The missus and I headed down for some bouldering in Moe’s Valley this Thanksgiving weekend. The mornings were cold and the middays and afternoons just right, bordering on too warm. For much of the day, the naked sun created a sharp contrast in the scrubby desert landscape that lent itself nicely to black-and-white imagery. Here, a little gallery following Kristin (and our dog Pebble) through a day at the boulders. Did you get out this Thanksgiving weekend?
It was the last day of Petzl RocTrip and all of the participants were re-packing their enormous bags. Mylène, a member of the video crew documenting the trip, grabbed me to help shoot some closing interviews with RocTrippers who had stayed on for the whole 40-day journey, which started in Romania and finished in Turkey. These folks, who hailed from all over the world, had taken to the road for over a month with only a rough outline of a plan. Most of them lacked vehicles and so either hitched rides or rode the RocTrip buses from one country to the next. They camped everywhere they went, rain or shine, on rocky ground or flat, subsisting on minimal supplies and tight budgets. They relied on their own resourcefulness and the kindness of strangers to get by, and, on the whole, trusted in the fates to bring them safely through it all.
As we called these nomadic climbers into our makeshift studio in the back of the Petzl Airstream trailer, I was surprised at the similarity of their answers. “How do you feel now that the trip is over?” asked Mylène. “I feel full,” said one woman. “I’m really satisfied,” said one of the guys. “I feel enriched,” said a third person, “and ready for more.” No one said they were burned out or eager to return home. Several suggested that they would travel on after the trip, seeing new places and meeting new people for as long as they could. Clearly, there was some underlying source that powered these wanderers through the challenges and uncertainty such travel entails…
When I was in college, a buddy and I took a month-long backpacking trip across Western Europe, bouncing from hostel to pension to campsite, exploring great cities like Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Prague. Along the way we met people who made us think outside the insulating bubble that American culture and media had built around us. We threaded old cobblestone streets, gazed at millennia worth of art and architecture. We drank too much and stayed up too late, talking to locals and fellow travelers. Exhausted, we dozed off sitting up in train stations, under the boughs of old trees, and on city benches, lulled by the murmur of languages we didn’t understand. But always we awoke ready for more.
On our trip, my friend and I tapped in to the same energy as the RocTrippers, I think—the energy of people on the move, untethered from the responsibilities of life and the banality of the familiar. If you don’t stay in any place too long, you can, in a way, game the system and experience only the new and the exciting, constantly feel thrill of fresh friendships, uncomplicated by past history, unburdened by obligation. …
But, of course, there’s a catch. Stop in any one place for too long, and the radiant sheen starts to fade. The wonders of the place—seen in three-dimensional hyper-clarity by the starry-eyed traveler—become mere background, just part of the everyday scenery of a more static life. The new people, brimming with new ideas and perspectives, become known quantities. (As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in his essay “Circles”: “Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations.”)
In this light, it made sense that the people we interviewed about RocTrip were ready to keep going, despite the long and tiring miles they’d already logged. To stand still would be to gather moss. To return “home” would be to admit that the adventure was over and accept the staid and pragmatic travails of a more stationary life.
Freedom or stability, short-term excitement or long-term fulfillment, newness or consistency—it seems we’re always being asked to take one at the expense of the other. Often, the flashiness of the itinerant lifestyle is held up as the antidote to our modern malaise, our workaday routine that keeps us moving predictably, as if on rails. I tend to think that the best we can do is to seek a balance between motion and stasis, to move when it’s time to move and also to stay put when it makes sense, letting the contrast of the one enhance and inform the other.
At the same time, I want to believe that we can carry a certain mindset of home with us wherever we go; a certain comfort within ourselves, whatever the circumstances. And on the other hand, wouldn’t it be ideal if we could also bring the traveler’s sense of openness and fresh eyes when getting groceries or walking the dog? What is the perfect balance, after all? I suppose it’s up to each of us to find that point in accordance with our own nature and time in life. What’s been the best balance for you? Are you a constant traveler or a homebody, or some creative combination of the two?
I’m writing to you from Kadir’s Tree House, a funny little tourist resort in Olympos, Turkey. I’m here for Petzl RocTrip, which, by the time you read this, will be over. This was a work trip, mind you, so I didn’t do much climbing, but it was still an experience worth sharing. I’ve heard the value of a picture can be quantified in terms of words, and that, in fact, it takes more than a few words to pay for one picture. Therefore I’ll turn to some pictures to tell you, in a very broad sense, the story of my two-week trip to turkey, which was localized to Olympos and an area called Geyikbayiri.
