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Lost In Translation
Even honeymooners need some time apart. My new husband and I were in a small port town in Sardinia, a Mediterranean island off the western coast of Italy, and decided to take a few hours exploring on our own. As an avid travel photographer I decided to use my time alone to put to use the sentence I had practiced for weeks in Italian, “Excuse me, may I take your photograph please?” As I got over the nervousness of approaching strangers and hearing my shaky voice try to speak their language, I felt better when most people responded with “certamente” (of course.)
Rambling along the fortified town’s sidewalks high over the Mediterranean, I spotted an old man sitting on a bench, saying goodbye to his buddies and tuning into a hand-held radio. I posed my question and he too responded with “certamente.” I snapped a photo, said thank you and attempted to go on my way, when he gently touched my arm and motioned for me to sit down.
This is what most passionate travelers dream of – the invitation from a local to participate in any way in their daily life. In sleepy Italian towns like this, sitting and talking on a bench is the No. 1 activity around. There is one problem here, as he started to speak to me in Italian, we can’t understand each other!
We fumbled awkwardly, making sweeping arm gestures, acting out whatever it was we were both trying to say. Minutes would pass in silence as we both gazed out over our bella vista. We would try speaking again, wanting desperately for something to connect, but I hadn’t remembered any new Italian phrases in the last five minutes and he had yet to learn his first word in English.
After a short while the man started motioning for my purse. It became clear to me this whole time he’d been asking for money in exchange for the photograph, a common travel experience, yes, but I was still caught off guard. This turned quickly into him reaching and tugging at my purse and me trying not to overreact, yet being firm that he wasn’t getting anything out of there. As I was about to get up and leave he pulled out his own wallet.
He reached in, pulled out a small, fossilized shell and handed it to me. Again, motioning for my purse, to put this gift inside my purse. Had this really been the one-in-a-million time when a strange man is pulling at your purse in a foreign country and you’re not getting robbed, but getting a present?!
Raphiello’s shell is one of my most prized possessions. I still study Italian as much as I can in the anticipation of returning to lovely Sardinia. When I do return, you will find me sitting on that seaside bench waiting in the hope that maybe Raphiello will find his way back, and next time I’ll be prepared for that conversation.
I clutch onto my ride – a motorbike being driven by a young, attractive Balinese boy, in a monsoon of a downpour – as we wind up to a cliff-side bar perched high in the village of Amed. I am in East Bali, Old Bali… and everything is foreign. My new friend orders a bottle of Arak, the house wine, distilled from palm sap. We smoke a clove. It is a seriously sleepy community here, settled ages ago over the Indian Ocean. Yet its peaceful people are ever reminded of life’s precarious nature both by the looming shadow of active Mount Agung and by the rocky black sand beaches, formed from a deadly eruption that occurred not so long ago.
It is just 11 p.m. All you can hear on this road are distant waves crashing and the sporadic motorbike whisking by. The few remaining patrons stop to check me out – a drenched, white, American woman with a local boy from their village. I haven’t seen another foreigner since I arrived three days ago.
The bar is an open-air, cavernous wood-and-bamboo structure. Where is everyone? Still suffering the after-effects of two terrorist attacks, it’s only the most popular tourist areas of Bali that get to welcome much-needed visitors these days.
The joint is dark, dimly lit, like almost everywhere in Bali. Not for mood, but because that’s as much juice as they’ve got. Tacked with posters of Morrison and Marley. ABBA plays on CD. It smells of damp jungle, of spilled beers, and nasi goring – Bali’s version of jambalaya.
The band has one more song in them and as they return to the small stage they begin to twang their guitars to something oddly familiar to me. Strangely out of context, yet heart-leapingly, smile-evokingly, familiar, it’s “jambalaya, crawfish pie, file gumbo,” baby! Ma cher amio, how did the bayou get here? I try to share the absurdity, the humor of it all, with my Balinese friend but he just smiles at his curious, bubbling American companion thrilled to have the gift of the familiar in this foreign land.
As a foreigner to your land, albeit a devoted one, I’d dare not claim to know what is it to be a New Orleanian. But I do say that Bali and New Orleans are not so different.
How did I find New Orleans in Bali? Not just in this forgotten bar but in the hearts of the people, in the soul of the land, in their traditions. They respect the spirit world. They pray. Just like you, they celebrate the living and the dead. They cherish family. They love their food and their music.
I found it in their smiles, in your smiles, in their stories, in your stories.
If I ever get back to Bali I don’t know if it’ll be the same. After Katrina I feared my beloved New Orleans was gone, but it wasn’t. Whether rising from the ashes of a volcano, or from hate, or from a killer storm, or faulty government, it’s their soul, it’s your soul, it’s my soul – finding the constant in a changing landscape that draws and enthralls this foreigner.
Thank you Bali; thank you New Orleans.
No alarm clocks went off in our Lake Tahoe hotel room Dec. 11, 2008. We made sure to turn them off and put our phones on “silent” the night before, after a long day of traveling from New Orleans to the Nevada/California border. My boyfriend, WDSU reporter Travers Mackel, and I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. Neither of us had been skiing before (well, not for many, many years), and we were really excited about strapping on our new gear for ski school. Travers was so excited, in fact, that he had insisted on a full dress rehearsal the night before we left. Wearing boots, goggles and gloves in my apartment, he repeated his favorite line, “Tips over toes,” again and again. “Swoosh… swoosh,” he murmured, focused, knees bent and holding imaginary poles.
When I finally opened my eyes that Thursday morning, I ran straight to the window, much like a child on Christmas morning. Since we had arrived late the night before, this would be my first view of the lake and landscape. I threw open the curtains, anxious to see the snow covered mountains and “Heavenly” ski village I had been reading about online.
Imagine my disappointment when I realized there had been no snow in Lake Tahoe that morning. In fact, it was “unseasonably warm” and the town was still desperately awaiting their first big snowfall. This terrible news was reiterated by the concierge who told us our best bet would be to “catch a flick” and hope for snow the next day.
Thwarted, I plopped back on the bed and picked up my Blackberry, remembering that I hadn’t checked it yet that morning. I rubbed my contacts a few times before I could really believe what I was reading. Eighteen missed calls and twice as many text messages and emails were blinking at me. Had something happened?
Something had happened. A rare snowfall had been blanketing New Orleans all morning! “IT’S SNOWING OUTSIDE THE CIVIC!” read the message from my roommate, along with a picture from our apartment window. An e-mail with another picture followed, titled, “My car covered in snow,” from my sister, a sophomore at Southeastern. Travers’ twin brother Fletcher had called to inform us that he’d fallen down the icy front steps while retrieving the paper (and to gloat, I sensed – the Mackel brothers live for two things: news and New Orleans).
Pigs were flying! New Orleans had a blizzard and we were on a ski trip with no snow. We watched images of the St. Charles streetcar, decorated for the holidays and covered in snow, on CNN in our hotel lobby.
Luckily, by the end of the week, snow fell in beautiful Lake Tahoe. It was too late for us to ski, but it hadn’t stopped us from having a great vacation. On the last day, Travers insisted again that we suit up and “at least take a picture” in our ski clothes. While I turned red, he asked a couple if we could borrow their snowboards and to pose with them as if we had been on the slopes all day. Next year, we hope, we’ll get another shot at skiing, and eventually, another snow day in New Orleans!