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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Hawaii, Days Eight and Nine

Day 8

Back in 2009, when I was still employed but the writing was on the wall, I got it into my head that I wanted a nice camera, the kind where you could change the lenses depending on your mood, to zoom in on a distant hummingbird or assume the ocular perspective of a fish. I had no particular goal attached to this desire but that did not stop me and I soon came home with a gleaming new Nikon that had more controls and components than C-3PO, and which other than being pressed into service that year to take photos of Goblin Foo in front of Mt. Rushmore and Niagara Falls was shoved into a closet and later stolen by a poltergeist. Believe it or not, it is difficult for me to tell you about this. I have–we all have–been through so much since then that the capability of buying something expensive on a whim now seems a distant and shameful. So when I planned this trip to Hawaii, built largely around a Vacation Club purchase from the same era so that it did not require an outlay of cash, I thought it would be a good opportunity to resurrect the Nikon and settle my guilt on this matter. And after wresting it from the clutches of the ghost and getting a refresher course in its use from my friend Amanda, I took it to Kalani on the Big Island of Hawaii and left it in its forlorn bag for a week. That just did not seem to be the land of lugging around a big camera or any sort of unnatural equipment, although there was a core group who smuggled their laptops down to the cafe on a regular basis to compete in the Hunger Games of Internet access.

Since arriving on Oahu, I have gradually begun to take the Nikon out and get used to its function. I have never been trained as a photographer, although I have a degree in design and understand good visual composition, and I have read up on the Rule of Thirds and other basic tips. Today, I decided to wander around the resort and play with some basic shots incorporating depth of field, which was more difficult than I thought it would be. Disney is actually famous for an experience design that incorporates a visual foreground, middle area, and background–this is how they lure consumers to the distant corners of their amusement parks–but down among the lush foliage of the hotel courtyard, the twisting paths and an endless procession of families in bathing suits did not quite lend themselves as fodder to my amateur eye.

Later, back at the room, the day devolved into the ambitionless sort I enjoy the most on vacation. I lollygagged, dilly-dallied, and frittered away the afternoon by editing photos, reading novels, and watching the ocean and clouds from the balcony. The lawn below, usually an out-of-the-way corner, bloomed to life at prescribed intervals with congregations of small children and life-sized cartoon characters, taking photographs and participating in activities such as Musical Surfboards. One of the hotel’s outdoor venues has an album of Disney music on rotation, with strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Colors of the Wind,” “Under the Sea,” or the ever-present “It’s a Small World” drifting up at all hours. Outside, the world was warm, pleasant, regimented; accessible enough to participate in if I wanted to, inconsequential enough to avoid if not.

After dinner, Rob and I descended back to the courtyard for what I had suggested be a drink or dessert, and actually turned out to be both. Nearby, children whose parents didn’t love them frolicked through the pools in the chilly night air, and a bedraggled storyteller enthralled his audience around a gas-powered fire pit. I did not bring my camera because I discovered its annoying tendency to leave its aperture open for several seconds in dim lighting, and I was not in the mood for capturing shapeless blurs and streaks of light. Instead, Rob and I discussed the Disney corporation and my fervent hope that the employees who had been so kind and cheerful around me in this hotel were actually happy in their jobs, and well-paid. They seemed happy, and they made me happy, and I did not want the atmosphere of beatitude to be based on a lie. Rob’s conclusion was that there is a certain mythos of higher purpose in some branches of the company, but at the end of the day it is a corporation like any other, and maybe the hotel employees are just happy to have jobs at all. I gave the bartender an extra large tip for my Superfruit Margarita and thought about this for the rest of the evening. I’m not stupid. I know how the world works and am daily horrified by economic injustices. But sometimes, I just want the illusion to be real.

Day 9

There is a stretch of highway between Ko Olina and Honolulu that seems eternally congested for no discernible reason. Today, we braved this again so we could visit the Chinatown section of the capital city, an excursion that would never have occurred to me, but Rob is one for scouring travel forums for unique activities and even seems to have some radar for discerning which self-appointed connoisseurs have the reliable opinions. In any case, I have been to Chinatowns across North America, and I thought it would be interesting to see one that was the closest to Actual China, the medicine of which I have based my latest career around.

