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Jasmine Stairs

“So what did you do in Europe?”

By | 2014, Europe | No Comments

I’m writing this post in Maidstone, blessedly inside (no more tents!) curled into a knot on the bottom bunk nearest the outlet, where an impromptu electronics charging station has been set up. I am no longer entirely sure what normal life is like. You move every five days, right? Meals are served out of a communal pot? It’s normal to wash your clothes in the shower? Wait, what do you schedule your life around if not visiting art museums? Work?!?

We’re at the end of the trip. And in addition to prepping for the inevitable culture shock that comes with “normal life”, I’m trying to prep the stories I’ll tell. I’ve spent two months on the road, in nine different countries. I’ve visited 18 cities (okay some of them were really only towns), muddled my way through six languages not my own, and visited so many museums I have lost count. I went to so many cafés, (so many cafés). I have crammed so much experience into my head that it all starts to blend together, like watercolour running into itself.

We’re at the end of the trip. And it gets really easy to reduce countries, history, art and experience to a single note, whether I “liked it” or not.
“Oh, I didn’t like France, it smelled of urine.”
“I really liked England— I spoke the language!”
“I couldn’t find the pretzels I wanted. Germany was a waste of time.”
It is really easy to reduce the trip to my personal experience, the “what was it like on the jasmine-train” trip. It’s also really boring. The interesting stuff is what I saw when I looked beyond myself. The stuff, you know, that I went on this trip for. The other people. The history. The culture.

We’re at the end of the trip. And I’ve got to start curating my stories. The tale of the skin I wore off my toes? Boring and repetitive. The tale of the fearsome Spanish nun hamstringing the tourist-bros with a cane on the way to a shrine— much more interesting. With that in mind…

Come over sometime and I’ll tell you about the quasi-religious status of the opera in Vienna. During a performance, they pipe it into the subway! People brought scores to the performance…



Twenty-five things I learned while traveling this summer

By | 2014, Europe | No Comments
  1. Shade is a precious and beloved resource.
  2. According to the evidence, I secrete an invisible but potent shoe-destroying substance. I’m on my fifth pair.
  3. Rest stops in Europe vary wildly. Carry hand sanitizer, toilet paper and no expectations.
  4. Men’s razors are half the price and twice the efficiency of women’s.
  5. Czech shares no cognates with English. Do not expect to be able to understand labels or signs.
  6. Some French supermarkets have champagne aisles.
  7. Some French supermarkets also have cheese aisles (multiple)
  8. Sometimes when people talk about a “recent” event they refer to something that happened before your country was formed.
  9. Half the people in Paris are not stylish. Maybe they are travellers too, but yay, you don’t look like the only slob!
  10. Sometimes that person who grabs you in the subway just fell. And sometimes that person is me.
  11. You can’t scrub the dirt off your shoulders if it’s freckles.
  12. The camp stove will betray you.
  13. Don’t place your tent by a highway
  14. There are so many people in the Louvre. So many. So, so many.
  15. On the list of places to discover you now have claustrophobia, a bookstore is not the worst.
  16. I have claustrophobia now
  17. Stained glass can make me cry.
  18. A bed is a luxury. (No seriously, beds are so luxurious. It’s amazing. So good. I almost cried.)
  19. People are kind almost everywhere, if you’re panicked and pathetic enough.
  20. Everyone in Switzerland is in better shape than me, including people three times my age. Especially people three times my age.
  21. A rum baba is not rum-flavoured, it is rum-soaked.
  22. Hot chocolate in Spain is more like hot pudding, a.k.a. heaven in a Demi-tasse cup.
  23. Nothing can make or break a campsite faster than the bathroom situation.
  24. Men in London wear REALLY nice suits. Makes you really aware you look like you’ve been sleeping in your clothes for two months.
  25. Be open to everything, excited by most things, don’t worry about what you’re eating, and carry a coat. You’ll be fine.

Bonus: check your pockets for earwigs before you eat that candy you left in your coat last night.


*Some Pretentious Title*

By | 2012, Asia | No Comments

The Thai approach to life is to roll with events as they happen, and the circuit for our bathroom has blown. So last night I took a cold shower by candlelight.

