On a whim to Canada

31 hours
900 miles
2 countries
1 epic show

I returned from Canada last night
after barely 12 hours in Vancouver.
My co-conspirator in this crazy adventure and I still aren’t sure when our plans went from ‘oh that sounds cool,’ to ‘so, we’re going to Canada’.
It probably happened sometime around the time Amanda replied to this tweet.
Snacks and passports in hand we filled up the gas and started north.

Our drive up was punctuated by torrential downpours in the fog
and me locking my keys in the car at a gas station when my car’s speakers started making demonic noises
it was actually a little terrifying
and AAA was able to break into my car in under a minute,
which was amazing and a bit worrying
(we seem to have either placated or expelled the possession thankfully)
Some pre trip google street viewing showed me a parking garage 1 block from the hostel,
and the hostel was 6 blocks to the venue.
I survived driving through Portland and Seattle and Vancouver.

We splashed water on our faces and tried to feel alive again.
Ten hours in a car is enough to make you question your sanity and if the reflection in the mirror is really yours.
Before we parked we had seen the line, stretching 6 people deep around an entire city block.
An hour until the door and already almost 1000 people in line.
But a tweet I’d sent to Amanda Palmer
(the ringleader of this almost organized beautiful chaos)
had us on the guest list. We were bringing boxes for food collection,
and volunteering to help with the Vancouver Food Bank.
The gig was free, but still raised almost $10K for the charity.

Before the show we caught Amanda at the bar for a quick chat.
She had recognized us, and said hello first.
Then she saw my tattoo and kissed it.
I love what this brought about.
me too, Amanda, me too.
She asked us if we thought things were too organized
This was a ninja gig after all
But it had a massive guest list of professionals from different disciplines
People that made chaos seem easy and planned.
A beautiful mess.

Before the show started, the show started.
Vancouver’s Orkestar Slivovica brass band played and people danced
(read more about the show’s phenomenal line up here)
Kristen, my co-pilot in this adventure, and I found a friend, Lauren, from the house party
She lives in Vancouver.
Life is beautifully strange sometimes.
She saved us by lending us some Canadian money so we could buy drinks,
there’s nothing like driving to make you crave water.

Then we realized Lauren was sitting in front of Imogen Heap.
Well, Kristen realized.
Lauren and I were too excited about the gig and all the special guests,
we didn’t realize
I had to come back and kneel down next to Lauren and whisper
do you realize who you’re sitting in front of? you’re sitting in front of IMOGEN HEAP.
I am? Thank you for telling me.
Her eyes went wide.
I turned to Imogen and caught her attention
The three of us chatted for a moment.
Life is surreal.

singing a cover of Psycho, Neil Gaiman looking particularly scruffy after his writing retreat

Then Amanda came out on stage, the second beginning of the show
Ladies and gentleman, welcome to our fucking mess
what a beautiful mess
Amanda sang, Neil sang, Neil read a story about ducks.

Amy Cuddy (of TED fame) and Amanda Palmer
Amy Cuddy (of TED fame) and Amanda Palmer, shortly before she fangirled over being on stage with Amanda.

Some people TED came out and talked
a former football star talked about virtual reality and empathy
Imogen sang and turned the audience into her backing vocals, we didn’t sound too bad
more people from TED spoke, the head of safety at Twitter came out
I’m probably getting the order wrong,
but the chaos was beautiful
and I just let it wash over me, absorbing as much as I could.

After a quick intermission they brought out some TED fellows,
incredibly talented musicians that did things with instruments I’ve never seen
(the things they did, not the instruments themselves)

Imogen Heap!
Imogen Heap!

Amanda took stage to sing another song,
she asked for requests and the audience erupted,
you always do this and I can never hear you, raise your hands
I giggled, a punk rock gig, and here we are politely raising our hands. I loved it.
my hand shot up
Monica, you see me all the time
I thought it was a playful dismissal
No, no, I’m not dismissing you, what do you want

I got name checked from stage,
and stared at by the strangers around me,
because a rockstar knew my name.
I counted later, 10 shows in 2 1/2 years
3 of which were private house parties.
Yeah, there’s a reason.

The astronaut himself! Chris Hadfield!
The astronaut himself! Chris Hadfield!

