Croatia - shot on 35 mm

Croatia - shot on 35 mm

Five days full of old-school photography, brave leaps into the Adriatic Sea, and my first appreciation of post-sunset glow.

 

This year (and by year, I really mean September on, since I still think in school years) has brought a lot of new and lovely things. I have made new friends I cannot imagine my previous life without. I have settled into my New York existence (though somehow that didn't take too long; a combination of being predisposed and thrown off the deep end as a "reporter"). I have had the good fortune of traveling to some of the most beautiful places I have yet seen: to Greece last June, to Cuba this past April, and most recently, this past month, to Croatia. And I have made up all kinds of excuses not to write about these things: I simply have not had the time, I’ve said. And that’s been partially true: from early August 2016 through May 2017, I was immersed in an intensive Masters program that gave me a schoolwork-related feeling I can only compare to partial drowning, in which I would come up for a breath of air only to have another huge wave of work crash over me for the next foreseeable future. But it was fun, grueling work, and I had tough editors who showed me exactly what my weaknesses are not only as a writer but as a human… I think I am still figuring out what the value in that experience was, and is, but it is of COURSE there - I am seeing it now more clearly even as I type these words. 

Goodbye, Semester at Sea

I have been hit with a bit of writer’s block in the past few weeks. And sketcher’s block, too, I suppose, since I just haven’t quite been able to sit myself down and finish my sketches of my last few Semester at Sea ports. Maybe, subconsciously, I’m trying to prolong the experience by putting those things off. Probably I’m just being lazy. Often, in writing and creating, one wishes to wait for a bout of inspiration in order to sit down and actually create; sometimes, you just have to sit down and start creating without that certain feeling – no book in the world would be finished in a timely manner, or at all, if its author simply waited around for those moods to strike.

Hello from the MV

Dear friends,  

We have been on the ship for 11 days straight, and I have to confess that I’m slowly coming to a greater understanding of where Jack/Johnny - whoever that character played by Jack Nicholson in the Shining is - is coming from. Just kidding. But I’m ready to be off of this boat. What these eleven days have consisted of is a lot of homework/essay-writing (which I’m done with now), hours of lying in bed watching the OC (revisiting my 7th-grade self), too much time spent contemplating life and over-analyzing my own thoughts, a twenty-first birthday celebration complete with a magnificent show of HUNDREDS of wild dolphins (the highlight), class I wish I could skip (but why, Olivia, when you clearly have absolutely nothing better to do?), eating the same food over and over again (aka pasta and potatoes at every. single. meal.), getting bored on the treadmill (where my two options of things to look at are myself in the mirror – no, thanks - or the number of miles going up, slowly, .01 miles at a time, as I listen to the workout playlist I haven’t updated all semester), and going on “walks” back and forth on one of the side-decks – aka walking back and forth about 25 times if I want to even feel like I’ve walked at all (pretty much a metaphor for how I feel at this point).

Africa; stop holding things back

There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns - small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track
— Robyn Davidson, Tracks
Lion's Head, Cape Town

Lion's Head, Cape Town

I keep reading things right when I need to; I think there’s a higher power that draws me to certain words at all-too-perfect times in my life. For example, I recently started reading a book about a woman’s experience living in Bhutan (a small Buddhist country next to Nepal) and her adjustment to the frustratingly slow lifestyle there. I started reading this book right as I arrived in Namibia, which is probably the slowest-moving place I’ve ever been – each day, I have been waking up expecting to get through the few activities I have planned for the day by noon at the latest, and they end up taking until dinnertime. Had I not started reading that book, I’m not sure I would have found the patience and deep-breathing that it inspired me to have and do; which is really the only way to cope with such cultural differences.  

My travel literature class - which has slowly grown on me throughout the semester - has pointed me at times to such fortuitous and applicable words. Last week, just as we were leaving Cape Town, we read an excerpt from Robyn Davidson’s Tracks – the quote I copied above truly encapsulated my experience in South Africa. My time in Cape Town was filled with “moments of pure, uncomplicated confidence,” as she describes those pivotal moments a little later on. I just felt, for the first time in a very long time, like I was – and am – on the right path in my life. Something clicked, and I feel free and happy and lovely again. It’s been a while.
  

