Books finished in 2012

While I seem to have lost all interest in blog-writing, I read some great books this year! *=my super favorites. I’m looking forward to 2013 and more books and books and books. Have a beautiful new year, everyone.

Reading Cortazar in Nong Khai, Thailand

Reading Cortazar in Nong Khai, Thailand

1. 1Q84, Haruki Murakami (trans. by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel)

2. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer*

3. The Literary Conference, Cesar Aira (trans. Katherine Silver)

4. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (audiobook) (reread)

5. Stoners and Self-Appointed Saints, Annie LaGanga

6. A State of Siege, Janet Frame

7. Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson

8. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector (trans. Giovanni Pontiero)

9. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, David Foster Wallace

10. Turning the Mind Into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche*

11. Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap 

12. Schizophrene, Bhanu Kapil

13. The Watcher, Charles Maclean

14. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins (audiobook)

15. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins

16. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins

17. The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

18. A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan*

19. Imaginary Girls, Nova Ren Suma*

20. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed*

21. For Us Surrender is Out of the Question: A Story From Burma’s Never-Ending War, Mac McClelland*

22. Just Kids, Patti Smith*

23. Indexing Books, Nancy Mulvany

24. How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti

25. Arcadia, Lauren Groff*

The laziest Sunday with Lauren Groff's Arcadia

The laziest Sunday with Lauren Groff’s Arcadia

26. 1-800-YES-QUIT, Thomas Wauhob (e-book)*

27. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel

28. The Carpathians, Janet Frame*

29. Distant Star, Roberto Bolano (trans. Chris Andrews)

30. Faithful Place, Tana French

31. NW, Zadie Smith*

32. This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz

33. In the Woods, Tana French (audiobook)

34. Open Secrets, Alice Munro (reread)*

Briefly Sangkhlaburi, pt. 2

My only full day in Sangkhlaburi, I met three fascinating women. That morning, I crossed into the Mon settlement again and went to the lackluster border market and then a pretty temple, which consisted of multiple glittering buildings. An old man cleaned or polished a big gong, then hit it with a padded orange mallet, and the sound caromed all around and stirred the many nearby dogs into a panic. Suddenly, an adorable woman with braces and a leopard-print skirt appeared and asked if she could take a picture with me, as I was “so beautiful, so white.” Her husband snapped the photo, in which she looks gorgeous and I resemble a Scandinavian man in tourist sandals suffering heatstroke.

“Walk with me,” she cried, and we circled the Buddha on his pedestal and recited our ages and where we lived. Nus and her husband had driven up from Bangkok for the weekend, and she made the typical Texas gun-cowboy pantomime when I explained my provenance. We reached her husband’s car and did our bows. Later, they drove by me walking in the rain and said they’d drive me back to my guesthouse. Nus invited me to her country home near Three Pagodas Pass because, she said, she lives there alone and has no friends. Also, she has a pickup truck, she explained.  Her husband, who had more English and also spoke German, sweetly explained in more detail about why I said I couldn’t do this, and I was mortified that I’d hurt her feelings and also struck by the oddness of everything, and then I was back at Burmese Inn and we did our bows again.

The rain pounded, and I ate fried morning glory and then searched for Weaving for Women, which I found just five minutes from my guesthouse. I bought a fetching hand-woven aubergine tank top with pintucks in the front that would have cost $90 at Anthropologie but cost only 320 baht, and also a purple woven shoulder bag for around the same price. The shop owner shooed her daughter off Facebook so I could try on the shirt in the area curtained off as a little girl bedroom, which was awkward but also sort of cool, the girlish collages on the wall. The weaving was beautiful work with fashiony little details, and the woman who ran the store was also extremely lovely.

It started raining again in great sheets, and she said I could sit and wait. She went inside and came back with coffee, and we sat and drank it and talked. She and her family, who are Karen, crossed the border in 1995 when the fighting in Burma was particularly bad, then went back and forth for several years before finally settling in Thailand. She told me about her children, the oldest of whom is 22 and at university for computer programming, and the nieces she cares for, and I would see them for the rest of the day, in various combinations of girls and women on motorbikes. At one point her mother emerged; her English was very good as well, and she was exhausted from leading meetings with their community all day. They were strong women in every way. The shop owner told me more about their weaving co-op and the seamstresses she hires, how this model makes it possible for women to work, and how coming from Burma means a constant hustle for extra income. She described helping more recent immigrants who don’t speak Thai get to the hospital in Kanchanaburi on the bus when they or their children are sick. We talked about our families, and found some things in common.

I walked around town some more and there were ducks in the streets. Drakes are prominent in Mon stories, and according to one, Buddha had a vision of two drakes, one of the other’s back, which foretold the Mon state. A drake appears on the Mon flag. The land seemed full of blood, like so much land. Also, though, just the day-to-day. Weavers building lives for their families and helping each other out; urban Thai tourists; the selling, buying, eating, talking, and watching TV of little towns everywhere.

