I love this image I took several years ago of a tree swing outside of Blenheim, New Zealand. I took off with four friends that summer. We worked in vineyards, slept in tents, or borrowed houses. We made last minute plans and didn’t question whether something would work out. The biggest mystery of our lives then seemed to be how to find the best swimming spots. (Answer: ask local kids.) Our greatest struggles were how to make our weekly pay check–a real check that we each took in hand to the bank every Wednesday to have cashed–last the whole week and how to buy groceries we all liked so we could split the cost fairly. We didn’t have cellphones or blogs or websites or instagram accounts. We might have had email but we probably didn’t check it very often. We got up early with the sun, drove to whichever vineyard we were contracted to work at for the day, napped at lunchtime, drove to a swimming hole after work, drove home (maybe picked up beer or take out curry on the way), rolled our bedrolls out on the lawn around our tents (as though we were going to do yoga) and fell asleep almost immediately. We spent a lot of time outside. We ate a lot of meals on picnic tables. We spent a lot of time laughing. I took a lot of photographs on actual film.
Blenheim, New Zealand 2006
San Francisco, 2018
The last two days I’ve been walking around San Francisco, enjoying the unusual warmth and sunshine bathing the city. Last evening, my brother was at work so I went alone to Delores Park near his place in the Mission. Turns out Sunday evening is a hugely popular time to hang out in the park. I was one of hundreds of people lounging around in the sun, slack-lining, smoking copious amounts of weed, walking dogs, snuggling on blankets, reading alone, laughing with friends. I’m sure no one was actually watching me but I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb with my camera and backpack, my aimless wondering gait (There’s an adjustment of perspective and comfort when one travels with others and then suddenly travels alone). Somewhat off kilter from my insecurity–being myself and also seeing myself from the outside–I made my way to a circle of eight squat palms, about twenty feet high, their trunks as thick as a small car, and sat down. Sun streamed over me in long pre-sunset rays and kept me warm despite the stiff breeze blowing over the park in gusts, rattling the thick canopy above and making it hard to eavesdrop on any of the conversations happening nearby. I put on my sunglasses and looked out over the groups of people. I took off my shoes and read a magazine. Later, just as I was about to stand and leave, a young, Indian man came out of the palms. He was friendly but forward. He asked me if I spoke Hindi and I replied with one of the few phrases I can still remember and recite fairly well. Kaun sa desh? I asked. Haha, he said. Which country are you from? What a silly thing to ask. He laughed again. I’d been told that kaun sa desh translated to What area are you from? I had walked around India for nine months asking people what country they were from and no one had ever corrected me. That’s why every person I have ever asked this question of has looked at me like I was crazy before responding. Mystery solved.
He said some things which confused me and I may have misheard though his English was perfect. He told me I looked out of place because no one in San Francisco cares about Fashion. I looked down at myself. I wore black leggings, a light flannel shirt, bare feet. Fashion? I wondered. Your nails, he said. They are painted red. Oh, is that fashionable? I asked. Well, I said, I had them painted red because I had my period at the time. Does that count? Then it was his turn to be confused. I don’t know what that means, he said. I just laughed. Well, it’s not a terribly fashionable thing to do is what I mean. Then he said. Well, you aren’t very fashionable! Haha. Was I or wasn’t I? I didn’t know. But I mean, you’re cute, he said. Don’t get me wrong. OK. OK. I was also ‘light’ and ‘contented looking’ and he thought it was hilarious that I ‘couldn’t stop smiling’. Maybe I was just stoned. No, I assured him, I’m completely sober.
I smile when I’m nervous. I smile when I’m happy. I smile when people talk to me. I smile at myself in the mirror. I smile when I sing in the car. I pretty much smile all the time unless I am lost in thought. Even then, if the thoughts t are happy, I probably smile. He was kind and friendly but my smile at that point was a function of nerves and social interaction. I told him I was leaving SF the next day. Well, it will have to be a short and sweet romance then. No, I smiled. I declined an invitation to dinner and he went on his way.
But he had me thinking. Had I looked contented under the palms though I had felt off-center? Did I appear light to others? It was not the first time I’ve been told that. It’s odd to carry impressions of yourself around until you can’t see straight and then to run squarely into someone else’s impression of you. I was grateful for the perspective it gave me: lighten up lady. No one cares what you look like or are doing except maybe people think you look ‘light’ and like you might be fun to have dinner with. I solved a mystery and took a handful of odd compliments away as souvenirs.