Chinatown in Honolulu is architecturally similar to the Old West, with late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings that resemble the saloons and shops of that dusty epoch. It does not seem particularly geared toward tourism, although there are a few small shops of tchotchkes, and we went into one antique store that played versions of “Aloha Oe” on an unceasing loop. After meandering a bit, we eventually ate lunch in a pho shop, so I suppose we were more accurately in “Pan-Asiantown.” I did not make a special study of this, but it seems that this quadrant of Honolulu was constructed in discreet eras. After the Old West buildings of Pan-Asiantown, we passed through a neighborhood that could have been lifted from the nineteen fifties and eventually came to the colonial structures of Iolani Palace and its environs. More fascinating to me than the architecture were the palace grounds, which contained some of the most spectacular trees I have ever seen, including a banyan that seemed as if it could be a thousand years old. Afterward, we entered a Ross Dress for Less store so I could buy a pair of shorts and Rob could look for some sandals. Let me tell you, you know you are in a special kind of place when there are signs saying “Aloha” and “Mahalo” in the Ross Dress for Less.

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Even though I do not eat pork, one of the things I had wanted to do in Hawaii was attend a luau, just for the traditional entertainment, and although I could not be moved to research this agenda item in any way that would make it Actionable, I was happily surprised to discover that Aulani twice a week stages a Hawaiian-themed show on the lawn directly below our room. Tonight was the night for this, and Rob and I ate dinner on the balcony in anticipation of the hula dancers and ukulele players, who arrived as advertised in a graceful pageant that was marred only by their invitation to the children in the audience to come up to the stage and bang on coconut shells during one rhythmic number. Unfortunately, the traditional show ended abruptly at a point I thought should be the middle, the beat of the music changed wildly, and out popped Chip, Dale, Stitch, Goofy, and Mickey and Minnie Mouse; the previously soft lights of the stage began to flash and pulse in time to the disco beat, and suddenly the lawn erupted in a Disney dance party, which I found both completely unexpected and utterly interminable. I suppose this is the sort of thing that one has to put up with in a place like this, but I really would have thought Stitch would have better sense than to endorse these shenanigans.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Hawaii, Days Six and Seven

Day 6

Our last day on Hawaii dawned with a wind storm and a light drizzle, almost a fine mist, that fell regardless of whether clouds or sun were directly overhead. Rob had developed a slight cold the previous day, and after treating it with a judicious application of needles, I made him wear his jacket with the hood up, as any acupuncturist worth his moxa can tell you that disease enters the body through the back of the neck in unfavorable climates. After breakfast, while he rested, I went down to the ocean to say goodbye to Pele and the other spirits of the island.

Ben was at the desk when we checked out of Kalani, and upon settling my debts, I gave him my business card in case he ever found himself on the East Coast and needed assistance.

“You never know, I could end up anywhere,” he said.

“I distinctly have that impression,” I told him, picturing him adrift, buffeted hither and yon by the forces of a universe he is convinced has his best interests at heart.

I noticed that, instead of pants, he was wearing an orange skirt.

As we pulled up to Hilo International Airport, I was a little startled at how small it is, since I did not have a good perspective of its size upon our arrival. There were no planes at any of its few gates and only one large airliner parked away from the terminal; any conclusions I may have had about having traveled to a remote backwater were put to rest as soon as I noticed that it happened to be Air Force One, and I wondered if Goblin Foo had pulled some strings to get her daddy a more direct ride home. There could only be one other explanation as far as I was concerned, but I was tragically not offered an ambassadorship on my way to Gate 6.

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The topography of the Honolulu area is more interesting than where we were on the Big Island, although there is far less wild foliage. Our hotel, Aulani, turned out to be in a gated community called Ko Olina, which is lushly and impeccably landscaped to within an inch of its life, and I imagined any disharmonious branches or blades of grass were issued urgent cease-and-desist orders by a security patrol empowered for this very purpose.

We had arrived in Resort Hawaii.