I went back to the bakery and wrote for a while until I got to talking to Dana. She’d recently finished college in the U.S., and is a volunteer teacher of yoga, art, and English at one of the nearby schools for refugee children, who wouldn’t receive any kind of education otherwise. I asked how the kids came to the school, and she said some were slaves, some were trafficked, most abused, many orphaned, nearly all with a history of trauma, some found wandering alone through the mountainous forest in Burma. Both of us got teary, picturing this. It’s unimaginable to me. I told her she was doing an amazing thing.

Also, we shot the shit, and later I got to hang out with her and the other volunteers at Birdland Books, where I ate something delicious called “mashed potato balls vegetarian,” which resembled a pair of sesame seed-encrusted rolls stuffed with a cross between a samosa and a Polish dish my grandmother would have cooked.

The next morning, humming with the energy of those women—what they gave me, the questions they made me ask myself—as well as with as much Burmese food as I could manage to eat in a day and a half, with wonder at the natural beauty of the place, with confusion and horror and hope about the refugee situation there, I caught a van out of Sangkhlaburi. We drove fast down the mountains. Lakes receded, and new ones appeared, traversed by wooden bridges that looked like airy jumbles of sticks, and I thought about the women I’d met making that same trip and what it must mean to them, and if they felt as light and full of grace as I did over those hours, headed back, soon enough, to my comfortable home.

Briefly Sangkhlaburi, pt. 1

Things were good in Kanchanaburi. I looked at the river, swarmed with lily pads and pink lotus flowers. I crossed the reconstructed bridge. I ate copious amounts of glorious food at Blue Rice Restaurant while three men stood chest-deep in the river, in regular street clothes, scything up river weeds and then flinging them back into the water. After dark, I found myself drinking with some Thais around my age and an older British expat who alternately infuriated and charmed me. This is unwise according to my guidebook and common sense, but the presence of a woman—the effervescent Chil—and being situated in a very public location near my guesthouse made it seem okay. We sat in front of Smile Mart, which Chil owns and/or perpetually staffs; they are supporters of Liverpool Football Club, which I know nothing about except that the FC’s lovely motto YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE was emblazoned in big red letters across Smile Mart’s broad front windows. They taught me to drink beer with giant ice cubes and to feel no shame about this. Chil was extremely endearing, partly because of her sense of humor and partly because of her obvious strength, working interminably at Smile Mart while raising her son, who alternately wandered around inside and wriggled in her arms. For a while I ventured off to visit the night market, long channels of sweets, clothes, and DVDs. I ate som tam, some tiny tacos made of sugar in different forms, and banana leaf pyramids full of glutinous rice and egg custard. I returned to Smile Mart for more beer, we all vowed to be Facebook friends, and then their buddy drove me the few blocks back to my guesthouse on his motorbike.

I had four days left in Thailand and could easily have spent it in Kanchanaburi, taking Apple and Noi’s cooking class and visiting the nearby historical sites. But all along I’d wanted to go to Sangkhlaburi, a 4-5 hour bus or 2-hour van ride further northwest into the green mountains, very near the Burmese border. I wanted to eat Burmese food and to spend all my money there to support some of the self-help weaving projects organized by refugees that I’d read about. I’d felt that my money could actually make a tiny bit of a difference in Sangkhlaburi. I walked Kanchanaburi’s Th. Maenam Kwae, which overflows with backpacker shit, and understood that I had to do the less comfortable thing and continue on to Sangkhla, even if it was just for two days.

The next morning, I boarded a pastel Pee-Wee’s Playhouse bus into the mountains. This first bus was a fantasyland of big photos of the King and flower offerings bedecking the area around the driver, and rows of turquoise bench seats with minimal leg room. We passed intriguing places: the turnoff to Daen Mahamongkhol Meditation Centre, where I had planned to stay but did not, and didn’t feel too bad, as I’d lingered extra days everywhere I’d visited previously so didn’t have any time left for Kanchanaburi Province; Erawan Falls; Hellfire Pass. I’d entered some sort of life coma in which every choice I made seemed to me like the finest thing, and at each turnoff I felt glad that I’d chosen Sangkhla. We passed through teak forests and moved toward distant mountains, pointy, karsty shapes.

Halfway through, we switched to a crummier bus that seemed like it had been designed by a teenager. Five stereo units had been inserted into the panel above the driver’s head, and enormous speakers occupied each side. A gigantic spray of marigolds bobbed above the dashboard. There were fewer than ten people on the bus as the mountains, full of trees, thickened and we labored up the inclines. I talked to one couple briefly, but mostly just looked out the window. Occasionally, vistas opened. The valleys were full of lakes, a mixture of natural water and the big dams, I think. The air was thick, wet, and green, the pall of low-hanging gray clouds, rust-colored roofs and willowy bridges far below. I felt light in this, excited to be in a completely unfamiliar part of Thailand and also to be so close to Burma, which I had been thinking about a lot.

