Nomad Diaries: Albany, Part III

I hate it when I commit to writing projects (like keeping a blog) and then I don’t follow through for whatever reasons. This time around, it has a lot to do with my previous post from several months ago (Lisbon 2017). At the time, I had just finished my last semester of coursework, passed my PhD exams, and popped off to Lisbon with my sister for a week. I had also been dealing with a work conflict, one that had been weighing heavily down on me at the time, and that unfortunately followed me around Lisbon.

That was December 2017. It is now June 2018. I am nearly finished with my dissertation and am planning to move shortly to start a new job, and hopefully turn over a new leaf. I wish I could say it’s just the dissertation writing that’s been keeping me busy – and it has – but the conflict I had previously alluded to has played a significant part in my silence.

I’m not quite ready to talk about it openly or with details. And please do not assume that my hesitation is the result of guarding a salacious story of sorts – but rather, it is more out of wanting to look out for myself as I navigate the rough waters of academia. At some point, I probably will share – here or in another forum – but not today.

The elusive conflict was somewhat resolved back in February. The person hurting me was separated from me. Or he stepped away from me. I’m not sure which. In any case, he was suddenly out of the mix and was to be out of my life. In theory anyway.

We’d still run into each other from time to time, and even when we didn’t he still had a looming presence in my life – he was and still is part of my colleagues’ lives and they’re a part of mine. #TransitiveProperty. I would say the situation is comparable to being dumped by a shitty, abusive boyfriend, and then having to see him/hear about him from your friends, who are all still friends with said ex.

Of course, it’s not entirely like that. Friends and exes and whatnot involve interactions among peers. It’s quite different in a work environment, particularly in an academic environment, full of professors and students and power dynamics at play.

I’ve been feeling isolated for many months now. My friends never meant to hurt me, but they did. Do. Every time I’d see them with him. Every time they mention him. Every time they try to tiptoe around my feelings and avoid mentioning him. Nothing they did or didn’t do could change the fact that the well had been poisoned for me and only me. Nothing changes the fact that the only solution was to leave and find another well and leave them to keep drinking.

Looking back on my previous Albany posts, I feel a stab of pain. In Part I, I had just moved here and was feeling optimistic. In Part II, I was starting to feel a connection to life here – something I rarely ever experience. Part III is about parting ways under painful circumstances. Well, the whole finishing up my dissertation and landing an exciting new job isn’t so painful. It’s that broken connection that makes this departure more bitter than sweet.

On the one hand, I want to take solace in my friends here. I want to confide in them. Or not confide, and just enjoy their company. On the other hand, being around them pains me. I can’t stop myself from resenting them. Working in the same environment and yet being subjected to extremely different work conditions and treatment. I resent the injustice of it all. I resent everyone’s unwillingness to stand up to it. I resent the fact that they’ll get to graduate as happy cliches – teary-eyed, nostalgic, bittersweet about leaving behind their happy memories and their wonderful mentors, excited to celebrate their milestone with friends and colleagues.

I intend on finishing in the summer, most likely when no one is around to attend my defense or celebrate with me when it’s over. There will be no summer commencement, and I am reluctant to come back for May commencement. There will be no wonderful mentor to say goodbye to because my wonderful mentor became my abuser and is not my mentor anymore. I’m regularly teary-eyed, but it’s not from nostalgia. I won’t have any of that – my happy memories are stained.

As in my last post, I can’t help but express guilt over writing about the sadness and bitterness I feel over closing this chapter in my life. I want to write about more exciting things, about more positive things. I want my writing to sparkle and exude happiness, like a Kate Spade bag. I want to reflect on my journeys in a way that connects with and inspires people, like Anthony Bourdain did. However, in light of their recent and tragic deaths, I’m sharing this anyway because I suppose it’s OK to let the world know that you don’t always sparkle or inspire, that sometimes you have feelings that you’re ashamed of, and that sometimes you’re just a mess.



