Saturday, November 28, 2009

Lately: The Here and the Now


This Thanksgiving I helped plan a magazine-spread menu: pumpkin cornbread, savory butternut squash dressing, chardonnay glazed carrots, pan roasted Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes with toasted pecans, spiced cranberry sauce, and a cranberry pecan tart. I’d love to say it was a catalog-worthy feast, but I’m a fledgling cook. The carrots were overdone, the butternut squash was too crisp because I didn’t cube it small enough, and the spiced cranberry sauce was inedible (so we now know that pinot noir vinegar is not pinot noir verjus).
 
The rents weren't happy that the ingredients included fresh rosemary, sage, and thyme along with wild rice, masa harina, and shallots. (Nor were they pleased about the Brussels sprouts -- who else has to beg their parents to eat their greens?) But I rationalized that the grocery bill would still be less than the $75 take-home dinner they were planning to order from Bob Evans. (The horror!)

On Black Friday we woke up at 3:30 a.m. to go shopping. I intended to bail out but mustered up the motivation to get out of bed by reminding myself I wouldn’t be able to participate in this truly American consumerist tradition next year in Chile. I had the same I’m-going-to-vomit nausea I get when waking up for 6 a.m. flights. When we arrived to Target at 4:50 a.m., hundreds of people lined up outside the doors in the rain. We left and went to the mall. There it seemed like a typical bustling day of holiday shopping until I remembered it was 6 a.m. and people were ordering Chinese in the food court. 
 
A couple of weeks ago before the Thanksgiving chaos, we were on a six-hour drive to D.C. for my visa appointment at the Chilean Consulate. I was thinking about the dozen documents in my manila envelope under the front passenger seat. Signed university acceptance letter. Check. Official statement of scholarship funds. Check. FBI fingerprint cards. Check. I’d heard so many stories about stern officials who never failed to demand new documents not listed on consulate websites or telephone information lines. That’s why I’d also brought along my birth certificate, bank statements, and a letter of my intentions just in case. They couldn’t deny me.

And they didn’t. Fredz, the man who processed my visa, was nothing but friendly and helpful, if eager to charge the $131 fee. After he pasted the document in my passport we had time to explore The Smithsonian Natural History Museum and learn about paintings by Da Vinci, Rubens, and Monet from a scholarly French guide at the palatial National Art Gallery. She led us through dim, glowing rooms with polished marble floors. I spent as much time admiring her demure eye shadow, glowing skin, and manicured nails as I did contemplating Botticelli’s use of symmetry or Caravaggio’s expressions of humanity. This woman oozes polish and sophistication, I thought as I admired her pressed clothes and perfect blowout. But when she stretched up her arm to point out a worm hidden in a Dutch master’s Vase of Flowers and revealed a wedge of dimpled midriff, the illusion of perfection shattered. Then I felt less inadequate with my wrinkled jacket and rain-wrecked curls. 

When the museums closed we walked by the Washington Monument and peered through the gates at the back of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. That night I pressured my parents into eating at the Indian restaurant by our Comfort Inn. Now I can’t stop craving Shahi Paneer, tofu-like chunks of homemade Indian cheese in a rich and spicy tomato bisque served with flatbread. I also managed to help my mom eat her Tandoori chicken dipped in yellow curry puree and yogurt sauce with carrots and cucumber.

Back in West Virginia I took a road trip to Lewisburg in Greenbrier County. Surrounded by rolling farmland in the Allegheny Mountains, it's the place small town myths are made of. I walked around the historic downtown stopping to browse at the boutiques, galleries, and antique stores (sometimes they're a better bet for vintage than thrift stores). They have two old fashioned barber shops with the revolving red-white-and blue striped poles in front, a bakery, and hip cafes with vegetarian menus and wi-fi. Advertisements for plays, concerts, and art openings were plastered everywhere. I took pictures of the old churches and graveyards and of the stately Carnegie Hall. On the way in and out of town I stared at the lovely Victorian and Georgian revival homes with green lawns shaded by grand trees (my dream house is an old one), wondering why I couldn't be from this part of West Virginia.