Jason Webley sang about wanting a Giraffe and then a super special guest that everyone had guessed but had not been officially announced.
Chris Hadfield.
I’ll just let that sink in,
the astronaut.
He sang one of his songs
and then after having been told we only had time for one song,
he sang Space Cowboy anyway.

Amanda singing Astronaut to an astronaut
Amanda singing Astronaut to an astronaut

Then we watched Amanda sing Astronaut to an astronaut,
I’ve seen her perform it before,
but this was acoustic, Webley played the guitar, it made it different and special,
and there she was, living one of her dreams
probably thinking, is this real? is this my life?
yes it is.

She had opened with In My Mind.
so really. yes, circular and chaotic the show fit together.

After the show end, the security gently ushering everyone out because we had passed curfew,
Amanda yelling at us to go and be good citizens, obey the law, so we can do this kind of thing again.
Kristen and I made our way to the stage where Amanda was still chatting with the other performers.
She beckoned us up
and I took pictures of her wrapped around Kristen’s back and new tattoo.

Amanda, ukulele & Kristen!

Can I have a hug?
You can always have a fucking hug,
she whispered into my ear.

Floating around cloud nine
at one thirty in the morning
wandering a strange city
that was strangely clean
we made our way back to the hostel.

It all happened on a whim.
A glorious memory that we had witnessed something completely unique.
The feeling you get when you’re surrounded by people
who resonate with you
colorful people full of life
who are kind.

I feel more like myself now.


Oh, and my favorite part? All the guests sat on the sides of the stage and watched everyone else do their thing.


Someone Else’s Dreams

There’s a girl I follow on Facebook, and read her blog. I’ve known her since she was a little girl (she’s 6 1/2 years younger than me). In the last few years she’s spent the majority of her time in foreign countries, traveling alone. Backpacking through South America for a year, riding her bike from Canada to Mexico on the west coast, and now, cycling through India, before going on to cycle most of Asia. A lithe 20 year old, bent on seeing the world. She’s off having grand adventures and I admit, I get a bit jealous.

Every time I see a new post from Shirine. I start to think how amazing what she is doing is and how not quite as amazing what I’m doing is. It’s amazing how simple and compact she’s made her life. I feel I’ve opted for (comparative) extravagance, instead of real simplicity and the power that comes from trusting other people, and yourself implicitly, having only an outline of a plan and just living life each day. Making your way through life just doing the things you love and nothing that doesn’t get you to that end goal. I’m inspired by her and wish I could do that.

Bird above the Daintree River, Australia

And then I remember that I’ve heard very similar things from people who follow my adventures. And I realize that what I’m doing is it’s own kind of amazing. A rockstar sang me happy birthday. I travelled Australia by myself. I moved alone to Europe… twice. So it makes me happy to think that maybe others think of my adventures the way I think of Shirine’s. Happy because, in a way, we’re all able to find someone to be inspired by.

I started googling cycling blogs, thinking maybe a small trip around Oregon, or across the US. So I could take a chance and strip life down to the bare essentials. As I sat in a hostel in Cairns, a tropical storm blowing outside, thousands of miles from home thinking how much more interesting my life would be if.. if what? I followed her dreams? I’m astounded by this young woman who lives so simply. I want to find that inner tranquility that allows me to let go of the material and the pandering of the media and simply live. Live simply. But as the night and storm rolled on it hit me: the nitty gritty of what she wants is not what I want.

As much as biking through a foreign land for a year sounds like an amazing escape, it is just that, an idea, an escape. It wouldn’t be a way of life for me, as it is for her, for me it would be running and pretending to be someone else (albeit someone awesome). So as I sat on my my bed in a hostel in Cairns, reveling in my decision to upgrade to a single room for the week and wishing it wasn’t the middle of the night at home so I could call and talk to someone about just what things I should look at. I’m looking at my life wondering, what can I let go? What can I cut out to get down to the essence of who I am? What things can I give away, what things do I still need to live the life I want?

The things that made up the core of my life settled around me. Those ideas echoing through me as I continued on. friends. new opportunities. saying yes. dance. new places. kindred souls. honesty. art. being present. photography. good food. writing.

following my dreams.
and making sure they’re mine,
and not someone else’s.

