Monthly Archives: February 2015

Riding the Reunification Rails

Why don’t you hate us? How don’t you hate us?

I never could ask.


Mr Chien was eating chicken off the bone and telling me about My Son: the deep jungle; the tigers that had been there a millennia ago; the construction without mortar. It was a mystery, he told me, a wonder of the world. A thousand years old.

“The VC hid there during the war,” he said. He gestured to the flat plain around us, “all here was a big American base. So the VC go to My Son. They thought no one would bomb a temple.”

I picked up some morning glory and dunked it into the hot pot, watching it wilt in the broth. “Did it protect them?” I asked.

Mr Chien got the last bit of meat on a bone, and threw it to the ground, where a dog was eating our remains. “Oh no,” he said, wiping his fingers, “you bombed it.”

Why don’t you hate us?

But I didn’t have the guts to ask.


Leaving the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh I was shaken. Inside were photographs of the American War, gallery after gallery of tired soldiers, broken bodies, napalmed villages. One room showed only the victims of Agent Orange, generations on – babies with giant foreheads, children with one large finger, women with no hands.

At the entrance to the Requiem Gallery, a collection of photos from American, Japanese, British and Vietnamese – both Nationalist and VC – photojournalists there was a giant plaque on the wall. On it was written, both in Vietnamese and English, the following: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Next to it was a shot of a village, burned to the ground, a woman weeping in the foreground.

I know propaganda when I see it. I know that when the State of Kentucky donated the Requiem photos to Vietnam they probably didn’t mean them to be housed in a gallery named Crimes of Aggression in the American War. I know what happened to American soldiers in the Hanoi Hilton, and why John McCain can’t raise his arms. For that matter, I know that no matter what the museum says, there were men and women – men like Mr Chien – who fought for the South not by force but by choice. It was more complicated than the room entitled “Historical Facts” made clear.

But across from the Declaration of Independence was a six foot segment of cement sewer, theoretically the very segment from which Bob Kerrey and his men dragged screaming, unarmed women in Thanh Phong and killed them. Maybe it was that sewer. Maybe it wasn’t. But whether this was one, there were sewers, there were soldiers, there were shots in the night and  there were villages burned.

Outside the museum the sun was punishingly hot. I felt dizzy, and a little sick. The man who sold me water had no hands, his arms ended just after the elbow. He asked where I was from and I told him. He reached out one arm for me to shake, and I took his elbow in my hand. “Welcome to Vietnam,” he said.

Why don’t you hate us?

I didn’t ask.


The war isn’t everywhere in Vietnam. The history professors, told a story before we docked. His daughter had lived in Vietnam in the late 90s. When she got home, she would hear his friends tell her about the country they knew from their service, and she would lose patience with them. “You don’t know Vietnam,” she said, “you know a war.”

Vietnam has been conquered again and again, and they have gained independence again and again. They were possessed by the Chinese long before the French. They have had colonial overlords and imperialist partners. But Vietnam has remained.

For most of the time, I forgot about the war entirely. In Hanoi, after a day of visiting temples and drinking thick, sweet coffee on rooftops, I realized that I had left it too late to visit the Hanoi Hilton before I got on the overnight train. I had a beer instead, watched the sunset and caught the 10pm Reunification Express headed South.

In Hoi An, a magical little city of yellow walls and glowing lanterns and rooftop cafes overlooking a river, I took a cooking class. We bought vegetables and beef and shrimp at a market and climbed into a boat. For forty-five minutes we puttered through lush coconut groves, past fishing boats and families eating lunch by the river. At an outdoor kitchen with a cool breeze blowing past we made spring rolls and pancakes and spicy, fragrant pho.

In the afternoon, my belly full, I wandered the streets, visiting temples and communal houses and buying trinkets. The streets were covered in banners for Tet, the New Year (a side note: since most of our decorations are made in SE Asia anyway, they are used locally for New Years celebrations, leading to hundreds of signs, hung over kumquat trees covered in red good luck banners, that say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!” with pictures of santa and tinsel trim in mid-February). Towards dusk the day cooled and a warm breeze picked up, catching scarves and robes twisting them in the wind. Thousands of lanterns lit up, strings of them were swinging gently over the roads, glowing yellow and red and blue. Blissfully calm, I ducked into a trinket shop to look at marble and inlaid wooden plates. Towards the back was a table with toy planes and cars. I looked closer – they were all made of bullet shells.

Why, God, why don’t you hate us?


I never found out. I have no answer. I certainly never had the guts to ask.

I live in the South (well, the sort of South) and if I drive an hour or so out from my pinko commie town, I’ll see Confederate flags and banners telling me the South With Rise Again. They are signs of a Civil War, a hundred and fifty years old – and still not forgiven.

But Mr Chien spoke no ill of the VC. He fought for Saigon, but bowed his head in respect at VC graves, and spoke admiringly of their tenacity, digging tunnels under American bases. When he told me a shovel was used for digging fox holes, or that the machine for grinding rice was made of melted down munitions, it was with a detached air, knowing that these facts might be if particular interest to a visiting American. He’s guided vets for years, putting them in touch with schools that might need help, “When they go back to America,” he told me, “they go crazy. They want to do something good for Vietnam.”

The vets on the ship held a seminar a few nights before landing. They talked about their experiences in Vietnam, their memories, their losses and disappointments and wounds. As we travelled up the Saigon river, one of them told me he woke up at five to see a landscape he hadn’t returned to for almost fifty years, since his navy ship pulled away. He spent the morning on the top deck watching the MV Explorer motor deeper and deeper into Vietnam. “I was saying sorry,” he told me.

Myself? I’ve got nothing. Of course I don’t. I’m twenty-nine, dumb and I was there five days.  I spent at least two of those days dedicated solely with determined tenacity to the task of comparative noodle tasting and critical cross-broth analysis, plus a heroic attempt to see how much iced coffee I could consume without having a breakdown.

All I do know is this: there were bombs and shots and grenades and land mines and chemicals rained from the sky. There are men from Hanoi without arms and men from Des Moines without legs. There was a war. And somehow, against all odds, they don’t hate us.

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I don’t often take travel advice from my brother.

Or advice at all, for that matter.

For those who know him, those who have received accounts of walking up train tracks along cliff edges in Peru, or watching his friend stitch up his own leg in Cambodia, this is a pretty self-explanatory survival tactic.

