I see my brother’s face as the ground grows smaller, he is smiling, propping me up somewhere. As he leaves I look around and see that the ceiling is much too close, I much too high. I open my mouth and my wail fills the room where we all sleep and my mom comes in shouting, she picks me off the bunk bed and my first sight of ground is relieving but so terrifying, it is so far from where I am, such a long drop between my body and its surface. I turn and lay my cheek in the space between her neck and shoulder, where I know it’s safe.
The mango is sticky in my hands, juice dripping over my chin and onto my shirt. I know she’ll scold me later, but it’s too delicious to stop. The bone is my favorite part, and I scrape sweet fruit from the fibrous center, feeling the pieces going in between my teeth. Mango on my skin, in my fingernails, I am melting into it under the hot sun. I’ve won a contest and am to ride atop a jeepney, my dad and uncle are building the seat in front of me. They joke about me rolling off, and I look down at my round belly under the stretched shirt and regret the mango.
Mangos aren’t as good here.
It was raining the day we left, mom and dad left the half-packed boxes and went outside. They came back soaked and laughing and I remember the happy parts in movies, just before a shift in plot.
I look from here and watch the horizon and think of symmetry. I’ve existed on mirror images and am searching for the other side but all I see is my reflection.
Language is funny, the way English felt like marbles in my mouth. Learning to speak and listen is changing the dance patterns of your tongue and jaw, grooving to a new rhythm and hoping your muscle memory will catch on. I was still young and pliable, drifting away, pulled along for the ride. I wonder when and where it was that I stopped looking back at the shrinking sunrise. Maybe if I find the exact coordinates I could return and it will look the same from that angle.
We came here on different ships but we both love mangos in the same way. I hold my mirror up to yours and create an infinity between us. Maybe we can look together.
When I was little, I would plague my grandma with questions about her life before she was my grandma. Within the few years that I had lived on this earth, it seemed impossible to me that she could have lived so many years and still be there in front of me. I was six at the time when my grandma told me about the Japanese invading her village in the provinces. It was 60 years past at the time, 10 times the amount of time I had been alive. Impossible.
It was even more difficult to imagine my grandma as a young girl. Difficult to imagine the wrinkled skin, which she massaged with Oil of Olay every morning, smoothed over into the face of someone’s anak. Difficult even to imagine a little girl with her name. Delia. It seemed fitting only for my grandma, who embroidered red roses and red “D’s” on white pillowcases, who loved to walk to the flea market until the year her legs turned on her, who stayed overnights because my parents worked graveyard shifts, who slept in between my older brother and me on the shared king bed so we wouldn’t kick each other, who scratched my back until I fell asleep, who walked me to school every morning and packed me lunch and knew my friends’ names and packed extra food when I told her some of them had nothing to eat during breaks. I would close my eyes as she told her stories, trying to imagine her at my age, shrunken through backwards time and smoothed out into a little girl.
The little girl was adopted by her uncle and his wife because her biological parents could not afford another daughter. She was brought to a rice farm and raised with her cousins in the green fields of Quezon’s provinces.
“I was like her,” My grandma said, pointing at the screen when we watched Cinderella. The tall, thin blonde girl was crying on the floor in a torn dress. I imagined my grandma riding in a pumpkin carriage and singing to birds in the morning. How could a pumpkin carriage navigate the deep, mulched rice fields of that yesterday so long ago?
When her mother passed away, her father married another woman who was not kind. My grandma’s stepmother didn’t allow her to go to school with her siblings, and I imagined the little girl who was named Delia and had smooth skin staring out the window at the other little girls who were hurrying by with their books and pencils. My grandma said she practiced spelling with bigas: hard, uncooked rice. And I wondered if she sculpted each single grain into lines and curves that formed letters, or if she flattened a pile of bigas into a canvas and dragged her finger across and made trenches into words.
The Japanese came and the little girl who was Delia ran with her parents who were not her real parents and her siblings who were not her real siblings into the trees. She said they dug holes and hid in them while their village and rice fields were raided. I imagined the people in her village digging and building an elaborate civilization underground, vast torchlit caverns with stores of food and water, where they could hide out the war.
On the backs of discarded wrapping paper I drew mazes of tunnels where the little girl who was Delia would run and play, hidden deep underground in the palace of lupa. Perhaps a small chapel for them to sit and pray and wait for the war to pass the islands by. Perhaps it was a kingdom, she Princess Delia. “Hindi ganun,” She told me later. Not like that.
As I grew older and watched videos of that war in the distant past (growing more distant with each passing day) it became harder and harder to imagine what it was like for that little girl who was Delia who would become my lovely wrinkled grandma who smelled of Oil of Olay and Estee Lauder and who has been gone now for more than 10 years. I’m 24 and have 50 years left until I’m the age she was when she died, and it seems impossible to live so many lives in that short amount of time. Only five decades between who I am now and who Delia was when she left me; and I wonder if there will be a child in my place asking me who I was before I appeared in their lives, wrinkled and worn and lovely, and I wonder what I will tell them.
Use mineral or boiled/filtered water for drinking and brushing your teeth. We tried (and admittedly) failed to minimize our plastic bottle use, but were not able get around this because we were mostly on long-haul drives and didn’t have time or space to filter/boil water. I brought my Lifestraw but unfortunately it wasn’t really that efficient for two people or when you’re constantly on the go and just want a swig of water without holding too many items.
When we were staying with my partner’s family, they had a large vessel of boiled water that we poured into travel bottles when leaving for the day. I suggest asking for something similar (vessel and large cooking pot + stove) if you’re staying at an Airbnb or apartment, and bringing a large bottle when you’re out and about for the day.
For my our next trip, I’ll be purchasing Lifestraw bottles for my partner and me so we don’t have to deal with this issue.
Look up pictures of the local people and city culture of where you’re traveling and pack/dress accordingly. It’s no secret that female travelers are encouraged to dress modestly when traveling in India. If you’re going to places like Goa or Mumbai, the local culture tends to be more lax about clothing. But in other states and cities, it’s in the traveler’s best interest to follow local customs when it comes to dressing. I think the best practice would be to look up the place ahead of time so you have a good idea of what people wear there.
We were traveling in Calcutta and Rajasthan, both places in which the local culture tends to be more conservative. It was easy for me to dress modestly because it was literally winter, but if you’re struggling with the heat I recommend wearing light, breathable layers. Bring or buy a thin shawl to drape around your shoulders/cover your chest, and wear either longer skirts or loose-fitting pants.
I know, I know, the female body was not created for the male gaze and in a perfect world we could dress however we want and not give two fucks about what people think. But the fact of the matter is that there are certain customs in place when visiting other cultures, and in my opinion it’s worth making small, temporary adjustments to my behavior and habits in order to have a smooth experience when traveling in another country. Destabilizing the patriarchy is no doubt one of my main goals in life, but I’d rather not have to confront/lecture/fight people while I’m on vacation because they’re staring at my shoulders or chest. That being said, I bought a shit-ton of shawls and needed to wear them anyway.
Pay the few extra dollars for hotels and Airbnbs with good reviews. You want to be able to trust that you’re in a safe place with clean facilities, so think of the extra money you’re paying as a small premium for peace of mind. Most places in India are fairly cheap (if you’re not staying at the Taj) so you won’t have to worry about going broke for safe and clean accomodation. The most expensive hotel we stayed in was Nachana Haveli, owned by Jaisalmer’s royal family, and it was about $100 per night.
