Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Welcome Back Again

June 18th, 2018

By Matthew Félix

Nine hours after leaving Fez, my French friend Sophie and I arrived in Tangier. Although we had walked to the train station the morning of our departure, this time we were arriving late at night. We opted to get a cab, a ride that shouldn’t have cost more than five or six dirhams, or less than a dollar.

Past experience having left me with a strong aversion to taxis—I’ll always choose walking great distances over taking a cab in places I don’t know—my stomach was wrapped in familiar knots as we came out of the station. Continuing past a couple of drivers who approached us, Sophie and I headed instead for the taxi at the head of the line. Surely that was only fair, after all. The fact the driver hadn’t gotten out to hassle prospective customers only made him that much more attractive.

We opened the door and got in, surprised to discover a man sitting in the passenger seat. He was talking amicably with the driver, so we assumed they were friends.

We told the cabbie where we were going, making sure to distinguish our hotel by the port from one with a similar name in another part of town. The passenger up front also clarified for the driver, with whom we conducted the conversation in Spanish. Once everything was in order—including the meter, turned on and starting from the base rate—we set off on a trip that should have lasted all of ten or fifteen minutes.

Heading into town, Sophie and I shot each other confused looks as we passed one, then another opportunity to turn towards the port. There were even signs at both intersections, in the unlikely event the driver had forgotten how to get to the city’s most defining landmark.

Before I could protest, Sophie moved forward in the seat, asking why we weren’t going towards the port. The driver explained we had to drop off the other passenger first—a complete surprise, since neither Sophie nor I had realized he was a paying customer.

I recalled my experiences in Turkey, where there are types of shared taxis. Was there something comparable in Morocco? If so, was that what this was? I decided to ask.

That was it exactly, the driver confirmed. We were in a shared taxi.

Great. Except it still didn’t feel right. Our taxi looked like all the rest, and at the train station we hadn’t seen any others waiting to fill up with multiple customers. Having no way of knowing for sure and already in the cab, there wasn’t much we could do.

Turning definitively away from the port and into the nouvelle ville, or “new” part of town, we drove along its main street, passing shops, cafés, and businesses familiar from our stay a few days earlier. Making another turn, when we got to the top of a hill we let out the passenger in front, who appeared to explain something as he paid the driver. The cabbie nodded dismissively, taking the man’s money and turning his attention back to the road.

Although in reality everything had been all wrong from the moment we got into the cab, only now did we discover how wrong it truly was.

The previous passenger had paid for his trip. Yet the driver hadn’t reset the meter. Once it was clear he wasn’t going to do so of his own accord, I politely reminded him, “You’re going to restart the meter, right?”
In a shocking setback sure to baffle the most experienced of neurolinguists, the driver suddenly forgot Spanish, a language he had spoken fluently until then. In its place, a series of grunts and gestures conveyed that, no, we would no longer be using the meter.

If it had been good enough for the Moroccan, it was good enough for us.

“Hold on, why aren’t you going to use the meter?”

More grunts and gestures came in reply, this time all of them incomprehensible. It was heart-wrenching to watch someone who had been so charming and articulate only moments before lose all verbal communication skills from one instant to the next. If he hadn’t managed to keep such an unfaltering eye on the road, I would have sworn we were witnessing him have a stroke.

“If we’re not going to use the meter, then how much?” I demanded.

His condition having already advanced to the next stage, this time he didn’t even respond. He was now a mere image of his former self.

“How much!” I demanded again, not bothering to hide my frustration. I knew the further we got down the hill, the more likely he’d feel justified in demanding payment, no matter how exorbitant the price—nor the fact we had never agreed to it.

When traffic forced us to a stop, the driver miraculously recovered his speech.

“Three thousand,” he said, like a malicious child trying to see how much he can get away with.

“Three thousand!” Sophie and I exclaimed in unison. We already knew the fare should have been five or six dirhams. Five or six. Not hundred. Not thousand. At night it might have been a little more, but not six hundred times as much. In addition to being taken for a ride, once again we were being taken for idiots.

“In that case, we’re leaving.”

Turning to Sophie, I added, “Let’s go!”

Grabbing our things—which we had been smart enough not to let the driver put into the trunk—we jumped out of the car, adrenaline rushing as fight-or-flight kicked in and we hustled down a side street. We moved quickly but didn’t run, reassured by the knowledge the driver couldn’t leave his car in the middle of a traffic jam.

But then I looked over my shoulder.

His bravado knowing no bounds, the cabbie had in fact left his car behind. Running after us like an enraged bull down a street in Pamplona, I couldn’t believe how fast his short, stubby legs carried his rotund body, which looked like it might burst at any moment.

“Run!” I shouted to Sophie, who was on the other side of the street.

How could this be happening? Why was the driver chasing us, as though we were the ones who had wronged him? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Shouldn’t he have been the one beating a hasty retreat, ideally from the police, once we’d reported him? How could he honestly feel we owed him something? It was mind-boggling.

Despite having no qualms about grinding traffic to a halt, there were still limits to how far the cabbie could stray from his vehicle. Soon he was forced to give up the chase and turn around, a discordant chorus of angry horns calling him back.

Though glad to see him abandon the pursuit, I felt little relief. He knew where we were going. And we weren’t there yet.

“Come on!” I shouted to Sophie, encouraging her to pick up the pace.

When we came to a park separating the nouvelle ville from the medina, I felt another surge of anxiety. Situated on a well-lit slope, we may as well have been onstage. We were completely exposed to anyone in the plaza below or in the night market in front of the medina gateway, through which we had to pass to get to our hotel.

It was then that a little blue taxi tore into the plaza.

Despite the hundreds of them in Tangier, I knew right away this wasn’t just any little blue taxi. My body tensed, once more seized by fight-or-flight. As I debated what to do, I noticed the driver had picked up more customers. For a split second, it seemed encouraging. He couldn’t leave them to pick a fight with me, right?

Yet again I had underestimated him.

His car screeching to a halt in front of the medina archway, the driver jumped out and came running at me, stark, raving mad. I was mortified. I would have made a run for it right then and there, if it weren’t for my misgivings about leaving Sophie on her own, the lone woman in a night market full of men. But when the driver got too close, I had no choice. I had to run.

I didn’t go far, stopping as soon as I was out of his range, all the while desperately trying not to lose sight of Sophie. When the driver began yelling things in Arabic, I panicked even more, afraid of what lies he might be telling the quickly growing mob of men surrounding us.

“You didn’t do anything for us! We don’t owe you anything!” I yelled in French, so people would know there was more to the story.

I pushed my way back towards the center to be nearer to Sophie, only to be chased off a couple of more times. When I got a little too close on yet another attempt, the lunatic lunged at me as though I’d violated his only daughter. He was insane. Although I’d successfully avoided each of his previous attacks, this time he managed to grab my shoulder strap, swinging me around as though we were figure-skating partners. There was no way I was giving my bag up. With a determined tug I snapped it from his hands.

Our little spectacle having brought the night market to a standstill, we were now surrounded by about fifty men. I was living the chaotic mob scene from so many movies, and it was every bit as nightmarish as it had always looked on-screen. What were the men thinking? Who would they believe? What if they took sides with the cabbie? And where was Sophie? I couldn’t lose sight of Sophie. Her five-feet-four-inch frame did not exactly help her stand out in the crowd.

I was immensely relieved when some of the men held back the driver, allowing me to again retreat to the periphery. When I looked back at the center, however, my stomach dropped to the floor.

Sophie was on her own in the middle of the mob, standing face-to-face with the madman.

Although being a woman hadn’t exactly been advantageous for her thus far on our trip, Sophie figured that, in this particular instance, it would be. The driver wouldn’t hit a girl.

Having no insight into what was going through her mind, I panicked even more, watching helplessly from what felt like miles away. All at once I imagined a million horrible things that could happen to her. Abduction. Torture. Rape. I had to get back to the center. I had to get her out of it.

Muscling past the men in front of me, once more I found myself at Sophie’s side, yelling for her to come with me. Before she could react, the taxi driver went for me yet again, forcing me to the edge of the mob. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave her there. But every time I got anywhere near her, the driver came at me, forcing me to retreat.

As I was about to make another rescue attempt, I saw something peculiar. For just an instant the taxi driver paused from his histrionics, distracted by one of the men in the crowd. The man then handed him something.

What followed was even stranger. From one moment to the next the huge group began to disperse. What was happening? Where was everyone going? Where was Sophie? Now that people were going in all directions, my worst fear had come true.

I had lost her.

Frantic, I searched the disbanding crowd for some sign of Sophie. But she was nowhere to be found. My mind was racing and my body was trembling, as I struggled to keep it together.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” said a young man next to me, trying to calm me down.

“You should find your friend,” added another, as though it hadn’t occurred to me. Again all I could imagine was Sophie being dragged off to some dark alley and subjected to all sorts of unthinkable abuse, only to then be sold into the sex trade.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” I retorted. I didn’t look at either man, for fear of missing what could be my last chance to see Sophie before she was taken away for good.

“She’s over there,” said another man, approaching me gently, like someone afraid of startling an abused animal.

Sure enough, there she was.

Apparently having escaped her would-be captors, Sophie had walked into the park. She was scanning the crowd for me, like I was for her.

Our eyes met. We ran to each other like long-lost lovers and embraced—but not for long. Turning towards the medina gate, we made a beeline for our hotel. It seemed we were out of danger but, given that neither of us knew why the driver had left, we couldn’t be sure.

Unable to hold back, the whole way to the hotel we gave voice to our outrage. At the same time, we prayed the driver wouldn’t be waiting for us when we got there. All we wanted was to be safe and sound inside, the rest of the world held securely at bay.

A few minutes later, we were back at the hotel.

The driver was nowhere to be found.

Still shaking from the trauma of the ordeal—our nerves not yet able to trust we were out of harm’s way—Sophie and I broke out leftovers from the train ride and sat down to a late-night snack on our little balcony facing the bay.

The night we now looked out upon felt like an entirely different one from what we had left behind on the street. Other than the occasional rustling of a nearby palm, there was almost no movement or sound. Even the port parking lot, normally active at almost any hour, was quiet.

As we cracked pistachios and passed the water bottle back and forth, Sophie told me about her experience.
“I was confronting the taxi driver, and he suddenly only wanted 14 dirhams.”

“Instead of 3000?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah. A guy next to me explained the price of 3000 was in cents, not in whole dirhams.”

“What? As if we were supposed to know that! Besides, 3000 cents still equals 30 dirhams, which is six times what the price should have been,” I calculated. “He knew we didn’t know the price was in cents—it was all part of the scam.”

“Of course it was. That’s why, when I was talking to him, he cut the price in half. He knew the original price was absurd, but he still wanted something. When I asked why he suddenly only wanted 14, he wouldn’t say. I had a bill in my pocket I almost gave him, just so he’d leave us alone, but I didn’t. I should have. It wasn’t that much money.”

“That’s not the point! He was a liar and a thief, and we shouldn’t have had to pay to shut him up. It might have been easier, but it wouldn’t have been right.”

“Well, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, since for whatever reason, he finally decided to leave.”

I told Sophie about the exchange I’d witnessed between the driver and the man in the crowd.

“I really think he gave him money on our behalf,” I concluded. It wasn’t right that he had felt compelled to do so, but I was touched he had. “That stranger had our back.”

Upon our return to the hotel, desperate for a shoulder to cry on, Sophie and I had wasted no time telling the men in reception about our ordeal. Not only did they adamantly confirm the driver should have used the meter and that the price he asked was exorbitant, they also urged us to go to the tourist police. Books were kept with photos of every driver in the city. If we could identify ours, his license would be revoked.
As much as I would have loved to see the shameless brute punished for what he had done not only to us but no doubt to other tourists as well, I hesitated. It was already well past midnight, and we were leaving first thing in the morning. What’s more, despite the hotel manager’s assurances to the contrary, all I could imagine was having to pay my way out of a Moroccan police station. I just wasn’t up for it. I was too shell-shocked. I couldn’t trust anyone so soon after what had happened.

“It hurts us, too,” regretted the hotel manager, attempting one last time to convince me to go to the police. “It’s a constant struggle.”

I knew he was right, and I felt bad for letting him down. In the morning, a little shaken up but otherwise unharmed, we would be going back to Spain. He, on the other hand, along with countless others who made their living from tourism, would be suffering the consequences of not only what had happened to Sophie and me, but many other similar incidents throughout the country. They would be witness to few, if any, of them; but, they’d feel their impact, nowhere more so than in their pocketbooks.

A longtime resident of San Francisco, Matthew Félix has also lived in Spain, France, and Turkey. Adventure, humor, and spirituality infuse his work, which often draws on his time living in the Mediterranean, as well as his travels in over fifty countries. Matthew’s debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of how a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition gets him out of his head, so he can follow his heart. Matthew’s collection of travel stories, With Open Arms, recounts his humorous and harrowing experiences on two trips to Morocco. See more of his work at

Adventure Travel Gold Winner: The Five Wise Men of the Voodoo Trail

June 11th, 2018

By Kevin Dimetres

The feeling was unfamiliar. Alone, I sat on the splintered wooden bench while the passersby sized me up with skeptical curiosity. Their skin glistened with sweat, accentuating the slash marks lacing both sides of their faces. The slash marks had been deliberately crafted into their visage, haunting me with wonder. Images of celestial snakes and sword-wielding gods decorated the decrepit dwellings surrounding me. This was a faraway world, and for the first time in as long as I could remember as a traveler, I felt the fear of the unknown begin to surge in my veins.

I was in the center of Ouidah, the spiritual mecca of Vodun, immersed in the shadowy culture of voodoo lore. The slash marks were the results of ritual scarification, a tradition in which emblematic scars are etched into the skin as symbolic protection from evil spirits. To an uninitiated outsider like myself, the tattoo-like scars were a bone-chilling ritual from an ancient religion cloaked in mystery and misconceptions.

Understanding its essence had become my travel Holy Grail, and I was willing to explore the depths of its holiest places to discover its truths.

