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Sustainable Life Down Under: Compost toilets, naughty ponies, and fire sacrifices

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Sustainable living has always been high on my interest list — from survival tactics, to leaving a low footprint on our earth, to simply being knowledgable in understanding how to best use the resources around me. The idea of being independent and capable has always appealed to me.

So when the opportunity for Emma and I to try our hand at sustainable farming came up, I was more than happy to take it!

Sure, according to my bucket list I was supposed to start in New Zealand, but I couldn’t really complain that I’d find my beginnings in Australia instead.

Kylie picked us up from the train station in Maitland. The timing was perfect, against all the odds that day.

A drive out into the countryside with one ambiguous turn after another, and suddenly Kylie announced that this particular turn was home.

At the time, I couldn’t have told you the difference between that turn and any of the other hundred turns prior to that. Now, I could pick it out of a million similar turns: From the developing garden, to the greenhouse, to Aaron’s custom designed forest growing as a shield around the property… this truly was to become home to us for the next month.

“Could you hop out and get the gate?” she asked.

Before we knew it, we were pulling into a quaint dirt driveway next to several varying sized sheds.

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Aaron and Kylie had been developing the land together for about 6 months. It was already a fairly impressive setup, considering it had grown out of almost nothing.

The only thing brought in from The Grid was electricity; everything else on the property was self-produced and self-managed.

We were introduced to our studio. It was about 12 feet by 14 feet in size, holding a futon bed, a wooden bench, and a tiny kitchenette in the corner. The kitchenette had a small burner, 2 plastic buckets to act as sinks, and a modest (though comprehensive) array of foods for us to cook with.

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“I’ll be cooking you lunch on your work days, but we thought it would make sense for you to prepare your own breakfast and dinner? We will provide the food of course,” Kylie informed us.

The studio had been transformed from an old stable that the ponies used to have access to, and was still in progress. It needed insulation, there were plans for a more permanent kitchen setup, and they generally seemed uncertain about whether it was truly livable.

I felt it was perfect.

We got to know all the animals of the farm pretty quickly. Bobby and Snowy the miniature ponies, Georgie the attentive pup, Kitty the elusive cat, Patty the friendly baby goat, Babe the wild baby sheep, and all 17 chickens along with the 2 roosters.

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It also took us about a week and a half to finally get into the rhythm of our schedule:

6:15am, first alarm. Boil water, have a bowl of oatmeal. Get dressed.

7:00am, meet Kylie and Aaron out front. Begin the day by feeding the chickens, and feeding Bobby his special breakfast to aid the healing of his leg.

After our starting chores, there was always a good selection of work for us to do. It varied from digging holes, fertilizing soil, weeding, tearing old trees out of the ground, mulching the garden, creating compost piles, putting new trees into the ground, cleaning the chicken coop, watering trees, spending time with the babies, rescuing trees from overgrown honeysuckle, hunting down spiky plants, and always building up the bonfire pile.

That’s not even an all-inclusive list of our activities, but provides a bit of scope for the type of work routinely called for on the farm.

9:45-10:30, break for morning tea. We got to try a wide selection of teas, including rosemary, lemon myrtle, and rose hip. We were also often treated to some sort of snack — such as oranges slices, almonds, coconut shavings, raisins, carrot cookies, or polenta-based cake.

If it wasn’t too hot yet, we’d tackle another hour or so of work before resting till lunch.

1:00pm, lunch! Kylie cooked us famously delicious vegetarian meals. I never knew you could do so much with so little.

4:00pm, we would return to work. By around 5:30-6pm, we would finish off the day by collecting the eggs, and feeding/watering all the chickens again.

6:30pm, I would cook us something for dinner. I invented a few variations of curry soups, fried rice and veggies, and pasta creations that both Emma and I enjoyed. I’d never cooked with so many vegetables before. (My cooking class in Cambodia also really helped me out with ideas!)

8:00pm, we would already be about ready for bed. I caught up on so much sleep the first few weeks that I almost felt human again.

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We got to go “into town” about twice a week, usually coinciding with our days off. The internet was incredibly limited out at the farm, with no wifi and just the trickle of a satellite connection through their personal computer that we preferred not to use except for anything urgent.

