wedding days : letters from ethiopia, india, and the south pacific

me-kerala

Leaving Aranmula by autorickshaw, March 2009. Photo by Linda Hitchings. All other photos by Monica Byrne. 

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Wedding Days: Travel Letters by Monica Byrne
Ethiopia, India, Fiji, Samoa, and the Cook Islands
January-May 2009

(PDF)

January 10, 2009

Hello dear friends and family,

I’ve done everything I can, Stateside. I have a beautiful color-coded itinerary, four kinds of insurance, microfiber socks, and my Tweezerman. (If any of you are Tweezerman enthusiasts, you know how precious they are. I’m afraid mine will get confiscated in customs and I’ll faint.)

Since everything is done, these last few days have been spent in waiting. I feel ambivalence about my upcoming adventure—a natural defensive reaction, I’m sure. “What’s so great about Ethiopia? I’m so happy here, with my boyfriend and family and friends and wi-fi wherever I go. What’s so great about Fiji?” …as if I haven’t been dreaming and planning to travel for years, exactly like this, on my own terms and purely for the sake of my writing! It’s laughable, really, all the reasons one comes up with to Not Go. In fact, they’re similar to the reasons to Not Write: “But I’m so tired.” “But I’m so comfortable.” “But I wrote a lot yesterday.” The trick is to ignore the grousing ego and just get on with it, because I know, deep down, what a good thing this is.

I bought a wedding ring for my trip. I’ve read that it’s a good idea for solo women travelers, to at least stem the flood of catcalls, hustlings, and proposals I’m undoubtedly in for. I went to Wal-Mart and got their cheapest ring, a silver-plated band that is actually quite beautiful. And when I see it on my finger, I can’t help thinking: now I am my own husband and my own wife, united in purpose, despite my cold feet.

I hope this letter finds you well.

Love to all,
Monica

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January 20, 2009

Dear friends,

There’s a beautiful lightning storm over Addis Ababa right now. I just got back from watching Obama’s inauguration at the Addis Hilton—boy, there were a lot of grinning expats there! And after he was sworn in, a little old man in a green polo shirt jumped up and led us all in a cheer. It was stupendous. I’ve never felt so grateful to be American. So please, love our country for me, while I’m away.

I’ve been one full week in the capital of Ethiopia. The city is huge, dusty, and full of blooming jacaranda trees. Yesterday was Timkat, the Ethiopians’ celebration of the Epiphany, during which they hold mass baptisms—I wish you all could see it, the rivers of people in white—and the priest swinging a hose back and forth over them with a certain ennui. Nevertheless I walked toward it, moved as everyone else was moved, but the crowd was so tight I was actually lifted off the ground and carried by my neighbors’ bodies. Finally I got spattered, and shrieked, and broke away laughing.

But when I found some breathing space, I noticed that my left side pocket was unzipped. I’d forgotten my camera was there.

After a frantic search in my bag, I just crouched on the ground and started crying. I cried a long time with my head down. When I stood up, I found myself in the center of a circle, three people deep. Their faces were sad, for me, and very kind. One woman hugged me to her chest (soaked, cool) even though she didn’t know what was wrong. I was walking away, still wiping my eyes, when a boy who had followed me called Let it go! Forget about it! Listen—they are singing to Mary! And on the street ahead of me there was a line advancing, step by step, beautiful youth with bright faces, arrayed in white, hunched and cupping their hands as if to catch water, singing Hail Mary, You are mother to a King!

I went back to my guesthouse and spent the day resting. I’m certainly not the first person this has happened to, but still, being robbed feels like a slap in the face. My heart constricts—when I know the antidote is to do the exact opposite, to open my heart that much more, cut it up like an apple and give it out. So I’m trying to do that.

Despite that episode, I’m very well and healthy, much more than I thought I’d be. Tomorrow I depart for Lalibela, which by all accounts is the eighth wonder of the world.

I hope you are all well.