But at least in industrial Charleston I can frequent the Mountain Stage. I’ve heard Brett Dennen, one of my favorites who I found out is super tall with toothpick legs and wiggles while he sings, the virtuoso pianist/bluesy singer Diane Birch (I was disappointed that she was hoarse), and Sam and Ruby. I love the latter’s Suitcase Song

I also took some time out for TV last week -- I watched the season finale of Project Runway, in which my friend and old roommate Carol Hannah showed a collection in Bryant Park for New York Fashion Week. This was my first experience being a follower of a TV show, and now I’ll have to find another one because it was so fun. When I saw Carol Hannah on Regis and Kelly and discovered that she has 3,000 followers on Twitter, I realized she’s a celebrity. That makes me feel happy and inspired, and lucky that I have a dress she made me in my closet that she’s now selling for $700 on her website. Too bad my current life lacks any occasions to wear it. 

However things will soon change … My Rough Guide to Chile just came in the mail, and my flight to Santiago is booked. And The New York Times even recently ran an article about Valparaiso, the city where I’ll be studying. South America is closer every day.

Monday, November 23, 2009

My Hometown in 500 Words



I run off the road toward the brush when a pick-up truck whizzes past me at a curve. A thorny weed latches around my neck. I’ve forgotten how foggy and cool the West Virginia mornings are in late August. This was not a good plan, I think about my idea to run on Cow Creek Road. But I keep going, passing subdivisions crammed with large look-alike houses as I jog up and down the hills. 

I can’t remember ever turning on this road even though I grew up a few miles away in Scott Depot to a soundtrack of roaring interstate punctuated by the bellows of train whistles. This place I consider home doesn’t even qualify as a small town. It’s more of an interstate stop-off with gas stations, a couple of truck stops and motels, and a representative of about every fast food establishment in the Southeast. It's unincorporated, meaning it has no mayor, sheriff, or downtown. It got its name from a now defunct train depot built in rolling farmland. Now it’s part of Teays Valley, a district that has about 13,000 people.

There are no museums, galleries, or cafes in Teays Valley. Shopping is limited to Kmart, Kroger grocery store, and a few short strip malls. The closest thing to fine dining is Applebee’s, which also serves as the local nightlife scene. But while I was away at college the community got a movie theater, and as of 2008 residents can shop at four Wal-Marts within a 30-minute drive.

About 30 minutes into my Cow Creek run I contemplate the brick mansions with pools in the back and Hummers in the front that stand across the road from trailers in muddy ditches with ‘80s-era swing sets, rusty tricycles, and shells of old cars piled in the front lawns.

A mile up the road a rooster crosses a wooden board laid over a creek. Way down a sloping gravel driveway a big woman with white hair stands by a barn with her hands on her hips, her muumuu billowing in the breeze. She stares at me. I’m suddenly self-conscious of my spandex running pants and the purple iPod nano strapped to my arm. But I smile and wave. She gives me the look of death.

I keep running as the road twists up a forested hill. When I pass an abandoned, tire-less car parked on a steep creek ledge and inhale a whiff of something foul, I try not to think about stashed cadavers. At the top, the landscape morphs into hillsides dotted with hay bales. I come to a pair of mobile homes, and a pack of grimy pointers sprints after me, yapping at my heels. I try to remain calm, but a traffic sign blasted with bullet holes makes the backwoods horror movie setting all too relevant. I turn around. 

I finally see Midway Valley Mart ahead on the main road at the end of Cow Creek. My mother’s red SUV pulls in to rescue me. I hop in the car, sweaty and breathing hard. “How was your run?” she asks. “Long,” I say, staring out the window. During the five-minute drive home I gaze at the housing developments and office spaces, wondering who lives and works there. When we turn into New London Commons -- my brick subdivision -- I ponder how some of us remain so unaware of the place we came from. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Alone for the holidays


It was December 23 of last year at about 10 p.m. I sat in an outside seat of a vaporetti boat on the Grand Canal, coughing from the engine fumes and wearing my hood in the chilly rain. I was alone, listening to an ill-timed Weepies ballad on my iPod shuffle. I'm only 23, I thought. How had my life already gone so wrong? I should be glitzed up for holiday parties with my friends or wrapping presents while watching Christmas movies with my mom. Instead I floated past glowing Venetian palaces in an empty, silent city that inspired romantic fantasies and ghost stories, hopelessly and utterly alone.

