Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Traveling Trinkets

The journey continues, crossing the Atlantic

I have a dead butterfly in my pocket. It’s perfect, just like a Monarch should be, and wrapped safely inside a miniature ivory locket. I’m also wearing a silver, four-looped ring forged by a jewelry smith from southern Mexico. I carry a clothbound journal with mountains of messages from home, each one waiting for me to reach its page during my journey. And then there are the farewell kisses that draw pretty constellations across my cheeks…

I am a walking alter.

I am a connecting passenger from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Copenhagen to Stockholm.

Fellow travelers check their tickets: United Airlines flight 8802, group 3, boarding time 16:45. The men with suits and briefcases must be trying to make an early Monday meeting. A few families look like they are returning home. Still others will be visiting their parents, or maybe a girlfriend. Most trips are like this – point “a” to point “b” journeys. Start here, end there.

I check my ticket and see the same information: United Airlines flight 8802, group 3, boarding time 16:45. I crane my head back to see the departure information screen and confirm the schedule. Pass through security, one more time. Then the gate monitor reminds me again. They all make it perfectly clear that I have no idea where I am going. Add axis “z” to this trip where point “a” and point “b” won’t take you anywhere without a third coordinate. Start here, end up in outer space.

I want to tell you that this is an overwhelming feeling, but it’s not. It’s like asking your father how he learned to parallel park. It’s a process, and you are mostly unaware. I anesthetize any possible shock with daydreams. I imagine the series of events that brought me here: the countless, however significant choices I made to take the blue pill and not the red one.

See, swallowing the blue pill isn’t as smooth as a sip of cough syrup. It’s not fast and no single dose will do the trick. First you need to research the side effects and consider what has happened to others who have chosen to ingest. Then you have to find a glass of water that will push your decision down. And of course, you will need to find good company. People to hold you up on the days the blue pill gives you a stomachache and turns the floorboards beneath you into prickling heads of cactus.


It’s September 2008 and one of my best friends in Monterrey is getting married. She’s from Europe, he’s from Mexico. The celebration will be a Swedish, Hungarian, Italian, Latino affair.  The bride’s family comes over from Europe, friends arrive from the U.S., and I am excited to meet them. I open a hostel in my apartment, and we are fully booked. Two Swedes from Stockholm sleep on couches; another two from Halmstad in my bed; and I sneak under the covers with my roommate. We are together for an entire week. This is the first time I hear Swedish. It’s also the first time I try Sweden’s Turkish Pebbar (Turkish Delight I later rename it after C.S. Lewis’ White Witch treat) – an intensely anise flavored candy with spicy pepper filling. I teach them salsa, they teach me swear words, and I decide it’s time to invent an international document I’ve come to call the Travelers’ Code (this surely already exists but, just for fun, let’s pretend it’s mine).

The Travelers’ Code is a list of should’s and should not’s. For example, four Swedes come to my place. We get to know each other, share a few tequilas, learn new words and habits, and eventually form a bond. I should go and visit them in return. I should see where they are from. I should begin a bed-for-bed barter system. And I should not delay. Open wide. Pick your color.

Now, I am looking for a glass of water. The blue pill is in my mouth. I’m chewing on it, trying hard to swallow, but I can’t seem to get it past my tongue. I’m not sure where to go or how to get there. And then I find it.

It’s 9am on a Friday morning. I come to work, sleepy Chinese eyes, papers stacked to the top of my cubicle. I sit down and open my computer. Here, stuck to the keyboard, I stumble across a most unexpected and quenching surprise. It’s a post-it note from a good friend who understands my thirst. She sits just a few cubicles away and has left me a Friday morning wake-up call. The post-it stares at me and washes my questions away. It says, “You cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

And I should not delay…

Windows start menu; open internet explorer; enter the address; I am available for travel on February 7, 2009; Visa card; are you sure you would like to purchase?; yes; itinerary confirmed; one-way; Pittsburgh to Stockholm; take a deep breath; now go tell your boss.

The rush of adrenaline this purchase sends through my body is the electric shock a Super Bowl champion must feel as he first tests the weight of Vince Lombardi’s trophy. Instead of Cadillac’s latest Escalade, however, my victory is accompanied by tight indigestion. A tummy turning realization that the blue pill is on its way down, and it’s not coming back up.

I start to explore the consequences. I will move from point “a” to point “b.” And then to points “c,” “d,” and “x.” I will write. I will waste time. I will slow down. I will test myself. I will get scared, happy, lost, and (insert adjective here). But first, before I leave, I will attend a local performance of the Broadway musical A Light in the Piazza with my mother. I was unaware beforehand, but the show is about a girl’s first trip to Europe. She explores Italy; gets scared, happy, lost and (insert adjective here). And she sings:

“I’m just a someone in an old museum, far away from home as someone can go, and the beauty is I still meet people I know… this is wanting something, this is reaching for it, this is wishing that a moment would arrive. This is taking chances, this is almost touching what the beauty it is.”