Much love,
Monica

P. S. Please don’t feel obligated to write back. But if you do, know that I am *overjoyed* to hear from you, and will write you back as my Internet connection speed allows 😉

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February 6, 2009

Dear friends,

After hopscotching around the north of Ethiopia, I’m back in Addis, and very happy to be so. It’s wonderful to be “home” at my guesthouse—endearingly named Mr. Martin’s Cosy Place—and to be within five minutes’ walk of a good Internet café, friendly grocery store, and excellent juice bar. Except here, “juice” means a three-layer smoothie of mango, avocado and banana, with blood-red syrup drizzled on top. Delicious!

One of my stops was Simien Mountains National Park, in the northwest of the country. I hired an official scout for a day hike—and scouts carry a rifle, in order to protect their charges from wild animals. Of course, being me, I had to imagine he’d use the rifle to rob me, or quiz me about Ethiopia, or make me jump off the escarpment just for fun. Morbid thoughts—but when you’re traveling alone, you’re your only protection, and I’ve found it pays to be paranoid.

But he showed up at my hotel ten minutes early, wearing an ironed, sage-colored suit. His name was Meret, and he had thick eyebrows and a kind face. He immediately offered to carry the bag of peanut butter and crackers I’d brought for our snack—so I decided things would be fine.

It turns out, he was more than fine. He was wonderful. This countryside was his home. Every few minutes he stopped to greet sisters, cousins, neighbors—carrying firewood on their heads, or children on their backs. He would stop, adjust his rifle and then show me a particular herb or flower—”this is for a bad stomach,” “this is an Ethiopian rose.” We hiked up and up, and finally the trees cleared. Meret waved for me to come closer. We’d reached the edge of the escarpment.

I really wasn’t prepared for it. It was a sheer thousand-foot drop into nothingness. The rest of the visible earth was miles distant, and so pale—as if painted with a brush full of water. I heard my father’s voice in my head, telling me about those medieval monks who jumped off cliffs, believing they could fly. So that’s why, when Meret turned back around, he saw me sitting twelve feet from the edge with my legs wrapped around a tree.

Unperturbed, Meret pointed to a trail along the escarpment. I followed his finger. The trail looked about as wide as my shoulders, with no barrier to the thousand-foot drop except empty space.

I said, “I am afraid.”

He laughed as if I’d told a joke. But when I kept a straight face, he looked at me again, considering. “You are afraid?”

I nodded.

“Okay,” he said, smiling with not a little amusement. “I will show you another landscape.”

I’m glad he did. What followed was a long, magical walk into another world. He led me down through a gully we’d passed before, into a eucalyptus forest. The leaves were papery, whispery, made a slippery carpet on the ground—and the air smelled like heaven, of course. He led me further, across rolling tawny pasture lands, and shepherd girls yelling out their echoes, and horses drinking from sparkling streams. We passed through a garden, where flowering baby trees were potted in circles of stone—I imagined that some woman came there with her daughter, that it was their haven. He took me to the edge of the escarpment only once more, to point at a tiny speck of a hut on a tiny stamp of land, far below and miles away. He told me that’s where he’d been born. We rested awhile there. It was its own place, unanswerable to any other.

When we finally got back to the town, I expected it to be dinnertime. But when I looked at my watch, it was only noon. I couldn’t figure it.

Sometimes I think there are other universes everywhere, and it’s just a matter of choice, or belief, whether we pass into them or not.

I hope this letter finds you well and healthy. Much love to all!

meret

February 12, 2009

Dear friends,

I’m recovering from an Affliction, so I’ve been spending my last few days in Ethiopia just resting and reading and eating rice.

It’s too bad. I’d wanted to go back to the Addis Sheraton for one more afternoon. This is no ordinary Sheraton. Only the wealthiest stay there: African leaders, diplomats, international contractors. My first day here, my Ethiopian friend Sisay took me there to show me around, and made sure I used the bathrooms in particular. Each stall was like a black marble sarcophagus. It was wonderful. There were ballrooms and fountains and vined colonnades. There was an unfinished playground and a sprawling gnome garden. The gnomes looked, as I did, over the wall onto the vast shantytown right next door. As a writer I feel very drawn to the place, because it’s such an absurd concentration of wealth in the middle of such a poor country—and as such I find it deeply haunted. (I told Sisay about my attraction to it. “I knew you would go back,” he said, “for the bathrooms.” And that’s also true.)

