Warning to animal lovers: some graphic images of a bullfight are included.
On rainy days, Venice reminds me of Millais's Ophelia, her long dress and hair billowing in the deathly waters, seeming to buoy her up before dragging her below. As the river takes her, her face and hands rest just above the water line, in a pose both saintly and sensuous, so that she seems at once oblivious and acquiescent to her fate. The scene is so rich with green life you can almost smell the natural rot of weeds and mud and feel the cold water on the back of your own neck.
It's the rain and the tides which flood into the Piazza San Marco like Ophelia's drowning waters, soaking the city's shifting foundations like her dress.
One moment, the sky is gray, the wide square bustling with tourists with tripods. Chairs are tucked in neatly at cafe tables where tuxedoed musicians squeeze out bittersweet melodies to make one forget the exorbitant prices paid for the ambience. The next moment, with what seems like merely a splash of rain, the image of the Basilica is now reflected in water that comes up to one's shins. The north side of the square seems to be filling up more quickly, but the scene is so unlikely it feels like the ground could begin to tilt the other way.
We run from the center like billiard balls sliding into the pockets of the stone archways. Suddenly the smart tourists have shod themselves with colorful plastic overshoes and rain ponchos and are splashing and stomping in the square where gentlemen once strode with walking canes and top hats. Ducks float where Venetian Doges in long robes must also have glided. Thin wooden planks on stilts appear as if by magic, and those of us who forgot our overshoes clamor aboard and shuffle slowly in a long, sad line of umbrellas and soaked paper shopping bags.
Soon the waters should permanently recede. The Commune of Venice has almost completed a massive flood barrier project that should keep the high waters at bay. Ophelia will wake from her reverie and drag herself to dry land, subverting fate.
When the high waters no longer eat away at her foundations, will Venice live? Are her history and beauty grand enough to survive the daily crush of tourists stepping on her bones. Does she welcome us, the watchers and gawkers or does she fight back with fetid, reeking canals and moldy black steps?
On a gondola ride down one of those slim waterways between palazzos' ancient front doors, we see a woman in high heels lying on her side, draped on a set of stairs leading directly into the water. Two men lean over her. As we glide by we look closer at the odd figures and see that her ankles are twisted grotesquely and bright red blood pools on one of the steps. A street vendor and a policeman comfort her, and soon we hear the splash and wailing siren of a water ambulance coming for her. Had the waters beckoned her? What had lead her down those stairs to nowhere?
"Watch out for the black steps," the gondolier warns.
Each day, we look out on the lagoon and its choppy waters. Its tethered gondolas bob, and its gray-pink domes melt into a pastel sky. Then, a massive cruise ship appears like a sideways Vegas hotel being pulled slowly to port in order to disgorge its tourists for the afternoon. The huge form blots out the modest lines of the lagoon like a watercolor being held in the rain.
With so little time, the tourists are in a frenzy, and they run greedy through the city, piling into gondolas even though they can barely see out from underneath their competing umbrellas. The gondoliers might be the only Venetians they meet.
This is not surprising considering there are only 60,000 permanent residents in the city of Venice and millions of tourists per year. We utterly eclipse the contemporary life of the city even as we do our part to keep its history alive, just like the gigantic cruise ship in the lagoon. What must modern Venetians think of us taking up so much space in their small, but magnificent city?
Personally, as tourists we vow to step lightly and try our best to fit in. We will not wear ponchos. We will try to a speak a little Italian. We will not clog pathways in order to set up the perfect shot of the bridge. We will walk reverently.
And these particular pilgrims are hungry. The restaurant is down a narrow street, and yes, they have room for two. We pass a grand front room that embodies the fading opulence of many Venice establishments. A small dog snarls from underneath a table covered with a tasseled cloth. We follow the host out a door, through an alley, past another anteroom where a shimmering display of fish, vegetables and fruit bulges, and into a back room, which is packed full of garrulous, poncho-ed tourists.
It is plain that there is a room for regulars, who will eat gazing at the beautiful display of fish and produce, and a room for the rest of us. The host had not asked, "Would you like to sit in the Tourist or Non-Tourist room?"
So, we take matters into our own hands: "Do you mind if we sit in the first room?" The host genially fills our request and we back away from our quarantined peers. We are seated directly in front of the figs, which we notice are being slowly picked off by a well-dressed woman in her later years who walks by the display half a dozen times in order to swipe the delicious fruit.
Next to our table, an Italian man dines by himself, and we watch as he spoils himself on this rainy weekday with fine wines, an appetizer, a pasta course, a fish course, dessert and a digestive. It's a thing of beauty. We follow his lead, and by the end of the meal, the waiters smile at us, seemingly impressed at our gluttony. See? We tell ourselves. It's possible to pretend, just for a moment, that we're not visitors.
Later that night, confident that we can create that magic again, we make our way to another restaurant for dinner.
The place glows .With the candlelight, heavy tapestries and red upholstery on the banquettes, we feel like we are looking at the world from within a bottle of wine. It's cozy and packed. We're led to a small table for two, in a row of other dining couples. On one side is an American couple, both rosy-tipsy and giddy; on the other, another American couple, both angry-tipsy and annoyed that their food hasn't arrived.
As our eyes and ears adjust to the din and the low light, we realize that the room is populated exclusively by Americans and that a large-scale, pan-table conversation is taking place. Travel itineraries, restaurant recommendations and anniversary stories are being swapped over our heads.
"Next we're going to Rome!" the woman at one table shouts to a man at the other side of the room.
"We're from Nebraska," a young man leans back in his chair to communicate with a gentleman sitting three tables down.