For those who don’t know him, let me just explain something here: my brother is an idiot.

But there is one piece of advice that I picked up from him. It’s not something I remember him telling me directly, at any point, more of just a general guideline that comes across from his journeys. An aphorism for travel:

Just don’t tell mom and dad until after you’ve done it.


I love traveling alone. I love being able to decide exactly what I want to do that day. I love having no one to answer to if a particular road seems worth walking down for two hours, or if I just decide, on a whim, that I am not actually the least bit interested in an unmissable site or unforgettable museum. I love that if I decide to buy four yards of silk without an particular purpose in mind there is absolutely no one present to remind me to be sensible. There’s a bit in The Dud Avocado (a book that everyone who is young and stupid and abroad should read) where Sally says, ““Frequently, walking down the streets in Paris alone, I’ve suddenly come upon myself in a store window grinning foolishly away at the thought that no one in the world knew where I was at just that moment.”

It’s a feeling anyone who has traveled alone knows well. It is, I promise, pure magic.

But just because I love something doesn’t mean I should be allowed to do it.

Travel, particularly travel on your own, sets up a strange sense of value that’s hard to justify or explain. I will spend $30 on a marble knick knack I don’t want just to get a shop keeper to stop hounding me, but will get stubbornly attached to the idea that a taxi ride just should not be $20. Knowing I’ll be ripped off hardly helps. Buying a zippered bag that I keep close to my body was a waste of money – I can be robbed blind with all my possessions firmly in hand.

On my own, I have a habit of losing more and offending less. If the drink comes with ice, I’ll weigh diarrhea against awkwardness and almost certainly accept it. I’ll buy things I never wanted, pretending politely to be duped by every possible gimmick. It’s not that I don’t know I’m being taken, it’s just that it seems rude to point out a racket while I’m still being swindled. No one likes being called a scam artist. Not even a scam artist.

Within six hours of docking in Vietnam, for instance, I had handed over $40 for a taxi ride that should have cost $6. Which is really exacerbated by the currency – $40 is 800,000 Vietnamese Dong. I handed over almost a million for a taxi. A million! A million of what is hardly relevant here. It was a million, and I was quietly, shyly ashamed.

Maybe that’s what had me so defensive when I got to De Nang two days later. Or maybe it was the look of frank incredulity and mild pity on the face of the Australians who shared my train carriage from Hanoi when I told them how much I paid for the scarf I was wearing. Whatever it was, I was feeling young and naive and stupid. I was an idiot, and I was determined not to be taken advantage of again.

Stepping out of the station into the blinding, bleaching sun, a little sleepy and sore and disoriented from fifteen hours on an uncomfortable train, hungry as a result of a food cart that offered only duck fetus, I was faced with a crowd of touts shouting “taxi!”

I saw a man in a green shirt with the logo of what I knew to be a reputable company. I asked him how much to Hoi An and he told me “by the meter” – which is really the correct answer, all said and done. Yes, I said, but how much would that be? “About 400.” 400,000! That’s nearly half a million. Half. A. Million! Who cares of what!

From behind him I saw a hand shoot up and a voice called out: “is it just you?”

I thought of all the warnings I knew about admitting, publicly, to traveling alone: all the times I’ve worn a fake wedding band, all the “friends” I’ve had waiting for me “at the hotel.’ I took a deep breath.

“Yes!” I told him.

“I’ll do it for 200!”

Sold! Sold to the total stranger with no company!

And, it turns out, no car!

Mr Chien introduced himself and led me to his motor bike.

Now, I have a thing about motorcycles. They kill people, you know. I know people whose entire craniums have been painstakingly restructured because of accidents. I know people with permanent scars from exhaust pipes. Plus, motorcycle taxis are notoriously dangerous for single women. I thought about all of this, all the warnings, all the sensible reasons not to get on the back of a motorcycle with a total stranger who, I realized, had not even asked the name of my hotel yet.

But then I thought this: it’ll save you ten dollars.

There was a girl climbing onto the bike next to mine. She looked so confident. She told me not to worry, and then told me her name was Jane. I was practically raised by a woman named Jane. I got on the bike.

Five minutes later we were roaring down a highway at sixty miles an hour, weaving in and out of trucks, and my ill-fitting helmet kept bouncing on top of my head. Mr Chien still hadn’t, I noted, asked the name of my hotel. I leaned forward and yelled over the wind, “how long to Hoi An?”

“Less than one hour. I can go fast!” Mr Chien yelled back.

Jane may well have practically raised me, I realized, but that doesn’t mean she’s known for making wise decisions. 


I was thinking about this rule of not telling until after, and the strange advantages of my willingness to be easily sold two days later, when I climbed off the back of Mr Chien’s motorcycle at the 11th century Champa temples of My Son.

Because of course he sold me on a day long motorcycle tour of the area. And of course I said yes.

It turns out Mr Chien is fascinating. Mr Chien is a vet who fought for the Nationalist army, with brothers who fought for the VC, and twenty years experience guiding returning American vets around the country. And when he came for the tour, he even brought a helmet that fit. We wound our way through back country roads, through tiny villages swarming with activity the day before New Years, and spent a few hours eating a lunch of chicken hot pot with fresh herbs in a dusty little roadside bar where Mr Chien held a tiny, girl dressed up for the holiday.

Finally, I hung that well-fitting helmet over the handlebars of Mr Chien’s bike and wandered up the quiet path to My Son. The jungle was thick on either side, and the air was soft and heavy – the wetness blanketing the chatter of men and birds. After ten minutes the path wound past a small store where two women ate noodles surrounded by silk scarves and post cards. Another two minutes on and the jungle parted. On the hill in front of me stood the moss covered ruins of My Son, Hindu temples made of carefully fitted brick with no mortar. To this day, they are like Stone Henge – no one knows, really, how they were built. The temples were ringed by a quiet river, clustered in a few small groups of towers and stones and heaps, with little white and yellow flowers sprouting between the bricks.

There were only a few other tourists meandering in little bands, speaking in hushed tones. I thought of all my friends who told me about the crowds in Angkor. I watched a dozen butterflies take off from a patch of moss on the edge of a temple mound.