Nomad Diaries: Lisbon 2017

It’s our last day in Lisbon; we’ve run out of sites to take interest in and we’ve run out of energy. So we spend a few hours in the late afternoon winding down and relaxing in our hotel room. Relaxing is something I’ve never been good at, even in the best of times.

I wish I had posted more frequently to my blog – especially since I have traveled a bit more in the last year or so and would have had plenty to write about  –  but these past few months have been stressful. A heavy workload (coursework, conferences, PhD exams) met by workplace conflict, which has weighed me down more than anything else. I don’t know how to sum it up exactly. It’s like being in a happy place one moment, and the next moment the ground shifts beneath you and suddenly you find yourself in…well, a not-so-happy place. You’re not exactly alone because you have family, friends and colleagues who care about you, but you kind of are alone because everyone is watching from the sidelines.

So I went to Lisbon with my sister to get away from it all. Actually, we had booked the trip shortly before any of this conflict had begun. We wanted to treat ourselves for all of our hard work; she had consistently been putting in long hours at her job; I was hoping to be A.B.D. (“all but dissertation” – a milestone on the PhD path that’s reached by passing a series of brutal exams) and have something worth celebrating (yes, I did reach that milestone). But it soon became the trip where I was to get away from all the stress. Let me put 3000 miles between myself and my now toxic environment, I said, maybe it’ll help.

And then I received the news a few days before my trip. I was heartbroken to find out that a former professor of mine at my alma mater had passed away. She had been my undergraduate advisor well over a decade ago, and I later took classes with her as a graduate student doing my M.A. She wrote my recommendation letters for jobs and for PhD programs, including the program I’m in right now. I would often stop by her office when I came to town to visit; she was always there. And always surprised by my unannounced visits, she’d greet me with a big hug, tell me to sit down and we’d have a good catch up. We usually kept our conversations to academics, but I was happy with that. She’d talk about her stuff and I’d talk about mine, and more often than not I sought her advice on whatever academic/professional matters were concerning me at the time.

I had planned to visit my alma mater over winter break and had thought to stop by and see her again and consult with her on my current issue. I can’t think of anything to add here apart from the obvious, that won’t happen anymore.

The night before I left for Lisbon, I decided to update my CV. I reached the references section at the end. At the top was the contact information of the person with whom I’ve been having a conflict. I felt betrayed, and no longer trusted them, so I highlighted the contact information, lingering for a few moments before deleting it all, wondering if we’d ever resolve things and if I’d ever feel comfortable adding them back, or if they’d ever want me to. I felt a stab of pain from the act of disconnecting myself from them, but I continued to scroll further down. My late mentor’s contact information was listed as well. With a heavy and wavering sigh, I highlighted her information and deleted it too. I stared at my laptop screen for a few minutes, taking in the shortened reference section. I wasn’t worried about references; I had enough. But I was feeling a great sense of loss. One through death, the other through conflict. I saved the changes, closed my laptop and curled into a ball on my couch and cried for a while.

What is it about emotions that make them so easy to compartmentalize one moment, but impossible to shove away the next? Maybe it’s the intensity of the emotions. Maybe it’s the connection to the person involved. For me, it’s when that connection has broken that I feel emotion most intensely. In cases where you’ve lost someone, I think the last connection you have to that person – that very last, thin strand – comes in the form of grief. And it’s so hard to let go of sometimes; it’s so hard to stop your brain from thinking about your sadness. Stopping means breaking that last connection. I don’t want to break either connection. Not with the recently departed. Not with the person who is hurting me. So I let my thoughts run, unrestrained.

Sometimes I’m forced back into the present. When we’re climbing up cobblestone streets trying to make our way to Castelo de São Jorge and I’m trying to follow Google Maps. Or when we reach the castle and I’m completely taken in by the vistas of the city. Or when my sister and I get caught up in trying to take the perfect selfie. But more often than not, my mind wanders back to its saddened state once we’ve checked a site off our list and are heading off to the next place, or we’re sitting silently on the metro, or when I’m back in the hotel and I have little to distract me.

