House of Transfiguration

May 12th, 2022

By Dianne Cheseldine

Travel and Transformation Gold Winner in the Sixteenth Annual Solas Awards

Finding an oasis in the ancient medina of Fez.

Only a small plaque indicated the entrance to my riad, Dar Attajalli, meaning House of Transfiguration. The door opened and with one steep step I entered a new world. The young employee, Idris, greeted me with Salaam Alaikum in a soothing voice.  He was tall and slender and moved with ease as he crossed the tiled floor of the courtyard. He was casually dressed in blue jeans and a light-colored cotton shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap, his dress contrasting with the old courtyard surrounding me. He lifted my heavy suitcase as if it were weightless and showed me to my room, the only one located on the ground floor. It was more beautiful than I had imagined, dimly lit with a huge bed clothed in an emerald-green spread and amber pillows displaying Berber designs. The floor was covered in carpets and several leather poufs in varying shades of blue, brown and red. The window of my room opened onto the courtyard from where I could contemplate the patterns of the wooden panels aligning the walls. I could hear the soothing sound of the fountain twenty-four hours a day.

After several flight delays out of Portugal and two sleepless nights, I was bleary-eyed and exhausted, but after ten minutes of swaying back and forth in the rickety cart that carried me to my riad, I was finally here. I had arrived in the Medina of Fez, the old walled city in Morocco that I had heard and read about for years. The medina was founded in the ninth century.  It is home to Al-Quaraouiyine University, originally founded as a mosque and considered by some to be the oldest continuously functioning institution of higher education in the world.  This ancient walled medina is known for its ornamented entryways and the narrow car-free streets are lined with vendors calling out to passersby to enter their shops filled with perfume bottles, vats of spices, hanging lamps, leather bags and belts, poufs, and purses.

After a long-awaited rest, I stepped out of my room on the first morning into the light-flooded courtyard to find Idris and my guide seated on low turquoise couches, waiting patiently for me to awaken.  They stood up to greet me and assure me the late hour was not a problem. Idris indicated that I could take my breakfast on the terrace several floors above.  Arriving there out of breath from the climb but excited to see the view awaiting me, I found myself looking out upon a mesh of madrassas, fondouks, palaces, residences, mosques and fountains. The entire medina lay before me, all the structures mirroring earthen tones, giving the impression they were attached to one another.  Only their rectilinear shapes distinguished them from the surrounding desert hills.  This intricacy reminded me of the geometric designs of mosaic tiles, individually striking but reflecting unity at the same time.  The overall impression was interrupted only by the minarets towering above this sea of dwellings. After eleven hours of sleep followed by breakfast, I felt serene immersed in the subtle shades of color and sense of peace surrounding me in the riad and beyond.

It had been almost twenty years since I travelled to Morocco with two friends from the Basque country during a sabbatical year I spent in Spain. We had crossed the Atlas Mountains by Jeep with our Spanish-speaking guide and ended the trip in Marrakesh.  The memories of the warmth and dignity of the people we encountered, the array of vibrant colors everywhere, the aroma of spices in the souks, the intricate patterns of the carpets covering the floors of mosques and shops alike, and the muezzin’s lilting call to prayer five times a day had beckoned me all these years. I had always regretted that our schedule hadn’t allowed us time to visit the Medina of Fez.  Therefore, when I was in Portugal years later, I booked my ticket to Fez.

Wherever I travel, I seek to experience an interconnection with another person, one that often surpasses language.  I open myself to opportunities that present themselves, even though they may be fleeting. Often others are more wary of being so open with strangers and even wonder if I am too trusting.  Perhaps at times I have been, but extraordinary moments of shared mutual humanity have resulted from such encounters. I did not doubt that Fez would also open doors to me, especially since I was traveling alone and would have more freedom to follow where my instincts might lead me.

Now I found myself venturing out from the riad each day to explore the medina I had gazed upon that first morning.  What I discovered was a world of small shops whose walls were covered from floor to ceiling in rows of belts, handbags, slippers and bottles of fragrant oils. This display of colors and shapes allowed the eye no respite.  The shopkeepers do not allow such a moment either as they insist immediately upon arrival that you drink a cup of mint tea while they press you to decide which item to buy.  “Which one you like, Madame?” “We offer you best price.” or “Today you very lucky. We offer special price only for you, Madame.” After the day spent in the bustling medina, I always looked forward to returning to the riad and Idris’s warm welcome.

As I made my regular climb up the narrow staircase to the terrace for breakfast, I marveled at how Idris did the same so many times during the day, carrying trays filled with plates, utensils and glasses filled with fresh fruit juices without spilling a drop. He arrived faithfully each morning, happy to see me enjoying my breakfast while I gazed upon the old and mysterious city.  The trays contained warm bread and always a different dish of jam such as strawberry, tomato or date, which must have delighted Mohammad’s palate. The Qur’an points out that Allah makes date palms grow and suggests that it is important for those who are thinkers.  There was always Jben goat cheese, plus freshly made yogurt and dates in addition to a pot of tea, milk, sugar and honey and a refreshing fruit juice to savor.  My favorite was the smooth avocado made crunchy with dates and almonds.  After carefully placing the breakfast tray before me, Idris proceeded to water the purple bougainvillea and orange and yellow hibiscus adorning the terrace walls. I felt his gentle nature as he focused tenderly on each of them before he disappeared quietly until needed again.

On one of my outings, I decided I could not leave Fez without entering a carpet shop.  Of course, there was the obligatory offer of tea to delight the senses while I scanned the stacks of tightly rolled carpets.  “Which one you like, Madame?” came from over my shoulder. Before I could compose any type of response, the shopkeeper was pulling out carpets and unfurling them at my feet.  Several hours and cups of tea later, I found myself waving goodbye as I left the shop, amazed by the whole affair, hugging my purchase tightly under my arm. To this day I can’t explain how a huge rug that had spanned the length of the shop could be folded neatly into a package that fit easily into my overstuffed suitcase. When I finally arrived at the riad, Idris took my package from me and placed it carefully on the brass table in my room.

As fate would have it, on my last day in Fez I lost my way back to the riad.  I told myself that perhaps Allah was warning me of the dangers of overconfidence in my sense of direction.  Each time I came to a junction of pathways, I looked in both directions, hoping to recognize the sign of a familiar shop or some other marker to guide me.  But nothing told me I was heading in the right direction.  Surely Allah the Merciful, the Beneficent, would show me a sign!  Maybe in the shape of an old brass doorlatch beckoning me to enter a secret inner chamber.  Or in the familiar whiff of tea coming from a simmering pot I had passed before.  At the point of exasperation and fearing I would miss my train to Casablanca, I suddenly came across the small kitten I had photographed the day before, still sleeping amid the freshly tanned babouches. Whew! Hugely relieved to have regained my bearings, I was soon looking up at the plaque Dar Atajalli. Grateful for finding my way at last, I stepped into the soft splashing sound of the fountain and the steps of Idris as he crossed the courtyard to greet me.

I barely had time to close my suitcase and take a final look around the room that had been my home for the last few days.  The cart was scheduled to pick me up soon for the short journey to the Bab Guissa gate through which I had first entered the city.  I stood waiting anxiously in the doorway, filing my neglected nails at the last moment. Idris came up to me and gently took the file from my hand to complete what I had begun.  Not a word was spoken.

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Dianne Cheseldine is Professor Emerita of Foreign Languages at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, Nevada, where she continues to teach a course she developed during a sabbatical year in Spain titled “From Spain to New Mexico: A Cultural Journey.” Her interest in languages and cultures stems from her family’s move to Ethiopia when she was thirteen. She has always loved teaching, which has allowed her to open up the world in a small way to students as they proceed on their life’s journey.

Journeys with an Amazonian Shaman

April 26th, 2022

By Johnny Motley

Men’s Travel Gold Winner in the Sixteenth Annual Solas Awards

Further proof that lives can change in an instant.

On the sixth day aboard an Amazonian cargo ship, I spied the faint outline of São Gabriel da Cachoeira from the aft deck. Located deep in the Upper Amazon, São Gabriel held the title of “Most Indigenous City in Brazil,” although “city” was a misnomer: São Gabriel was little more than a village that had sprung up around a Brazilian military base, an outpost intended to secure the nebulous borders between Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.

Peering into the corroded mirror in the ship’s bathroom, I beheld a sun-burned, skinny, gaunt face. I had been in Amazonia for a month and the jungle had exacted a toll on my body. Implacable diarrhea, nights of broken sleep, and the merciless equatorial sun (not to mention the relentless debauchery of Manaus, the Brazilian Amazon’s raucous, Wild West-like capital) had left me looking like a cross between Indiana Jones and a crackhead. But I was in my mid-twenties, full of pluck, and intoxicated with the thrill of adventure. Fatigue and bodily discomfort were mere afterthoughts.

As the port drew closer, I rolled up my hammock—my mobile bed while in the jungle—and bid farewell to the soldiers who were returning to base. They had kept me company playing guitar, drinking beer, and smoking cigarettes for the past week. Armed with credentials from an anthropology program in the U.S, I was on the brink of fulfilling a long-held dream of visiting an isolated Indigenous community in the Amazon.

***

After disembarking, I went directly to the Brazilian government’s Office of Indigenous Affairs in São Gabriel and submitted the carefully crafted letter I had written, my health records, and a processing fee to apply for permission to visit a reservation in the Upper Amazon. A grumpy official snatched the application out of my hands and told me to return in a couple of days for his response. His formal response to my petition was the following: I was absolutely forbidden to visit any protected community; should I attempt otherwise, I would be summarily arrested and imprisoned.

My disappointment was crushing, and I turned to glasses of beer in a dusty bar on the banks of the Rio Negro. I had spent enough time in Brazil to understand that there was almost always a jeitinho—Portuguese for “little way,” but implying an ad-hoc, behind-closed-doors solution—to bureaucratic quandaries. I talked to the fishermen and soldiers at the bar and told them about my thwarted plans. Eventually, an Indigenous man summoned my attention through the bar’s dim light and cigarette smoke haze. He explained to me, in a Portuguese inflected with an Indigenous lilt, that there was, in fact, a fail-proof way to gain the authorization I so sought: I would simply have to bribe that pissed-off official.

The next day, I resubmitted my application, along with a little extra grease. Later, the same official who had practically laughed me out of his office summoned me again. This time he was willing to authorize me to stay one week in Comunidade São Jorge, a protected reservation belonging to the Tukano, the most populous tribe in the Upper Amazon. No chummier than the last time we had met, he slammed his door in my face before I could even ask him how to get to Comunidade São Jorge.

Knowing that most of the reservations lay on the small tributaries of the Rio Negro, I hitchhiked to the ferry terminal where the cargo ship had dropped me off a few days before. The port was where Indigenous families came from their reservations to buy supplies in São Gabriel, and my half-baked plan was to just ask around if anyone knew the way to São Jorge. As I looked around the port, an Indigenous man with long hair approached me, flashing an ear-to-ear smile full of broken teeth. He looked to be in his late thirties and his face, a cranberry-colored mask of rough-hewn bone, was bespeckled with tiny scars. There was something strangely familiar about him.

“So, they granted you permission after all?” he asked, looking pleased. I realized that he was the same man from the bar who had counseled me to suborn the official at the Office of Indigenous Affairs. Through the fog of alcohol-clouded memory, I recalled his name was Elizio.

I told him I was going to São Jorge but hadn’t the slightest clue where it was. “Well, I just might be able to help you a second time. I live in São Jorge, and if you can cover the cost of diesel,” he gestured to his motorized canoe, “I’ll take you there.” As I expected, the amount he requested to fill up his rivercraft sounded inflated, but not terribly so. I fished some reais out of my pocket and handed him the bills.

He was about to leave with his petrol container, but he turned back around. “Say, do you have another ten? You know, for a little something to keep us lively on the river…” Trying not to think about the warnings I had heard about the river’s treacherous rapids, I handed him another sawbuck for booze.

Elizio navigated the white-knuckle rapids and cataracts of the open Rio Negro—the broad, tea-colored river that converges with the dense, muddy Solimões to form the Amazon River—in his small, motorized canoe. As he gunned the engine and wove around rapids and exposed rock, I crouched down lower and practically hugged the wooden cross-staves. Sensing my trepidation, he laughed from the other side of the boat.

After an hour, Elizio turned into a narrow, calm rivulet framed by towering trees. He reduced his speed to a gentle cruise, and the canopy above us rendered the light soft and green. The sun on the open water had turned my skin the hue of boiled crawfish, and the cool shade provided the sweetest relief imaginable. As we plied the winding tributary, the buzz and chirps of monkeys, birds, and insects blended into a pleasant white noise.

Elizio tossed me a beer from the six-pack he had purchased at the petrol station and took out his tobacco pouch and a small sheet of newspaper. Amazonian tobacco contains a staggering fifteen times more nicotine than the variety used in industrial cigarettes. I practically collapsed in the canoe after a drag from Elizio’s smoldering newspaper blunt. Once again, he had a good laugh at my expense.

The conversation flowed easily as we gradually picked off the six aluminum soldiers in the pack. We exchanged off-color jokes and bawdy stories, my own store limited by my weaker command of Portuguese. He told me that he was originally from Colombia, and I replied that I had spent some time there, mostly in Medellin. His almond-shaped eyes lit up at the mention of the City of Eternal Spring. “I had a grande amor—a great romance—in Medellin when I was younger,” he said, the nostalgia in his voice palpable.

Violence and instability had pushed Elizio out of Colombia and into Brazil. Even though he lived in a Tukano reservation, he was not ethnically Tukano, but instead from a tribe that resided much farther up the Rio Negro. While in his twenties, he and his family were employed in a clandestine coca refinery in the Colombian Amazon. About this line of work, he recounted: “I met another man from your country when I worked with the narcos.” Elizio used the term gringo, which in Brazil refers to any non-Brazilian. “He used to arrive in the jungle with a helicopter and pick up kilos.”

“He was from the U.S.?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow. “Well, I think so. He had blonde hair like you and spoke funny. He must have been from your land.”

The cocaine trade claimed the lives of several of Elizio’s family members, and he fled from Colombia to Brazil with his wife, a woman from yet another Rio Negro tribe, and their children. He found refuge among the Tukano, employing his formidable skills as a hunter, outdoorsman, and healer in his adopted community. By the time of our meeting, he had lived in São Jorge for about ten years. He was an amazing polyglot, speaking his own native language, Tukano, Spanish, Portuguese, and his wife’s native language.

As Elizio and I talked and drifted, I eventually spied a clearing in the foliage on the riverbank; we had arrived at Comunidade São Jorge. Elizio tied the canoe to a tree trunk close to the water while a pair of young Tukano women bathed nearby, their naked bodies only partially concealed by soap suds. As I ascended the earthen steps to the entrance of the village, a group of children gathered, gaping at the strange, blonde-haired, pale creature who had arrived in their village. After the discovery that I had a large bag of chocolates in my backpack, the herd of children attached themselves to me as firmly as my own shadow.

Elizio introduced me to the community leader, a stolid, strongly built man in his forties. The Office of Indigenous affairs had radioed the villagers about my arrival, and they had arranged for me to stay in their community building, an edifice constructed of palm fronds and wood. I found out the following morning at 6 a.m. that the building in which I slept also housed the bell that summoned the villagers to a daily community meeting.

About fifteen families lived in São Jorge, each in a hut of wood and thatch. The Brazilian government had constructed a rudimentary power station in the community, but electricity was spotty at best. The residents obtained drinking and cooking water from rainwater harvested from a large plastic basin, another government donation.

As with all Amazonian Indigenous tribes, the Tukano subsisted primarily on the manioc root, a large, fibrous tuber that is poisonous in its unprocessed form. The women of the village spent several hours each day engaged in the laborious chore of peeling and grating the rugged root and siphoning out the toxic juice through a hanging filter made of dried palm fronds.

The Tukano had turned a grassy patch of land at the edge of the forest into a crude soccer field. Elizio’s home was located past the soccer field in the forest itself. I surmised that the reason he lived so far from the village was either that he was not Tukano or because he was the village medicine man, a role that traditionally necessitated partial isolation from the larger community.

Elizio’s dwelling could be best described as a lean-to, a tarp draped over wooden poles and anchored to a tree trunk. Inside, bunched-up hammocks hung from hooks in the wooden poles, and a ring of cinders and stones with a blackened aluminum pot marked the cooking area. The floor was entirely dirt. Outside, interspersed among the jungle’s vegetation, Elizio grew chili peppers and an assortment of herbs, including the two used to make ayahuasca—a shamanic brew used in the Amazon for millennia and reported to be the world’s most potent hallucinogen.

Elizio introduced me to his wife, a pretty, shy woman several years his junior. She hardly spoke Portuguese and, from the way she stared at me, I suspected I was one of the first non-Indigenous people she had ever encountered. Elizio’s four small children shrieked and laughed with delight at my strange presence. Three of the children were from his current marriage, and one from a previous relationship in Colombia.

Seated on the dirt floor of his home, Elizio poured cachaça—warm from lack of refrigeration—and rolled his ubiquitous newspaper cigarettes. His wife prepared a soup of manioc, fish, and jungle chilis—ferociously hot, tiny peppers that looked like red and green Christmas lights. The children ran through the house and climbed on Elizio as we sat on the ground eating and drinking.

Familial joy radiated from the tiny home like the aroma of fish stew from the cooking fire. As his children climbed on him, Elizio’s countenance was a picture of contentment and peace. I thought of how the level of luxury I enjoyed back home—modest for U.S. standards—would have been unimaginable for this family. Yet, they were happy—maybe even more so than the average family in the U.S. With so few possessions and sans smartphones, they seemed more present and less distracted. Maybe modernity, for all its conveniences, thrills, and luxuries, was misguided; perhaps true joy was to be found living like our ancestors did, close to nature, family members, and simplicity.

As if reading my mind, Elizio offered an observation: “Some people say the Indios are lazy; that we just wait for handouts; that we hate work. The truth is that we work only as much as needed. Brancos” —he used the Portuguese word for “white,” but the term referred to all non-Indigenous people— “are always chasing money and more things. The Indio prefers spending time with his family.” The family life I had observed in São Jorge supported Elizio’s evaluation: fathers lounging in hammocks in the shade with small children napping on their chests; the laughter and carefree attitude that animated the mothers, daughters, and neighbors while they grated manioc together; and the wholesome sense of tranquility in the villagers’ simple homes.

Although skeptical of the modern man’s rat race, Elizio worked hard when there was work to be done. During my stay, we constructed an irrigation ditch, digging and hauling away clay along the perimeter of the village. Elizio—somehow immune to the hangovers that destroyed me from our nights of cachaça consumption—arrived with his shovel and wheelbarrow early in the morning and toiled tirelessly, without pausing for food, well into the afternoon. As we dug and carted away clay, he poured shots of the fiery, crudely processed rum every hour or so from a bottle stored in the shade of a palm tree.

In the late afternoon, he brought out a sealed bucket that had been buried in the ground. The lid came off with a pop and a whiff of rotten fruit. Dipping into the bucket with wooden bowls, he doled out caxiri, a fermented, fizzy brew. The concoction, made from bright red and purple Amazonian fruits, was mildly effervescent like kombucha and tasted as rank as it smelled. Elizio topped off the bowls of caxiri with the remaining cachaca. In spite of the pronounced buzz wrought by the strange cocktail quaffed on an empty stomach, we finished the work just before nightfall.

Toward the end of my week-long sojourn in São Jorge, Elizio invited me to hunt monkeys with him. He grabbed an ancient-looking rifle and a gunny sack, and we set off in his canoe through the dark, flooded swamps bordering the Rio Negro. The engine was too loud for hunting, and Elizio cut it off and handed me an oar. He imitated monkey chirps and calls with uncanny accuracy, to which small primates hidden in the trees responded in turn.