Nearly a year later, I’m far from empty piazzas shimmering in wet moonlight and hushed medieval allies. I’m home in West Virginia. I stir my multi-grain cereal with milled flaxseed and soy as it bubbles on the stove top. “Tastes like something they’d feed you in prison,” my mom says after I offer her a bite. After breakfast, I pop in a yoga DVD, trying to concentrate on broadening and lengthening as I stand in Proud Warrior. But while yogi Rodney Yee instructs me to empty my mind and be in the moment, I’m thinking about Thanksgiving next week. I resist the urge to press pause and light my new cinnamon apple candle. Bring on the tree trimming, pie baking, and carol singing, I think.

After last year's lonesome Christmas I’m determined to squeeze every drop of holiday warmth out of this year. Following my return from Europe and failure to support myself at a temporary job before the start of my one-year fellowship in South America, I’m living with my family for a few months. Today after a dentist appointment and the library I meet my dad at the pool for a swim. At home we grill hamburgers for dinner. Mom comes in after her weekly girl scout troop meeting, and the three of us sit in the living room. I read my homework, The New New Journalism, my mom flips through an Avon catalog, and my dad reads a Western novel. This is luxury, I think. Until my parents turn on a made-for-TV movie and ruin the bliss of silence. But I stay in the room because I like the warm lighting and the company.

A December night last year I entered a dark and empty hostel dorm in Florence after lugging my suitcase up three flights of stairs. I left my bag on a bunk and went outside in search of an Internet café so I could Skype my family. Soon I was cold and lost. My desperation to talk to someone I knew turned into a panic. An hour later I found an Internet café in the back of a convenience store. The aggressive fluorescent lighting made my head hurt. After I’d paid and sat down at my assigned computer, I realized the settings were in a language consisting of foreign symbols rather than Roman characters. I tried to explain to the Indian owner. He didn't understand but pointed to the other computer. I logged onto Skype and soon heard my mother’s voice in the headset. “Hello?” But she couldn’t hear me. My microphone didn’t work. "Hello?" she repeated. I could hear my brother laughing in the background. I hadn’t seen him in a year. Hearing the familiar voices but being unable to communicate was agonizing. Click, my mom hung up the phone. I rushed out so no one would see my tears.

When I moved to Barcelona to teach English after my college graduation, I’d known I wouldn’t be able to afford a flight home for Christmas. Instead I ended up booking a budget flight to Italy. After a few extended stints abroad I’d overestimated my immunity to homesickness.

These days I sigh with nostalgia when I see photographs of bridges I walked in Venice or paintings I admired in Rome. I wouldn’t trade the three weeks I spent exploring Tuscan countryside and wandering Veronese Christmas markets for anything.

So why now, as I curl up on the living room couch by with my cat at my feet and my parents on either side,  do I think of Italy and feel a pang of solitude?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Southern Education




When my parents drove away and left me in my corner dorm room on the third floor of Buist Rivers Residence Hall, alone in a city 500 miles from home where I knew no one, I braced myself for a shocking transition. At 18, I was fully aware that I’d grown up in a homogeneous circle of evangelical, middle class people in suburban West Virginia. I cringed admitting I’d attended the same school since kindergarten and graduated with a class of 25 students. Only to me was my moderately sized university of 10,000 students  an eclectic metropolis. But looking back five years later, the most bewildering revelations from freshman year didn't relate to the urban surroundings or collegiate depravity that I'd been warned about. My real shock was my introduction to Southern culture and erudite classmates.


“Good grief.” my best friend had muttered in disbelief when she'd accompanied me to my orientation seminar a month earlier. "This is like the Stepford Wives College." I defended myself, insisting that when I’d visited the school that spring during Scholars Weekend the crowd had been different. That summer short, flippy skirts were in, and we were the only girls on campus wearing jeans. We went shopping that afternoon, and I bought a bright yellow, pleated mini. I wore it that evening and the next morning.

The night before classes started I sat on a beanbag on a dorm room floor with a group of girls from my hall.  One tried to explain to me what a debutante ball was, showing me pictures of herself wearing a pink gown on stage with a dorky escort at a country club. “Nowadays it’s just a tradition, but it used to be a coming out ceremony where girls from high society families of marrying age were put on display,” she said. Can we say archaic, classist, and demeaning? I thought.