So I’m sitting there on my bed, that last day in Lisbon. My sister is in the bathroom taking a private phone call, and I feel a sense of relief – getting my solitude back so I can think about my problems. It’s weird, putting it into writing, acknowledging that I sometimes consciously take the time to think about my troubles, and allow pain and anxiety to hit me like a tide. Sometimes it seems necessary – to be in touch with your feelings and know what you’re about. But other times it’s excessive to the point that the world is moving along without you, and you become adamant in staying put in your grief.

And I wonder if I’m guilty of the latter while I’m on vacation. I tell myself it’s not my fault that I can’t control circumstances, and I can’t always have control over my emotions. And I try to tell myself that I have enjoyed this trip. Lisbon is a beautiful city. Neighboring Sintra is even more beautiful. The weather is better that the 20 degree chill I had left behind in Albany. Finding vegetarian food has been a bit of a struggle, but we had a few good meals. We had a few laughs, and we had some good moments. And I have a stack of great photos to show for it. But all too often it’s just been a lot of sadness and anxiety interrupted by fleeting moments of happiness. Or is it even happiness? Just moments where the beauty around me distracts me from my sadness. It’s not what I had in mind, I suppose. I wanted to leave my worries behind me. Just for a week. Yet they’ve followed me around. They followed me to the Newark airport, where I abruptly burst into tears while waiting at the gate. They follow me into the hotel, where I keep crying myself to sleep because I feel hurt from the past and anxious about the future. They follow me onto the metro when I’m absently staring out the window and I’m stuck in my head. They come front and center every time I catch some random man staring at me or every time I receive an unwanted touch; it happens in contexts where I can’t stop them or control them, and it reminds me of my lack of agency in my current work situation, and my struggle to claim it. I feel powerless. I feel pushed into a corner. I feel silenced. And I can’t forget any of it, not even while I’m on vacation.

I’ve thought of my late mentor a lot throughout this trip. Sometimes I’d see the back of a woman’s head and it looks like hers; or someone with a similar side profile or the same glasses. And I’d remember that I’m in Portugal – not Missouri – before I’d remember that she’s gone. And I feel shocked all over again. And I feel slightly less capable at handling my current conflict. She – along with another mentor – was one of my twin pillars. Together, they supported me and pushed me, and if things ever went bad, they were waiting in my corner, ready to help me get back up. And thinking about her death makes me feel even more alone as I stand in the ring, bloodied up and ragged from this past semester, determined to go another round while wishing she was still there in my corner.

I don’t like to write about tales of depression and sadness. I don’t like focusing on the negative when there’s beauty all around me (I’ll share some photos from my trip below as proof of that beauty). Yet there are times when the bad things overshadow the good things and there aren’t enough filters in the world to hide it.

This is one of those times. But I’ll say this: despite the pained tone of my post, I remain optimistic underneath it all. Nothing lasts forever – neither the good nor the bad. I haven’t forgotten the brief moments of joy I’ve felt in the last few months, and I haven’t forgotten the people who’ve managed to coax the occasional smile or laugh out of me. I’m optimistic that things will eventually get better. I’m optimistic that I’ll eventually feel happy again.

Nomad Diaries: Winter 2016/2017


I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been to D.C. I guess that’s in part because I think of these trips as visits to my sister, not the city. Even so, I’ve always enjoyed the touristy parts of D.C., and there always seems to be some sight that I’ve missed. This time around I had a few presidential firsts: a visit to Mount Vernon and a tour of George Washington’s home was one of them, the National Portrait Gallery being another. But the Lincoln Memorial was the one that I enjoyed the most. It’s beautifully situated on one end of the reflecting pool, the Washington Memorial on the other end. And there was something about climbing the steps to see Lincoln in his seat that was almost pilgrimage-like. (stand down, my Muslim friends. I said almost.) Sure, it might have something to do with the history that Lincoln’s presidency represents. The Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation. But I also think of millions of protesters gathering on the National Mall through the decades. The Women’s March on Washington. The Million Man March. The numerous anti-war protests. I think of Martin Luther King delivering his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, right where I stood more than fifty years later.