After My Son we went to a farm where I made rice paper and saw chickens whose coops were old television sets at the house of an elderly woman who pointed to the wall and spoke quickly in Vietnamese. That shovel, Mr Chien told me, was used to dig foxholes for the Americans. We rode down through paddies (the land, Mr Chien told me, again and again, is remarkably fertile) and had coffee at a road side spot where the son of the family shaved while two women served me coffee, thick and sweet, mixed with condensed milk, and chickens pecked at my feet.

Finally Mr Chien took me to the marble mountains, giant monoliths of cold rock sticking out of the ground like Uluru. I climbed steps carved into the rock – right at the top was a Buddha, 20 feet high, carved of white marble. I climbed more steps and down some and through an arch carved in rock. A door led into the dark. I walked through and the damp, blanket of heat dissolved into a cool cave. A set of stairs led to the left, between four gods painted in red. Down below the cave opened into a cavern four stories high, still and dark. At the top of the cave two holes ringed in foliage let in shafts of light. One landed on a marble statue of a buddha, gender-less, time-less, cool and calm. 

Twenty minutes later (after buying a piece of marble that, lets be honest, no one wanted) Mr Chien dropped me at the airport. My hair was full of dust, me legs were burned by the sun, and no one knew where I was just at that moment.


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Crying Wolf

Once, on a first date, we had just finished covering all the things he was into – Asian politics, Marx brothers movies, gymnastics and whiskey – and he asked me what mine were, what were my things?

I thought about this for a while, trying to think of an interesting answer. I needed one that would make me sounds appropriately fascinating and beguiling and just a little unusual. I was two martinis in. I gave up.

“I like most things,” I told him.


I think what makes me, in my own unjustifiably inflated self-image, a pretty good traveller is the exact thing that makes me a fairly wretched travel correspondent. It’s just that, you see, I like most things. My reputation on the ship is, already, that I am in – whatever it is, wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing, I probably want to join. I have backed down so far only at chicken feet and I am, understandably, wracked with regret about that. But… have you seen cooked chicken feet?  They’re unexpectedly soggy looking. Bird foot I was down for, damp, squashy bird foot was a step too far.

But all this makes me a terrible travel writer. The thought process of the good reporter is discriminating. They have an active mind.  They sort things into categories, make connections, and decide what is interesting and what is not. They tell you what you really ought to do, sorting through the morass for gems.

I, on the other hand, have a mindset while traveling would best be put into writing as: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The inside of my head in every port is a slot machine, all bells and buzzers and bright flashing lights.

The good travel writer, I have noticed, also takes careful notes.

These are the sum total of my notes on Hong Kong, typed urgently into my iPhone:

“If I lived here, I’d have great thighs.”

That’s it.

In my journal I wrote one thing only: a two page description of a pork bun (that does not, incidentally, do that pork bun justice. A crackle of caramelized sugar, a pillowy bun that gets dense and thick in your mouth, savory, spicy pork in the middle. It’s a god damn revelation.)

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m sorry guys. I’m sorry that I can’t be discriminate, and thoughtful. I fear, really, that I cried wolf on Tokyo, and then shouted it in Kyoto, and then sort of mumbled it in Shanghai, and now you just aren’t going to believe me anymore about Hong Kong.

But did you know in Hong Kong you can get Michelin starred pork buns for $3 in a train station? And that the parks have free wifi? And that at the protests last year, they set up homework stations where student protestors helped other protestors kids with their math? Do you have any idea how wonderful Hong Kong is? Do you? Do you really?

Here: let me tell you about it.


In Hong Kong, there are parks filled with elderly men playing cards and children exercising and flamingoes standing around in clumps and aviaries and water features and free museums. In Hong Kong, there are markets full of fish and meat and nuts and spices and vegetables spilling down streets on the Kowloon side. In Hong Kong you can buy a rose latte and then a $.50 token and get on the top level of a ferry with rows of wooden seats that will take you across the bay, ringed by the spindly shoots of sky scrapers reaching up in clusters towards the sky, but none reaching higher than the blueish mountains behind them. With a gentle breeze on your face, you will watch the dusk settle over the valley and see all the buildings blink to life. Their moving lights depicting koi and clouds and New Years wishes printed ten stories high. In Hong Kong you can ride double decker trams, tall and impossibly thin, down busy shopping streets that change from Gucci to dried fish and back again. In Hong Kong you get a martini on the 60th floor and look down to see different nests of drinkers clustered out on precipices clinging to the side of buildings, invisible from the street. They are perched 30 and 40 stories up, and their laughter drifting up is just a little bit louder than the traffic.

In Hong Kong you can text a man you haven’t seen in seven years and have only spoken to twice to say: “a girl I have never met just invited me to a Ukranian art opening at an alternative arts gallery and she says you should join,” and his only response is, “that’s a very Hong Kong invitation.”

In Hong Kong, your old acquaintance becomes your new friend within an hour. Within two you are sitting in the Foreign Correspondents Club, the same club where characters from every spy novel you have ever read gather to swap stories in dark corners and gossip about diplomats and throw down challenges. Within three hours you are loudly telling anyone who will listen that you will be living in Hong Kong within two years. And you mean it. By God, you really, really mean it. 

On Sunday morning I went for a hike with a friend of a friend, up through the Hong Kong University campus, up winding paths filled with Filipino workers on their day off, Chinese families on pleasure strolls and white Hong Kongers and ex-pats jogging by in expensive trainers, showing off on the pull up bars. At the top, Victoria Peak, we got a coffee and then leaned on the stone walls flanked with guardian lions and peered over the lush foliage down at the valley. The Star Ferry was tiny, winding back and forth over the broad harbor, and on either side groves of sky scrapers grew wherever the surface was flat enough to support them. In every direction the outlying islands and the New Territories stretched out green and wild, Hong Kongers often charter junks for a few dollars to take them out on Sundays to the beaches for picnics.  We wound back down to the city, where i climbed up and down streets, bargaining (still poorly) for trinkets and sipping iced coffee. In the evening, when I finally got back on the ship, I immediately and googled “job postings, history, Hong Kong University.” 


I’ve done none of it justice. Not even the pork bun. I can’t – it’s been two days and my thought process on Hong Kong is still, more or less, “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”  I just don’t know what to do or where to begin.

The only thing I know is that I really should have spent more time on the pork bun.


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It tastes like bullfrog

“What does turtle taste like?” we asked Leo.

