Tuesday, December 6, 2016

One Way Ticket; Traveling Through Life

The U-haul door shut with a creak; all our worldly possessions were inside. The gaudy peach hand-me-down couch, the scrappy coffee table that had been colored with crayons and lacquered to perfection, the pseudo-water bed with the water weenies that we slung over our shoulders to carry to the truck, and the rabbit hutch.



I said a silent prayer for the hole in the carpet. The one I'd spent hours gluing back together, piece by individual carpet piece. If the repair didn't hold we would lose our security deposit; all the money we had to our name. The money we needed for our move. Mr. Wendall was a costly stray. But how could one say to no to those big rabbit ears and that chocolate chip butt?



The three of us traveled up the I-5; my boyfriend, myself and our strapping mulatto friend, Tom, who'd volunteered to help us move. I don't remember where we put Mr. Wendall. He must've been at my feet. And the bird. Did we still have a bird? Yes. Yes we did. Because our cockatiel didn't die until our honeymoon. So, really, it was the five of us; three humans, a rabbit and a bird; abandoning California and heading for Eugene, Oregon.



I had a degree but no job. My boyfriend had no job and no degree. But he'd been accepted to the University of Oregon; he was 26. A veritable old man off to try his hand at education.



We'd rented a place across from the fairgrounds; in a pepto bismol pink triplex. Our landlord lived in the front unit. He was a runner. Our landlord ran and ran until his toenails turned black and peeled off his feet. I never saw the man in shoes. This barefoot man in the bright pink house also grew roses. He gave me permission to pick them. But only if I agreed to cut the stem just so. I never dared pluck a rose; I was afraid of cutting it wrong. And then the man might come for my toenails. And what would I do then?



The fair came to town the day we moved. Every afternoon thunder storms rolled in; they arrived on cue if they'd checked their watches and consulted their schedules. I stood in the open garage petting the rabbit. The air was ripe with electricity when the storm came and the hair on the back of my neck rose to attention. And the ferris wheel. It kept going. It kept whirling around and around and around; even after being struck. This lightning. Was it a sign? And if so; was it good or bad? I was curious, yes, but not curious enough for a trip to the library (the internet had yet to fall into my pocket). So I called the lightning a sign but did not assign it a polarity. It was what it was.



My boyfriend went to school. And I worked a series of odd jobs. I wrapped candles in a candle factory. I wiped bottoms in a nursing home. And then I was hired as a veterinary assistant. My new boss was an eccentric red-haired woman named Rena. She didn't believe in electricians and wired her own house. She'd been married -- but not for long. She kept baby goats in her car. And she was a one woman veterinary show. If you'd ask me now I'd tell you she had ADHD. But I was young and didn't know about those things back then. Rena hired me on the spot without bothering to ask about my experience (I had none).



My first task was to bathe a 20 pound cat. I was allergic to cats. I'd never owned one and had no idea how to handle the yowling writhing mass in front of me. And yet somehow I survived (as did the cat). And there, in that strip mall in the rain, I was inaugurated into the world that would dominate my life for the next 20 years. The world of veterinary medicine.





Now I am a doctor (a DVM) and I have a clinic of my own. I would love to own goats but my neighbors would complain. I've filled my life with chickens and dogs and cats and, yes, a rabbit. All because I was brave enough to climb into that U-Haul and take a one-way trip. A trip to the rest of my life.



Monday, December 5, 2016

Off the Beaten Path



Two Christmases ago, or maybe it was three, my family went to Mexico for the holidays. We booked a room in a resort halfway between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. The resort was gorgeous and it contained everything we needed. Manicured lawns. Palm trees. Multiple restaurants. A gift shop. An expansive beach with thatched huts on piers along the water. Yoga. Volleyball. Organized games. And several pools with swim up bars. It would have been easy enough to tuck ourselves into the resort and say we’d been to Mexico. And, technically, that would’ve been true. 

But we didn’t travel for comfort. We traveled to stretch our comfort zone. We wanted to meet real people and to truly see our world. So on the second day of our trip we ventured outside the protective resort walls. Our first journey was short: we went to Playa Del Carmen. This meant turning left on the main highway and traveling, oh I don’t know, maybe 15 miles (or 24 km) south. Right before Playa Del Carmen there was a police check point. The guards wielded large automatic rifles and were nothing if not intimidating. Though we were doing nothing wrong, I have to admit, we were tempted to turn around and return to the resort. Maybe we could just get a margarita and sit by the pool and ignore those looming guns. But we didn’t do it. We stayed the course and the guards passed us through without incident. They were looking for suspicious vehicles and drug traffickers and we qualified as neither. Over the course of the next week we passed through this same checkpoint several times and, strangely enough, it became routine. 