I left D.C. on the day of Trump’s inauguration. As I listened to it on the radio, I couldn’t help but think back to my visit to Lincoln Memorial. I thought about the Women’s March that would be taking place the next day. I wondered how many more marches it would take for those with privilege and/or power to hear those who have been clamoring to be heard.

New York.

New York is another city I’ve lost track of in terms of how many times I’ve visited. My sister and I went again when I was visiting her over the holidays. We went on January 1st, happy to dodge the New Years Eve bustle. Even so, I still wasn’t looking forward to the trip all that much. The mere idea of being in the city is exhausting. It’s dirty and noisy, and the bus ride from D.C. to N.Y.C. is always kind of gross. No more, I always tell myself. Every. Single. Time.

Yet somewhere there always ends up being a next time, and I never know why. There isn’t a single, concrete sight, shop or restaurant that draws me to New York. But I’m reminded of a quote from E.B. White: “The city makes up for its hazards and its deficiencies by supplying its citizens with massive doses of a supplementary vitamin–the sense of belonging to something unique, cosmopolitan, mighty and unparalleled.”

Chalk it up to a vitamin deficiency.

St. Louis.

Any holiday longer than a week demands time spent with my parents in St. Louis. I look forward to seeing everyone. I look forward to my mom’s cooking and having leisure days that start at noon and end whenever I pass out with Netflix still playing on my laptop. I cherish the time I spend with my grandmother, who, at any moment I know I can lose – something I have been telling myself ever since I was a small child.

I go in with good intentions, but I always fall into the same habit of struggling through the readjustment process. Readjusting to the lack of personal space. Readjusting to having people around me who always want to know what I’m doing, where I’m going and how long I’m going to take. I begin to feel stifled and it makes me cranky.

Not having a routine also makes me cranky. So does the lack of socializing when I’m in St. Louis. Much of that has to do with time going by and naturally losing touch with people. Much of the time it’s also a self-imposed isolation. Since going away for college, St. Louis has always felt like a chapter in my life that’s now shut. I can’t go back, but I don’t really want to either.


Columbia, on the other hand, seems to be a chapter I can return to repeatedly. Sort of. Time goes by and things certainly change, but there are always familiar faces there. Fewer than there used to be, but enough for me to bring me back time and time again. These beautiful faces, which I first encountered in Columbia as a college and later graduate student, are some of my favorites, ones that I never tire of seeing.

There are times though, when visiting CoMO, when I have fleeting moments of insecurity about where I am in life – like instead of taking 20 steps forward in my life since moving from CoMO 7 years ago, I feel as though I’ve taken a few steps forward, gone back and retraced my steps a bit. I’m reminded of all the people I had met at Mizzou and I think of where they are now. Some are married or in committed relationships, some have kids, some are bounding forward in their careers.

I get down on myself for being so remiss in these areas, but then, I have plenty of reason to be content too, though it takes a bit longer to find those reasons. I know myself so much better now – my weakness and my strengths. I’m more mature, less insecure. I’ve developed grownup habits like budgeting my meager TA stipend so I can afford to buy cheese from the fancier part of the grocery stores without feeling guilty, and cleaning so I don’t live in my own filth. I’ve gained a sense of adventure, new hobbies that I’m actually pretty decent at. I’ve learned to tame my inner demons. I don’t always succeed at it, but the scoreboard definitely reads in my favor these days. In short, while the big milestones haven’t been in the cards so far, I have enough small ones to make me feel proud of who I’ve become.



