You Can Go Home Again

As we sat in the transit lounge of the Seoul airport in October 2009, existing for a few hours in the in-between, in the interim between our round-the-world trip and the life that awaited us at home, my thoughts went only in one direction: home. I thought of catching up with my family and friends. I thought of the jeans that I hadn’t wiggled into in a year. I thought of homecooked meals and good Tex Mex and a refrigerator stocked with cheese. I thought of the adventure of moving to a new city, one that we had never even visited before. Perhaps it is because I am a person that tends to look forward rather than backward, or perhaps it was because the round-the-world trip was not yet far enough in the past to be worthy of reminiscence, but either way, my mind did not flit to memories of our adventures or pull up images of favorite moments. After one year on the road, I was ready to go home.

Fast-forward to February 2010. We are deep into winter, snowed-in in the south, which everyone knows is worse than being snowed-in in the north, where at least people are prepared. After a year of full-time summer, winter is worse than I remembered. It is cold, dreary, gray. It seems like it is always dark. Some days, I open my bookmarks page and pull up all the travel blogs I had so loved to read in the run-up to our trip and in the year we traveled. I try to make myself read, but I can’t get into it. Though there are certainly travelers, who like us, have taken a substantial trip and then returned home to other adventures, it seems to me, in my state, that everyone has become a “digital nomad.” What I take away from everything I read is that a RTW trip is not enough; what real travelers do is cut all ties and live their lives entirely on the road. We came home. We go to work. We spend Friday night running errands at Target. I feel like we failed. For months, I try to figure out where we went wrong and how we can join this crowd of digital nomads.

Jump ahead to Summer 2010. I get to go home to Louisville every month. I go shopping with my mom and laugh at my dad’s jokes. I road trip with my brothers. I share enormous pieces of chocolate cake with friends. We read haikus at Jeff’s sister’s wedding. We grill out and then sit with friends on our back porch and talk until even the cicadas have quit singing. We eat hamburgers and watch the Durham Bulls play under the ferocious North Carolina sun. We go to the farmer’s market and chat with the men and women selling us yellow lemon heirloom tomatoes and rounds of goat cheese. We try out new recipes in an effort to keep up with the okra and cucumbers taking over our garden. We ride our bikes down the Tobacco Trail. In short, we rediscover the pleasures of the ordinary, of growing roots, of having a place we call home. We renew friendships and make new ones and remember how it has always been the people, and not the places, that make our time on earth count.

It takes almost a year, but I return to the blogs. I read the words again and hear something different this time. This time I enjoy reading the blogs for what they are, accounts of travelers of all different types trying to figure out their place in the world, offering suggestions and ideas but not claiming that their way is the only way. I have accepted the fact that it is okay to like your job, even if it’s not the type you can take on the road; that there is no weakness in wanting to be close to family and friends; that adventure can be found anywhere so long as you keep your mind open and adapt the personality of a yes man. I have decided that you can love home and love to travel, that the two are not inherently contradictory. A year after our plane touched down on American soil, I realize that not only can you go home again, but also that’s it okay to do so.

Antarctica. Dream Destination? Yes. Mine? No.

When Audrey and Daniel from Uncornered Market pulled the trigger and hopped 0n board a boat to Antarctica last year, I eagerly followed along. The penguin photos! The incredibly blue icebergs! The stomach-churning trip through the Drake Passage! Every morning I pulled up their page with high hopes for a new post. They brought Antarctica to North Carolina for me.

Now I’m eagerly awaiting posts from Pam at Nerd’s Eye View from her upcoming Antarctic adventure. In fact, when I’m browsing blogs, I rarely pass up a post about Antarctica. There’s something about its remoteness that gets me. Perhaps it’s also the simple fact that in this 24-hour news cycle world, Antarctica hasn’t yet been talked to death. It’s not everyone who has been there.

