My route–follow me!

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The Canton Half-Marathon

It’s a few weeks in the past already, but on June 24, 2012, I ran my first-ever half-marathon in Canton, Ohio. I finished the race in 2:15:29 (clock time), which was about 5 minutes faster than my goal! It was a hot, humid, sweaty morning, and even though the race started at 6 a.m., it was already 70 degrees when we started out. 

I spent three months training for the race in Pittsburgh, snagging cool early-morning runs whenever I could. I explored the awesome river trails around the city and pushed myself to limits I didn’t know I had. My most triumphant training run was 12.75 miles, and when I successfully completed that, I knew that I was ready for the half-marathon. Much to the annoyance of my friends, I think I became one of those people who only talks about running. I complemented the training with two or three weekly Bikram yoga sessions. Bikram yoga is performed for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees. The stretching and deep heat helped my muscles adjust to the heavy running. Between the two activities, I felt the best I ever have in my life.

Now, post-race, I’ve basically stopped running in favor of cycling. I just finished a cycling trip through Massachusetts and Connecticut, which I’ll post about next. 

But at the end of the half-marathon in Canton, I was so exhilarated and proud that I decided to start training for the ultimate runner’s goal–a full marathon. My friend Brian agreed to train with me, and we’ll start in earnest in a few weeks. The Philadelphia Marathon is scheduled for Sunday, November 18–see you there!

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The Fatty Acids

Last night, my new housemates gathered for our first dinner together as living companions. We had a great night but split up early to go our separate ways–Gabe is moving out and has cleaning to do, Danielle teaches a 6 a.m. Bikram yoga class, and Andy was going to see Prometheus.

Gunther and I lingered in the kitchen, and he asked, “Wanna go to the bar?” and in the spirit of being a fun, young person, I said, “Sure!” He’s new to the neighborhood, so I thought we’d go to Lou’s Corner Bar–a real yinzer place that I knew he hadn’t visited yet. On our way there, we passed by the Big Idea Bookstore, where Hannah was closing up the shop after this week’s inaugural film of the Squatter Film Fest. We stopped in to say hello.

A band from Milwaukee, The Fatty Acids, had wandered into the store, too. They were young and affable, disheveled and boyish. The one with a knotted ponytail spoke up: “Hey, this is a long shot, but do you know any singer/songwriters in Pittsburgh?” he asked cheerfully. “We’re supposed to play at Howler’s tonight, but our opener canceled! We came all the way to Pittsburgh and now there’s no show!”

Hannah looked three feet to her right, where our friend Caroline was sitting. Caroline is, coincidentally, a singer/songwriter. She overhead and thought it over for a second, nodded, and said, “Let’s go!” and so just an hour later, Hannah, Gunther, Caroline, the band and I were laughing, dancing, and marveling at the power of Pittsburgh’s tight-knit community and the intoxicating feeling of freedom that comes with spontaneity on a warm summer night.

Hannah and I hugged and danced, Gunther sipped a beer and talked to the band, Caroline strummed and crooned, and the Howler’s crowd laughed and kept rhythm to the sounds of Milwaukee.

New Old Reality

Since returning from my long Asian adventure three months ago, I’ve submersed myself back into life in the United States. I’ve missed writing my thoughts here, but felt as though I had nothing interesting to post–after all, what’s exciting about daily life in a mid-sized American city?

Returning hasn’t been too difficult–in fact, I barely think about the trip, which is a bit disconcerting. Pittsburgh feels so normal, it’s almost as though I never left. For a few months, I was comforted by that–no re-entry difficulty and I jumped right back into the life I live with the people I love here. But now, after a few months, I’ve begun to actually reflect on my new old reality.

Five months ago, on January 14, I was at Angkor Wat, one of the world’s most famous and mystifying sites. I rented a bicycle for $1 and set off by myself to marvel at the incredible overgrown temples. I returned to Siem Reap in the evening to catch dinner with three Pittsburgh friends, and we talked about my imminent return to the United States.