A woman notices me following the bouncing conversation and asks, "Where are y'all from?" It's jarring, this camaraderie. It feels very much like a school cafeteria, rather than a romantic Venetian restaurant. We huddle in, and I try to ignore my compatriots.
Later I make my way to the ladies' room in another part of the restaurant and glance around and notice that quiet Italian is being spoken discretely at tables, where couples look into each other's eyes, and realize, we had forgotten to ask for the Non-Tourist room. We can't separate ourselves from the rest of the flood. We're the same, in search of an authentic Venice, which struggles against the weight of us. At least she has history on her side, and science. The high waters will recede and she'll stay strong, and those who love and know her will buoy her up, preserving her culture.
On a recent trip to Paris we brought our friends, an American couple, to one of my husband's old haunts, Harry's New York Bar on Rue Daunou in the middle of the afternoon.
We swung open its kitschy saloon-style doors and left the bright day behind us at a completely inappropriate hour.
The bar is covered with Americana—license plates, college banners, decals—and other ephemera, evidence of its long history as a favorite watering hole of expatriates, including the patron saint of all expats, Ernest Hemingway.
The place was empty except for one lone man who looked a bit like Ernest's daytime ghost, sitting in front of the bartender who was silently wiping down glasses. It was far too early for the stampede of tourists who make a nightly pilgrimage here.
We knew we had to try the bar's speciality, the whiskey sour, but made a good show of hesitation. It really is a bit early, no? Maybe I'll just have a mint tea. Or a mimosa. But our friends found an excuse for us all: jet lag! We didn't bother to remind them that, coming from London, we weren't suffering from jet lag, and no one did the math to determine that it was more like morning for them. Rise and shine and taste that bittersweet Bourbon cocktail.
It's easy to make friends with strangers in a dark bar in the middle of the day. Ernest's ghost was, of course, a young expat writer with a respectable amount of facial scruff and clothes one might wear when painting. But, anachronistically, he scrolled through emails on his BlackBerry and was himself trying to forget a case of jet lag from a flight from Los Angeles. Would a modern Ernest be a burgeoning screenwriter?
We toasted and noticed that another day drinker had crept by us and now sat at the other end of the bar sipping something out of a martini glass. As he slowly drank he slid imperceptibly from barstool to barstool and finally sat next to us, actively listening. Eventually, without preamble, he joined the discussion. As he talked he occasionally drew out an electronic cigarette from the breast pocket of his navy blazer like it was a fine writing instrument and took discreet puffs, blowing odorless smoke from his nostrils.
Another Parisian gentleman, casually chic and confident in his charm, made a bold entrance and immediately introduced himself, shaking the men's hands and kissing the ladies', a gesture which I am convinced was designed for men to easily determine a woman's marital status. (I'm still not sure if the fact of a wedding ring makes a woman more or less a target for a Parisian man.) He tossed back a drink like he had just come from a punishingly boring, sober business lunch.
Between the seven of us, multiple threads of conversation spun out and broke off and interwove, and though we were the only patrons, the space felt fully occupied by our presence, getting thicker and louder as we talked. The effects of a cocktail so mimic the warm, radiating pulse of the feeling of friendship that strangers have been benefiting from this shortcut to intimacy for ages. Sometimes the moment is an entry into something true, other times it's just a flash, a good cheat, a trick to turn everyday life inside out by gold joy sipped and shared. Travelers, expats and businessmen bond, fuzzy plans are hatched; yes, next Thursday we'll meet again. This round's on me. To Hemingway!
We talked about books and bars and Paris. Recommendations for restaurants and advice on life were given. There's a sloppy beauty to the nonsense distributed. A few choice pieces from our afternoon sojourn:
Travel Advice from Bar Philosopher I: "The jet lag and fatigue of an overnight, trans-Atlantic flight can be bypassed entirely by heading straight to the bar upon arrival. With a good buzz, sleep is unnecessary."
Health Advice from Bar Philosopher II: "If you smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day, you will live a long and healthy life. A famous heart surgeon confirmed this to me."
Fitness Advice from Bar Philosopher III: "You may eat as much and drink as much as you like, as long as you don't snack between meals and take the subway rather than drive. My obese American friend came to Paris for three weeks and lost 10 kilos this way."
Did they believe their own advice? Perhaps. Certainly in the dark gleam of Harry's Bar, after convivial drinks, it's easier to. Anything is possible. Ernest's ghost walks. Friends can be made in an instant. A Paris scene retains its allure even when the tableau contains e-cigarettes and smart phones.
I've already established my wariness of moving vehicles and propulsion of any kind. This unfortunately extends even to relatively safe modes of transportation like bicycling—a regrettable aversion (I loved biking as a kid, albeit mostly just around the neighborhood) owed to a few minor incidents, collected and amplified over time:
Incident #1: I am working behind the counter of a café on a popular, historic road in Boston. I like looking out the large picture windows at the red brick buildings and, sometimes, the snow. One day, I see a jolly cyclist coming down the street just as a woman, on a cell phone, swings open her parked car door right in his path. He flips and sails clear over the door. He is stunned, but unhurt. The woman apologizes, then continues her phone conversation.
Incident #2: Walking home from work in Chicago, a driver revs his engine in impatience as I cross the crosswalk. I give him a dirty look. Once on the other side, I hear a thud. The aggressive driver had rolled right into the street and knocked over a passing cyclist, who gets up, smooths his clothes, remounts his bike and continues on his way. The driver peels off.
Incident #3 (Hearsay): Many of my coworkers at the library bike to work and swap stories about angry Chicago drivers. I ask one if he's ever been hit by a car. He responds: "Yes, five times." Curiously, he does not seem traumatized.
