I pay no attention to the strange stares I receive when vacationing. Three years after becoming an avid traveler, the desire to explore the world developing on a single trip to France, I've grown accustomed to the odd looks and whispers behind my back.
"What is that girl doing with that monkey?"
It started three years ago with my mother and a group of her friends. All of them live in different parts of America, some even throughout the world. As a better way to share each other's lives, they began sending a stuffed monkey around with the idea that each person would photograph the monkey in their daily lives, travels and all. A member of the group from Australia sent a stuffed koala named Kouie to tag along for the ride hoping to have the koala explore America with the monkey. I know, it all seems strange. What young twenty-something girl should be carrying around stuffed animals. For me it's a way of life. To travel any other way is just wrong.
The monkey, who's name is G.M. (short for Gold Monkey, the emblem painted on his belly) and koala came to me during my senior year at The University of Alabama. Mom wanted me to carry the monkey and koala around Tuscaloosa, letting him go around the campus with me and sit in the press box of a Crimson Tide game. I was supposed to give him back after two weeks. Three years later GM and Kouie are still with me.
They have traveled to France, Switzerland, Disney World, Mexico, the Bahamas, New Orleans, Tennessee, Florida, all over Alabama, and most recently Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
At first my fellow travelers are skeptical of the stuffed animal photo project. Nervous smiles and hesitation lets me know how embarrassed they really are. But everyone opens up to the duo eventually. Even foreigners.
On my recent trip up east I was accompanied by the duo along with a newfound German friend, Marc-Kevin Schewenk, an E.F. Foundation for Foreign Study student who has just finished a year of study in Scottsboro, and his host parent Brent Miller. I wanted G.M. and Kouie to have their photos made with Marc. Marc was leery at first, laughing while I took his photo with the stuffed animals next to him at a summer league baseball game in Maryland. I tried to explain the photo mission to him, how it symbolized for me and my mother's friends exploring America and the world on a raw and natural level, but I don't think he understood.
After Maryland came Washington D.C. I left Kouie in my luggage as he is too big to carry. G.M. toured the inside the Capitol and visited outside the The White House, the Washington Monument, the Vietnam War Memorial, The Lincoln Memorial and The Supreme Court building.
A security guard laughed at me when I sat G.M. on the marble steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building. While taking the photo I imagined supreme court justices like Sandra Day O'Connor, William Rehnquist and Thurgood Marshall walking up those steps toward the courtroom where decisions in cases can forever change America was ruled on.
That afternoon Marc and I attempted to make G.M. look as if he was climbing the Washington Monument. I held G.M. high above my head and Marc snapped the photograph, telling me how far to move toward him and where to stand.
In Gettysburg, G.M. sat in the grass near the spot where President Abraham Lincoln had once given the Gettysburg Address. In Philadelphia, Marc held G.M. next to the Liberty Bell as a lady made snide remarks about me taking a photograph of a monkey while she was trying to take her own photo. He also saw the grave of Benjamin Franklin and threw a penny on the grave for good luck. Before digging into my first real Philadelphia cheesesteak ("one whiz with") from Geno's in South Philly, G.M. had his photo made with the sandwich. I also snapped a photo of him near the owner, Geno, complete with the rebel flag tattoo in view on Geno's left forearm as his flipped steak. Marc and I felt at home.
At The White House I wrapped G.M. around the iron fence, debating on if I could get away with setting him on lawn for a better photo.
"Better not do that," Marc warned. "You'll land in jail and so will your monkey." Such wise wisdom from my German friend.
With three houre to spare before catching the flight back to Alabama, I begged Brent and Marc to take me by the grave of my favorite author, Edgar Allen Poe. I stood at his grave, listening to the sounds of the adjacent hospital and the taxi cabs honking along the city streets. I didn't feel safe in that part of town, but at least I was with a group of people I knew and trusted. Everything around me was far from the world Poe lived in. It was a scary place with scary people. With the help of my friends I sat G.M. on Poe's grave and took a picture. Photographs like that only happen once.
After a nice hour delay in Baltimore, our plane landed safely in Huntsville. Marc commented that we were home because of the humidity. Yes, that was a quick reminder of home, but so was the throng of people dressed in Alabama and Auburn t-shirts, each person picking up a relative from the airport. And, after all of his complaining about the monkey, Marc wanted to make sure G.M. was safe in my backpack. The last photo of the trip is a picture of G.M. and Marc waiting on someone to board the plane.
I asked Marc in two years when I plan to visit Germany if I can bring G.M. along.
"Sure, just as long as you are the one taking the photos and not me," Marc said.
That, I think I can handle.