It is known as “voodoo” back home in the States, and its pop-culture perception is saturated with notions of wickedness and awe. It was the native religion of the slaves transported to the Americas from West Africa’s Slave Coast, and it’s been subject to outlaw, demonization, and dogmatic reconstruction since it set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Voodoo’s associations with witchcraft and evil sorcery were a calculated product of propaganda, a Hollywood production of delusion designed to influence the cultural assimilation/cultural destruction of Africans adapting to life in the New World. Its truths have remained obscure, clouded by apprehensions of fear, hidden behind perceptions of “the other.”

Voodoo exists today in the Americas as a syncretic belief set, producing evolutionary branches of the African religion in Louisiana, Brazil and Haiti. Its roots can be traced to the Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, particularly the Fon people in modern day Benin. In fact, the term “voodoo” is derived from the Fon word “Vodun (Vodoun/Voudoun),” which translates to “spirit” in the local language.
Traditional African Vodun remains a mystery to a majority of the outside world. It has survived virtually untouched in Benin, where nearly half of the population practices the animistic spirituality in its purest form. As one of only two countries today (along with Haiti) to recognize Vodun as an official religion. Benin proudly considers itself the “Birthplace of Voodoo.”

I wanted to see life through their perspective, and to discover the realities of their spiritual approach to life. A dance alongside the spirits and superstitions of Vodun lore inevitably began in Ouidah.

As one of Africa’s largest slave trade trading ports during the 18th and 19th centuries, Ouidah prospered as an extension of the ruthless Dahomey Kingdom. Following the abolition of slavery and the collapse of Dahomey rule, Ouidah remained a spiritual epicenter for native African religions, specifically Vodun.

Today Ouidah is home to a variety of mystical landmarks honoring its cultural past, such as the Temple of Pythons and the Sacred Forest of King Kpasse. Vodun is not a religion practiced casually; in this part of the world, Vodun is a way of life.

The depth of Vodun spirituality is massive and variations exist within the different ethnic, regional and historical practices, but I’ll briefly explain the basics – as I can best understand them – for the sake of clarity.

Vodun considers itself to be a monotheistic faith, whose primary creator goddess is called Mawu. The existence of a vast pantheon of lesser gods is recognized, each associated with natural forces in a similar structure to the religious pantheons of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These lesser gods interact with Mawu on behalf of the spirits on earth, whose relationship with the divine Supreme Being is akin to the heavenly saints and angels of Christianity.

While practitioners of Vodun, known as Vodounci, recognize the entire Vodun pantheon, individuals usually focus their energies toward a select few of their favored deities. Some examples of prominent Vodun deities and the realms of their natural powers include Sakpata (earth/health), Heviosso (sky), Egou (metals/craftsmanship), Legba (masculinity/crossroads), and Dan (prosperity/communication).

Each deity is associated with a signature dance and drumbeat, and veneration of the gods is expressed by dancing and drumming to these unique rhythms.

Worship is conducted through ritual interaction with fetishes (consecrated shrines dedicated to the living spirits of Vodun deities and ancestral family members). Fetishes are often makeshift memorials located inside the homes and villages of their adherents, as well as anthropomorphized sculptures of Vodun deities- the historical root of the fabled “voodoo doll.”

Communication with the fetishes usually begins by waking up the spirits through offerings of gin and communal sips of sodabi- a traditional West African moonshine type of liquor made from fermented palm tree sap. Prayers are recited simultaneously accompanied by communication with the spirit world via cowry shells; the shells are rolled like dice and their landing positions are interpreted as direct messages from the Vodun spirits.

These spiritual consultations are orchestrated by a Vodun priest or priestess, referred to as a Vodounon, respectively, whose role is similar to a shaman. These mystical gurus play an important role in their communities for their healing powers and spiritual wisdom, providing insight on health, relationships, justice and the connections to the metaphysical world around them.

The perspective boundaries separating “intensely spiritual” and “obsessively superstitious” can fade into gray at times, but Vodon pulsates with an undeniable reality that everything in life has meaning; every moment is alive.

I had no formal plans beyond finding a seat on that bench that first day alone in Ouidah; I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was approached. I was playing dice with the universe choosing to traverse this continent without prior connections, but like most parts of the developing world, they tend to find you before you find them.

Dressed in a traditional shirt and trousers, known as a Beninese bomba, Odjo walked toward me with a muscular gait and the confident swagger of a man in his physical prime. A local shop owner and proud father of two twin baby boys, Odjo sensed an opportunity. He spoke a decent amount of English – a rarity in that part of the world – and offered to show me around town in exchange for a small fee.

The good fortune of connecting with an English-speaking local with a good pulse on the community cannot be understated; navigating rural Africa would have been impossible without someone like Odjo. I doubled down on his offer, asking Odjo to be my personal guide exploring Benin’s Vodun culture in exchange for a higher price tag. We both recognized the auspiciousness of our chance encounter, and we happily shook hands. Our friendship began in a spark of fortuity and intrigue.

Odjo introduced me to countless Vodun priests and practitioners throughout Ouidah over the next several days. He acted as my guide and translator, mediating conversations between myself and the major players of the Vodun communities. I was less concerned with the dogmatic minutiae and more interested in understanding the overarching philosophies of Vodun. I was prepared to start each conversation with a simple two-part question: what is Vodun, and how could it be used to live a better life?

The ethereal world of Vodun would welcome me with open arms.

Agaja came from a village a few miles outside of Ouidah. He wore a traditional blue bomba accented with red and black patches and a cap above his head. His beaded necklaces hung low near his waist, swaying to the slow pace of his strut as he approached me with an ironclad demeanor, seemingly impervious to the highs of delight and the lows of fear. His calmness was contagious as he sat down on the wooden chair in front of me.

“What you must understand,” he spoke in a baritone voice while his eyes looked through me, “is that what goes around, comes around.”

I inquired about the similarities to the concept of karma, but he was unfamiliar with the term.

“What you give, you will receive. What you do to others, will be done to you.”
His hands shot back and forth through the air as he spoke, like a conductor leading an orchestra in slow motion.

“Violence brings more violence. If you use Vodun as a weapon against your enemies, then your enemies, in this life or the next, will use violence against you. You cannot achieve peace through violence. If you want peace, then you must first ask for peace, and then give peace.”

I prodded Agaja with more questions about his subtle reference to the notion of reincarnation and Vodun’s concept of the cycle of life.

“Death is like a comma, not a period. Nature exists in a state of duality, the cycle of life. The sun rises, the sun sets and rises again. The flowers die, become food for the earth and come to life again. Such is life here on earth and in the spirit world. It is the cycle of life, ongoing and eternal. What goes around comes around, so you must live your life accordingly.”

I nicknamed Agaja the Voodoo Buddha, but neither he nor Odjo got the joke. We departed the village and headed further outside of Ouidah, seemingly treading farther back into time.

A grotesque fetish featuring a pair of horns and a prominent phallus marked the entrance to Glele’s village. This was Legba, the trickster Vodun deity of the crossroads, and similar fetiches placed at the gateways of rural villages were ubiquitous throughout Benin.

Glele was thickly built with broad shoulders, a bulging neck and the bald head of a battering-ram. He liked to wear a live python around his neck like a collar, though his intimidating guise was offset by a jovial demeanor and a hair-trigger smile.

His home featured a large fetish dedicated to his patron deity Dan, the serpent god associated with communication to the spirit world and believed to endow its adherents with prosperity. My admission was determined by his snake’s reaction to being placed on my shoulders; after Glele had laid its body against the back of my neck, the snake coiled around me until it silently found a position of comfort. I was allowed to proceed.

“The snake alerts me to negative energy; but he seems to like you,” he chuckled as he prepared our shots of Sodabi. He handed me a cup, then took the snake from around my neck and placed it gently back around his.

“Vodun is very powerful, but it is neither good nor bad. It has no intention. It is like a knife, or a spear. It sits still, without emotion. It is you who stabs the knife or throws the spear, who determines its energy.”

The concept of using Vodun as a weapon captivated me with curiosity, so I encouraged him to elaborate. He spoke of an ancient system of justice that predates the legal systems of the modern world.

“Vodun may be used for justice, yes. If another man kills your wife, what do you do? Revenge by your hand would continue in a cycle of violence, so instead, you may pray to Heaviosso, the Vodun sky god and purveyor of justice. Perhaps he strikes down your enemy in a rage of thunder and lightning.”

In a land which has historically lacked the luxuries of an effective criminal justice system, I could understand the practicality of Vodun justice.

“But you must understand, Vodun is not a toy. You must use wisdom. You must have responsibility. You could hurt yourself and hurt others. Just like the blade of a sword, it is sharp, do not play with it like a toy.”

The more he spoke of Vodun, the more he appeared like a Jedi master elucidating on The Force from Star Wars.

“You want to make this girl fall in love with you, Vodun will make it happen. You want to heal this sickness, Vodun will make it happen. You want to grow crops for food, Vodun will make it happen. Whatever you want, the Vodun spirit will give… But you must first ask… And you must use Vodun for positivity only. If you use Vodun for negativity, in a bad way, it will come back to you.”

Glele put the snake back around my neck as I contemplated his words. The snake snuggled up in a comfortable position, and he proceeded with an unexpected question for me.

“So… what is it that you want from Vodun?”

I momentarily went blank, sensing the weight of karma and personal responsibility on my conscious similar to the way the snake had coiled itself around my neck.
“I want to understand… To be able to see the world the way you do, through the eyes of a Vodounon.”

He paused for a moment, silently reflecting on his thoughts, looking at the snake wrapped around my neck. He rolled the cowry shells, mumbled something in an unfamiliar language, then turned back toward me.

“Okay my friend. Vodun shall reveal itself to you.”

I took a break from Ouidah for a few days while Odjo returned to his business and family. In the meantime, I explored the side streets of Benin’s coastal highway when Tessi and I first crossed paths. He wore a collared orange and black shirt with shorts and sandals, striding with a hop to his step like he was jamming to a song playing inside his head. He spoke five different languages, including English, much to my delight, and conveyed an infectious friendliness that was rare in Benin.

He took an interest in my Vodun curiosity upon our introduction, and he offered to help me along my journey simply for the sake of helping.

Tessi was an old soul in a young man’s body. He liked to sit back with one foot resting over his knee, with a habit of extended pauses of contemplation before jolting upright with vigor as his stream of consciousness flowed into spoken words.

Born of a Christian mother and Vodun father, Tessi was considered a Christian at birth. His original name was David. At the age of four, he fell seriously ill, falling into a coma for multiple days before being pronounced dead.

It was at that moment that his aunt, a Vodun priestess, called on the spirit of his deceased grandfather to help bring him back to life. As the story goes, his grandfather reincarnated into David’s body, helping maintain his lifeforce, while his body began to heal. David miraculously survived with a full memory of the ordeal. Later, he formally converted to Vodun, choosing to be called Tessi as his native African name.

His home had individual rooms for fetiches dedicated to Egou, the warrior god of metals and craftsmanship; Dan, the rainbow-colored snake god, who also served as the patron deity of his grandfather; and Sakpata, the god of the earth with associations to health and wellness.

Tessi’s concept of Vodun was holistic and harmonious.

“We are all connected. We call it the spirit of Africa; the spirit of Vodun, which is the connection. The earth, nature, the living beings, the spirit world; everything is connected. This is Vodun.”

His convictions were strong, and his energetic sense of spirit overflowed as he spoke. In his eyes, there was a sense of meaning to the occurrences of everyday life.

“Everything happens for a reason. It is the way of Vodun. That is why our individual character is so important. How we handle adversity and opportunity; they happen for a reason, and we must embrace the path presented to us. Like when I first met you wandering alone on that street… You may have appeared lost, but no, I knew that you were there for a reason. We are connected, you see…”

I had to give him credit; in a land where corruption is rampant, opportunities are scarce and trust is rare, Tessi was overflowing with enthusiasm and integrity. But I needed more clarification on the nature of Vodun. Was it an abstract natural force, or did it have a deeper meaning? What was the underlying point of it all?

“My brother, think of it this way… what is the point of music? What is the point of dancing? You see, we are all connected, like the individual notes in the symphony of life. We are all one. So, my brother, go make beautiful music. Everyone that crosses your path is a musical note in the song that is life. Everyone and everything, the plants and animals, the earth, we all must create the melodies to make life on earth like beautiful music. That, my brother, is Vodun.”

Tessi had been born in a hut in a small African village, yet he possessed the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes. He called it “L’espirit d’afrique.” If he does not one day end up as a leader of his country, the world will be a lesser place for it.

Tessi agreed to take me to a rural African market farther inland and far off the beaten path. We ventured out on his motorbike, following the bumpy dirt roads, which diverged into narrowing footpaths, to a primeval part of the world trapped in an ancient way of life.

The cinderblock walls were decorated with images of an obscure crocodile god; the lone doorway was guarded by a white sheet of linen dancing against the breeze. Otherworldly chanting could be heard from within the the roofless structure. We parked the bike and began to explore, forgetting about the market at which we would never arrive.

Tessi clapped his hands twice, upon which an elderly woman draped in a royal blue shawl appeared at the doorway. Other individuals in similar garb looked on from behind her, fixated on the unusual foreigner, who was clearly in a time and place that he did not belong.

It was an unparalleled moment of serendipity; we had accidentally wandered into a ceremonial gathering of priests and priestesses partaking in a sacred ritual in a rural tobossi-houe- otherwise known as a Vodun “trance house.”

Tessi negotiated our entrance based on his Vodun connections, but not before I rid myself of my western attire and draped a white linen around my waist in a similar fashion to the others. They wore robes of white and royal blue with matching beaded necklaces. Silent feet bearing scars from a lifetime of shoeless labor poked out from under the robes.

The tobossi-houe was dedicated to the spirit of a locally venerated crocodile deity (whose name I never knew). The chief Vodounon was identifiable by his flawless white tunic and a matching cap. He went by the name of Azangli. His presence was commanding, as he stood in silence with a penetrating, unshakable glare.