We managed to kill a small monkey, and later that night Elizio quartered and roasted it. As its hair singed off, the monkey’s severed body parts looked disturbingly human. I tried not to think of the tame monkey—caught and domesticated by an adolescent in the village—I had played with earlier in the week.

The Tukano treated Elizio with deep respect and admiration, even though he, like me, was essentially a guest in their village. When a villager suffered illness or injury, Elizio was the first line of defense. His herbs and prayers were solicited long before ailing residents undertook the arduous and long journey to the military-run hospital in São Gabriel. In serious medical emergencies, as I would tragically learn, often there were no means to quickly reach life-saving medical facilities.

Despite his drinking and devil-may-care attitude, Elizio was a man of great spiritual sensitivity. Possessing a proclivity for solitary communion with the forest and tremendous physical stamina, he was identified early in his boyhood as suitable to become a shaman. When he was a teenager, elder shamans from his village in Colombia had tested his mettle by leaving him deep in the forest for days on end, forcing him to learn how to survive in the inhospitable belly of the ‘green inferno.’  Later, they taught him how to use plants for curing ailments and chants to summon blessings—or curses.

Once while we were smoking, Elizio explained the sacred role of tobacco, a stimulant originally from the Amazon. Tobacco, in his tribe’s cosmology, was “the grandfather,” while ayahuasca was “the grandmother.” Both plants were sources of sacred knowledge, tools for communing with the masculine and feminine aspects of the cosmos. He smoked not just for pleasure, but because “the sacred tobacco works like a microphone for your thoughts and prayers. The smoke brings your intentions—pure or corrupted—directly to the ears of God.”

Before I left São Jorge, Elizio performed a ritual to summon good luck and protection to follow me. Wielding a smoldering cigar of tobacco from his garden, he chanted and sang in his native tongue while spreading smoke around my body with his mouth and hands. The Tukano and other Amazonian tribes performed a similar apotropaic ritual on newborn babies, considering the shaman’s chants, touch, and prayers capable of “sealing off” the baby from evil influences.

The day of my departure from São Jorge arrived, and Elizio offered to ferry me back to São Gabriel. I felt grateful for the kindness he had shown me the past week: making sure I was fed, had company, and was able to learn and see as much as possible. After disembarking, we embraced and bid each other farewell. The week in São Jorge revealed that I had a kindred spirit in São Jorge’s medicine man. I admired Elizio’s indefatigable spirit, zest for life, and enormous heart; I sincerely hoped we would cross paths again.

***

I had a few days in São Gabriel before commencing the long journey—by cargo ship and airplane—out of the Amazon. After the spartan diet of bony river fish and manioc from São Jorge, I relished the beer, fresh bread, and fried chicken from São Gabriel’s small grocery store. I met a young woman visiting from Manaus, and she kept me company for my remaining days in town.

The day before the cargo ship that would take me back to Manaus arrived, I ran into a villager from São Jorge on the street. He was a shy young kid, but we had played soccer together and he had helped with the construction of the irrigation ditch. He looked uncharacteristically forlorn. Something terrible had happened in the village right after my departure, he told me. Elizio’s daughter, the two-year-old, had died. She had tipped a large pot of boiling water onto her tiny body and had died from her burns after a couple of days.

When the accident occurred, all the community’s precious few boats, including Elizio’s, were in São Gabriel, and a motorboat from the hospital didn’t arrive for several hours. It was late at night and had been difficult to contact the medics in São Gabriel via the village radio. The little girl finally made it to the hospital in São Gabriel and fought for her life for two days, but the burns were severe. She died this morning, the young man said, unable to look at me.

Shortly afterward, I saw Elizio and his wife leaving the hospital. The mirth that seemed to permanently live on Elizio’s countenance was replaced with an expression of pure agony. He looked skinnier than the last time I had seen him and reeked of cachaça and tobacco. I doubted that he had eaten or slept since the accident. I tried to say something consoling but the words failed me. He was too drunk and traumatized to mumble more than a few words when he saw me. I silently prayed that he had not been drunk when the accident occurred.

I was haunted by the knowledge that medical attention was so slow to succor Elizio’s daughter, that she might have survived if she had reached the hospital more quickly. In collaboration with Brazilian friends in Manaus, I launched an online campaign to raise money for a reliable, multi-passenger motorboat for Comunidade São Jorge. Even before the tragic accident, the elders in São Jorge had told me that such a boat would make the residents’ lives easier and safer. On the fundraising page, I wrote about Elizio’s daughter and the delay in medical attention that may well have cost her life.

To my surprise, donations came pouring in—from both friends and strangers. Brazil’s largest newspaper picked up the story and posted a link to my fundraising page. One year after setting up the fundraiser, I returned to Manaus, purchased a motorboat, and sailed it upriver to the Upper Amazon. In gratitude, São Jorge threw a party, complete with speeches, plenty of caixiri, and traditional Tukano dance.

Elizio met me in São Gabriel and once again ferried me to São Jorge, this time in the new, state-of-the-art motorboat for his community. Even though only a year had passed, he looked older than that first time we had made the trip; but once again we drank, smoked Amazonian tobacco rolled in newspaper, told stories, and laughed. I never brought up the tragedy from the year prior; I didn’t know what I could possibly say to him. His years had been defined by poverty, loss, and struggle, yet he was one of the most life-affirming people I had ever encountered, a man with a keen sense of the sublime, the unspeakable beauty of life that exists side by side with—or perhaps even deepened by—pain and heartbreak.
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Johnny Motley is a wanderer, eternal student, and seeker. After completing a bachelor’s degree in religious studies at Harvard, he sold his possessions, grabbed a backpack, and moved to a breezy surf town in the tropics of Brazil, earning his bread working in restaurants and teaching English. Unquenchable curiosity has since taken him to some of the planet’s most isolated regions: the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon rainforest, and the ancient cities of the Silk Road, to name a few.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Boots Bilong Mi

March 29th, 2022

By Patrick Ritter

On a dugout canoe trip through the interior of New Guinea, how far would you go for a pair of shoes?

I heard a splash behind me and I froze midstroke. Sounded close. I twisted around to see a large tree crashing into the water. The Sepik River winds across the swamplands of Papua New Guinea like a massive snake, its diet trees and eroded silt. The tree shuddered in the current. From the branches startled kingfishers escaped into flight, screeching. I glanced to Randy, my buddy from California, at the front of the dugout canoe. His face was sunburned and questioning.

“No,” I said, “not a puk-puk.” In New Guinea the Pidgin English word for crocodile is puk-puk.

I ruddered around a mat of grass. Behind us the current ripped the tree from the bank and it went under, the branches thrashing. On the Sepik River that’s the way a man would go in the chops of a hungry puk-puk. Thrashing. A Sepik crocodile will drag you underwater, spin you around a few times, and hold you down until you’re all done dancing. And that’s not the worst of it. After you’re done thrashing, a puk-puk will chomp off an arm or leg to satisfy its immediate appetite. Then it will stuff your body into a submerged crevice: an underwater food stash for another day. You’re not only dead, you don’t even rate as a main course. You’re leftovers, pal.

I’d seen a couple crocodiles so far on our three-hundred-mile river journey from the interior of New Guinea. Which seemed odd. You don’t usually see puk-puks during the day, so they said.

We didn’t have an official “float plan.” Just go into the far interior, get a dugout canoe, and take it down the Sepik River for a couple of weeks. We’d both canoed before, although not in hollowed-out logs. And we were at least a couple hundred miles from the Asmat region of New Guinea where Michael Rockefeller had been killed, and likely eaten, by cannibals in 1961. That didn’t happen anymore. Supposedly.

The temperature was over 100 and I had to cool off. We steered to the center of the wide river. Seemed relatively safe. The only two puk-puks I’d seen were resting on the bank. I unlaced my boots. Nothing like a good pair of boots, I thought. The design—knee-high, green canvas, rubber soles—first appeared in New Guinea during the jungle warfare of World War II. I’d bought them at the Highlands Steamship Company, a one-stop outfitter of everything from tools to flour. Not only did they protect my feet and shins from sticks, leeches, and mosquitoes, I could wash and dry them in 20 minutes. They were the most valuable equipment I had with me, besides my mosquito net. A journey to the Sepik without a mosquito net would be a sneak preview of the wrong side of the hereafter.

I undressed and stood up in the canoe, a twenty foot, hollowed-out log. We paid the equivalent of thirty bucks for it at the village in the interior where we began the trip. Only a little over a foot wide, we could barely squeeze into it. I slid my toe over a recent mud patch near the stern. It was still hard and would hold at least a couple days.

As Randy counterbalanced the opposite side I slipped into the water. It felt unbelievably good. Yet, images of gnarly jaws interrupted my enjoyment. Sure, I told myself, no problem with puk-puks during the day. That’s what they all said. But why did I still feel like a gem dealer with his store unlocked? I decided I was cool enough and climbed back into the canoe.

The afternoon stretched and yawned. Everything moves slowly in the Sepik heat. Even the mosquitos aren’t that quick. But they make up for it in numbers, and in malaria payload.

I broke out lunch, consisting of crackers, tinned fish, and two papayas I had obtained that morning in a trade for a lighter. I pulled out a small jar of a fermented yeast spread called Vegemite.

“Hey Randy, want some of this Vegemite?”  I asked.

“That crud? No way.”

I knifed out the last bit of the stuff and lathered a cracker. It actually did taste a bit off. But I sure wasn’t throwing it away. That might mean Randy was right about it.

I withdrew a wrinkled map. A woman we had met in the Highlands told us there was a British company named SSL doing oil exploration on the Sepik, and that we could probably stay on their barge for the night. She put a dot on our map where she thought it was. I squinted at that dot, now blurred by rain and mud.

“Think we can make it to the SSL boat today?” I asked Randy.

“Should be able to. What time is it, about noon?”

“Two-thirty.”

If the dot on the map was correct, we should be ten or fifteen river miles away. That would be about three hours. But the Sepik River doesn’t always follow the map, and vice versa. In the swamps of New Guinea, a river doesn’t seek its own course; it seeks to defy a course. We moved into a narrow bend. The sound of rushing water increased. Staring through the jungle I realized why. The river had completely looped back on itself. The downstream reach, flowing in the opposite direction, was visible less than fifty yards through the trees. Another flood or two and the river would break through the narrow isthmus.

The temperature dropped below triple figures. A flock of hornbills flew over, the sound of their wings like canvas tents in a heavy breeze. Three canoes suddenly appeared out of the tall pit-pit grass. They shot straight out from the bank, a blur of arms stroking in rhythm. Fifty feet away, they turned broadside just upstream. The largest canoe was a massive log of thirty or forty feet. Must’ve been ten guys in it. A man and two boys scrutinized us from the second canoe. I couldn’t see the third canoe now. It hung back, as if in reserve. But reserve for what? We floated downriver en masse. They stared intently at us. We stared back. Nobody stared downstream.

I said, “Haumas clok bot bilong waitman?” (How long to reach the white man’s boat?)

An old guy wearing a pig’s tusk necklace and a penis gourd pointed downriver and said, “Tupela.”

Two what? Hours? Days?

Another guy said, “Tripela ples.” (Three villages away.)

A guy with a bush on his head said, “Foapela ailan” (Four islands), nodding his head, and the bush, emphatically.

Four islands away? We passed a lot of islands, some of which later passed us because they were floating. So, the boat was four islands away, some of which could be moving. Was that a measure of time or distance? Probably the way he nodded his head that was really important. Subtle nods and hand motions can translate time and distance better than words, especially Pidgin English.

Sundown was a gaudy affair of incandescent orange against jungle green. Without a cloud in the sky, and a full moon due, it promised to be a spectacular night.

“You know,” I said, “I bet there’ll be plenty of light tonight. We could just keep going until we find the SSL boat.”

“Yeah, it can’t be that far. Might be interesting to be on the river at night.”

I set up our portable stove on the canoe floor and started cooking. But I had no appetite. “Man, I don’t feel so good.”

Randy turned around. “Funny, I don’t feel anything. And we both ate the same stuff today. Except for—”

“The Vegemite. Son of a bitch.” I wiped a line of sweat from my lip. In this heat, a yeast spread like Vegemite was an intestinal time bomb. “Well, we should see the SSL boat pretty soon. What do you think?”

“Yeah. I guess.”

All we had was a dot on a faded map that was many years old. That was eons for the Sepik River, which often changes course. Sepik maps should be printed with disappearing ink. That’s what the river did.

A full moon rose above the jungle, turning the river silver. An occasional fruit bat flew over. We stared for long minutes at the dark horizon until we found gaps in the tree line to navigate. Nine o’clock came. Then ten. My back ached.

Another hour passed. Clouds rolled in, blotting the sky into an El Greco painting. So much for a starry night. It smelled like rain. Then the first drops hit.

With the wind gusting, we quickly tucked a tarp over our supplies. The rain came in fits and starts, like a shower on the blink. Then it let loose for a solid ten minutes. The canoe took on water fast. We bailed with the mess kit pans slightly faster. Finally, the rain let up into a steady drizzle. By then, my gut felt like it had been drop-kicked. We had been on the river for almost seventeen hours that day, and it was taking its toll. It was almost one in the morning. The river was only a gray blur. For all I knew, we had already passed the SSL boat. We were river moles, squinting at a horizon that faded in and out of view.

The river fell silent. Even the geckos had knocked off for the night. Randy muttered, “Hey, that’s the same shore.”

“Huh?”

“That shore with the high grass. We passed it before.”

“No way, just looks the same.”

“Yep, been by it. We’re going in circles. It’s gotta be a lake or something.”

“No. We’re moving with the current, right? So we have to still be going downstream.”  We stopped paddling and stared at the shore. We were definitely moving.

“It’s crazy,” Randy said, “but we passed this before.”

It did look weirdly familiar. But then it all looked familiar. “Nah, it’s just late.”

Twenty minutes later I couldn’t deny it, as we passed the same high grass again. “Damn, we are going in circles.” I looked around. Hey, look over there. Isn’t that—?”

“Yeah, a light.” Across the water an eerie yellow light glimmered through the mist. If it was a mirage it was damn convincing. “Is that another shoreline?”

“Only one way to find out,” I said, turning the canoe around.

We paddled toward the light, against what felt like a current. Which didn’t feel right. The moon poked out between the clouds. It did look like a lake. I wondered how we had gotten into it. And how we were getting out.

Then I saw a small clearing, with logs and brush piled at the edge of the jungle. It looked strange, but could be big enough to pitch a couple tents.

We paddled harder. I thought I heard muted voices and laughing. But who would be up now?  We pulled close to shore.

A few feet from the shore the current increased wildly, like a gust of wind. I took giant, frantic strokes. Water poured over the gunnels. Seconds later I felt it flowing along the floor over my feet. We plowed up-current toward the bank, in slow motion.

The shore was just a few feet from me. I reached way out and drove the paddle down hard. But the current was weaker just along the bank. Hadn’t thought of that. The extra energy had to go somewhere, and it didn’t go into my stroke.

I fell in. Grabbing for the canoe, I gulped for a breath. The current raged against the bank grass. I grabbed again and caught the canoe, my legs swinging out. In between gulps, an image swam into my head. Black eyes and big muddy jaws. Puk-puks? Nah, they’re only a problem at night.

I don’t remember pulling myself into the canoe. Randy told me later it was the fastest canoe entry he’d ever seen. And there in my hand was my paddle, still vice-gripped.

By then we were back out into the current. We repeated our efforts, this time without my plunge, and finally landed the canoe. We tied it off to a couple stumps and listened. The voices in the bush sounded farther off and unrecognizable. Considering that over seven hundred different languages are spoken in New Guinea, that wasn’t surprising.

“This spot looks ok,” I said, pointing to a clear patch. In the moonlight I saw the stamp of exhaustion on Randy’s face, and the uneasiness. We set up his two-man tent first and stashed supplies inside. I had my smaller tent up when I heard someone coming through the bush.

Two guys stepped into the clearing. One held a kerosene lantern. They were natives but wore western shorts and khaki jackets. One guy stumbled and grabbed the other for support. Randy glanced at me and stiffened.

One of them shouted something, slurred and unintelligible, and the other guy laughed. It was too boisterous a greeting for that time of night. And it had an oddly familiar ring. Then I got it. They were drunk. I didn’t know if that was good news or bad.

In Pidgin I told them we needed a place to stop and asked if we could sleep there.

Hia?”  the guy holding the lantern said, laughing. “Yu lik slip long dispela ples?” (You really want to sleep here?) They both laughed.

One of them pointed to his chest and said, “Name bilong mi, Taoonay.” His eyes glistened with the dull wash of alcohol.

I said to Randy, “What’s the big joke about sleeping here?” So I questioned “Taoonay” about it. He became a bit more coherent. Sure, we could stay, he told us. He and his buddy were “working” that night, clearing trees. Translation: they were up drinking. And this clearing? “Dispela ples,” Taoonay said, “Matmat.” He didn’t laugh when he said that.

They stumbled around for a while and finally left, laughing. I was too exhausted to worry about it. We’d catch a few hours of shuteye and be off first thing. I undressed outside my tent. I could barely unlace my boots they were so thick with mud and debris. They looked like my brain felt. I pulled them off and set them just outside the tent. There wasn’t enough room inside for me, the boots, and the two pounds of mud, leeches and whatever else was on them. I lay down, naked, muddy, dog tired, and sick. “Hey Randy,” I called. “You have the Pidgin dictionary over there?”

“Yeah, why?”

“Look up the word matmat. That’s what they called this clearing.”

After a while Randy said softly, “Oh great.”

“What does it mean?”

“Graveyard.”

I wondered if I would get any sleep at all, but in two minutes I was asleep. I dreamed of desert gulches, dry and free of mosquitoes.

“Gerrup!” (Get up!) someone shouted, right outside my tent. It jerked me out of my dream.

Gerrup!” he bellowed again in a familiar, slurred voice. It was Tony, or whatever his name was, and he was still drunk. I rolled over painfully, glancing at my watch. Six o’clock, only four hours of sleep. Sitting up I felt the sharp pang of diarrhea cramps. An army was doing battle down there. I pulled on my shorts and unzipped the tent.

In the dim light I could just make out two guys running off, laughing. I had to relieve myself immediately, so I reached under the tent flap for my boots and…no boots. Son of a bitch! I felt around outside the tent but only came up with mud and grass. Meanwhile, the boys disappeared into the jungle, no doubt with my boots in tow. My immediate impulse was to run after them. But nature called more strongly. I stumbled into the bush to take a crap, swearing continuously, as the sticks and pit-pit grass jabbed my bare feet. In the distance I heard Tony shout “Gerrup!” again, which brought more laughing. As if it wasn’t bad enough to steal a man’s boots, they had the gall to wake me up to let me know, and then laugh about it.

When I got back, Randy stepped out of his tent, red-eyed. “What’s happening?”

“Someone took my boots.”

“Oh no.”

“I should have brought them inside the tent last night. It was one of those guys from last night. He was just here.”

“Yeah, I heard him. That Tony guy?”

“Yeah. He was still drunk and took off down that path. Sure hate to lose those boots.”

“Yeah, but we’re outsiders here. Maybe they consider it a mandatory offering.”

“Yeah, right. Or a convenient excuse for a damn robbery! And by a couple of drunks. I don’t care what the culture is, some things cross the line,” I said, hopped up.

“Damn straight. But maybe you can pick up another pair at the SSL boat.”

“Maybe.”

“Wanna keep going downstream and see if we can find that boat?”

My head said yes, just get the hell out of here. Put some distance between me and an unlucky break. Why couldn’t I just do it? I knew my boots were history. But I couldn’t let it go.

“What do you want to do?” Randy said.

“At least try to get them back.”

“Well, ok. But be careful, man.”

Surprisingly, my sickness had vanished. I was amped. Nothing like some righteous anger to get well fast.

“You’ll have to stay here and guard the stuff,” I said.

