1. Of all the places you've traveled, which is your favorite? Why?
So far, Thailand. I have experienced incredible highs and lows in that country. I got the worst sunburn I've ever experienced while on a beach in Phuket (now, with permanent scarring!) I was robbed of $800 once at knifepoint in the Weekend Market in Bangkok. (That's a long story.) I ate peppers that numbed my face for a week. And a monk knocked me onto a boat dock covered in rusty old nails (my legs are still spotted with the scars from that.) But I've also met amazing travelers and encountered wonderful Thai people and seen landscapes and seascapes unlike any others I've ever seen. And the food is to die for. If I had the money, I'd be in Thailand once a month, just for a few days to enjoy the sanuk, the food, the temples and the friendliness.
2. What is the strangest thing you encountered while abroad that you came to think of as very cool, perhaps even miss now?
I miss the kooky restaurants with stage shows that dot the landscape in Russia. Initially, I thought they were just bizarre, but now, I miss them and their divinely cheap, off-Broadway feel. I miss the strange juxtaposition of a Chinese dinner at the "Restoran Peking" with bikini clad dancers doing what looks like an aborted ice dancing routine just a few feet away. I miss the weird-ass lounge singer and the contortionist at the "Restoran na Tagankye." Let me tell you, the first time you see some chick's head poking out of her own crotch while you try to eat your chicken Kiev... it's disturbing. But then you grow strangely accustomed to it and, a few times later, after you've had a bottle of pre-meal champagne, you find yourself yelling, "HEY! HEY! WHERE'S THE CONTORTIONIST?!? BRING ON CIRCUS GIRL!!"
Ah yes, good times. Good times.
Did I mention I also miss cheap champagne? Initially I found it very odd that little kiosks along all the major streets in Moscow sold bottles of champagne - it looked like a series of drunk driving accidents waiting to happen. But when one of those kiosks opened across from my apartment building - dude, I was so there! Basically, it was $0.10 a bottle. I would buy a case and leave the bottles in the snow on my balcony for the enjoyment of dinner guests. (That kiosk also sold handguns, Snickers bars, and condoms. I called it "one hell of an evening in a box.")
3. Road trip or air travel? Explain your preference.
Road trip. Definitely, road trip. Air travel used to be fun. When I was a kid - up through college - I loved to fly. But now, it's just a chore. Jam-packed flights, discourteous fellow passengers, harried airline staff, and the displeasure of dealing with TSA has made air travel miserable, at least for me. As the daughter of a pilot, it pains me to say I hate flying these days.
But on a road trip, the world is your oyster. You stop when you want to. You eat when you want to. You don't have to wait in line to experience a nasty airplane bathroom! If you have the time and the gas money, you can stop at whatever funky stuff piques your curiosity. Some trips it might be Devils Tower or the world's largest buffalo or Wall Drug. Another trip, maybe it's Hemingway's house in Key West or the African Queen or the coral reef state park in Key Largo. And wherever I go in a car (at least in the United States), I have to have two books in tow for a real road trip: Jane and Michael Stern's guide to the best in American regional roadside cuisine, Road Food, and the bible of the off-kilter U.S. road trip, Roadside America.
4. Which souvenir currently in your possession is your favorite? What's the story behind it?
This is a tough question. I have so many small souvenirs from so many different places. Most of them have little or no value other than sentimental, but that doesn't matter. In recent times, I've taken to giving away some of my souvenirs to friends who have never been to some of the places I've visited.
Actually, my favorite souvenir isn't one I picked up overseas. Instead it is a piece of memorabilia that I've had since 6th grade. It's my autographed photo of Harrison Ford. A souvenir of my first childhood crush on an unattainable adult male. (Which has pretty much defined my romantic life since then, come to think of it.) It's Han Solo in Docking Bay 94 at Mos Eisley, waiting for his passengers to arrive. Ford is hot, young, and - did I already say "hot"? - in black and white. I wrote to him back in '77 and told him (much to my mother's amusement) that while my friends really liked Luke Skywalker, I was a Solo girl all the way. "You're really going places," I told the actor. (As if the professional opinion of a sixth grader was really going to matter to him or the movers and shakers of Hollywood!) The photo is signed "To Merujo, Best Wishes, Harrison Ford." His signature is such a mess it looks like "Happyjon Ronz" which became his nickname among my childhood friends. (Okay, so it really doesn't read "To Merujo" but it's fun to torture the 10 people left on this planet that don't know my actual first name.)