Playa Del Carmen was the beginning of real. People lived there; it wasn’t just a place where one came to work. Of course the downtown area was filled with tourists and it carried those folks that plied on the tourist trade. 5th street in downtown Playa was like a circus; filled with vendors and lights and people wandering about. The vendors hollered from their booths, people shoved baby animals in my kids’ arms vying for a photograph and then there was that guy - the one who tried to sell my husband drugs. Yayo? Mota? SeƱor? Yayo? 

But here’s the thing. Despite the chaos. Despite the drugs. We still felt safe. And it bolstered our confidence. The next day we ventured even further out. We went to Chichen Itza; Mayan ruins which lay about two hours inland from where we were staying. We didn’t want to get stuck on a tourist junket and therefore elected to drive ourselves. Our plan was to get there early to beat both the heat and the crowds. There was a new interstate that had just been built and the trip seemed easy enough. As it turned out we couldn’t find the interstate; the gigantic brand new four lane highway that should’ve been glaringly obvious. We google mapped it and ended up in a dead end neighborhood — twice. We were uncomfortable because we didn’t know where we were. There weren’t tourists there. And we had no idea if we were safe (after all the news in America was about all the Mexican drug cartel and kidnappings and murders galore). After much internal debate and bit of arguing we decided to stop and ask for directions. We pulled up to a tiny neighborhood store (think 7-11) and I went inside. But here’s the thing. I don’t speak Spanish. And the people working there didn’t speak English. But they were kind and sweet and accommodating and somehow, through our broken language, we got directions to the throughway. Turns out we were close. All we had to do was drive through a huge dirt lot and over an area of construction and then bump our way up over curb and, voila, the freeway. My husband was hesitant when I relayed the directions. He was sure we had the communication wrong. Turns out the communication was just right. 

Chichen Itza was awesome and inspiring and touristy. We were glad to see it but only stayed a few hours before heading out for our next adventure; Valladolid, Yucatan. This town was on the way back to Playa Del Carmen and a bit of internet sleuthing told me it was worth the visit. But to visit meant foregoing the main thoroughfare and traveling the smaller back roads of Mexico. So long as we traveled during the day we would be safe. So said Dr. Google. We elected to take the risk. 

In Valladolid we parked on the main square. And then we got out and walked. And walked and walked and walked. After lunch we found a sweet little coffee shop. And though it was ninety degrees out, and humid, we had to stop. Because. Coffee. The coffee shop was also an art gallery and we bought a small tin painting that I still cherish to this day. The painting was of a man pointing a gun at a woman. The woman was stumbling backwards in fear.  Above the man was a saint surrounded by clouds. There were words underneath that told the story in Spanish. The barista translated for us: the saint prevented the man from killing his wife and she got to live another day. This sealed the deal for us because we’d been hot and tired and crabby and had, quite frankly, felt like killing one another more than once. The painting seemed to be sent from above. We agreed to let each other live another day and we brought the painting home with us. 

By the time we arrived at the coffee shop we were, ahem, a little lost. I am pretty good with directions and I was fairly certain I knew the way back to the car. And I did know the way; by a hot muggy circuitous route. My family marched through a number of Valladolid neighborhoods; areas that didn’t see much tourist traffic. People stared at us sweating red-faced gringos as we traveled down the street with our cameras. I suspect we were quite an unusual sight. We saw people sitting on stoops, chickens wandering about and dogs straining on their chains. Men worked on cars, women hung laundry on lines and people were making probable drugs deals on the street corner. Clearly we didn’t belong (one of these things is not like the other) and yet every single person was nice. People smiled and waved and sometimes just stared. But not one single person was rude or threatening. A woman at a liquor store even let my son use the bathroom even though we didn’t purchase anything; again an arrangement made through broken language. And while waiting for my son I took a photograph of a gorgeous decrepit building. I have a penchant for decrepit; there is a subtle beauty in it. It is raw and real. The peeling paint and crumbling concrete tells a story. Of life and struggle. Of beauty and decline. Decrepit is a far cry from the manicured lawns of the resorts. And I am so glad we got to be a part of that peeling chipping life, even briefly. 

When we arrived home from our trip I printed out postcards. The photo of the decrepit blue building made the cut. The photo of the thatched hut at the end of the pier did not. Because I wanted to remember  the good, kind-hearted people that were the life blood of their towns. I wanted to remember us hot and tired and frustrated. And I wanted to remember the raw and beautiful day; the day we skirted the resort and visited the real Mexico. 