I don’t know what it was exactly. Part of it had to do with the fact that I spent every day there with two of my best friends on the ship, Cate and Julia, with more of my best friends coming in and out of the picture day-to-day. Part of it had to do with the amazing hostel we found ourselves calling home – Ashanti – and some of the people I met there and can honestly say, after just a few days of knowing them, that I love deeply. Part of it had to do with reconnecting with nature and hiking as much as possible and accidentally climbing a mountain and finding myself picnicking on top of it with my two inside-and-out beautiful friends. Part of it was getting to paraglide with a silly man named Jacques and laughing at the impossible fact that I was able to have a full-on conversation in the middle of the sky. Part of it was going on a wine-tour expecting to have a fun but superficial day and ending up having life-changing conversations with people who were more like walking inspirations than human beings. Most of it was all of it together, and realizing how lucky I am to be able to attract the kinds of amazing people into my life that, somehow, I just do. Or have been. Maybe it’s a lucky streak.
  

Cape Town solidified a feeling for me that’s been building throughout my travels. It brought me back to myself – I’ve been lost for a while. (The song This is Me by Demi Lovato comes to mind here… Just kidding, but not really.) It made me realize what I’ve been holding onto, what I need to let go of, and the kind of person I want to be: I want to be the kind of person who can lead by example, who can share her light instead of holding it back.
  

American culture teaches us to hold so many things back – thoughts, emotions, how we really feel deep down – to the point where it’s hard to even see those thoughts and emotions anymore. We repress so much that we don’t remember what we have to say. We don’t bring up the issues that we have with our mothers and fathers and sisters and friends – the real ones, the ones that leave a pit in our stomachs but that rarely materialize as real words in our minds; we don’t acknowledge how much we appreciate and love them enough either. We move through our busy days, stone-faced or superficially happy, rarely letting ourselves just be real and holding in things that, even if they come from a good place, fester within us and soon become poison to our souls. Emerson says: “Society is a masked ball, where every one hides his real character, and reveals it by hiding.” Such is America, unfortunately; it’s the way we’re brought up. We’re taught that acting indifferent is the best way not to get hurt; well, nothing good ever came from apathy. There’s a pure and undeniable beauty in being vulnerable. I’ve grown up a little too real and vulnerable sometimes; but being in Africa reassured me that that’s the only way to a happy and free heart. Africans are warm, and passionate, and loving, and they don’t hold things back; I think their hearts must hurt less that way, and you can just tell.
  

Anyway, maybe nothing about what I’ve just written makes any sense. Either way, I guess what I’m getting at is that I’ve found a way to embrace my emotions, good and bad. I’ve found a place of self-love that’s taken me so long, and traveling around the world, to find. And it might slip from my hands, and then I’ll have to find it again. That’s okay, though – as I stated maybe ten blog-posts ago, we’re fighters, not winners, and I’m just embracing this small victory before I move on to the next battle.
 
 

Me making a sand angel in the Namib desert 

Me making a sand angel in the Namib desert 

Magic; thoughts on India

“Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing 

to be dazzled – 

to cast aside the weight of facts 

and maybe even 

to float a little 

above this difficult world. 

I want to believe I am looking 

into the white fire of a great mystery” 

- Mary Oliver, The Ponds
  

I was talking to my friend Nikki the other day – one of those long, talk-about-everything talks that goes on for hours that feel like no time at all – and we came across the topic of magic. “I believe in the magic of the world,” she said, or something along those lines, and I was struck with the knowledge that I used to wholeheartedly feel that way and that I had somehow completely forgotten that I did.
  

There is a certain magic in the world that we humans tend to lose sight of with age. The struggles and heartbreaks that we all must go through as we grow up slowly erase our childhood knowledge of it, until we are left with little more than a faint memory of the feeling it once brought forth in us.
  

Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of that feeling. The pure joy and wonder that used to come with seeing any glittery object still reveals itself, if only for a split second, when I see such things again – a sparkly box or hair clip can still, once in a while, send a rush through my body of wonder and excitement before my brain recognizes it for what I know, as an adult, it really is - cheaply made “junk” which one should never spend money on. Well, it still holds magic nonetheless; doesn’t it?
  

