Monthly Archives: March 2012

Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Ahhh…it’s that time of year…vacation-planning season.  The weather is starting to warm up a bit; people are getting “itchy” to start moving around; and everyone is fantasizing about what they’re going to do for vacation this summer.  Having done just a little bit of travel in my life, I find myself becoming a bit of a “travel advisor” for my friends and coworkers.  Not that I mind, mind you…there’s almost nothing I love more than encouraging people to travel, to fill their heads with enticing stories about what awaits them, to watch them, wide-eyed and giggling, as they imagine themselves there already.  So, my next few posts will be completely travel-related.  First stop, Europe.

Three years ago, with the economy spiraling downward, the company I work for, in a valiant effort to eliminate layoffs, began a program of periodic furloughs for all employees…forced vacation without pay.  At first, we grumbled about it, felt like we were being bullied into it…but it was a helluva lot better than losing our jobs; and, I have to say, it forced me to take a trip I always wanted to take but never did.  I was one of the many who would have loved to have backpacked through Europe between high school and college, or between college and the headlong plunge into the working world.  Alas, high school transitioned instantly into college, which in turn forced me upon the working world while in school.  There was no way to stop the momentum; and my dream of traveling the world alone, a young, wide-open book, passed me by.  (Besides, there were other distractions…but more about that later.)  I eventually landed a job that took me all over the country and all over the world; and I loved every minute of it.  However, the romance, the adventure of traipsing through Europe with nothing but a backpack pestered me…like a 25-plus-year butt itch!

Enter the furlough.  With 2 weeks of furlough facing me, in March 2009, refusing to spend that time at home, I embarked on my dream trip.  I bought my Eurail pass for unlimited train travel through Europe (First Class, oh-la-la!) and loosely planned my circuit of Western and Central Europe.  This is the first of 5 installments I texted on my Blackberry to family and friends of my journey.  Come join me…

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Backpacking-through-Europe Part I: Preparation

Sent Tuesday, March 17, 2009 5:46 PM

Hello! This is the first installment of my 2-week backpacking-through-Europe trip. Don’t feel any obligation to read each installment, which will come every few days; but if you do, I hope you enjoy reading about these adventures…or should I say MISadventures? (And…oh…stay tuned…there’s a surprise twist at the end…it’ll be in the last installment!!!!)

So, you may ask, “Kanani, aren’t you a little OLD for this kind of trip?” Haha! Yeah, this is the trip I shoulda taken at 18 instead of at 44….but at 18, I was just discovering the Big Gay World out there…it was exciting and eye-opening…and during that amazing, fascinating time of self-discovery, Big Gay World trumped Big European World. (I mean….drugs, sex, rock-n-roll…well, more like, “It’s Raining Men, Hallelujah, It’s Raining Men”…the choice was QUITE clear to ME, thank you very much!)

Since the late ’80’s, I’ve made many trips across Europe…on business and pleasure, alone and accompanied variously by Ralph, my parents, my brother Kawika and several close friends. All fabulous trips, no question about it; but there has always remained that unfulfilled, romanticized adventure of procuring a Eurailpass, hopping on and off the train as much as I want, in any country I want, staying in youth hostels (a strange yearning for the college dorm life I never had, perhaps?), and savoring the experience fully for “pennies”…er…”Eurocents”…a day…oh yeah…all the while carrying all I need on my back. (Well, that part kinda sucks; but it comes with the territory. Thankfully, I’m a master at packing light; and Mom and Dad helped me pick out the perfect backpack at REI when we were in Seattle in January…big enough for 2 weeks of “stuff”, without looking like I’ve murdered someone, wrapped them in a tent, and nonchalantly strapped the evidence to my back!)

At 44, I know this whole scenario should sound repulsive to me; but instead, it sets my heart a-flutter and creates the same thrill in me I had as a kid when my Grandpa took me and my sibs to the circus at Blaisdell Arena in Honolulu, or my parents shelled out the big bucks to take us to Six Flags Over Texas! Maybe it’s the thrill of the unknown, the bizarre and unexplained love I have of “not knowing”, of being plunked down in unfamiliar place and having to just “figure it all out”. Or, maybe it’s an early mid-life crisis…my proverbial “red sportscar”…except there’s no gas, maintenance, insurance…nor the DREADED Mahelona-Family-Broke-Down-Automobile Curse!!!