Today, on June 14, I’m in an office building in downtown Pittsburgh with a 16-item to-do list, a lunch appointment, three afternoon calls, and a travel mug of coffee with coconut milk creamer. I’ve entered the world of keeping a Google calendar and wearing cardigans. I have an exercise routine of running 25 miles per week and going to Bikram yoga three times per week. I’m in bed by 11:00 every night and get a little cranky if I don’t have my oatmeal and yogurt for breakfast everyday.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s all fun and new in its own way. I’ve got a gaggle of projects–I’m development coordinator for Awamaki US, grantwriting for Procopio Fundraising, joined the board of Building New Hope, became executive director of the Pittsburgh Hostel Project, am a worker-owner of the Big Idea Bookstore, and work from the offices of Amizade. I like feeling physically healthy and strong, and the busyness is satisfying, too. But that restless urge, while tempered for a few months, is beginning to sneak back up on me. I have a few upcoming trips–a quick jaunt to Nicaragua, a ten-day bike trip through New England, two weeks in Peru–but as it stands, my future stretches out before me in Google calendar format, looking at the Pittsburgh skyline from a seventh-floor office window.

I’ve vowed to pick this blog up again, because the fact is that I DO have cool things going on–it just took me a minute to realize it. And as I hoped, my trip did influence my new old reality, and those changes are subtly present everyday. I’ll keep this blog updated on what I’m up to in my medium-term reality here in America’s Most Livable City. Promise not to yawn too much.

And now for something completely different…

We boarded the plane in Pittsburgh, on a cold, dark early March morning. We were Dominican Republic-bound, and so were the other 100 or so paunchy white Pittsburghers on board with us. The flight was direct to Punta Cana, and everyone had dressed appropriately for our arrival to paradise, donning Hawaiian shirts, shorts, flip-flops and a smattering of Steelers muscle shirts.

I alternately dozed and looked out the window as we hurtled through the sky towards relaxation and indulgence. About an hour before landing, the flight attendants handed out immigration and customs forms. I set to work filling them out, but the intercom clicked on and the flight attendant cleared her throat and began speaking.

“First we’re going to walk through the blue immigration card,” she said slowly, enunciating each word. I glanced at the card. It was in Spanish and English. I couldn’t understand why it needed walking through. But walk through we did, item by item, cautiously traversing the slippery terrain of questions like Last Name, First Name, Birth Date, and Passport Number. When we got to Nationality, the flight attendant urged us to be careful. “This doesn’t mean you should write ‘Italian’ or ‘Polish’ or ‘Pennsylvania Dutch,'” she warned. “Almost everyone should write ‘American,’ since you’re all US passport holders.” We successfully finished the forms and collectively breathed a sigh of relief as we stowed our tray tables for the descent.

And then there we were, in beautiful, sunny Dominican Republic. We were greeted at the straw-thatched roof airport by a makeshift merengue band cajoling for tips. Throngs of spring breakers whooped and hollered through the baggage claim. We boarded a big bus sponsored by the agency that arranged our trip, and were whisked off to the beautiful, elegant Bahia Gran Principe Ambar resort in Punta Cana. The room was a warm, Mediterranean orange color with cool tiles and a bright balcony. Much to my delight, there was a towel folded into the shape of a swan on the end of our rose-petaled bed.

Man, I couldn’t help but think, what a world apart from the trip I just finished. The slums of India, the rattling trains of Vietnam, the begging street kids of Laos, the empty-eyed hunger of peasants in the Chinese countryside–you’d never believe we were all on the same planet at that moment. Better yet, you’d never believe that just a few miles away from the resort, some of those same scenes play out on a daily basis on the streets of Santo Domingo and in rural farmlands.

I wanted to escape the comforts of the resort for a day to see some of the real Dominican Republic, and so I signed up for a bus trip to the capital city, Santo Domingo. I expected it to be tame and oriented toward elderly, higher maintenance travelers. I boarded the bus at 6 a.m., bleary-eyed and not yet caffeinated, and settled into my seat. The rest of the bus, as I’d anticipated, was filled with elderly couples. Nobody talked to me.