“Yeah. Keep your head, man. You’re on their territory. Alone.”

“I know, not worth a pit-pit arrow in the gut. But at least I’m going to talk to this Tony.”

One of our machetes was within reach and I took it out. It had a nice heft to it. So nice it was alarming. I put it back. Too much force. Badpela force. The wrong tool for the job. But I needed something. The tip of a broken paddle peeked out beneath the tarp. We carried it in case we lost one of our long paddles. I pulled it out. Splintered, only four feet long, it wasn’t much of a paddle. It wouldn’t stop arrows. But it did convey force without screaming it. The perfect big stick to carry. I didn’t plan to speak softly.

The mud path was cool marble beneath my bare feet. I walked a couple hundred feet and stopped, realizing I was tiptoeing. It seemed too quiet. Shouldn’t people be up and around? Who was I kidding? I wasn’t going to hide from an entire village. I quickened my pace. No sense trying to hide. I was certainly an easy target, but it could serve as an advantage. Besides the element of surprise, bold action conveys at least a sense of purpose. Why else would a waitman, in shorts and bare feet, walk alone into a strange village with such a brisk step? Because I’ve lost my senses. I hoped they didn’t figure that out. But I didn’t care. I was roaring angry and justified. Righteous anger is an immensely powerful motivation, the kind that can bring success against long odds. Or get you killed.

I smelled ripe bananas, and passed a couple thatched houses perched on bamboo poles. Startled faces appeared at small windows. I must have looked alien to them. Too tall, white skin, blue eyes rimmed in red from lack of sleep.

Then a jumble of pole houses. Smoke seeped through one shaggy roof, giving it the appearance of a smoldering pile of leaves. I felt a chill, and it wasn’t the mud beneath my feet. I was sneaking around, unknown and uninvited.

More pole houses, and still too quiet. Suddenly I heard voices behind me and I spun around. Several men stood there, including three guys carrying fish traps. Two boys at the front carried armfuls of wood. They wore nothing but astonished expressions, as if they had never seen anyone with skin so white. They probably hadn’t.

I stared for a long moment, and then asked, “Way stop Tony?” (Where’s Tony?)

The boys looked at each other, amused to hear me speaking Pigeon. “Taoonay,” I repeated.

Taooni?” one boy asked.

“Yeah,” I nodded, “Ta-oo-ni. Way stop?”

One of the boys pointed to a large house, fully forty feet long. “Haus bilong Taooni.” It must have held several families.

I took a couple steps toward the house and paused. I had a hundred river miles to go and really needed those boots. But at what cost? Tony, or whomever, had more than my boots. He had an entire village behind him. Blood runs thicker than water, especially if it isn’t your own. If I surprised them, no telling what might happen. Just wasn’t worth it. Hated to do it, but I needed to swallow my pride and leave. But it left a bitter taste.

So I approached the log stairs leading up into the house. Shouldn’t be doing this. A crowd of ten now surrounded me, murmuring and pointing. Their faces showed disbelief and concern. Something serious was going down. I was vulnerable yet I felt strangely exhilarated, with a simple goal. I want my boots back. I don’t care how. They’re my boots and I want ’em back. Now.

I announced, “Sampela man stilim boots bilong mi” (Someone stole my boots.) No response. “Way stop Taooni?”

An old guy stepped forward. He had a bone through his nose and his teeth were totally black from chewing betel nut. He pointed to the house and said, “Taooni liv hia.”

I walked to the bottom of the log stairs and yelled, “Taooni!”

No response. The crowd was now around thirty. They seemed astonished, alarmed perhaps, but not really hostile. So I pushed harder, raising my voice. “Taooooni!”

No one did anything. Was my boldness that powerful? Probably not. Just a crazy westerner.

A young guy wearing a bark belt stepped out of Tony’s house onto a porch at the top of the stairs and said, “Mi no got boots.

Way stop Taooni?”

He paused. “Taooni slip nau.” (He’s sleeping.)

Yeah, well sleep through this. I started circling the house, screaming. “Taoooni!  Gerrup!” Startled faces appeared from tiny windows. From underneath the house several pigs squealed.

When I got back to the front, Bark Belt was still poised at the top of the stairs.

The crowd was now fifty or more. I felt a lot of eyes on me. I pointed into the house and asked, “Wapo Taooni no gerrup?” (Why doesn’t Tony get up?)

Bark Belt said. “Taooni sik.” (He’s sick.)

“Bullshit!” He understood the tone if not the word. He seemed annoyed, but uncertain. A waitman talking crazy about stolen boots he probably knew nothing about. Even if Taooni was the village drunk he was probably family.

Mi wanem boots bilong mi….Nau!”  I watched his eyes widen. This was some bad craziness, masalai. Yet the harder I pushed, the more he seemed to retreat. So I kept pushing. He looked more uncomfortable than hostile.

A young guy stepped out of the crowd. He wore a tee shirt and a troubled expression. He said, “Isi, isi.” (Take it easy.)

Mi wanem boots bilong mi!” I stomped the end of the paddle into the ground to accent each word. It might have relieved my anger. But instead it revved me up and gave me conviction. And alarmed me. A lot of guys around me had weapons.

I lowered my voice. “Yu bringim boots bilong mi, I go,” pointing downriver. I pounded it out with my paddle for emphasis. “No boots…no go.”

Tee Shirt spoke rapidly, his message passing through the crowd like a gust of wind, stirring up a flurry of activity. A group of men and boys marched off toward our campsite. “Em lookim boots bilong yu.”

Yeah fine, but why not look inside Tony’s house? That’s probably where my boots were. It was surprising someone that young took charge. Where was the village bigman, the guy who wore the most pig tusks and arbitrated all conflicts? That could be the problem. No bigman bilong village. Maybe Tee Shirt was the son of bigman.

Tee Shirt said, “No gutpela,” (not good) shaking his head. He was right about that.

A short truce commenced. I stopped yelling while they searched. It was half-time. With the women and children at a distance, the men stood in a large semi-circle around me, arms crossed, talking to each other without taking their gaze from me. Some argued. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. What were they arguing about? The merits of my claim? Taooni? Or just how to get rid of me? Most wore bark belts with pit-pit grass stuffed behind and coos-coos furs hanging in front. With cassowary bone daggers stuffed into their bark belts and pit-pit arrows at their side, this bunch was ready for anything.

After twenty minutes the search party returned. Their faces said the same thing: no boots. Tee Shirt said, “Ples no gat boots.”

Yeah, and I know what place does have ’em.

“Boots hia,” I said, pointing to Tony’s house with my broken paddle. Tee Shirt said in a low voice meant only for me, “Taooni no gutpela-man” (no good.)  That I already knew. All the more reason he shouldn’t get away with stealing my boots. The village didn’t want trouble. But no one could force Tony to give up my boots, or even come out.

Mi get boots, mi go. No boots….no go.” Then I screamed again, “Taooni! Gerrup! Nau!” Still no response.

Then I did something foolish. And dangerous. I started up the log stairs into the house. No matter how justified I felt, that overstepped the bounds. To enter another man’s house without permission was beyond boldness. It was lunacy. I only made it up three steps. Bark Belt stepped out. In one hand he held a stone axe, in the other a claw hammer, a scary meeting of old and modern. One of them would meet my skull if I went any farther. He shouted angrily, raising the ax and then the hammer. “No man kam insait!”

I felt around with my foot for the lower step, and began moving back down, easy-like. He watched me, unmoving, his face an imminent storm: not yet furious, but threatening. I reached the ground and backed off a couple of steps. He didn’t say anything else. His stare said it all. After a couple of minutes, the necessary amount of time for a show of force, he went back into the house.

I realized my recklessness and it scared me. I had been there an hour and the shock value was probably wearing thin. They wouldn’t put up with me indefinitely. And Randy must be going crazy, hearing all my screaming. I wondered if we had any stuff left.

Just leaving would have been best. But I thought of one last threat, a bluff really, since I wasn’t going to do it. I told Tee Shirt that if I didn’t get my boots back, I was going downriver and bring back the government polisman, whirling one hand in the air to imitate a helicopter. That seemed to register some effect. Although he might have just assumed I was crazy. Which wouldn’t have been far off.

I gave myself ten more minutes, and then I’d leave. The chances of getting my boots back were slim. At least I had given it my best shot. I glanced at the huge ring of men around me. And I hadn’t been shot.

A pig squealed. I heard children’s voices coming from the direction of our campsite. A few kids appeared, running toward the village. As they came closer, several more kids, and some men, joined them. Now what?

The circle of men around me opened and the group burst into the clearing. Several kids pointed towards our campsite. I wondered if the village bigman had finally shown up. Something was up. The crowd all talked at once, looking back down the path. For the first time all morning I wasn’t the center of attention.

In the distance a small figure approached. It was a small boy, couldn’t have been more than ten, walking quickly, but unsteadily, as if burdened. He trudged into the village, naked from the waist up, muddy from the waist down. He wore a band of ferns around his head. In each arm he carried a bundle of muddy grass or something. He walked straight toward me without speaking. Then I recognized what he carried. Although covered with mud and grass their shape was unmistakable. He set them down in front of me, sort of nodded, and stepped back.

I picked one up. “Boots bilong mi,” I said with amazement. As I shook the boot a large clump of mud fell off. It looked like it had been buried. I nodded to the boy and said, “Tenkyu.” (Thank you.) I felt the weight of anger lifting.

The boy pointed to the jungle behind our campsite and said, “Lik-lik riva” (small river.)

Taooni must have stashed the boots in a creek near our campsite. I scraped some mud off the boots, shook them out, and checked the insides for leeches. As I pulled them on muddy water flowed out through the canvas. They were cold, wet, gritty, and magnificent. My anger continued to recede, like a river after a storm. I managed a smile as I laced them all the way up. The boy who found them smiled back. No one else did. Couldn’t blame them, considering my previous display.

I did want to set the record straight though. I told Tee Shirt it wasn’t the village I was angry with, only the guy who took my boots. He looked relieved, surprising considering he had an entire village of guys backing him. What did I have, besides a broken paddle? I did have justice. And I had my boots back.

Tenkyu,” I said.

I turned and took a couple of steps. Instantly the crowd opened to let me through.  Faces stared from porches and narrow windows. The entire village, except for one guy, watched my exit. Taooni remained a no-show.

A picket fence of men, armed with pit-pit arrows and bows, lined the path. Rather than alarm me it gave me momentum. I felt vindicated, like a righteous warrior. And they gave me the definitive respect: stoic silence. They were probably just glad to be rid of me. Or was it community repentance for the theft?  No one said, and I didn’t ask.

The sun was up and hot on my neck. I headed back down the path to our campsite, hoping Randy would still be there, wondering if we still had a canoe. Through the brush I spotted it. Randy was sitting in the stern with all our stuff loaded. Two men stood on the bank nearby watching.

Randy looked up. “All right,” he said with relief.

I said nothing as I approached, just watching Randy’s eyes. He glanced at the two men and then back to me. He scanned downward, from my face, to the paddle, to my legs. Surprise swept across his face as he spotted the boots. I signaled with an upturned thumb. “Well,” I said as nonchalantly as I could, “let’s go.”

Wading into the water I said, “Let’s get out of here and I’ll tell you all about it.” I pushed the canoe out and climbed in. We paddled out. I realized how enormous the oxbow lake was. The location of the river outlet was now unmistakable in daylight. We headed for it. A crowd of villagers watched us from our campsite, the matmat graveyard where we had pitched our tents. No wonder we had so much trouble. Sleep in a damn graveyard, what do you expect?

We shot through the narrows leading out of the lake and left the village behind. I told Randy what had happened. “You know,” I said, “Tony might be punished after all, but not for the theft, or his drunkenness.”

“Why?”

“He wimped out. Never came out to answer his accuser while the whole village watched. Probably a lifetime mark.”

“Maybe.”

The Sepik widened into a river again. We stayed mid-river, soaking up the hot stillness and the welcome monotony. My boots were unbelievably grubby so I unlaced them and washed them off.

We paddled. In the distance I saw a bulky shape in the middle of the river, much larger than a canoe and definitely not an island. It seemed wildly out of place for the Sepik River. I shielded my eyes to stare downriver. If it wasn’t the SSL boat, it had to be something pretty strange.

I put my boots back on and laced them up. They were clean and green, and already almost dry.

Nothing like a good pair of boots.

______________________________________________________________________________

Patrick Ritter is an environmental engineer who has dealt with high level toxics. He took a break for a year to get away from hazardous job conditions, but little did he know that it would be more dangerous out on the road.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Honor and the Sea

March 29th, 2022

By Janna Brancolini

How a female pioneer of underwater archaeology teamed up with a Sicilian winemaker to save a priceless ancient shipwreck.

Buried beneath the floor of the Mediterranean, in waters so turbulent the epic poet Homer had imagined the thrashings of sea monsters, the ship waited. She had once defended an ancient settlement near modern-day Marsala, Sicily—until she was sunk in a dramatic battle during the third century B.C.E. For two millennia, people passed by her, unaware. As time wore on, the sea and its banks shifted, until water just deep enough to submerge a person stood between the vessel and its reclaimed glory. Yet her hiding place wasn’t the ship’s only secret: Her timbers held a clue to history.

Finally, the currents of circumstance brought a pair of unlikely rescuers to her side.

First came Honor Frost, a ballet set designer turned deep-sea diver who was destined to pull back the curtain on sunken treasures. In the early 1950s, Frost found herself alone in the dark depths of the Mediterranean, clinging to a rope as she slowly descended to a Roman shipwreck off the coast of France. Eventually, 50 feet underwater, she saw her prize: a wonderland of ceramic amphora jars. Before long, she was hovering at the bottom of the sea, surrounded by relics from the ancient world. So began her decades-long obsession with shipwrecks.

Then came the winemaker. In 1951, Pietro Alagna began presiding over a generations-old vineyard in Marsala within sight of the ink-blue sea. He was carrying on his family’s legacy, harnessing the blistering sun to cultivate grapes high in sugar, and producing rich, aromatic wines. Driven by a thirst for knowledge and a generosity of spirit, the Sicilian businessman entered the scene as a curious bystander.

In time, more than just the sea would connect their stories.

~ ~ ~

For most of the history of modern archaeology, underwater excavation was considered scientifically impossible. As “gentlemen divers” gave the emerging sport of scuba diving a shot in the mid-20th century, they sometimes discovered and explored Roman shipwrecks, as fishermen and sponge divers had before them. If these divers found anything that seemed interesting—an anchor, a sculpture, a clay amphora used to transport wine or olive oil—they would wrestle the object from its surroundings and bring it to the surface for study, often destroying parts of the wreck in the process.

On land, archaeologists tried to make educated guesses about these objects. But since the items were divorced from their context, these archaeological “findings” were mostly just conjecture. This was deemed unfortunate, but inevitable; the mechanical challenges of excavating underwater were too difficult to overcome.

Frost believed otherwise.

~ ~ ~

By the late 1950s, Frost had built on her love of diving—and of the ancient wonders of the deep sea—to begin forging an entirely new discipline: underwater archaeology. The summer of 1971 brought her and a team of international archaeologists to the coast of Marsala. They were lured to a lagoon there by the lore of a famous sea battle in the third century B.C.E., and by the discovery of potentially ancient ship timbers by a local boat captain.

They camped out in a former police barrack with no electricity or running water, and searched for sunken ships in a 26-foot fishing boat, its faulty motor spurting and sputtering its way around the lagoon.

For weeks, they searched in vain. Frustrated, the team decided to dock the boat and try a rudimentary survey method. They spread out evenly in the water and advanced to scan the sea floor in unison. Their photographer broke rank to retrieve a marker that had floated away. Before returning to the group, he signaled a find. Frost later wrote in the field report that she thought he was too far off course to have discovered anything significant. She was reluctant to answer his call.

But when she joined him, she later wrote, “A large timber … emerged from the sand like the head of a primaeval animal crowned with weed.”

~ ~ ~

In 241 B.C.E., the naval Battle of the Aegates raged off the coast of modern-day Marsala, Sicily, as depicted in this historical illustration. The battle ultimately gave the Romans a decisive victory in the First Punic War.

Marsala’s first inhabitants, the Phoenicians, arrived in the vicinity during the eighth century B.C.E. For the next few centuries, Roman ships battled the Phoenician fleet for control of western Sicily and Marsala’s adjacent lagoon, which—at just 123 nautical miles from Tunisia—offered strategic trade access with Africa.

At times, massive, oared ships from one fleet managed to maneuver around the side of an enemy vessel and ram that vessel’s hull until it sank, while men threw themselves over its sides to avoid getting pulled down with the wreckage. Other times, rowers would remove their circular shields from holders along the side of their ship, take up their spears, and fight hand-to-hand on the ship deck.

For centuries, the Phoenicians’ superior shipbuilding talents gave them the upper hand against Rome. But in 261 B.C.E., the Romans captured a Phoenician warship and copied it, building an astonishing 100 replicas in just two months, according to writings by Roman naval commander Pliny the Elder. On March 10, 241 B.C.E., Rome finally outmaneuvered the Punic ships during a dramatic battle that forced the Phoenicians to surrender Sicily.

More than 2,000 years later, naval historians still didn’t know how the Romans had produced so many ships so quickly—a remarkable feat of engineering for any time period, much less antiquity.

~ ~ ~

Frost was the kind of rebel who, shortly after World War II, sunk herself to the bottom of a pitch-dark well in England on a lark, as a crowd of revelers looked on from the garden. With 20 feet of black water above her, Frost wore a type of diving suit developed during the war, inhaling air through a mouthpiece attached to a hose that led to a pump at the top. In her writings, she called the impromptu initiation a “baptism.”

Born in Cyprus in 1917 to wealthy British expats and orphaned at a young age, Frost studied art at boarding school in Switzerland, and at university in London and Oxford, where she began running in artistic circles. She always followed her own rules: During World War II, she drove a fire truck and spent six weeks wedded to an Army captain, before the pair separated and she swore off marriage forever.

In the late 1940s, while in France, Frost came upon Jacques Cousteau’s newly formed Club Alpin Sous-Marin, one of the world’s first scuba diving clubs. She convinced Cousteau’s colleagues to teach her to dive with their new Aqua-Lung. Soon, she was spending as much time as she could traveling around the Mediterranean, in search of undersea wonders.

“One never loses the thrill of breaking past the surface and penetrating another world,” she wrote in her 1963 book, Under the Mediterranean.

After a few years, Frost’s travels and her design background presented her with an opportunity to work as a technical illustrator for excavations in Palestine and Lebanon. Armed with expertise in diving and knowledge of archaeological survey methods, she was sure—despite the misgivings of the era’s leading experts—that rigorous scientific excavation was possible underwater.

In 1959, she helped organize a groundbreaking proof-of-concept mission on a Bronze Age wreck in Turkey. The expedition would go down in history as the first example of underwater archaeology performed to exacting technical standards.

~ ~ ~

In Sicily, Frost found herself on the cusp of another breakthrough—but without the support she needed to keep her mission afloat. Through a mutual friend, she connected with a local benefactor, Pietro Alagna.

Alagna ran Cantine Pellegrino, a winery founded in 1880 by his great-grandfather at the height of Marsala’s historic wine boom—just over a century after a British merchant had happened upon Marsala while seeking shelter from a violent storm. While waiting out the waves at a local inn, this seafarer had sipped a strong local wine made from a revolving batch of mosto—grape skin, seeds, and juice. It wasn’t clear where one vintage ended and another started: vino perpetuo, or perpetual wine, the locals called it. So enamored with his discovery, the merchant shipped fifty 100-gallon barrels of the drink back home to England, fortified with brandy for safe passage. Marsala wine, as it quickly became known, was an instant hit. By the mid-20th century, Cantine Pellegrino had grown a family fortune.