Travel in Ethiopia has been a mixed bag—good days and bad days. It’s often been difficult. In particular, I had no idea how much my experience would be circumscribed by my being female. In America I have the luxury to ignore that fact, or the freedom to celebrate it; here, though, it’s the first thing I am. Instead of identifying as a “Byrne, Artist, Spiritual, Woman,” here I am “Female, Alone, White, Faranji.” And related to that, I had no idea that the invisibility of Ethiopian women would be such a daily sorrow to me. By far, men are the dominant ambassadors of social and public life—those with benign intentions, along with those who only want to harass and question me.

This was true in my travels up north, especially. Which is why meeting Netsanet was all the more powerful.

For a long time, we weren’t even sure that was her name. My Canadian friend Arlene had asked her and shouted it to me, as best she could, over the pop music expo that had set up camp right across from our hotel in Debark. We’d gone, and found a whole lot of dancing—mostly teenage boys who moshed and then rushed at the stage to kiss the singer in mid-song. We had a wonderful time, joining in, attempting our best at Ethiopian dancing, the shoulder-shuddering and neck-twitching.

There was a woman in the crowd, though, who danced with such abandon that she drew my notice over and over. She saw me watching her and drew me out. She was tiny and gorgeous, with a heart-shaped face, dimples, thick smears of eyebrow and a gigantic smile. But she was most beautiful for all the life that was in her, that seemed to renew itself every moment. I tried to keep up as best I could. Then at one point she pulled her necklace right off her neck and pushed it toward me; then her scarf, too, she whipped off and cradled my head with, like a bonnet. She was so ecstatic, so resplendent, and so unlike any other woman I had yet seen in Ethiopia.

Finally I got side stitches and stumbled away to catch my breath. My friends’ guide, a local man, had been watching and pulled me aside.

“She’s crazy,” he said in a warning tone of voice.

My smile faded. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “She’s crazy. She went to Sudan to look for work, and then when she came back she wasn’t right in the head.”

I looked at her again, dancing, this woman who’d been so generous with me. It’s true that I don’t know the full situation, but I was so angry with him for saying that. She’s crazy? Why? Because she dances so joyfully? Because she’s having a fantastic time? Because she showed me such love? I wanted to say, Surely she’s saner than you.

I kept the necklace. It’s a strand of cowrie shells, plastic balls, and red and black beads. But I left the scarf in my hotel room, smelling as it did so strongly of her—a tang of meat, iron and sweat that I couldn’t wash out—it felt too powerful to bear.

Back in Addis, exploring for a day, I came across a beautiful new hotel still under construction. The lobby was tiled in cream, and the furniture all elegant black wire. The manager showed me around and I asked her name. “Netsanet,” she said. I got very excited and told her about the other Netsanet. She smiled and said, “You know what the name means? ‘Liberty.'”

I keep thinking about the women of Ethiopia, of whom I still know so little.

Tonight, I fly to Mumbai. Send me good wishes for my journey as I send good wishes to all of you, for yours!

Love,
Monica

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March 15, 2009

Dear friends,

I’ve been one month in Kerala, called God’s Own Country, in the south of India. The thing is, I feel like I’ve always been here.

After the dry season in Ethiopia, stepping into humid Mumbai—warm as the womb, even at 5am!—was such an unexpected relief. I took a taxi to the home of Leena, my gracious hostess. She made us chai and then fixed her daughter Shreya’s hair for school, into adorable braided pigtails, as the sun came up over the city.

I’ve felt such an affinity for India. Which is not to say that it’s somehow “accessible” in the way that many Westerners want to believe it is, but simply, that I really like everything I see. Kerala in particular is a steady rain of blessings. The colors alone are overwhelming. Electric lime-green fields. The houses that spring up from the ground, shell-pink and lily-blue peeking out from under coconut palms. Also, I’ve been told that people in Kerala are known for their kindness, and I’ve found it to be true—especially the schoolchildren who elbow each other out of the way to say “Good morning” to me!