This photo has traveled the world with me. It was on my desk in London and my bedroom dresser in Moscow. It's now on my bookshelf here in suburban DC. It's a souvenir of my childhood. A souvenir that connects the older, more tired me to the youthful and breathless geek girl-in-crush of 1977.
But so many things have gotten lost in transit along the path of life. Other things, as I said, I've just given away as time goes on. Some souvenirs lose even their sentimental value, but you gain new value in giving them away to others who will treasure them more. One item I had like that was a set of amber worry beads I bought in Moscow in 1990. When the Moscow coup happened in 1991, I was scheduled to fly home on my first vacation in a year. But, with tanks throughout the city and protesters shot dead near the embassy gates, it was unlikely I would make it home.
But then, a CNN correspondent called me at my home at 3 a.m. the day I was supposed to fly out. She was calling from Yeltsin's office at the Russian White House. How she got my phone number, I'll never know. She and her husband had just adopted a Russian baby. Their apartment building had been shot at earlier in the day. If I would carry her baby back to safety in New York, she would get me to the airport. Experienced babysitter that I was, I wasn't about to pass up this offer. I grabbed my bags and threw the worry beads in my carry-on. The correspondent arrived a short time later, baby in tow, driver at the ready. We drove through barricades in the city at speeds I don't want to think about now. Throughout the harried ride, I had one hand in my carry-on bag, and I silently rolled the round amber beads between my fingers. We finally made it to the eerily calm airport, which was filled with pensive passengers anxious to leave the Russian capital. The CNN correspondent upgraded my ticket to first class, and the Delta rep escorted me, baby in my arms, to the plane.
The other folks in first class looked annoyed there was a baby in their luxury midst. But when I explained it was "the CNN Baby" somehow that changed things. When the baby started to fuss, I pulled out the amber worry beads, and she was fascinated. She teethed on them, drooled on its silk tassel, and generally was adorable the whole flight. The other passengers even held her so I could sleep an hour or so en route to the 'States. I handed the baby off to a NY Times reporter at JFK. She had been based in Moscow for years, and her tour of duty had ended just before the coup - she missed the story of her lifetime by just a few days. Baby delivered, I continued on my way home to the Midwest, the drool-covered worry beads - the Moscow escape talisman - still in my bag.
A friend of mine is expecting her first baby right now. When last I saw her - which was only the second time we'd met in person, despite the fact that we're online yammering at each other most days - she was stressed, tired, and living on a rock and roll tour bus. She has her own business and things are so hectic for her, I felt like she needed a talisman. So I gave her the amber worry beads. They got me through a tough time, I figured they could use a new home. And I hope that, when she's ready, she'll pass them on to someone else who might just need a talisman, too.
I cleaned all the baby drool off them, by the way. In a few months, I imagine they'll be re-christened with new baby drool. And that's a good thing.
5. If you could be renowned for achievements in one field or for a particular event (other than writing or publishing), what would you like it to be?
Really funky interior design (nothing foo-foo or frilly - I'd design for guys and people who like Arts & Crafts), acting (I went to college on theatre & English scholarships - I'm sure it annoyed my benefactors that I went with Russian Area Studies), or photography. My aspirations are all creative/liberal arts stuff. I have no skills in the sciences.
And I'd still like to be known as the person who got bloggers together for an annual gathering in a campground to tell stories around a fire circle. You know, roast marshmallows, read blog entries by flashlight, cook on grills, tell more stories... I'd like to actually get that started. Still time to do it, still time to do it...
There you have it, kids. Would you like to be interviewed? If you want me to send you a set of five questions to ponder and answer, follow the directions below:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me." (And make sure I have your e-mail addy so I can zap you the questions!)
2. I will respond by e-mailing you five questions. I get to pick them, and you have to answer them all.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.