Incident #4: Well, I have to tell you more about Incident #4…
These days a lot of big cities have bike-loan programs, in which you rent a bicycle at one location using a credit card in a machine and drop it off at another. A brilliant idea for non-vehicle-phobic members of society, especially tourists. It's a cheap, quick, low-hassle way to explore large stretches of a new city.
Many years ago, pre-bike-loan programs, I traveled to Munich. A friend of a friend, a kind native of the city, had agreed to show me around, and we would start by lunch in a beer garden at the famous public park, the English Garden (so named for its style of landscaping), which is larger even than Hyde Park or Central Park.
"Wilkommen to the Englischer Garten!"
At the food stalls he ordered me a stein of cold beer, sausage with strong mustard and delicious warm, vinegary potato salad. We carried our trays over to a wooden picnic bench and began planning my city itinerary: "You must see the Deutsches Museum and Marienplatz, of course. But, first you should see more of the Englischer Garten. It's a beautiful day."
"It all sounds great!" In the fresh air, after this cozy meal, I would be content anywhere in this welcoming city.
"I have an idea. Let's go for a bicycle ride through the park!"
"Oh. Well, okay. But… too bad, I don't have a bike. Shucks. Guess we'll have to make it a walk instead. Don't worry, I wore my walking shoes!"
"Nein. You must see the park by bike. It's no problem. You can borrow one from my neighbor."
A little tipsy from my afternoon beer, I agreed to the plan, and we walked to his apartment building and knocked on his neighbor's door. My German was just good enough to understand that she wasn't keen on lending her bike to a stranger. And, plus, she hadn't used it in awhile. We would have to check the tires.
Reluctantly, she gave the key to her persuasive neighbor, and we unlocked a small, sad-looking bike outside. Already, I could see that my tall American body was much too large for its tiny frame. Out of his garage my host wheeled out his own impressive bike, and I secretly hoped that he would notice our disparity in height and offer me his obviously superior, larger bike.
He inspected the loaner bike thoroughly, squeezed its tires, and then trotted out his own pump to ensure maximum oomph.
Finally I swung my leg over, clearing the seat easily, and felt immediately awkward. My knees almost brushed the handlebars.
"Are you sure it's not too small?" I asked.
"It's fine," and he took off down the street. I pedaled vigorously, trying my best to keep up with him. He glanced back and I thought I read annoyance behind his round spectacles.
"Wait for me!"
He extended his arm out in a turn signal and glided gracefully through the park's entrance on pale crunchy gravel. I followed with pumping knees, my face squished in concentration and effort.
The harder I pedaled the smaller the bike felt. The park was Wonderland and I was a growing Alice on a shrinking bike.
I called out to him, "Could we slow down? I really think my bike is too small."
He slid his bike to a stop and looked back. "It's not too small."
"I think something's wrong with it. It's too old. Or, I don't understand the gears. Sorry!" I chided myself, Bad, Bad American, can't ride a bike or handle a daytime stein.
"It's perfectly fine. My neighbor rides it all the time."
"I think maybe I'll just walk it awhile," I declared, my discomfort aiding my stubbornness.
"Look, we'll switch bikes for a bit, and I'll show you that your bike is perfectly fine. Here, take mine. But, be careful. It's a very nice bike."
"Oh thank you!"
He looked immediately regretful and repeated, "Just for a bit."
Climbing onto his fancy bike was like slipping into a Ferrari after riding around in a Twingo.
"It's perfectly fine!" He shouted for the third time, and he took off with more force and vigor than before, clearly determined to show me how trusty the bike was. He looked just as awkward as I must have, with his knees splayed out to the sides.
Meanwhile, I liked the feeling of my new tall ride. Yes, this was much better.
He pedaled harder and harder, his hair flying. He was handling the pathetic bike as if it were a suped-up dirt bike in a road race. Ahead of us I saw a small hill, and he gunned it, standing up to full height on the pedals, his butt in the air, flying over the hill.
Then, in midair, the bike seemed to explode. A chain flew in one direction, random pieces of metal in another. The moment of the bicycle's last shattering paroxysm seemed to swell, the rider bucked off, until they both crashed down to the ground in a dusty heap.
I did not know how to say "I told you so" in German.
We cut short our tour of Munich's English Garden on that fine day. I relinquished his nice bike, and he rode slowly home beside me as I walked back the mangled remains of the other.
Just beyond Customs, a woman, one half of a sleepy couple who look like they just rolled out of bed and tumbled, still murmuring, to the airport, holds a sign with my name on it. In the car I think, they could be serial killers and I have fallen for an elaborate ruse, but as we drive further into the city, she grows kind and starts to point out landmarks and discuss the program and my living arrangements while I'm here: two other students will share the apartment; she personally has stocked our kitchen; call if we need anything.
The city stretches out along the sea like an ancient, beautiful statue turned on its side, its face open to the sun. "Did you know that Christopher Columbus was from Catalonia?" she asks as we circle around a priapic tower with a figure of Columbus at the top. Past the port we continue up La Rambla, a main artery clogged with tourists and bursting with colorful markets and noisy cafes. Finally, we plunge into the Gothic Quarter where light is choked off by old buildings, which are connected by raggy ropes of laundry drying overhead.
At first glance the neighborhood looks like an American's realized fantasy of Old World Europe with cobblestone paths, gas lamps closed in foggy glass and cool, gray-faced buildings. Snaky streets dart this way and that and then open onto squares and courtyards with gushing fountains.