Town could mean Cessnock, a small city about 20-25 minutes away, or Wollombi, an area that consisted of one main road with a general store and a few small restaurants just 10 minutes in the opposite direction.

Emma and I quickly become known at our usual haunts in both locations. It’s not difficult to attract attention when you’re new in small areas.

In Cessnock, we would usually start off at Polina’s Cafe, where the food and drinks were quite excellent, but the wifi would cut out after a couple hours of use. We would make our way down to the library until the timed connection ran out, and then venture down further to yet another cafe that sported another open wifi from across the street.

In Wollombi, we loved to torture Bruno, who ran a small cafe and restaurant next to an winery that doubled as an inn.

“What are you guys still doing here?” he’d sigh in exasperation, “Where are you staying that you don’t have electricity?”

It took a minute before we could point out it wasn’t the electricity, but the wifi we were after. We just also happened to need to plug in when we were sitting there all day.

“Don’t kill my customers,” he would grumble, worried about the tripping hazard.

Some notable moments throughout our stay:

Learning to use a compost toilet. It’s not complicated, but it does take some getting used to when you’ve never done anything of the sort before.

Picking fuzzy green caterpillars off of kale. The first time we did it, I was pretty weirded out by the whole process. I didn’t want to touch them, I didn’t want to deal with it. By the end, I was somehow adjusted to it and was picking them off just fine — not even using gloves (usually)!

Showering by black bag, or not at all. Admittedly, neither Emma or I really showered as often as we should have. And when we did, it was a matter of remembering to set the black bags out early enough in the day to warm it up, and then standing under the trickle and attempting to scrub the whole first layer of your skin off to feel clean again.

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All of Snowy’s shenanigans. Snowy is a naughty pony who enjoys escaping, eating your food, and generally causing trouble in her spare time.

Preparing a rabbit and tanning the skin. We helped skin and prepare some rabbits for the carnivorous pets. This was a process I’d never been exposed to. Disgusting? Yes. Useful knowledge for survival situations? Absolutely.

Sleeping, or trying to sleep, through rooster calls. I’ve complained about roosters before in regard to my road trip through Key West, but this really took it to the next level. They always start around 3:30am, and don’t generally stop until 5pm or later. Every day. Every night. For the whole month.

A big ol’ goanna. We spotted a pretty big monitor lizard running around the property a few times, but I never got the chance to snap a good photo. In related news, we also found a blue tongued lizard hanging out under our bed one day.

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna. There was a nearby farm run by a Hare Krishna group. We visited for Sunday lunch, which meant we also sat through a very interesting chanting ritual before we could eat.

Bugs. Reptiles. Spiders. Everywhere. Granted, they weren’t ever dangerous. I don’t think.

The most epic bonfire of all time. We finally burned the bonfire, and it was big, and it was brilliant, and we baked the most delicious potatoes in it.

Please enjoy 34 seconds of slow motion bonfire beauty:

Beautiful bird calls through the morning, but also… what the hell, kookaburras? It was truly magical to wake up to the enchanting, sometimes eerie bird calls through the morning. But have you ever heard the kookaburra before? It sounds like a monkey mated with a hyena and the creature that came forth can’t stop laughing at your face.

Cleansing sunrise fire rituals. One day we drove out to sit in on an Agnihotra sacrifice at a nearby farm with some friends of Aaron and Kylie. Definitely a new and fascinating experience I had never been exposed to.

Catching a wild bird stuck in the chicken coop. I’d been catching chickens through the month, so the idea of catching a bird wasn’t so scary when I found a wild bird stuck in the back of the chicken coop when we went to clean it out. It had exhausted itself by attempting to fly out the back where there was no escape, so I managed to catch it while it took a rest and set it free outside.

Earthbag building. Aaron is wildly knowledgable about alternative living, and we got to help put down a layer of earthbags for the new stable they’re building for the ponies. I now have a desire to learn more about SuperAdobe structures and building one of my own for a home one day.

The roos! How could I forget the roos? We saw fields upon fields of wild roos hanging out near the farm. They tend to just stand there adorably in groups and stare at you with timid curiosity.