In Sangkhlaburi in June, it rains approximately every two hours. Not even the sweat on my clothes would dry. The trees dripped with water. I’m told that the valley underneath the Mon bridge fills with water by August or September, and the houseboats are lifted up and up. The people I met were surprised that I was there not as a volunteer, but simply to see the place. Because the town is sort of off the farang tourist trail (it’s really popular with urban Thais who drive up from cities over the weekend, however), the weather is insane, and, most of all, there’s so much work to be done.

After settling into my sweet, rough room at Burmese Inn and having lunch and buying some weaving at Baan Unrak, I crossed the 400-meter wooden Mon bridge and couldn’t stop looking down and taking pictures. The patchwork of houseboats with broad metal roofs, the vivid green of the wetland grass, the way boat wakes divide the lake in two, like ribs. A woman all in dirty white who may have been schizophrenic passed me a couple times, and young couples sharing an umbrella. I walked through the Mon settlement. People went about their lives, walking around, talking, cooking, selling and buying stuff at market stalls. There are deep layers of history, politics, and identity among the Mon, Karen, and other refugees in this area that I only understand a fraction of, and only on the surface. I know that there are police checkpoints all along the roads here because many refugees aren’t allowed to legally leave this town. I know that some of the Karen children in the Baan Unrak school were found wandering alone in Burma’s mountainous woods when they were five or six years old, and that nearly all of them have histories of trauma.

It got dark, and I crossed the bridge again and returned to my guesthouse, where I ate tea leaf salad. A soft, brown dog bounded up to me on his short legs and plopped at my feet whenever I entered the dining room.

Summer home

For months I have just sunk into writing this book and loving Austin by staying in town, abiding, trying to see the everyday with fresh eyes. This is a good exercise for me.

I did some knitting, such as this, Transatlantic by Stephen West.

Origami deer at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, where we took Anna and where wildflowers grew even in mid-August, because this summer was a good one for Central Texas, mostly, slightly cooler than most and with some rain, and the hordes of stinky crickets that follow rain, and the grackles stalking them across inappropriate lawns with their beaks ajar, so many crickets that one might just leap into an open beak.

And deep inside the Capitol dome.

And my lovely friends got married in the peacock park, and wore little sprays and curls of peacock feathers.

And I went to the Pride Parade by myself like a weirdo, and finally got to see the snake bike up close (not pictured: glowing snake eyes!).

And I bought some excellent boots.

And we camped at McKinney Falls State Park on the coldest night of prolonged summer, wolfing down Doritos around the fire. Most people at the other sites had RVs, and on the sides of the best ones are these little sticker maps of the U.S. where you can add the sticker of a state once you’ve set up your RV somewhere within its borders. People had TVs out there and were watching the football game, but my girlfriends and I just watched the fire and me sucking cheese dust from my fingers.  Here is the limestone by a broad waterfall where water catches in the holes. Much more appealing than at the beginning of summer, when we went to the Greenbelt looking for water to swim in and found it dry except for one lingering, hideous watery hole filled with all the remaining tiny fish, a rusty beer can, and probably the happiest, most well-fed snake in Texas.

So I have liked this staying. But I also decided to go to Oaxaca for a week right after Thanksgiving, and am thrilled about this and have already bought a ticket to Mexico City, a surprisingly brief and inexpensive flight from Texas. Somehow this is easier than flying or taking the bus somewhere in the U.S. and attempting to get around independently and cheaply without a car, and also, I realize, the draw of the new and unexpected always wins out for me. (As does the draw of Mexican food.) I’ve never been to Mexico and had been saving it for a special occasion which, it turns out, has ended up being this. !!

An urge to return again and again

Janet Frame gets me, and can write one hell of a  beautiful long sentence:

On the tip of one slope a head-shaped boulder was sculpted from the rock; one could imagine the face staring north-east to the volcanic peaks and mountains of the interior of the North Island that, like all interiors, was steeped in legend, as if once the glance of the sea is left behind, the glance of the unknown secret places of the earth and sky intensifies and is directed upon those who live in the interior and upon the traveller, the stranger, who leaves with a heart imprinted with the glance, and an urge to return again and again, and to tell of the journey, beginning, ‘When I was in the interior . . . of the North Island of New Zealand . . . of the Andes . . . of the Rocky Mountains . . . of the Carpathians. . . .’