The trauma continued my first week of college. My unruly hair that I’d learned to tame with a laborious blow-dry and ceramic flat iron routine became a frizzy mess in the thick, coastal Carolina humidity. My skin developed a layer of grease as soon as I stepped outside in the 95-degree heat. But everywhere I looked on campus packs of smooth-haired blondes with matte bronze skin marched around in Lily Pulitzer sundresses, designer handbags, and heels. In West Virginia we only wore skirts and heels to church. After being derided most of my life for being overdressed, I’d discovered a place where a dress was appropriate for any occasion. If any of these girls had spoken to me, or if my own appearance wasn’t such a disaster, I would have felt as if I was finally home.


It wasn’t until the end of my first semester that I realized sorority rush had taken place during the first two weeks of class. That explained the daytime cocktail attire on campus. Although the stilettos eventually disappeared from the classroom, I can still hear the stampede of clacks on those 19th century brick sidewalks.

That fall I'd learn that sorority types or not, Southern girls agreed it was a crime of fashion to wear white after Labor Day. I’d thought that was a myth from my grandmother’s time, but these girls were dead serious. Had they not seen Demi Moore's winter white suit? And if I put on my jean jacket when I was wearing jeans, they'd joke about my Canadian tuxedo. I ignored them, thinking they dressed like soccer moms, wearing the same pearls around their necks and in their ears day in and day out. In class they wore their sunglasses around their necks attached to awful strings I later learned were called Croakies. Later I figured out that their daily uniform, a Ralph Lauren pastel button down shirt or polo paired with Citizens of Humanity jeans and Rainbow flip flops, cost half as much as my wardrobe. At church I saw guys my age dressed in seersucker suits with bowties. They were not trying to be ironic.


My other cultural awakening related to intellect rather than fashion. I lived in an Honors College dorm and couldn’t keep up with my hall mates’ conversations. They talked about bands I’d never heard of. In high school I thought I was pretty cosmopolitan because I listened to music on top-100 radio and not just Michael W. Smith and Casting Crowns. My new college friends only listened to indie music or classics like The Rolling Stones. At first I thought Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were two guys, but I caught on. Soon they were asking me if they could burn my Garden State soundtrack with all the songs from that new Postal Service band. 


Not only did my classmates drop names of obscure musicians, but they also loved to compare their trips to Europe, boast about the difficulty of their high schools’ International Baccalaureate programs, and argue about Nietzche versus Kant. They discussed authors and poets and foreign film directors. My roommate and our neighbor had to explain what a nymphet was to me while we watched the independent movie Lolita. At least I’d read the Bell Jar so I could make intelligent commentary when one of my friends showed me her Sylvia Plath inspired journals and verses. My horizons broadened daily. One night my roommate pulled her secret box out of the closet. She showed me her journal detailing all her lovers and conquests, a pair of handcuffs, and some tacky dice. “What’s Kama Sutra?” I asked when I saw the photography book in the bottom.


In my honors English and astronomy classes I kept my mouth shut while my peers discussed the merits of iambic pentameter and the quirks of special relativity. They debated the ethical implications of the racial and economic segregation in their high schools. I was afraid I’d pronounce Goethe wrong or unwittingly reveal that I’d never read Paradise Lost in high school English. I had never felt so ignorant and unsophisticated. My professors must not have noticed, because they gave me all A’s.


Outside of the classroom I learned lessons about the South. I learned not to freak out about the Palmetto bugs (Charlestonian for giant cockroaches) that swarmed the streets at night or try to debate any heretic South Carolinian who believes the Confederacy should have won the Civil War. I also found out what a Lowcountry boil was. Every fall I got invited to several of them -- cookouts with just-caught shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and kielbasa boiled together in giant pots. My first bite was always a horrifying crunch because I'd forget to peel and de-leg the shrimp. In the spring I learned to pry open still-grimy oysters served by the bucket at oyster roasts. I preferred other local specialties – she-crab soup (a crab bisque with sherry and roe) and shrimp and grits (actually delicious at the right restaurant). My last year of school I finally went sailing, but I never learned to shag (the dance) or tolerate the sweet tea. And I'll never say y'all or appreciate a Vera Bradley design.                           