Health benefits of eating cleanly and exercising daily. Did you know that eating sugar-free, dairy-free, organic, clean vegetarian food and doing hard physical labor almost every day is really good for your health? Finally being in an environment where this was my usual day in and day out, I lost about 3-4 inches around the waist during my stay. Not to mention, I’m much stronger than when I arrived… if my ability to lift a full shower bag of water up on its hook is any indication.

IMG_4121All in all, our stay at the newly dubbed Sweet Valley farm with Aaron and Kylie was quite splendid.

Unhooking from regular access to internet, having our first experience with sustainable living, getting to know our beautiful hosts, learning so many new skills, enjoying so many new experiences, having time for self reflection and regaining some long lost health was incredibly rejuvenating.

It was our first time using the WorkAway network, and Emma and I both agreed that this was exactly what we were looking for.

We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the bush down under.

P.S. Bonus thought of the day: Why does Australia have so much slang? And why make so much of it so suggestive?

P.P.S. New vocabulary I’ve found myself using: “Full on”, “loads”, “reckon” (or alternatively “figure”)

P.P.P.S. More information about Aaron and Kylie: They are turning their farm into a retreat for learning about sustainable and organic farming, environmental and survival training, as well as cooking, more earthbag building, and learning to live with a minimal footprint.

They are launching their site soon at SweetValleyRetreat.com

Meanwhile, Kylie also runs a cooking site (which, based on her cooking, I highly recommend you investigate) at KyliesWildKitchen.com.au


Women Of The World: Yes, you should shave your head.

A couple years ago, I spoke about the decision I made to shave my head. After seeing the number of women who seem to find that post wondering whether or not they, too, should shave their heads… I wanted to write a follow up.

No, I’m not skinny or particularly athletic looking. Yes, my face is a bit round. You might be thin, or you may not be so thin. Your face may be tall, long, short, round, or wide. Your hair may be thick, thin, short, long, curly, straight —

None of those things matter.

There’s only one formula to know whether or not you should shave your head: You want to. Continue Reading


Smoking Pot in Cambodia

WARNING! This post is graphic about food in open markets, and animals being used for food. I do not recommend reading this if you have a weak stomach or are sensitive about the process of an animal being prepared to eat.


I woke up this morning with the sinking sensation that I will never, ever have enough sleep. After days on end of 4-6 hours at best, I finally booked in about 9 solid hours of sweet, deep sleep last night.

Yet somehow, it didn’t quite satisfy.

Emma wasn’t feeling well and left breakfast early. I managed to wake myself up a little more in the shower, then nudged Emma to see if she was up for leaving — we were getting picked up for a cooking class soon.

“I feel nauseous. I’m going to stay here,” she told me.

I was feeling grumpy, in a foggy haze of trying to wake up, and briefly debated whether I wanted to go through a whole cooking class by myself. What if that was awkward? Would I really have a good time? I stared at the Emma-shaped lump under the covers with a frown.

Whatever. I threw my shoes on hastily and walked out to meet our guide.

I was whisked away in our van through a series of muddy dirt roads. Motorbikes and mopeds poured around us in waves, barefooted children ran outside of rickety houses, men and women alike were tending their shops, organizing items and cooking food under makeshift umbrellas.

We pulled up to an old building and stopped. A man with a furrowed brow and thick mustache seemed to be waiting.

There was some banter between the guide and the man. In a flurry of events and no formal introductions, he was in the car with us to make sure the driver knew where to pick me up later on. “Then I’ll take you to the market. Do you eat everything?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant at first. “I eat most things?”

“You like fish? If you don’t like fish we won’t make the fish meal.”

In my head I went through the whole story of how I used to hate all seafood, then I learned to like sushi, then I fell in love with salmon, and even more recently I’ve been learning to enjoy all manner of fish cooked in various styles. However, I chose simply to answer with, “Yes, I like fish.”

Moments later we were getting out of the car at what felt like an arbitrary stop.

We walked a little ways down the road, him leading the way while I trailed behind trying not to step in any puddles, clip the back of his sandals, or get hit by any of the motorbikes that loved to ride so close that you envisioned your certain death every time one passed.