I was disconcerted by the obvious wealth in this territory, in contrast with the casual wilderness around Kalani, but I could only be stunned by the architecture and accoutrement of Aulani, which is owned by Disney and subject to that corporation’s legendary attention to detail. After checking in, Rob and I familiarized ourselves with our one-bedroom suite overlooking the ocean and later strolled the open-air lobby and its surrounding beaches and pools, which majestically evoked Hawaiian palaces and vistas in staggering proportions. I am a sucker for a good design theme, and the interpolation of Disney trademarks into this hallowed iconography was minimal and tasteful, but I did glimpse someone dressed up as Donald Duck across the courtyard, and “It’s a Small World” was piped subtly into the elevator–in the Hawaiian language and accompanied by ukeleles.

I can’t begin to stress how different this is from Kalani, and Rob and I are probably two of the few characters on the face of the earth who might occupy the overlapping sector of a Venn diagram that represented each as a distinct circle. Our fellow travelers here appear to be self-involved and wearing name brands, although the staff greets everyone who passes with cheerful alohas that do not seem enforced by their salaries. And when it comes to Internet access on every square inch of this property, I am in like Flynn, if Flynn were a wifi provider and not an infamous libertine.

I confess, I love it here, too, the comfort and thoughtfulness of it mostly. “Welcome home!” they say when you arrive, and it does feel like that, especially if my home were a responsibility-free zone removed from the realities of the world. But I confess that I wouldn’t mind wandering downstairs and finding the hippies and mystics of the jungle gathered for a simple meal around the infinity pool, awaiting me with open arms.

Day 7

I left for this vacation without doing an iota of research on the destination, but everyone and my mother said that we should visit the Dole Plantation when we got to Oahu, which is what we decided to do today. The Dole Plantation grows pineapples, apparently, a bulbous and prickly fruit I did not personally encounter in that locale except for in the pineapple-flavored ice cream Rob enjoyed on the patio. There was a tour through the property on a miniature train, but we opted instead for the sprawling arrangement of hedges billed as the World’s Largest Maze. I am used to mazes being printed puzzles in which you are given the entrance and must direct your pencil point to the exit. This one, it took me a while to understand, did not disguise the way out but instead contained eight secret stations that you were supposed to navigate to your own or with the aid of the little map provided at the ticket booth. I was quite unclear on the nature of these stations, but we were also given a little card with a blank space to record something from each, so I assumed that this would be stamped in some way at every one. Rob and I split up, and I thought I would try my luck without the guidance of the map, a disastrous decision that left me retracing my steps with increasing disgruntlement. When I arrived at what I thought might be one of the landmarks, all that awaited me was a lone peacock, which eyed me with wary annoyance as it groomed its own feathers. I wondered if this was what I was looking for, so I took its photo. Around another corner there was a chicken pecking around contentedly under one of the hedge walls, and I imagined I had struck a bonanza of live-action poultry. But when the only other unusuality I encountered was a weed that resembled a marijuana plant, I decided to leave the maze and sit under an umbrella to catch up on my emails. Rob, of course, had discovered every station and an ice cream booth besides.

That evening, we drove down to Waikiki, a district of Honolulu by the beach characterized by throngs of tourists from all over the world streaming through an otherworldly bazaar of twirling Hare Krishnas; solemn adherents of the Falun Gong; apocalyptic cultists shouting about the Book of Revelation; mangy Rastafarians; native Hawaiian performers of music and magic; tour guides hawking their products with the gusto of carnival barkers; wild-eyed beggars bearing cardboard signs; and a trained guinea pig that could balance on a ball, drive a toy car, and perform other marvels, while simultaneously modeling a succession of tiny hats–all of this against a backdrop of some of the most opulent shops ever begotten by capitalism, including an Apple Store, of which I availed myself to purchase a dongle to connect my camera to my iPad. Our ostensible goal in this seaside circus was to find a restaurant to eat dinner, but given the advancing hour and my plummeting blood sugar, we settled for tacos from a food court stand, which were fine enough.