It’s important to note this post focuses on the places I visited more than the people I met. Indeed, it’s harder to translate the new friendships and the perspective-stretching discussions one has during a truly international event like this one (people from over 60 countries attended RocTrip’s 40-day road trip across Eastern Europe). In my last post, I wrote that climbing was a wonderful vehicle for connecting with people of different backgrounds from yourself. After this trip, I believe that more than ever… but that’s a topic for another day.
I consider myself to be just one among 7 billion human beings. If I were to think of myself as different from others, or as something special, it would create a barrier between us. What makes us the same is that we all want to lead happy lives and gather friends around us. And friendship is based on trust, honesty and openness.
I was at Chicago O’Hare airport, surrounded by thousands of strangers in varying mental states (some relaxed, but most livid, hurried, or harried), when the above quote from the Dalai Lama appeared in my Facebook feed. Suddenly, all of the people around me seemed a little less like strangers and a little more like compatriots in this particular moment in this funny ride called life. His Holiness, or The Big DL, as I sometimes call him, is one of the rare disembodied entities of the social mediasphere whose posts actually make me feel calmer rather than more agitated.
As I waited for my flight to Turkey to board, I looked up towards the ceiling-mounted flat screen television, tuned eternally to 24-hour news coverage. A pair of talking heads sparred on the topic of armed conflict on the border between Turkey and Syria. A sinister new organization called ISIS was storming a Kurdish town called Kobani, perpetrating all manner of horrors, while the U.S. and a few other countries offered a few air strikes as support. Just then, an email warning from the State Department flashed across my phone, warning me about protests, some violent, flaring up across Turkey. The protesters, mostly Kurds, decried Turkey’s lack of support for their brethren on the embattled border.
Again, my faith in humanity started to creak under the strain… Until, that is, I saw another post from The Big DL: “Because of our intelligence we human beings are uniquely capable not only of creating problems, but of doing so on a large scale.” So true, I thought. So perspicacious of him. But he continued: “Therefore, it is important that we use our intelligence in constructive ways. That’s what warm-heartedness and concern for others lead us to do.”
Say what you will about the Dalai Lama, but he does a great job reminding us—patiently and repeatedly—of some very important topics, like our shared humanity, that are so easy to forget when we think only of ourselves. For example, I’d missed my flight to Turkey the day prior and had to wait 24 hours to continue on my journey.
The confusion and inconvenience of it all, when viewed from the narrow and selfish vantage of the individual, is infuriating. “You cost me 200 dollars!” shouted one man at a weary airline agent in a rumpled suit sometime after midnight. There was so much dissatisfaction visible on the faces around me, everyone was laser focused on their own needs: I have a problem! Why did this happen to me? Who will fix my problem? Who will make me happy again? There was little “warm-heartedness and concern for others,” in the air.
For some reason it’s common that we make more problems when we have problems. And because we have such big brains, we make much bigger problems than our fellow creatures on this earth. Remember Ghostbusters 2? Well that river of psychoreactive ectoplasm beneath NYC was a metaphor for what’s in our hearts when we think of ourselves as separate from everyone else, when we think that we’re the only ones with problems and everyone else is to blame. And the supernatural destruction the slime wrought? Nothing more than a stand-in for our own selfish and fearful acts, a manifestation of the poison within.
Since this strange little moment in the airport, I’ve been trying to carry The Big DL’s words in my heart and find the shared humanity in the “other” and the “stranger.” Now in Turkey for Petzl RocTrip, surrounded almost entirely by people from other cultures, I find the shared connection of climbing helps break down that all-too-common barrier so that we can connect and empathize. I’m pretty sure this sort of connection is the seed of a more peaceful and happy world… even if it sometimes seems like a very tiny seed.
My friend Rick told me he planned to get a Sportsmobile, a converted van with features like four-wheel drive, sleeping accommodations for four, a heating system with thermostat, even a water tank complete with outdoor shower attachment. It’s basically a pint-sized RV with serious off-road capabilities. Even used, Sportsmobiles aren’t cheap, but it’s worth it to Rick because that’s the way he spends his free time. For me, a Sportsmobile would be overkill. I love to get out, but my wife and I are more day-trippers, only camping occasionally. We drive a Honda Element, which allows plenty of room for gear and crashpads, and allows us a place to sleep in relative comfort without setting up a tent and inflating our sleeping pads.