Very shortly, we entered the marketplace. Rows of homemade tents were cobbled together low to the ground. Crouched under each were women and children, sorting and managing the goods sported beneath. Hundreds of displays of vegetables stretched as far as the eye could see: there were dried goods, fresh goods, all spread out on wooden planks, sitting in sacks, or simply on plastic wrap right on the ground.

I felt noticeably tall, as most of the people there only came up to about my shoulders and the tents were hung quite low.

Raw meat sliced into rudimentary portions were spread out on display, being handled by interested customers, picked up, placed down, and I couldn’t help but notice how many flies were buzzing around everything available to buy.

There were fully intact, dead, freshly plucked chickens splayed out for inspection about every fourth stall.

Having worked in the States in a restaurant before, I couldn’t help but think back to all of the health codes I’d ever learned being wildy violated at every turn. But, I wanted to enjoy my experience, so I pushed these thoughts aside.

I learned my cooking teacher’s name was Vannak.

We made a lot of short stops at different shops. He would pick out several vegetables, explaining what it was, how it was cooked, and often pointed out other interesting options available for purchase. He was curious which of them I had already seen before, and would give me alternatives to purchase when one or the other wasn’t available back at home.

I watched as they took freshly shredded coconut and pressed it into coconut milk, before bagging the white liquid for us.

We had amassed a small grocery bag of vegetables in addition to the coconut milk when we walked up to a woman selling fish. They sat in buckets, along with what looked like some kind of eel that was swimming in small circles. A pile of fish out in the open air were all still slowly moving their mouths.

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She was moving one of the fish in the buckets when it wriggled away onto the ground. Again, I pushed thoughts of sanitation from my mind.

There was some seeming confusion before she picked out another fish, weighed it, and – after confirmation – attempted to place it on her chopping block. It escaped her hands again, flopping onto the ground in one last desperate plea for freedom.

She grabbed it firmly by the tail and successfully laid its head down on the block.

I felt a weird twist in my stomach as she used her other hand to pick up a heavy duty butcher’s knife. But, I told myself, if I was going to continue eating meat, I shouldn’t be so hypocritical as to turn my head the other way and ignore the process required to get it on my plate.

My eyes were wide open as I watched her then raise the knife and slam it down onto the top of the fish’s head. I thought, maybe that killed it. Now it doesn’t have to suffer more, surely.

It still seemed pretty alive as she laid blows again and again. She flipped it over on its back. The gills were still pulsing. She pulled at the gills and hacked away at the head, but left it on mostly intact.

Vannak was explaining to me about how they use all parts of the fish for eating so that nothing goes to waste, but I wasn’t really listening anymore.

I winced as I watched a small stream of blood spurt out.

I’m going to eat this, I’m going to eat this, I’m going to eat this, I was saying to myself in my head. This is what happens to fish when you eat them.

She deftly laid the fish flat on its stomach, slicing the fins off either side. Then went the fin from the tail.

She grabbed a small strange tool that sat next to her and began brushing it up and down the fish, which removed the scales. It was gruesome, there was a certain brutality to her quick, sure strokes.

The process to remove the fins from the underside and top required a more surgical process, slicing the fish open from either side of each fin to remove them in strips. There was some internal organ she pulled from the belly and snipped with her knife.

Thankfully, the fish seemed to have finally stopped moving. I hoped it had been dead much longer than I thought it had.

It looked very naked now.

She picked up a blue plastic bag and curled the fish into it. She offered it out to me. My gut was in knots but I took it anyways, although Vannak did check to make sure I was okay and offered to carry it instead. “I’m fine,” I said. I wanted to own up to this whole activity I was participating in.

We made a couple more vegetable stops, but otherwise made our way out of the market at this point.

It wasn’t too long before we were entering an old building three stories tall. The ceilings were again, low, and the walls were sparse on the way to the top floor.

I soon found myself on a patio with a table that looked ready for me to prepare food.

 

 

The class went very smoothly and was a lot of fun. I learned a little trick to peeling garlic (smash it first!) and other cutting techniques for chopping vegetables. I was thrilled to find out that I didn’t have to actually prepare the fish or any other meat beyond tenderizing the beef.