I walked to a vegan restaurant and ate a dish of eggplant, tofu and rice. I remembered how in India, we’d searched for vegan & vegetarian restaurants wherever we went and oriented ourselves around them. That morning I’d met my cousin on 14th and Guerrero for brunch. It was a long wait before we could get a table so we wrote our names on a list hanging on the door and walked around the city for an hour. I used google maps to find the bookstore on 20th and Valencia which I thought was on 20th and Guerrero. My cousin is interning at Facebook for the summer. In India, I told him, we didn’t have cellphones or google maps. I photocopied maps out of lonely planet guides before we left or museum guides along the way and the rest of the time asked strangers how to get places. Nine months of winging it without the help of technology. Of practicing city names out loud and picking the next place because we liked the name: Ahmedabad, Shravanabelagola, Kaniyakumari, Kalimpong. We had email which I checked most days at an internet cafe, more out of homesickness than any real need to stay ‘connected’. It’s laughable now, how much time we spend connected to the internet than we did ten years ago. My cousin Solomon, said that the tech company he works for is younger than he is. The oldest person, the highest in his chain of command, is thirty three years old. It’s laughable how different the world is now. Not bad, just different. The rate of change is incredible. Disorientation. Reorientation. While I ate I thought about the trials of navigating without technology and all the people I had interacted with along the way. I thought about how, when my partner at the time stepped off the train to get a snack, I spent all the minutes he was away agonising over the fact that we didn’t have cellphones to contact each other or a contingency plan if the train left without him. I imagined getting off at the next stop with all our things, dragging them to an Internet cafe and emailing him. Are you OK? Where are you? I’m in Mangalore. I was flooded with relief each time he made it back on and yet never, not once, ever, did we make a contingency plan.
With hours to go before I leave, I find myself awash in memory, navigating the last decade or so of my life and wondering about how I ended up here. What would the person I was in 2008 (pre-India) who experienced immense joy from growing broccoli and snow peas for the first time in her humble apartment garden think of who I am now? I wish I could go back and tell her that things were going to get harder, that she would make some pretty big mistakes but that they would help her figure out where she was going. I wish I could tell her to pay attention and remember everything, to love even more deeply than she already was, to believe in herself and her ideas and to get ready because she was going to be swimming with whales one day and it would change her life but that it still wouldn’t make things any easier, just deeper and more beautiful. I wish I could tell her that she was loved more than she will ever know and that it is OK to question everything and be restless and not be sure what she wanted (homesick and also anxious to travel) and to want to spend a lot of time with her family.
And what will the me ten years from now have to say? Get in the water while you can. See what you can. Document it, write about it, love it, experience it, respect it, try to make it better. Humble yourself, keep learning and growing. Keep questioning. Keep searching. Pay attention. Don’t worry about what people think. Make yourself happy. Don’t give up. Keep going. Accept doubt as part of the process and keep moving forward. Look back to move forward but don’t get stuck there. Celebrate everything that is beautiful about your life, about your past, about the world. Celebrate the people around you. Say THANK YOU. Be with others and have fun! Don’t take yourself so seriously but do put yourself first. You will learn more from not knowing than from knowing. Lean into the mysteries, ask the really big questions, explore it all in any way you can. Channel your imagination into creating rather than into worrying.
I can’t help but wonder what next? And in this way I feel deeply connected to the girl I was in 2008 planting tiny seeds in shallow soil and watching them grow with fascination, wanting to document every inch gained. I was less than a year away from a life-changing journey and I could feel the approach of something big and unknown and yet I often doubted whether it would ever arrive. I know from experience that doubt always precedes arrival. At eleven, I walked with one of my brothers to the back of the airplane that carried us and all my family’s belongings–except those traveling by cargo ship–to New Zealand. We stretched out legs, not far from arriving in Auckland. I had no idea what was next beyond the promise (bribe?) my father made me that I could have a horse. I wondered what would happen. Two pretty college girls flirted with my brother. One of them said to me: what an incredible life you are going to have. In that moment, my doubt vanished and for several seconds before the rush of doubt and homesickness returned I saw clearly that she was right.
I had breakfast with another of my brothers this morning and walked him to work early this afternoon. We hugged goodbye over the tomatoes in the fruit section at Rainbow Grocery. I bought a few last minute gifts and walked back in the sun. Another trip nearly over. I can’t be sure where I’m going but I know where I’ve been. This country is wild and tame, big and small, fierce and passive, many-coloured and plain. It is both ever-changing and stuck in its ways. It’s not any one thing. In so many ways, it’s not what we think it is. Understanding will continue to elude us, interspersed with brief periods of stunning clarity. The US, especially Indiana and Door County, Wisconsin, is where the foundations of my life were laid and it will always be one of my favourite places to return. I’m so grateful to all of the special people, the incredible people, who have taken time out of their lives to spend with me on this trip. You have made this trip both possible and wonderful. Thank you for your wisdom and encouragement, your stories, your time, your conversation, your hospitality and your laughter. I am made so much better by your kinship, your friendship and your love. Until we meet again and many happy returns.
Bon voyage and much love,
Anne Marie Basquin