So, the trip begins with fasting the day of departure. (C’mon…y’all know I don’t do things “normal”!)  I had read that drinking only fruit and vegetable juices (no food, caffeine, milk or alcohol) from the time you wake up on the day of departure until your morning arrival in your destination city (including the free “food” on the plane and all that free wine-DAMN!!!-you get on Trans-Atlantic flights) is the ultimate jet-lag prevention…something about recent findings that it’s the feeding cycle that affects our body-clock more than anything else…the fasting allows you to sliiiiide on into your destination feeding cycle smooooothly.  It sounded pretty primal…and compelling to me!

I’m happy to tell you that it worked like a charm…the ONLY thing I’ve ever tried that really works! Over the years, I’ve tried timed naps and sleeping, jet-lag pills, abstaining from caffeine or alcohol (but not food), melatonin, drinking lots of water….and always, about halfway through the day in my arrival city, BAM!…I hit a wall and am reduced to a worthless, snoring, drooling, zombified Dorothy-in-the-poppy-fields-of-Oz. But my entire first day in Brussels, I had tons of energy, wakefulness and clarity.

Granted, when the flight attendants began the hard-sell, “We’ve got (mummified) chicken or (rubberized) lasagna today (surprise, surprise!)”, I actually felt a fire of desire in my stomach…but I stuck to my guns and doused it with another bottle of V-8. But I have NO regrets….my body-clock and appetite were immediately on Brussels time…I never got sleepy (until all the Bruxellois did); and I haven’t kept odd hours or needed a nap since then!

Good thing, because I’m on a tight schedule! I’ve basically allowed myself an afternoon train arrival in each city, 1-1/2 days and 2 nights of exploration (read: walking my ass off) and sightseeing, then an early morning train departure to the next city.  It’ll be the same pattern for the entire trip. I’ll start in Brussels/Bruxelles, with a daytrip on the 2nd day to the Flemish town of Brugge/Bruges. (They spell everything 2 ways in Belgium…Flemish and French…how international…how cooperative…how annoying!)  Brussels will be followed by Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Vienna and Budapest. I had originally left the last 3 days of the trip open before heading back to Brussels for my return flight to NYC. But, I’ve decided to head back to Brussels for the last 3 days, “rounding out” my “European Tour”!

Oh…and did I mention that I’ve budgeted 100 Euros for each city? Not each day…each city! At the current exchange rate, that means about $80 for each 2-night, 1-1/2-day stay…including lodging, food, sightseeing and local metro/tram/bus transport (hence the “walking my ass off” I mentioned earlier!).

This means sitting down in restaurants will be out of the question. Instead, I’ll be eating mainly local “street food” which, in my opinion, is the best way to “soak up the local flavor” (and grease!). That, and beer and cafe food…again, not a sacrifice for me at all! Top off my nutritional pyramid with amazingly cheap (not to mention fresh and delicious) European supermarket fare, plus the free (and pretty damned good!) breakfasts at the hostels.

Wanna know the REAL clincher here, without which this whole trip would be completely ludicrous? My hostel stays average only about $18 a night! (Sit down, Rick Steves! Haha!) Ever wonder why Europeans can travel so much? It’s not just because their countries are so small and close together…it’s because they stay in hostels!

So far, the hostels have been fantastic…way better than I expected.  (They even have their own bars; and I’ve made some great new friends there!) I’ve eaten lots of delicious food; and I have imbibed more awesome beer than ever (well, at least since my beer-buddy, Ben, shared his German beer collection with me last Thursday in NYC!).

At this writing, I’m already in Amsterdam, leaving for Berlin in the morning, having enjoyed Brussels (and especially Brugge) tremendously. I will work on the 2nd installment of my travelogue (Brussels, Brugge and Amsterdam) tomorrow, during my 6-hour rail journey across The Netherlands and northern Germany (with a train change in the Dutch town of Amersfoort) into Berlin. Until then, I hope you enjoy the reading!

Guten Nacht! (Yeah, gotta practice my German for Berlin; and I gotta get up early tomorrow!)

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The Torso Story

 

This past weekend, I reluctantly found myself completely immersed in thoughts of, and surrounded by reminders of, the dirty “C” word…no, not that one…the really horrible, awful, heart-wrenching one…”CANCER”.  On Saturday, still recuperating from one of her many surgeries, my sister-in-law, Stacie, posted that it was the 2nd anniversary of her breast cancer diagnosis.  Though it isn’t something to necessarily “celebrate”, it was an important milestone, one to be acknowledged and honored.  I responded to her Facebook post that I remembered walking into her hospital room after her first, big surgery in Dallas, and how I was so comforted by her huge smile that day, even though I knew she was in pain.  I commented how that smile seems to have never left her face…and it hasn’t.  She’s a strong, beautiful woman!