We arrived in Santo Domingo, and I eagerly hopped off the bus to begin exploring the lovely seaside city. It’s larger than I anticipated at about 3.5 million residents. And, surprisingly, Santo Domingo has a fully-functioning subway system. I spent a year living in San Juan, Puerto Rico and have visited Havana, Cuba. I expected more of their Caribbean colonial flavor. Instead, SD presented itself as, well, a real city. I was pleased.

Once we were done ambling around the central part of the old city, our guide rounded us up. I’d thought about making a break for it, but knew that would mean trouble for him and so I stuck with the group. We patiently waited for one straggling couple to emerge from the cathedral. And we waited. And waited some more. The guide ushered us into an awful, tacky tourist shop while he made some phone calls to try to find our lost tour members. The elderly folks complained and browsed, used the bathroom and bought rubber magnets. All told, we spent an hour in the store, and the remaining members were not found.

The guide, visibly distressed and distracted, led us down the cobblestoned streets of Old Santo Domingo. We breezed past various landmarks with little more than a passing comment as to their significance–“Last home of Christopher Columbus,” “Burial place of dozens of conquistadores,” “First Spanish-language library in the New World,” and finally arrived at some massive stone building. By this time, I’d made an elderly Canadian friend named Mary. We stuck together until her husband insisted she walk by him again, and I was alone once more. We were all outfitted with audio guide headphones and sent on our way to look at old maps and ceramic pieces in one giant herd. I couldn’t stand it, and could see outside to the bright blue sea crashing against the walls of the fortress.

I finally escaped. I found some traveling backpacker Spaniards, and we sat around the walls of the old city, chatting and laughing. I bought a straw sun hat for Eric from a street vendor, a toothless dark brown man whose Spanish was so Caribbean it might as well have been another language. When we finally hopped back on the bus, the mysteriously lost couple had reappeared and were calming thumbing through pictures from the day on their digital camera. The guide, feigning delight in seeing them, had trouble disguising his bulging neck veins as he asked politely just where they’d been roaming around all day. Turns out they thought it was a free day and had wandered off to buy some handmade hammocks for the kids back home. The rest of the group grumbled at our lost time, the guide breathed a sigh of relief for his own job security, and I giggled to myself in the back seat.

The rest of the week passed quickly. Days were spent lazing on the beach and sipping endless banana mamas, rum and cokes, and white sangrias. Breakfast, sun, shade, sun, shade, lunch, sun, shade, dinner, drinks was the loose daily schedule. Dinner was usually a fancy affair, and we’d shower off the sun and sand and slip into some fancy but comfortable clothes. Wine was endless, champagne made the occasional appearance, and there was abundant and delicious food to choose from. Eric most often opted for lobster, while I went for red snapper and sea bass. We shared bites and had quiet, meandering conversations at the table and over drinks. Bachata and merengue music wafted across the open-air lobby where high ceiling fans whirred above lavishly upholstered sofas, chandeliers drenched in glittery crystal, and an eclectic mix of Europeans, Canadians and Americans, all releasing their stresses and problems, one Ron Barcelo and Coke at a time.

In the beginning of the week, I felt conflicted and guilty about being at such an exclusive, expensive resort in the face of the six months I spent slumming it and seeing harsh realities. In a way, it felt like a slap in the face to all those street kids and rural farmers. I still feel the conflict and guilt, but a few days into the trip, I finally just had to relax. I was able to let go of the looming thoughts of Asia and its own contradictions and class stratification and enjoy myself in the moment with a person who was bent on making sure I was pampered and enjoying my time. And I’m so glad that I did. It was a wonderful trip, and beside the glowing suntan, I came home with a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for my life in Pittsburgh.

Re-Entry

There’s a story that my mother likes to tell about me. When I was 10 years old, I went to sleepaway camp with the rest of the fifth graders at my school. It was my first time away from home, and I shared a cabin with five of my giggliest girlfriends. We relished our newfound freedom, staying up late, gossiping about the boys’ cabin next door, and rolling our eyes at the counselors whose sole job was to keep us mostly out of trouble. The weeklong adventure ended, and as I climbed off the bus and greeted my mother, I had tears streaming down my face. She immediately panicked, demanding “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” to which my (surely heartbreaking) reply was, “I don’t want to come home!”