Since I’ve been here, I’ve dreamt about home literally every night. And by ‘home,’ I mean the actual house I grew up in, a beautiful old Victorian house in Annville, Pennsylvania. It’s been sold to a new family who’s renovating it from top to bottom. So it’s no longer really the house I grew up in, the house my mother died in, the house where gravity had a little less hold on me than anywhere else in the world. But every night in my dreams, we’re there again, playing catch in the backyard or having a costume party in the attic.

I think it’s because Kerala itself feels like home. And—in talking with other travelers—I realized that’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to traveling. I’m looking for home. I’ve always been fascinated by people who find it far away, in a place they’ve never been before, but their universe reorients on the spot and they live there happily ever after. I’ve always been half-excited, half-afraid that that would happen to me.

Last weekend, our Ayurveda teacher, Sarath, invited us to his family’s home for the day. After a delicious breakfast of sweet dosas and stew, we went to see his family’s oldest house—empty of occupants now, but kept and beloved in the family. It’s three hundred years old. Sarath gestured me down a hallway and unlocked a door that opened out onto scrub and coconut palms. It was very quiet, except for a Hindi love song floating from somewhere across the fields. Sarah pointed at the stone floor and said, Here is the place where my grandmother read to me. I sat in her lap. Can you feel the breeze? And I did. I felt like I remembered the place, generations forward and back. It’s the same feeling I’ve had all during my time in Kerala: that my mothers have come here before me, and my daughters will follow, after.

I’ll be very sad to leave Kerala, but my itinerary calls me on—next to Madurai, home of the Meenakshi Temple. In the meantime, I hope you all are well and healthy! Happy spring 🙂

Much love,
Monica

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March 25, 2009

Dear friends,

Early tomorrow morning, I take a bus to the town of Hospet, a passenger train to the city of Hubli, a sleeper train to the sprawling metropolis of Mumbai, and finally…a plane to Fiji.

Which is quite a long way from Hampi, where I am now. Hampi is a temple town built on the ruins of the ancient city Vijayanagar, once the capital of a vast medieval empire. I’ve wandered here for days. It’s what I imagine the surface of Venus would look like: crumbling temple ruins, tumbled boulders along a hot river, under a hot sun. Yesterday I was exploring the royal enclosure when a thunderstorm came up. I climbed a nearby hill and took shelter in an ancient guardhouse, where I sat on the ramparts—there was a lot of deliciously cool wind and lightning and rain-spattering. The storm passed to the west.

I’ll miss India. I love it here. I’ve been so happy. I’ll miss having idlee for breakfast—steamed rice cakes shaped like flying saucers, with spicy stew to soak them in. They’re what I crave for breakfast now. I’ll miss the lovely humid heat, and the old ceiling fans in every hotel room. (Though I admit I’ve been paranoid this whole time that one would spontaneously detach and shred me to ribbons in my sleep. I’m happy to report this hasn’t happened yet.)

But, most of all, I’ll miss the trains. It’s strange for me to say that—I’d been anticipating claustrophobia, lost sleep, hassles—but now, instead, every time I’m on the platform it feels like Christmas morning. My first train trip was 26 hours long, from Mumbai to Kochi, and I felt as if I was in a church whose rituals I didn’t know. How did everyone know when the bunks came down? Or when to unwrap their dinners? How did they know which station it was when there were no signs?

Many train rides later, much is now clear.

It’s essential to have a window seat, of course. From there, the passing world is completely absorbing: laundry lines, chai carts, stately homes, road crossings, children pooping, lone motorcycles, rippling saris, rice fields, coconut palms, gravel quarries, and cows with pretty eyes and painted horns. If possible, it’s even more interesting at night because all the houses have their back porch light on—which means that each of them appear as a diorama, for one instant, this household’s life frozen in time, before it’s replaced by the next. Once, on the night train to Madurai, we entered pure countryside and all the hills and fields were lit by a heavy-lidded moon.

