no country for bare feet

Picture it: Sri Lanka, 1998. It was a time before Instagram. A time when only one of my sixteen cousins had a computer, and it did not connect to the Internet. It was a time when I didn’t know what the Internet was, and frankly, didn’t care. It was a wonderful and memorable time, even though there aren’t any Facebook posts to prove it.

hattonHere is a panorama shot of my mom’s hometown from a recent trip.

December 1998 was one of the first trips to Sri Lanka (my parents both grew up there, so we frequently visited) that I actually remember. I felt an instant connection to the country and the people. I was a kid, so experiences that now seem inconvenient or undesirable just seemed like an adventure then. I didn’t care that we bathed in water tanks in the backyard or that no one wore a seat belt (or that there weren’t seat belts even if you wanted to wear one). I enjoyed the cold water on my skin and jostling around the back of my uncle’s jeep. As far as I was concerned, Sri Lanka was a wilder and more picturesque version of America.

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 2.05.31 PMMatara, Sri Lanka

I was too young to be self-conscious and I didn’t have a phone to hide behind, so I embraced every aspect of the culture. I spoke broken Sinhalese whenever I could. I ate all the exotic fruits I could get my hands on. I walked around the house and yard barefoot, like my cousins. Well, I did, until one day I felt something rubbery on the bottom of my foot…

I lifted my leg to find a gecko flailing around, still mostly attached to my foot. Though I’m sure I wanted to, I did not scream in horror. Before I could really react, the gecko fell to the floor and scurried away. As disgusted as I was by the gecko, it gets worse. The gecko left something for me to remember it by. It left its tail.

While I’ll never walk barefoot again in Sri Lanka (there are so many geckos…), that’s not really the point of this story. The point is that as travelers, we need to immerse ourselves in the cultures and religions of countries we visit. Traveling is about saying yes to every experience. It can be uncomfortable, and it might not work out the way you had planned, but what’s the point in traveling if you never try anything new?

the time everything went wrong

“Pardonnez-moi mademoiselle.” [Excuse me Miss]

I groggily opened my eyes to find a woman hardcore staring me down. This must be the pardonnez-moi culprit.

“Vous ne pouvez pas dormir ici mademoiselle.” [You can’t sleep here, Miss.]

I stood up, not altogether sure where I was. Then I saw my friend, Mary Sue, flipping through a brochure about Toulouse. That’s right, we were on a weekend trip to Toulouse. I’m not usually this disoriented. Then again, I’m not usually asleep in public.

Mary Sue and I went to the same university but never crossed paths until we studied abroad in Paris. Funny how life works. This is us about a week after meeting — we were fast friends.

bonny_hazel

Upon waking up, I rallied. Mary Sue and I toured museums, art exhibits, parks, and churches. The weekend was wonderful, except for all the stuff that went wrong.

We stayed in a hostel located outside of Toulouse proper. The place was clean and the staff was superb – the latter stood out because we had come from Paris where the service industry is as unfriendly as it is in New York City. We were very happy with our hostel choice, except that because of its location, we had to take the bus in and out of Toulouse. Our first day there, we were at a museum when Mary Sue noticed she didn’t have our hotel key. Which, it should be noted, was an actual key, not a keycard. Uh oh.

We made the collective decision to wait to obsess over the missing key until we were on the bus back to our hostel. Neither of us could really stick to that, so our day was filled with queries like:

“What if we have to pay for a replacement since it’s a real key, not a keycard?”

“What if the reception desk is closed because we get back too late?”

When we got back to our hostel, the reception was still open. We started to explain our predicament to the receptionist but she stopped us. Someone had found the key near a field and drove all the way to the hostel to drop it off. Mary Sue and I were shocked and grateful. If this had been another city, the person who’d found the key probably would have come to the hostel and ransacked our room.

The next day, after more site-seeing, we boarded a bus back to our hostel. At this point, I’m not 100% clear on what happened, but I think we took the wrong bus. Or we had been on the right bus but got off too early. Either way, we had gotten off the bus and started walking when Mary Sue said that she didn’t recognize anything. I took a good look around and didn’t recognize anything either… and we didn’t have a cell phone … and there wasn’t a person in sight.

I suggested that we knock on someone’s door, explain that we were lost, and ask for help. Mary Sue was not keen on that idea. Who knew what kind of pyscho we might run into that way, she said. So we made that plan b.

We found a map in one of the tourist center brochures and tried to locate ourselves without much luck. At this point, we were especially concerned because the buses were about to stop running. Luckily Mary Sue had her Kindle. Long story short, she was able to get us back to the hostel. Then there was the question of how to get to the airport next morning… but that’s a story for another time.

Though our trip was fraught with complications, who can complain after a weekend in a city like this?

toulouse

welcome!

Since this blog is super new (I’m celebrating my one day work-a-versary as I write), I thought I’d start with an anecdote to give readers an idea of the type of stories you can expect in future posts. The following is one of my favorite travel stories. I was reminded of it when I recently met up with a travel buddy and partner in crime who joined me in this misadventure in Chicago.

Of all the things I remember about my trip to Chicago, I most vividly remember wearing jeans and a sweatshirt over my monokini (if you don’t know what that is, you’re missing out on some great swimwear) the entirety of my last day there. My friend, Bree, and I had spent the greater part of the afternoon at the beach, where we (almost) killed a 12 pack of Limeritas. Afterward, we were cruising on a sugar high when we decided to head over to Logan Square. That was when the sugar hangover hit me, though I think Bree was faring much better.

Perhaps because Bree’s mental faculties were sharper at that moment (or perhaps in spite of that fact), she thought of Weiner Circle. Weiner Circle isn’t nearly as vulgar as it sounds. There aren’t any glory holes in the bathroom or otherwise lascivious ongoings. Well, there might be. But none that we knew of or found out about that night. Weiner Circle is a hot dog shop where employees in Hot Dog On A Stick style uniforms talk trash to you while you order and get your food. Rowdy teens and adults walk in calling the ladies bitches and hoes and the men dickheads, and the employees throw it right back at them. And this is where Bree wanted to get a late night snack. Because why not, right?

This story takes place before Uber, Lyft, and similar services were readily available, so we had to stand at the edge of the sidewalk and actually hail a cab. After roughly five unsuccessful minutes, Bree said we might have to walk towards a more populated area to find a taxi. I was resistant to this plan. I stood my ground, both literally and figuratively. Hard to say how long I had to literally stand my ground before it was figuratively unnecessary, but I do remember a car finally pulled over.

“There’s a cab right there!” I practically (read: probably) screamed in her face. My excitement was uncontainable. My face was beaming. Ah, what a sweet victory, I thought. To find a cab in an automotive dessert. It was like a cool drink of water in an actual dessert. But my victory was short-lived.

“That’s not a cab.”

Indeed, it was not a cab, but a pizza delivery car. The bright sign on top of the car fooled my Limerita soaked brain. That’s what I like to think, but I might just be completely dense and unaware of my surroundings. Regardless, I opened the passenger door and asked the driver if he could take us to Weiner Circle.

If I had to guess, I’d say the driver was thinking something along the lines of “what in the actual fuck” but all he said was “I deliver pizzas.” Straight to the point. I like that in a delivery guy.

“That’s fine. Can you take us?” I inquired. Delivery dude might not have been at the wheel of a taxi, but he was as good as it was going to get.

A moment of self-reflection here: could I possibly have been drunk enough to ask a pizza delivery guy to take my friend and I to a place called Weiner Circle? Or was I sober and thought this would be a funny anecdote one day? Hard to say what Past Hazel was thinking at the time. I can only surmise that whatever state I was in, Bree must have been right there with me.

As it turns out, the pizza delivery guy was our savior that night. His name was Estrella. That’s what I called him, at least. Like me, he was from Los Angeles. We bonded up front while Bree guarded the pizzas in the back. That’s what I think happened but honestly, I was probably talking non-stop while he castigated himself for picking up some obnoxious girls. That’s not really a fair statement – I think I was the only obnoxious person in the car that night. Sorry Bree and Estrella.

The best part of this whole situation was that Estrella told us he had to stop and make a delivery on the way to Weiner Circle. I have a pretty wild imagination, but I would have never thought I’d end up making pizza deliveries with a stranger in Chicago at 2 AM.

As for Weiner Circle, Bree and I were both a little too shy and embarrassed to call anyone there an asshole or participate in the abuse culture. While we were both excited by the possibility of doing so, the fact that the place was completely empty when we walked in definitely dissuaded us. What if that wasn’t even the right place and we just started calling innocent employees assclowns? Looking back on that night, I regret not walking into the place with the swearing mouth of a sailor, but hey, there’s always next time.