Turns out that 17 years later, not a whole lot has changed. As I rode the escalator down to the baggage claim at the Pittsburgh International Airport two weeks ago, I again had tears in my eyes. Yes, I was ready to come home and begin my next chapter–but saying goodbye to the trip of a lifetime was bittersweet indeed. I was greeted by a familiar man in a khaki trenchcoat, who had thoughtfully brought a martini shaker and few bottles of booze to ease my transition. The cocktail was much appreciated, and a big hug made being home feel good.

I’ve now been back in the United States for more than two weeks. In that time, I’ve already slept in six different beds, so re-entry doesn’t exactly spell relaxation. When I first returned, I immediately had two friends come visit Pittsburgh, and we spent a whirlwind few days seeing sights and catching up. Then I went and visited my parents for three days, before scooting over to Philadelphia to formally apply for my Italian citizenship. I took the Megabus back to Pittsburgh, just in time to hop on a direct flight to the Dominican Republic, where I just spent an absolutely lovely time relaxing in perfect weather and true luxury.

With all this moving around, I’m finding it hard to grab on to the last handholds of the trip I just finished. Hong Kong and Vietnam still seem within reach–like I could close my eyes and be there, really capture those places in my mind’s eye. But any further back than that… Laos, Thailand, Cambodia all feel like eons ago, and like they might not actually exist. And nevermind the first stops of Russia and Mongolia–those places feel an eternity away. The trip is over, and while some fragments remain tangible, most of those six months already feel like a dream.

In Closing

I’m two hours into my 15-hour flight from Hong Kong to Chicago. I’ve got a window seat on a fancy airplane on Cathay Pacific, and despite it technically being before noon, I’m sipping my second glass of French red wine. Hey–especially when traveling, it’s five o’clock somewhere. I’m trying to grasp the weighty significance of being on my way home.

Thanks to the endless in-flight entertainment choices, I’m watching a documentary about Sonam, a Tibetan nomad. Before the film started, I knew he was Tibetan by his name–“Sonam” means “gift” in the Tibetan language. I know this because four months ago, I traveled to Tibet and booked a hostel by the name of Sonam. I later stayed in a nomad tent, and the caretaker was too named Sonam. Later yet, in Nepal, I’d spend entire afternoons whisper-chanting “Soham,” a variation on the same word.

The film’s images of spinning prayer wheels, wind-chapped children’s cheeks, prayer flags flapping in icy wind, and vast frozen plateau are familiar to me. Just six months ago, they would have been utterly foreign and impossible to imagine. But sitting comfortably on this flight, between spoons of Haagen-Daaz and nestled under a complimentary blanket, I can look at this Sonam’s weathered face and recall the salty, stale taste of Tibetan bread, the bone-chilling cold ripping through my body in the nomad’s tent one early winter night, the endless expanse of sky high on the plateau, and the trance-like chanting of Om Mani Padme Om by young monks in maroon robes.

This journey is over. I’m on a plane leaving Asia, headed for the US, and it’s an indisputable fact that the journey IS over. Six months have passed. Twelve countries and three Chinese terrorities have been visited. All my colorful visas are expired, used, stamped and final. I start paying rent in Pittsburgh again in two days and next week I’ll be on a sunny beach in the DR. This journey at hand, then, is over.

Or is it? I can’t help but feel that it’s not, somehow. I can’t really explain it. Maybe I’m just desperate to cling to the dregs of these six months, refusing to realize that now, as my Hong Kong departure stamp says, “Journey completed.” Or maybe I’m so used to constantly shifting locations, currencies, modes of transport, that boarding this morning’s flight simply felt like another stop on a long list of destinations.

Or maybe the trip isn’t really over in the larger sense. After all, the present is really just a complex product of the past, and undoubtedly my future will be a product, in many ways, of this present trip. Maybe, just maybe, I can hold on to this trip and prevent it from slipping into the past and becoming an seemingly impossible dreamlike memory. Is it possible to make the past six months part of the present and future? It feels like the only choice.