Yet, when I make lists—both on paper and in my mind—of places I just have to get to, Antarctica doesn’t make it anywhere near the top of the list. Sometimes this surprises me. It’s my brain and my list, so I know I shouldn’t by surprised, but I am. There is a section of my brain that champions Antarctica, chants its name over and over, and then, when I don’t listen to it, tries to reason with me.

My brain has a lot of good reasons.

1. I like penguins.

True. But then again, who doesn’t? If you can resist their ridiculousness, then I think you most likely have a relative named Ebeneezer.

2. It’s changing rapidly. Again true. And rapid change has always been a strong reason for me to visit places. When I decide where I want to travel, I try to weight my destinations toward places that I think will be dramatically different if I wait five or ten years to visit them. That’s why Mongolia is high atop my list, while Australia languishes away toward the bottom.

3. I love dramatic scenery.

Wow, my brain really knows me. Right, again. Patagonia brought me to my knees and not just because the hiking was hard. I swooned over the dark mountains capped with blazing white snow. I shot photo after photo of the rapidly changing sky. I spent hours and hours just staring at a glacier. I bet that Antarctica is all of that raised to the power of ten.

4. I am drawn to adventure.

Well, duh. I did choose to teach middle school students in Greece. I think that says it all, but for bonus points I also rafted the Nile, rappelled down a waterfall, took a microlight over Vic Falls, sank a kayak in Lake Malawi, and removed all of my own leeches in Malaysia. Antarctica is pretty hard to beat on the adventure scale.
And the negatives, well, really they’re not the reason. They’re just minor little things, things that don’t matter a bit if I really wanted to go Antarctica.

1. I don’t like cruises. Okay, I’m lying. The truth is I don’t really know if I like cruises or not, because I’ve never really been on a big boat cruise. I liked my catamaran cruise of the Galapagos. I am pretty darn positive I’d hate a Celebrity cruise around the Caribbean. But I’m also entirely certain that an Antarctica cruise is like neither of those. Has anyone ever been on an Antarctic cruise with karaoke? I’m simply curious.

2. I don’t like cold weather.

Well, that’s true, but I don’t hate it as much as I claim. What I hate is the inactivity of winter in all of the places I’ve ever lived, where so much as one snowflake will put life on hold for a good three days. I’ve had plenty of fun in cold climates, and hey, isn’t that Antarctica’s charm after all?

3. It’s expensive. Indubitably. There is no denying that a trip to Antarctica is expensive, but there are less expensive ways to do it if you really try. Plus, I’ve said before that some things are worth the price. The Galapagos certainly was. I bet Antarctica is too.

No, it’s not any of these silly things that are keeping me from planting Antarctica smack at the top of my list of places to visit. What makes me hesitate on Antarctica is the lack of people.

As much as I love penguins, unique places, dramatic scenery, and adventure, none of those have ever been the reason why I fell in love with a place. The one common denominator that ties together all of my favorite travel experiences is people. The stories that stick with me and the images I pull up time and again are of local people and the moments I shared with them.

What’s Antarctica going to offer me in that regard? Sure, there are some crazy scientists freezing their patooties off down there, and I’m sure they’re nothing if not interesting , but it’s not a strong sale for me.

Now don’t get me wrong. If someone approached me and said they’d like to send me to Antarctica for free, I would hug them (and if you know me, you know I’m not a hugger), do the world’s most ridiculous looking happy dance, share the news with everyone I know, and then immediately start searching for a down parka (and one of those furry Russian hats with ear flaps). And who knows, down the road, I may even pay to go. I have no doubt that Antarctica incredible. None, whatsoever. But for now, with my limited travel budget, I’m content to flip open my laptop, point my browser to an Antarctica blog post, and enjoy someone else’s account of the frozen continent while planning my own trips elsewhere. Isn’t the travel blog world awesome?

2011: A Fresh Start

Good riddance, 2010. Sure, you had your moments. Colombia was fantastic. You can sign me up for another couple of weeks there.

Moments from the Yellowstone roadtrip will forever live as legend. And we proved once and for all, that neither tornadoes, nor torrential rains, nor wind-whipped snow can hold us down (or keep us from sleeping in a tent).

