Janel Torkington – photographer, poet, diver, dancer and of course avid traveler – is our Tripper of the Week.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Fauxhawked and glittertipped, photographer and poet, diver and dancer, ginger freak/cilantro fanatic/chile fiend. I live to write, and I teach words for a living.
My passport says Arizona, but my tastebuds scream Thailand, and my soul croons Spain.
Aficionado of cultivating intimacy with place through brutal immersion, whether in the form of inundation by Rioja’s best or afternoon eternities persuing the international lingua franca of scrawled ideographic communication.
You are currently living as an expat in Madrid. What do you love most about your life in Spain?
Here, your frothy afternoon café-con-leche ritual concludes with mutual exchange of hasta luegos with the wizened barman who’s been making them since before the fall of Franco.
Here, la movida madrileóa‘s alt-culture boom left its indelible ink all over the northern barrios, inviting you to stand beer-in-hand in a chipping 70s doorway and contribute to the decades-long conversation.
Here, wine is cheaper than water.
Here, the Rs roll wild and free.
The more I develop my relationship with the Spanish character, the more intimately I feel entwined with this place: the “no-pasa-nada,” the “vale-vale,” the “cojonudo,” the “ostia,” the “¡¡gilipollas!!” Life’s hedonistic pleasures are deeply engrained here; the traditional siesta borders on sacred. Spaniards are direct and playful in their daily approach, brimming over with local cultural references couched in the corniest of puns ( “Os pementos de Padrón…” “Si en fallas no follas…” “Uno: El breikindance“).
I thrive in the Spanish day-to-day, both delighting in the lighthearted daytime city jaunts and reveling in the infinite nights, punctuated only by toasty pan con tomate breakfast at daybreak.
You lived for a time in Bangkok. Tell us about your time in Thailand.
In comparison to the cobblestones of Madrid and especially to the cornfields of Indiana, Bangkok felt like the Wild Wild West – but perhaps that’s just my Arizona cowgirl showing through.
The air there is charged with possibility and pollutants, inundating your senses with scent, at once sour and salty and spicy and sweet. When all four elements harmonize, as they artfully do in the green papaya salad som tam that serves as the national dish, it’s positively symphonic.
Fragments of my Thai explorations include basking in the glow of Loi Krathong paper lanterns floating by a 33rd story center city rooftop, jetting into the northern mountain hill tribe villages on rickety motorbike in the company of recently-met sunglassed travelfreaks, and allowing a jungle afternoon’s enthrallment over path-spanning web and accompanying palm-spanning spiderbeast.
What has been your most memorable interaction with locals on your travels so far?
The collection of experiences pales in comparison to the cast of characters.
The beamingly toothy grin of the ancient iced coffee lady and her proffered plastic bag spilling over with liquid caffeine sugarbomb.
The mototaxi guy who memorizes my schedule such that my chariot awaits each and every morning, warbling in Thai as he dodges absolute traffic anarchy and presents himself only as “Kevin.”
The far-beyond-chilled-out climber bum squads taking up permanent residence on picture-perfect southern beaches, with absolutely nothing more pressing than languidly smoking hand-rolled butcher paper cigarettes and grunting commentary regarding passing monkey hoards.
The floor-length fur coat clad abuelitas, immaculate in spun-sugar up-dos and fat leather heels, altogether too willing to share with you precisely how this neighborhood has gone to pot over the passing of the generations.
Their counterpart pipe-puffing abuelitos squawking last night’s f˙tbol gossip in the neighborhood bar, which apparently hasn’t changed even the waxy, ineffective napkins over the passing of the generations.
The saucy mix of African, Asian, Latino, Indian, and Arabic adorned with funky European flourish, constantly buzzing through each and every aspect of Madrid city life, insisting electrically that plenty of things do indeed change, and frequently bringing with them fresh energy, color, and perspective.
Of the countries you’ve traveled to, which has been your favorite so far?
Apart from my two great loves, Spain and Thailand:
Nestled in the thick of Hispanohablantes, Belize is an English-speaking tropical paradise that still hasn’t been too thoroughly overrun by tourism. I was nine years old when I first visited with my family, irreparably normalizing jumping into the cultural difference deep end.
Julius the spider monkey snuck into a hole he’d wrenched in our palm-thatched jungle cabin, ruffled my unkempt brunette mop, and stole my prized Nano-pet. I cried. It was located concealed amongst a rainbow of woven fabrics in a wooden chest later that evening.
My parents learned to scuba dive at Glover’s Atoll Resort on Lamont Cay, leaving my six-year-old brother and me to our own devices on what amounted to a nine acre deserted island. We constructed isle-wide treasure hunts ending in campfire JiffyPop prizes, plus elaborate hermit crab obstacle courses.
We were consistently the only obvious foreigners throughout our never-ending travel on local bus routes, during which the infinite sweaty hours would inevitably be spent passed out on some kind stranger’s lap.
You scuba dive: where is the most beautiful dive spot you’ve encountered?
Most of my experience underwater has been in Caribbean waters due to proximity to hometown Phoenix; as such, my excursion to the Similan Islands just off Phuket in the Indian Ocean was particularly exceptional. The fish species were all so vaguely reminiscent of their Caribbean cousins, but all dressed up for a different party.
Seeing poison-feathered lionfish for the first time flooded me with childhood memories of falling in love with the sea through NatGeo specials. Eerie ornate ghost pipefish were almost impossible to spot, preferring depths of at least 90′ and blending in completely with surrounding seaweed flotsam. On several occasions I spotted surfacing sea snakes, their serpentine undulations through the currents sending serious chills down my spine.
Where do you want to travel next?
Greece is high on the list, as is Taiwan. But there’s also Iceland, and Vietnam, and Guatemala, and Morocco, and…….
Happy Travels, Janel!