Janet Frame, The Carpathians (82-83)

 

I dub thee 50 Shades of Cray

I had stopped writing for a while to work on this Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired wrap for May’s wedding. It’s about 70 inches long and 16 inches wide, and I knitted it perpetually for a month, while watching True Blood or reading Janet Frame. Rectangles unfolded from the center strip, which could itself be a decent scarf. Occasionally I became captivated by an acrobatic sentence or Swedish actor and dropped stitches. I fell in love with the pattern (All the Shades of Truth, by Laura Aylor) and its logic and garter ridges, and have a longstanding affection for madelinetosh yarn (I used tosh merino light in Glazed Pecan, Dusk, and Ink, and prairie, held double, in Caravan and Saffron).

Then the wrap was finished, and I was still not really writing, which I think is a typical early autumn brain crisis I’m prone to, and also I wasn’t even mentally in Texas at all, but rather back in Indonesia, which I’d left for a year ago. On this day last year, for example, I was in Tirtagangga, East Bali, feeling alternately full of wonder and crankiness, which is how I characterize my mental state during that trip as a whole. Going to Indonesia was one of the most extraordinary and challenging things I’ve ever done and it haunts me; though it’s all islands, the interiors–Berastagi and Ketambe in Sumatra, Munduk and Ubud in Bali–haunt me most.

Then, in mid-September, John gave me a tutorial on fly fishing and I got back into writing. Settling down to really work on this book is another extraordinary and challenging process in my life. Its landscapes have lives I don’t yet fully grasp. Janet Frame is right: the smell of the ocean pulls, soothes, exhilarates me, but ultimately the interiors are what I find most inspiring. Where I go in my head and the places I physically visit are most often mountains, granite glitter or treeless swaths of yellow grass. I still miss living on the coast, but I’m happy to have made my home not far from hills and rivers (and really just a scant 2-3 hours from the tarball gulf).

Unnamed landscapes of this book:

 

Most chapters, somewhere in this distance

 

Chapter 4

 

Chapter 8

 

Last chapter

Introverts travel, too: 5 introvert-friendly places I love

I’m comfortable being an introvert by this point, partly because of the confidence bestowed by my advancing age (34!) and partly because of reading innumerable introvert articles on the Internet. My extroverted mother told me that when I was little, I’d shut myself inside the bathroom and lie alone in the empty bathtub for a while each day when we stayed together in our rented lake cabin for a week every summer. They let me stay in that dim, sandy room for as long as I needed. I have no memory of this, but it shows me that my body knew what I needed well before I could put words to it, and also that my mom was wise enough about our differences to know instinctively that I was doing right for myself before there was much reading on the subject. I love this about her, a fitness instructor with sublime outfit-matching prowess and an interpersonal mastermind at that time, the 80s, which I think of as the coke- and bootstrap-fueled Age of the Extrovert.

Of course I don’t subscribe to binaries, and really fall somewhere around 65-70% introverted on a pop psychology scale. Introversion is considered so natural among my friends and coworkers that I don’t think about it often when I’m not reading about it on the Internet. True fact: No one has mocked me for quietly reading a book since 2005!

Typically, the only time I really find myself confronting pitfalls of introversion is when I’m traveling. The primary thing I’ve learned from introvert travel is how much I value my friends. When you connect brilliantly with like 1 in every 50 travelers you meet, you come to realize how completely blessed you are to have found a few people that you love so fiercely as friends, and that they love you back. The other thing is that you can be sitting on top of a green mountain with 400 Khamu speakers, and not even standard Khamu, but a variation synthesized over time from geographical isolation, and you will wonder what holds us together at all when all cultural context is stripped away. Food, companionship, nature, laughter. As this particular sort of mammal, we all need those things in some measure.

Eating alone in Lao. This was at fancy L’Elephant in Luang Prabang, where I ate dinner my last night of traveling. A sign taped to the window proclaims this the “Best Restaurant in Asia,” which…why not? It’s great.  The waitstaff attempted to achieve an American level of service, which was awkward but well-intentioned. Occasionally, cats slipped underneath the wall, reminding me that I was still in Lao. One of my favorite and most memorable meals.

For me, one of the points of traveling is to talk with local people and see how they live and think. This is often made difficult by my inability to learn tonal languages or to be conversant in anything besides my native English or belabored, present-tense French, though I’m extremely fortunate that so many people have English as a second language. I also like meeting other travelers, and still hold a few in my heart. I still struggle with the feeling that I should be more when I travel: that I should be better at small talk, that I should prefer hanging out at a bar with strangers instead of by myself on my little porch with a book and street food, that I really should want to listen to some guy play his guitar. I still sometimes feel that my social discomfort holds me back from a fuller experience when I travel, but one can glean a lot from watching and listening, and I work to not be too hard on myself, to take risks and push past my edges (as we say in yoga) without losing myself.

And sometimes, I’ll be somewhere, at a nice confluence of luck and social norms, and just feel completely nurtured as an introvert. I’ll meet someone who values conversation in my register, and no one will look askance when I’m eating alone, ask where my husband is, or tell me to smile more. Because people shouldn’t talk to women that way, and also, I am already smiling.