I started out by creating the coconut curry for the fish, then setting up marinades for the beef and chicken.

While we waited for the marinades to work their magic, I was shown how to cut and fold a banana leaf into a bowl shape to steam the amok in — keeping everything in place with toothpicks. I put the fish, veggies, and curry carefully into the leaf bowl. Then he helped me place it in an outdoor steamer that looked a lot like a BBQ grill.

After prepping the rest of the veggies and creating a chili paste — I was led inside to the stove where they had moved all of my hard work for cooking.

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I was thrilled to finally learn how to properly use the utensils I’d seen used at our various stops through Cambodia so far! The pan heated up very quickly and I discovered I was able to imitate the movements I’d seen Cambodian cooks use with ease.

The technique of water to oil ratios were explained to me, and before I knew it I’d finished both the beef and chicken dishes. It was time to eat!

I have to say, I am ridiculously pleased with how my work turned out. Vannak said he was very impressed with how quickly and efficiently I was able to get all three meals finished. “It looks very good. And no one ever does it this fast,” he told me.

Amok Fish:

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Chha Kroeung (Chicken):

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Beef Lok Lak:

(My personal favorite!)

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The chicken was a little too spicy for me, but all of it was absolutely delicious.

Before I left, I was given a cookbook of my own so I can recreate these meals and feed all of you delicious food when I come visit you again!

So, should you ever find yourself in Battambang, Cambodia, I implore you to check out Vannak’s cooking class for the experience of a lifetime.


To find more information, just look up:

Vannak Robie
Smokin’ Pot Restaurant
Battambang District


Nothing To Lose Your Pants Over

Island of Krk, Croatia

It started out like many days often do.

A gentle drizzle could be heard falling outside the window, a soft glow indicated the sun had already begun its daily route cloaked in the safety of rainclouds.

I checked my phone for the time and realized it was an hour later than we’d planned to get started. Again. I listened for signs of life on the other side of the wall, but couldn’t hear whether Charles had woken yet. A quick glance next to me confirmed Emma was still sound asleep.

Today, I had strict instructions to get the day going if I woke up first.

I stepped out of bed groggily to make my way to the bathroom, but paused in front of Charles’ door. After a moment of hesitation, I knocked lightly.

“The weather is terrible,” his voice grumbled. “It’s raining.”

Considering the natural beauty of the surrounding Croatian beaches, I understood his frustration.

The morning rolled out slowly. We prepared our cameras, debated the merits of umbrellas, reveled in underwater camera technology, and finally rousted Emma for breakfast at a local café.

We soon found ourselves heading out for the day.

I got things started with a bang by slipping down the slick steps of the hotel entry way, proceeding to tweak my back, smash my side, and slam my wrist hard into the concrete as I broke my fall. Usually you get that weird falling sensation right as you go down, but the whole experience felt rather flat, as if my adrenaline really needs something serious to be bothered these days.

After brushing myself off and bemoaning my now-soaked butt, we continued onward to the beaches.

The rain ensured us an empty, if not treacherous, pathway to the all but abandoned shoreline. We walked through cobblestone streets lined with warm shops and people scuttling from one overhang to the next, clinging to their umbrellas as if they held the answer to life itself.

We reached, and passed a nudist resort. The beach lacked nudists, as anyone you could manage to spot in the distance sat huddled and completely clothed.

Hut-like covers dripped water over vacant wooden lounge chairs that looked over the vast aquamarine sea. It was the idyllic scene one usually sees on brochures, only overcast, missing bikini clad women and iced cocktails sweating in the sun.

A short rocky hike past the scenic ghost town and we found ourselves descending onto an open beach all our own.

Low cliffs hugged the wide inlet, jagged crevices jutting up from dark bases into light gray stone as if the rocks would break open at any moment. Beyond the sea and the mist you could see low laying clouds in rings around mountains looming out of the water. The Adriatic Sea itself was clear and brilliant, even under the gray skies. Bright, smooth stones led to the water’s edge. There was a small wooded area that led back inland.

When one reads wild tales of pirates and mermaids, this is the very image one has in their mind.

Among the trees was a wooden structure that provided coverage for our belongings. I stripped off my pants, leaving me in a tank top and my underwear as a swimsuit. I’d forgotten to pack a real one.