I’ve found that magic in nature, in the stars and the ocean and the wind. Most people forget to look for it, but it usually finds you if you’re open to it. One night, at camp, during my first summer working there as a dishwasher, it found me. Late at night, having finished my shift in the kitchen, I pulled my tipi-mates out of our tipi so that we could all watch the meteor shower that had been going on for the past few days. We climbed down to the rocky beach below our unit (the circle of tipis where we and our campers slept) and stood staring at the sky as shooting stars whizzed by in all directions. This would have been enough to restore my connection with magic – the stars usually are. However, the world had more to offer that night: as I tossed, with no purpose in mind, a piece of driftwood into the ocean, the water lit up like electricity. A rush coursed through my entire body as I realized that, upon closer examination, every bit of water surrounding us was sparkling – the phosphorescence, which only occasionally shows itself in the San Juan Island summers, was out in full throttle that night. We waded and watched our feet light up, and cupped our hands in the water to hold its twinkling light between our fingers. Standing under a sky of shooting stars, in water full of glitter more beautiful than that of any glittery box or hair clip I had ever seen as a child, I felt the world offering its magic up to me, convincing me of its existence as it always has, every so often.
  

India knows of this magic. It harnesses it, and worships it, and doesn’t go a day without seeing its light. This became especially apparent to me in Varanasi, India’s “Holy City” and one where spirituality and faith take precedence over any and every scientific fact or theory. Varanasi lies on the bank of the Ganges, a river infamous for its pollution – it is full of all kinds of waste, from petrol left behind by the hundreds of boats that live on and visit it, to human excrement (as it must serve as the sewage system for the many who have none to use), to an uncountable number of people’s ashes who are burned and dumped there with the belief that it guarantees freedom from the vicious cycle of rebirth, to actual human bodies (for those who can’t afford cremation but still want the river to carry their souls away); I am probably forgetting a number of other pollutants that belong to this list. The water of the Ganges has a bacteria content that is astronomically higher than that which is classically considered to be unsanitary and unfit even to bathe in (not even to mention drink). And yet, the people of Varanasi bathe daily in the Ganges, and drink its waters, too, believing them to have healing powers and to guarantee lifelong health.
  

On my first trip to Varanasi, when I was twelve years old, I was struck by one thing that my family’s tour guide told me – he said he had drunk a cup of Ganges water when he was little, and that he had never been sick in his life. I chose to believe him, though I was flabbergasted by the statement – even at that age, I couldn’t count the amount of times I’d been sick. However, in India, it is believed that faith can overcome anything – “Faith over science” is what my tour guides said over and over this time around. “Faith can move mountains,” they said.
  

If any faith can move mountains, it’s the kind I witnessed in floating down the Ganges in Varanasi. It is an entirely different world over there, and one you can truly only believe or understand when you see it. The banks of the Ganges are replete with “Ghats” serving different religious purposes. One is home to a crematorium, where, all day and all night, bodies burn in the open air while their families stand by and mourn, waiting to gather their ashes and give them to the river. They call the river “Mother Ganga” and believe her to be a goddess (and one of their four mothers, the other three being their biological mother, mother Earth, and cows – as a representation of food). The two Ghats that are home to the most Hindu temples are, every evening, host to hundreds – sometimes thousands – of Hindu worshippers, who gather in a crowd of vibrant colors and beautiful sounds to partake in a Hindu ceremony. Several religious men stand in a line and chant and dance with fire while the gatherers, both on the riverbanks and in boats of all kinds, pray around them. The energy and magnitude of this gathering is impossible, even with my love of wordy and hyperbolic adjectives, to describe: it is something beautifully unfathomable to color, emotion, and crowd fearing westerners.
  

During my Semester at Sea program in Varanasi, we were lucky enough to hear a lecture from a local university professor about the city and its role as the sacred heart of India. “It should be a part of our life,” he said, “to look at the metaphysics instead of just the physics of our surroundings.” He claimed that Varanasi does this, though he allowed that it is a very difficult task to maintain this kind of spiritual life. He emphasized that these metaphysics didn’t simply belong to Hinduism – they belong to all spirituality and to all religions. Varanasi and the Ganges are more about the magic of faith and of spirituality than about any specific religious doctrine. They teach to look beyond the limits of reason and science in order to accept the true beauty of life on earth. They teach that, no matter how filthy, by scientific standards, the Ganges may be; those who accept her as their mother are the receptors of her powers to heal any sickness of body, heart, or mind. The metaphysics of the earth exist in everything - in the magic of nature and of stars and light and of human beings and of fateful encounters; we just have to be willing to see and believe that the magic is there.
  

So, I’m happy to steal Nikki’s words and to proclaim once again that I believe in the magic of our world; everyone should – it makes life more fun.