 

My 5 favorite introvert-friendly places:

1. Laos

I’m just going to put it out there and say that Lao PDR is the loveliest, most accepting of introverts place I’ve traveled to. At the Luang Prabang night market, most vendors stare at the ground or talk with each other, paying you no attention until you’re ready to buy something. It’s bliss. I’d give Vang Vieng a miss, though (I did!).

Another favorite meal, once again eaten alone, at Souphalins Restaurant in Oudomxay, Lao PDR. I guess it looks like I ate this cat. I did not. She kept me company while I waited an hour for the best fried rice ever.

I had a really nice time eating alone in restaurants here, both in the touristy areas, where I often coasted on the pure delight of not being part of the group of bossy falang adjacent to my table and had good conversations with café waitstaff, and in more remote areas in the north, where the restaurants were often populated with Chinese and Vietnamese business folks.

 

2. Oregon, USA

Me, resident cat Shelley, and roses that are roses that are roses in the Gertrude Stein room at Sylvia Beach Hotel.

When I paid off my student loans in 2010, I rewarded myself with a stay alone in an American hotel. For this I chose the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, OR, an introverted literature lover’s dream. It’s a gigantic, rickety, old teal house with a couple resident cats, and each room is themed around an author. The water rushing through the pipes in the Robert Louis Stevenson room was positively seafarer-like. The top floor contains a library where guests can quietly read and look out at the ocean. You can pay $22 (price c. Aug. 2010) for a glorious multi-course dinner, where you are seated with strangers and compelled to play a game, but the volume of solitude I’d cultivated throughout the day made this feel okay.

If you go to coastal Oregon in the late summer, the fog gets so heavy that, walking on the beach, you feel like the only person left on earth. It’s just the pulse of the ocean, the occasional outline of a sea bird, and the feel of your footsteps, mostly muted by the wet sand. Wearers of glasses will especially fall into this once the fog and airborne salt clouds their lenses.

Dune grass on the Oregon coast. There are also great stretches of nothing but wind-patterned sand, which I didn’t visit but know are there.

Portland is bikeable, and full of bookstores, green spaces, and good food. I love to visit my friends in the cities, then go off by myself for a few days to the coast (or the arid east, which I hope to visit in the next couple years). Oregon contains a desert in the east, plus mountains, forests, and great swaths of sand dunes. The U.S. National Parks system affords us the possibility to travel for days, weeks, or months through wild places without encountering another person, should that be your desire.

 

3. The Peruvian Andes

The magnitude and altitude of the Andes bespeaks quiet. Besides our gregarious guides, the people Anna and I met in Peru’s Sacred Valley were, like me, not wild about eye contact. They practice subsistence farming and converge once or a few times a week at a market, and they do a lot of knitting and weaving.

Stark and quiet Andes. Somewhere around Peru’s Sacred Valley. Photo by my comradita Anna Wik.

Kayak to your own damn beach and take your own damn picture! By a Hin Wong Bay coral garden, Koh Tao, Thailand.

 

4. Hin Wong Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand

There’s a lot going on aboard the ferry to Koh Tao, which moves precipitously fast. Mae Haad pier is crowded with backpackers and the bars, tee-shirt vendors, medical clinics, and 7-Elevens that cater to them. Negotiate a taxi, which will cost too much, and will be full of people chatting excitedly. They will all be dropped off before you, to places where excitable, chatty people meet each other and, at night, attend a fabled bar crawl featuring buckets of alcohol. I did not go to those places. Instead, I went to Hin Wong Bay, which attracted me with Internet reviews of its accommodations, which some reviewers found to be boring and far from the action.

A rickety pier and clear, cool water: siren song of the introvert. 

I got up at 7, descended the pier’s ladder, and swam among the sleeping boats. I was gently stung by jellyfish, which soon made for other waters. I put my head back in the water. I liked Hin Wong for its peace and quiet, these lonesome morning swims, the good snorkeling, and, most of all, for the few other people who come to Hin Wong. They are people comfortable being alone or in small groups, and are good, thoughtful talkers. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of hydraulic fracturing. Somehow, reading Hin Wong Internet reviews, I instinctively knew it would be this way.

Koh Tao’s east coast is like this generally, and there are sites more remote than Hin Wong that I didn’t visit. A good balance is Ao Tanote, which has a pretty beach to lie on (Hin Wong has only enormous boulders for a beach) and a somewhat more active scene, though it’s still really laid back.

 

5. Paris, France

Paris is perhaps the most obvious choice for introverts. Spend 8 hours alone in a museum after recovering from a nuit blanche with friends! Drink a glass of wine and read or write at a cafe like every protagonist in a Paris movie ever! Walk, and walk, and walk.

St-Martin. Winter. And I think it was my birthday. Swoon!