Our shoes were left behind as we trekked through the stony pebbles to the water. It was somewhat painful, but not so bad once you reached the waterline.

I yipped as I touched my feet in for the first time. It was a bit colder than I expected. Charles and Emma were already swimming around, taking photos with the underwater camera.

It took me a while, but once I was finally in, it was one of the most glorious experiences I’ve ever had. The water was quite salty, and lent itself to keeping you afloat, so you didn’t panic about suddenly tiring out and sinking into oblivion. There were beautiful fish swimming underneath your feet, and you could see large colorful stones lining the bottom of the ocean below.

My only regret was not having goggles.

A couple hours later we decided to try to find Mali Raj, an intimate beach with a name that translates to Little Heaven in Croatian. It would require another short hike over the side of the rocky cliffs.

It was at this juncture I began to second guess my decision not to bring any change of clothes. I didn’t want to entirely soak my pants since we were going to continue swimming, so I left them off and draped them over my camera bag with my towel.

I was quite the sight with my bright red Tommy Hilfiger underwear, neon blue tank top, and shoes hiking my way around the steep cliffs by the sea.

It wasn’t till about halfway to the next beach that I realized that my pants had fallen off my pack somewhere along the way. Great. The going was rough and I didn’t know where exactly they had fallen. I knew we’d be coming back this way, so I sighed and figured I’d find them on our way home rather than double back unnecessarily.

Both Emma and Charles got a good chuckle out of my situation.

Along the way we met a couple who turned out to also be from California. When we asked whether they had found the beach we wanted, they told us it was just around the corner. “See that fishing boat? Right beyond there. We watched him catch an octopus, actually.”

We finally breached the edge of the cliff and carefully made our way down onto the tiniest of beaches. We had found Mali Raj. And a little heaven it was: The small pebble beach sat maybe fifteen feet across, and the water was even more clear and beautiful than before.

At first we were disappointed, the fisherman was still just off the shore in his boat, which would ruin the background of the photos we were hoping to take for our shoot that day.

Croatian fisherman

We managed to make do on one side of the beach. After a few minutes the fisherman drew near.

“What is he doing?” we wondered, a little irritated.

Then the fisherman called out. He and Charles bantered for a few minutes after figuring out their language differences, and suddenly Charles began laughing.

“Emma, do you want to pose with octopus? He said we can use the octopus he caught for our photos!”

Emma said, Sure, why not?

The fisherman got a big grin on his face and rowed over to the tiny shore. He pulled out a white plastic bucket from the bottom of his boat. He pulled off the lid with a flourish, reached down and then held up an octopus dangling off his index finger. He said something else, then reached down and produced two more octopus, all hanging off his fingers.

What came next was a blur. Emma wanted to put an octopus on her head for the pictures, which Charles related to the fisherman. The fisherman seemed beside himself with happiness, he proceeded to make an example of how to do just that by placing an octopus on his own head, draping the tentacles down the sides of his face as the whole octopus itself began sliding down his forehead.

For every idea we had to do with Emma for the photo shoot, the fisherman was more than excited to participate in whatever way he could. He seemed to have an endless supply of octopus he was very eager to share.

Croatian fisherman with octopus

We finally exhausted ourselves and wrapped up the shoot with the octopus. The fisherman continued conversing with Charles.

“He wants to show us around the tip of the island on his boat, is that okay?” Charles asked us.

The idea was thrilling. I glanced down at my state of attire. “Definitely, as long as I don’t need pants.”

“Ah, that’s right. You should be fine.”

We gathered our things and piled into the boat. A few more words were exchanged and we were suddenly making our way back to the cliffs where I’d lost my pants.

“Can you see them?” Charles asked me. We all looked intently, but with no luck. Then we saw a couple hiking along the trail. Charles shouted up, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes!” they stopped, and the woman answered us.

“Have you seen a pair of black pants?”

I couldn’t stop laughing and wanting to hide out of embarrassment. No way had they seen my pants.

“Yes!” she shouted back. “Just back that way!” She pointed back down the trail a ways. We still couldn’t see them.