The longer I spend in the climbing world, the more roadtripmobile options I see, each suited to a particular need or lifestyle. Popped tops, raised sleeping platforms, tailgate cabana tent attachments, etc. On the modest end of the spectrum, you’ll find people who sleep in pretty much any vehicle. (I spent several seasons crashing in the parking lot of Miguel’s Pizza in my Honda Accord, rear seats folded forward and feet shoved into the trunk.) On the extreme other end lies the 52-foot long all-terrain mobile command truck called the KiraVan, brainchild of Bran Ferren, former R&D head for Disney’s Imageneering Department. Most of us fall in the middle.
To help you find the roadtripmobile that suits your needs, dear reader, I’ve put together this handy decision tree. May it help lead you to the right-sized vehicle of your road-tripping dreams… sort of.
“Those who can be like a puddle become clear when they’re still,”
The first time I panicked while snorkeling was when I hit the water. Immediately, I felt like I might sink. Or if not immediately sink, quickly exhaust my energy, snorf a lungful of sea water, maybe vomit, and then sink.
Just 30 seconds earlier, I was standing at the edge of the catamaran. I turned to one of the guys working the tour.
“So just jump in?” I asked, peering through the smeared and scratched glass of my mask. He smiled big and reached out to tighten my straps.
“Yeah, just hold your mask when you jump so it doesn’t come off.”
I took a deep breath, peered down into the azure sea as it fwapped against the boat hull, and jumped.
Let me say that I am a poor to mediocre swimmer and had never snorkeled before this trip. Right away, I was in distress. Trying to keep my head up in the air while dumping water out of a snorkel felt way too complicated. At first I used one arm to handle the snorkel and straighten my mask, but quickly realized I’d need both hands to get everything in order. To accomplish this, I pedaled my flippered feet madly, exhausting myself. As if to mock me, the small ocean chop kept slapping me in the face.
You’re not going to drown, I assured myself. I stopped futzing with my snorkel and paddled away from the boat. As soon as my thrashing slowed, the ocean floor became visible through the crystalline water. The sand was pale, inviting, and I could make out the indistinct shapes of sea creatures moving below. Excited to see more, I bit down on my snorkel and started to breathe. It felt funny, not surprisingly like pulling air through a tube. I dunked my face into the water and panicked for the second time.
For some reason, it felt much harder to breathe with my face submerged. I sucked desperately on the mouthpiece just as a wave welled up and filled my snorkel with sea water. I gulped a mouthful and narrowly avoided regurgitating my grilled mahi-mahi lunch. OK, man, time for a reset, I thought. I went to my happy place, found my power animal, and reminded myself that I was not the first person to use a snorkel. Several million people, many much older, younger, more out of shape, and/or worse at swimming than I have successfully snorkeled. I just needed to relax.
It’s amazing what not freaking out can do for you. In a very general sense, freaking out is the best way to make all of your fears come a little closer to reality. When rock climbing, freaking out makes you the worst climber you can possibly be. This also holds true for traveling, cooking, trying to pick someone up at a bar, playing badminton, or pretty much anything you can think of. The only good time to freak out is if you’re an actor whose character is freaking out, or if you’re in a freak-out contest, which I’m not sure even exists. When you don’t freak out, you’re much better at having fun and, not coincidentally, you’re more fun to be around…
Or, more poetically, “When we stop struggling, we float,” to quote Mark Nepo. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s a truth to it. Calmer, I found I could stay comfortably on the water’s surface with little effort. I tried looking down again, but since I was no longer hyperventilating, I could breathe.
In my field of view appeared spectacular mounds of pale coral speckled with sea urchins. Some were black and spiny, like balls of lacquered toothpicks. Others had rounded spines like fat pink tongue depressors. A small, dark green sea turtle with a light band around its neck glided by. Big black fish with flowing fins, yellow stripped fish, a long, silvery fish with an eel-like body and pencil-thin nose… A little bit of water flopped into my snorkel, so I puffed it out with a sharp breath, like the guys on the boat suggested. Not only wasn’t the experience scary or hard, it was relaxing, almost meditative.
“Don’t do this,” explained one of the tour leaders before we jumped in, waving his arms and legs in demonstration. “If you’re thrashing around down there, you’re scaring the fish.” So I moved slowly, comfortably buoyant, serene. I dove down into the water-warbled light and gently touched a lipstick urchin. Schools of fish divided unhurriedly at my approach. I was a visitor in their quiet world for a moment and they seemed OK with it. I was OK with it too.