A map of the vertical world

Near Q’eswachaka bridge, Canas Province, Peru, Oct. 2007. 3,600 m.*

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called Antiplano and could hardly believe I’d been in those mountains. Not at that locus precisely, but close enough to know the texture of the

Saturnina (Magaly Solier). Image courtesy of Covering Media (http://www.coveringmedia.com/movie/2010/08/altiplano.html).

tufted gold grass that spreads to the horizon. The freezing nights, the dressed-up statues in churches, llama blinks, the hard and clear light. This movie is artsy and extremely dramatic and almost always sublime. The directors tell the intersecting stories of the two female characters, who never even meet, but they also can’t keep their own politics out of the narrative, and the result is weird and uneven and, to me, perfect.

After that, I started writing a chapter set on the antiplano, and write it in hours-long caffeine or rosé trances at the café across the street after looking out the window and at everyone else at their tables for an hour or so. It’s still just a tumble of unedited language. The protag seeks a map of the vertical world, which for her is a sort of strata of all things that exist above some particular altitude so she could possibly gaze way north at her lover again, but which is also a map of where my mind has been a lot of the time since watching Antiplano and then starting this chapter. I’ve dreamed myself back in Wyoming, and also in Bolivia (where I have never been). I came down some mountain, and the air was bright, and the people in the city (which was safe, in my dream) were happy to see me.

Salinas grandes, Jujuy Province, Argentina, Oct. 2009. 4,170 

 

Half Dome summit, Yosemite National Park, California, USA, July 2011. 2,695 m.

In real life, each time I’ve been at altitude I was in the company of someone I love very much.

My head swam and I slept fifteen hours after getting to Cuzco because I couldn’t stand the altitude, some 3,200 meters. As my brother and I approached the Half Dome summit, I could walk only quadrupedally, and the breath that gave me comfort was a sort of awful rhythmic wheeze. I don’t do well at altitude, but I love it. I love to think about it, that strata map that is mountaintops, dry plains, salt, ancient lakes. I love when trees can no longer grow, when grass subsides to lichen. I’ll never forget the pair of Andean foxes that ran along a ridge above us, calling back and forth, around 4,300 meters.

Chinchero, Peru, Oct. 2007. 3,780 m.

 

Condor Pass, near Wakawasi, Peru, Oct. 2007. 4,300 m.

 

 

 

_____________________________________________________________________

*All altitudes were generated via the pithiest of Google searches.

The impossible personal

Since I returned from Thailand almost two months ago, I haven’t given rambutan one about writing about my trip. Part of this is because I’ve been immersed in what I consider my “real” writing, which currently consists of a novella/novel (??) with deer people and big Western landscapes. These characters–a lovesick redhead, a PI with an addictive personality, a redneck shapeshifter I’m proud to say no longer resembles any character on True Blood whatsoever–are milling around in my head, and parsing out their stories is all I want to do creatively. It’s going slowly, but I haven’t felt this good and excited about something I’m writing in a long time.

Writing blog posts about travel just doesn’t feel as satisfying to me anymore. Part of this is because, as a fiction writer, I feel most authentic and authoritative in a world of my own making. I want to write nonfiction about how the Texas drought intersected with my travel to a village where water is holy, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about the Texas drought even though I lived in it, and I only spent 3.5 days in the village. I want to write about fear, but not to have to employ statistical methods, which leaves me with only my own experience, which I don’t think is interesting. I want to write about feeling desperately sad for no good reason on an island and how the inverse of sadness grew and grew as I traveled north on a train until I felt full of grace, but I don’t want to “craft” an “essay,” and I don’t want to write  a personal account with no form or analysis. And this is weird, because I became obsessed with Jane Campion a few months ago after watching An Angel at My Table, and so much of her work has female subjectivity and agency as its foundation (any why does this still feel revolutionary in 2012?!), and this is how I want to write fiction. It’s how I’m writing this current book. So one would think that I could get behind my own subjectivity and agency as a writer and reader. I want to write something greater than myself. It’s what I look for when I read and, really, I nearly always find it. One body is more, one’s suffering is endemic, one walk, one love, one fall, one rebuilding is so much else, all at once. And you don’t really need to dig so deep at all.

So one half of me knows I need to read a lot of travel writing and figure out what works, and and how a writer can convince herself she’s saying something meaningful or new about a place where she’s spent only two days, weeks, or months, even though each of those moments felt so big. The other half, inspired by Amber though she did not say anything specifically to this effect, will keep writing little travel narratives as I learn, but experimentally as prose poem things, or breathless monologues, or uncomfortably long responses to some quote we were supposed to think about in yoga.  And, before that happens, because they are beautiful, here are the places I went in Thailand:

Bangkok

 

Hin Wong, Koh Tao

 

Ao Tanote, Koh Tao

 

Chumphon

 

Ayutthaya

 

Nong Khai

 

Kanchanaburi

 

Sangkhlaburi

 

The social life of sugar: A farang’s guide to train travel in Thailand

Upon entering my upper sleeping berth, this would be claustrophobia if I weren’t so tired.