Alagna didn’t know anything about archaeology, but, like Frost, he loved history and had an insatiable sense of curiosity. He wasn’t entirely sure how to help, but at least he could get the archaeologists out of the police barrack and provide logistical support. Little did he know how his role would evolve.

~ ~ ~

The shipwreck that Frost’s team uncovered in 1971 had probably only recently been exposed—perhaps by a sand dredge—and was not likely to survive long. The vessel was threatened both by oxygen and the churning, unpredictable sea. The next big storm could either tear apart the hull and sides, or wash the ship away entirely—never to be found again. The excavation quickly became a rescue mission.

After evaluating the wreck underwater, they would need to raise the entire ship, piece by piece.

News of the discovery quickly spread throughout Marsala, from its elegant piazza and the twin bell towers of its columned church, to the back roads linking coastal wineries, where the scent of fermentation hangs in the air and grapevines glow near-yellow under the heavy sun.

Residents were astounded by “having the fortune to star in one of the greatest pages of the history of archaeology in the Mediterranean, if not the world,” a member of the Lions Club wrote.

The goal was to preserve and reassemble the ship for future generations to study and admire. But first, Frost’s team needed to build freshwater desalination tanks to store the ship’s pieces—otherwise the wood would dry out and disintegrate on land. Once leached of salt, the wood needed polyethylene glycol, or PEG. The ship’s porous wood would absorb this hot wax and harden like plastic, an essential step for the ship to be put on display.

Alagna had never met anyone like Frost, but they quickly bonded over art, music, and history. Hooked on the intrigue of it all, he provided Frost’s team a villa outside of Marsala, equipped with living spaces for archaeologists, and warehouses to store equipment. His workers built desalination tanks on the property to store the ship’s pieces as they were pulled, one by one, from the water.

From 1972 to 1974, Frost supervised an expedition filled with painstaking excavation work—measuring and recording every detail of the underwater site—followed by grueling, 12-hour days battling high waves to raise heavy lumber. She became a well-known figure around town, with the community carefully following the project’s progress. Locals invited her into their homes for breakfast. The police looked the other way when she parked in prohibited zones.

In the summer of 1973, she was determined to finish the recovery, but beset by “acts of god”—including two members of the crew falling ill, high winds and currents, and equipment failure—the season proved to be both “a torment and inconclusive,” she wrote to a colleague in Rome. But when others may have wavered, Frost stayed the course.

In the field report, she wrote: “The wreck had become my ‘Moby Dick.’”

~ ~ ~

A series of unfamiliar markings trailed down the ship’s hull. This detail tantalized Frost and her team, and they called in an expert in ancient script. His findings added to the excitement: The ship was inscribed with letters from what is often called the world’s oldest alphabet, Phoenician. It was a shipwright’s ancient instructions on how to assemble the pieces.

At long last, these markings solved the centuries-old mystery of how the Romans had built so many ships so quickly after capturing a Punic vessel. If the Punic ships were prefabbed and then assembled, the ship markings would have revealed their mass-production techniques to the Romans, who could then copy them to finally gain the upper hand at sea.

So extraordinary was this revelation, the powerful Italian National Research Council agreed to oversee the last phase of the project.

But just as the time came to start chemical trials and remove the wood from Alagna’s desalination tanks, the council’s experts concluded they didn’t know how to do the work. Preserving ancient ships was a nascent discipline. Without the PEG treatment, all the years spent fundraising, obtaining permits, and raising the ship would go to waste. The ship, having survived two turbulent millennia beneath the sea, and a precarious recovery to land, would simply crumble.

~ ~ ~

With Italy’s largest public research institution at a loss as to how to save the ship, the mission was at risk of disintegrating.

But after years providing logistical support, Alagna noticed something: Wood preservation wasn’t all that different from fermentation.

Complex chemical reactions, rich in biodiversity, determine the flavor, aroma, and even the deep, opaque color of Marsala wines. Throughout the process, vintners carefully control the temperature to allow certain yeasts to thrive and others to die off as the alcohol content rises. Alagna’s degree in agriculture, combined with years at the cantina, gave him a unique skillset.

He could draw from his knowledge of chemistry and organic processes to help save the ship.

~ ~ ~

Alagna is 92 years old and a bit deaf. He sits at a wooden table in his spacious office on the family winery’s ground floor, his white jacket—like a lab coat—over a sweater vest, his thin, white hair carefully combed back from his temples. As he begins describing his decades-long relationship with Frost and the Punic ship, his younger self emerges, an old-fashioned problem solver.

“All you had to do was desalinate the wood in water, and then gradually add the PEG and heat the water,” he says.

The challenge came in achieving the necessary precision. “I put the wood in a stainless steel container, and then this was regulated with a thermostat, gas heating, a burner—basically assembled the same way we do in the wine sector,” he explains, his voice refined but gruff. He is no longer used to talking for long stretches.

He proudly tells how his workers at Cantine Pellegrino built the tanks and equipment anywhere they could find space—in the wine cellar, the mechanics shop—and when that wasn’t enough, they created a special warehouse and built more tanks there.

The preservation lab they built was so advanced that ultimately, the director of the Central Institute of Restoration in Rome came to study it. A preservation expert visited periodically to monitor and adjust the settings. After nine months, the ship was ready to be reassembled and displayed.

Half a century later, Alagna describes the feat as the “greatest adventure of my life.”

~ ~ ~

But the effort, it seemed, had been too successful. The regional government announced a decision: The ship would be housed at a museum in the larger, more prominent city of Palermo.

The people of Marsala were devastated.

With “a heavy heart,” Frost wrote to a friend, she “returned to Marsala to prepare for the immediate removal of the first batch of ancient wood.”

On July 27, 1978, a moving truck arrived at the Cantine Pellegrino to load up the ship’s pieces and transport them to Palermo. Suddenly, word spread that there was a commotion at the Cantine. One of the town’s residents had decided to go to the winery to try to stop the truck, set on physically blocking its path if needed. Soon, the rest of Marsala—even the mayor—arrived to join the resident to resist the ship’s removal.

“Everyone came,” Alagna says. “It was too important not to.”

It was a “day of DRAMA, hardly less than that of ship’s sinking,“ Frost wrote in her journal that night.

After hours of blocking the road with their bodies, the people of Marsala claimed victory. A decision was reached to convert a nearby abandoned winery, called the Baglio Anselmi, into a museum to display the ship.

~ ~ ~

Alagna still shows up to work every day at his family’s winery. A framed photo of Frost and an illustration of the Punic ship in battle hang on the wall of his spacious office. In the Cantine Pellegrino’s large, cool tasting room, perfect plaster replicas of several of the ship’s pieces are mounted on display.

Frost continued diving until a few months before her death in 2010, at the age of 92. By then, she had helped survey the Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; she had excavated at the UNESCO World Heritage site in Byblos, Lebanon, believed to be one of the oldest cities in the world; and she had co-founded journals and institutions devoted to underwater archaeology.

Her Punic ship findings remain her greatest academic achievement.

According to instructions in her will, proceeds from an auction of her estate established the Honor Frost Foundation, which carries on her legacy of underwater archaeology in the Mediterranean. Her ashes were scattered off the coast of Lebanon—perhaps someday to be swept along the same ancient trade routes that once brought the Punic ship to Marsala.

Finally at rest, the Punic ship today holds court in a wing of its own at the Baglio Anselmi Regional Archaeological Museum, at the point of Marsala’s Boeo cape. Sculptures, amphorae, and other Roman and Phoenician artifacts line the onetime winery’s cavernous halls. The ship’s remaining pieces are fitted into a large iron frame to give visitors a sense of the scale and lines of the original 115-foot ship. A raised platform allows examination of the ship’s joints and clay amphora resting in the hull. The Phoenician letters are no longer visible, their water-based pigment having faded in the light. But thanks to Frost’s careful cataloguing and publication, the shipbuilding secrets live on.

Through it all, the mercurial waters of the Mediterranean churn as they always have, providing refuge as well as peril to untold ancient treasures.

________________________________________________________________________

Janna Brancolini was born and raised in Indiana and lived in California for almost a decade before moving to Italy in 2014 on a Fulbright fellowship. She is an American journalist based in Milan, Italy, where she is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg Law. Her photos and essays have also appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Business Insider, and more. As a global journalist who loves working at intersections, she is drawn to stories where law meets politics, where the environment intersects with finance, where cultures clash, and where languages collide.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner: The Shakeout Trip

March 29th, 2022

By Robert Dale Fama

A premature midlife crisis, a sack of money, and a backpack combine to reveal that a beginner traveler learns quick in the Sahara.

We had already broken down five times when Amadou snapped the ignition key off in his dilapidated Land Rover. He reached up and rubbed his necklace, a black leather amulet that contained gris-gris, written prayers to protect and bring luck to the wearer. Beltrán lowered his head and made the sign of a cross. In Mali and surrounded by sand on the last leg to Timbuktu, a turn of a key changed everything. Suddenly, I thought we would never arrive, and with that, that I’d fail to accomplish the first phase of my round-the-world trip.

Beltrán and I had met a few weeks prior in a dust storm on the Senegal-Mali frontier. The wind was fluctuating like a drunk compass and I’d had enough. Alone, I crouched beside a lanky bush and sulked, exasperated in predicament. I had flown from USA to Morocco and then on to Senegal. Despite knowing I was under prepared and over confident, boarded a train to Mali.  Filthy, tired, hungry, and demoralized, I wondered why I came to Africa at all.

A figure approached through the gloom. Someone, apparently, had pointed me out and he called “Toubab,” a word West Africans use for foreigners. He moved one arm like a radar beacon and dragged a bright orange backpack with the other. Dressed in an I don’t care about being clean anymore outfit, I could tell he was, like me, backpacking across Africa on the cheap. That meant instant camaraderie, the sharing of stories, and the possibility of adventure. My spirits brightened.

“They said you’re American,” he called out through the wind, “and going to Timbuktu.” He had wavy hair that served to rearrange the dust on his sunglasses. “I am going too. What are you doing there?”

“Always wanted to go,” I said. “It’s the first leg of my around-the-world trip.” An extended whoosh made hearing difficult; he leaned in and cupped his hand to his ear. “I want to know what’s out there.” I pointed up and around. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him the truth: single, unemployed, and twenty-nine, my orbit had prematurely swung to mid-life crisis.

I had been a white-shirt blue suit banking computer salesperson. After a financially lucrative five years, I received an even more lucrative exit package after a corporate merger—pay and health insurance for a year. I didn’t know what to do next. So instead of finding another job, or career, I choose to run and move beyond my sheltered life at home in Reno. With the money, time, inclination and a backpack—the travelers jackpot—I packed a bag to test my mettle against world travel.

“Why are you going?” I asked Beltrán.

He lowered his voice and spoke seriously. “I hated medical school and don’t want to practice; my parents made me go. I daydreamed about going to Timbuktu when I should have been studying. After graduation, I told them that I was going to walk the streets wearing a white suit and Panama hat.”

“A white suit?” I glanced down at myself, pinched my shirt, and shook a burst of dirt. I was a mess. Besides being disheveled, my clothes sagged from weight loss. My focus was survival, and his, amazingly, was a white suit.

“It’s sealed in plastic to repel the dust.” He chopped his right hand repeatedly into his left palm. “I will take it out and open it only when there.”

Timbuktu retained its mythical status—it satisfied an inner yearn to redeem, cleanse, or prove something deeper. We were two lost people turned desert nomads, or so I thought.

“I need a photographer to take pictures,” Beltrán said. He snapped a picture with an invisible camera. “We’ll go together.”

Meeting others and going someplace was one aspect I liked about overland travel. The spirit of mutual adventure manifested in a quest; it made events interesting, and for me, better preserved to memory. Nobody at home would have been able or free to travel as I intended to on this journey; asking was preposterous. Now, already halfway across the world, I was relieved to encounter Beltrán, but our ambitions could not be more divergent. Mine were vague and sprawling, and his was singular. Amused by his fixation on such a specific goal, I nodded in agreement. “I don’t want to miss that spectacle!”

“Spectacle?” He rotated towards Timbuktu and raised his arm like the Statue of Liberty. “It’s art!”

Push-starting the Land Rover in the sand failed. Beltrán wagged his finger. “This is ridiculous!” Then he point-gestured, like tapping a window. “This will be in my movie.” Besides practicing medicine, and roadside drama, Beltran, who was Chilean, had studied cinematography as a Fulbright scholar.

Beltrán joked. I paced. Two months of my trip had passed and I’d only been through a piddling corner of Africa. Mali was only the third country of my planned one-year trip and I needed to keep moving. But as I began to understand the scope of my travel ambitions, I redefined expectations—it would take me five years, not one, and reckoning that change required a decision: do I declare myself a nomadic traveler? Or do I return home to look for a job or otherwise figure out what to do next? Given that my invested money could actually pay for a lengthy trip, the looming decision occupied my mind.

“In this piece of shit?” I’d asked Beltran when he showed me the Land Rover after he had arranged the ride. “The tires are bald and it’s rusted through. We’ll never make it.” The other passengers watched our antics while Amadou collected fares.

“It’ll be fine.” He tamped his hand, as if patting a child’s head. We had waited days. “This is the only ride.”

Now, in the stinging hot, I had an idea. Beltrán knew how to say “open” in French and Amadou, the man with whom I entrusted my life, popped the hood. I recognized the components to hot-wire start the ignition—something I learned from a tow-truck driver when I was a teenager—and point-demonstrated the set-up; Beltrán translated. Amadou, who was about thirty-five and drove his Land Rover through the desert for a living, connected the by-pass and the engine started. Amadou looked towards me, nodded, and smiled. Beltrán rubbed his hands together briskly.

We’d earned enough goodwill to share the front seat with Amadou and his assistant. I’d never been happier to squeeze into discomfort. There were nineteen people behind crammed atop rice sacks and three on the roof with the luggage.

Getting out of the Land Rover when we stopped for the night was painful; my joints ached stiff as I tried to contort my body into a standing position. We didn’t know what to do or where we would sleep. We decided to wander toward the village perimeter to spend the night on the sand hidden under a market stall table. Along the way, a man grilled meat on a fire in a stubby metal barrel; customers sat on wooden benches and ate with their hands; some spit chunks of gristle. A boy and a girl pushed an old bike tire with sticks. The drumming never stopped.

“Kwashiorkor, marasmus, vitamin deficiency. I see them here.” Beltran gave a lesson on dietary insufficiencies the next morning as we walked through the tiny village. A woman made puff-puffs, deep fried sugary dough balls served in a cone of paper as three naked children with distended stomachs gestured for food. We bought each a portion but the juxtaposition—food among this rampant hunger—evoked guilt with every bite.

We followed a boy to a square mud structure festooned with four squat towers on each corner. Nearby, Amadou’s legs protruded from beneath the Land Rover.

“Eleven.” Beltrán swept his finger upward in a circle. We kept track of the number of breakdowns for a ten-dollar bet.

I crawled under to investigate. Splayed open, the front differential looked atrocious. Amadou fished through a splotch of oily sand and pulled out a bolt.

“Señor, It’s bad.”

“Caramba!”  Beltrán kicked sand. We retreated to shade and wrote in our journals.

Later, Beltrán stood and squinted as if looking through binoculars, “Let’s explore.” He grabbed his camera. “I need light.”

On a corner in the village, below a reeded shade structure, he motioned light-rays with an overhead arm and kneeled. “I will publish these in Noreste.” Beltrán had founded and published Chile’s only literary journal. “The shadow must be perfect.” He slow-motioned angles, adjusted, and snapped one photo of a child’s wrist adorned in a silver paper bracelet.

Apart from our journey, though, Beltrán and I were different. He had a joy to live, took each moment lightly, and lived unburdened. He knew where he was headed in life. I did not. He was a doctor, and a mysterious poet. I was an unemployed practical backpacker with a sack of money and a dream. Yet I saw him as a guide who might help determine my unclear future.

Back at the Land Rover, I watched Amadou crawl back under the engine with a new tool.

“Name a country,” Beltrán commanded.

“Egypt.”

“Three horizontal bars, red, white, and black; gold bird in the center.” Beltrán had memorized the design, colors, and symbolism of every country’s flag. To pass time, I quizzed him, fascinated by his mind. But I wondered if this random exhibition of detailed memorization was a veiled intellectual brag.

“Mathematics determine shapes; humans determine design.” He grabbed his sketchbook and drew world flags. “Compare the ratios.” The pen darted like a pin ball. “Note the aesthetic differences; some pleasant, some not.” He was, in every way, unlike me—he, precise and analytical, me, loose and open to chance.

We had used head wraps to keep the incessant flies out of our eyes. The temperature was over one-hundred degrees. We slept in the shade of a nearby veranda.

Sometime around noon, I heard sounds of agony from Beltrán. “Something’s wrong,” he said.

When I sat up, I saw Beltrán on his knees vomiting. I grabbed water and a towel and ran to him. Minutes later, Amadou started the Land Rover and honked.

Later that afternoon, Amadou guided us around a dune and stopped at a well. Beltrán was pale and feverish. He had to use an arm to hold himself against the Land Rover, and when he let go, he wobbled. He lowered himself to the sand.

Camels drank from the trough as Bedouins sat crossed-legged, brewing tea on a twig fire. I had never drunk from an animal trough.

I filled the jugs and then carried one to Beltrán.

That night, he couldn’t stand without assistance, and the assistance came from me. During a Niger River fording, he stayed in the Land Rover when everyone else had to wade across on foot. On the far side, surrounded by members of the nomadic Fulani group, and their cattle, I lay him in the sand. He was frightened and shivered uncontrollably. I covered him with a sleeping bag retrieved from his backpack. Fellow passengers and Fulani encircled and looked upon him.

“It’s malaria,” he self-diagnosed. “Hijo de puta.

At least he wasn’t delirious.

“Everything’s going to be OK.” I held his hand. “We’ll get you to Timbuktu.” Beltrán looked grave. It was the most scared I’d ever been. I barely knew the man, but suddenly felt responsible for his survival. At home, I would have called 911. Here, I was the hospital, and there was nothing I could do. The sheltered life back home seemed awfully comforting.

I remained at his side, took deep breaths, and watched the river. Beltrán unexpectedly sat up. A woman offered a calabash of fresh cow’s milk, and he sipped.

The moon illuminated the group of women, some held handmade wooden buckets. Amadou had said the group spoke Fula, a language I was hearing for the first time. “Look, listen,” said Beltrán. “Listen to the cadence.” Even when he was at risk of dying, I envied how he could live in the present without worrying about his dire situation.

Later, Amadou and the others helped placed Beltrán atop the rice sacks in the Land Rover. I remained at his side and said, “We’re on our way.” There was no response from him because he was already sound asleep.

The next day, the terrain changed to scrub and we followed a deteriorated intermittent one-lane dirt track. The attack had passed; Beltrán was reanimated, back to his philosophical observant self. Any remaining joy had left me. I was overwhelmed with concern for Beltran to the point of thinking how one might transport a corpse in the desert. Amadou had bought a haunch of meat and to dry it, entwined the slab through the radio antenna. A passenger disembarked at nothing but horizon.

Sometime later, a vehicle approached in the distance. Instead of pulling to the side of the track and stopping to let the truck pass, Amadou proceeded to steer through the scrub.

Hijo de puta!” Alarmed, Beltrán instinctually safeguarded my chest with his extended arm and then pointed up. “Look.”

“What?” Half asleep, I floundered.

“Hold on!”

We slammed hard. The rooftop passengers flew over the hood and rolled onto the sand. The Land Rover rocked to a stop. That brought it to eighteen breakdowns.

Amadou drove over an embankment. Everybody was OK.

“Why? Why did he do that?” Beltrán got out and assessed, bending at the waist to scrutinize with hands clasped behind lower back, like a crash scene investigator. “What is this piece?”

Front leaf-suspension parts looked lonely scattered in the dirt. The once-approaching truck disappeared to doppler effect silence.