Nomad Diaries: Albany 2016, part II

I’m at a rest stop somewhere in upstate New York, breaking for lunch. It’s a little early, but this particular service center has a Moe’s, which is a couple notches above the McDonald’s I usually settled for on road trips.

“So, where are you from?” the man assembling my veggie bowl asks me.

I pause for a moment, not really sure what to tell him. My guess is that he wants to know my ethnicity, as that’s what people usually mean when they ask me where I’m from. I tell him that I ‘m driving from Albany.

“Oh, so you’re from Albany?” he asks as he drizzles cheese atop my rice and bean mountain. The momentary look of surprise confirms that he indeed was expecting me to mention another country.

Just nod and say yes. You hate making small talk with strangers.

“Well, not really. I just moved there a few months ago. I’m from Missouri.”

“Ah, that’s a long drive from here!”

“Oh, I’m not driving there, I’m driving to D.C.”

The man looks at me with slight confusion and decides not to engage further. He rings me up and sends me on my way with extra tortilla chips and salsa.

The thing is, I’m quite used to these confusing conversations on my travels and day to day life, although it still stumps me that I have yet to figure out a concise response. I mean, really. How hard is it to convey that where I live is not necessarily where I’m from?

As I drive on, leaving New York behind me as I enter New Jersey (Really, Miss Marvel? This is what you’re skipping school to defend? Um, ok.), I wonder at what point I’ll start to feel like a New Yorker. In all likelihood, I won’t ever get there. I like it here, and don’t feel any immediate desire to leave, but I know it’s inevitable. I came here with a specific purpose, and when I’ve achieved that, I will be swept off to wherever the best job opportunity takes me.

I sometimes wonder how it feels to put down roots and just know that you’re not going anywhere. I don’t mean getting married and having kids necessarily, I just mean coming to a stop, and knowing you’ve come to a stop. Sometimes I long for it. Sometimes the mere idea of it feels like a death sentence. And sometimes – since moving to NY – I feel like I’m approaching it.

As I said, I doubt I’ll be here long-term. But since moving to Albany in August, I’ve actually felt somewhat…settled. I already know that I want to renew my lease for next year (even if I have stayed in the same city for more than a year, I cannot for the life of me remember ever renewing my lease.) I’m thinking of hitting Ikea while I’m visiting my sister in DC and buying an additional bookshelf, when my customary running-out-of-space tactic is to throw out/donate things and/or store things at my parents’ house. In short, I’m flying in the face of the Nomad’s rule book.

1. Thou shalt covet the short-term lease.

2. Thou shalt not put down roots with Swedish furniture. Or something.

But rules are more like guidelines, right? (#LinesThatDontWorkOnCops) And things change without warning. So they have here, and they’ll probably change again without warning. But for now, I’m happy, and that’s all any of us is looking for, isn’t it?

Nomad Diaries: Albany 2016

It’s a few minutes after midnight and I hear my phone chime in the darkness. I glance over at my parents who are asleep in the next bed; neither of them stirs.

I prop myself up on my elbows and reach for my phone. Birthday messages. Birthday Facebook posts. I’m too tired to smile, so I fall back into bed and make a mental note to be excited in the morning.

Morning comes all too soon. Having gotten only a few hours of sleep, I pull the covers over my face as I hear my parents shuffling around our small hotel room, trying to get ready for breakfast. I tell them I’m too tired and my stomach hurts from something I ate the night before. They leave me behind so I can get a little more sleep, but it doesn’t happen.

I spent my 28th birthday unpacking boxes in Memphis. I spent my 30th birthday unpacking boxes in Kansas City. And this year 31 is being spent in a Travel Lodge in the middle of Ohio, followed by a day of unpacking boxes in Albany.