The reason I am telling you this story is that I didn’t realize the situation was at all out of the ordinary until I was struggling to light the candle with a cigarette lighter– the second time I’ve ever used one. I had to use two hands and hold the candle in my teeth. It was only as I was performing my awkward ballet of fire (naked, in the dark, on a slippery floor), that I decided that back home, this probably wouldn’t be considered a normal evening. (Probably. I mean, I don’t know for sure what you do with your evenings, and I’m in Thailand– we don’t judge.)

You see, I normalize to a place very quickly. Possibly because I moved a lot when I was little, or possibly I just burn through my “I Am In A New Place Oh My Gosh” fuel very quickly. Usually it takes less than 12 hours to adjust to the ethnicity and dress of people around me. Within a day I’m used to the available food. Four days will accustom me to the sound and sight of a language, and two or three days after arriving I’m used to the architecture. I can still be struck by the beauty (or horror) of a sight or experience, but the newness or strangeness of a thing will rarely register.

Basically, everything I was warned about in terms of culture shock has not been an issue.

However, unexpectedly, other things have been very hard to adjust to. I am still not used to being cut off from family and friends because of time zone and lack of internet access, and the draining isolation it brings. I am not used to the language barrier, which has strengthened in each country. Here in Thailand, where I can’t make jokes and I can’t even comment on the weather, the language barrier feels like sensory deprivation. It’s like my eyes are missing, or my tongue has been cut out.

In her first blog entry, Kailyn said that people travel to– in the end– know the place they came from. On side of external geography, this is certainly true. It is very difficult to see your own culture unless you can stand outside it , and travel is very nearly the best way to gain a foothold outside your culture. However, (see, there was a point to this too-long blog post), knowing the place where you stand is also true of your internal geography.

What this trip has taught me about myself is that food is interchangeably delicious, and differing crowds of people are easily adjusted to, but I am at heart a creature of language-based communication, and my relationships are not interchangeable.

Now let’s analyze travel and time.

By | 2012, Asia | No Comments

Before this trip, when I traveled the journey was towards a destination. We were moving–traveling towards a new home–or I was going to a weekend away–an event. Travel was a string of moments leading somewhere.

  • 15 hours staring at a corn field that never seemed to end.
  • The rush through an airport burdened with everything I stuffed into my pockets at the last moment– everything that I of course will not use this weekend, but that I daren’t leave behind.

This type of travel is different. I’m not going to end the journey for another six weeks, and my destination when I get back isn’t home. I’m not racing towards a permanent destination, or (for now) any destination at all. The journey its self is the destination. The journey is the event. I have to tamp down the impulse to look forward, and pause to look at what’s around me.

  • Listening to the growl and cough of a tricycle motor in my ear, smelling metal, oil and dust, seeing greenery and the occasional canny spotted dog by the side of the road.
  • Enjoying the cooler temperatures in the hostel as we wait for lunch, watching smartly uniformed students hurry by the windows, and smelling curry, bananas and rice.

Myself looking out over the straits of Malacca. Photo Credit: John Patchell

However, despite how difficult it has been for me to pause, pausing is only the first step. Pausing still means I have an overriding mission I’m barreling towards, which I condescend to look away from for a moment. Not the mindset I want to be traveling in. Instead, what I should try to do is stop aiming myself towards the future at all. I should enjoy the moments I am in for the moments they are, not compared to the moments I wanted them to be, or as obstacles between the moments I’m going to experience next week. (That’s the ideal, at least.)

  • Sharing a bench on a bus with a classmate as we travel through Manila. The unfamiliar architecture is flat-roofed and hundreds of small signs crowd above and around store windows. We’ve been traveling since 5 am this morning. It’s dark, but still hot and humid out, though the air conditioning on the bus is sucking the water out of the air. We all smell like travel (i.e. not good) and someone on the bus has been burning incense recently. The traffic is a busy snarl of horns and engines swirling past the bus. The bus driver starts a cheerful song, and I hear the whole-hearted laughter of one of my classmates as we recognize the (very dirty) tune.
  • Holding the hands of someone I don’t know as I learn to dance between clacking bamboo poles. It is hot in the gym. I had a stomach ache this morning, but it’s going away in the adrenaline rush of staying on beat. An audience of students is watching me dance, and they start to cheer as I successfully keep my feet from being caught.

Moments that I wouldn’t trade away.