This is critical for women traveling alone. There are so many horror stories online about shady hotels and guest rooms, especially with female travelers. I know you are resilient and strong and #notallmen and I’m sure the majority of the people you encounter in India are well-meaning, but I don’t think the $20 you’ll probably save is worth the risk, even it has a small chance of happening.
If you’re on a tight budget, I highly recommend either traveling with friends or meeting other travelers and staying in hostels or apartments with them. I’m in a group on Facebook of female travelers where we post about past and future travels, and it’s a great place to look for hostel/adventure buddies!
Local sweet shop in Calcutta – the mishti doi, rasgullas, and cham chams are a must try!
When it comes to food: err on the side of caution and follow the white people. I know most travel blogs say to go where the locals go, and in most cases this is true. But in places like India, food preparation can make or break your trip. Go to places where you find a mix of locals and tourists. If you want to be extra safe, follow middle-aged tourists or traveling families (and yes, white people). They tend to be where the food is safe while still tasty, because the food preparation generally uses filtered water and will generally have higher standards. This is not to say that small restaurants or street food stands are all unhygienic. I’m sure that the vendors and cooks in these places follow health and sanitation standards, but the fact of the matter is that the local people who eat there have been doing so for a long time and have built immunity to any local bacteria. Their stomachs can handle it.
Okay, okay, you are a wanderlusting travel nomad with an iron stomach and 2 months to kill in India. You want to eat like the locals do and experience everything that India has to offer you, including those enticing chaat stands on the corner of the street.
My biggest piece of advice would be to ease yourself into local cuisine: don’t go to the pani puri stand on your first day and chug the tamarind water. Instead, find places that are highly reviewed on TripAdvisor and Zomato by both locals and tourists, and make sure everything you eat is freshly made and hot.
In the event that Delhi belly does catch you, you can buy Imodium at most pharmacy or chemist shops for dirt cheap (15 rupees/$0.21 per tablet). Make sure you stock up for the rest of your trip, and it doesn’t hurt to get some electrolyte packets too (no Gatorade in India!!)
Personally, I know that I have a strong stomach. I usually love eating street food because it’s a cheap way to experience local cuisine. But India is a lot cheaper than places like Spain and Germany, and you can go to higher-end restaurants that are still affordable and will offer you local flavors and spices without the risk.
One of the best meals we had was at Ambrai Restaurant in Udaipur. It was on the fancier side with fancier prices than the local dhabas, but we sat at a table overlooking the water, ate the best ghatta I’ve ever had in my life, and were able to explore the beautiful haveli to which the restaurant belonged. We paid about $30 for a meal for two, after which we felt stuffed, satisfied, and sleepy (no drugs, just lots of carbs and fat). Was it more than we would have paid elsewhere? Yeah, of course. Would we have gotten quality food in cheaper places? No doubt. Do I regret it? Nope, again we decided not to risk the time it would take to get over upset stomach to save that money. If we were staying longer in each city and had a tighter budget, I might have reconsidered our dining options. But we only had 2-3 days in each place and wanted to make sure that we maximized our time doing activities and exploring.
HAGGLE! If you’re even remotely foreign or out-of-town, vendors will hike up their prices. My general rule is to haggle for 30-50% of what they initially say. If they’re ok with it, cool! If not, we can still settle for about 75% of their original asking price. The best trick is to look up what you want to buy or book beforehand and see what the general pricing should be. And when buying medicine/drinks/toiletries from local shops, make sure to check the printed maximum retail price (MRP) on the back.
These were the usual prices I paid for different things and experiences:
Shawls: 150 rupees for cheap, thinner material. Although these aren’t the best quality they make for cute souvenirs (I may have gone crazy on these.)
Real Kashmiri wool shawls generally go for 2000-5000 rupees, depending on quality and size. You want to be careful with these: there are infinitely many vendors who hawk fake cashmere and will charge you crazy “genuine” prices.
Real kashmiri shawls have a distinct texture with small hairs. They’re generally not as silky or elastic as fake cashmere, but will still be smooth and soft to the touch.
bangle sets: 150-300 rupees/$2-4 for sets of 4, depending on the quality, thickness, intricacy of the design
earrings: 60-150 rupees
Chapals/Sandals: 200 rupees/~$3 when purchased at a street stand. We looked in shops and saw the same style/quality going for 400-500, so either steer clear of these vendors or up your haggling game!
Chai: 50 rupees/$0.70-1 at restaurants and cafes (are usually pre-sweetened, so make sure to ask for separate sugar if you want it on the side)
Hotels: $15-100, depending on the location, amenities, and popularity. Traveling around Rajasthan, we mostly stayed in havelis (small palaces and villas owned by nobility during the Raj) that offered breakfast and had parking for our rental car. Our cheapest hotel was in a town called Bundi, for a whopping $15
Note: We only stayed in Bundi as a rest stop when we drove from Ranthambore to Udaipur, so we were surprised to see that it was a bustling tourist town! Before leaving in the morning we walked up to the Fort and Palace; I recommend staying here for at least a day for a less-crowded but still beautiful fort experience
Entry Tickets for Museums/Palaces/Forts: 50-100/$0.71-1.50 rupees for Indians, anywhere from 200-500 /$3-7rupees for foreigners. I was lucky because my partner has an Indian passport and I look sort of kind of like I’m from the northeastern states, so we were able to book all of our excursions at local entry prices. No tip here, just a matter of circumstance and ~love.
My last tip and something I was profoundly surprised and moved by was that most people are willing to go out of their way to help strangers, so when you need it, ask for help. We had to ask for directions, for help maneuvering our car through narrow, claustrophobic streets, for where to find Imodium (my food tips are from first-hand witness experience, OKAY), and all of the people we encountered gave advice and their helping hand without hesitation. Most of the people we encountered were genuinely helpful and also curious. They made sure we had the right directions but also sometimes asked us where we’re from, where we’re going, and how we liked India so far. I loved this most about the country, that in the midst of so many people and colors and foods and rickshaws and smells and cows and wallahs, I also got glimpses of kindness and hospitality through its chaos.
I read four books this January: two physical books and two ebooks. My initial goal in the beginning of the year, as part of my Shopping Ban, was to read only the books that I already own. But lo and behold, I got a new San Francisco library card and went a bit crazy. Also, I seem to have joined the ebook bandwagon about 10 years late. I think I bug Ratik about 10 times a week exclaiming how amazingly far technology has come because I can highlight, take notes, and look up words from the comfort of my Kindle app. Grandma Dina is finally wrestlin’ those darn compooters.
The genres I read last month were a bit scattered, which I really enjoyed. It kept things interesting and also challenged me to flex my reading muscles because I had to switch how I analyzed and consumed text. I guess it’s like rotating your muscle groups when you work out so you make sure that 1) you’re less likely to get bored and thus more motivated to work out/read and 2) if you only did chest and back and only read melancholic Russian literature, you will end up top-heavy and melancholic.
How Women Rise by Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith
I read this book for work as part of our internal Women’s Network. I volunteered to co-organize a presentation this quarter on how to self-promote your career because I’m obviously hella qualified to do so, and my partner recommended this as one of our topics. Helgesen and Goldsmith are professional coaches who help people identify habits that may keep them from getting where they want to go. How Women Rise is a self-help and empowerment book because it identifies some habits that women specifically tend to hold on to, and gives tips on how to let go or transform these habits in order to advance.