We were standing on a street in Zhu Jia Jiao, in front of a line of stores selling fish. I was holding a hand roll of sticky rice and roast pork, still half wrapped in leaves, oozing with fat. I felt I needed it to recover from the drive – an hour from Shanghai in stop and start traffic, diesel fumes pouring in through the windows. Even before that – the diesel, the jolting ride – I had been feeling a little sick. The first time I stepped outside in China I felt the air sting my eyes, and then scratch the back of my throat. The AQI in Shanghai was 75 that day, or “moderate.” LA and New York hover in the 30s and 40s – American cities tend to put out warnings at 50. Not too long ago, the air in Bejing spiked over 600. 

We were in Zhu Jia Jiao because of Jesse, the dependent children’s coordinator. His mother and a family friend met him in Shanghai and we had hopped along on this particular bit of their tour, to “the Venice of Asia,” a small city (one of many near Shanghai) built around canals, plied by flat bottomed boats with wooden canopies and red lanterns. I’m sure once upon a time they ferried fish. Now it’s mostly white people and Korean tourists. Leo, our tour guide, had just begun winding us through picturesque side streets, pointing out local architecture (much of the city is centuries old) and explaining Chinese farming practices, when we came across the bins of live fish and the bowl with the turtle in it.

Leo thought for a minute – “what does turtle taste like…”

“Chicken?” we offered. It always seems like everything tastes like chicken.

“No,” Leo experimentally kicked the purple plastic bowl covered in blue netting where one forlorn turtle swam, and the water quivered. The turtle looked up. Leo and the turtle regarded one another while he tried to think of an appropriate metaphor – one we’d understand.

“Oh!” Leo’s face brightened, he finally had it: “it tastes like, you know, bull frog!”


We told the students that Japan was a tester port for them. Sure, the toilets were overwhelming and very few people speak English, but it is the toddler-proofed playroom of travel experiences. A girl left her passport on a train and had it hand delivered to her, at her hostel, by a Japanese police man. Every case of food poisoning a student had in Japan turned out to be, on inspection, a hang over.

And then we came to China.

Most of the students pulled what I have discovered is their standard practice: a balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred attempt to see everything in one week. I heard a girl on the ship, the day before we landing, pondering how she’d be able to get to Tibet and the Great Wall, while still having two days in Hong Kong.

I decided instead to play it low key – two days in Shanghai, eighteen hours on a train, and three in Hong Kong. That is what SAS has done to me. I really, and truly, believed that was a laid back itinerary. 


I spend the first morning with friends – we walked down the Bund, the beautiful old British concession riverfront. The strip along the river is like a warmer London of stern, imposing late Victorian banks (they were, in fact, largely hotels. But British colonial architecture has a curious quality of always, anywhere in the world it is, appearing to be a bank.)  We saw a park sign that told us that “Ethical and moral codes should be duly honored, visitors are expected not to urinate or shit.” We took six pictures of it. We sat on plastic stools in the street and ate note noodles with lamb from a Mongolian man cooking on a camp stove.

We wandered into the YuYuan “old town” shopping area – a recreated faux-China full of jade stores and Starbucks. We ate soup dumplings, which have got to be the world’s greatest and most dangerous food – steamed dumplings filled not just with fragrant meats, but scalding hot broth. The trick is to hold them carefully in chop sticks and bite the top off, creating a little dumpling bowl, oozing with spicy red broth that can now cool. They’re unbelievable. They were all I wanted to ever eat again in my life until I had some pork buns in a train station in Hong Kong that may, in  the end, be the subject of their own post, since less than 1000 words could not do them justice.

After lunch I dove, alone, into the real old town: wandering down alleys, haggling poorly. (And, through a series of events I can’t quite trace, buying a Buddha head that I did not want. It sits on a shelf reproaching me now, reminding me that I’m an idiot.) I turned North and walked through streets full of men cooking BBQ and circulating smoke with bamboo fans, past lane communities with socks and dried chicken hanging side by side on laundry lines. I bought hot ginger and lemon and watched families shop for vegetables and fish. Finally I emerged onto Nanjing Rd, a huge, glitzy pedestrian mall, lined with Western brands at twice their European prices. I ate nut pastries and walked around People’s Square in the gathering dusk.   

At eight, I went to dinner with expats – I met my dear friend from high school’s little brother, who was wearing a well tailored suit from work and standing in front of a two-story Gucci store. We turned off a street in the French Concession to walk through a small alley lined with bamboo to a sparse, vast and very modern Japanese restaurant. I listened to Zach and colleague talk about jobs, travel, Mandarin tutors and tailoring.

After dinner, Zach and I walked for an hour through the French Concession. We bought ice cream and he told me about working in China, and about living there for 6 years, about making local friends and learning to translate business practices across cultural divides. He told me no one likes to fire anyone – things are too good, so much better than they were forty years ago, that companies feel like families, and no one wants to trouble the waters much. For people who survived the Cultural Revolution, he explained, stasis is a gift.

The streets were darker and quiet, with couples and groups of students strolling under the trees that line the broad avenues. If you could convince yourself that the smog was mist, we were in the most beautiful of cities, cosmopolitan and elegant. I fell in love with it. “Yeah,” Zach told me, looking around a quiet street that curved off to our left, lined with villas, “this pretty much never gets old.”

The next night after I returned from Zhu Jia Jiao I wandered the French Concession again. I dipped into stores full of Chinese antiques and Italian wines; second hand stores and organic cafes. In a rush, I dropped into the first take away joint I saw – what turned out to be a Korean place, where I at Bi Bim Bap looking at kitchy prints of 1950s American comics and listened to C-Pop. I darted across town, spending 30 cents on the most efficient metro system I have ever encountered, and met the theater professor for a Mandarin production of Romeo and Juliet – all stylized black and white punk with little pops of comedia del’arte. The audience was elegantly dressed, students in trendy glasses and women in heels. 


“It tastes like bull frog,” became the motto of many of my friends for China. An experience without metaphor, a place lost in translation. The tester port of Japan was over – this, they all said, this was real.

I recognize that I barely saw anything of China. I saw a tiny sliver of uber-wealth that hardly describes the whole of China, or even the whole of Shanghai, or even the whole of the French Concession – probably not the whole of the building I stayed in. On the other hand, we were there for a few days, so I’m pretty sure no one else saw much of China either.