After four years under the Palmetto flag I accepted that I’ll never be a Southern belle or really get the South, but some dismal days in Europe and and West Virginia I've wanted to repeat Scarlett O'Hara's declamation  -- “I'm going back to dignity and grace. I'm going back to Charleston, where I belong.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

Visit Charleston: The cool side of charming


When you think of Charleston, South Carolina, you might conjure up images of a quaint and cultured coastal city rife with old money, Civil War history, and carriage tours. Charleston is a lovely city – one of the loveliest – but it’s also a college town with a progressive side. The Southern seaport now hosts a fashion week, and its slow food movement has made it a foodie destination on par with much bigger cities. It’s sometimes seriously hip, and hipster, and even hippie. And this casual side of the city is also more financially accessible.
The ideal way to explore Charleston is on foot (or on a bicycle if you’ve got one). The historic district comprising the lower portion of the peninsula is an elegant introduction. Walk by the sparkling gray water of the Cooper River along The Battery, the famous promenade once used for Civil War artillery, spotting sailboats and dolphins on one side and admiring antebellum mansions on the other. Wander the paths and cannons of White Point Gardens and then continue toward the palmetto-tree-lined and oak-canopied Water Front Park. Pause for fountain photo ops, sit on the swings on the pier, and take in the views of the Charleston Harbor and the Ravenel Bridge, an eight-lane, diamond-towered steel wonder. (Sometime during your stay take advantage of the bike and pedestrian lane for glorious views from the continent’s longest cable-stay bridge.)

Take time to meander past the gated 19th-century mansions and gardens shaded by oaks dripping with moss on the surrounding streets. It’s all romance with a capital R. Don’t miss Rainbow Row, the much-photographed series of pastel-colored historic houses on East Bay Street, or the French Quarter and its swanky restaurants and art galleries. (Several Friday evenings a year the galleries open for a free art walk through the gas-lit cobbled streets and alleys that includes wine and hors doeuvres.)
Nearby on gorgeous Broad Street is a little boho restaurant called Gaulart et Maliclet Cafe that has community tables and very reasonably priced, very European specials that include a glass of wine. Locals refer to it as Fast and French. Turning onto lower Meeting Street feels like going back in time 150 years. Most of the churches and graveyards date back to the 1600s – hence Charleston’s nickname the Holy City. Up King Street, the city’s shopping avenue, the high-end antique shops and boutiques begin.