Take the helicopter tour, one friend suggested. You can hire a boat that takes you right up to where the lava meets the sea, someone else offered. But when the guy at the hotel info desk mentioned a walking tour to see the Mauna Loa lava flows in Kalapana, on the Big Island of Hawaii, my wife and I decided immediately and in unison that was the way for us.
We signed up for the tour and drove the Saddle Road to the town of Hilo, on the other side of the island (walking this leg of the journey would have taken days — a little long for this trip). We ascended nearly 7,000 feet on the drive, passing over the southern flank of Mauna Kea, the tallest mountain in the world provided you measure from its base on the sea floor, and through several different climate zones along the way.
In rainy Hilo, we met our tour guide, a young blond girl from Massachusetts who’d just graduated from the University of Hawaii with a degree in volcanology. We were the only two on the tour that day. We followed our guide to the lava viewing area just outside of Volcano National Park, parked our cars, and started to walk.
Walking is by definition a human-scale endeavor, measured in footsteps. “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking,” Nietzsche said, and maybe there’s something to this. I certainly use walking to clear my head when things get too crowded up there. Thomas Jefferson praised walking as a key to good health for the body and the mind. A slow amble puts us down in the landscape, on intimate terms with the real cost of getting from here to there. On foot, we get to experience the fine textures and details of a journey.
We crossed the expansive lava fields, our shoe soles the only barrier between skin and blasted black landscape. We trod on the cracked and crazed mounds of lava rock, wove in an out of big broken domes called tumuli, crunched over the fragile folds of ropy pahoehoe. The trek offered a sense of what the beginning — or maybe the end — of the world might look like.
Our guide stopped and knelt carefully. The ground was mostly silica, and can cut with a touch. She pinched what looked like a fine, straw-colored hair between thumb and forefinger.
“Have you heard of Pele’s hair?” she asked, handing me the fragile strand. “It’s lava that gets spun out by the wind and cooled into a thread… Who knew Pele was a blond?”
Three miles over this terrain and we felt it in our legs and ankles. Each step landed on a different texture or angle. In the distance, a plume of pure white steam rose from the lava entry at the water’s edge. We walked by homes and vehicles that had become embedded in the lava flows. Studded with little bursts of red flower, an ohia tree 10 feet tall stood as a measuring stick to the decades since the lava had passed that spot.
An hour and a half into the hike, we came to the sea cliffs. Here, molten stone broke through a burnt veneer and globbed into the foamy, chaotic surf, generating steam billows that rose up and black sand particles that filtered down.
“There aren’t many places you can see new land being created like this,” our tour guide said with a geologist’s indefatigable reverence.
Nearby, we found a fresh “toe” of lava that had broken through its crusty containment and bulged up and out, folding over onto itself repeatedly, like glowing red layers of hot fudge. It quickly cooled and sealed over, only to break through again. We poked it with long sticks, which burst into flame on contact. Our shoe rubber grew soft.
On the way out, it started raining, offering a welcome coolness. The sun set behind the shoulder of Mauna Loa and we clicked on our headlamps. Certainly, the different perspectives of a boat or a helicopter would have been interesting, more cinematic maybe, but we already observe so much of our world through screens and windows. Better, we thought, to go face to face with the lava fields — slow, with effort, scorched and soaked and awed by the primordial beauty of it all.
Walking is not the fastest way or the easiest way to do just about anything. Humans have invented countless modes of conveyance to spare ourselves from the drudgery of conducting our many chores and journeys on foot. But in this age of acceleration and expediency, walking remains important. It gives us a chance to think or, if walking with another, to discuss, unhurried by the relentless ticking of The Clock.
We returned to our cars in the drizzling darkness, dreading the drudgery of the slow, winding drive back across the island, but happy that we’d chosen to go by foot. Walking is a great reminder that the journey is, at the very least, as important as the destination… If there even is such a thing as a destination, after all.
This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…
At least, that’s how I remember it.
When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing.
Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.
A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”
The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case.
I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.
Dec. 30, 2012 – My wife Kristin tells me how much fun she’s having. We’re out bouldering in the lunar basin of Moe’s Valley in St. George, Utah, and she’s not even climbing — just hanging out and offering moral support, which I think is damned decent of her.
“I like to get away from home … from our day-to-day life,” she explains. “I feel like I can actually see you now, without all the anxiety about work and schedules and things we have to do.”