1. There are a lot of cultural subtleties around feet. At the very least, take off your shoes before you put your feet up on a seat or your sleeper berth.

2. If you are traveling by train on your own, English-speaking or -learning Thais will probably want to talk to you. They will offer you sugar in different vehicles. An entire bag of little domed cookies; Chinese-style, disclike cookies with a pattern on top; lurid orange juice that, thanks to Thai nutritional labels’ use of percentages affiliated with each ingredient, you learn is 25% orange juice; fruit shrink-wrapped onto styrofoam trays with a big packet of sugar in there too. If you are American, you’ll have brought some extra dark chocolate on your trip “just in case,” and suddenly remember that you have it. Though it melted and reconstituted a bit in your island hovels, you will share this, along with a green-skinned citrus fruit you’d stashed in the side pocket of your backpack some days ago. Conversations about sweet vs. bitter ensue, and your new friend might distribute your chocolate squares among his or her Thai friends in order to (a) not have to eat it all; and (b) instigate a collective reaction to the awfulness of dark chocolate. And p.s., the green skin means your beloved fruit is bitter, too. You, meanwhile, can store some of the sugar vehicles and then parlay them toward future Thai train social experiences, offering that bag of dome cookies to your next conversationalist. As the thick green slides and wetland birds wing by.

3. Even though it may feel like that for a while sometimes, you are never really alone.

The people you meet in Ubud

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. October 2-9, 2011.

Utterly spoiled by relaxation and enchantment, and because I wanted to see the two big lakes in the mountains on the way, I traveled to Ubud by private car too. Salit wouldn’t accept my attempts to bargain via text message, so Komang called a friend of his with a car, who gave me a discount since I was a pitiable solo female. Chatting, we drove fast up into the hills, eventually stopping to look at Danau Tamblingan and Danau Buyan, the twin blue lakes. Mist weighted the mountains. Some guy displayed a depressed-looking iguana on a pedestal and some gigantic bats wrapped tightly in their wing leather, trying to block out the sun. We drove through Bedugul, beloved for its strawberries, and stopped by a fruit stand, from which a Muslim woman tossed me a flat of lovely little berries and a branch of passion fruit for 20,000 rupiah through the window. I ate fruit and elaborated upon French vs. American social services for my driver, who had asked about it after I’d begun responding peevishly to his persistent volley of personal questions that are, after all, considered polite in Bali. I was irritable. It was time to settle down, so I was happy for this week in Ubud, and the two full free days I’d have before the writers and readers festival began.

You meet so many people in Ubud. Tuti, who runs Sunarta House, where I stayed my first few nights, with her family, and who quelled my crankiness by talking about food with me for a long time. She’s a vegetarian, but still goes to the morning market at the center of town to buy chicken for her husband. She told me about it, then I went the next day and we even recognized each other in the crowd. At the market, women sell flowers and their petals for offerings, segregated by color, each hue in its own basket. Women pre-make offerings for families who work outside the home to use in their temples. There are flats of eggs in stacks, fruit and vegetables, dried herbs and creatures in sealed plastic bags, just-cooked food steaming, stacks of silvery fish, a smoky area full of meat. Out front, people are plucking more chickens, and I hear the volley of roosters crowing from all over, and a steady chopping, and a broom, an old man, a child. All day they prepare satay and minced salads. When I found a copy of the UWRF program, I showed her my photograph in the author section and she excitedly showed her sister, who was dressed in a hot pink sarong outfit.

Terry, an older Australian man I met when I walked up Jalan Kajenguntil I reached the rice fields, which are tall and green, occasionally interrupted by the bamboo armatures of big houses being built. The path went on and on, paved with nice dirt, an endless flatness I’d dreamed of in Sumatra. I passed a few white men walking dogs and some tough Balinese women carrying heavy loads on their heads. The sky was blotched grey and heavy, with a peachy swath beneath the clouds. I turned back. A man was bathing in the irrigation channels, lowered into the water. I bought a young coconut from a woman who hacked it open with a few precise strokes of her machete. There were two middle-aged women speaking French sitting on the tarp, so I sat on a bench until Terry ambled up with his beagle on a rope that was a leash. The dog is called Bruce, and lives in a cage all day because the family Terry rents his room from are afraid he’ll be stolen. The coconut was massively full of water, then the vendor extracted long curls of the meat and returned it to me in half the shell. Terry and I had dinner and I got tofu rending, which was spicy and full of lemongrass and good vegetables. T described his duties at the house, which include plucking masses of chickens and ducks for the upcoming house dedication ceremony, said he has no plans to leave and wasn’t sure how long he’d stay. Bruce must go mad for the hunt everyday from the smell of blood all around and the blood in the ground.