I’m no longer 30, but rather, in my 30s. Plural. It’s not a big deal, I tell myself as I curl into a ball, hugging my stomach. Yes, my metabolism is becoming noticeably slower and my undergrad abs are now just the stuff of legend. Yes, I seem to be going backwards in my career – leaving a wonderful job and a workplace that I enjoyed to become a broke-ass graduate student with no guarantee afterwards of getting to pick up where I left off in my career. No, I’m nowhere near the life I thought I ought to have at 31 (I was supposed to have a boy and a girl by now – Mufasa and Sephora, respectively). If my past is any indicator, my tomorrows aren’t anything to get excited about.

But then I remind myself that tomorrow is promised to no one. So I count each year – no matter how unproductive I perceive it – to be a blessing.  I tell myself that maybe tomorrow will be different. Well, maybe I can try to make tomorrow different. And here’s my opportunity: starting over in a new city. It’s a new story, a blank page. A new life.

I feel like I’ve lived many lives. More than a cat. Every time I move it’s as though I’ve left a former life behind as I start a new one. My old self and my old life are still there – in my memories – but coming to a new place somehow feels like a transformation. To borrow a phrase from Doctor Who – “same software, different case.” I’m like The Doctor (most egotistical thing I’ve said all year), only I don’t know how many regenerations I get. I just live on the hope that I’ll make the most of the ones I’m given.

A few days after reaching Albany and settling into my new place, my parents take off to visit my sister in D.C. I watch them leave, and once they disappear from my view I close the door and run to my balcony to see if I can catch a few more glimpses of them. I can’t, and suddenly I feel a surge of anxiety and loneliness. I stifle the feelings before they can turn into a full-on panic attack and I get on with my day. Let’s see what 31 brings.

Nomad Diaries: Costa Rica 2016

I had just come out of the Museo de Oro Precolombino and had emerged onto a very busy intersection. Masses of locals were hurrying about their day, not bothering to watch for oncoming traffic as they crossed the streets. Not wanting to stand out as a tourist as I determined how to find my next museum, I quickly sidled up to the building on the corner, letting others pass by me. Determined to remain unobtrusive, I pulled out my map from my purse and tried my best to unfold in only a little. I studied it for a while, glancing up occasionally to determine what streets made up the intersection before me.

“Necesita ayuda?”

I glanced up and saw an elderly man – probably in his 70’s – approach me, pointing at my map that I had tried so hard to minimize. I smiled and told him that yes, I could use a little help.

It turned out this man’s name was Solomon, he was in fact in his 70’s, and he knew exactly where I needed to go. He offered to walk with me some of the way since it was on his path anyway, and not wanting to be rude, I agreed, silently hoping he wouldn’t turn out to be creepy. (#BeenThere)

He was friendly and very chatty, but a far cry from creepy. In fact, my conversation with Solomon had been those most stimulating one all day. Over the course of our ten minute walk, he asked me where I was from and if I was Muslim. Answering affirmatively and that I was Pakistani American, he grinned and told me he was Jewish. I didn’t know how to react, so I just smiled and nodded.

More questions came. Among those were whether or not Muslims believed in Jesus (yes, but as a prophet), if I was from the same country as Malala (well, my parents are), and if people were treating me OK here (absolutely!)

By the time we parted ways, Solomon felt comfortable enough to offer me his phone number and told me that if I needed any help during my trip, I could reach out to him, his wife or his daughter. And then he lamented that such a young woman must be nervous, traveling all alone. (He guessed I was about 20. I laughed and thanked him for his misjudgment.)

Traveling as a Muslim woman is an interesting experience, and how I’m received by locals certainly differs wherever I go. My experiences in the U.S. and Europe are similar – people often think I’m Arab, that I’m an immigrant. I’ve found that people are more accepting in Europe of the fact that not all Americans look the same. Here in the U.S., there’s the occasional suspicious glance or glare, the odd cashier who’ll be super friendly and talkative with the person ahead of me but then fall completely silent when it’s my turn. There’s the occasional racial slur. But one thing I rarely get anywhere is questions. It’s like everyone’s already in the know and has chosen a side: Muslim-friendly or Muslim-hater.

