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Brighton by Jodi Melody

Border Beings.

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©Olusola Afolabi-

“Know your Abuja” photo documentary series

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(at Abuja, Nigeria)

What I learned from being a fat traveler

I have been heavy for as long as I can remember. A healthy appetite runs in my family, but I definitely ballooned at an especially astounding rate through my middle school years. When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and I’ve been dealing with it ever since.

I eat healthy-ish and I try to incorporate physical activity into my daily routine, but I have never really been at a weight I feel comfortable with. My metabolism runs on the hypo-side of things, I’m always exhausted and always cold. I didn’t discover any exercise I enjoyed doing until college and the hours I worked after graduating were not conducive to working out. 

Feeling like it was time to try something different, I quit my desk job to go pursue my dream: I wanted to travel the world, write, work on my yoga and meditation practices, and learn. Paired with my backpack and a crazy dream (No, I still haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love) I left for Nepal in February 2015.

Now let me get something straight: my time there was precious, amazing, worthwhile, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. But there was one thing that put me out of my comfort zone more immediately than anything else I experienced while I was there.

I have never been told I was fat more often than during my time in Asia. 

People would come up and rub my stomach. The little boy whose parents ran the hostel I stayed in for a week used to pat his belly and tell me, “Miss, you’re so fat!” Around the dinner table, I felt like I was scrutinized for the amount of food I put on my plate, though it was often substantially less than those around me. Later, at the monastery where I spent five months, students who were honestly some of the best kids I’ll ever meet had no qualms asking me, “Miss, why are you so fat?” I remember being approached by the older students whose surprise centered around the fact that I ate out of the small bowls and was still heavy. The school’s abbott mandated that I needed to walk around the school buildings as many as 40 times a day. I felt like my body was under constant scrutiny. 

Now, I come from a Cuban family: bluntness is not unusual for me. And I know what I look like. But to be told so often that I was not normal was absolutely humiliating.

Feeling depressed and self-conscious, I turned to a friend of mine who was also living at the monastery. She was a little bit older, just married, and had spent the last year of her life on a traveling honeymoon with her wonderful husband. She was, in essence, living my dream. When I opened up to her, she shared her struggle with similar obstacles. I was shocked. Here she was, confident, happy, accomplished, and she and I bonded over some of our insecurities. I thought she was amazing.

This began a shift in attitude for me. I thought back to that sweet little boy in the hostel. Yes, he was quick to remind me of my size, but we also played cricket and colored, and I helped him with his homework. He even excitedly taught me how to eat with my hands in traditional Nepali style. My students at the monastery taught me prayers, and told me stories, and played jokes, and laughed. They knew I was fat, but it didn’t shape their interactions with me aside from the occasional verbal reminder. My life was moving forward, regardless of the fact that I needed to address the elephant (pardon the pun) in my own self-consciousness.  

I didn’t magically get skinny, or stop wanting to have a healthier figure, but I learned something more important about my own body image. After I left the monastery, I took a bus to India by myself. I negotiated tuk-tuks and jeeps, battled outrageous tonsillitis, threw up in a Holy place. I met up with a friend, and he and I traveled thousands of miles across India on local trains. We went toe to toe with people trying to scam us, raced to make trains, got offers to be traded for livestock. We hiked, wandered, explored, and discovered. I had strange, round, amazing experiences full of ups and downs caused by more colorful conflict that I could have dreamt possible. My experiences were about so much more than the shape of my body. 

I didn’t let my weight stop me from tasting amazing local cuisine, trying to scale mountains (this one is gonna take some time–I’m still pushing against my own limitations), sleeping outside during a sandstorm, riding a camel, or watching dung beetles roll my poop up into little balls.  When I realized that the only person holding me back from anything was myself, the negativity I attached to the fat label dissipated and I had the best time of my life. People didn’t stop saying things, but I stopped caring if they did. 

After living outside of the US for 8 months, I met up with a friend in New York who has always been a powerful force in my life. As I explained some of the agonizing I’d done over my image, he told me something I will never forget. “Bodies are the vessel through which we experience life. What a shame to hate yours.”

And he was right. I wouldn’t trade a single experience I’ve had, even if it meant never having to be told I’m fat again. My weight still fluctuates (though it does sit at a healthier point by virtue of getting to walk around all day) and my disease can still make me tired and cranky. People still stare.

But you know what? Let ‘em. Because the view from right here is pretty amazing. 

7

Warorot Markets - Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is one of our most favourite places in the world, so much so that we almost sold our house and moved there a few years ago.

Although it only has a population of 170,000 people Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand and is quintessentially ‘Thai’. Chiang Mai locals put the 'smile’ in Land of Smiles.

We discovered Warorot Markets a few years ago. It’s where the locals go to shop for themselves and buy stock for the tourist markets. Here the prices are much less than any other market and the merchandise is usually a better quality. It starts at sun-up and goes well into the night. There are dozens of narrow arcaded and alleys to explore with 100’s of bargains to be had.

When we first stumbled across the market (we were riding bikes around town, basically trying to get lost) we were the only non-Thai people there and quite a spectacle for the locals. A few more tourists have found the markets now thanks to the internet, but it hasn’t lost it’s old world charm.

Cong, Ireland

Encircled by streams, the picturesque village of Cong straddles the border between County Mayo and Galway—a region of lakes and vibrantly green meadows dotted with grazing sheep. Cong counts numerous stone bridges, the ruins of a medieval abbey, the occasional thatched-roof cottage, an dAshford Castle, a grand Victorian estate that has been converted into a romantic luxury hotel.