“Would you like us to get them for you?” the man asked, and had already started back. I felt mortified, as I watched him hike almost the entire way back before he finally bent over and held up my pants triumphantly. “These?”

“Yes! Those are them!” I was dying. Here I was, sitting in a small fishing boat in the middle of the Adriatic Sea in my underwear with a fisherman, a photographer, and a model — having a German couple I’d never met toss me my soaked pants off the side of a rocky trail where I’d dropped them.

There are some things you can never really predict in life.

And thus we recollected my pants. From the side of the cliff. In a fishing boat. Off the island of Krk in Croatia.

The fisherman proceeded to show us around the length of the island, which was even more beautiful with every turn. The water was deep, but still clear so you could see the beautiful rocks at the bottom. Giant rock formations rose from the water, deep crags and caves sprinkled along the edges. It was a kind of desolate beauty.

Emma was tired and cold, but the fisherman rectified that with some whiskey he kept on board.

After stopping in a cave for one last photo shoot, we were about ready to call it a day. We hadn’t eaten and it was growing late. The fisherman wanted to show us a local treat before saying goodbye.

He gave us shell necklaces to remember him by. We finally made our way back to the docks and scrambled back to stable land.

He led us down the boardwalk to a small shop where we were delighted to find the Croatian version of langoš awaiting us. It had been one of our favorite snacks in Hungary.

The deep fried dough slathered in sour cream and freshly grated cheese was the perfect snack to end such an exhilarating day.


I don’t know, here’s an update

I was tucked into a corner of the hallway wearing naught but an over-sized t-shirt and ill fitting red athletic shorts, when a group of well todo ladies and gentlemen walked past me in all their finery.

One of the women audibly gasped when she caught a glimpse of my disheveled self, so I grinned apologetically from halfway behind the curtain.

I waited awkwardly until they had left the vicinity before turning back to my Mom on Skype.

“Sorry. There were fancy people walking by.”

The Four Seasons is hardly the hotel you hang out like a bum stealing wifi in public areas, but I had our room key in my pocket which would quickly prove my right to be there should anyone press the issue. Ah, the things we do for a little bit of faux privacy.

Such is life, eh?

There’s a redundancy in the system.

I’m still in Budapest.

Only, for the time being I not only have our apartment readily available to us, but also the hotel room we were booked for the weekend. It’s a little over the top, but I’m not one to complain about being treated well.

I mean, goddamn, just look at the view.

Chain Bridge over the Dunabe River, Budapest, Hungary

Yes, you are understanding correctly, I took this from our hotel window. I hardly believe it, myself.

Everything in my life right now is spectacular.

…except for one thing: My anxiety and depression issues are beginning to become a real problem for me again. It seems almost impossible given my circumstances, but I wanted to share a little bit about it. I’m sorry if it bums you out, but I think it will be therapeutic for me – and as always, I share in hopes that it will one day give someone else some kind of insight or peace.

Everything is great! Why am I sad?

I thank the fortunes that be for blessing me with the family and friends I have.

Most of them have either personally struggled with or been closely involved with those who deal with anxiety and depression. They get it. Because of that, I have a deeply understanding emotional support system to tap into when I can bring myself to reach out for help. (An issue often being I feel too overwhelmed or down on myself to reach out, but that’s another topic.)

In particular, I’d like to point out and thank my mom for not only being there for me, but being generally wonderful, insightful, and did I mention always being there for me?

It’s very easy to look around and see all the splendor, to think of what I’ve always wanted out of life, and know this is exactly what I want to be doing. Traveling. Creating art. Connecting with people. Being over-the-top awesome.

If these are the things I love, the things that make me happy, then why the &#$% am I so sad?

This sort of thinking leads to a dark vortex of self-hatred and feelings of existential pointlessness, which in turn makes me feel like I must be ungrateful for these opportunities, which makes me even more frustrated with myself. This darkness leads to my becoming incredibly unpleasant, which affects people in really negative ways, which makes me feel even worse.

But my mom knows what’s going on, and I am so thankful that she does:

Depression vs. Depression

There is circumstantial depression, and there’s chemical depression.

Circumstantial

First of all, there’s a lot of things I’m still working through. I’ve written about some of my funks in the past. In general, I’ve dealt with some pretty enormous life changes over the last couple years.