The book is actually targeted to women around middle-management who are trying to move up into executive or upper-management positions, so I found that some of the tips may not apply to people who are starting out in the career. I did, however, find some tips quite helpful for anyone in any part of their career that I will highlight during our presentation:
Claiming your achievements and contributions
Many of us wait to be acknowledged by our peers and bosses about what we’ve accomplished or how we helped the team, but we can’t rely on others to do this. Women especially are taught to be humble and soft-spoken as virtues, and that highlighting our own achievements would be bragging or being arrogant. But in order to ensure that we are being recognized for our hard work and talent, we should be proactive in highlighting what we’ve done and what we do.
This was a hard pill to swallow, because I’ve always been terrified of my friends and acquaintances thinking that I’m taking advantage of them for personal gain. But the fact of the matter is, everyone has skills or relationships or expertise that can be helpful for you, and the reverse is also the same. If you ask someone for help, that’s establishing a two-way relationship where you could return the favor father down the line.
I gave this book 3/5 stars, meaning that I didn’t find it life-changing or profound but I thought it did have really good and helpful tips. It also gave insight into learned behavior that is usually instilled in women and how to navigate away from it. I recommend this for anyone who feels stuck in the middle of a corporate job and wants to re-examine and evolve their habits and behaviors in order to move forward. Perhaps the protagonist in my next book could have used something like this…
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevksy
[Avengers and I guess Crime and Punishment spoilers for those of you who have heretofore lived under a rock and JUST NOW decided to join society]
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading this. It was heavy at times because hello it’s about a murder, but I found that it read like a psychological thriller and at times couldn’t put it down because I was so enthralled in the building anxiety and drama. The story follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a young and impoverished law student who turns to murder as a means of escaping his state in life. He kills and robs an old pawnbroker–as well as her sister, accidentally– and then spends the next few hundred pages being paranoid and anxious of being caught and dealing with his conscience (characterized by the overtly pious women in his life.) The plot takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia during the summer, where the stifling heat add to Rasky’s stifled conscience and growing claustrophobia and paranoia.
I gave this 3.75/5 stars because I really enjoyed the story and really diving into old Rasky’s mind. He has an interesting ideology in that men of great intelligence and original ideas are above the law, and that murder in the name of social progress is justified. This reminded me of my old friend Thanos from the Marvel Universe, who eliminated half of society for the good of the world. Whether these men (and they’re always men…) are right in their philosophies is another topic for another day, but I found a great difference in the two characters.
Where as Thanos does have an original and progressive idea (addressing overpopulation and the damage its done on natural resources), Rasky doesn’t seem to have a clue. I read that Dostoevksy wrote this character as a caricature or criticism of utilitarianism, the idea that actions are justified if they’re for the overall betterment of society, and nihilism, the rejection of religious and moral principles because life in a practical sense is meaningless. Rasky definitely had nihilistic views in his disregard for human life, but I found it hard to believe his act of murder was utilitarian. Before the events of the novel, Rasky had published an essay in which he presented his ‘utilitarian’ ideas that some men, like Napoleon, cannot be judged by the law on the same level as other men of lesser importance and intelligence. I’m not going to debate whether utilitarianism is a morally or intellectually sound philosophy, but I found it hard to believe that Rasky had any sort of progressive ideas or plans. Sure, he talked about the good he was going to do once he had the money to finish law school and be a part of society. He talked about how some men are justified their actions because of their original ideas, but he never really had any original ideas except to murder (and then to justify it).
Rasky talked the talk, but did not walk the walk.
Another issue I had with the story was its depiction of women. This was not at all surprising, but I’m going to hold authors of the past just as accountable as I do modern and contemporary authors when writing about women. Rasky’s mother, his sister Dounia, and love interest Sonia were interesting characters on their own, but they were pretty flat and really only existed to move the plot and his character development along. On the other hand, we have characters like Ramuhizin and Porfiry who are dynamic and have ideas and motivations of their own. Why do they get to be so much more interesting, Fyodor?
Despite these issues, I’m glad I read this because it really made me think and chew over Rasky’s character and the different topics and ideologies that are brought up. If the main character were Thanos instead, and we had female characters like Gamora or Captain Marvel then this might have been a 5 star read.
There There by Tommy Orange
This book was everywhere last year and I regret not having read it until now. In short, it wrecked me.
The story is told through different perspectives, following the lives of Native Americans from Oakland, California as they navigate through turmoils and challenges of identity, addiction, abuse, gentrification, and overall disillusionment. Their paths converge as they all attend the Big Oakland Powwow, where chaos and trouble ensue.
I gave this book 4/5 because I was absolutely captured and moved by the characters’ stories and voices. They felt so real, in their struggles and flaws and relationships. For the characters who were dealing with addiction and identity, Orange had a way of depicting their wounds and struggles in a way that felt so visceral to the reader. The characters had real, believable flaws and they dealt (or didn’t deal) with them in real, believable ways.
Orange also talked about being a Native American in a way that is so important for us to read in a postcolonial (is it really though?) world, especially in a country that was built upon the institutionalized genocide of their people and culture. Mainstream media often portrays Native American culture as something of prehistoric or ancient times, rarely ever acknowledging that there are Native communities living and breathing and evolving.
One of the characters, Calvin, says that he “feels bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. I just feel like I’m from Oakland.” This is during an interview held by another character, Dene, who is holding open-ended interviews for Natives to tell their stories without prompting the subjects with questions or suggestions, so that “content directs vision.” This is what it felt like Orange was doing with his characters, letting their stories come to life without being tied to a specific theme. I think often when we see Native Americans in literature or movies, there’s usually a central theme that directs and ties down their stories. Either that, or they don’t even have stories to begin with and are limited to caricatures of their people and culture. The characters in There There don’t abide to a certain expectation of who they should be; instead they force the reader to see their stories and lives in all of their flaws, prayers, triumphs, and failures.
I was also incredibly impressed by the author’s grasp of language and pacing. As the characters’ paths draw into the Big Oakland Powwow, the chapters become shorter and more focused on action. It felt like watching a movie and seeing the characters from a bird’s eye view as they drew to the converging of their stories. Orange grew up in the Bay Area so he definitely had an advantage, but his use of Bay Area diction was so genuine that it felt like I was talking to people from my high school. They felt so familiar that I genuinely miss them now that the story is done.
Educated by Tara Westover
Westover’s memoir follows her journey from living in isolation on her survivalist family’s farm in the mountains of Idaho to going to college and eventually graduating with a PhD from Cambridge and acknowledging the trauma and hurt that had been inflicted on her during her adolescence.
I rated this 3.5/5 stars; I would have rated it higher if not for some choices in editing that I thought could have been improved. That being said, I was absolutely mesmerized and inspired by Westover’s story and storytelling. What moved me the most was how honest and forgiving she is, while still unyielding about her writing and her voice. As she began to confront her family and the abuse and neglect inflicted upon her, they gaslighted her for succumbing to the devil and living in sin and telling lies. Westover was explicit in relaying her memories but was also transparent in giving disclaimers that they were disputed within her family. This reinforced her integrity as a memoirist and daughter/sister (even despite being excommunicated by most of her family) because she could have easily given her side. Instead, she acknowledged the voice of others that had hurt her.