Our apartment sits on a street so narrow you feel like you could stand in the middle and touch the buildings on either side. At the top of the interior stone stairway, a tiny window in the ceiling lets in a drop of sun; otherwise the space is dark. The man, still rumpled and withdrawn, drags my suitcase up three flights.
Key in the lock: "Home." The door opens and a pillow of musty air hits me in the face.
My roommates have already arrived and are sleeping off jet leg behind closed doors. I put away my things in the last small room with a thin mattress and a sliver of a window. I look outside and feel a stunned ache at the novelty of this home. The cold tile floor seems coated with three hundred years of dirt, a grime impossible to clean with normal soap. One would have to scrape it tile by tile, on their knees, with a putty knife to make any progress. And, yet still it would not have a distinct color. The entire place seems to have a dusty veil thrown over it.
After unpacking my deep suitcase I go investigate the kitchen and find that the overhead light doesn't work. The apartment is so dark it feels like a cave I've tunneled my way into, like I'd opened a manhole cover on La Rambla and shimmied underground to find this place.
Opening the fridge I am unimpressed. Yogurt, milk and a jar of tomato sauce are the only contents. In the pantry: boxes of dry pasta and muesli. I want to wait to meet my roommates before venturing out and don't feel like cooking, so I shake some muesli into a big bowl in the dark kitchen, pull up a chair to the formica table and take a bite.
It tastes fuzzy. It tastes green.
In the shadowy kitchen it looks fine, but clearly something isn't right. I take the bowl into my room and hold it under a dim lamp. The oats are suspended in a soft white mold. I run back to wash out my mouth and just then, one of the bedroom doors opens.
My roommate looks like a bright sunflower against the apartment's gray walls.
"Hi. I'm Emily."
"Hi. I just ate mold."
We cross La Ramba on our way to the subway station. The streets are clean and Barcelona's populace looks dazzling and regal, like the descendants of bejeweled Renaissance royalty. Businessmen in suits stand at cafés reading the morning's news over tiny cups of strong coffee, and women walk with purpose in tall heels, swinging shiny leather briefcases.
In white sneakers and big backpacks slung over our shoulders we are from another world; we are the descendants of scrappy Puritans.
In the subway station the crowd grows thick and loud, and we hurry with the throng down the steps, rushing toward the platform where the train, already packed with people, waits. A warning from the conductor. Quick. People push behind us, and I thrust my arm between the subway car's closing doors with enough momentum that my backpack slips off my shoulder, down my arm and into the car. The doors don't bounce open.
I'm able to jerk my arm out of the closed doors, but my backpack is caught inside and I grip it by the one strap that is sticking out of the jaws of the train.
Through the windows of the car, passengers look at me with blank eyes, motionless. The train starts to move.
Emily grabs the strap too and we jog along the track with the moving train, shrieking, pulling as hard as we can. We make it halfway down the platform when the conductor finally concedes defeat to the American terriers in this fierce tug-of-war, stops the train and opens its doors.
We stumble back onto the platform with the backpack containing my passport and my laptop and my life. The commuters still watch like bored, impassive ghosts.
We wait for the next train.
Young, we feel bullied by the strange circumstances presented, again and again, by the city and the selves we have discovered within it.
The romance of the Gothic Quarter has been whittled down, day after day, until I am left only with grotesque splinters of images: at night the gas lamps illuminate endless piles of cat shit; a man flashes a knife at a girl on her walk home down the cobblestone; drunks in ever-gray doorways piss and leer.
On the last day I am burning up with fever. I've been kept out late for long midnight dinners and awoken, always too early, to learn. I've been stuffed with tapas and saturated with sangria. Now I yearn to eat something not bathed in olive oil, something not caught from the sea, something not served out of terracotta.
I would like a tasteless microwaved dinner before going to bed at a reasonable hour in a high-ceilinged suburban room, frozen with conditioned air.
One night like that would give me strength for the continuing journey.
We trudge down the street to pack our rental car. No one is here to drag our suitcases for us or tell us what to do. We are our own navigators, and so we've readied ourselves with maps and guidebooks, one of which explains that only Catalonians believe that Columbus was Catalonian.
We will drive north along the Mediterranean with everything belonging to us within this small car.
But first, we want America in our mouths.
To spite the city and to try to capture a taste of a faraway, and therefore mythic, home, we walk to the ubiquitous, unofficial embassy for all longing Americans. But, this McDonald's does not look familiar. My fever and the crush of people make it feel like a wavering, chaotic dream. I slump in the long line.
Though it's the middle of the day, all the customers look like the nighttime demons of the Gothic Quarter come to life. Next to us, a man, whose face is covered with wounds, some stitched, some fresh, inches closer and closer to us until we shrink, guiltily, away from him. He sees our repulsion and smiles, showing yellow teeth, and puts a hand on my shoulder and then slides it slowly down my arm. The gesture begins as reassurance and ends as an insult.
We fight our instinct to run, and we wait for our warm paper bags and cold waxy cups and take a last walk down La Rambla to the packed car. Though not hungry, I eat my fries through my fever and taste tears in my throat.
Emily looks over at me, her roommate turned inside out by the city, and drives.
The longest bus ride of my life was from San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico to Puerto Escondido, a coastal town in the country's southern state of Oaxaca. My friend and I had thumbed through our guidebook looking for a place by the ocean that wasn't completely overrun by tourists, and Puerto Escondido, which means "Hidden Port", sounded perfect, a small charming village next to beautiful beaches a thousand miles away from the usual haunts of spring-breakers.