Epic birthday accomplished

post show, minutes before midnight, the end of an epic birthday

The concert was amazing, I was first row and just left of center for the entire night (pictures soon). I kept running into new friends from the house parties and from twitter. Everyone was so excited and lovely. I hit the signing line and handed her my shirt to sign, she’s halfway through the massive queue and hasn’t looked up yet, but when she does she lights up, reaches across the table and grabs me in a hug thanking me for the letter I had given her the previous night and asking if I had a good time, a good birthday and saying she was glad her friend Mali and I got to hang out all afternoon. I ask for a photo but say I can stick around, so I spend the next bit talking with all my new Aussie friends, who knew I’d ever have a reason to come back to Brisbane :)

After the line died down I went over to Amanda for one last chat and a photo. Several hugs, thank yous and apparently what was ‘an adorable moment’ according to my friend Ellen later I walked out into the balmy night air. I don’t think I could have managed a better birthday if I’d planned any of this.

Birthday #27

Last night a rock star sang me happy birthday, fed me cake and gave me a kiss.

Last night was the second Brisbane house party with Amanda Palmer. Until the night before I didn’t even know there was a second party. Then Amanda asked if she could bring me along as a guest.

Amanda and I at SxSW last April.
Amanda and I at SxSW last April.

It was a simple kindness but it was also huge. It wasn’t something I asked her to do it was something she just did. I was talking with her friend Mali (who happens to be an awesome musician in her own right and is a guest at tonight’s show!) about how it all came about. And how, even though I’m a massive fan, I see Amanda as a person and not a celebrity. Throughout all of it she remains very human and grounded and kind and yet still has this big rock star persona and energy that is amazing to get caught up in.

Birthdays and holidays have been hard for me these last four years. Things just haven’t seemed right. But something in that small act of kindness, the passage of time, and the atmosphere that night shook up the feelings inside me rearranging them into something that made the idea of holidays easier. It was a catalyst. One I’m thankful for and don’t quite have the words to describe. I’ll never forget being introduced by Amanda Fucking Palmer to her friend because I was someone worth introducing or getting fed cake or given a birthday kiss. But really, I’ll never forget how alive it all made me feel like I’m running headfirst into life instead of away from it. That really, if I just ask, if I just try, anything might be possible.

Last night, lying awake in my bed, still soaking in the last hour, the last two days, the last five weeks, the last four years, I turned 27.

Amanda Palmer House Party in Brisbane #1

sunset, just before the party

This particular adventure started for me last April on the drive home after the house party in Portland. I realized as I left that if I had the chance to have that experience, or something like it again, I needed to take it. Meeting other Amanda Palmer fans and talking with Amanda is like a balm that calms the frayed nerve endings from struggling to be yourself in this crazy world. At least, for me it is. It’s a bit like being home, which this week, I needed. People are happy to see you, they give hugs freely and laugh at your jokes (because they actually get them no matter how geeky they are). So I did a bit of googling and emailed Neil (our host, not Amanda’s husband) to see if there was a chance I could be a part of their group in Brisbane.

Fast forward five months and I’m stepping out of the YHA and into the car with Ellen and her mom whom I’ve only ever spoken to on Facebook to drive to the next town over to a house I’ve never been to with people I’ve never met. She puts Theatre is Evil on the radio and we’re off. We got to Neil’s a bit early and helped with set up as more guests arrived. Conversation was easy, we all had at least one common interest and conversation started there : how did you discover Amanda Palmer. It was great to see that we had everyone from old Dresden Dolls fans to people who had only discovered her more recently. We chatted and laughed and even had in-jokes by the time the last few guests arrived.

Amanda arrived and began passing out hugs and saying hello. She hugged me, telling me I smelled nice (take that 4 weeks of travel) moving on to the next person, asking their name, then looked back at me ‘what’s your name?’ I laughed. ‘Monica, Portland house party’. ‘right! you’re out of context. what are you doing here?’  And so I explained how my trip happened to be when she rescheduled her tour, and the Brisbane show was on my birthday… so I decided I needed to come see Brisbane. A little later a few of my new friends tried to convince her to sing me happy birthday at the show on Thursday. All I’ll say is, we’ll see what happens. But more than that, the fact that there is a second house party came up. I immediately asked if anyone knew the person in charge and maybe I could reach out and see if they had room. Amanda said she would text the lady and ask. An hour later, I scrounged a piece of paper from my bag so Amanda could write down the address. I kissed her thank you. There are no words to describe how I feel about this, joy and excitement don’t come close. There aren’t many artists who would do this kind of thing for a fan. There are a lot of people that wouldn’t do it period. So for her to make that gesture, for me, on my birthday, something so kind, human and real is huge. That we get to see her as a person, as she is, as well as experience her art is something that I am very grateful for.

