In the past month, National Catholic Reporter published two articles I wrote about how the pandemic is exacerbating the terrible reality undocumented immigrants, and people experiencing food insecurity face.
I love reporting more than any other job I’ve ever done. Telling people’s stories and being trusted with their vulnerability is an incredible gift.
“This growing pandemic could, as this New Yorker article suggests, give rise to new forms of ritual and human behaviors — including religious rituals. In this new age of anxiety, Alonso, Erikson and other leaders have already begun to meet Catholics’ spiritual needs with creativity.”
“Age of Anxiety” is a reference to a famous work by one of my favorite poets, W.H. Auden. I included the line as a shout-out to Auden, and to my favorite journalist, Chris Hedges, who also loves Auden, and whose journalistic work continually inspires me.
RBG: What travel experience has most transformed you as a person?
“I spent a year abroad after I graduated from college, during which I lived in and traveled to 10 different countries. During that year, I spent four months in East Africa with a refugee advocacy organization as a communications intern. During the internship I visited Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya and spent a week in South Sudan, which at the time was a semi-autonomous region of Sudan.
I remember I visited a doctor in the U.S. to get shots before I departed, and he told me “You need to learn how to take care of yourself.” He was talking about anti-malaria medicine, rehydration salts, and knowing basic first-aid. But he was also talking about the reality that the illusion of safety we cling to in America was about to disappear. I was about to step out into the stark reality of the world, and I needed to know how to keep my shit together.
The week in Kakuma refugee camp and in South Sudan was transformational because it made me realize how little I knew about the world, how ridiculously privileged I am as a white middle-class American, and it taught me that I could trust myself and to trust in God and the universe. I learned that I could walk through fear and reach the light.”
This year I’ve been updating my blog to better reflect my life in 2020. One major addition is the Articles & Essays page that shows examples of news & feature articles, and essays I’ve written in the past 10 years.
There are few experiences that define my haphazard years living abroad more than taking a night train. 5-hour border-delays, accidentally missing my stop, waking up to discover there is someone new in my compartment, and making friends in the bar car at 2am all mark my experiences of this well-worn traveler’s adventure.
This past November my partner and I took a trip to Poland and Czechia to visit my old stomping grounds. I studied for a semester at Charles University in Prague in 2009. In the summers of 2008-2011 I was in Piekary, a village 15 km outside of Kraków, working as an English teacher at summer camps for Polish high school students. In 2010 & 2011, I lived about 9 months in Kraków, teaching and writing.
While living in Kraków, I often crossed the border to visit a good friend living in Lviv, Ukraine. One of my most spontaneous night-train trips occurred with her. It was about 5pm and she texted me to say they were having a party for a friend the next day. She had to go to the border that night to meet a friend. “If you can get to the Przemyśl train station by midnight, we can walk across the border together,” she said.
20 minutes later, I was on my way to the Kraków Glowny train station. And, walk across the border at midnight we did.
Other times, I took night trains in Ukraine from Lviv to Odessa, and Kyiv, and from Kraków to Prague several times. In Spain, I traveled via night train from Valencia to Granada, and in Bolivia, from the salt flats in Uyuni to Oruro.
Often, my travel plans were made on the fly, or with just a day in advance. There was one particularly haphazard experience from Prague to Kraków where I’d bought the wrong ticket, and had to take one slow inter-city train to Bohumín, then transfer to a basic international train. I remember finding an empty compartment around 3am and using my jean jacket as a pillow as I stretched out on a bench.
So, it was an absolute joy to take a proper sleeper with my partner, Patrick, on our trip. I bought tickets in advance on Polrail – undoubtedly more expensive than would be at the station, but it was nice to be prepared. The compartment had 2 bunk beds, sturdy locks on the doors, and a working sink. They supplied a toothbrush and, delightfully, Polish slippers. In the morning, we were brought coffee and breakfast.
Typical of my past night train journeys, we bought cheese and crackers and booze for the journey. We boarded around 10pm, and had a high time rolling through dark sleepy villages in our secret little compartment. Though we didn’t sleep much, the experience was a pleasure and it made me laugh when Patrick, who has traveled extensively yet never taken a night train, asked when I had taken my first.
I wracked my brain for a moment. It would have been the summer of 2008, my first year at the English summer camps. Before the program began, another volunteer and I went to Ukraine. Our train from Lviv to Odessa was leaving around midnight and we’d spent the evening drinking beer outside in the Plosha Rynok in Lviv. I remember with horror arriving at the train station to find only squat toilets, that you had to pay for. After jumping onto the train, we both passed out in a 4-person compartment, each on a top bunk. In the morning, I noticed there was additional luggage on the floor.
I peeked over my bunk to the bed below. A middle-aged Russian man peered up at me. I was so startled I quickly jerked my head back to my pillow.
“Good Morning” his voice boomed.
Thankfully, this train only had rooms for 2, and we drifted into morning undisturbed through the misty Polish countryside.
A bucket-list check-off complete, we spent the morning strolling sunny Kraków, content in the soft Polish light.
I loved writing this story about the dear friends I made in a sleepy Thai fishing village during a trip in 2016. Here’s how it begins:
I stood waist-deep in the crystalline sea, my finger-tips slowly moving through the water. Across the horizon to my left and to my right, the soft curves of Ao Manao Bay’s rocky hills wrapped me in a gentle paradise.
In the piece, I chronicle my first scooter-driving attempt (during which I get lost at night in the rain,) my exploration of breath-taking caves, temples and beaches, and the thrill of being present in every moment of newness and delight.
I jolted awake in the passenger seat of a 1953 Chevrolet speeding past farmers in horses-drawn carriages. Our driver texted while blasting music, steering the seatbelt-less American antique to Havana. I glanced at the rear-view mirror. My friend was passed out cold.
That morning, we’d awakened before 5 a.m. to walk the star-lit road into the town of Viñales to meet our guide, who was to take us up a nearby mountain so that we could watch the sunrise.
We climbed the mountain, Los Acuáticos, with flashlights on the muddy trail. Our guide told us all about the land and the families who live on the mountain, which can only be accessed on foot. After 45 minutes, we reached the peak, where a simple house stands, and watched the misty mountains host the arrival of dawn.
It is moments like these in my travels abroad, that are the most striking in my memories, and that stay with me throughout the years, when other memories fade.