Azangli lifted his arm in our direction pointing his finger at the ground. It was a signal for Tessi and me to kneel before entering. A woman knelt alongside us and rolled the cowry shells while she spoke to the spirit world. She tapped my shoulder to observe; the cowry shells indicated a positive sign from the Vodun gods. Azangli gave us a dubious nod, allowing us to proceed.

The outer room hosted two life-sized crocodile figures, each dyed green with their jaws stretched open wide. The heads of the crocodiles were freshly covered in blood, remnants of a goat sacrifice from earlier that day. A wooden throne, shaped in the traditional design of the Dahomey kings, sat between them.

Azangli had moved behind the entrance to the inner room, his piercing eyes tracing each of our steps with an apprehensive glare.

The inner room was a sacred chamber featuring a stunning Vodun fetish unlike anything I had ever seen. A large rectangular altar was positioned in the middle of the room, roughly three feet high and maybe twice as wide. Layers of the skulls, skins, carved wooden objects, ornamented figures, offerings and other fetiche objects sloped like pyramid walls from its sides. Offerings of palm oil and bottles of gin lay close by. Atop the altar sat six crocodile heads; three life-sized carvings crafted from single blocks of wood, alongside three genuine crocodile skulls. Each of the crocodile jaws was open, with a large egg the size of a fist placed neatly at the end of its snout, between the upper and lower front two teeth.

This was the rural community’s holiest of holy sites, their sacred Vodun cathedral, and we had unintentionally interrupted a moment of ritual worship that my eyes were never meant to have seen.

Azangli pointed to the ground with the commanding presence of an emperor, and we quickly kneeled along with the other dozen or so Vodounons in front of the altar of crocodile skulls. He recited a prayer while our foreheads kissed the ground. The rest of the group remained silent.

A silver-haired woman wearing only a blue shawl around her waist handed me the bottle of sodabi. She moved about with the aging grace of royalty, appearing to be the high priestess of the sect; the spiritual queen to Azangli’s king. Tessi and I each took two sips, the first for ourselves, and the second to be spit out directly at the foot of the skulls.

She knelt before the altar and rolled the cowry shells to determine the fate of our visit. Azangli sat on his throne in silence while he anticipated the message of the gods.

She gave him a nod while she recited a prayer of gratitude in the Fon language. He returned the nod in our direction, speaking directly to us for the first time.

“You have no negative energy, and the Vodun spirits have welcomed you,” he said in a sonorous voice that echoed with a charismatic gravitas fit for a king.

I was overcome with a mix of euphoria and relief. I looked back at Tessi to see his face lit up with a confident “I told you so” shine in his eye.

“What is it that you want?” Azangli continued. “Answer me, and we shall pray together.”

Azangli’s question was literal, and he expected a precise answer. The Vodounons stared back at me in silent curiosity as soldiers of Azangli’s spiritual realm.

For a moment in time, all energies possessed by the Vodounons in the tobossi-houe would be focused on the subject of my request. That my wish would be granted was taken as an absolute certainty.

It was the law of attraction; ask and you shall receive. Azangli sensed my ignorance, switching roles from monarchical sorcerer to Jedi philosopher; he was the human incarnate of Yoda crossed with Professor X.

“If you want money, you will receive it, but you must help others who are poor. If you want food, you will receive it, but you must feed others who are hungry. If you want health, you will obtain it, but you must help others who are suffering. You must return to Benin to pay your respects, so you can share the blessings with the Vodun spirits.”

Vodun manifests itself like esoteric magnetism; it rewards humility and punishes hubris. Pay it forward, show gratitude, and the positive energies of Vodun would guide me to prosperity. Act selfishly or wish harm to others, and I would be punished to the identical degree.

The Vodounons circled around the room and knelt before Azangli, their hands held together solidifying an impenetrable ring around the altar. I knelt alone at the foot of the crocodile skulls with Azangli directly to my side. He sat on his throne and bellowed a prayer to the spirit world while the high priestess showered the crocodile altar with offerings of gin and palm oil.

The Vodounons were synchronized in rhythmic chanting in between deliberate pauses from Azangli. I kept my eyes tightly shut with my forehead buried in the dirt floor, internally balancing the flooding sensations of gratitude and awe. I tried to breathe slowly and soak in vitality of the moment. Time and space stood still as my ego momentarily vanished, only to return instantaneously with the unmistakable feeling of deja vu.

I raised my head to wipe the dirt from my face. The high priestess handed me a communal cup of sodabi, formally ending the ceremony. Azangli granted me a silent nod of approval while I stood on my knees, eye to eye with the jaws of a crocodile skull. I was offered a bowl of cassava and goat innards, and I politely chewed away at the rubbery flesh. Azangli appreciated my efforts, finally cracking a smile.

He offered me a single photo upon my exit, a solo portrait of himself on his throne. Then Tessi and I began our slow journey back towards the modern world.

Odjo had been awaiting my return to Ouidah. He had arranged for me to meet a highly revered Vodounon, assuring me that all of my questions about Vodun would be answered.

Zomadonou’s home was located down a dirt road extending inland from the outskirts of town. He was tall with a sinewy frame and gumby-like arms and legs, topped by a white cap similar to a Muslim taqiyah. He moved about with bolts of energy from the base of his spine, constantly veering in roundabout directions as his attention shuffled between thoughts like a mad scientist.

He welcomed Odjo and me with a toothy smile and a handful of cowry shells; a few rolls of the shells eliminated any further hesitations: Odjo and I were meant to be there.

“The power of Vodun is like the power of the sun,” he spoke with his palms open and arms spread outward, strategically tweaking his voice to emphasize his points. “Just as the sun gives energy to life on earth, Vodun gives life to energy on earth. It is the connection of life and energy, the duality.”

I asked about the similarity to Yin and Yang, but was met with a blank stare. The abstract philosophy was enchanting, but I wanted to understand its practical application.

“All living things consist of energy; this energy comes from the same source. Like sun rays that come from the sun; separate, but at their essence, the same. Vodun is like the sun, and we are the light… So, we must shine.”

This prehistoric animistic religion sounded remarkably like new age philosophy. I began to wonder if humanity’s approach to spirituality was coming full circle from the time of the ancients.

I wanted to know more. Could an outsider like myself harness the powers of Vodun?
“Vodun… You cannot touch it… Like light, it has no shape…” His hands maneuvered through the air as if he were sculpting his thoughts from an unseen block of clay.

“It begins with the state of your mind. Your mind creates your thoughts. Your thoughts become your behaviors. Your behaviors create the state of life on earth. So, the state of earth is a reflection of your mind. When the earth is suffering, it is a reflection of the mind of the people.”

The emphasis on the connection with the energies of the universe was evident, the role of positivity undeniable. But, the stigma of malicious evil spirits remained. The ritual scarification only seemed to intensify this fear, and I could not understand its practicality. I began to point to the scars and ask, but Zomadonou remained one step ahead.

“You do not understand the forces of evil spirits, because you cannot see them. The Vodun scars help us to see them; they know that we are watching. We defeat them with our mind.”

I had ventured too far into the deep end, and was no longer able to keep up. My face must have reflected my confusion, as Zomadonou sensed my optimistic curiosity begin to sour. He slyly turned his attention to a handful of cowry shells. Lighting a candle while he had a word with the spirits, he rolled the shells two times, then looked back at me. “I can cleanse you of the evil spirits, if you want, but first, you must ask for it yourself. Your Vodun power will be revealed to you.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant… But how could I say no? I looked at Odjo, who gave me a nod; I returned the nod to Zomadonou.

“We will have a Vodun ceremony for you. To cleanse you of negative energy and evil spirits. The Vodun spirits give you protection, show you Vodun powers, now and in the future.”

I could feel the universe laughing at me once again. I had wanted to learn about Vodun from the perspective of its most spiritual adherents, and here I was, in the back alleys of Ouidah, with the opportunity to have a powerful Vodun priest perform a ritual ceremony to conquer evil energy and reveal the Vodun powers of my own inner spirit.

I was ready to go all the way.

I wore a white linen cloth over my teal Beninese trousers, no shoes or shirts allowed. The outdoor courtyard behind Zomadonou’s home featured conglomeration of peculiar fetiches laid out on a mat. The fetishes were covered in a messy blend of dust and dried blood. Their specific purpose remained unknown.

Zomadonou and I knelt in front of the fetish while he rolled the cowry shells and recited a prayer. Odjo and other locals had gathered around us as spectators, their eyes dancing with fervor at the site of a foreigner, who they began referring to as their brother.

A young girl handed Zomadonou two live chickens.

He held the chickens upside down, as if their legs were handles. A groundswell of fear consumed me once again; suddenly I knew what was coming. I had yet to witness ritual sacrifice as part of a Vodun ceremony, and I had never ever expected to be an active participant. The feeling was unnerving, but I had to respect the cultural norms; I was a guest in his home, and they were not my rules to reform. I looked into the chicken’s eyes and apologized from within.

Zomadonou traced the chickens over my body like a metal detecting wand, reciting a prayer in the Fon language throughout the process. Using a sanctified knife designated strictly for ritual sacrifice, he cut their throats one at a time and dripped the blood over the fetish in absolute silence.

It is during these moments that the Vodun spirits manifest on earth, deriving strength from the blood of the sacrifice, and performing the divine miracles of Vodun lore. In my case, that meant a spiritual cleanse of evil and negative energy, with the hope that my so-called Vodun powers would become actualized. Zomadonou again began to speak aloud to the spirits, while the chickens ceased to suffer.

The next step was a purification bath. Across the courtyard was a barrel filled with sanctified water and freshly gathered plants, whose mixture had been specifically formulated for my individual ceremony. I was instructed to drench myself completely in holy water using the vines that had been soaked inside the barrel. It was a cleansing in the most literal sense, and I was given privacy behind a white curtain hanging from clothesline in the courtyard.

I returned to the fetish mat and slowly took a seat on a stool placed near a circle drawn from flammable black powder. Zomadonou crouched next to me and placed a cup of dark powder on the ground. He opened the palm of his hand to reveal an unopened razor. Zomadonou slowly unwrapped the razor’s packaging while giving me a nod. My jaw clenched; I was petrified. My voice failed as my hand defensively shielded my face. Ritual scarification on my face was a line I would not cross.

Zomadonou laughed at my trepidation and turned his attention to the village children, who looked on as eager spectators just a few yards away. “We no longer cut our faces; look at the children,” he said in a confident tone.

It was something I had missed entirely. The faces of the children were clear and unblemished.

“Now we make the cuts very small… around the body,” he said as he waved his hand in a circular motion to my chest and shoulders.

I stared at the razor blade as my heart began to pound with the intensity of an African bongo drum. I took a deep breath and accepted the unknown outcome of my fate… there would be no going back.

He cut me twelve times; six pairs of small incisions on both shoulders, both sides of my torso, my chest and my back. The small slash marks were painless, the trails of blood minimal.

Zomadonou quickly rubbed the chalky mixture of soot-like powder deep into the open wounds, chanting to the gods. The powder instantly transformed the cuts into tattoos, solidifying their permanence and enhancing the visceral effects of scarification.

I felt no pain.

We broke from the formality of the festivities to share an evening meal with the local community. The growing darkness of night consumed Ouidah as we broke bread together. We returned to the outdoor courtyard and immediately consulted with the spirits. Situated before us was a fetish sack crowned with the heart of a chicken and soaked in scented oils and sacrificial blood.

I positioned myself directly inside the flammable black circle while Zomadonou called out to Sogbho, a potent sky god of the Vodun pantheon associated with the power of explosives. I cradled the fetish sack in my hand and balanced the chicken heart on the surface. I extended my arm outward toward the stars.

Zomadonou put a match to the base of the circle, its outer edge igniting in both directions. He shouted at the nighttime sky as I held the fetiish steady with the focus of a sniper. The onlookers were spellbound by the blazing circle of firecracker powder and booming Vodun oratory. Zomadonou’s arms thrashed through the smoke and shadows like an inflatable tubular air dancer, enhancing his grandiloquence in a cinematic fashion.

The fire burned out as Zomadonou’s words tapered off. The fetish remained steady; the heart did not fall. The audience roared with approval. Zomadonou confirmed that Sogbho triumphantly cleansed all negative energies and evil spirits from within me.

He took the fetish from my hand and led me into a shadowy crypt-like chamber at the far end of the courtyard for one final task.

He lit the chamber with scented candles, illuminating the carved wooden figures of Vodun gods and the sacrificial offerings of past ceremonies. We knelt before a small altar positioned against the center of the far wall. Zomadonou tactically moved the candles and fetishes along the edge alter. He rolled the cowry shells, crooning with the spirits one last time. He handed me a cup filled with dark powder, mixed it with soda, and instructed me to drink it all.

I had never come across any information regarding this type of ritual during my pre-trip research, and thoughts of its potentially harmful effects swirled through my head. When I asked what it was, the only answer I could get was “Vodun drink… so the Vodun stays with you.” He pointed to his gut before extending his finger in a circular wave around his body.

I wrapped both hands around the cup, held it to my lips and contemplated my fate. This was uncharted territory. The Holy Grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flashed in my mind; his quest for knowledge of the divine had taken him through the depths of legends, until he held the cup of Christ in the palms of his hands. The stakes were a far cry from the fate of mankind, but nevertheless my moment had come. I had asked for knowledge of Vodun, and the final challenge now similarly rested within my own two hands. The allure of this ancient knowledge was irresistible.

I took a deep breath as I took one last look around the room, the shadows of Zomadonou and the fetish statues waved in the flickering candlelight of the crypt-like room. I shut my eyes, tilted the bottom of the cup to the pitch black ceiling, and let the Vodun drink flow inside me until every last drop was gone. It was surprisingly smooth, and it tasted like candy. I gradually opened my eyes, letting it all settle, slowly breathing in the tranquil fragrance of the scented candles.

I felt great.