Beltrán scowled. We had both had enough, but Beltrán, fortunately, seemed to be feeling better.

After so many breakdowns, setbacks, and recoveries, I trusted Amadou to get us going. Besides, it seemed futile to buck fate.

Beltrán eyes bulged, “We’ll never get there,” he muttered.

I said, “We can use your backpack to signal search and rescue!”

He gave me a look, trudged away, and stewed.

I couldn’t blame him; uncertainty abounded. But this was not the time to pout and I wanted to tell him to grow up. We had a problem. I rigged shade and signaled him back.

Under Amadou’s tutelage, we collected stones. He built a small cairn under the front and with everyone’s effort, hoisted the Land Rover atop to suspend the axle.

“See!” I pointed.

Amadou used rocks to pound the suspension into shape. He fit one piece into the next and then, in a move of mechanical ingenuity, used a piece of roof rack to fashion a replacement clasp. It was twilight when he re-assembled the lot.

Timbuktu remained elusive. A night and a day remained on what was already a fifty-five-hour trip that would have taken four hours on freeway.

The next day toward dusk, Amadou bumped onto the five-mile asphalt road from the Niger River to Timbuktu and at last we had arrived. “We made it!” I said. I held up my arm to show Beltrán my goosebumps.

“Desert Arabesque.” He stared out the window at the modern suburb on our approach to the old adobe city. Neat, attractive, single-story white homes flanked the road, each on a lot with a guard. They were solid and thick, to repel heat. Palm trees abounded.

After a three-day trip, I was almost ecstatic to arrive in Timbuktu. Somehow, I was proud too and it confirmed my contention that such experiences exceeded anything I might have been doing at home. In my heart, I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. It also lent me some credibility as a world traveler and I thought, having done this, that I could travel anywhere in the world and survive—no other journey could be as difficult.

Beltrán turned and looked at me, indicating the exquisite facades. Each home had three pointed arches, stout double front wood doors, and external staircases to roofs. Friezes of squares, triangles, and diagonals crowned. We spied Timbuktu’s largest building, the mud mosque, in the distance.

Amadou had slowed, the asphalt ended; before us: Timbuktu. We entered a sand plaza, stopped, and then proceeded to circle the perimeter in the Land Rover. Beltrán jutted his head and extended an arm toward the flag. I arm bumped Amadou and gyrated my hand to request a second lap, like a rodeo cowboy after a winning bronc ride. He rubbed his necklace, then the dashboard, and circled again. He stopped dead-ahead of the police station and a sign that read: Tomboutou.

Beltrán karate chopped air.

We staggered out of the Land Rover, congratulated Amadou, and said goodbyes.

“Passport stamps,” Beltrán said. I followed him forward and he cajoled the officer to action. Once Le Commissaire de Police flourished his signature atop the purple stamp, Beltrán smiled and said, “We have arrived.”

Days later, Beltrán unwrapped his white suit. It had cooled off, the sun was lower, the shadow right. Beltrán opened his journal to the Timbuktu map he had drawn and said, “The house with the cracked wood lintel.” He placed his finger on the page. “Wait for me there,” he commanded. He stood, held the suit in one hand and pointed me outside with the other. I dutifully followed him, as I had done since I met him. I, consumed with curiosity for the world while I ran away from it, he, a philosopher doctor who had traveled all this way for this one moment. He said, “I will dress now.”

The moment drew near. I floated through the old city on the main road past the plaza, mosque, and community well. I pivoted left and entered the maze of sand footpaths and brown adobe homes. The facades looked weathered and unkept. Most were spotted with crumbling mud-stucco and all were pocked by time. I wandered and waited with two cameras and spare rolls of film.

Beltrán, in his white suit, approached and stopped. An entourage had gathered. Men wore sky blue or white kaftans and head wraps. A woman balanced a jug of water on her head and looked agog. Children clambered to the front of the pack and one cried in fright. I snapped away.

“A profile now.” Beltrán said. Posing like an impresario, he calculated movements, postures, and compositions of photos, and at each location—abodes of early European explorers, centers of cultural learning, or mosques—expounded on the history and significance. Within the sand passageways, I wondered what the Malians, with their animistic beliefs, might have thought if they knew, like I did, that a dust storm had conjured the spirit before us. Or if they looked on this man as vaguely ridiculous, a cliché and reminder of their colonial past that his blinding white get-up had emulated.

And somehow, I was immortalizing this moment for him. And though I became, temporarily, his student and acolyte, there were no similarities between him and me except for the moment we were living right then, on that street, both of us far from home and both of us somehow finding what we were searching for. He permanently, me, temporarily. But where his journey had ended here on the streets of Timbuktu, mine would last another five years. I would befriend many strangers, share many breakdowns, and nurse each other through illness and adventure. But Beltrán remains for me an inspiration to pursue a dream, no matter how nonsensical, while endorsing the concept of world travel as a noble occupation.

In front of the library, which was filled with historical manuscripts dating from the thirteenth century, he placed his hand upon the wood door.

“This is why I came.” He narrowed his stance, stood sharp chest out, bent a closed fist arm in front of his abdomen, and gazed to the distance.

Later, we hitchhiked north to an area labeled intense sand on maps. We sat under a truck in shade and made good on our bet to guess the total number of breakdowns.

“Diabolical” Beltrán had said as he flashed two digits on each hand. I paid him ten bucks.

Even when things went wrong, they went right on the way to Timbuktu. Amadou and his Land Rover persevered. A dust storm produced a man in a white-suit, a spirit who begged me to emulate him even though I knew I could not. The Sahara delivered resilience amid hardship and Timbuktu offered solace, understanding, and reflection.

“That trip was brutal.” I said as I spread my pointed index fingers to an arms-length width, “Regardless, if that was one corner of the world, I want to see it all.”

I overcame my shyness and admitted to Beltrán that I felt unsettled at home. I lived with an innate desire to explore. It consumed and directed me. I likened travel to  finishing school. I had hoped that the experience would help me find answers to some questions I was still asking. Questions that, remarkably, eluded him.

Want to come along?” I said.

Beltrán laughed.

“I’m ready to be a doctor.” Then he pointed straight up and vibrated his hand in front of his face and said,

The only one

who wore a white suit

in Timbuktu.

I wanted to give him five gallons of water. I admired his quest, his singular focus, how he crossed the world for the almost ludicrous goal of being photographed in a clean white suit. But my goal was simply to keep moving.

I wandered up a wind-polished dune. At the crest, mesmerized by the Sahara, I lay down and watched fistfuls of sand trickle in the breeze. Among the grains and dunes, where some saw mirages, I imagined each handful a place: Victoria Falls, across to Nairobi, the Himalayas, Chile.

Elated, I jumped-slid down the dune like a little boy. Breathless, I told Beltrán what I had imagined. He kneeled me down and began to trace proposed travel routes across maps drawn in sand. He looked at me, and then, like a laser, extended his arm and pointed toward the maps. “Remember this.”


Robert Dale Fama is a San Francisco based registered nurse. He traveled around the world when younger and recently digitized his extensive travel journals. A newcomer to writing, this is his first story.

Lifer

April 12th, 2021

By Lisa Boice

Animal Encounter Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards

“The life list of a birdwatcher is of a different order. It’s not what you cross off that counts, but what you add.” —Terry Tempest Williams

The black sky was like a drop cloth over the prairie grass and the only thing we could see were the bugs darting in and out of the light from our car’s headlights. We were only 60 miles west from Houston in Eagle Lake, Texas, but the big city felt a lifetime away. I turned my neck to see behind us and the brightness of the headlight beams from another car made me wince. My husband, Steve, yawned, which made me yawn. It was early and we hoped we weren’t too late.

We were in a hurry to get in line at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge to witness the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken’s courting ritual. During March and April, the males go out to a lek, an area where animals—or in this case, birds—assemble to engage in courtship behavior. In the human world our leks have evolved from parties and bars to smartphone apps where singles attempt to impress and be impressed. But at this lek all the hope that male Prairie-Chickens can muster is on display in the middle of an expansive field as they perform an elaborate dance just after sunrise, which is why we were up early in the black of night.

Steve drove carefully in the dark with one hand on the wheel and the other at his side. I took his hand and held it, grateful that I no longer needed to visit the human equivalent of leks.

Seeing this bird would be a “lifer” for me—birding lingo for a new species I had never seen. Twelve years earlier, Steve pulled me into his hobby of birding by gifting me bird feeders for our first Christmas together. I was hoping for jewelry and feeders seemed to signal to me that the relationship was going nowhere. But his gift introduced me to the birds in my own back yard. I had the gold of Goldfinches, the sapphire of the Western Scrub Jays, and the fiery jewel-toned red and yellow Western Tanager—my own backyard gems.

Not long after Steve set up the feeders in my backyard, he began keeping a list of my lifers in a bird field guide by marking which ones I would see, where I saw them and when. If I were a real birder, I would be tracking this myself, but Steve, who already had a life list of over 1,500 species before we met, would re-live the joy of seeing birds for the first time vicariously through me as I encountered new species. Each new bird I saw thrilled me with excitement, and I would often gasp, hold my breath and feel as though the bird came into view just for me. The birds and I greeted each other through the glass of my binoculars and sometimes the bird would pose by turning around and give me good looks and other times they acted coy, flitting around in the branches, hiding and popping out briefly to tease me. It doesn’t have to be a brightly colored bird or particularly special to get me excited. Seeing a bird species for the first time has helped me believe in possibilities—to know that there is a bigger world than the one I live in day to day.

“You’ll want to get here early,” the refuge ranger instructed us when we stopped by the refuge the previous day to get details on how to see the Prairie-Chicken. It was the second weekend in April, and the refuge was conducting tours to the normally-restricted lek as it does every year.

“The vans leave for the lek at 7 o’clock in the morning,” the ranger continued, “but you’ll see people lining up at 6:30 or even earlier, so don’t be late.”

It’s not just the act of courtship that draws people to these leks to observe. Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens are slipping away as they continue to decline in numbers. The Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a sub-species of the Greater Prairie-Chicken—is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future is hanging by a thread. It can only be found here in this part of Texas on the 10,541 acres of the refuge with only roughly 200 of them remaining.

We arrived at the reserve headquarters at 6:40 a.m. and we realized we were late. There was already a long line of people silhouetted against the sky, which was now indigo with orange and yellow painted brush strokes near the horizon signaling that the sun was about to rise.

We took our place at the end of the line, and others followed behind us. First two then four more, then in just five minutes 10 more people took their places at the end of the line. We all quietly stood and there were a few quiet conversations. “Have you been here before?” someone would ask. “No,” another would say. We all seemed to be new to this, or at least those of us who were at the end of the line and not wise enough to get up earlier.

It was surprisingly chilly for Texas and I zipped up my polar fleece jacket closer to my neck and I was happy I brought my gloves. Others were not bothered by the brisk air, and showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts. There were wide-brimmed safari-type hats, baseball caps and those without hats. Most everyone had binoculars hanging from their necks, and there were cameras of all sizes—long lenses, short lenses, some with their cameras and tripods propped on their shoulders, and those with pocket-sized point-and-shoots.

Right at 7:00 the first van filled with birders and left for the lek. We were in the sixth van and we squeezed in as many people as we could and the smell of coffee on everyone’s breath filled the van. We rode on a dirt road for about 15 minutes to the restricted area while the driver—a refuge worker—told us of the invasive red fire ants that are aggressively feeding on everything in these prairies, most of which are food sources for young Prairie-Chickens. He explained how development has been encroaching on Texas prairies where the habitat is growing smaller and everyone in our shuttle nodded their head in agreement or disgust or both. “And the weather,” he said. “It’s been the cruelest. With flooding in 2015 and 2016 we had no surviving nests those years. That was hard.”

We arrived at the lek and before he let us out, he explained where we should stand and reminded us to be very quiet.

I unfolded my body as I came out of the shuttle and the darkness had disappeared as though someone had flipped a switch. The sun painted a stroke of glowing orange across the prairie grass and it was beautiful. This is not how I or even others often envision Texas. Cinema has long-portrayed Texas as dusty, flat, brown and barren of any life, save some cattle and a few tumbleweeds that roll by as if on cue. That’s the West Texas version of Texas most people have come to know through movies such as Giant, Bonnie and Clyde and No Country for Old Men. What I was looking at was not dry and dusty, but a pastoral scene of grasses that were lush, feathery and green—grasses that waved to the sky gently as if to say thank you for the moisture from the humid air. “They used to refer to the Coastal Prairie as the Texas Serengeti,” our driver had told us during our short drive. “It once covered 6 million acres over Texas and Louisiana, but now only 1% of that remains, and this particular Prairie-Chicken relies on it.” This is it, I thought. This is the last of the Coastal Prairie.

Birders who had been on earlier shuttles were already standing on the back of a flatbed truck that was parked in front of the lek for viewing. Little patches of dirt, like pitchers mounds, were scattered in several spots on the green prairie grass. It was on top of these mounds where the males were to display and dance.

“Can you see any?” I whispered to Steve.

“No, not yet. But give it some time,” he said confidently. Steve had never been here, but he came to our marriage with a life-time of birding experience, and he had seen the Greater Prairie-Chicken—a cousin of the Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—in South Dakota.

A young girl with a green and orange knitted dinosaur cap looked through her mom’s scope atop the tripod set at just the right height for the girl. Every person had binoculars up to their eyes, scanning the field. There were 30 of us on the edge of the field looking, which meant we were bound to see something. I searched knowing this may be my only chance I would get to see this bird.

“There’s one!” the man next to us said in a loudish whisper. He brought his binoculars down to point to the field so we all could see. “By the fence, just to the right of that tree.” The crowd bustled with excitement as hushed tones of “he saw one!” and “where?” made its way down the crowd.

With my eyes I followed the man’s finger out to the field and pulled my binoculars up to my eyes. It was way out in the field and it was still small in my binoculars. I was looking at my very first Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken—a lifer.

The dance began as the Prairie-Chicken stomped in a circle. It stood atop its little mound of dirt, drumming its feet as though he was stamping out a fire. He filled up the bright yellow air sac on his neck and made his famous booming call, which sounded like the low bass note you get when you blow into a large empty 2-liter Coke plastic bottle. A couple of Prairie-Chickens hens looked on and one looked like it was going to get close, but she changed her mind. It was not a triumph for him, but it was a triumph for me.

I wondered if I would ever see this bird again. All it would take is a few more storms to wipe them out. I put my binoculars back up to my eyes to see more of the bird that comes out every spring to dance for a mate, with the hope of survival.

“Hey, there’s an Upland Sandpiper,” Steve said.

“What? Where?” I asked, lowering my binoculars to get a broad view of the field.

“On the other side of those twiggy bushes.”

“Steve, there are twiggy bushes everywhere.” I shot back.

“Follow my finger,” he said. “See the big dark green tree way in the background on the horizon? Go down from there in the field and between the mound and the twiggy bush you’ll see it.”

“Got it!” I exclaimed in my hybrid whisper and excitement tone. I pulled the binoculars back up to my eyes and I was looking at a small bird, a little bit bigger than a pigeon, but with a long neck. It had a white chin and white underbelly that I could barely make out under its dappled brown and tan body.

“Aren’t sandpipers shorebirds?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be on the beach?” I was beaming as I shared this bird fact, feeling a bit less like a birder imposter and like someone who could actually carry on an intelligent conversation about birds.

“Yes, he’s a shorebird, but it’s why they call it the Upland Sandpiper. He hangs out in fields, feeding on grasshoppers,” he told me.

“Have I seen him before?” That’s the question I often ask Steve, since he’s the curator of my bird lists—still, over these past 12 years. If I were a serious student of birding I suppose I would be maintaining my list more thoughtfully and committing my experiences to memory, but I long ago tossed that chore over to Steve.

“This is another lifer for you,” he said proudly, as though he had made the bird magically appear for me.

More shuttles arrived with people pouring out of their doors. It was time to make room for others to see the earnestness of the male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken, so we took one of the shuttles back to the reserve headquarters and headed back to our car.

We drove out of the refuge just as slowly as we did in the dark earlier that morning, hoping to see what else we could find in the prairie. Any clouds there were in the morning had dissolved into the sky, leaving a canvass of blue above the green prairie. A Crested Caracara stood unconcerned that we were driving by. I was familiar with Caracaras when I had seen them in the tropics, but Texas is the northern-most area of its range, so we were both excited to see it here. Caracaras look like large hawks and are opportunistic hunters, stealing from other birds and feeding on carrion like vultures. We stopped, I stuck the camera lens out the car window and snapped a few pictures, using our car as a bird blind. It was a colorful bird, with an orange face, and long white neck atop the brown body. Its yellow legs gleaned against the green prairie grass. I got this lifer years ago, but it’s always nice to see this one and felt like running into an old friend.

We hadn’t been driving more than 10 yards when Steve slowed the car to a crawl. “That would make a nice picture,” he said, pointing at the direction of my window. A Western Willet was standing on a fence post right next to the road, unafraid as our car came to a stop but not too close so to keep a safe distance as I snapped a few photos. It was another shorebird, here to enjoy the bounty the Texas prairie offers. The Willet was about 15 inches in length, with a grayish-brown head, back and wings. His belly was white and had a long-straight black bill. I knew this bird and usually could identify it when we visited the beach.

A bird called in the distance. “Northern Bobwhite,” Steve said, always calling the bird by its official name. Steve had a good ear for birding and could name birds based on their calls. Surprisingly, even I knew that call, as its name was mnemonic, resembling the sweeping pitch of its whistle, “bob-white!” But I had never seen one—I’d only heard it.

“Over there!” Steve exclaimed, pointing way out in the field, “On top of the post!”

And there it was, a lone male quail—the Northern Bobwhite—singing away, caught up in his own courtship song to find a mate and also another lifer I could add to my list.

Adding birds to my life list often carries with it urgency. Bird populations in North America have declined 29 percent since 1970, which is a drop of nearly three billion birds. And birds that rely on grasslands and prairies have suffered the steepest drop.

The notion of seeing a lifer, to me, is not a competition or race to see who has the bigger list, which often birders get chastised for doing. To have a fleeting encounter with a bird sparks optimism and hope. They are full of stories of the country, state, province or city I am exploring, with tales of survival and endurance. To get a full picture and sense of a place, start with the birds.

The prairie is still alive, I thought as we drove away. The 1% of remaining Coastal Prairie is still a vibrant habitat. I wish we could have preserved more but was thankful we at least have this.

I kept the window down while Steve drove on and I stretched out my arm to feel the air against my hand. The spring sun already felt hot in April and I didn’t mind the dust from the road that was stirred up by our car. Suddenly Steve slammed on the breaks and we skidded a few feet on the gravel. “Prairie-Chicken!” Steve yelled. I saw it at the same time he said it.

A male Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken was running on the opposite side of the road toward us and then he slipped into the tall grass and disappeared. It happened too fast to grab the camera. In an instant it was there and then gone.

We looked at each other, eyes big with disbelief, then smiled with excitement and caught our breath as though we had just witnessed a ghost. “Hey, where’s the field guide?” I asked Steve. It was on the dashboard in front of him and he passed it to me.

“What are you looking for?” he asked.

I took it and found the page I had dogeared the day before when I was doing my homework to prepare for the day. Next to “Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken” I put a check mark and wrote my name, our location, date and “Lifer.”


Lisa Boice writes about her journeys as she and her husband search for birds around the world. She blogs at TheAccidentalBirder.com.

Why I Love Baboons

April 6th, 2021

By Lynn Brindell

Adventure Travel Gold Winner in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards

I think Beatus did it because he felt guilty. Or because he thought we’d give him a bigger tip. He’d gently rustled our tent flap that morning, the bright slit of light slicing through dark green shadows.

“Good morning!” he softly called. “Game drive now!”

We, The Newlyweds, usually slept in. But on our last day in Africa we left camp early, bundled against the mist and chill, our jeep the first to growl out and bounce along the rutted, mud way that passed for a road.

