Why I Do What I Do

Salt flats

Sizzling black peppercorns on the burnt streets of Phnom Penh. Sun-spangled sapphire stretching off the Sardinian shore. The swish of a hundred swirling skirts at midnight in Arequipa, the sharp sting of wasabi on my Tokyo tongue, the salty force of a six-foot wave knocking me off my feet in the Tasman sea: travelling sharpens the senses, catapulting you straight into the unknown (and quite often the uncomfortable) without a seatbelt. There’s nothing like the shock of the new to make you look at home again with different eyes.

For me, it’s the unexpected moments on a journey that sear my heart and stay with me the longest: waking on the night bus, in the thinning air, to see all the stars in the universe trailing down towards the stony sand of the Atacama desert. Breathing in the mingle of five spice, flat whites, French fries and falafel on the cool streets of New York. Watching children tumbling out of church to blow bubbles like clear blossom through the apricot-stained alleyways of a small Spanish town.

But if it’s the moments that transfix you, it’s the people you meet who pull you in: the receptionist in fizzing, fairy-lit Hanoi who wants to matchmake you with passing hotel guests (“Honeymoon suite still free!”). The shoeless, switched-on ten-year-old in the shade of Angkor Wat with his canny sales pitch of “one drink for you – and one for your driver.” The tiny wisp of woman in black who shares your table in the sandy sprawl of Lima and tells you, between spoons of chicken rice, she’s returning from her husband’s funeral. The Italian soldier who recites solemnly, in the spring sun, his hand-on-heart recipe for “the best way to eat pasta”. The New Zealand surfer who stops you on the sand, bare-footed and golden-haired, and asks joyfully, “Are you saved?” The elderly Japanese man, worn with age, who shuffles over to tell you he once, many years ago, “go Rondon. Albert Haw. Ve-ry beautiful,” and starts conducting an imaginary orchestra. The Polish tour guide, who begins with the tale of the town’s war-torn history and ends, as the candles burn down over the cobbled square, with her own.

I’ve lived in seven countries so far, and I’ve long been writing stories inspired by my travels for an audience whose most common question is “Where are you going next?”

Where am I going next…?

I’ll tell you when I get there.

[Adapted from an article written for the LATAM airlines travel writing competition, March 2017]

© Joanna Rubery 2017

Microfiction in 300 Words: Peak betrayal

Patagonia

“Is here!” shouts our guide, and we crunch over to where the snowy cliff runs out. Miles below, unheard, a glacial river splashes. The space between the pearl-white peaks is silent. The air is paper thin.

Magnífico,” I whisper. Antonio turns and smiles, but I mean him, and his dark and sparkling eyes. I hand him the water.

Peter-the-Australian is watching the sunlight fade away.

“Where are we gonna stay tonight, then?” snorts Gemma, from behind. “My bloody feet!”

Antonio unlocks a splintery shack. There’s a rich smell of Andean wood, and something like alpaca.

“I can see me breath!” says Peter, shards curling.

“No mirror?” yells Gemma, pulling off her hat. “What about my hair?” and it tumbles loose, like silk.

We spoon up soup as the night turns blue, then black. Antonio uncorks a dusty bottle and four glasses, crystallized with frost.

“Can’t get a signal here,” says Gemma, vexed, but Peter (“You millennials!”) is already dealing out a pack of cards.

“We two,” says Antonio, winking at me, “Against Gemma. And Peter.”

We’re a team. (Tonight? Maybe tonight.)

“That’s not fair!” Gemma’s protesting, glossy-lipped; but an hour later, I take another sip, play my hand – and it all falls apart. Gemma whoops.

“I’m sorry – ” I turn to Antonio, but, “Is only a game,” he replies, knocking back his glass.

In the dark heart of the night, I feel my frozen way outside. The stars are speckled right down to the ground, as if the world has tilted. I listen in, too.

From somewhere in the shack, I hear a giggle.

The dawn’s like ice.

I hand him the water, but “Gemma!” he calls, and walks away. On a far peak, I see the snow come crashing down before I hear it.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

1001 Words: Niagara Flaws

Niagara Falls

Little Micky is singing a muffled Jingle Bells through her scarf as we finally pull off the highway in Niagara Falls, Ontario (pop: 78,000) after three hours of inky darkness. Then she changes the lyrics to Dunkin’ Donuts. Micky is adorably cute.

“Thanks to God, we make it in good time,” says Mr Chang from the front, blessing himself quickly.

“Michaela,” says his wife, snaking rosary beads through her twice-gloved fingers, “Why you not sing something nice about the baby Jesus?”

“Mom! Look! McDonald’s!” says young Tom, pressing his face to the cold glass.

“Niagara not far, ah?” says Mr Chang, turning to me and my boyfriend. “We blessed to live so close.”

Continue reading “1001 Words: Niagara Flaws”

Microfiction: I 💔 New York

New York sidewalk

Rich roast bean, the crunch of toasted bagel: I’m watching the sun slide cleanly up over the Empire State into an unforeseen blue. The breeze bristles a thousand tiny leaves of hope. My heels echo down open avenues, cool and calm, just like you. I am walking to meet you in September sunshine, through sultry spice and melting mozzarella and scotch splashing on rocks and here you are, American Boy, here you are, and “I’m busy,” you say, and walk away, treading leaves, my heart, and other trash into the sidewalk. This coffee’s cold, and bitter.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

1001 Words: Peruvian Blues

Lake Llanganuco

The dogs have us up against an unfinished house, all bared fangs and throaty growls, until with a shout Mike throws his piece of spit-roast pig at them and we turn and flee past the alpaca having a siesta under the ATM and round the corner by the meat market where wizened women are smashing goats’ heads with cleavers in time to frantic panpipes, a rainbow of primary colours splattered with blood and bones. We dodge the naked chickens strung up like laundry, the reeking towers of animal teeth, and the small furry guinea pigs splayed open on plate after plate, a ghoulish banquet of snouts and claws. There’s barking from behind: we jump over buckets of guts, past twins playing chess and a tiny old man weeing like a garden ornament into the gutter. We fly by the boy selling oversized snails and the black-hatted girl roasting a hot glazed pig on a spit. We dart across the main square, through shrieking whistles and clashing car horns, dodging a toddler dancing in a feather headdress and – Mike yanks me back – a tuk-tuk streaking by like a meteor, spraying steady Latin beats, and then we make a final break for it up the dry, cracked hill in the thin mountain air, past the shaman at his stall, doing nothing, the flickering candles at the Madonna shrine, and a small monkey on a pole dressed in red and juggling nectarines which aren’t nectarines at all. A man sitting on a stool holding a euphonium plays a few low notes as we run by.

Continue reading “1001 Words: Peruvian Blues”