At first we were pleasantly surprised by the Mexican bus, which was much cushier than any Greyhound coach we'd ever come across. The seats were plush and there were even TVs mounted on the ceiling showing grainy soap operas. The bus filled up quickly with passengers and we got comfortable for the twelve hour ride ahead.
The first six hours were fine, but things started to get funky halfway through the trip, and just as the air grew dense with the stench of traveling humans and their food and their cigarettes snuck out of cracked windows, we hit the thin coastal highway. The driver throttled ahead, disregarding any speed limit, hugging mountains on one side and touching a dark abyss, high above the nighttime ocean, on the other.
Having an overactive imagination regarding perils to my own safety, I clearly envisioned plummeting over the precipice to certain death, so I remained stapled to my seat, whose maroon fabric no longer felt so plush, and squeezed shut my unsleeping eyes against the hours.
We finally arrived just after dawn, and already the town sank under palpable heat and humidity. Every surface and object seemed engorged with the air's moisture; the soil was black with it, the vegetation practically vibrating.
In our cheap hotel room, a small metal fan on the fake-wood-paneled wall slowly whirred, its tiny force not enough to move even a breath of air. We were exhausted from our sleepless ride and needed to nap for a few hours before exploring the town, but it was almost too hot to sleep. We got a bucket of ice water and placed it between our twin beds and took turns dipping towels in it which we laid over our foreheads and arms and legs in an effort to dampen our emanating heat.
When we awoke in the midday brightness the mattresses were sopping, and it took all of our will to comb back the hair plastered to our faces, put on our thinnest clothing and head into town. We quickly saw that even in our sundresses we were overdressed. On bar stools, in restaurant chairs, on car hoods, over pool tables, we saw surfers, only surfers. Lithe surfing boys and languid surfing girls. Having spent a lifetime in the middle of Texas, I had never seen a surfer in the flesh, and most of them looked like stereotypes made manifest, all blonde braids and shell necklaces and cool tattoos. Their bodies looked like they'd been formed by moving ocean water, like the cliffs smoothed by centuries.
As we continued our walk through the town, their omnipresence made us feel even more uncomfortable than we already were. They looked fresh and tan in bright, dry swimsuits while we were rosy and wet in clingy clothes.
It seemed odd that we would be swimming in their midst.
We circled back to our place and decided to hit the beach, which we could see from our hotel. The ocean was calm and the sand eerily empty. The water was perhaps too still for the surfers and that's why they had taken over the town. Do surfers spend time reading on the beach like regular tourists? Do they relax on towels or are they only interested in the wave, the thrill, the transcendent active experience?
We were happy to have the horizon and the water to ourselves, where we would finally rinse away the bus ride and the ruthless humidity. We waded into the opaque water and immediately felt the floor drop off sharply. We paddled close to the edge, looking out at the limitless, primordial, frightening blue of the ocean.
"Hey!" Cutting across a dirt path was one of the beautiful surfer boys, with long trunks and hair the color of the sand.
"Hi!" We waved back to him.
"What do you think you're doing?" He jogged toward us.
My friend and I glanced at each other, a little deflated. Clearly he wasn't coming over to introduce himself and welcome us new girls to Puerto Escondido.
"Uh, we're swimming."
"You can't swim here. Do you have any idea how dangerous this water is? There's an undertow that only professional swimmers or surfers can handle."
Like children being scolded by the older, cute lifeguard, we dragged our unprofessional bodies out of the deep water in shamed silence. He had recognized that we were not of his ilk just from our bobbing heads in the water. A second later we asked defiantly, "Well, where the heck are we supposed to swim?"
"I don't know, but you can't swim here." And he immediately turned back, leaving us on the empty, forbidding beach.
We stayed awhile to dry off and exorcise our embarrassment. There aren't even any signs! It's a beach town, for crying out loud! Where are the beaches for us regular folk? This is ridiculous!
The town wasn't exclusively populated by surfers, was it? Our guidebook had said "Puerto Escondido is known for its beautiful sandy beaches" not for its superior surfers and deadly undertows.
We crossed back over the dirt road to the hotel and saw our surfer savior, surrounded by those of his own stripe who were draped over white plastic lawn chairs in the grass drinking beer.
"Hey girls!" He called and we reluctantly made our way over to their group. "You asked me where you could swim."
"Your beach is over there." And he pointed to the kiddie pool at the front of the hotel. They all laughed, and we moved away, red from sun and humiliation.
Later we asked at the front desk and the clerk showed us a different beach on the map, safe for us tourists.
It was crowded with beach towels and happy families lounging. There wasn't a surfer in sight, and we were content splashing around in the shallow water, just like the kids.
The traveler notices that he cannot hide his otherness from those who inhabit the city. No matter how hard he tries to imitate them, to keep his map and camera hidden, to not step on and off blaring bus tours, he obviously is not of this place.
And it's not his clothes or his gait which give him away—it's in the way that he takes in the city, with eyes wide and senses dilated with newness. He gives off the scent of wonderment, which with time has faded from those more familiar with the city.
He is drunk with the sights and sounds of the place, even as he walks soberly down the street. The city hits him again and again with her buildings made differently and streets curving unexpectedly. He is even enticed by the city's smells, cross-hatched filaments of metal and stone and human.
And all the while the city's inhabitants seem to glide through unseeing, their senses liberated from this place that so ensorcels the visitor.
The traveler laments: but they cannot recognize the beauty of their own city. He thinks, I appreciate her as she deserves to be appreciated, in her overwhelming totality.
He believes it is like seeing a striking woman across the room, who is on the arm of a man who has known her too long and no longer sees the beauty at his side.