My baby brother graduated from college (what?!). Jeff and I celebrated five years of marriage. We rallied for sanity by going to an insane rally. We watched friends wed and celebrated new life with other friends.

We traveled, not nearly as much as the year before, but to places both familiar and new. I drove over 8,000 miles in Kentucky in the name of research for a new guide book. We began to get to know Durham and the state of North Carolina.

2010, overall, was good to us.

Yet, to be honest, 2010 was a challenging year for me. I felt unmoored. Certain questions hung over me all year. Who am I? Who do I want to be? When we left for our round-the-world trip, we threw off the bowlines. Goodbye job. Goodbye home. When we came back to the U.S.,  I found that I wasn’t certain where I was supposed to tie up.

Did I want to be a writer? And what did that mean anyways? Novels, short stories, travel articles, marketing copy? Did I want to be an editor? Did I want to be a teacher? Did I want to throw in my hat to the travel blogging ring? I had no idea. I hemmed and hawed. I flitted back and forth. I tried this and that. I did a lot of things but not very many of them well. I lacked focus. I’d decide that I didn’t want to do something and then I’d read about someone else succeeding at it, and pride would have me back at the thing I’d just decided against, because if they could do it, well, so could I. I often asked myself “What do you want?” or “Who do you want to be?”, but I didn’t really take the time to answer that, at least not honestly.

In some ways, this blog was that indecisiveness personified. I neglected it. I brought it back. I re-designed it. I ignored it. It crashed. This blog was begun as a round-the-world travel blog, and just as I couldn’t figure out how to redefine myself post-RTW-trip, I couldn’t figure out how to redefine Lives of Wander either.

But I think I’ve figured it out. Both what I want to be and what I want this blog to be. As for me, I want first to be a fiction writer. That’s priority number one. Then comes making a living, which I would like to do through editing (at least until I show up on the NYT Bestseller List or get one of those genius grants!). I love comma splices (or more accurately, I love correcting them). What can I say? And also on the priority list is travel writing. Though I’ve tried to talk myself out of it about 8,372 times this year, I just can’t escape from it. I love to talk travel, read travel, write travel, and just flat out travel. And that’s where this blog comes in. You see, as the title says, this blog is about my life of wander, a life that did not begin nor end with our round-the-world trip, and thus Lives of Wander lives on, though in a new, updated format. I hope you like it. I hope you take the time to explore. I hope you come back and join in the conversation, because even when I haven’t known anything else, I’ve always known that it’s the people that make the journey worthwhile.

[Thanks for your patience and encouragement through this topsy-turvy year. I’m still working through some of the glitches of re-launch, including re-sizing photos and correcting the text that got messed up during the transfer from one host to another. Fingers crossed that by Monday, January 22, I’m up to speed with new, exciting posts about travel and the places life takes me.]

Finally, We’re Back!

After a mountainful of problems with our previous webhost crashing our data then holding it hostage, we are free of them and have managed to get our site both back up and with the ability to add new posts. Such is the life when you are not so good about backing your site up and you have to rebuild databases yourself. All I will say is no one should ever use Mochahost for any reason. There are so many other places that will at least honor the terms of what they sold you and not crash your server. Is that so much to ask?

But as we close 2010, we’re back thanks to a New Year’s miracle, and we’ll hopefully be bringing you some more content soon. Happy New Year everybody!

There’s a few issues yet to figure out, like why the comments below have nothing to do with this post. We’ll get there … sigh. (And they’re gone, yay!)

Photo Friday: Valparaiso, Chile

On our first visit to Santiago, when we landed in South America in November 2008, we didn’t make it to the nearby town of Valparaiso, though we were told it was a day-trip must. We were too busy watching kids play in fountains and touring nearby wine cellars. But when when we landed back in Santiago in March 2009, we set aside a day and hopped a bus to this seaport town. I’d heard that it was full of character. I’d read that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’d seen pretty pictures in the front photo section of our guidebook. And then we stepped off the bus.