I looked around the room, momentarily fixated on the reflections of light dancing against the scars and the smile adorning Zomadonou’s face. My own smile reflected his, and we started to laugh alongside each other. My hands no longer trembled. The muscles around my neck loosened up. The tightness in my back relaxed. The fear that had consumed me since that first moment in Ouidah began to melt away, until it evaporated completely. I was quickly seduced by a feeling of illumination, swept up in a profound moment of clarity.

The concept of evil was symbolic; the evil spirits had been a metaphor for fear.

The scarification served as an esoteric vaccination against the destructive malaise of fear. The ring of fire signified its metaphysical crematorium, symbolically incinerating the clutches of fear in a grandiose public execution. The ritual cleansing was a metaphorical polishing of our inner shine.

It all clicked.

Fear, particularly fear of “the other,” has divided humanity since the beginning. Fear prevents us from connecting. The evil spirits that have plagued the unity of the human race were never an external force to be battled with swords and superstitions; they were a force from within, an individual blemish on the universal consciousness of the human spirit.

United we stand. Divided we fall. It all became perfectly clear.

Zomadonou’s sacred chamber turned to complete darkness as he blew the candles out, but only then could I finally see the light.

So, what is Vodun?

Vodun is a dazzling expression of ancient mysticism and new age spirituality, which sees all life in the universe as a connected natural force. It is Buddhist karma crossed with The Force from Star Wars; an impartial power of the Law of Attraction traveling a circular path through the cycle of life. It is the prehistoric science of the natural world; a polytheistic system of divinity, reason, and justice; an omniscient answer to the mysteries of life.

It is the sound of music; the harmonious vibrations that flow from the rhythms of our mind.

It is the spiritual companion, the Yin to the Yang, of the life giving energy of the sun.

It is the organic energy which connects the physical and metaphysical realms, and it exists within us all. It can be influenced at will, by those keen enough to understand the nuances of its vitality; it is “the vibe.”

It is the universal divine spirit, known by many different names in many different cultures across the globe and throughout history; whatever you want to call it is ultimately up to you.

I had one final question for Zomadonou about the nature of my soul and the spirit of Vodun; I had been exposed to so much on this crusade, and I was trying to sort it all out.

“I want to know – this adventure to Africa and my whole experience with Vodun – Did I choose Vodun and create this journey myself, or did Vodun create this journey and choose to take me along for the ride?”

He sprang up from his seat in a eureka kind of moment, put both hands on my shoulders, and flashed his omniscient grin. Looking me straight in the eye, he began to answer. I should have seen it coming.


The following day I hitched a ride down West Africa’s coastal highway, en route to Farafina’s seaside Rasta beach in Grand Popo. I wanted a place to relax and reflect on it all, and sure enough, I found an empty hammock hanging from a palm tree waiting for me on the beach. The lyrics of Bob Marley echoed from a bar in the distance…“one love, one life…” As they say in Benin, “la vie est belle.”

Kevin Dimetres currently works as an educator and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area. His stories have been published in Travelers’ Tales, Immersion Travel Magazine, GoNOMAD, Transitions Abroad, InTravel Magazine, and the Washington Post. A collection of his work can be found on

Love Story Bronze Winner: Under the Cedars of Parc Perdrix

June 4th, 2018

By Becky Band Jain

It was at the end of the year I spent in the South of France, fully in the grips of my Francophilia, when a friend invited me to a barbecue. A week after Bastille Day, the summer heat was at its peak. The rosy tan stucco on the houses matched the scorched soil, a shade lighter than their terra cotta rooftops. Their large shutters shielded them from the sun’s onslaught, and spoke of a time before air conditioners. It was a traditional, agricultural region still. Orchards of peaches and apricots, olives and grapes; this was the terroir of Cotes du Rhone, and the famous Tain l’Hermitage vineyards. Gardens burst with bougainvillea, hibiscus and oleander.

Valence, a city since Roman times, is often referred to as “the door to the South of France.” But that day, I traversed a threshold to South Asia, not realizing I was passing through an invisible portal, entering a post-colonial enclave. The ranch-style villas told me I was in the Mediterranean, but inside the home on Rue Marie Paradis was a hub of desis of varying degrees. It appeared to be a version of diasporic paradise, where families and countries left behind were momentarily forgotten in favor of savoring the good life, à la française.

Sipping my anise cocktail, the flavor cooling but the alcohol warming my throat, I glanced at two young men who appeared to be the only ones my age. I thought I recognized one of them, and in speaking we pieced it together: he had stood in front of me in line at the local independent cinema. His name was Kiran, and he’d brought a friend along who was studying in Grenoble with him, an hour away.

“My name is Salil Zen,” I heard him say.

“Oh, you’re Zen?” I asked, startled but trying to seem knowledgeable. “I’ve read some books about Zen Buddhism, like…”

He laughed and attempted again. “No, Jain.” I still heard a twinge of “z”. “It’s also a religion. Basically we believe in nonviolence and we’re strict vezetarians.”

“Oh, right,” I replied, pretending I’d heard of it. “I’m also trying to be mostly vegetarian since it’s healthier.” I explained that while I was a teenager, my mother had overhauled our diets after having breast cancer. But I’d already piled my paper plate with grilled tandoori chicken and was trying not to spill it from my wild gesticulating. I went on chattering about Grenoble, how beautiful the Alps were and how much I’d enjoyed living there during my semester abroad two years earlier. I’d hoped to stay there again, but had been placed in the much smaller town of Valence.

While the French Department of Education had recently notified me that they would not be renewing my assignment, I was seeking out private teaching positions for the coming school year to remain in the country. Here we all stood, most of us immigrants in France living with the realities of displacement, seeking out a carefree moment despite the uncertainty.

In college, when I began to try to comprehend colonialism, the way places and people were carved up and served on a platter to the powerful, I began to understand what a mess was made of the world. I came to believe that it was my role to do everything possible to fix what had been broken. I detested the US government for its foreign policies and the role it now played in governing globalization and neo-imperialism, and fled the country as soon as I got the chance. I landed in France, which, while once a colonial power, was now sensibly socialist and provided its citizens with a whole host of services. Even I, as an immigrant, was eligible for many of the benefits. Still, I was aware of how nationalist and racist France was, how its customs and policies demanded an unswerving and unsympathetic assimilation from its immigrants. One summer, on a grant in Paris to research just how these policies influenced the growth of French hip-hop, I had experienced these stereotypes firsthand when I was conveniently selected as an au pair over much more qualified African applicants.

I was so enamored with France that I was willing to overlook its colonial past as a minor blemish. I was convinced of my ability to assimilate; at least I looked like I could just slip right in, unnoticed, and join the ranks of the French. Or so I’d hoped.

The French were the last to follow the trade winds to India, having been more interested in their stakes in Canada than dividing their attention. They had a few outposts in India which the British grudgingly permitted, and from there arrived the vibrant printed textiles that would become iconic to Provence, the indiennes, with their olives and flowers and cicadas almost dancing across a bright background of canary yellow and royal blue.

Bahadur, the party’s host from Mauritius, welcomed me from his post at the grill searing the tandoori chicken, its spices mingling with the charcoal smoke. Mauritius, or l’Ile Maurice as it is called in French, was both a French and British colony, now nicknamed Little India. He’d left for France at the age of 18, most likely after Britain had closed its gates to immigrants from the island. His barbecue brought together ten or so amongst the less than 75,000 that make up the Indian community in France. The suburbs of Valence struck me as an unlikely spot for such a gathering.

Salil and I had both decided on a whim to come to the party, invited by our friends at the last minute. I declined to share that I was going through a breakup with a local man, Nico, and my French friend had taken me in like a stray kitten, diverting me with parties.

After a while, we all walked to Parc Perdrix nearby for a game of the beloved pétanque, the region’s popular, silver-balled version of bocce. I saw myself as too sophisticated for games, and instead explored the park with a couple of others. We had just sat down in a circle when I got a call. It was my mother.

I was, as usual, annoyed at the interruption. But I answered, walking away from the group to go over the details of my upcoming visit to see her. She’d lived in London ever since I’d gone to college at seventeen. She went after the cancer cleared. It seemed to me she’d cut off not only her breasts but also her daughters. While I was writing my college essay about the fear of almost losing her, she was plotting her escape from suburbia and from single motherhood, at a cool remove. Her executive decision to leave did not factor in my opinion. “I didn’t think you’d need me anymore, or want to be around me,” she later told me. “When I was your age, I hadn’t wanted to see my parents.” Nor did she mind leaving them in their old age, either.

Her departure was a devastation, a betrayal with far-reaching consequences that I could only collect as a passive observer, so helpless was I at the time to extricate myself from the vortex she’d created. It was as if I’d been sucked into the abyss of her absence. When I was older, I attempted to understand the reasons behind her move. But I still struggled with the knowledge that the main person on whom I’d relied up to that point decided to remove herself from my life, leaving me in complete limbo. She believed she’d fulfilled her obligations to me and needed to move on with her life. Simple and swift, no second guesses.

After hanging up, I tried to compose myself to return to the party. Speaking to her flustered me, aroused my dormant anger. I had no other way to express the pain I felt at her exit, which had left me without a mother or a home. I perched on a railing and looked out over the artificial lake, watching the swans glide around water lilies and under bridges that led to an island in the center. Towering above were two asymmetrical white helixes spiraling upwards, called chateaux d’eaux in French and less poetically in English, water tanks. They were made in the sixties by a Greek sculptor, Philolaos, himself named after an ancient philosopher who developed one of the first non-geocentric theories of the universe.

I gripped the railing just as I held on to my dream of staying in France, which had so quickly and so briefly become the center of my universe. As I sat there, content in my solitude, I glanced back at the group. Salil was approaching, his dark hair flopping and marking an outline against the bright green of the grass. His velcro sports sandals and cartoon t-shirt struck me as rather amusing, and I mustered a smile despite myself. But I dreaded another awkward conversation. I hadn’t yet collected myself.

“Hi,” he said, his voice a soothing antidote to the noise in my head. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“No, it’s ok,” I said, lying to be polite.

“I thought maybe something was wrong. Is everything fine?” he said.

“I guess. Where did everyone go?” I wanted him to go back to them, preferring to allow myself more of a mental tirade against my mother.

“They went to join in the pétanque tournament. Don’t you want to come?” he said, his smile making his cherubic cheeks appear even bigger.

Against my grumpy better judgment, I agreed to get up. More than offering a pleasant distraction, he was willing to provide kindness and attention, which I craved like a drug. We approached a curved line of cedar trees, their warm, spicy scent inviting us to sit down. He watched me closely as I told him the summary of my year in France: after graduating from college, I’d been awarded a Fulbright to teach English to low-income primary school children in a rural village area outside Valence. While I lacked the patience to be a good teacher and took time to adjust to my new surroundings, by the spring I’d wanted to stay.

Besides being passionate about French culture—food, nonchalance, and passion—I wanted to pursue my love of dance. The local studio I found had become a second home, and I went there nearly every day. I was even the star of their annual show, dancing on stage in a red unitard, pointe shoes and my signature pigtails; doing splits and cracking jokes in French about the cheese; and performing a G-rated hip-hop strip tease. Whatever troubled me when I entered the studio, I felt free when I moved. I wanted to continue to lead a creative life. The only obstacle was that I now needed a new visa, and the rules had just been made more strict the year I arrived.

I wasn’t aware that I was running away from my family in the way that my mother had, following a path that she’d laid down before me. There was nothing for me in the US, no one tying me there. But I believed that my expat fervor was based more in politics—we had elected GW Bush in the first election I could vote in—and admiration for the French joie de vivre.

I told Salil about how I was going to pursue my budding dance career in France and study in London the following year; how I’d tackled challenging subjects at university, like economics and philosophy, while making it a point not to miss the parties. Yet I felt a twinge of self-consciousness that I might be boasting or revealing too much, and as we talked, becoming aware of my privilege, I began to feel crass and irresponsible. While I spoke, he was planted unmoving in a cross-legged position, his shoulders softly rounded. There was a magnetism to his wide, open face, his large eyes focused on mine except when he looked down at the blade of grass he was twiddling. I got the impression he wasn’t a person who engaged in excessive behavior, though he didn’t seem judgmental of mine.

Unlike me, he didn’t have stories of wild antics. I took his shy demeanor for a calm one. He lacked the pretensions or big personalities of American men my age. He described his current courses and research—something to do with robotics—and his undergraduate studies in India, but even if it hadn’t been for his strong Indian accent, the world of computers and engineering was an incomprehensible one to me. He seemed pleased with his achievements, while his quiet voice lent him humility.

It wasn’t apparent, then, just how far he’d come from the small desert town in Rajasthan where he’d grown up, how dedicated he’d been to beating the odds of passing the competitive exam allowing him to attend a prestigious university. An internship in Toulouse the summer after his junior year in college was his first chance to leave India, and he was smitten. Though he’d had friends who’d gone to the US, the more common path for engineers, he shared my love of France and its distinctive laid-back lifestyle. He’d gotten a full scholarship to study and work in Grenoble. Most of the classes were in French and he didn’t understand much, but he was undeterred. He was staying an additional year to make the most of the opportunity, and was considering PhD programs in the US and UK. I offered to help him prepare his applications.

We began to let our guards down in the cedars’ arbor. Maybe we were intoxicated by their spell. Cedars have a holy history, appearing throughout the Bible, also in the ancient Hindu epics and myths of Shiva. In us, too, the stirrings of something sacred took root in that site.

We got up to find our friends and watch the rest of the game. It was close to evening, and the sky was the color of pink champagne. We walked back to the house as a group, laughing and joking. Suddenly, Salil and I faced each other in front of the house near a flowering oleander bush. It was time to part ways.

“It was great meeting you,” I admitted. “Here, take my email and let’s keep in touch.” He accepted the slip of paper with my barely legible scribble as if it were a hundred dollar bill. I was still using my “.edu” address even though I’d graduated over a year ago.

“Yes, hope to see you soon,” he said, his smile fading. He seemed to have picked up my ambivalence at the sudden departure.