As a light sleeper, I can’t account for how well I sleep on the trains. Maybe it’s the feeling of being rocked, or being surrounded by the peaceful sleeping bodies of other women, of whole multigenerational families on the move. Or maybe it’s that all the saris I bought, rolled up in a sack, make an excellent pillow. Or that, when I wake up in the night, I can peer up through the window and pick out a constellation before nestling back down on my luggage. And then at 6am, the first chai-wallahs come through, and I sit up and wipe the sleep out of my eyes and pay five rupees for a little paper cup of steaming chai.

Like I said, I’ll miss India.

Keep me in your thoughts for all the transitions ahead. I’ll be sure to enjoy my last train ride, believe me! As for you, I hope spring has arrived—or at least, is on its way—to wherever you are.

Love,
Monica

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April 6, 2009

Dear friends,

It’s the rainy season in Fiji. This is an understatement. The night I got here, a thunderstorm began. Two days later I saw the first patch of blue appear over Wayasewa Island. So I mustered the ambition to walk twenty meters down to the beach, and stand in the surf for awhile….I was so happy and relaxed, I just wanted to lie face-down in the sand and fall asleep, ocean-as-blanket.

I love it here, but it’s complicated.

In Ethiopia, it seemed like they’d only begun to figure out tourism in a way that would benefit more than a handful of people. In India, tourism was just one of the bazillion things going on all the time. But in Fiji, tourism is the number-one industry—and they’ve gotten very, very good at it. But that also means, as a Fijian resort manager told me in a frank conversation, “We’ve had to make a lot of compromises.” And I want to honor that. Ever since the first days of my trip, I’ve been thinking about what kind of white tourist I am.

Before I left for my trip, I think I had some idea that I could reduce my conspicuousness in the countries I was visiting—that I could allay or even cancel my whiteness by, for example, buying and wearing local clothing. But I was very quickly disabused in Ethiopia, where I learned that, as far as anyone was concerned, I was no more enlightened or well-intentioned than anyone else—I was a rich white American female tourist, the end. (I did buy an Amharic dress, but I think if I’d actually worn it on the street, in terms of attracting attention, I might as well have set myself on fire.)

One day in India, I was engrossed in an exhibit at the Gandhi Memorial Museum when some teenage boys came up and asked me for a picture. I sort of laughed uncomfortably and obliged, and one of them draped his arm over my shoulder and the other held up his camera phone. Picture taken, I went back to the exhibit. But they followed me. They approached me again, asking for another picture. I said no. The third time they asked me, I told them that they were being incredibly annoying and reflecting poorly on their country and I wanted them to leave me alone. They did. But it left me feeling queasy—that they hadn’t wanted to talk with me at all, but just capture whatever it was I represented to them as a trophy to show their friends.

So, I can’t imagine how Fijians must feel.

Such a well-oiled tourist industry attracts a different crowd of tourists. Not the more savvy, thoughtful, engaged travelers I met in Ethiopia and India…but European gap year kids who seem determined to be disaffected by everything, or jaded honeymooners, or tattooed thrill-seekers. In any case, most seem intent on using their cameras constantly—as if to confirm to themselves that they are experiencing something, that it is real. During the mekes (songs and dances) performed for us on the islands, I could hardly see the show for all the camera flashes. I wanted to tell everyone to put their goddamn cameras down for five minutes to accord the respect we accord to a performer anywhere—by being present to them, by meeting them in their vulnerability—instead of documenting them as one would an anthropological exhibit. It made me crazy.

And yet, the manager also told me, there are those who come to him after seeing the meke and tell him that they want to experience “real” Fiji. As if the meke, and those who performed in it, were somehow not “real.” This seems like aggression: asking for what is not freely given. Asking for more, beyond these beautiful mekes, these pearls of Fijian culture that they’ve plucked and presented to us, because it’s their livelihood and they own the land and they know exactly what they’re doing and because they want to—how is that not real?

Fiji is quite real, to me. Everyone I’ve met has been very sweet. Women call out “Bula!” in two long syllables, like a lullaby. Men sing to themselves as they work. And it’s absurdly beautiful. The moon is waxing, brighter every night, passing through the mottled galaxy. I go down to the beach at night and watch the spindles roll in. Sailing back to Nadi yesterday, we were caught between a golden sunset in the west and a towering rainbow in the east. Beauty and kindness are real. And they’re enough for me.