Her honestly and compassion shines also in her relationship with Mormonism, which she studied as part of her dissertation. She found a balance between the blind, zealous faith of her childhood and disregarding the writings and beliefs as irrational and wrong; instead she examined the religion and ideologies as major contributions to history. As a writer and as someone who grew up in an extremely religious family, this was important for me to read because it gave an example of making peace with the past and acknowledging beliefs respectfully while still staying firm in what I believe and don’t believe.
I really enjoyed the books I read last month and will continue varying the genres I’m reading. My reading this goal is to read 40 books, and to explore new genres and writers (with the help of the library because SHOPPING BAN!)
Have you read any of the books above and if so, what are your thoughts?
What are you currently reading? Do you have any reading goals this year?
It’s already midway through January and I’ve barely started thinking about my resolutions! What diets, challenges, detoxes, or goals will I do?? I only have 353 days left this year!
Over the past few days I’ve thought over in a panic what kind of goals I want to set for myself this year. There’s the usual lot that has rolled over from the last: be more active, lose some extra weight, maintain healthy relationships, spend less time on social media, blah blah blah.
The new year is a time where everyone is itching for diets and detoxes, to rid their bodies of sugar, toxins, and simple carbs. But in the past few years, my Youtube and blog-creeping has come up on a new type of detox: the Shopping Ban (or No Buy).
A typical Shopping Ban as I’ve seen it is a restriction on buying anything but the essentials for a determined amount of time: usually 6 months or a year. The fun and interesting part of this exercise is determining what really is “essential” for us. There are the no-brainers:
But I’ve seen a lot of Shopping Ban-dits (does this name work?) define other forms of essentials that require spending cash money. After all, we are not robots who can live and thrive off of carrots, tampons, and 15-min cardio sessions at Planet Fitness. As Cinzia from The Personal Philosophy Project states, a Shopping Ban or No-Buy year is not about punishing ourselves for the past years of spending. Nor is it a challenge to prove that becoming a hermit and rejecting all forms of modern socialization is the best way to live.
For me, a year-long Shopping Ban is a challenge for me to truly understand what I need to feel human and to feel myself.
I have come a long way from the crazed shopping addict I was in high school and early college. When I was around 16-18, I felt a need to define myself through material objects. I thought that my clothes and possessions needed to not only reflect, but project, who I was on the inside.
My room needed to be filled with tons and tons of books and statues of owls, otherwise how else could I reinforce to myself that I was a quirky bibliophile?
My wardrobe needed to overflow with grandpa sweaters and kimonos and pashminas, otherwise how else could people see that I love vintage and am artsy and creative?
I became much more frugal in my 20s and gave up shopping as a hobby, which I think was an effective way to stop the constant need to acquire more and more things. At the present, I don’t really buy things on impulse and I spend time reflecting and researching big purchases.
Then why the Shopping Ban? I’ve already come so far in confronting my shopping addiction, so why put myself through this challenge?
Although I’ve become better and more conscious about impulsively buying new clothes and decor, I still find myself itching to acquire things to reflect and reinforce the person I am and want to be. I still feel the need to define myself more through material objects and appearance than action and thoughts, which in my opinion is ineffective if not counterproductive.
Here’s an embarrassing but probably common example:
I own tons of books, and many of them are unread. I love reading and want to finish all the books in my library, but the rate of my buying books is grossly larger than my rate of reading them. Of course, this is normal, but does that make it okay? Last year I must have bought more than 30 books, but I only read 22!
I justified this habit because most of the books I bought were second-hand, from library sales, independent bookshops, and thrift stores. I didn’t spend as much money as I would have in Barnes &Noble, and I was supporting good causes with my dollar vote, but I still feel guilty for it. Why?
Because when I was making these purchases, I wasn’t thinking about the present. I wasn’t thinking about the dozens of books I already have that are still unread.
Instead, I was acting on this fear that I would run out of things to read, or that I would never have access to these certain books ever again.
Realizing this FOMO of material objects has helped me acknowledge one of the reasons why I buy things. I buy hoards of books because I’m afraid that I’ll want to read them one day but I won’t be able to find them. I buy souvenirs during trips because I’m afraid I won’t otherwise be able to capture the experience and emotions of a certain place if I don’t buy something to remind me.
I’m launching a Shopping Ban this year to confront this FOMO, this fear that my life and experiences are meaningless without the material totems I have assigned them to. I’m also doing this challenge to address my long, complicated relationship with having and spending money, which I will discuss on a later post.
For now, here are my personalized rules for my Shopping Ban in 2020:
Things I’m Allowed to Buy:
Substantial Food – groceries
I’m challenging myself to prepare most of my meals at home
Only allowing myself (1) takeout lunch and (1) takeout dinner every week
Toiletries – bath products and skincare that are already part of my routine (NO buying new products unless I have run out)
Experiences – events, travels, concerts, etc. that I’m interested in
Things I’m Not Allowed to Buy:
Social Snacks- this is food/drinks that I feel the need to buy in order to be with friends (going out for coffee/drinks/lunch)
During my Shopping Ban, I’m no longer going out to cafes or coffee shops just to socialize
Exception is beer tasting (I like beer)
Clothes – no brainer. I have enough!
Makeup – Don’t wear it much, but I have enough for when I do want to jazz up my face
BOOKS – probably the hardest category
My challenge is to only read the books I already own
For books that I don’t own and am dying to read, I’ll make use of my library and the Libby app to borrow them
Home decor – any seasonal decorations or otherwise practically useless tchotchkes
So there are my rules for 2020!
I’ll be checking in on my progress/thoughts/failures/ruminations throughout this year, but reach out in the comments if you have any specific questions for me to address.
Are you doing any special challenges or detoxes this year? What are your goals for 2020?
I was inspired/#triggered to write this from this article that addresses toxic behaviors in Filipino culture. In it, Abby Pasion revisits her childhood as a young Filipino American and discusses the all-too-familiar family gathering with the infinite trays of food, ear-shattering karaoke, and unwarranted comments about bodies, accomplishments, etc.
Pasion talks about the pain that accompanied the eating and the laughter during these parties, as they were often places of “judgement, drama, and toxic social behaviors like child bragging and comparing, body-shaming, gossip, and even subtle public ridicule.”
As someone who grew up as the fat kid, this really hit home. It brought back memories of making my plate, finding a place to sit to enjoy my food, then being bombarded with comments about my weight. “Oh my god, look at how much you’re eating, why don’t you just drink water!” “O, you better run on the treadmill tonight, ha?” “Your face is so pretty, anak. Why don’t you go on diet? Sayang naman, eh?” And while I know these came from a place of love, I have to admit that they hurt and enraged me.
I think the most painful part of it all was that I didn’t allow myself to cry or show that I was hurt. Because I deserved and needed these comments, right? I was fat and it was unhealthy, so why would I be upset about the truth? I learned early on that the best way to react was to either not react at all, or to retaliate with a joke. One of the things that came from being a fat kid was the need for a sense of humor and fast wit. I could never speak back to my elders and tell them they were wrong for saying these things, but I could grow a thick skin and deflect. Laughter is the best medicine, but it became my vice and addiction when I used it as a means of numbing the emotions that I should have been processing and expressing.