We also sang & recorded happy birthday for Jherek (part of the Grand Theft Orchestra/Amanda’s band)
Playing Sing

We wandered down from the large deck onto the lawn lit by candles and fairy lights and sat on blankets on the grass underneath the stars around an old upright piano. For the first time in a gig I was at & where she was taking requests there was a piano. One of my favorite songs of hers needs piano, and I’ve never heard her play it live. So when she asked for requests Sing was the first thing out of my mouth. She played for a series of requests and I sat there with the others, and a girl named Tegan and I leaned on each other, just taking in the moment, listening to Amanda and watching the stars, and enjoying a new friendship. (for the record I think she played: Sing, Blake Says, Gaga Palmer Madonna, Map of Tasmania, Creep, and The Thing About Things). It’s amazing what things make us feel most comfortable, most alive. After she was done playing we all turned off the lights and wandered down to the lower yard away from the candles to stare up at the stars.

mid-discussion, our intrepid host Neil, and Amanda

Somewhere in there between the songs around the time she sang Gaga, Palmer, Madonna we launched into a huge discussion about Miley Cyrus, her VMA performance and whether we really would have felt the same way about it if she hadn’t been a disney starlet. If she’d been any other young-twenty-something musician in the pop music scene, would we have batted an eye? Probably not. But circumstance has it that we do, because she was a young star and we don’t like to think of people growing older because maybe that means we’re getting older too.

A group of us huddled together and stared at the vastness of the milky way. Contemplating the stars, to me they seemed all at once foreign and familiar. The people around me were at once almost strangers, new friends and people who resonated with something deep inside of me. Earlier in the day I could feel the weight of the long trip pressing in on me, making me homesick in a way that only happens when you’re alone. There with those people that I’d only really just met and Amanda, who has never been anything but kind and real to me and whose work I admire, there in a strange place far from home, homesick, I felt at ease. That I was where I needed to be.

Back up near the fire we huddled for warmth as Amanda signed ukuleles and a Map of Tasmania themed cake was brought out. One of the guests turned out to be an amazing artist and drew two gorgeous portraits of Amanda (I wish I had pictures of them). We all talked into the night just enjoying the company until it was time to leave, say goodbye. Tegan gave Ellen and I a ride back to our hotel, all of us full of feelings and experiences of a lifetime.

Except it’s never really goodbye is it? We can keep in contact, reach out and hope that someday we get to see each other in the flesh again. The internet is wondrous for that. To my new friends, thank you for bringing me back to me last night even if you have no idea that’s what you did.

my favorite photo of the night :)


update: check out my awesome new friend Tegan’s blog about it as it was her first time meeting Amanda!

The things everyone asks me/asks every backpacker in Australia

Getting creative with the selfies, a skill every solo-traveller needs :)

Being a solo backpacker I’m almost constantly talking to new people, even in the short 4(!) weeks I’ve been here I’ve started to come up with quick stock answers to questions, the things everyone wants to know.

1) Where are you from?
A) Oregon, west coast US … it’s north of California (sometimes adding) It’s about the size of the UK but only about 4 million people live there.

2) Are you traveling alone? (followed up by, Aren’t you brave? or Don’t your parents worry?)
A) Yes. No. Yes.
Traveling alone means I get to do all the things I want to do and none of the things I don’t. It’s its own brand of awesome, but yeah, sometimes I’d like to share it with other people. I don’t really see it as brave, I didn’t do anything that seemed scary to me. Nerve wracking maybe, but not scary. I’m not overcoming anything, this trip didn’t take courage it took some planing and a bit of money and an adventurous spirit. Parents worry. That’s their job, I’m always online, just like at home, so it’s easier for them because they can “watch” me while I travel.