I leaned into Rob, cold air rushing against my cheeks. We weren’t supposed to be in an open-air jeep, without windows or ceiling to protect us from the sudden onslaught of a storm or an animal’s pounce. But I think Beatus wanted to deliver, finally serving up that signature moment, an exotic and extraordinary miracle of nature, witnessed in the bush.

Careful what you ask for.

Our honeymoon had been glorious, gallivanting through Paris, then touching down at rustic bush camps in Kenya and Tanzania. Breathtaking sights dumbfounded us each day. We laughed at the normalcy of spotting giraffes in graceful parades, strutting and loping like the supermodels of the bush, or watching mighty elephants, trumpeting and ear-flapping alongside adoring, fumbling calves. Once, when we were in a jeep riding down a windswept, grassy slope, a zebra herd came thundering around us, swallowing us in their dust-flying gallop, the undulating black and white hides surging like a massive striped wave, the pounding reaching into our very souls. Once, sitting in Ngorongoro Crater’s prehistoric mist, Rob was talking, holding a grilled chicken wing, when a bird screeched above and swooped down, plucked the chicken from his fingers, cawing and soaring triumphantly away. We howled at our idiocy. How dumb we were, plopped down in this world.

One day we spotted two bloated lionesses, snoring and sleeping on their backs, legs splayed open to the sun, passed out, lunch-drunk, their innocence so deceiving. We’d seen them viciously gobbling a bloody carcass an hour before. Once, standing at a water flat, looking out onto thousands of stilled pink flamingoes, the birds rose up in a fluttering pink swath, raucous, flapping and honking, filling the sky, blanking out our view of snow-capped Kilimanjaro. We felt rushed, gone weightless, lifted with them, flying too.

Simply being on the continent was profound, timeless, humbling. We stared down from a plane’s tiny windows, awed by the endlessly stretching patchwork of green and gold vistas below. We were struck by how little we needed, our luggage limited to one twenty-pound bag each. Huddling together at night on our cots, listening to animals groaning in the darkness outside our tent, our New York City existence was instantly reframed. How vast and ancient and resplendent this world was; how small and hurried and repetitive were our concrete and glass lives. Each day I felt my legs swing further in strides, my senses heightened. Peppery sauces prickled and stung my lips and tongue; the touch of the jeep’s handle, cold and dewy each morning, was like pulling a wet bone from the slumbering earth.

But all that was rookie stuff. We still hadn’t scored big.

At night, around campfires low and crackling, sipping rum tangy with lime, we listened with envy as others recounted their game drives. They’d witnessed a baby hippo being born, sliding newly from its mother into water; had followed a cheetah, stalking, then slaughtering a gazelle; had watched a pride of lions, playful and tumbling with their cubs.

“Oh yeah, you guys flew Concorde,” a familiar guy tossed out one night, as if cueing us to tell our best game story. Everyone wanted to know: Was the plane really like a bus? Yes. Was the food great? No. I’d had a curly black hair in my tepid duck. Was it loud? No. Not inside the plane. The best part, I explained, was the flight attendant’s sultry French-accented voice coming over the loudspeaker, directing our attention to the flipping numbers on an electric blue digital Mach counter, up front.

“Ladeez and gentlemen!” she proudly announced, “we are flying at zee rate of supersonic speed!” There was a slight push like a wind thrust behind a sailboat; then our gleaming-white tin can of a plane zoomed even faster through the air. Twenty minutes later, the attendant proclaimed—even more enthusiastically—“Ladeez and gentlemen! We are flying at twice zee rate of supersonic speed!” Another thrust; it was New York to Paris, three hours flat.

But Concorde was a purchased experience, a ticket any money could buy. Out in the bush, we wanted sheer, fantastic luck. And for more than two weeks, our luck had been kind of lousy, gazing through binoculars over vast plains, only common hyenas or prancing ostriches breaking the view.

So it was our last day in Africa and Beatus parked the jeep at the foot of a rounded gray hill, rising abruptly like a tossed-off mound of clay, from the rain-washed Serengeti plains.

“This is Ngong Hill,” Beatus began. “A sacred place, where the Masai gather. See the big stones on top?” He pointed to a cluster of tall oval boulders, balanced vertically against all laws of gravity, like granite jellybeans rising to the stark blue sky.

“Those stones are hollow. The elders would bang rocks against them.” Beatus punched the air. “Gong! Gong! And the sound would echo out.“ Beatus ran his hand along the horizon. “They called the tribes. To gather below. For  a meeting.” Looking up at the smooth dark hill, then out at the stretching plains, I imagined an army of askaris, holding spears at their sides, serious faces upturned to the hill, listening.

“There are monkeys around here,” Beatus said, getting out of the jeep. “Baboons.”

“We heard about baboons at another camp,” one of the two women from D.C. said. We’d crossed paths with the women before, gone on game drives together. “The baboons surrounded a jeep and ate all the lunch. People had to wait for hours for them to leave.”

“Yeah. Baboons can be mean,” Beatus said. “Let’s go up.”

I clearly remember the first step of my boot feeling illicit against the hard, gray stone. We weren’t supposed to be on foot, had never taken a walking hike in the bush. I knew Beatus didn’t have a gun or a knife. But we started walking up the hill, idly chatting, the plains dropping farther and farther below. Beneath Rob’s humor and my smiles, regret and sadness, inevitable at the close of a long-anticipated event, bubbled. In a day we’d head back to civilization—the subway’s stink; our florescent-lit offices—and return to sitting like potted plants in corporate greenhouses. I had wedding thank-you notes to write, a dress and shoes to put away; wedding disappointments to put away, too. Things hadn’t gone as we’d planned.

Ah well, nothing did.

My boot slipped a bit on the dust and stone. Maybe the ground was trying to tell me something. Approaching the top, we’d all grown quiet. Rob moved off to the left, through some low bushes; the two women slowed to one side, behind. Beatus went ahead and stood surveying the plains from just over the crest. Alone, I headed straight for those remarkable boulders.

I have to admit we’d been warned. At a casual orientation, when we’d blearily first arrived in Nairobi, our chatty British camp director ran through possible predicaments in a most blasé fashion. “Don’t put your hand in dark places,” he said, running his rugged, tanned hand through his shock of white hair. “Or, your toes, either. Tarantulas like to sleep inside shoes. And for you, The Newlyweds,” he christened us, “people like to play jokes. They might string some meat above your tent at night. To attract activity.” The group chuckled. “Needless to say, this is Africa, not a zoo. We’re among wild animals. Be cautious. And do make sure you’re taking the Larium?” He glanced over us. “We had one got malaria two weeks ago. Had to be airlifted out with a cerebral hemorrhage.”

“Did he live?” a man with round spectacles asked.

“No,” the camp director sighed, shaking his head.

The next morning the bespectacled man and his wife boarded a jeep and left.

“Beverly Hills doctor,” the camp director muttered. “Too rustic, they said. I told them to go hook up with Abercrombie and Kent.” Sure enough, we later passed a van, the Abercrombie logo splashed on its side, and a man wearing an ascot, holding a drink in his hand, peering out from the pop-up top like a privileged gopher.  Rob hooted.

But that was the beginning; we were at the end.

It was quiet at the top, my every step loud over the dusty slipperiness. The steady breeze grew stronger, rippling. I passed a cluster of bushes, then stood at the towering ceremonial boulders. Their centuries-smoothed surfaces were decorated by ancient carvings, patterned slashes, geometric and repeated. I wondered if I picked up a rock and banged a boulder, would a deep timpani, like the heartbeat of the very world, echo out, over the plains? Would animals stop, alerted, listening? What messages had been passed down from this place? What joys, sufferings, urgent concerns?  I stood imagining, was almost transfixed, mystified and fascinated by the boulders and their carved, sharp strokes.

Two boulders leaned against each other, making a sort of shadowed cave, the carvings decorating their edges, like an entrance. I loved all things tactile, would run my hands over a tree bark’s ridges or brush the nub of a tweed; had been gripping the gritty rocks, steadying myself as I walked up the hill. I leaned to the darkness, my arm outstretched, fingers ready to slip along the carvings; a lion stepped out.

I dropped my arm, felt choked, unable to breathe.

He stood no more than four feet away, paws firmly planted, head raised, snarling. I went frozen, petrified with terror, yet felt awed by his ferocious magnificence. His mane was orangish-gold and messy, leaves and twigs stuck through it willy nilly, like ornaments poking from thick, matted parts. He was dirty and roughed-up; I had the sense I’d awakened him, napping. A damp, musky smell of mud and fur whiffed from him; maybe he’d smelled me, too. Yet it was his eyes, shining like lit honey, focused on me; his expression, flatly taking me in, that was so mesmerizing. My heartbeat was loud, thudding in my ears; I stood frozen, going breathless, so close he could kill me with a swipe of his paw. And I will never forget the words that came to mind: So this is it. You die on your honeymoon.

He snarled, raised one side of his lip in an exhale; it almost seemed he’d heard my thought. Something I’ve never felt before or since, like a hot white light, ripped from the base of my heel up my spine, exploding into my head. I thought this was how death came, a full sensory rush; I could so vividly see and smell the lion, feel the very air beating between us. I stood locked, shocked, humbled, like witnessing God.

And this is what my brain brought forward: You have to tell them. He’ll kill us all.

I took one small step back and pronounced in a flat voice, “There’s a lion underneath that rock.”

Beatus, above me, further off, turned and said, “There is no lion.” Then he saw its head and stood stunned, staring down.
Stark realizations came to me. The jeep was fifteen minutes away, at the base of the hill. We were alone in the Serengeti. Beatus was moving down, off to the side. In my peripheral view I glimpsed Rob moving down; then the white shirt of the one of the DC women, shuttling off, too. I wondered if my carcass would lie bloodied and ravaged on the rocks, offered up like a maiden on the pyre. I was growing dizzy.

The lion growled.

“Sssssss. Cahackkk! Grooowlllll!”

It sounded like he was clearing his throat, ready to roar. I wondered if his claws would slash my neck; if I’d feel his teeth, chomping into the bone of my skull. I remembered guide book phrases, glanced in the back of the jeep. Lion: Four or five hundred pounds. Runs fifty miles an hour. Leaps three feet. He could rip after me; I was doomed. I wondered what it would feel like when he bounded onto me, pushing me down, if I’d black out instantaneously. I grew sick, knowing how bad it would be; tears came to my eyes.

How stupid are we? I thought. How dare we come here and walk in this sacred place like righteous intruders? How dare I plop my silly, little, wedding-skinny self into this vastness, forever ruled by nature? I, and my ridiculous human condescension, deserved to be mauled. I dropped my gaze from his face in apology, head bowed, took another step back, fighting the urge to wail.

“Cahackk. Grrr!” The lion shifted towards me.

I felt off-balance, worried I might faint; considered the pierce of his teeth into my stomach, the hold of his jaws, throttling me like a rag doll. I wondered if, after he bit me, I might wriggle off? Get away with losing just an arm, half a leg?

“Sssssss! Cahackk. Grrr!”

Bile gurgled in my esophagus; I worried I’d vomit, be incapacitated; he’d pounce. I gulped, felt the throbbing heaviness between us. I wanted release, to scream, flee, but I was held there, every muscle clenched. I took one, two, timid steps back. It was a long way down, three, four thousand steps. I knew I couldn’t contain myself that long.

And then I heard the most beautiful sound.

“AR AR AR AR!”

It was above me, to my left.

“AR AR AR AR!” Barking, mean, challenging.

Ever so slightly, I glanced up. A baboon was planted on rocks, yelling down like an angry neighbor.

“AR AR AR AR!” the baboon accused, and the lion answered, aggravated.

“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!” He bared his teeth, swatting a dismissive paw.

Ooooh shit.

His open jaw was massive, big enough to swallow my head; his single paw was wider than my face. I clamped my lips to keep from screaming.

Undeterred, the baboon scolded more.

“AR! AR! AR! AR!”

“SSSSSS! Cahackkk! Growlllll!”

Clearly, they had longstanding issues, were quarreling like New Yorkers on balconies, yelling across an alley. And I knew: This is your chance. 

I quickened my little elf steps, back, back, faster, faster—not too fast. I was still facing the lion, hoping to God I didn’t slip on the dirt and stones and tumble off the side of the damn hill. I placed a foot behind, settled it, felt for flat ground; placed another, then another, thinking: Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons. Why I Love Baboons. 

“Ar Ar Ar!”

“Cahackk! GRRR!”

“AR!”

“SSSS!”

Their phrases grew brief, staccato, some bush-profanity exchange over a centuries-old Ngong Hill property dispute. I was still well within bounding range of the lion, but he was distracted, so I kept skittering back. Until I slipped, the slope too steep; almost fell, then froze. I lifted my eyes. The lion, alerted, stared at me; I lowered my head. In my peripheral view I glimpsed the others, clustered below at the side of the jeep, looking ready to jump in and take off when the mauling started. I believed that once I turned away from the lion, once he saw my back, he’d spring, attack.

I stood still, shuddering, trying to breathe,

“AR! AR! AR!”

The baboon reached crescendo, decades of dissatisfaction released; the lion strutted out fully from his cave, and stood planted, head up, chest proud, facing the baboon. His sheer presence was enough to silence anyone or anything.

But the baboon went off—“Ararar! Ararar! Ararar!”—barking a litany of woes, and the lion growled back.

I shifted, wincing, counting—one, two, three—and wishing I were invisible, turned away from the lion, scurrying down the hill, scraping through bushes, tripping on dirt and stones, my heart pounding, ears peeled for a predatory roar.
Which never came.

I reached the bottom and found myself panting, my mouth hanging open, standing next to Rob. I felt displaced, uncertain, not comprehending what had happened.

And Beatus spoke quietly, staring at me with glowing eyes.

“In the Masai,” he started, “we have the woman warrior.”

“Yes, Beatus,” I whispered, tears filling my eyes.

“You have seen the lion,” he declared with amazement.

“Yes,” I smiled, still whispering. “I have seen the lion.”

“You—” Beatus stopped, took on dignity. “You Masai Mama,” he pronounced, nodding, as if in honor.

“Oh! Thank you, Beatus,” I said, nodding in return. But I felt unsteady, thin and transparent, as wispy as onion skin; I thought I might float away. I forced my boots into the ground.  Every sensation—the breeze, that musky mane-scent, the gritty touch of the rocks, the warmth of the now-full sun—seared into me. I was overwhelmed, had to quell it, bring it down.

“Beatus, do we have any beer?”

“Yes,” he nodded, still staring as if astounded. He went to the little plastic cooler, handed me a cold one.

“We could all use one,” Rob said, helping pass the beers. He threw his arms around me, kissed the top of my head. “Pip,” he said, “let me get your picture.” I stood dazed, posing with the beer, my other hand pointing at the hill.

“I think we got a story for the campfire,” Rob grinned.

But our last day in Africa had just begun.


Lynn Brindell is a writer currently working on a memoir about her experience as caregiver to her late husband during his battle with cancer. The memoir’s title is “Driving Through Tornadoes,” and this story, about an experience in the Serengeti in 1996, is excerpted from it. She previously had a career in media.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Laura – Lady of the Mexican Nights

March 22nd, 2021

By Edward Stanton

You wanted to get farther away from home, beyond the border and Baja California, deeper into the country.  The city of Saltillo lay on a slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental, just north of the central plateau, about 5,000 feet high.  There you found a boardinghouse with a courtyard on Calle Xicoténcatl of sacred memory.

Your room opened onto the light-filled patio with a gurgling well, shade trees, cracked flower pots, a colossal zaguán or foyer with a carved wooden door.  The courtyard was the hub of life for everyone in the house: the landlords Don Alfonso and Doña Hortensia; their daughter, her husband and their children; Panchita, a plump Indian woman who did most of the shopping, cooking and cleaning; a bachelor who taught Latin and Greek at several schools to make ends meet; uncountable dogs, cats and birds in cages.  And then there was the woman who scandalized our whole house and neighborhood.  Laura.

She must have been in her fifties but she moved with the grace of a young woman.  She wrapped her lean frame in shabby scarves and shawls and wore long, rustling, flowered skirts that glided over the cobblestones of the patio.  Although her hair was disheveled in front, Laura gathered it into a neat Psyche knot at the nape of her slender model’s neck.  Every evening she left the house and did not return until late in the night, at dawn, in the morning or the next afternoon.  Laura’s arrivals and departures were staged in the grand style to attract attention and awaken anyone with the nerve to be asleep on such portentous occasions.

A few days after settling into the boardinghouse, you enrolled in a Spanish-language school for the summer.  Walking to class one morning, you passed a cantina on the corner and spotted Laura through the louvered, swinging doors.  She was seated at a table, alone.

She recognized you, calling in a voice that seemed too husky for her ethereal body: “Vecino!  Neighbor!  Ven a acompañarme,” Come keep me company.

You walked inside, past the bartender who was sweeping the floor with sawdust.  There were no customers except Laura.

Two bootblacks crouched on the steel footrail below the bar, their little shoeshine boxes at their sides.  They asked, jumping to their feet, “Le boleo?” Want a shine? in the forlorn mumble used by those boys who repeat the same question hundreds of times a day.  There must be more bootblacks in Mexico than anywhere in the world.  It may be the only country with a special verb for polishing shoes.

When you reached Laura’s table, she asked, “Eduardo, will you invite a lady to a drink?”  Her breath immersed you in the night’s effluvium.  On her table stood an empty shot glass.

“Of course, vecina.”

“Sergio!  Bring us a pair,” she told a second barman who was removing bottles of Bohemia from a wooden case.  Seeing her close, you noticed the glisten of tears in Laura’s eyes.

Sunlight slanted through the doors and windows, striking the time-stained mirror and rows of bottles behind the bar: Souza, José Cuervo, Tequila Añejo, Mezcal Xicoténcatl, named like your street for the indigenous warrior; Anís del Mono with a devil on its label; Johnny Walker Red, local wines and brandies from Parras de la Fuente.

The man brought us a round of tequila with two saucers, one filled with salt and the other with halves of lime.  “Salud, vecino,” Laura said, raising her glass in a toast and quaffing her drink as though it were water.  “By the way do you mind if I call you by our nickname for Eduardo?”

“No.”

“Guess what it is.”

“I don’t know.”

Touching my forehead with two fingers, she said, “I hereby christen you ‘Lalo.’”

Your shot did not go down as smoothly as hers that morning, but it would not be our last drink together.  She taught you to chase tequila with dabs of salt and juice from the lime, sucked after each swig, making the alcohol taste almost sweet.  Other times we would alternate with sangrita (no, not sangría), a reviving blend of fruit juices spiced with chiles.

“Sangrita works nearly as well as menudo for hangovers,” Laura counseled.

You arrived late to class that day and others. Laura would teach you much more than the teachers in the language school.  She took you under her wings of tarnished feathers.

While the jukebox played songs on those luminous mornings in the corner cantina, Laura would turn nostalgic and tell stories of her youth.  Listening to rancheras and boleros, getting drunk, wallowing in the pain of unhappy love is a collective pastime in Mexico.  Hundreds of songs sing of going on sprees, emptying bottle after bottle, drinking oneself into oblivion, all for love, usually lost:

Cómo son lindas estas borracheras…
How nice are these binges…

You did not have old loves to remember, but you grasped the music’s appeal, as enticing as a warm, soft bunk when you’re supposed to be in class or at work.  One could cultivate that sentiment for a lifetime.  Whole nations do.

Each time Laura evoked the past, her eyes sparkled and revealed the young girl behind her wrinkled mask.  In her prime she must have been a startling beauty.  Even with her body wasted by long nights, by drink and years, she preserved an air of faded elegance.