I invite any of you to write me back about this and share your thoughts or experiences. Because I include myself in this criticism—God knows I can be self-righteous sometimes, and hypocritical—I take pictures too, after all. I’m just trying to figure all this out. Every white or Western tourist who’s thoughtful about their approach has their lines, and their reasons, for what is and is not appropriate. I should also say that I’ve met a lot of travelers in Fiji I really like.

Tonight I fly to Samoa. The whole country is Christian, so I hope that means I can find a good Easter Vigil service to attend, and wear—!—white.

Much love,
Monica

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April 20, 2009

Dear friends,

Talofa and kia orana, from the South Pacific! It takes four hours to fly between these tiny dots on the map—can you imagine how the ancient Polynesian explorers found them by canoe!? It boggles the mind.

All along the coast of Samoa are fales. They’re pillared, open-air houses, iterations of which is the traditional Samoan home. The juxtaposition of pillars-and-ocean was tugging at my mind for hours until I realized why…A Elbereth Gilthoniel. When I was fourteen, I made a painting of a young woman sitting between two white pillars, looking out at the moon rising over the ocean. The title is a hymn from (what else?) The Lord of the Rings. Of course, the painting was a young effort, and might now be called tacky, but it’s been dear to me over the years because it was so important to my self-conception. So, as soon as I was in Samoa, I was right in my painting—right at home.

I spent a week at Lalomanu Beach. Time moves very slowly there—as if the air is made of jelly. There’s very little to do besides read, write, swim, tan, and eat. (For breakfast they serve that traditional Samoan staple, fried Spaghetti-O sandwiches. Surprisingly good.) So the mind invents things. I was preoccupied with minutiae—like the proper name for leprosy (Hansen’s disease) or the name of the illiterate girl in A League of Their Own (Shirley Baker) or how long it would take to fall down the south face of Everest (about 15 seconds, assuming you don’t scrape your head along the way like Mola Ram). The time slows your mind in other ways, too—it confuses it, like a strong cocktail. Tasks are gently subverted. I’d set out for the bathroom with every intention of brushing my teeth and then, twenty minutes later, find myself examining my toes on the beach and think, How did I get here?

I had a mattress right at the edge of my fale, and my fale was right on the surf. I spent a lot of time just looking at the water, trying to describe its color. Iridescent-melon-turquoise came close sometimes. I started an ‘element diary,’ a thrice-daily record of the ocean, clouds, sand, moon, stars and sun—just writing down what they look like to me, regardless of how ‘pretty/ugly’ the words might be. Learning to see things in ways others haven’t. I just read a book about Van Gogh—how when he got to Provence, he was so delighted at how much other painters had “left behind.” And of course, now that I look, each element is very different each day, turning a different face, and begging different words to describe it.

I spent my last three days on Manono Island, a tiny lump of extinct volcano with a population of 1,300. There are four villages and the children attend one of two schools, and wear either red or blue uniforms. I passed them in the morning on their way to school. Sometimes they stopped to talk to me—brave adolescent girls who took deep breaths and looked away before asking each question, to make sure they have their English straight in their heads. A path encircles the entire island; it takes an hour to walk if you hurry, and two hours if you linger. It goes past fales, churches, ancient blackened platforms. It winds through gardens upon gardens, and always by the sea. It’s best to walk at dawn, because it’s coolest, then—and the rising sun shone through all the red leaves and green palms and fuchsia hibiscus.

I hope this letter finds you all well. Right now I’m on Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands—the beginning of the end of my trip. It’s all bittersweet.

Much love,
Monica

samoa

May 2, 2009

Dear friends,

On the fifth-last night of my trip, I pulled out my diary from Ethiopia. Whoa. Talk about vertigo! On my first morning in Addis, I was dazed and nauseated and arguing with my taxi driver, who claimed she was “lost” and needed more money. Now, four months later, on the other side of the world, I was sitting on the porch of my beach hut, carving up a coconut and eating the pieces off my knife, as if I belonged nowhere else.