Later that evening, back at Aulani, I sat out on the balcony with a glass of wine, listened to the waves against the shore, and thought, refreshingly, about nothing.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Hawaii, Day Five

Day 5

Apparently, Rob had trouble sleeping the other night and decided to list all fifty states in alphabetical order, creating an elaborate spreadsheet on his iPhone to keep track of this self-inflicted challenge. “There was only one that started with H,” he reported in a significant tone, and I could not imagine what he was referring to, chalking it up to a deranged genius getting his wires crossed. But when I woke up this morning, I realized he had meant Hawaii. Oh gosh, we are in America, I remembered for the first time since our arrival. I can’t imagine now what part of the universe I had been under the impression we occupied, but that country of lunatic politicians, inexhaustible consumerism, superhuman corporations, ubiquitous surveillance, and militarized police would not have been on the list. On this island of free spirits, everyone says hello or aloha at every encounter, with eyes that shine with warmth and acceptance. I have encountered no ego or ostentation, just a community of fellow travelers who behave with kindness, respect, and mutual service. There are a couple of Annoying People, as there are in every human civilization, but no one pays any attention to their personality tics, and I think this relaxes them enough to keep their provocations to a minimum. The worst I have seen is the mild and contagious self-congratulation of having the fortune or foresight to inhabit this Edenic land.

After breakfast today, I wandered down to the cafe then then, for the first time, to the stretch of shore across the street. There, on a flat point of land surrounded by palm trees and crashing waves, individuals did yoga or sat in quiet contemplation. The sky and water today were the purest of blues, in contrast to the grey rains of other days, and the ocean stretched into a featureless forever. I returned later in the day with Rob, and we walked up the road a piece, in awe of a landscape that, within a steps, ranged from lush to lunar. The flora here is so gorgeous, I noticed, when I could tear my gaze away from the sea; growing wild on the side of the road are many species sold as exotic houseplants back home, the kind I specialize in killing with brutal neglect. These gave way to heaps of lava boulders, remnants of past eruptions that pushed toward the sea in a fiery death march. We renamed Hawaii “the sharp island” after their jagged contours, and Rob said Oahu will be softer. I suppose I will find out tomorrow. I don’t particularly want to leave here, although I don’t have the slightest conviction that Fate has led me to reside in this area, a theory Ben and assorted others have espoused since we arrived; in fact, I know something different is waiting. But the appeal of this life is strong, and I have even made friends with the lizards, although I have tried to be very clear with them that this is not the sort of friendship that should result in unannounced visitations at all hours.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Days Three and Four

Day 3

Every business owner needs to be proficient at creating systems. Here is mine for navigating the dark nights with the lights off: By the light of my iPhone screen, I make sure that no representatives of Nature are congregating on the little flashlight that I keep on the ant colony by the bed. Then I use the flashlight to guide myself across the cement floor without stepping on any lizards.

You can tell I am not used to roughing it. Yes, we have hot water and, for the most part, electricity, but I consider occupying any room in which a reptile may suddenly make a dramatic appearance to be Roughing It. Let us just say that, as well as the king of the closet rod, I have made a new friend who lives on the curtains next to the toilet, and this morning, at the cafe down by the road, the kind attendant found another of this cold-blooded species lounging on the handle of the tea kettle. (Yes, I ordered Kava Stress Relief.)

Today was Adventure Day here in Hawaii. Our room reservation included an afternoon of optional activities, and we picked “lava tube” and “hot pool,” an itinerary that given my colorful palette of terrors were perhaps not the most prudent choices, but against all odds I ended up loving them. Our guide was Ben, a young man with bright eyes and the indomitable conviction that the universe will provide for his needs in life, and who described every one of his personal decisions, from moving to Hawaii to taking the watch off his wrist at the beach, as “being called” to do this or that. I liked him immediately, even though his first official act was to have us sign a form protecting him from liability if the land we occupied was called to collapse into the ocean or we fell into a bottomless pit, and we allowed him to lead us on a harrowing descent into the earth, through a grotto carved out by lava and the Hawaiian goddess Pele, mistress of volcanoes. The lava tube was strewn with sharp boulders piled at steep angles, which we had to climb while clutching flashlights to illuminate the pitch blackness. Twice, we stopped and turned them off, allowing ourselves to appreciate the sensory deprivation and, as Ben said, “just be present.” The highlight of this expedition was a rock formation with the uncanny shape of an enormous labia, an anatomy that was assigned to Pele. Other travelers had left noni fruit and leaves, carved sticks, and other offerings to the goddess; we had brought some along, ourselves, but deposited them at the beginning of the cave when it became clear that it was difficult enough to balance on those treacherous rocks with a flashlight in one hand without clutching a noni fruit in the other.