When I was about 9-years-old, there was an instance where a family member learned how much I weighed. Being embarrassed, I asked them not to tell anyone. This was something personal to me and something I knew was wrong and ugly about myself. So when the person told all our friends and family about it the next Sunday at church, it felt like someone had stripped me naked and left me standing in front of an audience while they laughed at all my rolls and imperfections. I was devastated, but I couldn’t show it. Because if there’s anything worse than standing naked in front of a laughing audience, it’s crying while standing naked in front of a laughing audience.
It took a long time and a lot of reflection for me to get over my fear of treadmills and diets and health discussions, because in the back of my mind I always equated them with being publicly humiliated and ridiculed. I regret to say that it wasn’t until I had a boyfriend who loved me for all of me that I started to become truly okay with my body and understand that self-love went beyond posting selfies and face masks, rather it also encompassed taking care of my emotional and physical health.
With the recent birth of my nephew came the new generation in my family, and I find myself stressing about what kind of aunt and role model I want to be for him. While I do want to uphold Filipino traditions and culture, I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that family is a social hierarchy with children on the bottom. I want him to not fear social gatherings like I did as a kid, and I want him to be comfortable enough to speak up if I do or say anything wrong.
My brothers and I have discussed this and a big word we throw around is “ego.” While I do think that may be a part of the problem, I think the issue goes deeper than personal ego or self-esteem. Being an elder in a culture that values cohesive extended family structures means having taken the brunt of the hierarchy as a kid and young adult. My parents’ generation in my family are wonderful people and have raised my generation to be successful, so a part of their grasp to the hierarchy and archaic traditions could be that it worked for them, so why not us?
What I appreciate about Pasion’s article is that she doesn’t simply blame the older generation, making sure to point out that “it is easy to label the elders as the villains of this story. Taking a moment to challenge that and to look at the larger picture of toxic Filipino culture, there’s really an intergenerational conversation that needs to take place.” I was angry for a long time at my parents and aunts and uncles without analyzing where their behavior came from and what it probably was like for them when they were my age. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more clear to me that the hurtful comments and the toxic behavior were reiterations of what they must have experienced as children. I believe now more than ever that these expressions of “tough love” are not only rooted in good intentions, but that they also provide a window into truly understanding why and how this became part of our culture. And understanding that and starting conversations to fix it is the first step.
I must admit that although I know this first step, it’s still difficult as hell to approach the wheel, let alone try to break it. Confrontation has always been terrifying for me, even more so with the people I love and respect. But isn’t that a part of growing up? Understanding that although some things have been in place for a long time, they aren’t necessarily always right?
An emerging conversation amongst Filipinos is the topic of mental health. Pasion refers to a 2015 study finding that while “Filipino Americans have some of the highest rates of depression among Asian Americans, Filipino Americans also seek mental health treatment at some of the lowest rates.” During a family conversation about depression and anxiety, a family member expressed confusion at the apparent rise of mental health issues in my generation. “We never had depression,” they exclaimed, “but we had less money and things than you guys do. Why would you feel depressed?” A big consensus was that our generation does not pray enough (another issue for another day), but one of the glaring reasons as to why our generation seems to be more depressed and anxious is that we and the society we live in are more open about it. My grandma and grandpa were very loving parents and grandparents, but I’m sure if anyone had come to them and told them they were having panic attacks, they would have pointed them to the nearest Santo Nino and Mary statue with a rosary in hand.
So who can blame my parents and aunts and uncles for not completely understanding mental health issues and how to help?
Throughout high school, I suffered from frequent panic attacks. With how comfortable my life was and how many resources I had at my disposal, I didn’t understand why I had them and felt frustrated at myself for being weak and sensitive. It wasn’t until I started seeing a counselor during my freshman year of college that I started to work through why I was having these feelings and what I could do to address and fix them (it wasn’t prayer).
One of the most difficult conversations I had with my counselor was about the root of my anxieties, where she focused on my relationship with my family. I was defensive at first, because I didn’t want to victimize myself and in turn make them villains. But through long discussions and a lot of work she helped me understand that it wasn’t that simple, and that I needed to learn how to maintain these vital relationships while also distancing myself from toxic and unwanted behavior. The solution we came up with was moving out from my parents’ house while remaining relatively nearby, because until then I was either living under their roof or studying abroad on another continent. She pointed out that my relationship with my parents had only ever seen 2 extremities, which could have been the reason why I didn’t have the tools to confront my feelings about it. I either felt suffocated by them, or was too far away to process them.
So here I am: 23-years-old living about an hour away, a daughter, sister, cousin, and auntie. I can happily say that over the years I’ve worked on my response to my anxieties (whether about my family or work or a sudden change of plans that I wasn’t ready for), and I’ve definitely progressed in how I process and express myself. My family has had its ups and downs but I see my siblings and cousins being more outspoken about their beliefs and the beginnings of what look like open conversations with the older generation. It’s hard work and I don’t see it becoming any easier any time soon, but I have hope that love (and tigas ng ulo) will help us follow through.
Disclaimer: This post is based completely on my personal experience with Filipino Roman Catholicism. Individual belief is just that: up to the individual, and I do not claim to have any authority of judgment over what you believe in.
My earliest memory of questioning God was at around 5-years-old, when my grandma told me to behave because Papa Jesus was always watching. I took this as a threat and was thenceforth terrified of the Jesuses that seemed to multiply in our house. An emaciated Jesus weeping as he bore his cross, a calm Jesus standing before a golden halo with his hands stretched out in a welcoming embrace, and the Santo Niño, the baby Jesus. At every corner he was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. And why was he always blonde and blue-eyed?
I remember waking up in a cold sweat one night, dreaming that the Santo Niño had come to life and was walking towards me, saying “I’m always watching” as it bore its teeth and reached its claws toward me, ready to punish me for my sins. When I told my grandma about this she was livid, telling me that I was watching too many movies and that I could never think about Jesus in such a way, that it was a sin in itself to be scared of Jesus and what he would do about my sins. I don’t doubt that I probably had watched Child’s Play one too many times, but I wondered at that moment what I was doing to deserve this close surveillance. Why was Jesus always watching me? Didn’t he have more important things to do?
I grew up going to church every Sunday at 7 pm, and even some Wednesdays and Fridays. I took evening classes where we read the Bible and colored in pictures of the benevolent Jesus, often sitting on a rock in the middle of a pastoral scene, with children and sheep surrounding him. My mom, dad, and three older brothers sang in the church choir with my uncles and aunts. They still sing, every Sunday at 7 pm. When she was alive and able to, my grandma sat in the front pews and prayed diligently. Besides church, we prayed the Rosary at home, gathering together in the living room-turned-altar with dozens of statues of saints. My grandma would sit on the couch and have her eyes closed for most of the prayer. Her Hail Mary’s were always calm but firm, and sometimes she would rock back and forth to the syllables of prayer. I remember wanting so bad to feel what she felt, a presence of grace and knowing and assurance of what she was doing and who she was.