But, while it's true that the man with the woman on his arm can see her objective beauty only in flashes now, that does not mean she is unloved. His perception of her simple charms and obvious dimensions has been transformed by the persistent flow of their daily lives. To him she is not an object, but the deep warmth in their house, the embodied rhythm of their days, alternating annoyance and amusement, the eyes that are his witness. Longterm intimacy is the inverse of objectification. He knows her like the city-dweller knows his home.
The tourist is the new lover who can perceive the city's face more clearly and is moved by it. The seduction is quick, the liaison brief, and he has the luxury of falling for first impressions.
And so the resident recognizes the traveler in the streets. One is dizzy with first love; the other's mind is elsewhere, because he's made of these streets and thus always in the arms of his familiar beloved.
You pat down your person and make sure you have your passport, cell phone, Kindle, FitBit and iPod. You need a coat like a movie character selling stolen wares, with row upon row of interior pockets flashing gold as he whips it open with a flourish, except yours would be packed with electronics.
At the airport bookstore you buy magazines and overpriced water and gum. Because you'll be flying in an out-of-time zone you feel unashamed reaching for the trashy magazines with horrible bleating headlines like "Worst Beach Bodies of the Century!" Only your seatmate will know your secret appetite for trash.
You feel optimistic and excited. In only a short night's time, you will be on another continent, and on this flight you're determined to sleep and then wake up refreshed and ready to head into the city and explore. You've resolved to heed the internet's advice for a good flight:
Miraculously, you've been upgraded and you lift your eyes toward the heavens to thank the Travel Gods. This is going to be the best flight ever, like the old days of glamorous travel. Your fellow travelers will have dressed for the occasion and you will dine on real flatware and then be able to recline your seat into a luscious bed. Now it's a five-star, luxury yoga retreat.
"Miss, would you like a glass of champagne or orange juice?"
The internet recommended the orange juice, but circumstances dictate that you will enjoy every perk available to you: "Champagne please." Your cells begin to shrivel and dehydrate even as you utter the words.
You unpack the little goody bag that's been offered by the airline. Thin socks, a tiny tube of toothpaste, a mint. But any swag is good swag.
Settled into your fancy seat you watch the march of life. Children galumph, happily unaware of the discomfort and boredom that await them on the flight ahead. Mothers, on the opposite end of the awareness spectrum, already look weary. Backpackers, as oblivious as the children, smile, smacking people on the head with their packs as they file past. Professionals look loopy from airport lounge cocktails, and they will continue to relentlessly work on their anesthesia throughout the flight.
A particularly harried, but well-dressed family comes to a stop by your seat. The little boys in matching blue Polos with tiny upturned collars are smoothed by their mother and installed in two Business Class seats in front of you. "Now be good for Mommy." A daughter with a scarily lifelike doll is seated next to her mother across the aisle, and the father maneuvers by you to claim the window seat next to you.
The wife, eyeing her husband with an angrily curled lip, makes a grand show of lifting her Louis Vuitton travel bag into the overhead compartment by herself, her armful of bangles clanging like a war bell. The husband is already mentally cocooned, but the wife is still jangling her bracelets waiting for his acknowledgment.
"Do you want to switch seats so you can be next to your family?" You hopefully ask your seatmate in his cocoon.
"Oh, no, Dennis prefers the window seat!" shrieks the wife in response.
"Or, I could…" you trail off, knowing that you have been designated the human buffer for a warring husband and wife.
Dennis already has his eyes closed, but his nostrils are flared and white.
Now you know that the free champagne is not a luxury, but a necessity. Economy Class starts to sound good.
The boys begin to buck in the seats ahead of you, and Mommy is not pleased. As the flight crew asks for everyone to be seated she is still up, hovering over them, counting down. Dennis pretends to sleep as Mommy gets her LV bag down from the overhead compartment three more times before the flight attendant pleads for her to sit down.
Mommy shakes her head in disgust at Dennis as she buckles the belt over impractically white trousers.
At 10,000 feet Dennis revives and peeks out of his cocoon. After his first in-flight cocktail he begins an epic bout of small talk with you to spite his wife across the aisle. In front of you the boys spar like evil child hybrids of Ralph Lauren models and gladiators.
"DiNofrio's, that's the Italian place we liked," Dennis helpfully recommends, "Or was it DiGiorno's, no, that can't be it, DiMarios? I had the tortellini. Or was it the ravioli?"
You haven't even had time to crack open your tabloids, and you've given up hope of watching any movies as Dennis recounts every family vacation he's taken in the past five years.
"Was this before your boys turned evil?" you want to ask. "Or before you began ignoring your wife?"
You glance over at Mommy, who is on her third Chardonnay and has placed a pill bottle on her tray table as a provocation. Once the Ambien or the Xanax or the Valium is swallowed, it is Dennis who will have to hover over and cajole their offspring.
As dinner is served, you finally resign yourself fully to the conversation with Dennis. At least it's nice to have someone to chat with while eating, but just as you begin to tell him about your own travel plans, he says, "Well, I don't want to disturb you." What, by listening? And he places his Bose headphones over his ears, shutting out the noisy, conflictual, demanding world around him.
You start to wish Mommy would take her medication as she gets up again to bargain with the boys who could use a tranquilizer themselves.
Finally you recline your seat and reflect on your plane yoga retreat gone awry. You haven't hydrated or relaxed or stretched. In fact, you have a kink in your neck from the awkward angle you were nodding at Dennis's small talk monologue. Well, at least now you're going to sleep. The lights have been switched off, and you look at the people around you, some nestled asleep, others lulled by flashing screens. It feels like nap time in kindergarten, being surrounded by all these other resting bodies. Still strangers, but now so intimately arranged.
You put your eye mask on and your ear plugs in and strap your belt over your blanket and feel just as properly cocooned as Dennis. In the dark quiet you feel almost safe at the epicenter of this odd triangle of family tension. You don't sleep, but are elsewhere, carried by engine hum and cold air. Stuffed into a stupor. But at the very moment that your brain rolls over into a deeper dive you feel a pointed finger pressing your shoulder like an elevator button.
"Excuse me, could you please wake him up." Mommy asks you.
You don't have Dennis's power of pretend-sleep, but you still feign incomprehension. "Sorry?"
"Could you please wake him up." She points to the doughy sleep face of Dennis.
With her improbable white pants and tight bun and her Chardonnay slur, Mommy is scary, so you comply.
"Sir, your wife needs you."
"Your daughter is cold!" she proclaims.
"So get her a blanket."
"Can't. You. See. She. Already. Has. A. Blanket."
Dennis sighs, "So get her another blanket."
"Genius! Why didn't I think of that! I ASKED for another blanket, but the stewardesssss won't give her one! And they won't turn down the A/C!"
Dennis repositions his mask over his eyes and curls away, toward the window. You are now Dennis's replacement.
"Can you believe this? We pay thousands of dollars for Business Class and my poor Bianca is frozen. Frozen!"
You glance over at Bianca who is sleeping soundly.
Mommy stabs at the flight attendant call button again.
When he is halfway down the aisle, Mommy says, "This is ridiculous!" You also look pleadingly at the attendant. By God, do what this woman asks.
"Ma'am, we already told you that we were trying to locate another blanket."
"Well, I should hope so. And, I'd like another Chardonnay."
With her three children sleeping around her and her Chardonnay on its way, Mommy seems to relax a little and turns your way. You immediately put your eye mask back on, but lie perfectly straight. If you curl right, your movement might look like you're essentially spooning Dennis. If you curl left, your face is too vulnerable to Mommy's stares or pokes.
Hours pass which feel like days. Sleep doesn't come. You watch two Rom-Coms that make your Beach Bodies magazines look like high art. Across the aisle Mommy is wearing Chanel sunglasses in lieu of an eye mask. Her hand rests protectively on Bianca's presumably freezing body, now under two plane blankets.
In the morning, which is the middle of the night to you, the lights go on. Nap time ends abruptly, cruelly, and the cabin is grumpy and stinky. Mommy and the children continue to sleep, but Dennis looks chipper and orders a brick-like omelet when breakfast is offered. You're barely conscious when the small talk resumes. "The golf tournament doesn't start until Tuesday, so we got tickets to Wicked tonight." Dennis doesn't care what Mommy and her pointing fingers have done during the night, so you don't feel obligated to nod this time. You busy yourself stuffing your bloated feet into loafers that were roomy yesterday but now feel two sizes too small around your salt-gorged toes. You're parched and sweaty and dirty, but you've almost made it.
When you land, you stand up immediately, determined to sprint to Immigration, away from the family, but sadly realize you have to take a shuttle from the plane to the terminal. You can't escape them yet, and you file onto the airport bus. Mommy, still wearing her Chanel shades, looks hungover, but oddly unrumpled as she clings to one of the poles on the bus. Fresh Dennis is busy organizing their passports. As the shuttle lurches forward, little Bianca raises her face to Mommy, "Where's Lola?"
"Oh my god. Dennis! Where is Lola?"
"Lola! Bianca's doll!"
"Why would I have it?"
"It's on the plane! Dennis, make them turn the shuttle around!"
The other travelers shoot Dennis and Mommy threatening glances and Dennis shrugs. Bianca starts to cry, "Lola!" Finally, Dennis, having done mental calculations about the torture of a vacation spent Lola-less, starts negotiating with the shuttle driver.
By the time you spot the family at Baggage Claim, Bianca and Lola have been reunited, and Mommy looks grateful. Dennis must have come through in the end. Did he bribe the shuttle driver? The boys have run themselves ragged on the plane and they look like listless devils. As you roll past with your luggage, the family smiles warmly at you and waves. "Have a great vacation!" they say to their human buffer, their tired casualty of common marital discord.
1. The history of its sights and ceremonies.
2. Fat trees fighting wrought iron gates.
3. Cool cars for every taste to be ogled on the street.
4. Great gift shopping for a Bond villain, countess or showgirl.
5. Expressive statues.
6. The lights on night walks.
7. Greenery, mostly well-manicured. (Only the fighting trees grow with abandon.)
8. Fantastic, free museums.
9. Pubs, pub-goers and pub names.
10. Bridges, whether they be beautiful, grand, or merely functional, spanning the River Thames.
Las Terrenas, a beach town on the tip of the Samana Peninsula on the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, is so flush with natural beauty, it would be easy to pass the entire day sitting by the ocean under a palm tree nursing a mojito.
But, the town itself has so much personality, we'll roll up our soggy beach towels, hang up our swimsuits, say goodbye to Roy, the bartender, and roam the streets for a bit.
Most tourists find their way to Las Terrenas from the capital, Santo Domingo, which is a two hour drive through mountains cleanly cut to make way for a new, mostly empty, highway. The road runs through green pastures, fields sectioned for rice cultivation, rushing rivers, and finally, the gorgeous pink interior of the mountains. In parts it looks like a drive through a towering, crumbly red velvet cake, one with bright green icing.
On the road, the blue ocean stretches below, but strangely, the air is full of chlorophyll and capsium rather than brine. The forest dominates the sea. If you closed your eyes you might think you were sitting in front of a plate of freshly sliced bell peppers on a just-mowed lawn. The scent is so heady it almost leaves an aftertaste.
Out of the dense foliage, men haul large pieces of bloody meat from a cow that had been slaughtered just off the road. Or maybe the animal died of other causes and they're simply making good use of it. It's shocking to see the massive red and white slabs passing from hand to hand against the backdrop of the pristine green landscape.A very rare traffic jam
Getting closer to town, modest houses sit by small shacks that somehow stand up to the heavy tropical storms that often pass through during the night.
Laundry hangs outside to dry. Skinny dogs bark and nip at the passing vehicle. Groups of men drink beer at an open air bar, the only structure on a vast hillside, and tinking guitar music blasts from speakers standing on the dirt floor. Then, a small flourishing hotel. Now, an abandoned one, half-complete, but now overgrown, plans tossed out mid-construction. It's a ghost of gray plaster in the weeds.
The population of Las Terrenas is close to 11,000. There's a substantial expatriate community, mostly European, who work in tourism or real estate. There are so many French people living there, you can just as easily find steak tartar on a menu as you can more traditional Dominican fare, like grilled plantains and beef soup. There is even a French school that follows the standard national curriculum. The expats are easily identified, as they tend to be tanner, smilier and lither than their friends merely visiting from home.
Most people, locals and tourists alike, get around on 4-wheelers and motorbikes, but you could visit Las Terrenas without a car and just hail a moto-conche when needed. Your motorcycle taxi driver will not even give you a second glance when you load up with pieces of luggage in both hands, teetering behind him on his tiny bike.Parking in Las Terrenas
The culture is very relaxed with its traffic laws, and it's not uncommon to see a zooming bike with a driver, two passengers carrying heavy loads, and often a baby, hanging jauntily off a mother's hip.
There is not a helmet in sight.
People often stop in the middle of the road to chat with a passing friend. Other drivers give perfunctory honks, but don't really mind the delay.Local produce
We see two policemen in hats and dapper uniforms standing, looking official and stern, by the side of the road. They flag down a motorcyclist. Surprised to witness a traffic violation stop, we glance back and see the two policemen hop on the back of the bike behind the driver. He revs the noisy engine and speeds past us. We thought the police were going to write a ticket. Instead, they just needed to hitch a ride.
In the center of the village there are several bustling outdoor shopping centers, often geared towards tourists. Corner stores bulge with Havaianas, sunscreen, colorful pareos, turquoise jewelry, cigars, and rum. The European influence also results in some unusual commerce for the tropics, like a fancy cheese and wine shop. During soccer season, fans pile in beside the casks to watch big games and sample hearty reds.Guard Chicken
There is one main grocery store, fully stocked for Dominican and European appetites. You could pick up a bottle of rosé, a baguette and a chunk of blue cheese for a meal after your mojito if you wish. Or, you could visit any of the smaller shops selling locally grown fruits and vegetables. Fish, shrimp and even live, flailing crab can be purchased by venders holding up their slippery wares by the side of the road.
Animals are everywhere. Dogs nap in the sun. At dusk, cats leap up to catch birds flying low for their nightly insect meal. Chickens pace in front of doorways. Lizards sprint and freeze and sprint again. It's a tropical menagerie.Roy, bartender and butcher extraordinaire
Most of the dogs look like free agents and you wonder what they are dining on to look so well-fed. Are lizards part of a balanced canine diet?
Walking the smaller streets, beyond the typical tourist souvenir shops, we notice even more odd merchandise. There is a stand that sells only second-hand shoes, displayed in a giant white heap in the bed of a truck, and a store specializing in spandex body suits, which are especially useful in the tropical heat. There must be some crazy, air-conditioned nightlife that we don't know about.
Around the corner we spot Roy, one of the best bartenders in town, and discover that he has a second profession. He's just come from his first shift at the bar, and now he stands alone at an open air butcher counter and explains that he owns the shop and lives with his family just behind it. From his deftness with the knife, one can see he's just as much an expert at breaking down a side of beef as he is creating the perfect cocktail.
Las Terrenas is a small town, and even after a few days, we can start to feel local. The owner of the only pizza place, an impressive beach joint with a wood-burning oven, waves at us as he whizzes by on his 4-wheeler. Passing a French-style coffee shop we say "bonjour" to a former ski instructor from Savoie who recently purchased another beach-front restaurant called Eden.
Every morning, just after the sun has risen, he meticulously rakes the sand in front of his restaurant. His customers will dine on razor clams and Chablis before flopping down on white lounge chairs that he's provided on his immaculate sandy lawn. Everything must be perfectly in order. He has the service-ethic of a fine French maitre-d', with a resolutely casual personal style. Just before lunch, after his midmorning swim, he scoots behind a wood pillar to whip off his swim suit and change into shorts. For a moment, a curious customer could see him standing naked next to the chalkboard specials. He takes orders shirtless, displaying his leathery-tan torso. Would you like to see the wine list? That's Las Terrenas.
We'll circle back through town, back to the 4-wheeler whose black leather seat is roasting, even in the shade of a palm tree. Back on newly paved paths along the ocean. The fishing boats have returned and are resting on the hot sand. It's quiet except for sporatic motorcycle buzz. Evening is ahead. Time for another swim out into the shallow, clear water where we can see the shore, its white lip of sand around a wide bowl of trees and beyond, the town. Roy will be closing up shop. The Savoyard bringing a case of rosé back to the restaurant for dinner service. The cats are taking their places on sidewalks, their eyes on the sky, waiting for birds. The tourists haven't budged from the beach, just getting up to move their parasols around them like the hands of a clock, ticking the long day away, soaking up Las Terrenas.