The smell of piss and rotten fish filled my nose. Scrawny stray dogs sauntered up to us, sniffing at our shoes, baring rotting teeth. What time are the return buses?, I asked our driver, wondering if maybe we ought to just catch the next one back.

We decided to give it a try. We ended up at the port first, which gave off a sketchy vibe. Border crossings and ports—the places where we and the goods we desire, both legal and illegal, enter and leave a country—always seem to have an air of foreboding. Once Valparaiso was Chile’s biggest seaport, and though it’s now been surpassed, it still bustled. Enormous tankers, freight ships, and cruise ships shared the port with fishing boats, dinghies, and tour boats. The stench here was strong, of fish and leaking oil and men who spend their lives adrift.

We wandered about near the port in a downtown area filled with imposing architecture. In the main square, the architecture was well-maintained, proud under the red, white, and blue of the Chilean flag.

Elsewhere what appeared to be impressive buildings were only facades, the walls crumbled, the life once contained within only a memory trapped in the minds of a generation soon to be gone.

We didn’t find much to keep us in the lower reaches of Valparaiso, so we headed to one of the ascensors that connect the various levels of this city built on a hill.

Saying it now I feel stupid, but before I saw them I imagined them to be like the sleek elevators in Monaco that I’d been so amused by. But Valparaiso’s ascensiors are funicular elevators—rickety wooden boxes that rise up a short track to a platform above. Steps rise right next to the ascensiors and the climb isn’t long, so most times we opt to walk, though we do ride the acensior once.

As we rose higher and higher in Valparaiso, we found a city that we liked more and more. Instead of grand but crumbling structures, we found brightly colored homes.

We found green spaces and parks that commemorated Valparaiso’s literary history: It is the home of Chile’s first public library and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous circulation, and it is one of a few cities where famed poet Pablo Neruda had a home.

We paid our admission fee and took a tour of La Sebastiana, Neruda’s home. The tall, narrow house pays homage to Valparaiso and its shipping history with porthole windows, marine and nautical decor, and architecture features reminiscent of a boat.

As a literary geek, I loved poking around the home, chock full of stuff Neruda had collected throughout his life, but the best thing about the house was the view. The city of Valparaiso stretched out before us, revealing its charms.

From a distance—removed from the rank smell, and the potholed streets, and the menacing dogs, and the crumbling facades—I could imagine just what this city had been in its heydey, when Neruda looked from his window and wrote poetry that I would one day read at my wedding, and I could hope that the restoration work we saw happening in pockets here and there would eventually restore the grandeur to this city.

Becoming a Yes Man

Sometimes as I climb the stairs with a basket of laundry, I stop and look at the photos hanging on the wall—photos of the remarkable dunes of Sossusvlei, of children walking through the rain in Sapa, of a frog clinging to a reed in the Okavango Delta, of the bright red sail of a dow in Mozambique—and I marvel that I was there, that I did that.

Life, at least mine, has a way of keeping you in the here and now. Sure, there are moments for reminiscing. There are smells and sounds that trigger memories. There are people, few now but still some, that ask to hear stories about the year we spent wandering in the world. But most of the time, the concern is for the present. Sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of life here, life now, it’s easy to think that that one year was an aberration, that we went off-radar for a year and then popped back on-radar a year later picking up right where we left off. Between runs to Target to purchase toothpaste and days spent raking leaves in the backyard, it’s quite possible to think that our adventure had no lasting impact on us.

But that would be false. Our trip changed us in many ways. It certainly made us view the world differently. It made us more appreciative of what we have. It made us more aware of what is possible. In ways both big and small—neuronal even—our trip affected us, no doubt. To me, the most noticeable effect of our trip is that it turned us into “Yes Men.”

No, not those type of Yes Men, not pushovers or followers or hanger-ons or stooges, but more like the Jim Carey version of a Yes Man, a person who says yes to every opportunity. Before we went on the trip, we (and especially I, if we’re being honest) always had a lot of excuses for not doing things. “I’m not going to know anyone there” or “If we don’t do laundry tonight, we’re not going to have a single pair of clean underwear” or “I wish I’d known ahead of time” or “That’s a lot of driving for just a few hours of being there” escaped my lips on multiple occasions.

But now, well now, I’m more likely to say “What the hell.” Now, when a neighbor I’ve never met shows up at our door with an invitation to a housewarming party, we say yes, even though we’re not going to know a person there. Now, when a neighbor throws some hamburgers on the grill and invites us over for an impromptu barbecue, we say yes, even if I have chicken thawing in the refrigerator. Now, when a graduate student we meet at a university function suggests we join them for trivia night at the local pub, we say yes, though we’ve only exchanged a few minutes worth of conversation with him. Now, when Jon Stewart throws a rally in D.C., we get in the car and go, even if we’re going to drive a total of 8 hours in order to be there for just 24 hours.

You see, what we learned on our trip is that life is the here and the now—regardless of whether that here and now is a January morning at the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu or a November night at Bull McCabe’s pub in downtown Durham, North Carolina—and the best way we can live that life, that here and now, is to say “yes” to it, even if sometimes that means we have to go commando the next day.

Boys Will Be Boys No Matter Where They Live

After visiting New Delhi’s Red Fort, one of the must-see attractions in this bustling city, Jeff and I set off for a leisurely wander through the nearby neighborhood. There was a mosque we wanted to see, but we decided to not go there directly, but instead to wander past the shops, perhaps finding somewhere to grab lunch first. We’d heard terrible things about Delhi prior to arriving. Basically, everyone told us to stay there the shortest amount of time possible, but we didn’t find it to be that crazy or difficult. In comparison, to Agra or Varanasi, which were still to come, Delhi was easy. And so wandering, our favorite travel activity, seemed like a good way to get our first taste of India.

We saw lots of things we expected. We didn’t see other things (no free-ranging cows). What we saw and remember most, though, wasn’t strictly a Delhi thing or even an Indian thing, but something that speaks to the universal spirit of children.

See the blue cart in the center of the photo? That cage-like cart, which was being pulled by a bicycle, was the Delhi version of a school bus. It was crammed full with small boys in uniforms of white shirt, white pants, white socks, and black shoes. Notice that in this photo, the small boy hanging out the back door who seems to be cheering for something.

He was.

He was cheering for the boy that you see being lifted into the cart in this second photo. Jeff and I were standing outside of a shop when this small boy came flying out of the shop and started tearing down the street, dodging cars and motorcycles and carts and all the other crazy things you find in the streets of India. Clutched tightly in his fists were a couple of bags of chips. We looked at each other, and wondered, because of the speed of his escape from the store, whether he’d stolen them. We then heard the loud cheers of a chorus of young boys. We followed the sound until our eyes spotted the cart, realizing then that the boy was chasing after it. As he approached the cart, a couple of boys jumped out the back. Some of the chips were passed into the cart, as one of the bigger boys tried to help the boy with the chips back into the cart.

Eventually, they succeed in getting the boy back into the cart. The entire time the boys were yelling and screaming and cheering as if they had just won some huge prize. Meanwhile, the cart driver didn’t even bother to see what was going on. Perhaps this was an everyday occurrence. Perhaps this boy was the king of chips. Or perhaps each boy took a turn, proving himself to the others by jumping out of the cart, running into a store and purchasing chips for his mates, and then catching back up with the cart. Whatever it was, it was totally hilarious.

And it resulted in some very self-satisfied boys, who reminded us that regardless of whether their school transportation is a bright yellow school bus or a blue cart pulled by a bike, boys will be boys.

Handling Illness While Traveling

I’m feeling a little bit under the weather today, which got me thinking about being sick while traveling. For one (sickness-induced?) moment, I wondered just why I never got sick on our travels but managed to get some kind of crud in the haven of my home. Then, I remembered that I was blocking things out. Like the time we were flying to Cuzco from Lima, and I got to make use of LAN’s barf bags not once, but twice. Or the time both Jeff and I came down with what we strongly believe was swine flu while in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Or the couple of instances when I was glad there was immodium in our first aid kit.

Yeah, I got sick on the road. Not often, knock on wood, but occasionally. I doubt that that comes as a surprise to anyone. Keeping strange schedules, eating unfamiliar foods, sharing cramped spaces with strangers, sleeping (or not) in uncomfortable places is bound to get to you sometimes, and every once in a while your immune system is going to yell ENOUGH! When it does, I’ve found it best to listen.

Because it’s unlikely that your mommy is going to be able to show up with glasses of Sprite and bowls of chicken noodle soup, I’ve found that it’s good to have an idea of how to take care of yourself. (Though if the mommy option is available, I highly recommend taking it.)

1. First of all, listen to your immune system and take a break. Jumping on the next train or pushing through another day of sight seeing when you’re not feeling well is not going to make you better. It will probably make you worse, and you certainly won’t enjoy whatever it is you’re doing if instead you’d rather be under the covers and moaning (and no, not in that way). Give yourself permission to take it easy. On longer trips, this is easier to do, but you should do it on shorter trips as well. In the end, you’ll enjoy the experience so much more—even if you do lose a day or two.

2. Upgrade your accommodations. Now is not the time for budget travel. You don’t have to end up at the Four Seasons, but you shouldn’t end up in the dorm room at a hostel either. First of all, no one else wants your germs. Don’t be a jerk. Secondly, when you have to go the bathroom NOW, you don’t want to sprint down the hall to find it occupied. You also don’t want to be contemplating when the last time the bathroom was cleaned as you hang your head over the toilet or curl up on the bathroom floor. When I got sick in Cusco, we had already booked a night at a hostel that turned out not to be good for illness. It was freezing cold, and the bathroom was barely enclosed, meaning Jeff and my brother Gregory got to hear all of my retching. So they immediately headed out (leaving me under about 10 blankets) to find another place. The hostel we originally booked let us out of our reservation, but even if they hadn’t, it would have been worth the money lost to relocate. When we were sick in Siem Reap, we were luckily already checked into the perfect place. It had a lot of things that we originally thought unnecessary since we planned to spend all our time at Angkor Wat (TV, AC, huge bathroom with hot water), but which we were glad to have when we were in the throes of swine flu. Trust me, I said multiple prayers of thanks for the hot water shower, as I stood under it in fever-induced shivers at 3 a.m.

3. Indulge in comfort foods. When we travel, we usually try to avoid the fast food joints and the American-style restaurants and instead opt to eat where the locals eat. It’s almost always cheaper, and it also allows us to expand our palettes. It also helps us meet and interact with locals. When we’re sick, however, we don’t spent a moment feeling guilty about not trying the local cuisine. If a bowl of tomato soup from the Panera style cafe or a big serving of mashed potatoes for KFC is going to make me feel better, than there’s no reason for me not to have it. When I’m back up and running, I can try the fried crickets or whatever else the local delicacy is.

4. Consult the medical kit. Though most of the time, a medical kit feels like extra weight, the moments when you need it, make it worth every ounce. By carefully packing a medical kit before departure, you can put yourself immediately on the road to recovery when illness sicks. You’ll want ibuprofin or aspirin to deal with the aches and pains, a packet of Cipro or some other broad-spectrum antibiotic for when you come down with strep throat or some other treatable bacterial illness, and immodium for times when you need a bathroom but there’s not one around. It’s a good idea to know how you handle certain medicines before you go. For instance, we took Pepto Bismal tablets with us. I’d never taken them before, but just assumed they’d work fine. In fact, they worked like ipecac syrup for me. The moment one went in my mouth, I hurled. Another great thing to have in our opinion are the individual Gatorade packets. We took these for our hiking trips, but they were wonderful when we were sick and needed to rehydrate and up our electrolytes. (Also, even if you are like us and drink the local water 90% of the time, it’s worth splurging on bottled water when you’re sick. The last thing your body needs is more foreign bodies.)