When you come to Saks Fifth Avenue and the venerable and luxe Charleston Place Hotel, flagship-worthy chain stores (The massive Urban Outfitters in a fabulous converted theater space is worth a look if only to check out the crystal chandeliers and sweeping staircases in the dramatic venue.) and fashion forward boutiques occupy the centuries-old buildings. Go inside the Charleston Place to peruse the shops or just savor the opulence of the grandiose lobby with its elegant staircase, live jazz, and polished marble floors.
When you cross Calhoun Street you’re approaching Upper King Street, the up-and-coming design district. You could take a detour here and follow the brick sidewalks into the Spanish moss-and-ivy covered grounds of the College of Charleston campus, est. 1776. On a Saturday morning a side trip to the farmer’s market in Marion Square Park is in order. Browse the local produce and artisan stands and maybe even order a crepe.
Back on King Street stop for a fresh baked gourmet Black Forest or Carrot Cake cupcake at the adorable Cupcake bakery or take a fair-trade latte break at the African-themed Kudu Coffee, frequented by students and creative types. Monza is a good lunch stop for Neapolitan-style pizzas and salads made with fresh, local ingredients. Or you could take a little walk to the corner Bull Street Gourmet for a sandwich. You’ll want to come back to Upper King later for the bar scene. The sleek Chai’s Lounge and Tapas is a standout. The earthy Asian interior with paper lanterns can feel yuppie-ish, but the bamboo garden courtyard in the back is where it’s at in the evenings.
Even though Upper King hosts the city’s new night scene, out-of-towners still flock to the Market Street bars. If bachelorette parties and Jello shots aren’t your thing, wait in line for Rooftop Restaurant and Bar for glowing city views among a preppy crowd. Although with the exception of the renowned Gullah sweetgrass basket weavers the Charleston Market is a best-avoided tourist trap, don’t miss the street itself. Stop by Market Street Sweets for to-die-for praline samples on your way to the dark, Victorian Kaminsky’s Café for desserts made daily by pastry chefs and served late into the night. Wait in line for a table if necessary -- it’s worth it. The Tollhouse Cookie Pie has a cult following (order it a la mode). For a bit of frugal ambience, wait until 11 p.m. for half-price pizza, $2 champagne, and live jazz at the stylish and sensual Mercato, an upscale Italian restaurant.
If the weather’s warm, leave town at least once for an afternoon at one of the nearby beaches. Isle of Palms is the family friendly beach where the vacationers head. The surfers and coeds with beer coolers flock to shabby Folly beach. Taco Boy decked out in umbrellas and Christmas lights is great for lunch and cocktails. (The new downtown location on Huger Street is also a hotspot with bands playing on the patio in the evenings.) Charming Sullivan’s Island is the quietest beach and the closest at barely 15 minutes away. Pass the lighthouse and head to station 17 if you don’t mind a 10-minute nature walk (wildflowers and butterflies!) to a secluded shore that you’ll most likely have to yourself. On the island Poe’s Tavern, named for Edgar Allan Poe who was stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s, is famous for its burgers and can get rowdy.
To find out what’s going on back downtown, grab a free copy of The Charleston City Paper. The alternative weekly also includes a vast restaurant and music directory. The online Charlie Magazine also gives voice to all happenings artistic and progressive in Charleston. Or end your stay with one of two stand-by options: signing up for a commercial but oh-so fun ghost tour or taking in an indie flick with a bottle of wine or chocolate chip cookie at the art house Terrace Theatre on humble James Island.

Gaulart et Maliclet Café, 98 Broad St. (843) 577-9797.
Charleston Place Hotel, 205 Meeting St. (843) 722-4900.
Cupcake, 433 King St. (843) 853-8181.
Kudu Coffee, 4 Vanderhorst. St. (843) 853-7186.
Monza, 451 King St. (843) 720-8787.
Bull Street Gourmet, 60 Bull St. (843) 720-8992.
Chai’s Lounge and Tapas, 462 King St. (843) 722-7313.
Rooftop Bar and Restaurant, 23 Vendue Range St. (843) 723-0485.
Market Street Sweets, 100 N. Market St. (843) 722-1397.
Kaminsky’s Café, 78 N. Market St. (843) 853-8270.
Mercato, 102 N. Market St. (843) 722-6393.
Taco Boy, 15 Center St. (843) 588-9761.
Poe’s Tavern, 2210 Middle St. (843) 883-008.                                                               Terrace Theatre, 1956D Maybank Highway (843) 762-4247.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Get your travel stories in print


Do you have a travel story so good that you have the urge to write it down and share it? Here are five local outlets -- a glossy magazine, two websites, and a couple of regional newspapers -- that publish travel articles.

1. The Charleston Gazette
www.wvgazette.com
Contact: Rosalie Earle, e-mail


2. The Post and Courier
www.charleston.net
Contact: Stephanie Harvin, sharvin@postandcourier.com

3. World Hum
www.worldhum.com
Contact: dispatches@worldhum.com
Paste your submission of less than 2,000 words or a short pitch as well as a brief bio into the body of an email -- they will not open attachments. Do not send multiple submissions. Include the section of the site you want to contribute to in the subject line of your email. Payment varies and response not guaranteed.

4. Women's Adventure Magazine
www.womensadventuremagazine.com
Contact: edit@womensadventuremagazine.com
Accepts formal queries meant for specific features or departments.

5. Glimpse
www.glimpse.org
Contact: Submit stories directly on their website here.
Accepts first-person, slice-of-life narratives that focus on a single experience or a set of closely related experiences. Usually, they recount a specific adventure you embarked upon, or an interesting person you got to know. In the process, the story should reveal something surprising or noteworthy about your host country or someone from that country. Response to queries is prompt.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Land of Enchantment


I've wanted to go out West to New Mexico and Santa Fe for awhile. I envisioned painted deserts and blazing sunsets that set the backdrop for sacred Native American ceremonial dances. I wanted to see this faraway, spiritual land -- the land of artists and writers who find inspiration and freedom in the sand and mountains and vast plains. A foreign, mystical place of dry heat and ancient rituals that sparks creativity and brings peace. A wild place of cliffs and boulders, of legends and reservations.