My grandma died in 2008 when I was in 7th grade. For a year after her death, we gathered and prayed the Rosary and a litany, imploring Jesus and all the saints in Heaven to welcome her into the radiant gates. Selfishly, I also prayed because I wanted to reach the state of grace my grandma seemed to be in when she prayed, moving back and forth as she communicated with God and Mary. And it always seemed like they communicated back to her. For me, it felt like I was whispering into a void. I mimicked my grandma’s Hail Mary’s and sounded out every syllable, every consonant, as if to push my voice further into the void in search of something there. And with every conclusion of our nightly rosary, I was left feeling empty, nothing coming back to communicate with me. I was terrified of this void and the unknown because it meant that all of my prayers, all of my tears and wishes were going into empty space. What was there, if not God?
I prayed harder than I ever had before, because the silence on the other side was terrifying. Why weren’t the Heavenly Hosts responding? My one-sided prayer made me feel so alone and scared, and it was at this point in my life where I truly began to feel what this emptiness meant. I was terrified that I was questioning God’s existence, because surely this meant I was going to Hell.
This was also the same time that Proposition 8 had passed in California, overturning the right of same-sex couples to marry. My church, the people whom I loved so dearly and who I knew loved me back, talked about the institution of marriage and how it was the Catholic’s duty to protect it from abomination. As someone who was coming to terms with her bisexuality, I wondered what that meant about me as a member of the Church. Was I still welcome? Or only the acceptable part of me? People of the Church assured that their position against same-sex marriage meant nothing about the individuals, that they still welcomed queer people. But it just didn’t make sense to me how you could claim to welcome and accept someone while denying and dismissing their love. I know now that not all Catholics shared this belief, but it was the authoritative teachings against LGBTQ people that began to affirm my suspicion that I didn’t quite belong.
Growing up, my family and the church were woven together. We were well known in the congregation as a strong family of faith. I didn’t want my lack of belief to smudge that reputation, so I’ve kept it hidden. I went to church with my family every Sunday up until the year I moved out. Even up until now, I’ve either avoided the subject of religion altogether or simply nodded my head and lied about it. Yes, I was going to church. Yes, I took communion. Yes, yes, yes.
But now as I’m getting older and coming to my own in this world, I have to question if what I’m doing is right. I’ve been lying to my family because I don’t want to cause them distress over my faith and humanity. With faith such an important aspect of being Filipino and being part of my family, will my personal beliefs become a barrier between me and my loved ones? I chose to keep up the image of a somewhat decent Catholic, because I believed it was a part of my duty as a Filipino daughter. I wanted to avoid the conflict that would come with being atheist, but in doing so I’ve created my own problems because I feel like I have to constantly edit and hide myself to appease my family.
One of the things I was most worried about when I started questioning my religion was the idea of good versus bad. Whenever I misbehaved or did something out of selfishness, my grandma would tell me, “Don’t do that or Papa Jesus will be mad at you.” So for the first years of my life, my compass of morality was based on what I thought Jesus would approve of or what was taught in the Bible. You know the basics, love thy neighbor, obey thy mother and father, don’t covet thy neighbor’s wife or donkey…
But I realized growing up that the things that I can do things that are “good” or “righteous” simply because they are good and righteous, not because it says so in the Bible. What is the Bible, anyway? It’s a compilation of stories and teachings written by ordinary people, which was then picked over and edited by men of authority, men who were building communities and empires and needed literature that justified and supported their cause. Who knows what else was written in the name of Christianity and left out because it didn’t serve that editor’s needs? But why does that have to stop us from being good people? It’s an evolutionary trait to want your species to survive and reproduce, so can’t being kind to others also be an inherent function of being a social animal?
And as for that void that I found when I was 12, it’s still there. The universe is constantly expanding, which means the void is just growing bigger and I’m getting smaller in comparison. The empty space between infinity and me is infinity itself, a vast space of unknowns and emptiness. Of course, I’m still terrified of the unknown, but I’m also comforted by it.
I don’t believe that I’ll meet my deceased loved ones in an afterlife, and while this makes me extremely sad because I miss them, it also helps me cherish the moments that I did have with them. When my grandpa died last year, I was heartbroken at the thought of never seeing him again. I even prayed to the universe and whatever is out there to make sure that it knew I loved my grandpa. But in doing so, I realized the only entities to which my love mattered was my grandpa and myself. I realized how lucky I was to have shared this time with my grandpa, in the infinite vastness of time and space I had the chance of knowing such an amazing person. That inspired me to rethink my current relationships with other people, and how the universe has miraculously chanced the intersection of the strings of our lifetimes. Not believing in the afterlife as rekindled my belief in this life, and loving as hard as I can while I still have the people I love and who love me.
This is a long, convoluted whatever it is, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to say for more than 10 years. I don’t believe in God or Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have no beliefs. I believe in being kind and fair for the sake of being kind and fair. I believe that we are here for a transient amount of time and that we can never be sure of what will come afterward. Our lives are minuscule and insignificant in the face of such a vast, infinite universe, but that just means we have to squeeze all the love and happiness and fullness we can out of the short time we have with one another. For me, that’s enough.
Every year during the month of November, a bunch of crazy people around the world take on the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That averages to about 1,667 words per day.
On my best writing days, this was a breeze. Some days I wrote more than 3,000 words and felt like I could take over the world. But on my very worst days, the 1,667 seemed like an endless trek up Mount Everest and I had no shoes on and my backpack was getting heavier and heavier with each step and my map had fallen into a perilous, snowy abyss.
I ended November at approximately 45,000 words. It’s disappointing because I did fail to meet the standard goal, and I know that if I had just pushed on 2 days or even 1 , I could have made up those last 5,000 words. But on the other hand, I have 45,000 more words than I did at the beginning of November. I’ve written the majority of my story and have overcome that crippling fear of writing badly, the fear of writing a shit story and discovering that I am in fact a mediocre writer and that I will never amount to anything and that my hopes and dreams should just be picked up along with the rest of my trash on Thursdays.
But NaNoWriMo is not about perfect writing. It’s not even about good writing. It’s about getting your story going and those damn words written, which I did!
I’ve always been that person who waited until the very very last minute to write essays. Like I’m talking due date procrastination, calculating how many words I can write per minute and boosting to 40 WPM so that I could bust out 1,500 word papers in 1 hour kind of procrastination. And it was never because I didn’t know the material, or that I didn’t know what to write. It’s because I had this anxiety that once I started filling that blank page, the words I saw would be the words everyone else would read. 16 or so years of this made me terrified of the blank page, terrified of writing even though it’s my favorite thing to do.
This November, I was able to accept that my first draft is for me. I’ve read somewhere that the process of writing drafts is like creating a sculpture. You can’t start chipping away at a rectangular prism of marble and expect it to instantly transform into a beautiful sculpture with luscious curls, a Roman nose, and a tiny penis!
You have to excavate through the medium to find the general shape of your art, and then chip away at the definition and contours of his abs and tiny penis. In writing a story, your first draft is the blob of marble that kind of looks like a person, kind of looks like the Pokemon Muk.
This is the shape of your story, where you can explore the rise and fall of your plot, meet your characters and sketch out their arcs, discover the general tone and pitch of your voice. And it’s gonna look like shit. The second, third, fourth, fifth, and so-on drafts are for defining and perfecting the shapes you first discovered. This is where you delete the stupid dialogue you wrote that sounded funny but actually means nothing for the plot, or the weird 2-page explanation of a character’s sleeping patterns that has nothing to do with their development.