Our next stop, the hot pool, was at a popular local beach. Heated by volcanic activity, the pool was set back from the ocean, a rocky hole in the ground surrounded by jungle trees. It was actually not much hotter than a lukewarm bath, but it was warmer than the air and a comfort to sink into even though I find water disconcerting. We were joined by a stranger, another man who discussed with Ben such topics of Paths In Life, Energy, Letting Go, and The Divine Source with ecclesiastical fervor, and it was clear from their stories that both Ben and the other man were comfortable with finding a simple abundance in the midst of uncertainty. I envied them their lack of attachments to possessions and permanent addresses. Not long ago, Rob asked me what I would do if I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted, and my immediate answer was “vanish without a trace.” He didn’t believe me, and I can see why not, but the impulse is a rising drumbeat in my heart, and it was illuminating to talk to men who called disappearing from the midst of their responsibilities a spiritual journey.

Back at Kalani, Rob and I rinsed off the evidence of our excursions and lounged in the cafe for a while. It was New Year’s Eve, and the staff was setting up for the dance party that was set to begin at nine p.m., and which we planned to miss because our bodies stubbornly remained conditioned to Eastern Standard Time. We did, however, attend the special holiday dinner of prime rib and enjoyed the company of some random Canadians.

Afterward, we wandered into the tropical night to look at the stars, which gleamed against the blackness with a ferocious brilliance–there were brighter versions of familiar constellations and thousands of stars I had never before seen or imagined. It was navigating by these celestial beacons a thousand years ago that led the original inhabitants to the Hawaiian islands in their precarious canoes, almost as if they were confident of the paradise that awaited them. Why else would they abandon the safety and comfort of their home shores for the trepidations of the rough and desolate seas? Ben would say that the universe provides for those who let go of security and step into the unknown, unsure of where they are going but letting go of the constraints of where they have been.

Day 4

We ushered in 2014 from the depths of unconsciousness and awakened to another morning of rain pattering on the jungle leaves. I took advantage of a lull in the weather to slip down to the cafe by the road, where I could suck up the precious Internet and watch the unfathomable grey expanse of the Pacific Ocean through the trees. Later was the special New Year’s brunch, which I devoured ravenously, although not to the extent that I may have liked as I did not want to be too full for my massage.

Today was Spa Day here in Hawaii. The package deal that included the room and the meal plan also came with the excursions from yesterday, a spa treatment, and all the yoga classes I can take, a number that has thus far turned out to be zero. Rob has attended some meditation classes and paid a mystical Italian woman to retrieve fragments of his soul from the corners of the galaxy, but I just signed up for a massage, which I needed because my mutinous vertebrae had been tormenting me without mercy. The setting for the massage was a screened treatment room overlooking a small garden pond, perfectly gorgeous, and I melted into the strong hands of the massage therapist, although melting is relative for someone with the tension of iron bars in his back and shoulder muscles. I tried not to notice how the vampiric bluish-white tone of my own skin contrasted with his more natural hue, and for the rest of the day, I tried not to notice my clothes sticking to my body from the application of massage oil, but these were totally worth the experience.

I love it here, even though connecting to the Internet is like, as Rob put it, sucking pudding through a straw. As connecting to the Internet is my chief activity in life, the withdrawal is acute, and I take out my iPhone and look at it longingly every so often, its lack of signal continuing to dishearten. It will all come flooding back when we go to Honolulu on Friday: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

It is the Good that I look forward to the most.

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TRAVEL JOURNAL: Hawaii, Days One and Two

Day One

I once heard the Legend of Jackie Kennedy and the Tragically Surpassed Budget For Decorating Dulles Airport, a cautionary tale for the ages starring a profusion of Barcelona chairs. Unfortunately, I cannot research these details, as I find myself in the middle of a tropical jungle without the indispensable comforts of wifi or glass in the windows. There is also some sort of tiny and undoubtedly ferocious lizard occupying the closet. (I decided not to unpack after all.)

As I write this, someone, somewhere in the pitch darkness, is playing a flute.