Rarotonga is the main island in the Cook Islands. It is tiny, spherical and immaculate. Two buses circle the island at all times—the Clockwise and the AntiClockwise, like matter and antimatter (and every time they meet, the drivers make faces at each other). Having circumnavigated the island by bus, I decided to bisect it on foot. I took the Cross-Island Track, a path up through the craggy center of the island, beginning in the northern town of Avarua. The ascent took my breath away, literally—climbing hand over hand, up ladders of tangled root, which were so thick the island seemed to be made of them. I lost the trail a few times (whose brilliant idea was it to make the trail markers dark green!?) but always found it again, by luck or bushwhacking. Finally, I knew I was on track because I passed the ruins of the Sheraton. Years ago, construction stopped abruptly because its investors bailed out. But the buildings are still there, ghostly, the color of dirty bone, deep in weeds. I remembered the Sheraton in Addis—its opulence and majesty—and felt like here, I was seeing its future. (Maybe all of our future.) Then finally the forest spat me out on an asphalt road, bitten, muddy, scratched and soaked, wearing my bikini top and cargo pants. Two men at a picnic table raised their Heinekens to me. Bisection achieved!

I spent the last week of my trip on the tiny island of Aitutaki. I went to their church, two centuries old, for services last Sunday. A strong wind blew in from the sea, across the pews. I’d been told the singing was spectacular, but I wasn’t prepared for what that meant. As soon as the minister stopped speaking, the congregation heaved up, the song already begun and splintered into a dozen harmonies, into calls and answers that echoed and overlapped and got louder and louder. One little old Maori woman in front of me, in a purple house dress and flowered hat, sang in a voice that would put Bjork to shame—belting into the stratosphere, taking the highest harmony, lifting and glorifying all the others. I had to focus on keeping my feet beneath me.

This is what it’s like at the end of the world.

It’s as if, through my trip, I’ve been led into Dante’s rose of Paradiso—and Aitutaki was the purest, innermost, and loveliest—so loud the silence. My last night there, I sat on the beach with a cup of tea, watching the moon set over the sea, thinking, Beauty like this is always too-much and never-enough, all at once.

Today is my last day, my last look, my last breakfast at my favorite cafe where they put extra starfruit in my mueslix. Tonight my plane leaves for Los Angeles at 11:59pm. I’m coming home.

Much love,
Monica

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May 17, 2009

Dear friends,

I’ve been home for two weeks. Mostly hiding out in Chatham County, where the world is small and manageable. At Melleray, my family’s farm, Dad is looking for four-leaf clovers all the time, and now he’s got me looking for them too. I have a little cabin on the edge of the woods with a desk, bookshelf, and plenty of candles. And spring is in full bloom—actually, past full bloom, as if the greenness of the world were a given and everybody’s over it.

At the end of my trip, I felt like I needed to take account of everything. To compose credits, like at the end of a movie. For example, I want to thank each item of clothing (for example, “To my yellow-striped sarong, you were everything to me…my shawl, scarf, headscarf, top, skirt, dress, blanket, bath towel, beach towel, pillow cover, dust rag, toilet paper, and gas mask.”) Or to award superlatives, like in a yearbook (for example, Samoa wins for Prettiest Money). Or to make lists (for example, I read twenty-six books and filled four notebooks and cried in public only six times).

What’s clear is that the trip was a magnificent success—that travel is everything I hoped it would be, spiritually, personally, creatively. That even though at first, I was often scared I’d crash and burn, that fear melted away until all that remained was pleasure and wonder and quiet. And I planned to come back in May—the beginning of summer—so that after the end of my travels, I’d be entering this, the most green and fertile corridor of the year.

But as soon as I got back, the real world came crashing back in—beginning with a court appearance for a speeding ticket from December! (Actually, it was a thrilling civic adventure. And the judge was very nice.) But now I have to figure out a new job, new apartment, new life…though I wish I could just rest. I keep wanting for something to happen, and for nothing to happen at all.

Regardless, I do want to thank all of you for your companionship these last few months. Having friends to write to kept me grounded, wherever I was. So do stay in touch, and I will do the same, especially when I get something published 😉

All my love,
Monica

~

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