I turned and walked toward my friends waiting in the car. It was the first of many goodbyes to Salil. He was a glimpse into a new, unknown world, one that was somehow both simpler and far more interesting compared to my own. There was so much to explore, and I, drunk on Sagittarian wanderlust, wanted to see it all. I’d lost my home and was without a gravitational center. I would shift my orbit towards whatever provided the most light.

Becky Band Jain completed her MFA in creative nonfiction at The New School while working with the United Nations. She is writing a memoir about her experiences living abroad in India, the UK, and France. She has a Master’s in Gender, Development, and Globalization from the London School of Economics and a Bachelor’s from Wesleyan University.

Family Travel Gold Winner: Time Travelers

May 28th, 2018

By T Stores

On a rainy fall weekend, leaves brilliant with failing light, I hear Mr. Spock from my living room in rural Vermont: “Live long and prosper.” I smile, glad that James and Izzy have discovered Star Trek, good viewing for twelve-year-olds, especially those who are about to embark on a year-long adventure, “exploring new worlds, going where”—well, not no man but many men and women—“have gone before.” While I finish packing for our trip to Europe, the refrain echoes in my mind. “Live long and prosper.”

Spock’s rendition of the traditional Jewish or Muslim blessing—“Salaam alayknum” or “Shalom aleichem,” meaning “peace be upon or with you”—is a greeting, a farewell, a wish, and a philosophy. To prosper is to do well, in health, matter, and mind. To live long is to acknowledge true prosperity: an abundance of time. “Live long and prosper,” however, is also an ironic reminder that time is the one absolute scarcity. None of us has a true abundance of time. Our days of living on this planet are surely limited, definitely scarce. When we seek to “prosper” only in the material sense, we forget that true prosperity is to make the very best use of our limited abundance of time.

One day before we leave, my “packing” is mostly the elimination of things. I sort while the kids watch television, determined that we won’t pay for extra baggage and that we won’t be overburdened in our travels. Our budget is very tight, for I have taken a 40% pay cut from my salary to have a sabbatical, a year free from teaching, to write. We must travel light, take only the minimum for a family of four for six months: a few changes of clothes, puffy warm jackets, iPads for the children’s schoolwork, my laptop so that I can write, and my wife Susan’s medicines and her art supplies so that she can paint. Injured in a fall down the stairs of the 10th century chateau for which we were caring seven years ago, she can no longer carry heavy bags, another reason to travel light. From the suitcases, I remove extra pairs of shoes, sweaters, and jeans. I take out all but one of the rocks from Izzy’s collection and six books from James’ library. Although they are almost teenagers, each has packed a favorite stuffed animal. I bury my nose into the softness of Felix, a black and white kitten, named for Izzy’s kitten who died, and Artie, an orangutan James has slept with since birth, inhaling the sweetness and tang of childhood, the warp speed of time passing, before tucking them back into the kids’ bags.

I slip two photographs—one of my mother beside a maple syrup bucket, taken just up the road on one of her solo visits to Vermont, and one of my father, looking just as I remember him when he stopped speaking to me fifteen years ago—into the envelope with the travel documents: passports, a checkbook and envelopes, a copy of our marriage license, legal only since 2014 though Susan and I have been a couple nearly twenty-five years, and copies of the children’s birth certificates, bearing both our names as parents, just in case we have to prove our legitimacy as a queer little family on the road.
Before I put my laptop into my pack, I back up my work for this year one more time. The book is a memoir called Strangers in the Village, which began with my last sabbatical, when Susan and I and our five-year-old twins cared for the chateau to ameliorate the sabbatical pay-cut. The book ends with my parents’ deaths, suddenly and unexpectedly, four days apart. Death like that—adrenalin- and emotion-charged—shakes one’s foundations. It removes you from ordinary life to your core, to the basics, and reminds you of your own mortality and the finite number of minutes allotted each human life. Just as I came gradually out of my grief, my sabbatical year just ahead, I came into my small inheritance from my mother and father. I determined that I would try to buy time.

Bay of Biscay, Spain
On a small boat on a glorious blue-sky day we cruise along the cliffs off the Bay of Biscay, part of a “geo-park” tour—our science lesson for today—bouncing on the waves, huddled in coats against the cold salt spray as we cut through the ocean. The cliffs jut up in layers of Schist and Gneiss, rocks that reveal some 1,000-million years of the history of this little blue ball of a planet spinning on the outer edge of the galaxy. We are fascinated with the tale this corner of Earth tells of time. James and Izzy, who have just turned 13, squeeze between Susan and me on the bench in the bow of the little boat, laughing, wriggling, pointing. They are at that magic moment between child and adult, switching back and forth between surly silence and silly play. Izzy sneaks her hand into my jacket pocket to hold my hand. Her eyes, the color of the sea and sky beyond, shine with tears from the wind, and her hair whips free of her pony-tail and across both our faces. “Thanks, Mom!” she shouts. “This is cool!” Just behind the porcelain skin of her cheekbones, the intensity of her brow, the sharp wit of her tongue, I see the woman she is about to become. I hold her slender fingers—almost as long as mine now—tight in the secret darkness of my pocket until she slips free to point at the horizon where the sea and sky merge.

The Bay itself, we learn, is what remains of a great sea, and most of the coastline and the green land for a 100 miles inland was once under water. In slow motion, one of the Earth’s plates slammed into another, raising the Pyrenees mountains, lifting these cliffs above sea level, and pushing Spain north to form the Bay of Biscay, a big blue bowl on the edge of the Atlantic, all those millennia ago.

James and Izzy stand up in the bow of the boat to see better, to feel the salt spray, ignoring our shouts: “Be careful!” Susan leans her head on my shoulder. James grins into the sky and sea air, yelling something to Izzy, words lost in the wind.

We walk to the rocky beach and scramble along the cliffs, looking for fossilized sea creatures—snail trails, urchins, shells—500 million years old. We put our fingers on the curving layers of rock that mark the history of our planet. My children’s hands are pale, their bones and veins visible through translucent skin, compared to mine, which are scarred and rough and wrinkled, spotted with age. We trace stone layers packed with fossilized shells, fossilized soils, fossilized dinosaur bones and tracks—evidence of the rich early life of the shallow warm sea. We touch our fingertips to the black line known as the “Cretaceous–Paleocene extinction event boundary”—the mark that documents the moment 66 million years ago an asteroid the size of Manhattan crashed into the Yucatan Peninsula and created an explosion bigger than if all the world’s current nuclear arsenal exploded at once. “This is when the dinosaurs went extinct,” Izzy says. There are almost no fossils from living creatures in the layers of rock after that black line. It takes time, I think, to recover from devastation, like the time it has taken me to begin to recover from my parents’ deaths.

“Mom, look at this,” says James. He opens his palm to reveal a chunk of rock pulled from the cliff, the black trails of 100-million-year-old snails in the white limestone. His freckled cheeks dimple into the scar from a dog-bite he got just before our last sabbatical, when my mother was still alive, still able to reassure me: “It’ll disappear with time. He’ll forget it, mostly. Be grateful it wasn’t worse.” James’ face is longer now, I realize, narrower. A fuzz of pale gold hair glistens on his jaw in the rays of setting sun. “Fossilized snail slime,” he says, grinning. I reach out to clasp the unmarked hands of my children, who, even though they have just turned thirteen, do not pull away.

Peche Merle, France; Gargas, France; Ramales de la Victoria, Spain
In the foothills north of the Pyrenees near Saint Bertrand de Commiges, we visit the Grottes de Gargas; north of Toulouse, we visit the caves at Peche Merle, and in Ramales de la Victoria in Cantabria, Spain, we visit Cueva Covalanas. Hundreds of these decorated caves have been discovered in Europe, but only a few are still open to the public. The experience of visiting evidence of human life 30,000 years old is humbling. We humans have prospered. We humans have lived long. But each of these lives—some 500 generations of individual lives—has also been short. Each of our individual lives is a single breath in a universal gale.

At Peche Merle, while waiting for our time to enter, we examine the timeline of history, a billboard stretching 100 feet down the sidewalk. At the beginning, 4,500 million years ago, the Earth is formed. As we walk 20 feet down the sidewalk, James traces the line on the board with a fingertip, like a boy with a stick on a fence, but here no rattling like the ticking of a clock as we traverse the millennia, from bacteria to dinosaurs and finally to our modern humans a mere 250 thousand years ago—down the sidewalk. The four of us gaze back along the timeline; all of human life is the last two feet of a hundred feet of time—a paragraph in a library—Susan steps closer to me and I put my arm over her shoulders to hug her. Our twenty-five years together is an expanse of faceted crystal too small to be measured here. As the tour begins, I hold her hand to steady her into the darkness.

The Grottes de Gargas consist of two very different main caves, connected in more modern times by a passage. All of the caves we visit are like these, well-preserved, pathways marked and lights installed to highlight the most important or accessible paintings and etchings. Numbers allowed on tours are strictly regulated to decrease the deterioration our breaths and bacteria will cause in the fragile art. We are lucky to visit these now, before they too will be closed, too precious for tourists. In the first cave at Gargas, we see etchings of ibex, horses, and other animals carved into the walls about 15,000 years ago. The guide speaks some English and is solicitous of the children, inviting them to the front, close to where she uses her red laser pointer to identify the parts of the creatures’ outlines. I see Izzy scowl, offended to be included among “les enfants,” and when I give her a little push forward, she glares at me, her headlamp at the level of my eyes. She’s grown three inches this year.

We see deer, mammoth, bear, horses, and otters, painted and carved in each of the caves we visit. In two caves are drawings of women, perhaps goddesses, breasts and vulva emphasized, for women are the bearers of life. For women are providers of more time, the prosperity of fertility, in the scarcity of individual life. I did not bear James and Izzy from my body, so I am doubly enriched by their lives in mine, I think. I watch my daughter frowning at the outline of the woman, embarrassed because she’s thirteen, at the moment before her own fertility makes her a symbol of the prosperity of time. “Be fruitful and multiply,” the Judeo-Christian-Muslim god directed, his divine injunction to the humans he had created. “Replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Have we exceeded expectations? Has the injunction to prosper made us too foolish to learn to limit ourselves, to remember that we are also directed to replenish the earth, which, like our lives, has limits.

We follow the guide through the modern tunnel to the second cave at Gargas, where the art, dated to around 25,000 years old, is comprised of at least 192 negative prints of hands made by blowing ground charcoal or manganese oxides and red iron oxides mixed with ocher yellow goethite across hands of men, women, and children so that an outline relief was created. It is as if we, a little American family in the echoing and dripping darkness underground, are encircled by the hands of our human community across time. No one knows for certain why our ancestors made these images. It’s drippy and spooky to know that an ancient human—an art-maker, a communicator— touched this wall with a hand like mine. We are breathing, in some way, the same cool damp air those humans breathed, connected through this touch to stone, to Earth. These individuals prospered, in their own way, reaching across time with this art, this mysterious communication, to touch and speak to the future.

At Peche Merle, James and Izzy stand, fascinated, comparing the size of their own feet to the barefoot print of a child who lived and died more than 25,000 years ago. One moment in the life of an ancient child stepping in mud connected to one moment in the lives of these two television-watching, world-traveling children, whose feet at this very moment are outgrowing their sneakers, who now can wear their mothers’ shoes.

Finally, in Ramales, Spain, where the cave is much smaller and we are only a foot from the drawings of a herd of horses and antelope migrating across the walls into the earth’s darkness, a return to the womb, we feel connected across time, lost in space with other humans, the water dripping.

Delphi, Greece
It is the “Fragments of Amazons” that make me cry at Delphi.

In the museum, which is arranged chronologically, we first encounter the goddess figures, little terracotta models of beak-nosed and breasted bird-women painted with red designs. We will see goddess figures of all types and shapes and sizes, again and again, as we travel around the Peloponnese Peninsula. Some are dated as far back as 10,000 years, some hacked from stone before there were metal tools, some molded or modeled in red earth clay, some etched in ivory or metals, some forged from bronze or gold, some carved in marble.

But it is the left-over bits of the friezes that once adorned the top edges of the temples at Delphi that make me cry. The pictures are stories, 5,000-year-old myths, in which Greek heroes—men with impassive expressions, tall and calm and muscled—fight battles to overcome the “pagan” and “monstrous,” representing, the info cards tell us, the chaos of the uncivilized past. James and I talk about how this is evidence of the transition from the worship of the earth and fertility goddesses of prehistory to the Greek pantheon of a family of murdering, conquering, jealous and passionate gods, led by Zeus, a contemporary of that other god, Jehovah, who was no less violent but who had considerably fewer followers, tribal and nomadic peoples with little wealth for statues and great marble temples until after Christ’s time. “But why did it change?” James has asked. “Why did they stop worshipping women?” And I have to say that I don’t know. Perhaps it was the simple growth of human population and the accompanying competition for land and resources that led to a world that valued war and physical strength over hearth and home. Maybe the move from a purely agricultural earth-centered culture to one that created and traded tools and objects rendered fertility and the reproduction of life less mysterious and special. Perhaps it was just another institutionalization of the desire to dominate.

James puts his hand in mine. “Are you crying?” he asks in astonishment. I do not often cry and almost never in public. I shed most of my tears for my parents’ deaths alone, in private. But the fragments left of the sculptures representing the Amazons—a tribe of women warriors, who may or may not be complete myth—fighting the Greek heroes, moves me. Here are the last vestiges of powerful women for many generations to come. Hippolyta is felled, but she does not give up, her sword raised to Theseus even as he runs her through with a spear. On one of the marble chunks, all that remains of an Amazon is a wrist. Others have been reduced to an ankle, a breast, or a foot in a sandal. One Amazon is nothing but toes struggling for balance, for solid footing on the earth where she was once worshipped. I can’t help but cry. “I’m not like that, am I, Mom?” my boy asks, and I laugh and wipe my tears. Because no, he idolizes John Lennon and the Dali Lama and is neither a warrior nor monster. He, I hope, is of the next version of hero, of truly civilized human history.