Looking back, I can’t remember why I did this. I spent more than a year scrimping and pinching hard–saving $10,000 of my measly $24,000 income–with a vision of a six-month trip of a lifetime. People asked warily if it was a “find-myself” thing. I insisted it wasn’t. People asked if I was looking to “meet someone” while on the road. Again, I insisted I wasn’t. People asked if I was insane. I insisted I was quite the opposite, but was admittedly less certain on that point.

Undoubtedly the trip changed me. I’m different than I was before I left, which, naively, I didn’t expect. I’d traveled enough previously to recognize that I would emerge on the other side of these six months as basically the same person. And that’s true, to an extent. But what I failed to realize is that I was a product of my past travels and experiences as well, the same way I will be a product of my more recent ones. I AM different, though please don’t ask me to eloquently explain how. Physically, I’m the same, save for a few minor battle scars. Socially, I’m still outgoing and friendly. Intellectually, I think I’m essentially unenhanced. Idiosyncratically, I’m as batty as ever.

But what’s changed is that intangible self that we all struggle to know, somewhere deep inside. It’s the core of our beings that is stirred, sending ripples to our outwardly manifested selves. The bumps and bruises; the oddly-inflected English expressions; the tendency to immediately identify north, south, east and west when disembarking from a train in a new place; the irrational hoarding of rubber bands and plastic bags–these are some of the sillier signs of an internal seismic shift. The more real signs emerge over time and with reflection. But despite the intangible self being the most profoundly changed part of a traveller, it’s simultaneously the most inaccessible and elusive piece of ourselves to understand. It’s the part we most desperately want to grasp and look in the face; paradoxically, we never will despite what great lengths we go through to try.

In everyday life, I’m the same person. I want the same things I wanted before I left: A job I care about, friends I love, a partner I trust, a future I anticipate. I want to sit on my roof on a sunny day. I want oatmeal with frozen berries in the morning and cheese with apples and honey on fancy date nights. I want a gin martini, up with a twist. I want to ride my bicycle, work at the bookstore, meet new people, continue growing and pushing myself. But the inner self, the one I wake up to and negotiate everyday, has moved a few steps to the left (or east, maybe) of where I was six months ago. To the human eye, it’s imperceptible, and even introspection does little to reveal what’s been altered. Maybe there’s really only one reality, but learning to coexist with a soul that has recently been pushed to know new existential horizons–sheesh, now that’s heavy stuff. How to re-enter the world I previously inhabited, as though the windows haven’t been throw wide open?

I’ll be processing this experience in writing and daily life for years to come. I don’t expect for the big picture to emerge immediately, if ever. But in the moment, on this plane watching the Tibetan nomads spin yak wool into shelter, I am humbled and grateful. I once read a line–“My soul knew ecstasy.” Ecstasy remains elusive, but joy, faith, exhilaration, freedom, happiness? Absolutely, and gratitude in spades. I’ll never be able to give to others what I got in these months on the road, but I’ll try every way I know how to pay it forward.

So for Sonam, for all the travellers, for the hostel staffs, the flight crews, the kind-faced strangers, the familiar faces from home, the street kids, the women in sewing co-ops across the continent, and even the circling urban vultures–thank you. You gave me an incredible, indelible experience. But more importantly, you shifted the center of my being permanently.

Cameo at 35,000 Feet

I expected a lot of things out of my flight home. Since I was on the fancy Cathay Pacific airline, I was ready for the free-flowing complimentary booze, multiple meals, nonstop attentive service and huge selection of movies and TV shows. The electrical outlet, coat hanger and ample leg room were all bonuses I hadn’t dared hope for.

But! I wasn’t expecting to see myself three years ago! Back in the summer of 2009, I was an extra in the film Warrior, which was filmed in Pittsburgh. I played a high school student and was paid $200 for two long days of sitting around, filming, and eat free lunch. I never bothered to see the film when it came out, since it’s not really my thing.

But they had it on the plane! I fast-forwarded through scenes of Nick Nolte looking old and grumpy until I spotted the high school we filmed in, and hark! There I was, looking over my shoulder, walking down a hallway in North Hills High School. My big motion picture debut comes about 34 minutes in, should you care to watch.