Spare Part

In the past couple of months that I’ve been away from the blog, I moved to Switzerland and started a new job. Leaving “home” yet again – although I am rarely there – puts into perspective the urgency with which I continually seem to leave it. I didn’t grow up traveling, but fed on a healthy dose of world exploring anecdotes, I was inevitably inculcated  with a personal ambition to discover the world for myself. With the plethora of international tales in my family’s oral history, I always had an unquestioning surety of future travel. Still, I wonder how I became so fundamentally a person on the move – one so willing to maintain a transient definition of home. Stories are powerful, but the ignition comes from somewhere else. Perhaps this goes beyond nurture and reveals something that is more intrinsic.

Map Arm TattooPondering this question I dig back into the dark folds of my brain. I sift through dusty files that sit in a mildewy corner of a filing system that predates even my memory. I land in the middle of a hot summer in the mid 1980s. Mine and a few other families are camping on St Johns Island in the Caribbean. My parents and I sleep in a “tent cottage” that rests on an elevated wooden platform, held up by four sturdy posts. Through a couple of knotholes in the planks one can easily peer down to the grassy earth – that is, if your gaze is not intercepted by a large glassy eyeball staring steadily back at you. The goats that sleep in the shade of the platform take an interest in the humans who amble above their heads.

With no hot water at our camp, and me having joined the world only 11 short months prior, my mom heats water for my bath on the small camper stove. The only one of our group awarded this decadent luxury, I am quite the indulged camper. A faint hum of warm contentment reverberates from the center of my chest. Here I am, nearly one, already a citizen of the world – I commune with goats, I soak in warm tropical tubs. I feel in that moment that I was born a worldly creature (oh the naïvety of nearly one year olds).


Years later, away from the Atlantic island of my early childhood, running around a cookie cutter California suburb, the three dimensionality of my early worldview is decidedly flatter. The goats feel exceptionally distant from the heavy cement blocks of my indistinguishable neighborhood. I have the knowledge that my experiences occurred, but the facts yield an unsatisfying, ghost-like understanding of the international community I must be a part of.

Belly Map TattooIt’s not until 1997, in another family trip south, that I am finally able to forge international memories of my own. It is the summer before my first year of middle school. The four of us flew to Puerto Vallarta on a bundle package that included the flight, resort, buffets, pool, etc. My sister and I bought new two piece bathing suits for the occasion and our exposed bellies glowed white against this tanned Mexican backdrop. We had our hair braided with blue beads and drank virgin piña coladas while lounging in the sand. After much angst, I spent my small savings on a family of pelicans carved out of red and green stone from a man who peddled them on the beach. My dad gifted his daughters their first pairs of huaraches. With soles cut from old tires, they were good for 3,000 miles of walking according to the convincing salesman. Amazing! At the shop next door you could even buy ceramic mugs shaped like breasts and there were holes in the nipples to take sips from. Mexico was crazy! To me it was a wild, exotic, heaven on earth.

Toward the end of our week Montezuma exacted a nasty revenge on my mother by way of a tainted margarita. Left to our own devices, the remaining three of us decided to venture outside the resort walls to find our dinner. We walked straight out the gate instead of turning left to head into town. Soon the pavement ceased and for a good stretch our path was empty. Animals grazed and a few people worked outside in the dim afternoon rays. Chunky gray clouds hung in the sky like gobs of dingy pudding. Large muddy puddles, remnants of the prior night’s rain, pitted the road, and the sun languidly lowered towards the earth. Tempted to turn back to beat the darkness home, we forged on, determined to find a meal.

Finally, we came upon a small village. One of the houses had a covered side patio, with a bit of music whaling from an old boombox. This did not seem like a restaurant to me but there were a few random tables encircled by plastic chairs outside and a friendly woman waved us over.

Back Map Tattoo

Without a menu, she cooked our meals to our individual whims. When they arrived, our plates were large and full. The food was simple and delicious. Golden hour glowed around us and a mangy dog barked a short distance off. Neighbors stopped by to say hello. As the sun sunk behind the black hills our hostess lit small lanterns that dangled from the rafters of the tarpaulin shelter. Fat scattered drops splashed to the ground around us but with our chairs scooted in tight we occupied the covetable inner circle where the falling water couldn’t quite reach.

My face shone in the humidity. I shoveled and chewed and swallowed and smelled and looked and thought. I was soaking in far too many new things to describe myself as at ease but a voraciousness was opening up inside me. The switch turned on and I had a profound realization. There were heaps of food waiting for me at the hotel buffet, but why would I ever choose that table again?

Full and happy as a baby in a warm Caribbean bath, I was so deeply charmed by this evening that I’m sure the very marrow in my bones glowed. From a distance, as we walked home in the dark, the farmers observed the embers beneath my skin and they nodded knowingly. Then the hum in my chest, so quieted in recent years, whined with renewed gusto. Placing my hand over the spot I felt the spare part for the first time. The goats had told me about it way back in the summer of ’86, but I rediscovered it here, ten years later in Mexico.

I have an extra part you see, an extra bone. The tiny thing floats in the very center of my chest. You’ll definitely miss it unless you look through a super-duper microscope, and even then you’ll likely not notice. But I can feel it. It’s physical, it’s part of my body. It’s a restless, curious and precocious bone. It’s a little push that nudges me forward. And because of it, I’ve been an adventurer since before I can even remember.

Tattoo Face


4 responses to “Spare Part

  1. Emma,
    This was a great Birthday Present. I so enjoy your writing. It sucked me in like the inner bone driving you forward! So happy for you.

  2. Reblogged this on everydaycritique and commented:
    We love this post by Emma Baumhofer on moving places. Emma Baumhofer is a freelance journalist and marketing consultant currently based in Bern. Her international travels inspire both her professional and private writing, where she draws on her passion for research and storytelling.

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