Monday, November 14, 2016



Last fall my family and I took a trip to New York. I had never been to the Big Apple and was excited to explore the city. But in booking our trip I discovered it was expensive to stay in Manhattan; especially for a family of five. So I turned to HomeAway and found a flat perched in a "recently gentrified area" of Brooklyn; an area full of Caribbeans, African Americans and Hasidic Jews. It'll be good, I reasoned, to get into the heart of things. But I didn't know just how good it would be. 

We took the train from Washington, DC to Grand Central Station. From there we caught the subway to Crown Heights, Brooklyn. We got off the subway and found ourselves very much the minority in a very black neighborhood. My little family of five marched down the street with our wheelie suitcases and bright pink backpacks. We looked and felt like walking targets. The truth was, we had no issues with black people, but we had absolutely no idea if they had issues with us. And I, for one, felt very small and very vulnerable. I quickly realized that this was how minorities felt each and every day. Small, oogled and possibly hated. 

We got to our brownstone with little more than odd looks and we breathed a sigh of relief. Our landlord was an older Jewish man who reminded me very much of Woody Allen; he moved like him and talked like him. I half expected him to start making movie references. Our landlord told us Crown Heights was a great neighborhood and very safe. We believed him, sort of. He was renting us room -- of course he was going to promote the area. 

The next morning I googled coffee. Because, besides sleep, life requires coffee. Turns out there was a bakery a couple of blocks away. We set out again, this time, thankfully, without our suitcases. A couple of storefronts up from the bakery was a business, to be honest I'm not even sure what type of business it was, but there was a television out front. And several men were sitting on crates and watching a loop of Malcolm X. To get to the bakery we had to pass between these men and their television. Which we did; without incident.

The bakery was AMAZING. You walk in and are hit with the aroma of freshly-baked scones and cinnamon rolls and croissants. And coffee. Don't forget the coffee. But I was also hit with a loathsome feeling; that of shock and shame. Because how would it feel to be hungry, oh so hungry, and to find a treasure such as this and be turned away because of the color of your skin? To be hated for something over which you had absolutely no control. My people had been spewing this type of hatred to these people for centuries and the shame of that roiled in my gut. 


We were, again, the only white folks in the place (that is until some German tourists wandered in). Everyone was so polite and so kind and so sweet. And I, for one, was very grateful. Because, based on the color of my skin, I wasn't sure I deserved their hospitality.

The next night we went to a show on Broadway (Book of Mormon). We knew we'd be getting home late and we debated on how to handle it. Folks had been very nice during the day. But what of the dark? How would we be treated when we arrived home late in the night? We elected to put our fears aside and again took the subway, dressed in our finest, into the city. It was well after midnight when we got home. As we were walking back to our place a group of young people got into a fight across the street. A girl started screaming at one of her male companions and then she shoved him into a chain link fence. We must've stopped walking; we were a bit flabbergasted and unsure how to proceed. We didn't see the people on the stoop on our side of the street until a girl called out, "It's okay white people. That just her baby daddy!" 


The girl's humor broke the spell. We laughed and talked to the people for a few minutes before continuing on. As we rounded the corner to our brownstone there was a group of twenty something men leaning against a parked car and listening to music. We looked nothing like them. We dressed nothing like them. I tightened my grip on my purse. One of the men nodded to us; a "what's up" sort of a nod and asked "How are y'all doing?" as we passed by.  We nodded back saying, "Good. Thanks."

These same men we out again for the next several nights and they began to recognize us as we passed. They waved and nodded and, quite frankly, were friendly and accommodating. I felt safe in their presence. And, hopefully, they felt safe in our presence. 


And this is why we travel: to see things from a different perspective. To put ourselves in other people's shoes. To get a bit uncomfortable. I've spent most of my life in white America; in places that contained only a few token minorities. It was nerve-wracking and refreshing to find myself as a minority -- something I'd not often experienced. 

My family discussed it after we left the city. We were all initially afraid to walk through a predominantly black neighborhood (and oddly enough we didn't see any of the Hasidic Jews). But the ironic thing? The person who actually scared us on our trip? A white man. A white man who was clearly not well and undergoing a psychotic break on the subway. We quickly got off at the next stop. Because that man made us really and truly afraid;it was his actions that scared us and not the color of his skin.

I am sorry that people are judged by their skin color and not by the content of their being. We need to fight against this. And, perhaps, one of the best things we can do to avoid prejudice is travel; far and wide. To open our arms to the world and take it all in. 


Mark Twain put it best: 


“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”


Sending you all love and light. XO. 

~Shalet