In archeological museums all over Greece, entire rooms are filled with votives, small sculptures of people or animals that pilgrims placed at Delphi’s temples to offer continued prayer in their absence. Thousands of little votives were made of clay or bronze and represent the prayers of a veritable army. Wishes for long life and prosperity are no doubt among these prayers. Indeed, aren’t all wishes—for cures, for health, for wealth, for peace—wishes for long life and prosperity? At heart, isn’t every prayer a prayer for these two essential and scarce things? For riches in moments.

James finds a replica of a rhinoceros votive at a gift shop, and I buy it for him. When he holds that rhino, he will remember this moment—his hand in mine, our little family together abroad in the world—long after my moments are gone. Though he does not know it, the rhino is my votive for him, a prayer that he may have a long life and prosper. That he lives in this moment, this one precious and abundant life, fully here. That he is a hero for a better civilization.

Rome, Italy
We encounter the Roman Empire in remote corners all over Europe—Roman roads across rural France, mansions with under-floor heating and indoor plumbing on the edge of Spain, heated baths in England, glorious sculptures at Delphi and Olympia, Greece—but it is in the Coliseum of Rome that the excesses excused by “civilization” make us sick. We sit on the stones in the vast arena and examine the maps in our guidebook. Between about 300 B.C.E. and 300 C.E., the Romans became the first world power, spreading a new version of “civilization” across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, slaughtering and enslaving the “barbarian” natives, appropriating their lands, stealing and taxing their resources. “Why did they want so much stuff?” James asks. “Why didn’t they leave those people alone to just live?”

Here is a paradox of abundance. The Romans transformed prosperity into a material value—money, land, resources, labor, things. And they were so successful at acquiring these things that they had to use them up—even destroy them—to create a scarcity necessitating the acquisition of more things. The “games” of this arena—just one step from the games of Olympia, where women and laurel wreaths were the prizes—were displays glorifying the conquest and acquisition of booty by slaughtering it, and “entertainments” to consume time—and to keep blood-lust high for the next round of acquistional warfare—for around 60,000 people each show. Trajan’s war victory celebration lasted more than 100 days, and resulted in the slaughter of more than 11,000 wild animals and 10,000 humans. Multiplied over the 300 years the Coliseum was actively used for such “games,” it’s likely that this most successful “civilization” was responsible for the deaths of a few million zebras, giraffes, elephants, lions, bears, leopards, peasants, criminals, Jews, Christians, Muslims, criminals, pagans, slaves, and ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. So far removed in just a few centuries, I think, from the herds of creatures secreted in the prehistoric caves in the womb of the earth.

My wife stares across the vast oval of the Coliseum. “I don’t think I need to ever come here again,” she says. “It’s horrible. A waste of my time.”

Izzy and James choose postcards of the Coliseum at night. On the train, as they are writing to their friends back home, Izzy reads the postcard caption: “The walls of the Coliseum are lit in gold to celebrate each victory in the world-wide fight against the death penalty.” She looks at me. “Well, that’s one good thing,” she says. “Right?”

I smile. In this century of civilization—my children’s century—maybe we humans are learning, slowly, after all, the truth of prosperity… of time.
[TM1] [TS2]

Venice, Italy
In Venice, we go full-tourist, buying masks for Carnival, taking a ride on a gondola, and taking the children to their first opera. We are lucky to arrive in February, with excellent weather and smaller crowds, just before the most intense part of Carnival—the city’s two-week festival before Lent, celebrated since around 1100. On the streets and canals, in the Piazza San Marco, everywhere we are delighted by masked and costumed subversions of the Medieval class system—flirting nuns; men dressed as women; the poor pretending to be rich—because, of course, we are a boundary-crossing family. Izzy shops carefully for her mask, finding just the right disguise for a girl about to be a woman, for her glamorous night out at the opera.

It is estimated that 30 million tourists a year visit Venice, a city whose limited number of minutes are almost gone. Inhabited since the first century CE, a powerful city-state ruling the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle Ages, the Italians now call the city of islands and canals “Veniceland,” because it is like Disneyland, a place inhabited primarily by tourists. “The people can’t afford to live here,” our tour guide in the Jewish ghetto tells us. The city is sinking and sea levels are rising. Boardwalks are stacked along the streets, ready to be put into use when the aqua alta come in. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but UNESCO has threatened to put it on the “endangered” list if cruise ships—which dump as many as 30,000 people a day on shore and damage the fragile lagoon and architectural structures of the city—are not banned. The residents, our gondolier says, no longer use the first floors of their homes because they flood regularly. In a thousand years, we humans have managed to change the Earth’s climate, speeding up the count-down to ecosystem collapse, and we are too stubborn and greedy to make the necessary changes to save ourselves, to save the treasure that is Venice. Here we have built beauty, romance, mystery, a real dream-world, but it is a place we humans are loving to death. Susan and I feel complicit and a little guilty as we learn the history and the future of Venice with the children, but we love the place too.

On our way home from the opera we stop on a bridge, fog roiling along the streets and wisping around rooftops, the waters greenish under a half-moon, to listen to a guitarist. A young couple is kissing, and James and Izzy are giggling with their heads together. I wonder if the couple making out now, gazing into each other’s eyes as if in a movie, is one of the “too many to count” couples our gondolier told us had become engaged on his boat on Valentine’s Day, the day before our ride. I hold Susan’s hand in my pocket. In not many more minutes, I think, James and Izzy will emerge from puberty to find lovers of their own. Will they remember this cinematic moment on the bridge, the guitarist, the waters slapping as the fog encircles our ankles, Izzy in her mask and all of us in our best clothes, dried tears from the tragic death of the diva in La Bohème on our cheeks? Over in the Piazza San Marco, the iron men strike the bell at the top of the hour, time passing slow in each echoing bong, marking the last moments of the day, even as the city sinks inexorably into the sea.

Borghese Gallery, Rome
Time is frozen in marble so supple and alive that it seems we have walked in on the exact moment that everything changes. Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne is my favorite sculpture in the world, though this is only my second time with it. I have become separated from my family, but I can spend the whole day with these characters in white, these young two enacting the saddest moment in mythology. I walk slowly to the back of the gallery, the way that the original was meant to be approached. Here the young man, Apollo, seems simply to be running to touch the hip of the young woman, Daphne, who is running away, glancing back at him. I walk around to see the couple’s expressions—his smile, not quite a leer, but clearly enjoying the chase—and her fear, her absolute anguish—and the moment of transformation changes. The moment captured here is tragic, the stopping of time as well as its endlessness in immortality. The woman’s hands branch into leaves. She is terrified.

Izzy strolls in and circles the statue slowly, joining me at Daphne’s foot, half-raised, roots stretching from her sole into the earth.

“The story goes that Apollo teased Cupid, who shot him with an arrow so that he fell in love with Daphne,” she lectures. “She was a follower of Diana, who, like, hunted and lived in the woods and vowed to stay a virgin.” Izzy’s whisper drops even softer on the word “virgin.” She is as beautiful as the frightened girl in stone. “Anyway,” she continues, “when he was about to catch her she screamed out to her father to save her—he was like a river god—so he turns her into a laurel tree to keep her from being raped by Apollo.”
We observe the bark creeping over the girl’s skin, the whorls of her hair flung back as she turns, the expression—her final look at the world before transformation—of shock, her mouth in an O, something lost, hopeless, in those blank marble eyes. “He looks kind of like, oh well, not a big deal, lost this one,” Izzy says. “Like it’s just another race or competition.” She sighs, exasperated, flinging her hands out. “But she’s a tree. Like forever.”

I nod. Was this really the best her father could do when she cried out for his help? Save her by making her a laurel tree? Is that really saving her?

“That’s why they put a crown of laurel leaves on the winners at the Olympics,” Izzy says. “Because Apollo said he would always love her even if she was a tree.”

I think of the conquests of sport, the games of war and death in the Coliseum, the entertainments that consume our time.

Izzy snorts. “Love. Right.”

We, I think, are at a moment of transformation every day, every moment. I think my father would have preferred I became a tree instead of becoming a lesbian. Will James and Izzy’s transformations allow them to grow, to branch out, to be rooted while they sprout greenly into the world, or will those changes condemn them to lives of rough bark for skin, roots that keep them not stable but stuck, leaves and branches that keep them safe from all touch, all violation, but made of marble, trapped in the moment of fear? I hope I am not the parent who can think of nothing but stasis as a solution. I pray silently for the wisdom to make the most of this time, to teach James and Isabelle to grow, to branch out, to be rooted while sprouting greenly into the world. To live long and to prosper.

Florence, Italy
James and Izzy and I climb the 450 steps up to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome in the Duomo, Florence’s great Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiori, and I do not have a heart attack. The Vasari-Zuccari frescos that decorate the ceiling of the Duomo, which we pass next to halfway up, depict The Last Judgment, that moment at the very end of time when God destroys Earth and calls up all the souls for sorting. The moment for which the Christians are preparing, in faith, in life. Is it possible to wish others long life and prosperity when you do not believe in an end to your time? Is it possible to care for this Earth as a legacy to your children when you do not believe the Earth is for generations to come? Raised a fundamentalist, I recognize all too well the Hell under Bruelleschi’s Dome. I know the final apocalypse to be a reality, a goal, not just a dream or hope, for these people, and I wonder—looking up at the lush clouds of their heaven, the blissed-out expressions of those saved—how we can rationally expect them to choose wisely for the long-term health of our world in this moment. How can those who live their lives on Earth for a life-after-death be trusted to make life better for anyone?

“Nana believed this stuff, right?” James asks. I nod, remembering my mother helping me weed my garden in Vermont, the year before she died.

“Yes,” I say, “but she still believed in making the most of life on Earth. You know, she told me that she voted for Obama behind my dad’s back, because she thought the Democrats would do a better job at protecting the environment.”

“Nana really loved nature,” Izzy says. She—a budding gardener herself, following in my mother’s footsteps—is taking a class on agriculture and climate change online and closely following the news, watching in disbelief the demolition of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. We have talked a lot about world religions on this trip, and about how those beliefs—over evidence—can shape behavior and policy. We are all quiet for a moment, looking at the images on the domed ceiling—like those in the prehistoric caves—with which human artists stop time and imagine time eternal.

“This Satan is more human,” James says. “There’s more action, more going on.” He spins slowly, walking the narrow catwalk around the dome, examining the painting. “The perspective makes it look like the demons are reaching out to grab you.” We glance over the railing to the cathedral floor far below, where the illiterate peasants would have spent the church services learning to fear God and Satan—and an eternity in hell—through these paintings. “It’s creepy, really.” Is a faith built on intimidation sustainable? For the Christians, who believe that life has no end, does time have less value? Do they walk the timeline of Earth history or touch the black line of the extinction event believing that these times are all the same time? Why would anyone choose to look forward to the apocalypse of the meteorite?

Izzy tsks. “Those demons are way too happy,” she says in disgust.

We exit the catwalk and trudge up the ever-narrower spiraling staircase, squeezing past others, on their way down, now inside the painting, I think, between the ceiling and the outer shell of the dome. We examine the ribs of the architectural accomplishment—the largest dome of its time—until suddenly we emerge into light. The full moon is golden with sunset and all of Florence—the pink and green and white marble of the Baptistery and Bell Tower glowing, the red tile rooftops stretching down to the Arno and up the hills—around us. Somewhere down there is Susan. My heart slows down, and I catch my breath. We take a selfie. I take photos for a young couple, for a young man alone, for a large Italian family, and one of them takes a photo of us. James voices what we are all thinking: “I wish Mommy could be here too.”

We stomp down much more quickly than we climbed up. This time we barely glance at the apocalypse paintings, the old man god in his golden throne, weighing the souls of the humans who have toiled and labored, who have been fruitful and multiplied, who have replenished the Earth. “I think this will be my last time up these stairs,” I say. “Next time you’ll do it on your own,” I tell the kids. “Maybe even with your own kids.” They laugh.

We walk out across the piazza, the great dome far above us, the green and pink and white of the complex still bright in the fading light, and there is Susan, walking toward us, cane in one hand, a shopping bag in the other. “This will be Mom’s last time!” James announces.

“It was great!” Izzy says.

They dutifully answer Susan’s art history questions, then race ahead across the piazza, summoned by gelato.

“Your last time,” Susan says, as we walk slowly after them. “I’ve never been up,” she says. “The first time I let you go up and I stayed here with the babies,” she says. “The second time I was here, I was talking to one group of students while the other teacher took the rest up.” She shakes her head sadly. “I always thought I would go the next time. That I would have another chance.” She looks rueful. I fill in the gap; and then she fell down the tower stairs, hurt her back, became disabled. “I’ll never see the frescos up close,” she says.
I take the shopping bag and hug her. “I’m sorry,” I say. And I am. It’s a lesson we are learning too slowly. Live now. Be here now. We both order double scoops of gelato.

Saint Araille, France
Returning to our friends’ chateau after five months on the road feels like coming home. Almost home. The chateau was our home on our last sabbatical, and we know its crooked old stairs and ghostly corners and unruly rose bushes tumbling down from the walls. We know Pete and we know Rosie, who have become part of our family. We decide to spend our last six weeks here, because we are so conscious of time.

Pete is 86, already older than my parents at their deaths. He has recovered well from a stroke a couple of years ago, and he and I share a genetic propensity for blood clotting, the killer of my mother and father. He and Rosie visited us in Vermont the year before last, while I was still numb, feeling empty, destitute, with my losses. Unlike my own father, Pete cares not that I am a lesbian. He loves my wife and my children as well as me. He is kind and gentle, philosophical. I love him too. “I’ve been chatting with the monks,” he laughs when I meet him coming up from the gardens, and I know he means the ghosts of the monks who once lived in this ancient place. Pete understands that time overlaps itself. He has been out with his border collies for a walk on this spring day, pink quince and white wild plums like lace on the edge of the forest, where the trees are still sticks, still barked and rooted and just sprouting green at their fingertips.

I think of Daphne, forever the laurel. “I’ve been watching the magpies building a nest in the tree-tops outside the tower window,” I tell him.

James and Izzy climb down from the tree house we built in the chestnut tree seven years ago to play with the dogs. The younger dog, Daisy, pesters the old dog, Ginny, who gives her a warning growl.
“We’re thinking of a puppy,” Pete says, raising an eyebrow and a half-grin.

An owl has chicks in the rafters of our apartment living room, chittering at dusk and dawn, just above the television set, which, James and Izzy have discovered, receives Star Trek reruns in the evenings. I labor up the steps to the tower apartment and come in from my talk with Pete to see Spock’s fingers in the V of greeting.

It is spring. We have shown James and Izzy the sites of southern Europe, using my inheritance to invest in time, though the cost of our losses—the empty places left by my mother and her generous and green version of Christianity, and my father’s now-eternal silence, his final judgment irrevocable—seem as vast as all time. But the money has been a kind of Starship Enterprise, allowing us to move through history, across the planet and, among the universe of ideas and philosophies and peoples. It has allowed us to make the most of this bit of our abundant and scarce little time. We have, for this moment, lived long. We have prospered.

Today the world is green. Pete knocks on the glass door of the tower apartment, and I look up to see him—the familiar creases of his grin—and wave him in. “I’ve come to listen to the baby owls above,” he says. “And there may be a puppy….” We turn off Spock to hear about it.

T Stores is the author of three novels (Getting to the Point, SideTracks, and Backslide) and a collection of short fiction, Frost Heaves. Her work has appeared in Sinister Wisdom, Harrington Literary Quarterly, Rock & Sling, Cicada, Out Magazine, Blithe House, Oregon Literary Review, Bloom Magazine, Rock & Sling, Earth’s Daughters, Blueline, SawPalm, Kudzu, Fourth Genre and Minerva Rising, among others. Honors include grants from the Vermont Arts Council and Barbara Deming Fund, residencies at Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, and Shiro Oni, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. A graduate of the M.F.A. program at Emerson College, she is Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Hartford.

Culture and Ideas Silver Winner: The Last Surviving Sea Silk Seamstress

May 21st, 2018

By Eliot Stein

Byssus, or sea silk, is one of the rarest and most coveted materials in the world. Today, there is only one person left on the planet who knows how to harvest, dye and spin it into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold.

Each spring, under the cover of darkness and guarded by members of the Italian Coast Guard, a 62-year-old woman named Chiara Vigo slips on a white tunic, recites a prayer and plunges headfirst into the crystalline sea off the tiny Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco.

Using the moonlight to guide her, Vigo descends up to 15m below the surface to reach a series of secluded underwater coves and grassy lagoons that the women in her family have kept secret for the past 24 generations. She then uses a tiny scalpel to carefully trim the razor-thin fibers growing from the tips of a highly endangered Mediterranean clam known as the noble pen shell, or pinna nobilis.

It takes about 100 dives to harvest 30g of usable strands, which form when the mollusk’s secreted saliva comes in contact with salt water and solidifies into keratin. Only then is Vigo ready to begin cleaning, spinning and weaving the delicate threads. Known as byssus, or sea silk, it’s one of the rarest and most coveted materials in the world.

Today, Vigo is believed to be the last person on Earth who still knows how to harvest, dye and embroider sea silk into elaborate patterns that glisten like gold in the sunlight.

Women in Mesopotamia used the exceptionally light fabric to embroider clothes for their kings some 5,000 years ago. It was harvested to make robes for King Solomon, bracelets for Nefertiti, and holy vestments for priests, popes and pharaohs. It’s referenced on the Rosetta Stone, mentioned 45 times in the Old Testament and thought to be the material that God commanded Moses to drape on the altar in the Tabernacle.

No one is precisely sure how or why the women in Vigo’s family started weaving byssus, but for more than 1,000 years, the intricate techniques, patterns and dying formulas of sea silk have been passed down through this astonishing thread of women – each of whom has guarded the secrets tightly before teaching them to their daughters, nieces or granddaughters.

After an invitation to visit Vigo’s one-room studio, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with the last surviving sea silk seamstress, watching her magically spin solidified clam spit into gold.

I slowly approached the small wooden table where Vigo worked, walking past a 200-year-old loom, glass jars filled with murky indigo and amber potions and a certificate confirming her highest order of knighthood from the Italian Republic cast aside on the floor.

“If you want to enter my world, I’ll show it to you,” she smiled. “But you’d have to stay here for a lifetime to understand it.”

Vigo learned the ancient craft from her maternal grandmother, who taught traditional wool weaving techniques on manual looms to the women of Sant’Antioco for 60 years. She remembers her grandmother paddling her into the ocean in a rowboat to teach her to dive when she was three years old. By age 12, she sat atop a pillow, weaving at the loom.

“My grandmother wove in me a tapestry that was impossible to unwind,” Vigo said. “Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to the sea, just as those who have come before me.”

Vigo is known as su maistu (‘the master,’ in Sardo). There can only be one maistu at a time, and in order to become one, you must devote your life to learning the techniques from the existing master. Like the 23 women before her, Vigo has never made a penny from her work. She is bound by a sacred ‘Sea Oath’ that maintains that byssus should never be bought or sold.

In fact, despite weaving works for display in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican, Vigo doesn’t have a single piece of byssus in her home. She lives in a modest apartment with her husband, and they live off his pension as a coal miner and donations from visitors who stop by Vigo’s studio.

Instead, Vigo explained that the only way to receive byssus is as a gift. She’s created pieces for Pope Benedict XVI and the Queen of Denmark, but more often than not she embroiders designs for newlywed couples, children celebrating a christening and women who come to her in hopes of becoming pregnant.

“Byssus doesn’t belong to me, but to everyone,” Vigo asserted. “Selling it would be like trying to profit from the sun or the tides.”

But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. According to Małgorzata Biniecka, author of The Masters of Byssus, Silk and Linen, until the 1930s the only other place besides Sant’Antioco where the tradition of sea silk harvesting and embroidering continued was the city of Taranto, Italy.

“A woman there forsake the Sea Oath and tried to establish a commercial byssus industry,” Biniecka said. “A year later, it went bankrupt and she mysteriously died.”

More recently, a Japanese businessman approached Vigo with an offer to purchase her most famous piece, ‘The Lion of Women’, for €2.5 million. It took Vigo four years to stitch the glimmering 45x45cm design with her fingernails, and she dedicated it to women everywhere.

“I told him, ‘Absolutely not,’” she declared. “The women of the world are not for sale.”

Neither is the painstaking process behind her pieces, which she slowly revealed during my four-day visit.

After harvesting raw byssus from the depths of the sea, she desalts the fibers by submerging them in fresh water for 25 days, changing the water every three hours. Once they dry, she cleans the threads with a carding brush to remove any remaining sediment.

Then comes the hardest part: separating each strand of pure sea silk from the tangle of raw byssus. Because sea silk is three times finer than a strand of human hair, Vigo peers through a lamp with a magnifying glass as she delicately plucks each thread of silk using a pair of tweezers.

“It may seem easy now,” she said. “But my fingers have been practicing this for 50 years.”

On several occasions after Vigo extracted a thick tuft of fibers, she ordered me to close my eyes and extend my hand. Each time I felt nothing. After about 10 seconds, I’d open my eyes to see Vigo rolling a weightless cloud of sea silk back and forth on my palm.

Next, she twists the silk manually around a small wooden spindle, usually singing in Sardo – the closest living form of Latin – during the process. When the fibers form a long thread, she grabs a jar of cloudy yellowish liquid from the shelf.

“Now, we’ll enter a magical realm,” she said, dropping the thin thread into a secret concoction of lemon, spices and 15 different types of algae. Within seconds, the thread becomes elastic and she excitedly ushered me outside to show how it shimmered in the sunlight. Vigo has an encyclopedic knowledge of 124 natural dye variations made from fruits, flowers and seashells.

Finally, Vigo intertwines the spun silk into the linen warp using her fingernails. It takes 15 straight days of extracting and dying raw byssus to create enough threads to weave just a few centimeters. Some pieces, like a 50x60cm cloth of pure sea silk weighing just 2g, take six years to stitch. Others, like the larger tapestries draped atop her loom depicting Biblical passages and pagan deities, take even longer.

“There are 140 patterns in my family, eight of which will never be written and have been passed down orally from generation to generation,” she said.

But after more than 1,000 years in the same matrilineal family tree, this ancient thread may soon unravel.

According to tradition, the heir to the byssus secrets is Vigo’s youngest daughter, Maddalena. Like her own grandmother, Vigo began teaching her how to dive and embroider at an early age.

“The only thing she’s missing is the formulas for the dye potions,” Vigo told me.

But there’s a problem: “My mother and I are very different,” Maddalena said from her home in Dublin, Ireland, where she’s been living for the past two years. “People have always told me that I’d be a fool to allow this art to die, but I’m desperately torn. My life is mine.”

What’s more, after creating the world’s only museum dedicated to byssus in 2005, Vigo awoke one day last autumn to find that the government of Sant’Antioco had unexpectedly closed her free Museo del Bisso, citing that the building’s electrical system wasn’t up to code.

“The ‘electrical problem’ was me!” Vigo snapped. “The municipality tried to force me to charge entrance fees and write down my patterns and secrets. But I will defend this sacred oath with my fingernails as long as I breathe!”

The news drew national attention, spurring an online petition that garnered nearly 20,000 signatures – including that of the President of Sardinia – to no avail.

Recently, two young artists started a crowdfunding campaign to help Vigo rent the one-room studio where she now works. Ironically, it’s the same room where Vigo’s grandmother taught her how to spin sea silk 50 years ago. Unless they can raise €85,000 to purchase the rent-to-own property by November 2018, the town will evict her and the world will no longer be able to watch its last sea silk seamstress spin byssus into gold.

On my last evening with Vigo, she led me to a secluded cove where women in her family have prayed for as long as she can remember. As the sun melted into the sea, she stood at the edge of a tidal pool, closed her eyes and began a mystical, almost shamanic chant.

She then reached deep into a bag, pulled out a clump of 300-year-old byssus from a vial, and spun a long thread of sea silk.

“The secrets may die with me,” she said, tying the thread around my wrist. “But the silk of the sea will live on.”

Eliot Stein says compelling storytelling makes the world hum. His work has appeared in The New York Times, WIRED, The Guardian, BBC Travel, The Washington Post, Vice, Condé Nast Traveler, USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, The Independent, The Best Travel Writing book series, and elsewhere. ​ He’s happiest in a kayak, a treehouse, or a bike lane.

Cruise Story Gold Winner: Rogue Wave

May 14th, 2018

By Tina Dreffin

I awakened to someone caressing my foot. It was my husband Peter, announcing my 2 A.M. dogwatch—the time period for me to steer our sailboat at sea, offshore Namibia along the west coast of Africa.

When Peter turned around to head back on deck, I luxuriated beneath the covers. A low, eerie sound of ooooohm-hummmmm reverberated through the hull, like that of a pipe organ. The eerie call was the wind in the rigging as the air filled the hollow boom. Rushing waves echoed through the hulls, sounding like volumes of cascading water.

I stumbled into the main salon, peeled open one sliding glass door a short way, and stuck my head through the opening.

“What’s it like out there?” I asked Peter, who was struggling with the helm. “It sounds wild!”

“We’re in a Force 8, a fresh gale. Waves are three meters. Gear up tight.” Peter shouted back in a muffled tone.

We exchanged a single glance of knowing that left me tense and nervous.

I timed my entry into the cockpit by waiting for a lull in the wind so that I could pull apart the heavy set of doors. After shutting them behind me, I stood mute as I took in the scene before me.

Peter had attached himself to the helm-seat by a thick rope and was clad in neon-yellow gear. Around me, huge black seas thundered, hitting us broadside, battering our little ship. Each time a wave struck from astern, the hulls shuddered and lifted up, moving away from the swell.

Now and then, a gnarly wave broke over the rails, sending a river of seawater down the leeward side, ending in a swirling froth at the stern. I took a deep breath for inner calm and gagged as misty seawater assaulted my throat. I grabbed my neck.

Peter raised the binoculars and slowly swept the jagged horizon. Only a sliver of moon infrequently peeked through bruised skies, bathing crests of waves.

“Anything I need to know?” The cacophony of raging surf ate my words, but Peter got the gist. It was customary to give a brief report when handing over the watch to the fresh crew.

“Maintain tight control of the helm. Make certain the waves hit on the aft quarter. Don’t let her rear up and turn into the wind, or else you’ll be broadside of the waves,” he shouted. “Holler at any time if you need me. I’ll be right in the main salon on the settee.”

After Peter untied himself from the helm seat, I flung myself into it before the winds could rip me away. Peter quickly fastened the rope around me.

“Keep the main salon doors closed. They’re locked from inside to avoid flying open when the boat cants.” His lips moved, but I could only hear a few words and guessed at the rest. Doors. Locked.

We balanced against the violent pitch and roll of the cockpit as he gripped the helm chair. He smiled, edges of exhaustion smoothing away at his cheeks and corners of his mouth. Ever the vigilant Captain, sleep for him on passage was slow and hard in coming. Camped out in the main salon, he was always on call.

Before turning around, Peter kissed me, and then was gone.

Once setting the auto-pilot to self-steer, I took up the binoculars to scan the horizon. Where light blinked in the peaks of waves, my pulse leaped. With a lightening in my stomach, I realized it was the shimmery glow of bioluminescence. Reaching for the flashlight, I shone it forward. On the foredeck was a mere diaper of a jib sail set and the main was triple reefed. I scanned to the right: flying fish darted out of waves, gliding off into the raging void. One landed on deck and flopped. It joined the group of others that studded the trampolines. Breakfast—if the winds didn’t get them first.