For now, I’m allowing myself to have fun with my story. I am the artist with the rectangular prism of marble, a kindergartner who’s been given a can of paint and a blank canvas. And I’m not afraid to get messy or to see a pile of shit after this, because I know and trust that future Dina can edit and refine my gibberish into prose. After all, editing a shitty draft is always easier than editing a blank page.
If you’ve always wanted to do something but are scared of being bad at it, just do it and comfort yourself with the fact that yes, it is going to be bad. But the more you do the thing, the more material you will have to work with and the more skills and experience you will have to polish your work and make it pretty. From Muk to David, folks.
I’m taking a break from my novel to explore some other ideas I had last month, but I’ve extended my goal to completing my first draft before the end of next February. I’m not sure if burnout is the psychological effect of completing a goal, but one of the good things about failing this NaNoWriMo is that I’m not at all sick of my story (yet). On the contrary, I’m having a lot of fun with the plot and playing around with my characters. It’s like playing D&D, but I’m by myself with no dice or friends. Writing is so fun!
I just finished watching Tiffany Ferguson’s video “I’m Not Like Other Girls” and it brought such strong feelings that I have to interrupt my highly prolific Alaska series that I’m definitely still working on and write about my experiences with individualism and internalized misogyny.
We have all seen posts like this scattered across Facebook, Twitter, and if you’re extra not like other girls, good old Tumblr. The nerdy, quirky girl who doesn’t wear makeup or care about fashion but is still somehow flawless and beautiful without much effort. She drinks beer and jokes around with the guys and doesn’t really fit in with Sorority Sarah because other girls are so vapid and dramatic! She doesn’t need flowers or chocolate, just buy her pizza and touch her butt.
I was guilty of being not like other girls. I read books and carried them around in the crook of my arm so my middle school peers could see that I didn’t care about Forever 21 (not just because I didn’t fit their clothes), I wore my brothers’ band t-shirts and played video games. My interests and hobbies during my early teenage years bordered between genuine interest and a feeling that I had to enjoy things apart from what typical girls enjoyed. Because to take part in those rituals of makeup and shopping and accessories would bring the risk of subjecting myself to the typical ideas of femininity and womanhood. And who would want that? Nay, I was a quirky snowflake who rejected girly things because girly meant not what men like. And to not be what men like is bad.
Looking back now at my thoughts and feelings as a tomboyish teenager, I wonder if my snowflake syndrome was the direct result of internalized misogyny or of a fear that trying to be attractive and pretty would simply highlight the fact that I was not either of those things. It was probably both. If you read my earlier post on my relationship with my appearance and makeup, you’ll know that I spent a good third of my teenage years looking like an actual boy. I guess I took the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ thing too far and teetered off the edge of looking like a girl at all.
In case you haven’t read the post and don’t care to, this is what I looked like:
And if you had read my post and are sick of seeing this picture, too bad. It is here to haunt you forever just as it haunts me.
Whether my snowflake syndrome stemmed from either hatred or fear of my fellow women, it does boil down to the fact that it was influenced by a system we all know and love to mention in our feminist slam poetry:
The oldest and most generic definition of the word is:
a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line.
What does this have to do with my life in 2019 and why do these dang feminists always want to smash it, you say? Well, the idea of male lineage has constructed a social dynamic in which men and the typical traits that we ascribe to men are the default. Men are typically strong, aggressive, stoic, bearded and burly and eat flapjacks aside their trusty blue ox, Babe.
Wait, no, that’s Paul Bunyan.
Because of these internalized prejudices that we have towards typically masculine behaviors like stoicism, pragmatism, and wearing flannel shirts, we almost automatically denounce the attributes that are typically feminine. Putting effort into looking pretty means that you are frivolous and don’t care about the real issues at hand, like how to out-argue someone in a debate or how to chop down trees. Wearing false eyelashes and curling your hair means you hate democracy and don’t care about the Amazon burning to the ground.
And god forbid you like to take selfies. How can someone be so vapid and self-centered that they fill precious phone space with pictures of their own faces??!
It seems as though as soon as a personality trait or hobby or interest is connected to the female population, it is deemed stupid or unnecessary. Teenage girls get the worst of it. From the dawn of man it seems that anything that young girls or women take interest in is considered foolish. Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House was constantly ridiculed and belittled by her husband because of her spending habits and because she liked eating sweets. The entire conflict is based on her husband’s inability to fathom that his little songbird was capable of getting the family out of financial ruin. Because isn’t it automatically the devil’s work if a woman does anything worthwhile?
Young girls are constantly ridiculed and chastised for everything they do. From pumpkin spice lattes to pop music to makeup to genuine nihilistic dread about the fact that life is a meaningless void, whatever girls come up with is just stupid.
Now we have the VSCO girl. I get it, making fun of trends is funny and not at all a cheap joke. But if reusable water bottles and comfy clothes are becoming trendy then I’m all here for it.
VSCO girls are a new internet phenomenon that I’m particularly interested in because it entails an intriguingly meta self-study of teenage girls reacting and dissecting their own trends. It seems like a self-parody of the ~i’M nOt LiKe OtHeR gIrLs~ trope and a possible light at the end of the tunnel that is internalized misogynistic hate we’ve instilled into our societies.
I’m not going to tell you to stop saying it, because you should have stopped after graduating middle school, if you did say it at all. But I will tell you, because it is still an annoying trope that persists when people want cheap laughs without taking the time to think of actual jokes, to stop relying on teenage girls for your humor. It’s old, overused, and frankly a little weird how society seems to be so obsessed with young women’s interests. Drink your Starbucks (with a reusable straw, of course) and wear that scrunchie on your wrist, or wear a flannel and frolic through the woods. Girls are awesome and strong and spunky, and I’m proud to be like other girls!
My first glimpse of Alaska was through the airplane window as we touched down in Juneau, just in time for the 10:30pm sunset. I had expected and looked forward to these late night sunsets and the feeling of basking in sun for a majority of the day, but I didn’t realize how jarring it would be to see the sun peaking out in the dead of night. Alaska was peeking her eye at me, daring more than welcoming the weary traveler to explore.
Our first activity was a guided eight-hour hike to Mendenhall Glacier, with Above & Beyond Alaska. They picked us up at our hotel near the airport and drove us straight to the trailhead, where we had a short orientation and gear-up session. We had brought our own backpacks and jackets but our two tour guides advised that it would be a muddy day with a good amount of gear, so we opted to switch to their provided hiking backpacks and windbreakers. Inside each person’s backpack was a helmet, crampons, hiking poles, some intimidating ropey-looking climbing gear, and a bag of snacks! Yay snacks.
Our group was quite large and while most of us were fairly young, there was also a mom and her ten-year-old daughter. There were some gaps as we hiked along the trail but our guides were attentive in making sure there was one in the front and one in the back to make sure the group stayed together. It was about four miles of hiking through the woods and moraines to get to the actual ice. While it was beautiful and lush, the mosquitos and flies were also enjoying the warm weather. Bring bugspray! Being the totally prepared and savvy hiker that I am, I forgot mine in my luggage. Luckily our guides had some on hand but the general rule I learned on this first activity was to just always have bugspray on my person at all times.
After the beautiful buggy hike we came upon the grandeur that is Mendenhall Glacier. It’s big, it’s beautiful, it’s blue, and it’s receding at faster rates every year. There are sign posts every few hundred meters to mark the year in which the glacier had been in that exact same spot. Sadly but not surprisingly the sign posts drew closer as the years crept towards the present.