I started today, bleary-eyed and soggy from the grim rain, in Dulles Airport and ended it in Kalani, a retreat center on the Big Island of Hawaii that Rob had once visited and fondly recalled in a way that captured my imagination. I perhaps should have been more suspicious when he mentioned that, last time, the facility shut down its electrical generators at nine p.m. and facilitated encounters with German lesbian nudists. All the clues were there. And now I get to sleep next to a white wicker nightstand that is crawling with ants. Yes, you read that right: white wicker.

Everything is damp to the touch.

People like this sort of thing, I think, because it brings them close to Nature and highlights the simple core of the human experience. I like Nature, too, but not staring at me balefully from the rod in the closet. I found myself wandering in contemplative spirals trying to capture a bar of service on my iPhone, an exercise in frustration akin to perusing a Republican budget proposal. I can tell this trip is going to test the limits of my addictions.

We went to bed at 7:48 p.m. I slept with the iPhone next to me, just in case.

Day Two

I woke up at 3:43 a.m. to discover, in the impossible darkness, that my iPhone had fallen behind the bed. I used the keychain LED flashlight they had given us at the front desk to gingerly retrieve it and find my way to the bathroom while encountering as little of Nature as possible. Getting back into bed, I made a deal with the lizards, ants, and whatever that oblong bug was on the wall that I would respect their territory if they would stay off of my sheets. Lizard, I said, that bar in the closet is your private kingdom. Ants, you may occupy the white wicker nightstand with impunity as long as you adhere to our treaty. I know you have the proper discipline because of that time Erich and I stayed in that dilapidated Mexican beach hotel with the trail of your people precisely down the center of the room, not one of you straying an inch from this insectile superhighway.

At six-something, a monsoon started, sounding like an avalanche through the glassless windows; the rumble of thunder, impossibly deep, like a volcano. It poured down all morning, causing me to pull out my little travel umbrella so I could get to breakfast relatively undrenched, but I noticed no one else carried such a civilized utensil. The standard uniform here is loose shorts and tee shirts, although this is punctuated by yoga pants, long skirts, the occasional spandex, and Clothing Optional areas. Many women and some men wrap parts of themselves in festive scarves–one man is sporting a rather ostentatious sarong–and I have seen no evidence that anyone wears underwear. In the rain, my fellow travelers sprouted waterproof ponchos or jackets. I do not own any shorts or waterproof jackets or sarongs. I wear underwear with a religious zeal. Rob said this is Hippie Hawaii, and when we go to Oahu next week, we will be in Resort Hawaii. I feel like my soul craves Hippie Hawaii and my body craves a four-star hotel.

It is sort of peaceful here, and sort of not. Or maybe it is peaceful here and it’s me who is not yet at peace despite the cups of Kava Stress Relief tea I gulp down after every meal like medicine. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, but I’m afraid a meth addict is going to wander out of the jungle and steal my camera, the expensive one I bought years ago and have barely used. There is essentially no way to lock anything safely here. When it stopped raining, I put the camera in my backpack with my iPad and wandered down to the cafe by the road in search of the elusive Internet, which was Not Working. I then spent the afternoon alternatively reading one of the novels I have been saving all year for this trip and meandering the property looking for reception bars on my cell phone, a Mr. Spock scrutinizing his tricorder on a distant planet.

It is breathtakingly beautiful here, and the food is amazing, exactly what you might expect from a collective of hippies: fresh, local, simply prepared, and labeled with the precision of a thousand conflicting dietary restrictions. Mealtimes are announced by the blowing of a conch shell, which echoes through the jungle clearing like the howl of a sea monster. We eat communally around long tables on the lanai, although some tables are reserved for special groups. The Male Nude Yoga Retreat is happening here, which I was informed of both by phone when I made the reservation and by the signs on the dining table saving their space. I must say this bunch looks better in person than I had been imagining, as their name conjures something more grizzled and ropy and the reality is a group of mostly young gay men with a preternaturally upright bearing.

After dinner, Rob decided to walk down to the cafe by the road, but still jetlagged, I stayed in the room to read and sleep. The rain started up again, and I turned off the light to listen to it beat down against the leaves and roofs; the hoots and chirps of frogs and insects could still be heard over the falling water, and I felt very remote and alone. In the darkness, I clutched my iPhone and went to sleep.