To summarize: I quit a career, I traveled without a home for 7 months, I split with who I believed for years was my life partner, I moved cities alone, I floated on by attempting to figure out who Anne is, and now I’m off in the world living day-to-day, hardly knowing what will come next.

Even though my immediate circumstances are externally glorious, there’s a real lack of foundation and emotional stability. I haven’t really dealt with things healthily, I have avoided therapy and professional help, and I’m only just starting to realize how deeply these things impacted me.

Chemical

Secondly, I’ve actually been struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression since I was maybe 11 or 12. It got much worse when I was in high school, and I learned a lot of coping methods since then — but it’s never really gone away.

I grew up surrounded by really extreme examples of mental disorders and so it’s hard to look at myself and think, “Yeah, I have something that’s a serious problem here.”

But to be honest? There is truly something chemically imbalanced up here in my head. I can be out having the best time, with my favorite people, and I’m still at huge risk of suddenly being struck with an overwhelming sense of doom and nothingness deep in my gut. That feeling almost always sends me into a disastrous mental spiral and I can’t dig myself out of it.

The problem with anxiety and depression this way is there is no logic to it.

Everything just… means entirely too much or nothing at all. You can’t reason with it. You can’t talk yourself out of it. It’s like a boa wrapped itself around your brain and your heart and your soul and it’s squeezing everything out of you, consuming every little piece of you and leaving nothing for you to work with. It has a physically exhausting impact too, it’s not simply mental.

I have spent so much of my time here in Budapest feeling apathetic, with ridiculously low energy, and many days it’s hard to even make myself shower.

I’m in Budapest on the most epic adventure of my life and all I can bring myself to do is lay in bed most of the time. I think that can be filed under “Negatively Impacting Daily Life”, thanks.

Making moody self portraits helps, sometimes.

Coming to terms with… anything, really.

Like many things… I think the first part is admitting, well, there’s a problem.

I grew up “knowing” how to deal with all this stuff, I’ve been to therapy, done the research, I “know” a lot of coping techniques and what I should do to start dealing with things.

Unfortunately that’s what I’ve been telling myself for years now, and here I am.

There’s a lot of challenges to dealing with this on the road, and maybe at some point I’ll have to sacrifice travel to deal with it. But for now, I want to start by at least addressing that it’s an issue. Once I’ve addressed it, I can slowly begin taking steps to see if I can get better on my own terms without giving up on the really great things I have in life right now.

Paradoxically, I can’t start feeling better until I know it’s okay to feel not okay.

It’s also helpful to be reassured on an incredibly regular, almost obnoxious basis by the people who love me, that they still love me even when I’m just dragging them down into the abyss.

It’s in the moments I’m hating myself most that I need to hear — not that “everything will be okay”, or “look around you”, I don’t want promises for the future or to feel guilty about my depression — but, “Hey, it’s okay you feel that way. I’m sorry you feel that way. I love you. I’m right here.”

And maybe, just maybe, by letting people know about it… I’ll be able to bring myself out and find the support when and where I need it.

I apologize for whatever times I forget to answer messages, check email, or just generally end up hiding myself away from all contact. I get cripplingly overwhelmed sometimes but I really appreciate knowing you’re there.

Learning about anxiety and depression is important.

I’m sorry about the downer update, but this is the sort of thing I think needs to be able to be talked about.

I personally want to be able to talk about it, but I also know I’m not the only one who deals with these issues. There’s a lot of people out there struggling with this and don’t have the support I have, or the knowledge base, or an understanding of why they feel these things. There’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health and that can make it scary to open up. There’s a lot of people who are quick to say “You’re just looking for attention” or many other reactions that just worsen the issue.

So, here are some resources if you’d like to learn more:


Move over, Napoleon: Two months taking over Europe

Originally, this was going to be a post about our first month of travel. But, an entire second month has flown by and I never really got around to finishing that first update post.

It’s quite difficult to capture each and every city I’ve been to in words without turning it into a novel. By the time I finish writing that, it’ll be much farther into my adventure and I want to share at least something before any more time passes.  Continue Reading


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