Like most femmes fatales she had known many men in her life but only one great love.  The facts of that affair remained unclear.  Laura stammered when she had drunk too much, and your ears were still learning the rhythms of speech in northern Mexico.  You had the impression that the man may have committed suicide.  Yet Laura could have fused his story with another about Manuel Acuña, the poet from Saltillo who’s supposed to have killed himself after writing a poem to his beloved.  She would often recite his famed “Nocturno a Rosario”:

¡Pues bien! Yo necesito
decirte que te adoro,
decirte que te quiero
con todo el corazón…
Well then!  I need to say
that I adore you,
that I love you
with my whole heart…

Laura knew this poem and dozens more by heart.  If the jukebox ran out of songs, she would stand unsteadily and recite, fondling the air with her blue-veined, bony hands.  She declaimed works by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Amado Nervo and all the nation’s classics.  And she sang corridos, ballads, especially those about La Llorona, the legendary woman of Mexican folklore who haunts lonely spots at night, weeping for lost loves: “Ay de mi Llorona, Llorona.”

As Laura chanted, a few lingering customers, the bootblacks of the moment and the bleary-eyed bartenders would turn silent.  Passers-by stopped to peek inside the cantina and listen: newsvendors with morning papers bundled in their arms, delivery boys carrying crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and Tri Naranjus; servants on their way to market, crippled beggars dragging their poor bodies along with crutches.  The oral tradition was alive in Saltillo, Coahuila, México.

If the onlookers requested an encore, Laura would sing her favorite ranchera:

No vale nada la vida,
la vida no vale nada.
Comienza siempre llorando
y así llorando se acaba.
Life is worth nothing,
It’s not worth a thing.
It begins with crying
and also ends in tears.

As long as she kept the verses flowing with rhyme and meter, the tragedienne could hold her public in thrall.  But if she forgot the words of a poem or the lyrics of a song, Laura would collapse in her chair, cover her head and cry her eyes out.  “Ay, Lalo, soy una mujer fracasada,” I’m a failed woman, she sobbed through her tears.

Between performances Laura talked about her past.  “Modesty apart,” she confessed, “I was irresistible as a young girl, vecino.”

“Ya lo creo,” I can believe it.

“Thank you, Lalo.  You treat me like a caballero—a real gentleman you are.  Anyway in school I suffered abuse from priests and nuns.”  She winced either from the memory or the shot of tequila that she had just swallowed.

Detrás de la cruz está el diablo,” The devil’s behind the cross, you said.

“Ándale, Lalo.  After the Revolution the curas, the priests, the monks and nuns weren’t allowed to wear vestments or habits on the street.  Served the cabrones right!  I haven’t crossed the threshold of a church since I graduated from school.”

Laura was the first anticlerical woman you would meet in Mexico.  She was also a matchless raconteur.  Quoting the Spanish proverb, she would say, “Good conversation is food for the soul.”

She could find a story in every person who entered our cantina.  When a ghostly beggar, an Indian wrapped in a rebozo, passed through one morning, Laura said, “Fíjate bien, vecino.  That man works on a ranch yet he has to beg in order to feed his family.  Notice his eyes.”  When the Indian passed our table, he glanced at us with palms extended.  His glacial look made you shiver.  “That’s the kind of citizen our Church and our caciques have created,” Laura said.  “One night he’ll stab somebody or wake up with a knife in his heart.”

Another day Panchita, the servant at our house, passed the cantina on her way to market.  The portly woman peeked inside, spotted you at Laura’s table and scurried away.  By evening the landlords had learned the dreadful news.

Feeling that she had a moral responsibility for her teenaged American boarder, Doña Hortensia summoned you to the living room.  It was your first and only entry into that forbidden sanctuary whose shutters remained closed day and night, where incense smoldered, where votive candles burned beneath an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The landlady sighed.  “I suppose she asks for money, Eduardo?”  She did not need to mention Laura’s name.

“Once in a while.”  A candle sputtered and a bird’s song came from the patio.  Suddenly you wanted to be outside.

“I’m going to give you a piece of motherly advice, hijo.  For your own good and hers, stay away from her.  Es una mujer perdida,” She’s a lost woman, Doña Hortensia lamented.  “Every month she’s behind on her rent, she promises to pay but usually finds an excuse.  You should not lend her one centavo.  Actually you should not see her at all.”  Rising on her toes, the woman cupped her hands and whispered in your ear: “I’ve been trying to get rid of her for a long time—so I can rent her room to another gabacho—I mean North American.  Your compatriots always pay on time.”

You did not heed her counsel.  It was clear that Doña Hortensia cared more about the repute and solvency of her boardinghouse than your probity or pocketbook.  You felt the fatal allure of ripe, forbidden fruit, sensing that Laura had more to impart, more vitality than all the other residents and their animals together.

The incident confirmed what you were learning about Mexico: it’s a machista society in public, a matriarchy at home.  Doña Hortensia, with Panchita as her loyal informer, ruled the roost at number 111, Calle Xicoténcatl Sur.  Sometimes her husband Don Alfonso, the nominal patriarch, pretended to hold sway, twisting his white, Porfirio Díaz-mustache as he mouthed empty orders around the house.  Nobody bothered to listen.  Everyone knew the women were in charge.

They were also the guardians of religion, the ones who attended Mass, who kept the faith by lighting candles beneath the Virgin in the living room, the house’s inner sanctum.  If Doña Hortensia and Panchita governed the home, the Guadalupana—Mother of Mexico, Patroness of the Americas—ruled the nation, the hemisphere and the world for those people.  You did not think about these things as much as breathe them with the incense, feel them in the light of the votive candles.

The boardinghouse was a miniature reflection of the whole country, where God the Father and Christ stand as titular heads of the Church, while the people’s worship centers on the Virgin Mary, María Santísima, Most Holy Mary, Nuestra Señora, Our Lady.  She and motherhood are so hallowed that a careless use of the word madre in Mexico can be more dangerous than a curse.  Speakers soften the incendiary term by using the more familiar mamá or the diminutive mamacita.  On the other hand their everyday conversation bristles with references to La Chingada, “the Fucked One,” the Nahua woman who betrayed her people to the Spaniards.  Doña Marina, as she was known to the invaders, assisted them in defeating the Aztecs, who called her La Malinche.  She slept with the conqueror Cortés and gave birth to one of the first mestizos, offspring of mixed blood.  Her crime was cleansed in part by a second mother, the Guadalupana, who manifested herself to a poor peasant near Mexico City as the angel Gabriel had appeared to a humble girl in Judea about 1,500 years before.  But in some ways Mexicans are still a people of orphans whose wounds have never healed, who need a personal and communal mother in the form of María Santísima.

Doña Hortensia’s hypocrisy and Laura’s history did not keep you from visiting churches in Saltillo and other towns.  The Baroque, Rococo and Churrigueresque façades enclosed somber, cool interiors, so bracing after the glaring heat outdoors.  Aromas of incense penetrated your nose and infused your lungs.  A few older men, but mostly women recited the Ave Maria over and over.  As your eyes adapted to the semi-darkness, you observed how many were dressed in mourning, head to foot.

Above the rows of candles shimmering in the gloom, behind the altars encrusted with bossed leaves and tendrils, you gazed at sumptuous pilasters, cornices, vaults and domes; reredos like fantastic grottos of wood, stucco, porphyry, gold and silver; a cornucopia of vines, flowers, fruits, trees, birds, animals, serpents, fish; centaurs, gargoyles, chimeras, griffins, unknown creatures; golden reliefs, moldings, marquetry, scrolls, curlicues, intaglios, escutcheons.  Walking down the nave toward the main altar, you passed a forest of columns, chapels with portraits or statues of saints in marble or polychrome wood, fat-buttocked Cupids, wide-winged cherubim and seraphim with faces of the sun and moon, Christs with gashes blossoming on their ankles and wrists, Virgins of Guadalupe in various local incarnations, their hands clasped in prayer, their head bowed to one side beneath their blue mantel of stars, their gown embroidered with roses, their feet cradled in a crescent moon supported by an angel.  O sanctuaries of Mexico, women in black, odors of frankincense, candles flickering in the shadows, bleeding Christs and tender Guadalupanas.

Raised in America’s male-oriented Protestant churches, you were drawn to the nurturing, female religion of Mexico.  Somehow being in these temples was a way of returning to your ancestors, to the beliefs of your Spanish great-great-grandmother and your mother’s Sicilian forebears, relinquished once she married your father, who was a reformed German through and through.  Compared to the severe, barren, overlit chapels of your childhood, those penumbral shrines embraced you in the warmth of a maternal faith and a tribal worship.

Walking into the ruthless sunlight, you saw the ragged children, the armies of dwarves and cripples.  Some sat on the stone steps with their brown palms cupped as though for communion.  Like most foreigners you were repelled by the brazen opulence of the Church amid the general misery of the people.  But you were learning that in Mexico devotion and suffering are wedded.  In some ways the beggars on the steps were just as hallowed as the clergy indoors.  You gave alms to those poor souls in exchange for one of the world’s loveliest benedictions: “Vaya usted con Dios.” 

As the semester approached its end, you invited Laura for a farewell drink one night.

After the first round she asked, “Lalo, shall we have la penúltima?” 

“What’s that?”

“We never say ‘the last drink’—for us it’s always ‘the next-to-last.’”

“Ándele.”

Laura surprised you by paying for several rounds of tequilas.  Then she asked, “Would you accompany a dama, a lady to her home?”

“Isn’t it early for you, vecina?

“I have not been escorted home by a gentleman for a long time.  I would be grateful.”

Rising from the chair, you gave an arm to Laura; hers seemed light as a bird’s wing.  When we reached our house at Calle Xicoténcatl, Don Alfonso opened the creaking zaguán“Muy buenas noches,” he whispered with a conspiratorial smile and a gesture that must have meant, Hurry up and go inside before she spots you.

But Doña Hortensia was ever vigilant.  As we crossed the patio, our landlady emerged by the well, standing with her legs planted on the flagstone and her arms akimbo, like some stalwart peasant woman in a painting by Diego Rivera.

Her eyes burned holes in your back while you held Laura in a final embrace.  “Hasta siempre,” Until always, your friend said with tears in her eyes.

After returning to Los Angeles, you wrote Laura several times.  Those letters went unanswered.  Months later Doña Hortensia wrote to say that her boarder had disappeared, “without paying her rent, of course.”

Where were you Laura, vecina, compañera?  Where had you gone, my Llorona?  In what bar, in what sunny cantina were you drinking tequila with salt and limes, reciting poems, singing ballads and remembering loves lost forever?


Born in Colorado and raised in California, Edward Stanton has lived in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as the United States. He’s the author of twelve books, some of them translated and published in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Road of Stars to Santiago, the story of his 500-mile walk on the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, was called one of the best books on the subject by The New York Times; Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James Michener said of this work, “Edward Stanton recounts his adventures with stylish conviction.” Stanton’s environmental novel Wide as the Wind, the first to treat the tragic history of Easter Island, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Young Adult Fiction and three other international prizes. The Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Spanish Ministry of Culture have supported his work with grants and fellowships. “Laura: Lady of the Mexican Nights” also appears in his latest book, VIDAS: Deep in Mexico and Spain.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Marriage, Dubois Style

March 15th, 2021

By Colette O’Connor

“Just add three letters to Paris and you have paradise.” —Jules Renard

The family Dubois of Avenue Foch are French. That is to say, the family Dubois are different. In an age when nearly half of American marriages collapse, often in smoking heaps of anger, bitterness, pain, I often wondered, what does it take? Really, what does it take – to keep it together, if not forever, at least through thick and thin? So when I met the family Dubois of Paris’s Avenue Foch, I thought, Ah! A chance to understand how it’s done. I thought, Oh! If Tolstoy’s “happy families are all alike” idea was working out for the family Dubois, as it certainly seemed to be, given how they appeared so rich and thin and cheerful at lunches I shared with them, or quick aperitifs, then here was a family to study. So observe them, I did, like an explorer a continent foreign, with fascination. Here is what I found:

Monsieur Dubois is a successful Paris lawyer whose thriving practice rewards him well. In addition to the elegant Avenue Foch flat filled with Louis Quinze antiques, the Chamonix ski chalet and the seaside villa near St. Tropez, Monsieur Dubois has acquired the love and devotion of his assistant, the light of his life for the last 12 years and his “wife,” Madame Dubois. Madame, who bears the dubious distinction of having snatched Monsieur Dubois from his previous wife during a low point in that couple’s 22-year union, is quite the standard bearer when it comes to the myth of the “other woman.” Madame Dubois is blonde. Madame Dubois is buxom. Madame Dubois is so exquisitely ladled into itsy-bitsy snips of skimpy designer clothes that all you see coming on approach is a double-D-cup jaw-dropper. Looking beyond her vavavoom, however, here is a woman who is as sweet as crème Anglaise, a delight as kind as her waist is tiny, with a tinkly laugh and warm, bright smile.

Never mind that Monsieur Dubois is still technically – legally – married to the first Madame Dubois, and for years has merely made his home with her successor, who incidentally insists on maintaining a bachelorette flat on the Ile St. Louis, which she visits on occasion just to sit and think and maybe read. After all, a Madame Dubois does need her me-time, especially since she and Monsieur not only work side by side nine-to-five, but also share the joys and challenges of their two children, a girl of 10, and a boy of 11.

That Monsieur Dubois has never gotten around to divorcing his first wife, the “official” Madame Dubois, is not a cause for concern. At least to Madame Dubois, the original, who lives luxuriously alone on the Avenue Foch in a flat exactly opposite that of Monsieur and his current yet faux wife. Her own two children with Monsieur now grown and off on other Dubois adventures, Madame Dubois the First is a stunning woman of a certain age who is perpetually salon-tanned a burnt sienna, travels about in a cloud of Chanel No. 5, and projects the confident aura of an impeccably groomed woman who just manages on 500 zillion euros of her ex-husband’s money. But just.

Though the ex-yet-actual Madame Dubois long ago lost her husband to his assistant, the new, or proxy, Madame Dubois, she is perfectly content to keep on as Madame Dubois because, frankly, family tradition since the 9th century under Pope Adrian II of Rome, dictates that a Dubois simply does not divorce. Meanwhile, Madame Dubois, the deuxième, sees no reason on earth not to dub herself a Dubois as well, and go about her life as Monsieur’s real wife. After all, she’ll argue if anyone asks – but they won’t, because this is France – she has lived with her “little cauliflower” for years; she is the mother of half his children. Is it not she who runs Monsieur’s law office? She who serves as mistress of the flat on Avenue Foch, the Chamonix chalet, and the villa at St. Tropez? In sum, is it not her dazzling smile and wasp-waisted charm that shows up on Monsieur’s arm at all those dull but essential social functions he is forced to frequent? You can bet your baguettes, believes Madame Dubois, the imposter. The family title is just as real when earned, she will say, as it is when typed on a license at City Hall, n’est-ce-pas?

Happily, by some quirk of Europe, the two Mesdames Dubois are friends. Fast friends. And why not? Madame Dubois the initial, with an absolute horreur of having to participate in Monsieur’s endless obligations – business, social, political – is grateful to the very roots of her glistening silver bob to Madame Dubois the ensuing. For it is now she, her surrogate, who assumes that loathsome cocktail party duty that for years kept Madame Dubois-the-authentic from her jigsaw puzzles, a passion. The charming blonde alternate, with an absolute horreur of having to listen ad nauseam to Monsieur’s boring stories of his glory days as bocce ball champion of France circa the Stone Age, is relieved to the very tips of her peach-painted toes that the starter Madame Dubois – still his friend, his confidant – will take his late night phone calls filled with the need to talk, thus allowing Madame Dubois-the-pretend to pursue her greatest passion: sleep.

All might be well with the family Dubois, then, if it weren’t for one petite problem: lunch. Lunch is when the former-yet-official Madame Dubois will telephone her replacement, smack in the middle of the stressful, frenetic workday, and invite herself over at noon under this pretext or that. These calls, to the never-ending chagrin of the acting yet undeclared Madame Dubois, come often.

“Hello, Madame Dubois? This is Madame Dubois,” Monsieur’s initial wife will say, her tone brisk from a morning of competitive bridge. “Luncheon today, then, if you will arrange it? Très bien.”

Très bien my tarts! Monsieur’s now-serving wife has been heard to grump. For what the first Madame Dubois fails to understand is that these little midday scenes à table are in truth a family fiasco in waiting. Just ask Odette. Odette? Yes, Odette, the Dubois family chef. The live-in cook has been with Monsieur Dubois since his bachelor days, well before the arrival of any Madame Dubois, real or faux. And how Odette has longed! How Odette has prayed! How Odette has wanted all along to be a Madame Dubois herself. The cook’s unrequited crush on Monsieur Dubois (he never once has looked up from his fig confit to notice her looks of love) has left her fuming over her flambés, and in a permanent, irreversible snit. Yet Odette dares not quit. These luncheons with Monsieur and his wives are a prime opportunity to figure out what on earth a Madame Dubois has that she hasn’t, how a Madame Dubois succeeds when she can’t.

“Ah, non, non, non!” nevertheless moans the chef, bathed in dread, whenever informed by Madame Dubois the Second that she should set an extra place at lunch for Madame Dubois the First. “I refuse to have said behind my back that my biftek tastes of old tires. I will not hear my soufflés are like suds!” She moans: “Ah, non. I refuse to cook for that woman.”

“That woman,” the ex-yet-official Madame Dubois, is a terror with a terrine de foie gras; she is exacting in the perfection of a béchamel sauce. Quite unlike the current yet unconfirmed Madame Dubois, who wouldn’t know a smoked duck if they were formally introduced, she can cook like nobody’s business. All the while polite, and throughout each course kind, the beginning Madame Dubois spares no luncheon opportunity to torment Odette for what she interprets as her culinary foolery. Her mealtime miserables. To hear Odette tell it, Madame Dubois the approved, with Madame Dubois the unsanctioned looking on and saying nothing in her defense, will with a wince of displeasure poke at Odette’s prize pâté en croûte with her fork. With her spoon she will not more than nibble, listlessly, at the cook’s four-star Fôret Noire. Is she worried about her weight? Already stuffed by too many late breakfast brioches? Whatever the reason she refuses to eat, the acting Madame Dubois, ravenous, sops up the meal’s last drop of sauce with bits of baguette and polishes off even the parsley garni.

“Really, ma chère, it is a fright, your fear of salt,” the first Madame Dubois will comment to Odette, while says the second, “May I please have more Pommes Anna?

Pleasing and feeding these two Mesdames Dubois so opposite in appetite is a job nigh impossible, Odette will admit. But she keeps on cooking, for what can she do? Monsieur Dubois and his wives, I and II, have so much fun at these lunches – enjoying their Château Minuty Rosé, snickering at secret jokes – that her sad, bitter heart can’t help but melt like the butter of her best sole meuinère when it hits the heated skillet.

“Madame Dubois,” Madame Dubois will say to her stand-in, “do you not agree that Monsieur Dubois is looking trés fit since he joined the gym?” Here Madame Dubois the imposter will catch the eye of her provocative predecessor and the two Mesdames Dubois will erupt: they will laugh and laugh as if they cannot stop. After all, when it comes to the husband they have in common, his particular Dubois oddities are such that…well, it takes a Dubois to understand. Hearing them laugh, Monsieur himself looks up from his steak tartare, takes in one then the other of his wives, and no doubt exclaims to himself, My, what a wonder is life! The family Dubois, like peas in a pod, simply get along.

And I, ever watching in awe, jot in my field notes that what it takes to go the distance is a marriage made in France. Whether it’s the wine, the women, or the ways, so civilized, the happy family Dubois – wink-wink to us all – makes it work, whatever the quirks.


Colette O’Connor is the author of award-winning articles, essays, and stories that celebrate the fun, the funny, and, above all, the wonderful in life and travel. When not thrilling to her fill of French pastries in Paris, she coaches writers from the beachy bliss of her hometown beside California’s magical Monterey Bay. She earned her B.A. in English literature from U.C. Berkeley and MFA in Creative Writing from San José State University. To learn more about Colette, please connect with her at coletteoconnor.com.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: The House Within

March 8th, 2021

By Jacob Kemp

When I turned twenty-one, I spent the better part of a year in an attic, hiding from Nazis.

