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!)