In San José, however, it was different than anything I had experienced: my presence was met with…I guess the best word is curiosity. About Islam, about hijab, about Muslims on the news, about Muslim women and how they found me confusing because I was a conservative-looking Muslim wandering around alone in a foreign country. Where was my husband? Did my parents approve? Why didn’t I look like an angry terrorist, or a heartbroken refugee? According to the news, those were the faces of Islam.

On another free afternoon I had, I went looking for the Spirogyra Butterfly Garden and – because I’m me – I got lost. Again.

Cue the random construction worker nearby. He doesn’t look busy, as he’s just ambling down the sidewalk and whistling to himself. I ask him for directions. What should have been a 30 second interaction (he didn’t know where the garden was) turned into a 30 minute Q&A about Islam and our belief system (Um, hello! Don’t you have a building to build? I’m missing my butterflies!) As a devout Catholic, he wanted to know how Muslims were similar, and how we were different. What was our take on Jesus? Original sin? Afterlife? How is the Qur’an different from the Bible? He apologizes to me later about his inquisitiveness, and tells me that they don’t really have many Muslims around Costa Rica, and all they know about Islam is what they see on the news. He tells me he’s happy to have had such an interesting conversation, at which point he invites me to dinner. Alarmed at the turn this conversation has taken, I quickly remind him that I need to find the butterflies (I’ve missed them. The garden closes at 2:00) and also that I’m primarily in San José for work. I wish him well and hurry off.

Side note: I ended up having to circle back to that same street on which I had met the chatty construction worker and found myself power-walking my way down the sidewalk so as to avoid running into him again (I was super hungry and didn’t want to stop for anything but food!) While I didn’t see him, I did see a larger group of guys in construction hats across the street. One of them noticed me and beckoned me. “Pakistani!!” he called out. (Um. Yeah.) It turns out Mr. Chatty Construction Worker told his buddies about me, and Mr. Chatty Construction Worker #2 also wanted to have a theological chat with me.

While I am guilty of being a bit impatient when I’m hungry, I typically welcome questions and enjoy appeasing curiosity. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t fare very well as a teacher. Admittedly, there are times though (besides hunger-induced moments) where I do get a bit annoyed – when curiosity tiptoes into the realm of assuming and accusing.

I joined a tour group to visit the Irazú Volcano towards the end of my trip. I had a wonderful time, although it took me a while to warm up to the other tourists in the van. There was an English mother-son pair that I got on with (I almost opened with “Oh, you’re English! I love Doctor Who!” but thought better of it), and then there was a Spanish couple on their honeymoon who were pleasantly surprised to learn that I spoke Spanish, and had asked me to interpret a few times for them and the English folks.

Then there was the German lady who lived in Colombia who kept to herself. Fair enough; I was doing the same for most of the drive to the volcano – I had woken up at 6 am with no time to caffeinate myself. We eventually spoke when we had reached the volcano and were taking photos of the crater. She was attempting a selfie so I offered to take her picture. Somehow, we got to chatting and when I told her I was travelling alone (same as her) she seemed stunned. She then asked me, “Isn’t that forbidden in Islam? Your parents let you travel alone?” and something in that question stung, like I was a child who had gotten caught sneaking out to the movies after my bed time.

Still, I never stop being polite. I get that from my mom, and all of the Jane Austen film adaptations I watch.

I explain to her that many Muslims have a conservative (and sometimes strong) take on gender propriety, and that sure, many Muslims would be in agreement that women shouldn’t travel alone. In fact, my parents feel that way. I, however, don’t…at least for myself. As a fairly independent person who was taught how to take care of myself, as someone who often travels to places where I can communicate in the country’s language, I do not feel that a man would fare better than me (or be safer) just because he’s a man. In fact, I often feel that my only disadvantage is my religions, not my gender  – whether I’m thousands of miles away from home versus right outside my home. I have been harassed by strangers – in high school when I was still living under my parents’ roof; in college, when I was walking down the street with my sister; in California, right in the parking lot of my apartment complex; in D.C., when I was at a restaurant with my parents and sister. My point is: my safety is never guaranteed, whether I’m near, far, alone or accompanied. All I can do is make smart decisions to avoid trouble, and – if needed – be ready to knee someone in the groin and run (in case you’re curious: no, I haven’t had to do that yet.)