I feel the same way. We see each other differently out here, surrounded by nothing but dirt and rocks and sky. It reminds me of those early days of our relationship, when there was still so much we didn’t know or assume about each other. We were experiencing “beginner’s mind” — that state of being where everything is new, even if you’ve seen it a million times, as Kristin and I have seen each other.
In one popular Zen story, a teacher pours tea into a student’s cup until it overflows and spills out across the ground. The student jumps back, surprised, and asks the teacher what he’s doing.
“Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations,” the teacher answers. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Travel can help empty one’s cup, as it did in Moe’s Valley for Kristin and me. I also think it’s a grand goal to be always working to empty your cup.
Most folks take the turning of the year as a time to reflect on milestones and accomplishments, to set goals and make resolutions. Indeed, the month of January is named for Janus, an ancient Roman god with two faces, one looking towards the past and the other to the future. Personally, rather than looking behind or ahead, I like to think of the new year’s transition as a great time to start living precisely in the center, in the eternal Now.
The day after our trip to Moe’s Valley, Kristin and I headed to Zion National Park, about 40 miles northeast of St. George. We wanted to hike to Angel’s Landing, even though we’d heard it could be sketchy this time of year. In the visitor’s center, a woman told a group of tourists, “Oh yes, Angel’s Landing: people fall to their deaths on that hike all the time!” Which seemed a little alarmist to me. We decided to go anyway.
The hike was mellower than we had expected, not too steep and well-paved most of the way. Towards the end, we donned Microspikes — little chain-and-spike slip-ons that give your hiking boots great traction on ice and snow. We clambered up some steep sections of snow-frosted stone secured with chain handrails. The going got a little hinky, so Kristin hung back on a flat platform under a dead tree where a California condor the size of a small child hunched silently in the sun. I went ahead a ways to see what the terrain was like.
I headed out across a narrow bridge of stone, maybe two feet across. The ground dropped away hundreds, maybe a thousand, feet on either side. Striated red walls reared up again in the distance, forming towers and walls and arêtes. A meager river meandered through the valley to my left. I felt the wide-open void pulling at me. I let the moment radiate out from me and back into me. My thoughts tumbled into space, melting into air as they fell. My cup was empty.
In his essay “Zen and the Problem of Control,” philosopher Alan Watts writes “When the will is struggling with itself and in conflict with itself it is paralyzed, like a person trying to walk in two different directions at once.” It is tempting to look ahead and back, not just at year’s end, but all the time. We see the world in terms of past and potential actions. We’re constantly writing and rewriting the narrative of who we are and what we might be, all the while judging ourselves against this fictional character. I do it. We all do it.
We can reach specific goals through this process, but we can also lose track of the more important things that underlie those goals. We think, If I can just lose weight, or climb a certain route, or make more money, then I will have succeeded! Those are all fine things, but really what we’re after is to feel more like what Watts describes as a person “all of a piece with himself and with the natural world.” We assume we know the path that will make that happen, but for many reasons — because we’re trying to walk in two directions at once, perhaps — it’s easy to misdirect our energies.
Our resolutions may or may not move us towards a sense of deeper satisfaction, but I’d like to take this symbolic entering of a new year as a reminder, like the ringing of a bell in a Zen ceremony, to start this moment with an empty cup. As for the next moment, I’ll deal with that when I come to it.
“Good Luck,” said the skinny French waiter with bulging eyes and a bad comb over. His accent was thick, so it came out sounding more like “Gewd lock,” but the meaning, and the meaning behind the meaning, was clear. We were screwed.
We’d walked into the uninspiring back alley restaurant in the tourist/climbing town of Fontainebleau, France, with low expectations, but it was late, and as my traveling companions and I had just arrived via plane, train, and automobile from the United States, we were well past picky.
Four of us, there were: my friend Jack, his girlfriend Wendy, and Wendy’s sister, Katy. The girls ordered salads Niçoise, while Jack and I scanned the manly meat section of the menu. I’d studied French for years and was ashamed to admit I had no idea what the hell I was looking at, so I just ordered the agneau, which I knew was lamb. Jack got the bœuf. We sipped cheap Pinot noir and waited for the food to arrive, mute with hunger.
At long last, the server dropped our plates on the table and quickly departed. Before me lay not the glistening, browned rack of lamb of my dreams, but an array of pink, flaccid, strips of raw meat, arranged in a soggy semi-circle around the plate. No garnish or sides. Nothing to trigger my already primed Pavlovian salivation response. Jack’s plate looked much the same.
