F5

[Content warning: talk of the events in Boston.]

***

You’re curled in a heavy duvet in a clean white hotel room, watching history play out under your hands as you refresh the page again. It is not a conscious decision. Your fingers drift towards the f5 button like iron filings to a magnet, and the screen of the tablet goes blank for a moment as the page tries again to load.

The hotel room is in northern Switzerland, but it could just as easily be in Budapest or Shanghai or on a lunar colony. The entire room is neutral-toned: dark wooden furniture, pale walls, the sheets and pillows a snowfall of pristine white. Nothing about it indicates a sense of place: there’s a deliberate, soothing anonymity to these surroundings. With the rain drumming steadily against the skylights and obscuring telltale architecture outside, you could imagine this was anywhere. Well, anywhere except America.

The tablet in your hands displays a dozen different tabs of news reports, transcribed conversations from police scanners, and live feeds. An entire city has gone on lockdown. This is the world’s first crowdsourced manhunt, sources say. The internet has banded together in the wake of the Marathon to sift through countless photos, looking for white hats and black jackets and duffel bags where duffel bags should not be. Twitter users post pictures of armored vehicles rolling past their living room windows. The police have asked the people transcribing their conversations if they would please stop giving away the officers’ positions.

If this were one of your action movies, it would be very exciting. You deliberately sidestep another conversation with yourself about blurring lines between reality and fiction. Now is not the time.

It’s just that you’ve never been so far from home during a disaster before. America is reeling and you’re all the way across the Atlantic in a comfortable, safe place. You feel simultaneously homesick and guiltily grateful that you’re somewhere else. Hitting F5 is the least you can do.

You’ve been at this for a while. Your eyes have started to ache a little from the bright screen in the otherwise softly lit room, and your head has started to ache from the information. There may have been reports of a jumper. There may have been reports of a woman taken hostage. There may have been reports of an old guy with a dead man’s switch. The sources are not entirely sure. You recall an article you read just the other day about news being bad for you, and perhaps it’s no wonder you feel like you’re starting to come down with something. Most of the talk online right now is sick.

In a little while, you tell yourself, you’ll get up to take a walk. You’ll go down to the fourth floor where the electric kettle is and make yourself a cup of tea. You’ll go explore the rest of the hotel with its weight room and pool table and infrared sauna. You’ll go find somebody to talk to and maybe watch a movie with. You’ll power down the tablet for the night and put it somewhere out of reach.

In a moment. First, refresh the page.

The rain continues to fall.

Posted in PGS

(and a pharmaceutical addendum)

Even the most reportedly benign malaria drugs may have unexpected side effects. Remember this while you are taking them. The entire universe will suddenly get spectacularly more irritating, but keep in mind that it’s your perception of it, not the universe itself, that has changed. Except for the parts of the universe that consist of your companions who are also on malaria meds, because they are experiencing the same thing. Pissing matches and some shouting may occur. Don’t take it personally. Remember that it’s the drugs talking. Remind one another of this periodically.

Quarantining yourself when you are feeling particularly aggressive is a good option and will be appreciated by the group as well. Again, don’t take it personally. You may have non-scary but very vivid, exceptionally detail-oriented dreams. Try bonding with your companions over them instead of snarling at each other over literally the most irrelevant things imaginable. It’s better for morale.

Thank your lucky stars that tomorrow is everyone’s last dose of Malarone, and you’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming shortly.

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Things they don’t tell you about going to Ghana:

+ The Sahara Desert is bigger than you can possibly imagine and will take several hours to fly over, moving north to south. There are landforms down there that you don’t even know how to describe, and if they’re that dramatic from 34,000 feet… Unsurprisingly, you will resolve to go to North Africa at some point in the indeterminate future.

+ Everything you eat will be delicious in spite of somewhat questionable appearances. That reddish slurry? Smoky hot pepper sauce. Unidentified meat product? Spicy and fantastic regardless of what animal it came from. Bowl of unknown fruit chunks, some of it white and some dark pink? Pineapple and papaya grown just down the road, which taste like nothing you’ve ever had in the States and which will make you want to cry over how good it is. You will eat massive quantities of jollof rice at every meal and suspect that you could eat nothing else for the rest of your life and be perfectly content.

+ It will take the toilet tank 45 minutes to refill. The shower, when it works, will have such low pressure that it can’t come through the hose and you will have to crouch with your head under the tap to try and wash the sweat out of your hair. You will realize that it’s one thing to read about water scarcity and quite another to experience it firsthand.

+ It’s not heat-induced delirium: there actually are thousands upon thousands of giant fruit bats in the trees out the window. Those other hanging things? Weaver bird nests. Your companions will find your tendency to flip out over zoological matters extremely entertaining.

+ There are few things funnier than watching a busload of Americans purchase coconuts from one very happy roadside vendor and then have absolutely no idea what to do with them.