5. Get help when necessary. If you have a fever that won’t break, have injured yourself (broken bones or bad cuts), been bit by a stray or wild animal, throw up blood, or just feel beyond horrible, give up on self-treatment and seek help immediately. Though I am weary of foreign medical experiences (perhaps it’s because of that doctor in Athens who cut my spider bite open without a bit of anesthetic or antiseptic and thus caused an infection that took six weeks to heal and required daily medical attention—or perhaps it’s just natural weariness), I would never avoid help if I needed it. If we had not begun to feel some sense of recovery after 24 hours with what we thought to be swine flu, we would have sought help. We didn’t immediately seek help because Cambodia was quarantining people with swine flu, and we really didn’t want to be quarantined in a foreign country (though we did opt for self quarantine), and additionally because we had a good college friend who lived in Siem Reap and checked up on us regularly. If you don’t want to go straight to a doctor, stop in a pharmacy to see what help they can offer. Be smart about drugs, however, as fakes are unfortunately common. Ask for pills in their original packaging and try to seek out a pharmacy of good reputation.

6. When there’s no other option, suck it up and gut it out. Though I highly recommend giving yourself a break whenever that’s a viable option, I recognize that sometimes it’s not. The reason Jeff, my brother Gregory, and I flew to Cuzco was to hike the Inca Trail. Arriving there ill had me worried, but we arrived three days before our departure for the hike. I spent the first one doing nothing but relaxing and taking care of myself. I then woke up on day two feeling 100 percent fine. A 24-hour virus I decided. We spent the entire day touring Incan sites around the city. No problem, On hike day, I woke up again feeling fine. No problems on the bus ride, at breakfast, or as we set off on the hike. At a stop about 30 minutes before lunch, I started to feel a bit queasy. Altitude, I thought. Or maybe just hunger. When we sat down for lunch, I scarfed everything on my plate. When we stood up from eating, I promptly lost every single bite into the buses. Tears streamed down my face. My brother had flown all the way from home to do this hike. This was the only part of our entire trip that we had booked in advance. I had my heart set on this. Plus, it wasn’t like I could just step off the trail and be done. My options were to hike forward or to hike backward. I opted for forward. I took a pill. I kept away from everyone except Jeff and Gregory. I was careful to not share anything. That afternoon was torturous. I had just finished work on a hiking book that summer and had expected to lead the group. Instead I was forcing myself to take ten steps before stopping and resting on the side of the trail. But eventually I made it to camp, and when I woke up the next day I was fine. And I was fine on the next one too. And I was fine, as well, on the final day when we marched down to Machu Picchu, the final goal, the reason we’d signed up to hike the trail in the first place.

Seven International Foods (and Drinks) I Miss

I love food. All of it. Or at least almost all of it. There are very few things my mouth has met that it has not liked. Many of those foods are foods I’ve first tried in foreign countries and immediately fallen in love with. Sometimes I can find those foods (or close replicas of them) at home. Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I come up short. The dishes simply cannot be replicated. Though this list contains only seven international food and drinks that I miss, I’m sure it could be longer. I know it could be longer. But in contrast to what I do when I’m eating, I showed restraint. I didn’t include foods that I’ve found pretty good versions of at home–like some of my favorite Thai and Indian dishes–and I eventually quit thinking about it, because seriously, my stomach is about to eat itself. Oh how, I wish my lunch contained the following seven items.

1. Fanta Passion

We discovered Fanta Passion in Uganda, which unfortunately was too  late, though we didn’t know it then. This passion-flavored soft drink is simply awesome. Sweet and tart and fizzy all at the same time. It blows away all other Fanta flavors, but for some reason it is available in only a very limited sphere, and the United States is not part of it. To our great dismay, Americans do not share our love affair with passion fruit, that funny fruit full of seeds and oh-so-yummy juice. Not only can we not get Fanta Passion here, simply trying to find passion fruit anything is nearly impossible (unless you want it mixed with other tropical fruits), which means that passion fruit lemonade and passion fruit shakes–ubiquitous in much of the world–are also out of the question. After a long, hard, sweaty (okay, not really) search, I did manage to locate passion fruit syrup, which we mix with fizzy water and drink, all the while longing for a cold Fanta Passion, straight from the bottle.