The calendar read 2011. I had just graduated from college. I was offered a role in The Diary of Anne Frank, to play Peter Van Daan. So I packed a suitcase, a carry-on, my winter coat, and left New York only weeks after I arrived—for Amsterdam, 1942.

The actress playing Anne was a rising star in Chicago theater. A year later she’d be in a superhero movie, a blockbuster based on a comic-book. Onstage, she was a marvel. Scenes together, despite the long run of the show, the work and the sweat and the reaction of our energies each night, had that flinty and rare combination of absolute safety and vulpine unpredictability. We were well-matched. I awaited her articulation, her transformation into Anne, with the zeal of a tennis player anticipating a worthy opponent’s next serve. But in addition to being a formidable talent, she smoked.

Before the show, I’d watch her suck down smoke by the stage entrance, then pull the cigarette from her lips and throw it like a dart to the cement below. I always found it unsettling each night, when, during the play’s second act, I’d be leaning in as Peter to kiss a vibrantly alive Anne. Like some eerie harbinger, underneath the veil of mint toothpaste, Anne always tasted faintly of ashes.

We opened in Indianapolis and months later closed in Salt Lake City. And within that year, I spent less time in millenial reality than I did within the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, living out the most well-known coming of age story of all time. I recognize it is not everyone’s dream to be immersed in one of the bleakest nightmares of human history, eight times a week. But as a teller of stories, it was mine. And my time in that annex has proved itself to be a most unconventional isolation education.

In March, like most New Yorkers, I entered an altogether different shelter in place, no longer embodied onstage, or in the past, but in the very much alive, unpredictable Now. The global pandemic of COVID-19 has forced me to face, once again, annexation and concealment.

~ ~ ~

The first publication of Anne Frank’s diary in 1946 was titled Der Acter-huis, which can be translated as the house behind, or the house within. The world knows it now as the Secret Annex. This house within now offers me, years later, its own script for survival.

I politely excuse myself for the comparison of the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept its way across our increasingly smaller planet, and the world of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam in 1942. There is a yawning gulf between the two and I have no intention of slating one aside the other as foil or comparison. The hundreds of thousands of deaths due to this pandemic pales in comparison to the six million people who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered while much of humanity did nothing. But the collision of my experience preparing for, and living in, the world of the Secret Annex: my own life now embossed by Peter and Anne’s true history, wholly felt, deeply imagined, and entirely unreal—with the here and now, the actuality of living in a time that seems more fiction than not, has been in unexpected rhyme for me these past months. A decade later, lifting the lid of that coffined time has opened an unexpected door.

~ ~ ~

There was no traditional curtain to open or close our production. Upon entering the theater, the audience saw only a looming, three-story dollhouse-style set, with a narrow staircase leading from a trapdoor in the floor. Once the actors entered the annex at the opening of the play, the eight people living inside never left the hiding place. The scripted text played out in the foreground but within dimly-lit rooms, silent scenes played out simultaneously. Every performance, we walked up the attic stairs as refugees, and were dragged down those same stairs to our imminent deaths three hours later.

This all happened, over, and over, and over again. And it was our job to make what followed onstage appear as real as if it were happening for the very first time.

The engine of a single performance of The Diary of Anne Frank would purr to life at warmup. The company met on stage for the Actors’ Equity union-required “fight call” as we tracked the more dangerous elements of choreographed simulated violence. The sounding cue was Mrs. Frank’s cry. My opponent and I would lock eyes, as the Nazi guard grabbed me by the collar. I’d whip around, left arm clattering two plates to the ground. Thud right into the wall, we’d stagger three steps (waltz, two three), he’d slam his boot into the floor as Peter crumpled to the ground. Done. Other choreographic passes were cleared by the fight director and scattered props from the counterfeit chaos were reset. Onwards, towards the half hour call—the actors received clean undergarments, hosiery, and costumes from the laundry department. Vocal cords were soothed with hot elixirs. The women bobbed and pinned their hair. Men shaved or slicked side-parts with grease or pomade. Prop suitcases were checked and repacked, a mink thrown over the actress playing my mother, a wool scarf spiraled around my neck, and we were all sprayed with water by a crew member as though we had passed through an Amsterdam rain. Into the hot stage lights, hopping onto the already moving carousel. The cruel spin of the show.

I spent day after day after day playing Peter Van Daan, though that aberrant word, play, fails entirely to represent the experience of embodying him, living out his story’s dangerous beginning to its devastating end, hundreds of times. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I would cycle through it twice, when a matinee and evening show offered a double-dip. And by the end of that first year of adult employment, the walls of the Secret Annex had assembled itself into an unlikely first cubicle.

Most folks, I think, remember with fondness a play once-rehearsed. From cherished schooldays, at camp, or a holiday pageant; where their long rehearsal process quickly erupts into a handful of firework performances. But within a long run, the iterative wind-up toy of the play far outlasts its preparation. The lesson becomes the delivery of astonishment amidst a cyclic catalogue of repeated words and actions.

No one mentions in drama school that when a three-tiered set is being built to be run up and down, heel to step wearing thin-soled period shoes, your Achilles tendon will come to call. No one mentions that, even though it’s a simulation, in “selling” a violent punch—using your right arm, for months on end (or even being the recipient of said punch, with a whip of the neck and a bobblehead return) the human spine begins to shift and turn to compensate. Your body adjusts its architecture: your vertebrae becomes an anguine, scoliotic cathedral to the dictations of your job requirements. And no one mentions that, as the cycle of a show turns into the hundreds it erodes the carapace of who you were, and begins to change you in ways you won’t always understand.

Onstage meals often echo after a show ends, but for me, The Diary of Anne Frank’s survival menu was its own trapdoor. In the family dinner scenes, we ate sauteed spinach (its onstage iteration was canned greens, soaked in citric acid), reconstituted mashed potatoes (boxed potato flakes that puff up when exposed to warm water), and the sucker punch: pickles. The plate after plate of spears that Peter had to hungrily eat each night. He, after all, was starving. Eventually, onstage, full sours moved to half sours, which then had to be replaced with cucumbers—due to the fact that after a month of shows, the cast developed excruciating acid reflux. These were full-company meals, so I was not alone in this nightly acid trip. It was a long time before I could eat anything steeped in brine.

I will never look at a heap of mashed potatoes on my plate without thinking of Anne, Peter, Margot, Otto, Herman, Auguste, Dussel, Miep. This happens not just for mashed spuds—it’s any potato. I hauled a 10-pound burlap bag of them, down three flights of stairs, twice a show. And then there was the solid twenty minute stretch in which I peeled those bags of potatoes, in one of those silent scenes occurring on the fringes of the stage, supporting the action of what needed to be the audience’s primary focus. I can still hear the director during a rehearsal, calling out from within the dark womb of the theater’s seven hundred seat audience bank, shouting: JACOB, YOU ARE ACTING PEELING THE POTATOES. JACOB. PLEASE. JUST PEEL THE POTATOES.

Peel the potatoes. It is the most basic of acting lessons. It is also a good one for life. Chop wood. Fetch water. Do the thing.

The one food that was never substituted over the run of The Diary of Anne Frank were the strawberries. Each performance, Anne’s mother passed around that box of ruby jewels—moments of sweet exhale before the thirty-minute sequence of the family’s discovery in the Annex. The smell of strawberries, to this day, makes me uneasy. One whiff and I anticipate violence. Their flesh clutches at the back of my throat.

Throughout the run, our cast and crew participated in post-show talkbacks with teachers and students. Some were thoughtful, resonant; others chilling, confronting. I can still see the Salt Lake City students’ spooked faces when they learned that Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr. were born in the same year and only months apart, the students’ eyes wide, the ubiquity of their round porcelain faces, their fair-colored hair. The way in which one teacher said to us: “How sorry for all of you that this happened!” Many nights onstage in Utah, we heard audible gasps. As widely-read as Anne Frank’s diary might be, there were seats filled by those who did not know how this story would end.

Within the American regional theater there resides amongst its makers and protectors a passion to bring art to those who may never travel to a major city like New York or Los Angeles. Ours is by no means a perfect enterprise. But I believe in the purpose of this work. Because it is, more often than not, far outside of our diverse urban epicenters that these stories need to be heard most. We itinerant storytellers live out of suitcases in order to dwell in the mansions of our greatest stories. It is a life chosen with the belief that poetry heals.

~ ~ ~

As an actor, I measure my years not in months but in chapters of preparing for, and telling stories—broken down first within rehearsals, then stretched to technical load-ins, the chrysalis of preview periods, the magic of opening night. Then, the slow osmosis in performance. For better or worse, these periods render you slowly, changing you. Closing night, the cast lines up for a final curtain call, then the jigsaw of each ensemble disassembles. Once inseparable from me, the character I have played is left behind. That soul flies off, like one of Marc Chagall’s painted lovers. My own grounded body remains.

At the end of a run, my suitcases are repacked, the members of this little fleet lift their own individual anchors and our hermetic skiffs go their separate ways. The span of living within an ephemeral story’s time or place, gone. The next pilgrimage begins. The temple of the open stage? Closed to me, temporarily, until the next contract. The gig actor’s life is threaded like a rosary, or its eastern beaded sister, the japa-mala, where roles and projects emerge like brief devotional gifts. Before and after the hallelujahs, there is a life to be lived in the space between.

This is a very different kind of in between.

After three weeks of isolation in New York City, a car was leaving from Manhattan to my hometown the following morning. I was offered a ride. I took it.

When faced with the rush to pack and depart New York City, I prepared to leave my home behind, for whatever indeterminate amount of time that might be. But as I was assembling what I could into the pockets of backpack, suitcase, and winter coat—by rote, my hands completed a choreography that I did not realize was still committed to memory. In a matter of minutes I had simulated a version of the contents of Peter Van Daan’s suitcase that I had unpacked onstage hundreds of times. My body was seized and claimed by a performance I believed was left entirely in my past.

I was astonished by the bridge-building of my unconscious. This was nothing at all like Anne and Peter’s hurried packing to Prinsengracht 263. But there was some weaving of one experience in my life with another, the consilience of the two events, one real, one lived out onstage—stimulating the insight that I, in some uncomfortable and entangled way, had been here before. I had lived out this flight before. I had already packed this suitcase.

Living in other people’s stories is complicated.

My body lept into action without hesitation. I had the echoes of a plan, a schedule, at the ready. Somewhere, from some secret door, I’m walking back up that dark staircase, back to the Annex, living out one of the strange truths of creative living.

I’m not a fool here; I am unabashedly aware that I have survived no war. There had been no hiding. I had not, for a single night’s sleep, been locked in the Secret Annex. While on a proscenium stage, an actor isn’t even surrounded, it is a diorama with three walls, the audience sees the play through an invisible fourth. I hid in public, in front of eight hundred people a night. And yet, ripped loose out of some interior lining-pocket of my brain, came forth an automatic response.

Into my luggage went those delicacies of the World War II ration books, items that the Annex dwellers, and all of those who lived during World War II, prized—as borders closed and supplies ran low. In 2020, America’s borders were closing, and fast, so imported goods slipped into my bag. Without thinking, my palms wrapped themselves around the items in my own home that I had known to be rationed in my simulated World War. Chocolate. Coffee. Sugar. Alcohol. Any difficult medicines to obtain, and my stash of traveler’s antibiotics. I grabbed my passports, some cash. Snuck my few pieces of jewelry into the pockets of my clothes. I reached for specific items, instinctively, as swift as a cadet completing a drill—except the recollection was for an escape occurring over eighty years ago. I packed my winter boots, though the sun-drenched days of spring were already well on their way.

And so I left New York, and walked up a different staircase. The one in my childhood home. The home that I believed had already had its way with me. Now, it works on me again.

~ ~ ~

I was raised outside of Boston not only by my family and school teachers, but by a ragtag, kaleidoscopic, and multicultural collection of artists, storytellers, and makers who unknowingly taught me how to be human as I watched them from the corners of dressing rooms and rehearsal studios. The professional theater welcomed me into its wings, but it also taught me I had a pair of my own folded between my shoulders. I listened. And I learned how to use them.

Downtown hovered at a twenty-seven-minute drive from home, but a commuter train ran directly to Government Center. And that outbound train would call out like a loon each night, when my reckless imagination would keep me up reading the words and work of poets, painters, playwrights, the passionate and the profane. I’d be sleepless as that train whistled at 10:05, 11:05, 12:50. I would sit on the iron radiator under my bedroom window, knees-to-chest, palms-to-thighs, dreaming of (and also terrified of) becoming an artist.

That train so often carried me into the city, to the theaters where I lived and learned. Now, I barely hear its song at night. That very train to Boston, due to the pandemic, and so many working from home, runs on a limited schedule.

~ ~ ~

The performing arts have shuttered. My opportunities to work as an actor do not exist. Most production is halted in theater, film, and television. Theaters darkened, ghost lights holding court for months to empty seats. There is no clear path ahead. No new stories, of course, means no characters for which to audition. Film sets are currently attempting to bring full creative teams into group isolation. Welcome to our Petri Dish Production Company! Perhaps, there could be voice lessons, coaching, or class, but probably unwise given the need to save money until creative work resumes. My community was one of the first to shut down, and we are sure to be one of the last to reopen.

The arts employs actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, engineers, musicians, choreographers, editors, gaffers, set decorators, key grips, PAs, and this meltdown of our entire industry and former way of both making art, and sharing it with the world, has spared few. None of the typical parameters of our storytellers’ lives exist anymore.

The repetitive patterns, the latitude and longitude of an actor’s work, are a kind of cartography that had always structured my days. As I have sheltered in place, in my cluttered childhood bedroom, I have found myself following the Annex inhabitants’ daily schedule. Its architecture structured their lives for the better part of two years. Otto Frank created a regimen suggestive of his days as a lieutenant of the former Imperial German Army. This was both due to the danger of the circumstances but also in order to break an overwhelming period of time in hiding and isolation into manageable, completable tasks. The days in the Annex began at 6:45am, when the first alarm went off—bathrooms were used for the brief period before the warehouse staff, working below the Annex, would enter the building. Every activity was planned based around the inhabitants’ movements not being heard by those below. Days progressed into timed and regulated periods of action and silence, of study and calisthenics, of food preparation and cleaning, intake of news and radio, and unstructured free play. Order was docketed with precise care.

For Peter, weekdays allowed for casual dress—while Sundays were for a “nice suit, neat shoes, a shirt, a necktie,” he says in an interview in Anne’s diary. “In any case there is no need for me to sum up all the rest, for everyone must know what decent clothing is like.”

Now I hear Peter, Otto, and Anne’s voices, reminding me to create order.  My days are now parceled into a three-act vernacular; eight hours of work, eight of play, eight of rest. Without a stage, I move to the page. I write. I write with hopes to turn whatever mud I have, into Golem. Because words, and stories, are the best currency I know to exchange the mysteries of my life for meaning.

I do not bake any bread. But I do surrender to one meal with mashed potatoes.

A friend has been telling me that all of her ex-lovers keep texting her. I tell her that a girl I once kissed has reached out, too.

And after a Zoom funeral ends, my family helps teach my eighteen month-old nephew to count to ten. There is a pause each time he reaches five. He waits to be told the answer.

I, too, wait. To be told what to do next. I wait for a director in the back of the darkened theater to call out to me.

Chop wood. Fetch water.

Five. Six. Seven. Eight, my sister says.

So there has become a new kind of curation. Twice a week, for the past four months, my peers and I meet on Zoom as a slapdash collection of actors, directors, designers—for what we have named Curtain Calls: round-robin readings of whatever plays we have on our bookshelves and hard-drives. We digitally recreate that ancient act of gathering around the fire and telling stories. Within this collective, playwrights have shared new works. Actors have conquered dream roles. We’ve hit the greats; read language that sent chills down our spines. While reading Diana Oh’s “My H8 Letter To the Gr8 American Theater,” we watched as her self-published Google Drive script was edited live by the playwright, even as we spoke her words aloud from miles away. We continue to speak these words without certainty of when we might share them again, either on sets or on stages, with an audience in camaraderie, breathing the same air.

“I live in a crazy time,” Anne wrote.

And as I write, my childhood house murmurs. Slice through its walls and this set is its own dollhouse of classes taught, meetings taken, lives lived simultaneously under one roof. This plays out over and over, as days cycle through a succession of acts, unbroken. “Writing in a diary is a really strange experience for someone like me,” Anne wrote. “Not only because I’ve never written anything before, but also because it seems to me that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen year old girl. Oh well, it doesn’t matter. I feel like writing.”

Small acts of creativity, much like rehearsal, and I think, a bit like prayer—add up. And when performed regularly, and with determined unattachment, these acts change us. Actors are ruled by repetition, and its byproduct, reinvention. And so this new role, and its particular and clear choreography, moves forward.

~ ~ ~

It is summer here. While sheltering in place, I have a habit of opening many windows in this house. Because, unlike Peter, I can. I leave the front door open, as a welcome resident of my own hometown, where the bulbs my parents planted over twenty years ago have emerged from the tilled earth of our front lawn. Where the perennials pop their crowned heads out of the underground. Where, from these hiding places, each verdant bloom cracks the surface after a year underground as a botanic jack-in-the-box.

Whatever I sow during this time will be reaped later, that I am certain of.

Each morning, I tread my neighborhood’s hills, which rise and fall in a pattern of naturally-occurring topography that, from a distance, always has the mysterious appearance as if it is, itself, breathing. I feel dropped out of time here. I worry that I will need to find a new profession. I might need to be melted down and recast.

Perhaps, I’ve actually done this before. It’s another role. Another mask. I will pack a new suitcase and head into the next unknown. I will create stories in my own words. For now, I am no longer able to recreate other people’s lives. I am only able to live within my own.

Change happened in this pre-Revolutionary town much like the way a stone’s face softens after years of running water have driven its crags and grain to something smooth, pale, essential. The Public High School now bears the sign “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” with rows of white stars running parallel above and below; and the three words “GOD BLESS AMERICA!” emblazoned so large that the O is bigger than a grown man’s skull. With any man standing in front of it, the enormous O, always looked to me like a great white halo. In 2020, it appears to me now like a noose.

How naive I was. I now realize that embodying Peter was nothing short of a dress rehearsal. Our fragile democracy lurches towards derailment, not just through the pandemic, but through intensifying social discord. Anne’s words reverberate: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”

I choose art and empathy in the midst of this canyon in our collective life. Our stories, when at their best, offer not only a chance to bear witness but a hospitality, welcoming each other into what we have in common, but also show us how much we have to learn.

We will mourn our dead. Masks will once again belong to the stage. The children, having grown over these months while in lockdown, will tangle themselves wild in playgrounds once more. The bachelors will stand on dimly-lit banisters and kiss new beloveds. When we all emerge with stories to tell, marked like a palimpsest in ways we won’t entirely know, by the houses in which we hid.

I hear a quiet voice, a speech I heard over and over again onstage: “Whenever you’re feeling lonely or sad,” Anne says,“try going to the loft on a beautiful day and looking outside. Not at the houses and the rooftops, but at the sky. As long as you can look fearlessly at the sky, you’ll know that you are pure within, and will find happiness once more.”


Jacob Kemp is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. He appeared in the award-winning Season 2 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, 20th Century Fox’s feature film Why Him, Broad City, and Season 1 of Black-ish. He was also a lead in Disney’s hit musical NEWSIES, a Yale Trust of Boston Scholar, and a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts Award Honoree in Theater. He graduated cum laude from Yale, where he was the recipient of the Louis S. Gimble Jr. Scholarship and the Glenn de Chabert Prize.

Travelers' Tales