But I’m not sure it’s just that I saw a China insulated by wealth and expats and Japanese restaurants and experimental theater that made me come away so much fonder of it than my friends. That’s may well me part – or even most – of it. And will I pretend that I didn’t struggle with some things. For an avowed lefty to discover her own unspeakably ethnocentric attitudes is off putting, and, yes, okay, fine, spitting is something I will have to come to understand better. Like really a whole lot better.

But I liked Shanghai. It may be I even loved it. And at least some part of that must be, I’m convinced, a determined desireIMG_2639 to imagine the smog is mist.

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Kyoto, well and unwell

Poor Kyoto, it didn’t really stand a chance, did it? Not for those first 24 hours. Not when I couldn’t hold food down, my shins and thigh bones ached, and every joint hurt. Not when I could feel the cold down to the pit of my stomach, when one foot never stopped being numb, and when all I wanted to do was sleep. None of that was Kyoto’s fault. Tokyo did that. Tokyo screwed over Kyoto. It ate me up and spat me out, dazed and miserable, and let Kyoto see what on earth it could make of me.

Most cities would fail the test.

But Kyoto’s not most cities. 


Things I remember from my first twenty four hours in Kyoto include the fact that it is the coldest place ever invented, it’s busses take a really extraordinarily long time to get anywhere, when they do get there they are the coldest places on earth, and my friends are all, universally, and without exception, complete jerks.

That those impressions might have been shaped by the fact that I could barely keep rice down was not a thought I was willing to entertain at the time. In retrospect, looking at pictures, I think the Golden Pavilion was actually shockingly beautiful. And even as my bones ached and my tedious friends did tiresome awful things like “looking at maps” and “finding out where we’re going” and “asking kindly if I was okay” Gion was gorgeous. It’s the oldest surviving quarter of Kyoto – the city was once essentially run by rival Geisha houses, who would control and police the quarters around them. Gion was the most powerful, and so has stayed while others developed – old wooden houses, silent lanes, sliding doors and slatted windows looking in on gorgeous feasts served to wealthy diners sitting on tatami mats. None of these restaurants were for the likes of us. We spent and hour in hopes of spotting a geisha, failed, and then went and got udon from a bright, steamy diner where it cost us $2.50.

But the second night, when we returned to our machiya, a traditional Japanese town house with paper thin walls, and futons laid out on tatami matt floors, we found a miracle: it was warm. The total lack of insulation in machiyas is a mystery I’m yet to understand. It is very hot in the summer, my friend Marty, who lived in a machiya while teaching English in rural Japan explained to me, so this kind of light weight breezy construction makes sense. But, I insisted, isn’t it also very cold in the winter? Yes, Marty admitted, it really is very cold in the winter. So…. wouldn’t insulation make sense? Marty sighed heavily, “when I lived here,” he told me forlornly, “my cooking oil froze and all my honey crystalized.” He reflected on the insulation situation for a bit, and then explained that there’s a kind of table that used to be filled with hot coals but is now electric, that you can sit near, or put your legs under at night. We thought about this set up for a little. “It really is,” Marty concluded, “totally miserable.”

So we did what Western jerks everywhere do: we ignored local custom and cranked the heat. For the first night it made no difference. I slept under four comforters and stumbled down the icy stairs five times to be sick. But even without my post-Tokyo withdrawal symptoms, everyone else was miserable too. Handily, futons are also really uncomfortable. Marty told us that after two weeks of sleeping on one, both his hips were bruised. It is worth noting here that Marty was in the room when we booked a machiya with futons.



The second morning dawned cold and misty, but I had slept, our house was warm, and our fortunes were changed. I ate some rice. I didn’t throw it up. The day of miracles had begun.

I can’t write it all. I can’t begin to write it all. This is already long, and it’s mostly been whining. So I will give you this, instead, a few impressions of a city that, by the end of the day, had gone from The Worst Place Ever to Maybe Where I Need to Move.

Bright orange Torii gates marching up a mountain, one after another – they call them the thousand gates but there must be more. The forest around the gates is dark and misty, rain dripping through pine boughs and down to a mossy forest floor.  Against the dim woods, the gates look almost luminescent, winding into the wilderness. After the first kilometer or so the crowds thin out and Marty, Quynh and I are alone, in absolute silence. Every few hundred meters the gates break and there is a tumbling pile of shrines stretching up the mountain face, each mounded with tiny Torii gates covered in prayers. At the very top of the mountain a cat is standing on the shrine, drinking water from the offertory. As we climb back down a crumbling cement path, we see a cafe, with a single man inside. Outside, under a makeshift tent, a camp stove is boiling eggs. We duck in and sit on a low bench by a rotating portable heater. He brings the girls coffee from an espresso machine balanced on a folding table, and pours Marty green tea from a steaming pot balanced on a camp stove. We eat boiled eggs while the rain patters on the tin roof and streams down the windows. 

The part about the busses is true. They take forever. We give up on going to see an ancient zen rock garden of apparently outstanding beauty and unmatched historical and cultural importance and go to eat instead. This seems in line with my life priorities in general.

We walked through indoor malls of brightly lit shops selling animal onsies and bright paper stationary. We got lost, twice, and then found ourselves in the Nishiki Market, a long, covered street of stores – we bit into the heads of tiny octopuses, slick with teriyaki sauce and stuffed with hard boiled quails eggs, we touched spices to our tongues that lit our mouths on fire and ate balls of rice covered in minuscule dried fish. I went to get green tea icecream, then Marty did, then Quynh made us double back so she could, too. We had balls of steaming dough stuffed with fish, and dried black soybeans coated in candy. I drank a few cups of steaming green tea, feeling my hands thaw against the porcelain.

And then we dove back into side streets, dark alleys dotted with the picture windows of stores that arranged their wares just so – stark white interiors with architectural shards of fabric hanging from wires (I looked, I couldn’t even afford to look) used clothing stores up enticing stairways, porcelain stores and paper shops with hundreds of printed tapes and post cards. We went into a basement cafe full of french jazz and Japanese hipsters eating spaghetti and salads with chopsticks and drinking wine. We found a line of Japanese people, and hopped in. It turned out to be soba, served at a wooden bar by three chefs who worked in coordinated ballet to turn out huge steaming bowls of clear broth poured over a nest of noodles laced with strands of kelp, shreds of yuzu floating on the surface, and a half cooked egg whose dark orange yolk seeped into the soup.

We wandered the streets a bit more, past chic bars and dim restaurants, I made up a song called “everything is just amazing” and sang it, on a loop, for twenty minutes.  We finally caught a train back to our small machiya, crawled into our nests of comforters, and with full bellies, slept for our last night in Japan.

I left Tokyo exhausted, jittery, and sick. I had fallen head over heels and wasn’t particularly interested in finding a new love just yet. Not many places could bring me back – but I’ll say it again: Kyoto is not most places. 


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A Transportation Paradise Lost

My heart sank: they weren’t there.

Still sweating profusely and gasping for breath, I peeled off my coat and sat down, watching the platform through the train window. One minute left.

Thirty seconds. Nothing.

A high pitched scale chimed over the intercom and a crisp British accent welcomed me to the super-express service to Kyoto. In absolute silence, the bullet train slid out of Tokyo station, three empty seats around me.


Lets talk for a minute about transpiration in Japan.

At our pre-port meeting, the Japan-expert called it a transportation “paradise.” I don’t want to say they’re lying. I just think that the word “paradise” could use some defining here.

There are things that are actually and truly miraculous about the way Japan runs, things you notice even in a 5 day visit. Bullet trains are astonishing. We slipped through the countryside with less turbulence than a luxury car, going almost two hundred miles an hour. The subways are clean and on time – I heard an apology announced when a train was two minutes late. Streets are impeccable. Even though neither Tokyo nor Kyoto are the shining futuristic metropolises that I think some part of my less imaginative (or more imaginative?) brain believed, you never see trash, nor even much graffiti. Also, and I am just going to repeat this here: you can get cans of hot coffee and tea from vending machines.

A culture that deeply values hospitality also means that the people are kind and polite in a way I have never seen before, and I have been to Canada. The counter agent at the ticket office chased us two blocks because we left a shopping bag behind. A man who gave directions came, 5 minutes later, when he was free, to check that a friend had, indeed, found the post office. We only had one rude encounter and it was with a drunk Brit, which was a relief, frankly. Every country on earth has to have one drunk Brit who aggressively hates you for no reason. Just like every travel story should involve the Australian backpackers you met. (Ours were named Patrick and Sarah. Patrick does a mean karaoke version of Man in the Mirror.)

And there are other things, outside transportation, that definitely feel like paradise: you can order ramen from a vending machine (outside the restaurant, and then you take the ticket and hand it to a man and 2 minutes later a bowl of steaming heaven is in front of you. And if you do this alone after karaoke at 2am on a cold, deserted Tokyo street, you will end up standing at a tiny counter in a brightly lit space next to a rumpled
businessman just leaving the office, slurping ramen in absolute silence as you both read newspapers and you will know, right in that moment, that this will be what you remember as Japan.) There are cat cafes, and now owl cafes, and apparently rabbit cafes. There are crepes everywhere and miraculous street food. There are convenience stores that are, really and truly, convenient: you can pay your bills and taxes, mail your packages, use an ATM, photocopier or computer, get on free wifi, buy umbrellas, pick up coffee and get mysteriously delicious meals all for a few yen.

But paradise? I question paradise.

Here’s a metaphor that does more justice to my particular experience in Japan: Japan is a Michelin three star country, and I am a Beverly Hillbilly who never learned which fork to use.

I have never been so acutely aware of the myriad ways I was offending everyone around me. And I have lived in Austria. Was I talking too loud in the ramen place? (yes) Was I using chop sticks correctly? (no.) Am I meant to dip this in soy sauce? (who knows) Will this ticket work for this train, or did I need to get a different ticket for a different denomination from that orange machine right next to this green machine? (no, and yes) Everywhere I went gates slammed closed with a startling honking noise, cops frantically waved that I was not allowed, waiters looked at me in quiet despair, and I was deeply aware that I was doing it oh, so, very, very wrong.

A ten minute subway ride took us 45 minutes, including getting off and on the same train three times at a single stop. We walked around the entirety of Shibuya station, dragging bags, to discover that we were meant to make a cross-platform transfer. In the crowds that 38 million people cause, you knew that if you lost one another, it was a lost cause. By luck one of the men I travelled with was 6’5” and wore a red hat, but were it not for Greg, I’d probably still be standing, somewhere in the middle of a crowd, wondering where to go next.


The bullet train gathered speed, and I decided to move up to Quynh’s seat. I leaned back and looked out the window – in Kyoto I’d find internet, and email them. I’d wait by the Shinkansen gates for them to appear. I realized I didn’t know where our AirBnB was. I realized that these were reserved seats, and probably not transferable. I realized I’d paid for them. This was going to be a long night.

I heard a yelp and looked up. There they were, all three of my travel buddies, pumping their fists in triumph. One had been grabbed by another as he walked the wrong way through Tokyo station, another had had to convince an official to let him through the ticket barriers with no ticket on the basic explanation that he was helpless and hopeless and Western and needed her pity. A conductor held the door, making the train, oh, five seconds late, in order to let them on. The librarian produced convenience store hand rolls from his bag and we settled back, chomping on seaweed, as the train shot through paradise.

It’s not Japan, but it is surely Japanese.

When I was twenty three, my brother, parents and I went to Paris. At the top of Montmatre, in a fit of nostalgia for a visit my whole family had made when I was 12, Nick and I decided to get our portraits drawn.

Nick’s portrait artist was a self-aware scam artist. Not only was he going to cheat you out of money, he had no interest in wasting your time doing so. In about 10 minutes he whipped off a portrait of a 17 year old boy that almost, but not completely, looked nothing like my brother. Who was 28 at time. 

Mine took much longer. He painstaking worked for almost an hour. To this day, I really do believe he might have just done his best. In the end, while the girl portrayed looked nothing like me, he did get, with really startling accuracy, my left ear just right.

I always think about this man, taking an hour to draw a lifelike portrait and getting only an ear, compared to those caricature artists – in ten minutes flat they draw a cartoon head that is obviously, unmistakably you. It doesn’t look like you, exactly. It has none of the photorealism of my left ear. But it couldn’t be of anyone else.

Anyway, all of this is to say that if you’re ever in Japan, you guys should really go see the Robot Burlesque Cabaret.   


Could I use a vehicle other than the robot cabaret to illustrate the themes I want? Could I, for instance, talk about the really beautiful mix of ancient and modern by telling you about the group of octogenarian ladies doing tai chi in the rain under a highway overpass? Or by talking about the shrine tucked between Louis Vitton and Chanel in the Kobe mall? I mean, sure, I could. But then I wouldn’t get to talk about Robot Cabaret. And I really want to talk about the Robot Cabaret. 


Our first two days in Japan were among the most overwhelming of my life. Within an hour of getting off the ship, I was standing at the famous Shibuya crossing (you know the one. That one in every documentary where they want to demonstrate modernity and they show a time lapse video of a bunch of Japanese people crossing a road in six directions at once? See! I told you you knew the one) and from there we only stopped moving long enough to slurp, chomp or nap.

Tokyo is a shot of pure adrenaline, and for 36 hours I had been unable to sit still. I dragged myself home from dinner in a high-rise mall at midnight and jumped out of bed at 5am to go see a market. We got lost on subways (more on that later) ate ramen across from strip shops, saw quiet Shinto shrines and bustling Buddhist temples, mucked about in pre-dawn fish markets getting yelled at (repeatedly) by the police, stood on a glass floor 350 meters in the air, had enlightening if at times unsettling experimentations with toilets, slurped oysters for breakfast and noodles for lunch, wandered down dark alleys, bumped into temples and stuffed ourselves into miniature bars with top-hatted bar keeps. I personally found two new foods I hate (mochi and smoked eel sushi with fermented plum sauce) and many, many new foods I love. Finally, in what I still consider to be among my top 3 experiences in Japan, if not life, I discovered that you can get hot cans of coffee from vending machines.

Hot vending machines! Our nation is woefully behind. 

This is all to say that by the time the Robot Burlesque Cabaret at the Robot Restaurant happened, I had sort of run out of steam. If by “run out of steam” you mean, “become exhausted and cranky and started systematically alienating all my friends.” (Really! You should ask them! They tell delightful stories.) But all that was about to change. 

Let me tell you what happens when you get to the robot cabaret:

First, you are greeted by one of the ship’s psychologists running down the street, jump-tackling you, and yelling ROBOTS! Then you notice that somehow, largely by coincidence, about a third of your fellow staff members are here. One is buying drinks for everyone at the convenience store. Another is ambling out of the men’s room, making no note of the fact that he sent you an email at 2am that morning that said “Met a girl in Yokohama and may have a date. Don’t think it will work out. Probably meet you in Tokyo,” as if Tokyo isn’t an urban area of thirty-eight million where you don’t just run into people. But everyone comes to the Robot Cabaret.

You are led into an elevator by men in giant yellow jackets – the elevator is gilded. You will begin to notice that a lot of things are gilded. It lets you out into a room whose decor is inspired almost singularly by slot machines. You notice that the head of student life is drinking something called Ninja Beer while sitting in a giant golden clam shell. Things are no longer really surprising you.

After a few minutes you are called downstairs – the stairs are decorated with black walls and reflective butterflies, because of course they are. Downstairs you are seated and women serve you beer out of jet packs. 

Finally, the show begins.

Let me tell you what I remember of the robot cabaret:

There was a giant panda riding a cow, stampeding into a ring to break up a fight between two robot warlords. A snake hissed steam at a woman in metal hot pants while Ave Maria blasted over a techno beat. There were taiko drummers in rhinestone bikinis and rainbow wigs riding on remote-controlled platforms. An audience member was given boxing gloves and invited to knock out a robot. Two singers rode in atop 12 foot rhinestone merry-go-round horses to the sound of Japanese folk music and then proceeded to belt out Lady Gaga’s Telephone. Anime versions of Shinto goddesses performed a duet on the LCD walls while a mermaid (rhinestone tail, of course) rode a shark across the stage. The stage hands were break-dancers. More beer came out of jet packs.

Was any of this a realistic portrait of Japan? Obviously not. If we had spent an hour trying to get a real portrait of modern Japan, we might have, if we were lucky, gotten a single, well-crafted ear. Instead, at the end of the hour, they took our glow sticks away from us, shot us up four floors in a golden elevator and left us to stumble, dazed and energized, into the neon lights and karaoke bars of Shinjuku, certain that whatever the hell it was we just saw it was, unmistakably, Japanese.


Hawaii, the home of a box store.


I went to Target yesterday!!

When I was 15 years old I wrote an essay called “Target: The Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.” I am not kidding. It was a warm, deeply felt elegy to mass produced but vaguely stylish home wares, friendly employees and brightly lit aisles. I was asked to read it at the final assembly and everything. It was a pretty great essay.

Also, I went to Hawai’i yesterday.

But lets talk about Target. I got a french press, which is the greatest purchase of my adult life. And that’s including the time I bought an Anthropologie dressing gown, and the Copenhagen magnet that had actual tufts of hair on the vikings, so you know I have pretty high standards. I bought three bags of coffee, and a yoga mat and the biggest jar of peanut butter you have ever seen. It took me ten minutes of stirring to mix it. I bent the knife in the process. 

And I bought a beach towel which came in handy when I swam in the ocean by a grove of coconut palms under a clear blue sky later that afternoon.

The Target was huge, and it was full of people from SAS, mostly the faculty, because we are classy enough to walk from the free Walmart shuttle, past the Walmart, Lowes and Safeway, to get to the tasteful box store. We ran around the aisles, comparing notes (“A yoga mat! I hadn’t even thought of a yoga mat!” “Yes, there is a tea aisle, but it’s not by the coffee. I know, weird!” “You can’t have too much immodium!”) We were all in a terrible rush, see, because after this we were going to be forced to do things that afternoon.

I, myself, was going to have to go stand up paddle boarding down a calm river with schools of fish jumping around me, surrounded by a lush park full of birds with a guide who told me all about King Kamehameha.* Others I know were forced to go zip lining through a tropical botanical garden. Some were made to kayak to tranquil waterfalls and ancient banyan trees at sunset.

The paddle boarding reminds me: I got sunscreen at Target, too, that seemed important. And a latte! My god that latte was good. I did also get immodium, because apparently you can’t have too much, and pepto because the physician’s assistant told me I should. This has made me mildly nervous about the food that’s coming my way, but once a girl has thrown up all over the front seat of one taxi in India, she’s pretty much got “embarrassing food illness” down as a life skill. I bought a pair of sweatpants, too, because elastic waistbands are important on a ship. 