We were very excited to explore some ice caves but unfortunately due to the extremely hot weather, there were none accessible enough that the guides felt comfortable bringing tourists to. This was a big disappointment but it was just another reminder that 1) Nature is not a theme park and if it were, one must get in line with the expectation and acceptance that the ride may or may not be functioning that day, and 2) the earth is dying at a rapid rate at the hands of capitalist industrialization and tourists not being able to see some ice caves is but a minor inconvenience in the grand tragedy that is human-influenced climate change. Although to be fair, someone in my group was really looking forward to the ice caves and had to rearrange his plans due to their inaccessibility (more on this later….)
Despite this minor disappointment, we had a great time on top of the ice. Our scary climbing gear and helmets were mostly safety precautions in the event that anyone slipped and needed help getting back up, and also set up for some really cool photo ops:
I had just finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which takes place on a planet called winter and in which the main character goes on a trek across hundreds of miles of glaciers and icefields. Having read this right before the trip was incredibly meta, as I gazed upon that gigantic block of blue and blinding white and wondered at its cold beauty and indifference to my puny human life.
Anywho, besides the day-long hike, we also wandered around downtown Juneau and went back to Mendenhall Visitor Center to check out Nugget Falls. A word of advice on this: when calling for a taxi, ask before booking if you will need to purchase the Glacier Pass from the driver. Our first driver claimed this was a mandatory $25 per person that we would have to pay in the taxi prior to entering the visitor center, otherwise he would have to drop us off two miles outside. We called another taxi company and they said that was some baloney–they dropped us off about 10 minutes outside of the visitor center.
From Mendenhall Visitor Center it was an easy 1-mile walk to Nugget Falls. The waterfall came upon a small beach from which we had a beautiful view of the glacier from across the lake. There was an adorable dog and baby playing in the water and Ratik, Jennylee, and I skipped some rocks. It was a serene, yet sobering place because while the glacier, lake, and waterfall were breathtaking, one could not enjoy the view without worrying about its rapid decline, and whether it will even be here for our grandchildren to enjoy.
And on that chipper note, we headed back to Juneau airport and flew to Anchorage.
Anchorage is a huge city, especially compared to Juneau. We didn’t do much here except sleep in between driving to our other destinations and walk around the shops downtown, but it was a relief of convenience with big supermarkets and gas stations galore to fill up on roadtrip snacks before we headed to each destination.
Our first destination was about a 7-hour drive from Anchorage, to the remote town of McCarthy. The last leg of the road from Anchorage to McCarthy is an unpaved, dirt road on which one drives for a few hours, eyes peeled for sharp rocks or ancient nails leftover from retired train tracks that crept along the road. If you decide to drive around Alaska, I highly recommend renting high-clearance and 4-wheel drive. It can be a little more expensive and not as environmentally friendly as a cute Prius, but you will thank yourself when you make it through a winding dirt road with no amenities leading into a town in the middle of the wild, Final Frontier.
I have a friend, Matt, who had grown up here and I remember him once telling me that his hometown didn’t have internet or phone lines until 2008. I never really understood this until we stayed in John Adams’s (yes that’s his real name) lovely bed and breakfast on the edge of town. The property resembles a summer camp with detached cabins of varying room sizes and each with their own bathrooms, and a common breakfast cabin with a full kitchen. Despite the heat, our cabin was quite comfortable and John even upgraded us to a 2-bedroom instead of a 2-bed single room. Breakfast was the star of the show, featuring regular Costco comforts like oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, milk, and fresh fruit, as well as homemade banana bread that John’s wife had just made the day previous. One thing I would like to note about this place is to be ready to lug your stuff from the front parking lot to your cabin. There is a platform connecting them that makes it easy for rolling luggage, but you will still have to pull them through a short dirt patch to get to the platform. It’s not backpacking up Denali, but it’s good to know ahead of time, especially if you are a crazy overpacker and have 90 pounds of just-in-case underwear and Walmart-sized hair products.
Getting into the actual town of McCarthy is easy, but it does take a bit of planning. There is a footbridge that goes over the river, before which is a parking lot ($10 a day). If you want to opt out on paying, you could park about a half-mile before that parking lot at a small visitor center and walk across the bridge. From the footbridge you could either walk a mile into town or wait for the shuttle.
There are things I should note about getting into McCarthy:
1) The shuttle is not so much a shuttle, rather a large van with a cracked windshield, driven by one of the locals. They will warn you about bumpy parts on the road (and there are many) and are completely nice and accommodating, but don’t expect an air-conditioned bus where you can put your feet up and relax before and/or after your glacier hike. Most likely you will be cramped amongst sweaty bodies and backpacks, consciously grooving your body against the movements of the van so as not to smash your head into the window/your neighbor/their muddy hiking poles poking out of their backpacks. That being said, cracked windshields and muddy hiking poles mean adventure, and that’s what you’re here for! Here’s the website with times and pricing.
2) The walk from the footbridge into McCarthy is short but beautiful, passing through a swimming hole and different spots along the river for skipping rocks or dipping your feet for a while. It’s quite dusty, but at this point in your Alaska trip I trust that you’re wearing clothes that you don’t mind dirtying up a bit.
This area is part of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, the country’s largest national park and home to a large historic mine town and Kennicott glacier. We rode the shuttle from McCarthy’s town center to the visitor center in front of the mine town; from there visitors can explore the abandoned buildings (which still hold the mining and processing equipment) and hike a 4-mile round trip to Root Glacier.
Ratik, Jennylee, and I brought our own crampons and hiking poles so we opted to hike this on our own (props to our fearless leader Ratik for thinking of buying our own gear and avoiding inflated tourist prices to rent them). The hike itself to the mouth of the glacier was fairly easy, although the very end does involve some rocky slopes. We spent about a few hours here, exploring the icy surface. The surface of the glacier extends for miles towards the mountains; I think this was the best place to really understand the physical enormity of glaciers and how they really are rivers of ice.
On our way out of McCarthy we stopped by my friend’s family cabins at Currant Ridge. Matt is currently living the dream in Hamburg, Germany, but we did get to meet his brother, Robert, and hang out while our fearless leader figured out our lodging for the night (we had planned on driving to a remote town called Whittier but their tunnel would have been inaccessible at our late ETA). Robert was a great temporary host and gave us a tour of their house and the cabins on the property. He had just come in from a hike to some ice caves, and we all bonded over fantasy novels and actuary science, which he’s studying in school. Thanks again for the water and the tour, Robert, and good luck with school!
McCarthy was definitely one of my favorite places in Alaska, not only because of the remote, wild beauty that made me feel like Bear Grylls, awesome glacier hike, and fascinating mining town, but because of the relaxed chill and nonchalant hospitality I saw in the people who lived there. Matt is an incredibly cool dude but he’s also genuine and kind, and now that I’ve explored his hometown I can see why and how he’s turned out that way. I may be overromanticizing my vacation because I’m writing this whilst eating an overpriced salad in my cubicle in the middle of the Financial District, but it seems like most of the Alaskans I’ve met are exceedingly chill and are always up for adventure and friends.
I’m currently working on remembering and journaling the rest of my trip, so stay tuned for more cheesy and overly sentimental recollections of the Last Frontier!