+ Markets are not for those averse to confined spaces, verbal sparring, or being touched by strangers. You will be able to cope relatively well, all things considered, and get a couple of very good deals until the end, when the heat and people physically trying to haul you into their shops will very suddenly become way, way too much. Resist the urge to bolt, screaming, for the exit. Your heart rate will drop eventually, I promise. It may take an hour or two.

+ If you are a somewhat androgynous kid with short hair, you will be consistently read as male. This will be unexpectedly useful when negotiating prices, because if you manage to keep your voice at the lower end of its register the male shopkeepers will tend to take you more seriously, although they’ll keep asking jovially why you don’t have a girlfriend or wife back home yet. It will not be useful when you startle two women in the airport bathroom and will lead to exceptionally awkward apologies from all parties involved.

+ You may somehow wind up purchasing rather more fabric than you’d intended. 12 yards of it, in fact. It was lightweight and repeatedly folded, so you had no idea, but you quickly realize you’ve got enough to wallpaper a dining hall if you wanted. Hope you like orange and blue batik: you’re gonna be seeing a lot of it for a while.

+ You will realize, a few days after the fact, that you have just traveled to Africa, and that nothing, aside from funding, is preventing you from going back. Money is obviously the limiting factor in this situation, but it will occur to you that you had this list of places you would probably never go set up in your head, which had previously written off this entire continent for no real reason. You’ll be doing some re-evaluation of that list in the near future, you think.

Sky Blue

One of the oldest songs on my iPod is this slightly otherworldly Peter Gabriel track. It’s about being on the road for a long time, and perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s been stuck in my head for a while now.

That last breathless, earnest blog entry about seeing the world and getting good at living out of suitcases? It was true, but it wasn’t the whole story.

For the first time in my life, I’m tired of traveling, and I really don’t know how to process that.

See, one of my defining characteristics — in my own mind, at least — is my love of travel. New places and people and experiences bring me to life. I’m frequently at my best when I’m on the road, because I am actively engaging with the world. My personality’s brighter, I’m more playful and willing to take risks, and my observational skills are sharper due to the constant influx of new information. Taking notes on all this novelty is a necessary part of the process, and some of my best writing has come from what I’ve scrawled in my travel notebooks through the years. Hell, look at my blog title — it’s a grammatically-incorrect family shorthand for “wandering off in search of adventure.”

But I sort of…don’t want to do that right now. I’ve barely had time to read through all those notes I’ve taken. My own thoughts have seemed to be the sort of middle school teachers criticize in book reports: all summary, no analysis. I’ve not had much time for depth, lately — I’m so focused on absorbing all the details I can that sifting through them has had to be postponed. It’s exhausting, and I’m exhausted. It’s a natural part of a semester-long program like this, I should imagine, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be countered.

So the next free weekend I get, I am very deliberately going to do nothing. And by nothing, I mean refuse to go anywhere that isn’t Riva San Vitale. I’d like to camp out in the garden for a while (the weather’s finally turning warm and the buds on the trees are all going pink) and sort through this arsenal of travel notes, and just be quiet and calm for a while. With all the travel to these spectacularly beautiful places we’ve been doing (the famous ruins in Greece, the rush of big cities over spring break, the raw beauty of volcanoes in Naples) it’ll be good to spend some time with the lower-key but lovely aspects of life here in Ticino.

I’m sure I’ll be ready for my next adventure shortly. Travel is in my blood, and I expect to recover my enthusiasm for taxis and trains and tall buildings very soon. But for the time being, I think I’ll just stick to checking out the gelato shop on the corner. I understand their stracciatella can’t be beat.

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Life in transit

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written on the Berlin Wall, toured a Soviet nuclear bunker, haggled for a pocketwatch at a flea market in Budapest, taken a day-long train trip through Slovakia, climbed Mt. Vesuvius, collected sulfur samples from the world’s only privately-owned active volcano, eaten at the pizza place from Eat, Pray, Love, and had coffee inside the world’s oldest operational nuclear power plant.

What.

I am intensely aware that I’ve seen more of the world in three months than most people will get to see in their entire lives, and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with all this accumulated experience. I’ve been devout about taking notes — I’ve recorded everything from the color of paint inside a reactor’s control room (seafoam green where it’s not white panels covered in cartoonish mockups of circuitry) to snack foods in Eastern Europe (stay away from a Hungarian candy called Zizi-Love, which are fruity puffed rice grains in neon candy coating — in spite of their charming appearance, they taste like cough syrup-flavored tootsie pops). My little grey notebook is running low on pages, and we’ve still got two more big trips to go.

I’ve gotten good at living out of suitcases, writing essays while in transit, rationing snacks and battery life, and recording everything as part of the process. I’ve even begun to learn the mysterious and previously unattainable art of napping on public transportation. It will be very weird, I suspect, trying to readjust to not constantly being on the move. Maybe then I’ll actually have a chance to start piecing together all the stuff I’ve written this semester into some larger coherent form — all those notes have got to lead somewhere. While I’m having the time of my life over here, I’m looking forward more and more to the downtime that will allow me to sort them out.

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