shown me the capability of another reaction. It was as if I had always known that when you put two and two together, you get four, but it just registered that sometimes, you get 22.

It was in moments like this that I “learned to trust the laws of chance.” I learned to trust that the universe would deliver the essentials. For the people in the countries I visited, I am grateful. They were an instrument of the universe. If I really needed to know something, someone would arrive and take great pains to ensure my understanding. Without their patience and tolerance, there were many meals I wouldn’t have been able to eat, many modes of transport that I wouldn’t have caught, many viewpoints I wouldn’t see.

The nice to know items were lost to me, and no amount of struggling on my part could make them known to me. European road signs were one such mystery.

I know of four or five systems used to purchase a bus ticket. I have been confounded by the process of eating at a buffet. I have been at the whim of countless postal services. I have seen enumerable variations on a computer keyboard. It was enough to make me wonder why “embracing diversity” is so touted.

But, at every step of the way, when I really needed help, it arrived.

I do think that this trust that my life will unfold as it will, has remained with me. My current job is nowhere near my previous career path. I’m far more likely to do those things that I’ve always wanted to do. Reference, for example, my yoga classes and pottery lessons. I no longer worry about looking like a fool. So, because I have walked through the streets of Beijing, Bombay, and Berlin, I am more at home with being me.

Not all who wander are lost.

May we find the strength to wander in our own way, seeking our own truth.

May we be open to the chance to see someone else’s view.

And may a monkey never eat your Snickers bar.


16 July 2008


That's today. I didn't sleep well last night. I forgot to bring my coffee into work this AM. After a bit of rumination, and inquires into the tastiness of the vending machine brew (should have known to skip this step), I sucked it up and bought a Diet Coke.

As I stood there chatting with Judy, I opened the bottle, and the contents started to spew. And spew. Since there was no end in sight, I made the 50 foot dash to the kitchen to get the bottle to the sink. Cue the laughter from the co-workers about my shitastic day.

Next stop, the internet. I needed some sort of cleansing ritual; someway to restart this day. Strangely, people on the internet take this seriously. They all wanted me to buy some detox potion. Oprah's article on "How to Move On" was no help. I was really just looking for a chant, perhaps a dance, something easy to designate a new start to my day. This site wasn't promising, but not enough content to really do the job.

Thank goodness it's not Groundhog Day...

09 April 2007

Unsmelly Durian?

On a dare from Roxy, I consumed durian in Thailand. It's supposed to be the smelliest fruit out there. It was a bit smelly, but I don't remember it too unfondly. Maybe this review is an example of time healing all wounds, but not having checked my Thai post, I can't say for sure. (As a point of honesty, I won't read what I had to say about it until I've finished this post.)

Anyway. I read in the NY Times that they have finally bred an unstinky durian. I don't think it's the same. It's not that I am a durian connoisseur; I can't judge it like wine or beer or cheese. So why am I upset? It's homogenizing food.

It's an affront to me because it's removing a barrier to entry. You don't have to go out on a limb to gain a new experience. There's less on the line.

Let's not have life be too easy.