I felt deranged walking down the noisy streets in the center of town, so I started courting loveliness. I went to yoga, and we placed tennis balls between our shoulder blades and the floor. The teacher said that myofascial release drives old grief and fear out of our bodies so new grief and fear can fill those spaces. The studio overlooks the rice fields, and occasionally a sleek rat runs along the rail. Really, offerings decorate so many surfaces, and all day are gnawed away by rodents and small birds. I went to Bali Buddha and drank juice and tea, ate experimental vegetarian nasi campur, aubergine spread on wheaty, grainy toast, and an admirable attempt at enchiladas, and read the Jakarta Post and the international edition of the New York Times. I found a place called Manik Bali that made a pencil skirt to my measurements from hand-woven cotton for $30, plus $5 to accommodate my American-sized hips. I saw a young couple on a motorbike, a duck peeking from behind the boy’s legs and a cascade of yellow ducklings spilling from the girl’s lap. I went to a boutique full of clothes and scarves in bold colors and patterns called Divya, and bought a one-off red and black tea-length skirt cut on the bias. I talked about textile design forever with the owner, and he gave me a discount because I’m a writer in the festival and they were getting ready to a have a sale. For three days I repeated these things. I understand why people live here, could learn to navigate this place and avoid the maddening streets, sink into this fantasy full-time. But when the female expats and travelers I met said they could picture me in Ubud, I thought no.

My last night at Sunarta House, I decided to go to a Legong dance show at the palace. Legong is fantastic and completely bizarre. Every finger and eye twitch means something inscrutable to me, I think. The dancers are wrapped snugly in gold, with pink, green, or purple sarongs, and hair in lovely blobs or ponytails with frangipani flowers hanging off. They wear shivering headdresses of gold and flowers. They make faces like Blair Waldorf constantly, from indignant to enchanted over and over, a Gossip Girl marathon with gamelan, which is the greatest music of all time. There is a warrior dance where a dancer of indeterminate gender bugs hir eyes out and lifts different fabric panels hanging from hir outfit and steps forcefully with the same precision as the gold-wrapped dancers. Utter strangeness. At the end, there’s a frightening “mask dance,” reminiscent of Booji Boy, and the dancer barely moves at all. The audience seemed sedated. I wanted to stand and scream and cheer at every number. I thought about Balinese Hinduism and gamelan and dance forms developing here on this little island, somewhat isolated, and how the practitioners are serious and confident and very, very talented, and that people come from all over the world to enter it.

“That tights are not pants? Honestly?”

I was dead nervous about the festival. Before the first dinner I’d RSVP’d for,  I put on the red and black skirt and rushed down the wet sidewalk and its curtain of vines, feeling cinematic. I didn’t make it in time to be picked up for dinner, and on my way back, I slipped on a part of the sidewalk where water careens over a viney wall. A panel of sidewalk rose with my unbalanced weight and trapped my foot beneath it. A woman in leopard Birkenstocks saved me by lifting the pavement chunk. I think that if all us women alone in Ubud got together, we could rule the world.

I was late for the festival’s opening ceremony too, but was picked up by my ambassador, an awesome gal in pink glasses on a pink motorbike who told me I was prettier than my submitted author photo and whisked me to the palace. The festival was fantastic to the point that eight months on, I can’t really believe I was involved in it. It was a truly cross-cultural experience, and I learned and loved so much. My reading list doubled in size. You meet so many people in Ubud. An American expat couple who started an HIV clinic in Kuta and told me how the official HIV infection stats for Indonesia are radically underreported. Catherine, my brunette Australian analogue, who is a sculptor and a reader and leaves parties early. American expats who’d lived in Bali or Australia so long they’d lost all understanding of the nuance of the U.S. populace and our politics. Young Javanese women who talked so fiercely about their books that the English-speaking audience started applauding before the translator even started. A real surrealist who traipsed through the grocery store at Bintang Supercenter with me. A young Australian woman who’d just moved to Bali to write children’s books full-time. A gorgeous, glamorous Australian called Filomena who I met in a yoga class and proceeded to see every day thereafter until she returned to Seminyak. Her friend Stephanie, who confessed F. thinks she (S.) needs to lay off the white wine, and treated me like a friend. The congenial man who uncovered the CIA’s involvement with Indonesia’s 1965 coup, helped build Bali’s airport, and taught himself the language within a year of first moving to Indonesia, the sort of expat I would want to be. Maria, who has a great accent from somewhere I couldn’t place, and teaches alignment-based yoga very well, and is in love with it. A couple from Austin who recognized me from the festival program. At least 25 women who could be categorized as “Eat, Pray, Love ladies,” and each of whom is unique and inspiring and brave.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers