Saturday, November 7, 2009

Getting Off on the Side Road

Last week started with the worst kind of Monday morning. The weekend before had been gray and gloomy, rain for three days straight. But then came Monday, with me back on the clock, yoked to an overflowing desk, and out came the sun, laughing and rolling around in the sky like a puppy that’s slipped out the doggie door.

So I do what any responsible professional who’s supposed to be earning money for a Shore Dive Kinda Life would do: I check my email for work emergencies and, seeing none, head for the mountains. The Blue Ridge is always a magnet on bright fall days, pulling me to get in the car and just drive, searching for side roads.

In my new favorite book, Tales of a Female Nomad, author Rita Golden Gelman’s travels are nothing but side roads. Hers are a little more exotic than Berryville—my lunch stop on Monday (where I found a great smoked ham and lentil soup at Bon Matin CafĂ©). Rita writes about sleeping next to sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, dancing in a protective circle of Zapotec women in Mexico, and meeting orangutans at Camp Leaky in Borneo. The side roads she chose weren’t travelled on a tour bus, and she’s teaching me a lot.

As much as a traveler’s life pulls me, the thought of going through the world as Rita did—diving into the deep end of human relationships instead of my usual splashing around in the shallows—makes me afraid. True, no one’s forcing me out of the tide pool. I think most of us just skim the surface of the countries we visit, and that’s fine—there are plenty of fish to see in the shallows if we just take time to stick our face in the water.

But any diver knows that being on the water can't compare to being in it, and that's what lures me. Part of the siren call of a traveler's life is the sweet shock of stepping off a puddle jumper into a shack of an airport, or realizing you can’t understand the road signs as your taxi whizzes into town. It’s the differentness that both attracts and frightens.

And I’m afraid that—not at all like Rita—I’ll settle for an expat experience that’s divorced from the local reality. Or that I’ll fall into loneliness and gain 30 pounds eating chocolate, like I did in college when I lived in Spain. I’m really afraid that if I do finally screw up my courage to walk down an unmarked street or through a scary door, I’ll end up like my friend Jan: in someone’s living room, admiring their knick knacks as if they’re for sale, nodding in a friendly way to the family who own the house but are too polite to say “Gringa, why are you in my house?” I’m afraid to look like a boob.

So, reading Rita, I’m gaining both courage and tips. In Antigua, Guatemala, hoping to meet some of the local expats, she sat by the door of a little breakfast place where they gathered each morning. She brought no book or magazine or post cards to write – she just sat. And as people came through the door she made eye contact, gave a little smile and a nod. Each (painful) day she became more familiar to them, and by the fourth day she was one of the gang.

If you’ve ever spent time alone in a restaurant—and I have, lots—you know how much courage it takes to just sit, with nothing to hide behind. And that as you sit, you’ll be taunted by your own personal gremlin, whispering in your ear that everyone is talking about you and you probably have dirt or pudding or something on your face.

So Rita’s example is a great tip: Just give it some time, let people get used to you. Be open. And don’t worry about the pudding.

At a Zapotec village in Mexico, Rita walked up and down the hot and dusty village streets each day, smiling at the women as she passed (when they didn’t run away at her approach). After several days of this—women fleeing, children scurrying (and men reacting the opposite)—one woman fell into step beside her, then offered a loan of the traditional skirt, blouse and long waist scarf that would help her blend in and begin to be accepted.

Rita had waited patiently and respectfully for the relationship door to be opened, and maybe it never would have but for one curious lady. But once invited in, Rita made the most of it—standing side by side during meal preparations, shooting marbles with the children. She spent a month in the village, alone but welcome.

As for me, when I’m being honest with myself, I suspect that a Zapotec village is not in my future. Were I to take a deep dive into Rita’s kind of side road travel, it’s not the tourist amenities I’d miss; I wouldn’t care if I never saw another boutique, antique store or cute clothing shop again. And historical markers hold my interest for… zzzz.

But I do love a good bowl of smoked ham and lentil soup. And I'd never say no to a little pudding.

Blue Ridge photograph by Ken Thomas, Wikimedia Commons

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