Prior to this trip, I hadn’t thought about how I might be received by others. I’m used to people seeing me, taking some guesses as to where I rate on the Muslim scale (Ethnic Muslim who has no interest in Islam, or ISIS operative. Yeah. It’s a weird scale.) People usually don’t want any help understanding my identity, or the vast diversity that makes up the Islamic spectrum. Perhaps it’s both a blessing and a curse – much our societies have become heterogeneous enough that people feel like they understand those who are different from them. The curse is that perhaps many of those who are complacent in their warped understanding are the ones who ought to be asking questions. It was a refreshing change, then, to be thrown with people daily in Costa Rica, who hadn’t yet committed to a Muslim-friendly/Muslim-wary side and were genuinely interested in understanding who I am.

Nomad Diaries: California 2016

I look out the window as the plane touches down and I see the familiar Sacramento airport. My stomach jolts, and not just because of the bumpy landing.

It felt off-putting, returning to the scene of the crime.

Anxiety. Depression. Loneliness. Was it really worth coming back here just to run a half-marathon?

I head towards baggage claim and find the escalator leading down to the carousels and ground transportation. I remember a friend had picked me up from the airport once and had been waiting by this escalator with a cup of tea for me, and at the time the gesture had made me feel warm and happy. We aren’t friends anymore.

It takes about ten minutes for my luggage to tumble onto the carousel. I grab it and head for the car rental shuttle. I pass by a line of cabs, all with their drivers waiting outside and eyeing the oncoming travelers with little to no interest. The first time I had come to Sacramento for a visit, an Afghan cabbie approached my parents and offered to give us a lift. What had started as a refusal ended up with him and my dad conversing jovially in Pashto and my mom, sister and I piling into the back seat. We had been dropped off at the car rental area with an open invitation to dinner at the cabbie’s home.

I was never able to get on with strangers that well.

As I hop on to the shuttle, I look into my carry-on bag to find my paperwork, because I can’t remember which car company I made a reservation with. I find it tucked away and make a mental note of the rental company, and then turn my attention to the window, wondering if I would recognize any landmarks, hills or traffic lights. It feels only vaguely familiar. My old home is more than twenty minutes from here. 

It only takes a few minutes to get to the car rental building, and shortly after I receive my car. A convertible. It was my lucky day, according to the rental attendant, they were giving me a free upgrade from my compact car reservation. I glance around tentatively as I get into the car. It looks like a cockpit, and I feel too self-conscious about driving with the hood down.

It takes me almost half an hour to get to my friend’s apartment, partly due to my cautious highway driving. As I take the exit and come to a stop at a traffic light, I suddenly feel a wave of anticipation – the first one I feel since landing. I had taken this exit many times to visit M; either I rented a car or she picked me up from Davis in her own car. Sometimes we spent the whole day together – going shopping and doing dinner – other times I spent the night and we stayed up late talking, watching t.v. and eating junk food.

I had a handful of friends when I was living in neighboring Davis, but M. was the only non-student, the only one removed from my local environment, and often my only escape from my frequent bouts of melancholy.

The light turns green. I gently press the gas, and after several more turns through the grid streets of midtown Sacramento, I pull up to a very familiar building and can’t help but break into a smile. Moments later I see M coming outside, grinning as she runs up to my car and hops into the seat next to mine, telling me she’s going to open the garage so I can park my car inside. It had been three years since we had last seen each other. It doesn’t occur to me to point that out or make any fanfare about our reunion, so I thank her and let her guide me to a parking spot in the garage.