3) How long are you here? (do you like Australia? where have you been? where are you going? Sorry about the weather.)
A) 5 weeks. Yes. Melbourne, Sydney, Coffs Harbour, Byron Bay, Cairns, Brisbane. And guys, this is not winter weather. It’s been rather mild and lovely for “winter”.

3b) Where have you been?
A) France, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden.

3c) Where do you want to go next?
A) Everywhere! Top of my list right now: Japan, Italy, Greece, Croatia, Czech Republic

4) Have you seen a drop bear yet?
A) I’ve been sufficiently warned ;)

5) Isn’t 5 weeks a long vacation? (for an American, rarely said but always implied)
A) Yes, but my job is awesome and letting me do some work while I’m here so I get to stay and explore.

6) What do you do?
A) I’m a social media specialist for an IT training company. (this is almost always met with a blank stare and a what does that mean?!) Well, it means I manage FB & Twitter & G+ & YouTube, etc. etc. for the company I work for. I get to talk to our customers. It’s awesome and uses my degree.

7) Do you know any Australians?
A) Yes! I do! They’re awesome! … and they all work in medicine. I don’t know if that says something about me or the Australians who like to travel.

Maybe I should just print this out and keep it handy to give to new people…

Solo Travel: Friends for an Hour

alone around people

One of the things everyone else seems to worry about when you travel solo is if you’ll be alone, if you’ll be lonely. Yes and no… no and yes. Unless you find yourself in the middle of nowhere there will always be people around, someone to talk to if only for a few moments. And by not traveling with others it’s easier to find down time, time to be alone, to edit photos and to write. You need the down time if you don’t want to burn out. Being always on, exploring and absorbing new places, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, it’s exhausting : it’s why people need vacations from their vacations.

Traveling alone though, you always wonder who you will meet. Will they be nice? Will there be trouble? You wonder if you will find yourself eating alone at night or if the other backpacker in the kitchen will feel like chatting. Of course, some nights you do, but often, being alone when traveling solo seems to come by choice. And even when you aren’t eating with others that doesn’t mean you aren’t surrounded by others. I like being alone around people. Yes that’s how I like it. – to quote my favorite musician*

I’m an introvert by nature but I find it easy enough to make friends despite also suffering from insufferable shyness. It’s easy enough to make a friends, an amiable companion for an hour or two or maybe only 15 minutes. When there’s a strong chance you’ll never see them again, suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter what they think when you just be yourself. Maybe these connections are little more than superficial, but the conversations aren’t the stuff of small talk re-hashed, the things every traveller developed a stock set of answers to.

So far this trip I’ve made several friends for an hour, people I’ll likely never see again. It wasn’t wasted time, each experience was unique and gave me an insight into how other people live.

  • On a tour of The Rocks in Sydney I met a red headed, freckled English lass who had majored in African Studies. We swapped hostel horror stories and talked about our favorite places. At the end of the tour she wrote me a list of places to visit in Cairns, as she had just come from there and that was one of my next stops.
  • Learning to surf on Bondi Beach I met Hope, a blog girl from Texas with a thick southern drawl who studied medicine, lived in Sydney and spoke Arabic. We bonded over pointing our toes (she’s a cheerleader, I’m a dancer), seeing who had the better balance, and trying to catch waves on a nearly flat day. We then went and devoured massive plates of Thai and didn’t so much as Facebook each other.
  • On a ghost tour I met an aging lady from the west coast of Australia with an accent so soft it sounded like rubbing your hand through fur feels. She disliked traveling but was doing a tour with her husband who loved it and was dying of cancer. We chatted about the brevity of life, finding your passion and how technology has forever changed travel – in many cases opening it up as a possibility to some.
  • In the hostel in Melbourne, sitting in the TV room one day, I chatted for hours with a guy about social media and how society is changing. He insisted on reading at least part of my master’s thesis and we argued the merits of being always connected.
  • On a hike north of Sydney I ran across a Swiss immigrant who showed me a hidden beach that wasn’t listed on the maps.

Friends for an hour, an afternoon or maybe only 15 minutes. The fact is, if I don’t want to be alone all I have to do is say hello.

*lyrics from Do You Swear to Tell the Truth…. by Amanda Palmer