On Sunday, Ralph and I went to see the final Broadway performance of “Wit”, starring Cynthia Nixon as a college professor facing metastacized stage 4 ovarian cancer.  Powerful, funny, yet heartbreaking, the play left us, the audience, in utter silence as we exited the theater.  And on Friday, I had begun reading a book my sister Kelli gave me for my birthday, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”.  It is a fascinating and sad account of the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman from Baltimore whose cervical cancer cells were taken at her death in 1951 and became the foundation of the multi-billion dollar cell culture industry, resulting in medical breakthroughs from the polio vaccine to gene therapy to corneal transplants, among many other things…while her family continues to live in extreme poverty.

All of this brought my thoughts to my sister Malia, now in her 8th year of surviving breast cancer.  I spent the weekend reflecting on her journey – the multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, the lifesaving-yet-finance-taxing medications, the annual trips to NYC to walk the Race for the Cure in Central Park.  I remember flying home to Dallas to have an opportunity to sit with her through one of her chemotherapy sessions.  As I watched her sit peacefully and calmly in a chair for hours while powerful poisons dripped into her veins, my respect, admiration and love for her grew tenfold.  I always knew how strong and beautiful she was; but on this day, she was supernaturally so.

I decided this weekend that I would post an old email I sent out a few years ago, recounting an art project I instigated in tribute to Malia, who was about to undergo her first mastectomy – one of many major surgeries she would face.  It was an attempt to create something beautiful out of tough, life-changing, body-transforming decisions my sister had to make…and with the love and help of family and friends, I think we succeeded.  Below is the post, with photos of the project.  To my sister Malia, my sister-in-law Stacie, and all the other strong, beautiful women in my life who are surviving this disease (Pam S, Jean H, Mary Ann D, Harrilyn A and others), keep fighting, keep living, Ladies!  I bought a t-shirt for Malia when I moved to NYC that says it all:  “Cancer, you picked the WRONG bitch!!!”

The Torso Project, 2004:

I was in Detroit for a technology conference at Eastern Michigan University, the week before my sister Malia was scheduled for her first mastectomy. While I was at EMU, I happened to pass by one of the fashion-design classrooms; and I noticed that the students had made dress forms of their own bodies for draping their own garments. They had taken duct tape and wrapped each others’ torsos in it (over thin t-shirts), then cut off the forms and painted them white to stiffen them.

I was amazed; and I had the idea of doing the same thing for my sister Malia, to capture her torso before she had her life-altering surgery.  When I returned to Dallas, she came over to my Oak Cliff apartment; and I wrapped her in duct tape over one of my favorite, old t-shirts, then cut the form off her down the center back and spray-painted it with several coats of white to stiffen it. For days, it sat on my countertop, eery and profound, a glowing, porcelain-like cast of Malia’s body as it would never be again.  Seeing it every morning, every evening, I was reminded of the impermanence of all things – our youth, our bodies, our lives.

Not long after her surgery, I joined family and friends for a dinner party at Malia and Matt’s house in Waxahachie.  I brought my shoeboxes filled with tubes of acrylic paints and brushes in all shapes and sizes.  Throughout the day, everyone at the gathering participated, if even a little bit, in painting the form.  We painted, then painted over and over each other’s work, building layer upon layer of color and texture, merging each other’s designs into a beautiful work of art.  At some point, it just sort of “emerged”; we all figured the work had declared itself “complete”.  We stood back and admired it, walked around it, pondered it…a wild, swirling mix of angry and happy colors, of chaotic and soothing patterns…and definitely, an expression of love from everyone who participated in the project, to Malia.

When the paint dried, I took the form back to my apartment and spent days hand-sewing glass and metal beads over it, in scattered areas across the broad shoulders, the curves of breast and hip.  My fingers raw and sore from pushing the needle hundreds of times through the thick, hardened layers of paint and cloth and my eyes raw and sore from crying over what lay ahead for her, I finally finished.  Handling her former “body” in my hands for days, I was finally able to come to terms with her illness…and finally had clarity that she would be okay…she would survive.  In gratitude, I closed the open back by punching holes in both sides of it with an old metal awl, criss-crossing it closed with red satin ribbon. I hung it on an antique, wooden coat-hanger and presented it to Malia, in hope, admiration, and love.