“So is it, like, tartar?” I asked, hoping someone at the table had seen something like this before. Blank stares from the girls.
“I think so,” Jack said, sounding unsure.
We gazed down, weighing our hunger against the likelihood of food poisoning. Jack ate a bit of his beef first. Then I tasted mine.
“Hmmm… It’s pretty good!” he said, relieved. It was good, or at least good enough. We began to dig in.
I’d eaten about half the plate of uncooked lamb when the waiter returned, carrying a heavy black block. He looked at Jack and me as he set the block down on the table and then proceeded to reach across and tong a strip of my lamb, laying it across the block’s surface. The meat sizzled merrily. It was now clear that the hot stone was meant as a cooking surface, with which we would add flavor to and kill the colonies of food-borne bacteria cavorting on our meat.
“Ahhh!” our table collectively cooed with embarrassed agreement. “Or course! We get it!”
The waiter’s eyes seemed to bug a little farther from his skull as he saw my half-empty plate. “Good luck,” he said, and then turned and walked towards the kitchen, where the busboy and another waiter loitered. They huddled together to exchange bets on the fate of the foreigners who had just consumed the uncooked and heretofore unrefrigerated meat dishes of dubious provenance. Jack and I could only cook and eat our remaining meat strips and then brace for what I assumed would be a night of intestinal pandemonium.
Back at our gîte, I had a hard time falling asleep. I lay in bed, head spinning with hypochondriacal anxiety, monitoring my stomach’s every gurgle like a volcanologist examining the peaks and troughs of a seismograph readout. Eventually, exhaustion overtook me and I sank into a listless slumber.
Sunshine, birdsong, the smell of a coffee and baguette with jam, no wrenching stomach pains — this is what greeted me as I awoke the next morn. I felt fit as a French fiddle and ready to climb on some of the finest sandstone ever formed. The waiter had wished us good luck, and good luck we had. All my worries had been for naught. Looking back, I mark this experience as the beginning of the end of my longstanding food neurosis.
* * *
When asked how many times he’d had food poisoning, writer, chef and host of my all-time favorite food & travel show, No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain answered thusly:
Likewise, I’ve visited rural Mexico and rural China, eating whatever was put in front of me, and managed to escape Montezuma’s Revenge and its equally debilitating Chinese corollary. In my travels, I’ve learned that there’s an important difference between thinking something looks or smell gross, and the likelihood of that food actually causing you harm. This bears out my belief that it’s surprisingly hard to predict when food poisoning will strike. Alongside the expected poultry and ground beef on the CDC salmonella-outbreak list, you’ll find such unusual suspects as mangoes, cantaloupe, pine nuts, alfalfa sprouts and even turtles and hedgehogs (I do not believe the last two were ingested, but you never know…). This year, nearly a dozen people were sickened by, and one has already died from, a listeria-tainted ricotta cheese. Ricotta cheese, for Pete’s sake! You just never know.
And like Bourdain’s camera crew, every time I’ve gotten really sick from food, it’s been at some run-of-the-mill American establishment, the most notable instance being a Wendy’s in Athens, Ohio. My cheeseburger, a tad pink in the middle, tasted fine, but that night I was gripped by the irresistible need to purge my stomach contents. I spent the next six hours shivering and groaning on the floor of a toilet stall, taking turns sitting on and driving the proverbial porcelain bus. So weakened was I by the unforgiving onslaught of beef-bourne bacteria that my friend had to drive me home in my own car. It was years before I could bring myself to eat another Wendy’s burger. Bourdain, who identified the most stomach-churning thing he’d eaten in his travels as “lightly grilled warthog rectum,” avoids American fast food whenever possible. And he never eats chicken nuggets.
All of this is just to say, there’s not much point in worrying. One of the wonders of the climbing lifestyle is the many places it takes us. Foreign lands, forgotten backwaters, wild deserts — the dedicated climber will often find herself in places that she otherwise never would have visited. And in those places, she will have to find food. What is available, what the locals are eating, will not always be familiar or appetizing — heck, it might not even meet the most basic food-safety guidelines — but it is part of the adventure. All the hand wringing in the world won’t sanitize that street taco or that mystery-meat kebab, so either don’t eat it and live with your gustatory boredom and ravenous hunger, or chow down with your friends and relax, knowing the chances are good that you’ll be fine.
Still, I’m going to have to pass on that warthog rectum. Thanks.