2. Gallo Pinto
So, yes, gallo pinto is in fact about the most basic food in the world. Nicaragua’s national dish, gallo pinto is simply rice and beans. I swear, however, that they do something special to it there that transforms it from one of the world’s simplest dishes into something that is crave inducing. I will admit that while there I did, sometimes, get tired of big plates of gallo pinto, but man just thinking about it right now is making my mouth water.

3. Cambodian Barbecue
While in Siem Reap, our friend Maryann, who lives and works there, lead us across the bridge, away from the touristy Tex-Mex and Italian restaurants to a local barbecue joint filled with nothing but long plain tables and plastic chairs. She ordered a plate of beef with a pepper lemon (or maybe lime?) sauce. The meat was cut into tiny pieces that you dunked into the sauce and then popped into your mouth. It was heaven. I think we ended up ordering another plate at least three times, and when it was all gone, I was very tempted to lick the plate and bowl clean. At this moment, I wish I had.

4. Fresh Mangoes
Except for in Hawaii, it’s practically impossible to get a good mango in the United States. They’re picked green and hard and shipped across the country, ripening on the shelf. If you’re lucky, they sort of resemble this tastiest of tropical fruits. In tropical parts of the world, they’re picked plump and juicy from the tree at the peak of ripeness and transferred directly into your mouth. Though Kota Kinabalu on Malaysian Borneo doesn’t have a lot to recommend it in my opinion, I still dream of the mangoes I bought in the market there. The flesh was the perfect yellow-orange, and by the time I finished eating my half of one, I had juice all over my face and running down my arms. I was a hot sticky mess, but I was oh so happy.

5. Cao Lau Noodles
There is one place and one place only where you can get proper Cao Lau noodles and that is the Vietnam city of Hoi An. This dish of thick rice noodles topped with grilled pork, bean sprouts, greens, and rice paper croutons that give it a satisfying crunch can only be made with water from one special well and lye from trees that grow only in Hoi An. It’s completely unfair, because these noodles beat out pho as my absolutely favorite Vietnamese dish. Though I ate them every single day we were in Hoi An, it was definitely not enough. Must return soon.

6. Coco con Dulce de Leche Gelato

Thank god we walked so much on our trip or we might have gained a lot of weight, in Argentina especially. While there, we partook in their Italian style gelato literally every single day. Though we tried all kinds of flavors, one hands-down favorite, for Jeff especially, was the Coco con Dulce de Leche. If that was on the menu, that is what he was having. And though we have an ice cream maker and I found a recipe for Coco con Dulce de Leche ice cream, and though it came out pretty darn good, it’s just not the same as a huge scoop from Volta in Buenos Aires. We just can’t seem to make the dulce de leche stay creamy or get it to distribute itself in ribbons rather than chunks (suggestions, anyone?), but until we get back to beautiful Argentina, it will have to do.

7. Gyros
Sure, I hear you saying that you can find gyros all over the United States, but I’m telling you, friend, they’re just not the same as they are right off the spit in Greece (and they never put French fries inside the gyro here in the U.S.!). For the year I taught in Athens, I lived right across the street from a gyro stand. I probably ate there three times a week. Why I didn’t eat there seven times I week I don’t know. In retrospect, I should have. The gyros were awesome and so ridiculously cheap. Though there is much I love about Greece, I would be 100 percent happy to return and do nothing but eat–gyros, moussaka, patitsio, proper feta, awesome olives, tatziki, proper Greek salads, saganaki, tyropita, spanakopita, gigantes, fassolakia, loukaniko…

What about you? What’s your favorite international dish that you just can’t seem to find at home? Make me hungry.

(Apologies for the lack of mouth-watering photos. We’re absolute failures at taking photos of food. We always start shoveling it into our mouths the second it ends up on the table!)