I had to get out of Target quicker than I wanted because I also needed to get some poke – spicy, raw marinaded fish that is a specialty of Hawaii – and a beer and sit in the sun taking in the view of the bay.

Actually, I didn’t get to do that.

I spent too long at Target.

At Target, I saw that the following stereotypes about Hawaii are at least true: people actually says aloha a lot, they do really use the hang loose symbol to start and end conversations (even the immigration agents),** tons of signs are in Japanese as well as English, and everyone hates Honolulu (“There’s no aloha left in Honolulu.” – Actual sentence, proving that it’s not only in moves that aloha is used as a noun, a fact that makes me indescribably happy.) I learned a lot at that Target. 

Target is great. I can definitely see why so many people take vacations there.

Maybe, some day, if I’m really lucky, I’ll get to take my own kids to Target.*** 

*who, in addition to uniting the Hawaiian Islands, was over 7 feet tall, which is an awesome fact I never knew.

**That fact not actually learned at Target.

***I’m being facetious. I didn’t only go to Target. I also went to CVS. 

We’re going around the world on a ship. That seems worth noting.

When I finally got on a plane to Chicago, after four hours sleeping curled at the edge of a friend’s bed, having missed two flights, been rescheduled three times, taken an emergency $70 cab ride, and lost my bag (again), I was exhausted. I sat down, pulled my hood up, and checked my emails one last time before take-off.

There in my inbox was a message I’d flicked past the day before trying to get to confirmation numbers. A few last minute details, from my Dean, about embarkation. And suddenly I was wide awake:

Holy crap, guys. I’m going to sea for four months.


I’ve known this was happening for quite a while now. As a possibility since March, when my friend Lauren told me that Semester at Sea was looking for a TA. As a strong likelihood since June, when after taking a cruise with my family to celebrate my grandmother’s 96th birthday, I told the Dean that no, it had not in fact put me off ships entirely. And as a certainty since October, when I finally signed a contract and looked, bewildered, at the list of 13 ports.

But knowing about something and planning for it aren’t the same. Especially if you’re me. 

So I left everything last minute. I paid fees through the nose to get two visas and an extra set of passport pages in two weeks flat. I left inoculations so late that they did five at once, three down one arm, two in the other, with the result that I couldn’t move my arms above 45 degrees for days. I rented a storage unit 15 minutes before appearing with all my things, and then ended up driving the last of my possessions there at eight o’clock at night, in the dark, on my own. Which at least means that my “most likely to get myself murdered” moment of this voyage happened in Virginia. I also, in retrospect, left a startling amount of my possessions just lying around for my roommate to deal with. Sorry Tom.

And as for what I’d be doing once I got to the ship? Well I left thinking about that to that flight to Chicago, when at 7am I remembered with real, true  and startling clarity that I am terrified of the ocean.


So here I am, four days into the last voyage of the MV Explorer (Semester at Sea is selling the ship, and are currently in the process of leasing a new one). I feel incredibly lucky. Lucky to be seeing 13 countries, 11 of them new. Lucky to be stuck on a boat with 70 faculty and staff members who are, to a person, intimidatingly accomplished and mostly better at yoga than I am. Lucky to be surrounded by 628 students who, as of yet, have proven themselves to be nothing but engaged, smart, and surprisingly community oriented.  Lucky to be gazing out at miles of relatively calm blue seas. Lucky I haven’t been eaten by a shark, gone down in a terrible ship wreck or fallen overboard. Lucky, most of all, that after the first day they stopped announcing ocean depth at lunch. 

The MV Explorer calls itself a floating campus but it is more like “a place that until very recently was quite obviously a cruise ship.” All of the deck maps etched in glass by the elevators clearly indicate where the casino and shopping arcade are. The casino is now a library. The cigar bar is just a classroom with elegant glass cabinets embedded in the walls and a fireplace. Some classrooms are set up in such a way that if Global Environmental Politics were to devolve into, say, a round-robin of bridge, everyone would be ready.

But I don’t want anyone to think this means it’s pretty.

The ship was built by a Greek cruise line in about 1989 and shares a sense of mellow style and understated color with Bayside High. There’s a lot of turquoise. My carpet has polka dots. Frosted glass everywhere.

The one exception to this is the faculty lounge, which has the dark and swanky palate of a mid-rent cocktail bar in 1980s LA. If it had toilets, I assure you everyone would be doing coke in them, just for accuracy. A real upside of this is that when sitting at the low-backed high bar stools I feel like I might at any moment be mistaken for a high-class hooker. It really adds something to the faculty meetings.

Our students come from something over 400 colleges and universities (they told us, but in addition to planning, listening at orientations is not a strong suit of mine) and 44 countries (again, 44 sounds familiar, but honestly, I could be making it up.) In addition, we have a contingent of Life Long Learners aboard – adults who come on board as partial participants. They’re a congenial group of pleasantly wealthy people; I’ve had two conversations about skiing and one about hotels in Paris. They have very strong feelings about board meetings and the best advice on where to buy liquor.

We haven’t reached our first port yet – that’s Hilo, Hawaii, the day after tomorrow. But so far we’ve completed two cycled of classes (we don’t have weeks, just A days and B days). The students have set up a million clubs. The faculty have had somewhere between ten and a hundred conversations about how bad the coffee is. Everyone has agreed to the importance of peanut butter.

I, myself, have been lucky with seasickness. I did get a bit dizzy and apparently pale (our British Academic Dean, Mark Thomas, aka One of my Favorite Humans Alive, stopped me on the stairs the first night and ordered me to bed for looking “sickly enough to put [him] off dinner.”) but otherwise have gotten off lightly.  Seasickness’s earliest symptom is just extreme sleepiness. But then the medicine that combats it has a primary side effect of causing extreme drowsiness. Never one to turn down free pharmaceuticals, I took the pills they leave sitting out in baskets like mints, and slept 12 hours yesterday, plus however long it was between when I opened my mythologies text and woke up just in time to catch the tail end of dinner. I have also discovered that, because I am my parent’s daughter, wine helps.


Hilo is coming soon, and until then we’re all caught in a state of quiet anticipation and anxiety. And for me, sitting in the quiet 80s glamour of the faculty lounge, I am just dripping in smug. The sun is out, I’ve made it through the full day awake, and in two days time, I get to buy real coffee. It’s nothing better than a lucky accident, but somehow, guys, I’m going to sea for four months.