The lyrics reach my shoulders and pitter-patter through my eardrums: a river of water diluting the blue pill’s initial sour aftertaste, turning it into something sweeter and more permanent.


And now, after many glasses of water, I am floating through airport corridors, following signs, turning circles. I am flying over the Atlantic. It’s a timeless “Caught in the Middle” kind of place, somewhere between GMT -6 and GMT +1. Then, I am landing in Copenhagen, listening to the soft Danish announcements come over the airplane intercom. Now I am in the Schengen Region, and then a quick flight to Stockholm. I am hitting the accelerator. Ride ‘em cowgirl!

Mina damer och herrar, välkomna till Sverige!



Footnote E: A quick word about the trinkets I carry…

The Monarch butterflies migrate through Monterrey twice each year. Once in the spring as they head north toward Canada, and once in the fall as they head south toward Morelia, Mexico to breed. According to the Indians in Mexico, the butterfly is a sacred symbol for life beyond the grave. The butterfly must first experience the cocoon’s sleepy death before fluttering its beautiful orange-yellow wings in life.

The butterfly is also an important image displayed during Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration in November. During this month, the Monarchs arrive to Morelia. And Morelia is one of southern Mexico’s most traditional locations to celebrate El Dia de los Muertos – this holiday honoring life after death. Honoring souls that could not be conquered. Butterflies have always been an important part of my life. They appear when I am troubled and often bring a deep breath of clarity to my confusion.

It’s November 2008 and the butterflies have just come through Monterrey. Look up. Go on, throw your head back! It’s an amazing show of transparent and twinkling wings. Hundreds, thousands, more and more keep coming. They are beautiful and they are taking me with them. It’s time to leave Monterrey. Time to follow their lead.

I tell Gabriel that I saw the Monarchs and that they made me feel light and secure. He says nothing. His response is more sincere than words. He walks around the forest that surrounds my apartment and finds a treasure, just for me. A number of butterflies fall from the sky, tired from the journey, unable to continue. Gabriel finds one that has fallen softly, no wing damage, only colorful perfection. He wraps it for me. Close your eyes; hold out your hands. Now smile.


Idunn is a friend from Norway. She lives in Monterrey and hosts a farewell dinner in my honor. She invites Laura the bride and Lisette from the Netherlands. We share salad, homemade lasagna, traditional Scandinavian vanilla sauce, warm coffee, and Regio gossip. These girls understand what it’s like to need a little help getting big decisions settled into your stomach. Idunn sees a bit of heaviness in my face. She pulls me aside, takes me into the bathroom, and closes the door.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” she tells me. “Because I have this for you.” She pulls a silver ring off her left index finger. It’s a deformed four-leaf clover. She says she bartered for it with an old lady in a dusty Monterrey antique shop. The way Idunn puts it, the ring has something special about it. Some enchantment cast by the Señora who sold it to her. “It’s supposed to bring you good luck. It helped me find mine. But then I discovered that I’ve had the good luck inside me this entire time. I hope you’ll find this too and then give it to someone else.” I smile as we embrace, and with my hands around her neck, I slide the ring onto my left index finger.


This year, my favorite Christmas gift came from my sister. She bought me a clothbound journal smothered by an image of a whirling butterfly. She dedicated time and energy to hunting down important childhood friends, high school friends, new friends, total strangers, everyone. She asked them to encourage me by writing notes on random pages. She tells them, “Your words will be a part of my sister’s journey, so make ‘em good!” Kimberly is a blue pill woman. More than anyone, perhaps, she understands the consequences of my decisions, how they make me feel, how they simultaneously thrill and terrify me. She absorbs the vibrations of these decisions with me and together we share cups of tea, cans of beer, card games, and Albert Einstein talks, long into many nights to help get that blue pill down and keep it there.


I’d love it if you bought me a new Coach bag. Airline miles, bottles of Herradura tequila, or a $130,000 scholarship for my Master’s degree (figure based on the latest “Estimated Cost of Attendance for Two Years” information sheet sent by Columbia University where I have just been offered admission to their School of International and Public Affairs for August 2009), would also be great. But nothing, and I’m being so serious, nothing could ever replace the value of two parents who send you off on a crazy man’s journey with hugs and kisses. My father says he’s proud of me and my mother says I am precious to her. Worthy of my father’s praise and sacred to my mother despite being unemployed, unsure about what’s next, up in the air on a Master’s working out, shaky on my savings, and generally all sorts of turned around. Their kisses cushion and protect me; block my falls and tell me exactly who I am.

“This is being thankful, this is counting blessings…”


  1. very well written friend. i might ask if i could borrow the paragraph about the blue pill. my mind is spinning on the sermon loom, and that's good yarn!


  2. Still following... :)
    Keep it up...! Can't wait to read some more.