When I found out I was actually going to New Mexico I started reading guidebooks. I learned that New Mexico is one of the largest, least populated, and poorest states. My imaginings of complex landscapes, boutique art, and ancient peoples broadened to include mountain hikes and ghost towns. I developed a new interest in Georgia O'Keefe. Now I wanted to take the Turquoise Trail to Santa Fe and the High Road to Taos, to drive down Route 66 in its retro glory. My mouth watered for green chile cheeseburgers and huevos rancheros. Scenic byways and national monuments beckoned me. Soon I'd look out at the Great Sandia and Jemez mountains in the distance and watch the sun set over the Sangre de Cristo rockies.

I kept reading, envisioning the Old Town plazas and cathedrals constructed by Spanish pioneers centuries before the pilgrims docked the Mayflower or Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. I pondered New Mexico's post-multicultural society, a melding of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo ethnicities that had brewed for centuries. I fantasized about floating up in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque during the International Balloon Fiesta (the area has the world's most ideal wind conditions for ballooning) and soaking in a hot tub at a rustic Santa Fe mountain spa. I hoped to sample Frito Pie and fill my suitcase with on-trend Southwestern accessories.

My real trip to New Mexico wasn't all that different from my expectations. The first morning in Albuquerque we hopped on a bus to Old Town where I ordered a breakfast burrito smothered in green chiles at Church Street Cafe, an adobe residence built around 1706 now decked out in homey Southwestern memorabilia. At every restaurant they asked if I wanted red or green chiles or Christmas (both). I couldn't get enough of them. (They're rich in anti-oxidants! Studies have found that they dull pain and trigger pleasure sensors in the brain!) I also developed a romantic affinity for ristras, the ubiquitous bunches of dried red chiles hanging in every doorway and sold by roadside vendors.

On our way up to Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet above sea level, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees --  to below freezing. We stopped at the quirky roadside museum of Tinkertown housing the work and junk-turned-treasure collection of an eccentric woodcarver/philosopher. Up at Sandia Crest and later at Aspen Vista in the Santa Fe National Forest we hiked through flaming yellow Aspens and birches and by alpine flowers and blue spruces that towered like telephone poles wearing Christmas tree branches. We made it to mountain peaks and looked out over mountain ranges and cities from viewpoints I can only compare to peering out the window of an airplane.


Some days were so sunny that my head hurt from furrowing my brow in a deep squint, and I had to look at the ground while I walked. On one of those blinding days we followed a sandy path that wound through flat desert surrounded by hillsides covered in black volcanic boulders etched with petroglyphs, prehistoric images carved by Pueblo Indians. Other days we explored the art galleries lining Santa Fe's Canyon Road and the dozens of chic boutiques downtown selling indigenous and Southwestern art and jewelry. I bought a chunk of turquoise hand-carved into a square cross to wear as a pendant from a man with waist-length black hair and lusted over cowboy boots and silver rings. Around town Dad and I discussed what would happen if he adopted the hairstyle that nearly every New Mexican man we passed sported -- the ponytail.

Sometimes we left the city, driving for hours on straight highway stretches through dramatic wilderness of mesas and valleys, stopping at scenic lookout points, ghost towns like Cerrillos, and tiny churches. I stuck my head out the window on the interstate to snap photos of the Puye Clifftops against the big turquoise sky. We spotted a tarantula crossing the road in the abandoned-mining-town-turned-hippie-artist-haven of Madrid. I contemplated how so many Americans live in adobe rather than the brick or vinyl siding houses I grew up with. I took dozens of photos of bull skulls and rugged adobe steeples. (I periodically yelled for my dad to stop the rental SUV for a good photo op.) The colorful graveyards and crucifixes draped in rainbows of rosaries surrounding the churches were like something out of Mexico.