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The rooftops of Rome by Carsten Pedersen
Via Flickr:
Rome, Italy

Geysers and waterfalls

Iceland - 29 December

A huge volume of snow blew in overnight transforming the landscape into a crisp white world. Snow alters the terrain, smooths out bumps and lumps and removes boundaries. It transforms moors, mountains, forests and fields. As it reflects far more light than turf, it also changes how daylight and sunlight interact with the rest of the environment. There is something awe inspiring about watching the glowing light of the winter sun rise up the side of a brilliant white mountainside. Just watching it fills you with energy and warmth however cold the outside temperature.

We set off as the sun began to rise. The overnight storm had swept in clear blue skies and as the sun rose, liquid golden light spilled into the sky and across the snow encrusted land. Today was our chosen day to head to part of Iceland’s Golden Circle to see gurgling geysers and the mighty Gullfoss waterfall dressed in its winter clothes.

We drove off slightly nervously not knowing if the roads would be safe enough to to drive. Iceland has an amazing website that colour codes each of its roads according to the conditions. Today they were marked as slippery or snowy where we’re heading but not difficult, impassable or closed.

It’s not easy driving on snowy roads when you are not used to them. It takes huge concentration and energy to constantly evaluate the surface beneath your vehicle’s wheels. It’s mandatory for cars to have tyre studs throughout out winter and a good job too. Without them we would have been going nowhere for the day.

Driving along snow covered roads felt like heading away from civilisation. The snowy fields and moorland stretching for miles punctured by occasional rocky massifs or silvery snaking glacial rivers. At increasing intervals along the route, lonely farms were set back from the road broken by occasional clusters of summer houses set in especially picturesque spots. The traditional weekend escape for town dwellers in the warmer months. The chance to experience -if only for a few days - what centuries of ancestors learned to not only endure but cleave a life from. By all accounts it was a harsh way to scrape an existence and almost unimaginable to the modern mind.

Another frequent sight along the road sides were herds of Icelandic horses, their gold, brown, black and grey coats clearly visible against the white snow. This hardy but docile breed is treasured by Icelanders. For centuries they were the only sensible mode of transport across the islands incredibly rough terrain. Watching herds of they hanging out in the snow was curiously reassuring: their very presence a reminder of how it is possible to survive and flourish here with enough determination and a think warm coat.

We drove towards Gieyser, the small town famous for some of the world’s largest geysers and hot springs, mountains rising on either side of the wide valley as if standing guard over it all. As the day progressed and the sun climbed a little higher, each mountain was bathed in a fierce light. Close to the town, clouds of steam could be seen floating up across the ground and up the lower hillsides. Little puffs of warmth in the frigid air.

It’s slightly unnerving to watch hot steam rise from cracks in stone as if something is out of sorts with the world. Even odder is to watch swirls of it rise from rivulets weaving their way through tufts of grass and peaty hummocks. These hot water oozing fissures are one of the things that make Iceland unique - and also the source of the geothermal energy upon which so much in the country depends.

We stood for a while waiting for the largest geyser to blow which it does every eight or so minutes. The boiling water in the pool from which it rises heaves and folds, mumbling away with growing impatience as pressure builds below. Then it erupts, sending a plume of boiling hot water 20 to 30 meters high. Some of that superheated water drops back to the ground scalding the surrounding rocks while the rest condenses into steam and floats mystically across the snow, bog and ice. Little pillows of cloud slowly disperse across the landscape until the next eight or more minutes have passed and another jet of water is hurled into the air. Tourists tend to huddle around the rope line surrounding the geyser but by far the best view is from the hillside above: from there you get to see the water spurting against the wider landscape.

There are lots of other smaller water and steam vents across the whole site. I wonder what the first settlers who found it must have thought. It would have taken at least a day or so walk there from the coast across rough terrain. I guess someone must have stumbled upon it by chance. I wonder if it changed their view of the place they lived as being no longer as bare and inhospitable as they one might have thought.

Looking down from the hill above Geyser there was a wonderful view of a broad silvery river wending its way down the valley lit by the setting sun hidden behind a bank of cloud. The intensity of the light gave the river’s surface a mirror-like quality. This is the river which flows over Gullfoss falls, an immense waterfall in a huge rock fissure that seems to split the earth in half.

Arriving at the car park at Gullfoss you don’t immediately get any sense of what all the fuss is about. The landscape appears to be much as before: a huge plain at the foot of a glacier covered in snow. As you walk down the pathway the waterfall appears at a diagonal across a broad grey-green river cut out of deep rock. From the viewing point, billions of gallons of glacial melt water pass beneath your feet cascading across a wide ridge of rock before dropping dramatically down into a water hewn cavern, spray hurling up higher than the waterfall itself. The power is astonishing which is why an Englishman once tried to harness it. He failed due to one local woman’s brave fight.

As the light faded, the whole scene took on a deep watery blue hue as if the whole scene was submerged beneath the ocean. What struck me was the lack of scent, just the smell of freezing air. At this frozen time of year the rock walks and river banks are encrusted in think ice formations. They cloak the river’s course in a deep muli-layered ice that is continually thickened by a thin spray hardening on the old virtually before it lands. The whole are was so slippery and dangerous that the lower fall paths were closed.

Heading home, darkness feel quickly bringing with it a strange orangey red glow across the landscape. For a moment I though we were watching the northern nights and then caught myself: it was way too early for such a sight. We travelled towards the source to discover it was the lamps from the greenhouses and animal shelters all along the road. With the aid of the surrounding snow, the reflected light must be so bright you can see if from space. It’s one way to make your mark on the universe.