On a side trip to Bandelier National Monument in Frijoles Canyon we hiked along Native American clifftop dwellings and to a rocky waterfall. On another day excursion we scrambled up the Kasha Katawe Tent Rocks through lunaresque canyon paths in an otherworldly forest of bleached rock formations. Up north in Taos we learned from a Pocohontas-look-alike tour guide how indigenous peoples live in modern society at the 1,000 year-old Taos Pueblo village. Down the road we parked to cross the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on foot. When we made it to the middle of the fifth highest bridge in the U.S., two semi-trucks blasted toward us, rattling the entire thing. Back at the car a guy with long black hair blowing in the breeze sat beside his giant rusty blue Ford truck with the grassy plains and jutting blue mountains behind him.

I suffered my first flame face from a habanero pepper at Baja Bumblebee's Grill. I tried one, and it was so good that I went back for another. But tears streamed down my face after the second one. I don't know if the tears were an autonomical reaction to the spicy pepper or tears of pure pain. My tongue hurt so bad I couldn't touch the rest of my meal for 10 minutes. I had another traumatic cuisine encounter at the Kakawa Chocolate House where I tasted the first chocolate I didn't like, an Aztec warrior elixir made according to the original Mesoamerican recipe. I couldn't get past a few sips of the oily and spicy unsweetened concoction. But most of the local food I would eat every day if I could -- dishes like green chile and pinon nut meat loaf, blue corn pancakes, and stuffed acorn squash with mole sauce.

I feel like I filled a college course worth of history, geography, and culture into a two-week trip. After exploring a bit of Europe and South America I'm long due for discovering the vast diversity of the United States of America. I have a feeling I'll be back in Santa Fe one day -- I won't be able to stay away from that big turquoise sky and clear mountain air. And did I mention all that handcrafted turquoise and those fresh roasted chiles?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Visa taboos and small town joys




I'm going to Chile in three months. My scholarship year is ever so slowly approaching, 18 months after I started the application process. Now that I've been accepted to the Universidad Pontificia de Valparaiso I'm waiting for my final documents so I can send them to the Chilean Embassy and book a visa appointment in D.C.

The student visa application required me to get an HIV test. After a few unanswered phone calls to local health departments, I made an appointment at a nearby family clinic. I showed up at 9:45 a.m. with my 40 bucks in hand, ready to be pricked. The check-in counter didn't have a sign-in sheet, so I told the receptionist my name and appointment time. "What are you here for today?" she asked.

I paused. "An HIV test." Her eyes grew wide and the blood drained from her face. The other women in scrubs behind the counter all froze and looked at each other. I think the entire waiting area silenced for a moment. Should I have whispered? Had I violated a confidentiality norm or HIPAA protocol? Did they expect me to write my reason for coming on a scrap sheet of paper rather than voicing those three letters aloud?

Coming from the College of Charleston where health services regularly advertised free AIDS/HIV testing events (a friend who I volunteered with in the Dominican Republic even organized one), and after reading interviews in women's magazines where Scarlett Johannsen and Natalie Portman reveal that they get annual HIV tests, and after seeing the horrifying images of the babies and children suffering from AIDS in Africa I wasn't prepared for the reaction I would get asking for an HIV test in Hurricane, W.Va. Now I know that H-I-V is a four-letter word around here.

Back at the clinic, my face flushed at the shocked reaction I'd elicited. I decided that I better explain myself because my dad works at that office part time. Plus I didn't want to put the nurse and myself through an uncomfortably graphic speech about safe sex practices and shared injection needles. So I clarified that I needed the test for a study abroad visa, and everyone relaxed.

Later this week we headed to Fayetteville for some hiking. We showed up for a haunted night hike led by a pair of park rangers who told 19th-century ghost stories about the surrounding woods and its now-disappeared mining towns and railroads. We ate dinner at Pies and Pints downtown, where I ordered Thai pizza - curry sauce, shrimp, and toasted coconut with fresh basil and cilantro. On our way out of town after a rainy morning in the woods, we stopped at the Cathedral Cafe, a hip and arty little place in an old church that serves dishes like carrot leek soup and spinach and hummus salad. I was so inspired by culinary small town West Virginia that I spent most of today making coconut curry butternut soup.