I released the auto-pilot to enable self-steering and settled in for a long night. The wind tore at my rubber jacket and pushed waves even higher, but Scud’s wide-flared bows were cleverly designed to cleave them apart. She ran like a bull, sleek and fast, taking the swells on her starboard quarter most of the time. When the swells hit from astern, she flew down each crest in an explosion of white foam with rooster-tails shooting off twin sterns. Landing in the trough, blue-water pushed through the trampolines on the foredeck, but Scud twisted and broke free, jerking side-to-side to steady herself, rising, ready for the next hit. Each time it seemed that she may not rise to meet the cliff of water that bore down on her, but Scud proved her integrity by rising each time.

The water was an inky black under the thick cloud cover. Together as a family we had lived through Caribbean hurricanes, but I had never seen water like this: so menacing and cruel. It glittered in iridescent blackness, moaned and growled in an ugly display of anger.

In the deep valleys between the crests, the wind was blanketed, so we fell into an unnatural stillness. An eerie silence enhanced the menace of this towering slope of water that would soon tumble upon us. In the trough, Scud heeled and threw her head up, climbing the slope in a gut-swooping lift that buckled my knees. As she went up, the cockpit tilted back, and a sliver of the moon filled the view from the cockpit with a vista of the low scudding cloud.

The wind tore at the crest of a wave ahead of her, ripping it away like downy feathers from a burst pillow, splattering custard-thick spume against the armored glass of the windows. Scud drove her wide bows and nosed into it, carving fat wedges of racing blue over her head and twisting violently at jarring impact. At the crest, she dropped over, surfing down and breaking out to fall free to repeat the cycle again.

I remained wedged into the helm-seat, swaying like a camel-driver to the thrust of the sea, turning aft every few minutes to check the swell astern. Having come to grasp the movement of the boat, I reached for the coffee thermos, but it lay just out of grasp. I watched in dismay as the thermos whirled about the cockpit floor, bobbing in seawater.

Man, I needed a caffeine fix so bad: it would be a long and lonely two hours at the helm without its moral support. I judged the next towering swell, set the helm to auto-pilot, and with half a dozen quick moves untied the rope that imprisoned me. I crossed the span of the cockpit in those fleeting moments while Scud steadied in a trough.

A roar resounded so deafeningly loud that I stopped dead in my tracks and peered up. A colossal wave was climbing towards the heavens. It began to barrel down upon us as it clawed at the stern with frenetic energy. We were in its path while stuck in the bottom of an enormous abyss into which we had helplessly fallen. I felt like a doe, rigid in place from the oncoming headlights of a racing train.

The wave looked to be fifteen-feet high. If the hole closed too soon, the force of the breaking wave would bury us completely. My stomach turned to ice and struck me into silence. An uncomfortable premonition of terror invaded my senses.

Rogue wave.

A rogue wave was as lethal as a predator in ambush. Hidden by the dark and turbulent waters, it was a dead sailor’s anecdote of lore.

There was no time to get back into the helm-seat. I wedged myself in behind the cockpit table, splayed tightened limbs against surfaces, and steeled for impact.

In slow motion, the rogue wave curled over the boat. My mouth opened with an anguished scream that grew mute against the cacophonous roar and impending doom.

The giant wave crashed on top of me, crushing my ribcage and squeezing breath from my lungs. I lay buried in its death-like grip as seawater pounded my body. Seawater flooded around me, pooling and swirling in the cockpit.

The demon had knocked me off my feet, leaving me in a tangle of spiraling limbs in swirling waters. As the wave began its rapid descent, water eddied like mini tornadoes, creating a fierce momentum all of its own. The devil was receding fast, and taking me with it.

I clawed at space as motor neurons collided in my brain. I felt fear as never before. It segued into terror as I fought against the pull of the wave.

When at last I found my feet, I lurched for the doors in churning waters and hurled my body against them.
Locked from inside. No! A blood curdling scream flew from my throat. I pounded the doors with clinched fists like a battering ram, begging for life.

“Help! Let me in! Let me in!”

They all came to me like flying angels in the night: Peter first, then Adam and Warren, our teenaged sons. Sam and Gary, crewmembers, ran up from below as well, eyes wide with concern.

They hurled open the doors. Seawater pooled into the main salon. I tumbled into Peter’s arms. He slammed the doors behind me.

“Dear God! I was nearly swept overboard,” I wailed, shaking violently.

I was cold and had come undone; beaten, broken, and tired to the very depths of my soul. I wanted to go into my cabin, crawl under a blanket, and sleep—for a very long time. I choked up, feeling defeated. I wanted to give up.

“How did it happen?” they chorused in unison. Their words of alarm for my safety tumbled out.

“Rogue wave!” I muttered breathlessly.

“It’s okay,” Peter said. “I’ll take your dogwatch.”

Adam turned to face Peter. “No, Dad. You just got off watch. It’s my go. I’ll take Mom’s watch. It’s too rough out there for her.”

Peter looked haggard. Beneath his eyes were deep ridges, the color of slate and large enough to hold a small pearl. I felt my knees buckle under the weight of my despair and had the urge to vomit as nausea rose in my throat. I swayed, and Peter drew me in closer.

I wanted to cry but held back, not wanting to expose my frailty amongst these big men-boys. Too rough for me? Had I had lost my inner battle with the sea…with myself? I had never whined for sympathy in my life. Fighting back waves of queasiness, I rapidly summed up my options.

I had come on this outlandish adventure in search of a new experience. No, I had not been mentally prepared for the dangers, but I still felt a stir of pride and a sense of accomplishment in having gone this far.

In a slow heartbeat, the rumination diminished and slowly—in time—my despair lessened. Panic eased. Abruptly, an outrageous feeling overcame me. I felt the rush that extreme adventure brought, even in the midst of adversity. I began to laugh hysterically, releasing all the pent-up energy and fear stored over the last several weeks.

The laughter came in liquid fire bursts like that of an assault rifle. It sounded strange in my voice. Who was this woman of adventure, laughing uproariously after facing the threat of death?

Confused by my strange outburst, the guys stared at me with incredulity, their mouths like black holes against the green-glow of electronic screens nearby. The glow gave them a bilious cast, teeth blackened as if they were Halloween party-goers. They watched me in tense, electric silence.

“I’m going back out,” I said with a determined voice. Suddenly my mind felt clearer, and I was thinking sharply. “I won’t be beaten.”

Turning around, I collected the wayward thermos of coffee and climbed back on my camel, closing the double doors behind me. When I heard the click of the lock, it sounded like the marching bell to freedom.
I had risen to a new, higher place where I intended to stay. I may stumble along the way again in the future, but I was happy in knowing I would arise again and start over.

And finish.

Tina Dreffin‘s stories and photographs have been published in many magazines, including Cruising World, SAIL, International Living, Multihulls Magazine, Multihull Sailor, and the Caribbean Compass. She has also had work included in the anthology The Best of the Caribbean Compass. Dreffin reared two sons aboard a boat, and in 2005, she took off with her beau and their two teenaged sons to circle the globe. Dreffin’s travels aren’t limited to the sea. She and her family have traveled the world by train, donkey, horseback, bicycle, and plane. Dreffin hosts presentations of her photography and works as a motivational speaker, encouraging families to travel with their children, put down their devices, and get out to explore.

Destination Travel Gold Winner: On the Road with the Lady of the Rockies

May 7th, 2018

By Linda Ballou

As I crested the bluff overlooking Estes Park, the summer sun pushed away the gray that had followed me from Denver (an hour’s drive away) to reveal bluebird skies. The sweet mountain town, guarded by 14,000-foot peaks of the Rocky Mountain National Park, rests in a cleft carved by the Big Thompson River. I was drawn here by the vivid descriptions of this magical place by Isabella Lucy Bird who journaled her stay as she rode 800 miles solo on her mare Birdie in 1873.

I imagined her sense of relief at having finally arrived at what she dubbed the “Inner World.” She had begun her journey by train to Cheyenne, Wyoming and made her way by coach to the home of the Alexanders on the banks of the Big Thompson River in Loveland, Colorado. They were hardscrabble squatters on the land presently occupied by the Sylvan Dale Guest Ranch. Isabella was put to work washing and mending clothes and helping Mrs. Alexander with chores while she waited for a guide to take her to Estes Park. After a grueling ride and many missteps through thickly forested slopes and steep gullies, it became apparent that her guide did not know the way. Having reached an impassable box canyon framed in towering rock pinnacles, they had to turn back.

Undaunted, Ms. Bird managed to get to Longmont and an alternate route that took her up present-day Highway 36 to Estes Park. Today this bustling town is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park. I enjoyed this scenic highway ramble through pine-sheathed mountains in my rental car, but nearly 150 years earlier it had taken Isabella several days to make the strenuous journey on horseback. When she arrived, the valley was spotted with the rough-hewn log cabins of settlers, hunters, and the random misanthrope.

She descended into the valley and was greeted by Mountain Jim—a desperado by her description—who charged a toll to enter nature’s sanctuary. He wore animal skins crudely fashioned into clothing and a revolver at his waist. Strapped to his horse’s saddle pad made from a beaver skin (complete with dangling paws) was a formidable rifle. His demeanor was calm, but his overall appearance was frightening.  Blond curls to his shoulders framed a face that was strikingly handsome on one side and shockingly disfigured on the other. He had only let her see the good profile, shielding her from the fact that he only had one eye and a face badly scarred from a run-in with a bear. Although taken aback by his appearance, she let him guide her to Evans boarding house, the valley’s only lodging, where she was assigned a chink-style log cabin that let the snow filter in during storms.

I felt cozy in my four-poster bed beneath a down comforter at my lodging in Estes Park, as I thought of her waking to a light blanket of snow on her covers and eyelashes crusted in frost. Strangely, this Victorian woman with delicate health found wilderness life invigorating. She felt alive; connected with the turnings of nature and enamored with the vastness of the place. Unspoiled beauty awaited her each morning and prompted her out of bed to see the sun cresting the peaks and casting a crimson glow. She had come in the autumn when burnt orange and golden willows lined the many creeks and the ground was fecund with a mat of falling leaves. She inhaled deeply the scent of pine and rose, eager to tack up Birdie and ride in the park where she met elk and deer on her hacks.

Evans owned cattle grazing land in the meadows that were once home to thunderous herds of buffalo. Since Isabella was an enthusiastic horsewoman, they offered to pay her to gather their cattle. She loved the thrill of rounding up unruly cows and was soon well-respected among the male boarders who rode with her. Lording over the pristine valley was the 14,000-foot-monarch, snow-tipped Longs Peak. As she herded cattle in the park, she became deeply immersed in the staggering beauty of the Inner World. She longed to know the vista from the stern gray face at the top of the world. She knew she couldn’t go alone and asked Mountain Jim if he would take her.

I drove Trail Ridge Road in the RMNP to an overlook with a stunning view of Longs Peak and its neighbors stacked on the horizon. Though hundreds of peak baggers climb the mountain each year, I could not imagine taking up that challenge. I had hiked to pristine, glacier-fed Loch Lake resting at 10,000 feet the day before. The combination of the altitude and the stiffness of the climb had taken all my strength to get there and back. Spreading far below my vantage point were the lush green meadows where Isabella rode shod over Evans’ cattle. Happily, the expansive valley is free of over-grazing today and serves to support the elk, deer, and antelope that are common sightings in the park.

Two of the early Evans’ boarders had wanted to climb Longs Peak as well. Jim agreed to take them, but only if Isabella could come along. Beneath Jim’s rough attire beat the heart of a gentleman. He had a civilized manner and read poetry on dark nights while sipping whiskey by the fire. He was drawn to Isabella, but knew his disfigurement was more than any woman could, or should, bear. They rode to a base camp near Lilly Lake and made the strenuous hike from there. She was wearing her Hawaiian riding dress left over from her days riding on the Big Island (perfect for the tropics, but silly on this climb). Jim provided her with proper boots and a warm coat made from animal skins. Isabella managed to make it to the notch near the top on her own steam, but the strenuous hand-over-hand climb, combined with the altitude, made her weak and breathless. Mountain Jim did not want her to be disappointed, so he literally dragged and, in some instances, carried her on his shoulders to the top of the world. What she saw she expressed as “Nature, rioting in her grandest mood, exclaimed with voices of grandeur, solitude, sublimity, beauty, and infinity.”

After the arduous descent from the mountain, they sat together beside a fire gazing at shivering stars. It is a favorite rumor in the region that her gratitude to him and his admiration for her were given full reign on that night.

Isabella continued her quest to explore points south, including Denver and Boulder, Colorado. I carried on my own explorations, left the Inner World, and headed up Highway 34 towards Loveland and the Sylvan Dale Ranch where I was to spend the night. There is no mention in the guide books of the staggering beauty of this drive that traces the mighty Big Thompson River. The canyon carved over the millennium by this mad rush of water through blocks of granite shooting skyward is often closed due to rock slides and flooding. This is the box canyon that had stopped Isabella short in her first attempt to reach the inner world. The road could not be engineered until 1904.

After her circuit through Colorado, Isabella returned to Evans lodge in the winter to know still beauty, silence, and solitude again. “The park below lying in intense sunlight, with all the majestic canyons which sweep down upon it in depths of infinite blue gloom, and above, the pearly peaks, dazzling in purity and glorious form, cleft the turquoise blue of the sky. How can I ever leave it?” This she asked herself in letters to her sister Henrietta back in Scotland that make up her travel memoir A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

Isabella Lucy Bird would be pleased to know that in spirit she never left the Inner World. Her loving descriptions helped bring attention to the spectacular region protected today from development known as the Rocky Mountain National Park. I was surprised that locals in Estes Park who had lived there many years, and the thousands of hikers who flock to the region each year to re-connect to the wild, did not know her name. Her legacy lives on with me.

Linda Ballou is an adventure travel writer and author of the travel memoir, Lost Angel Walkabout—One Traveler’s Tales, a historical novel; Wai-nani, A Voice from Old Hawai’i; and the novel, The Cowgirl Jumped over the Moon. Find more information at and her blog

Adventure Travel Silver Winner: That Old Time Religion

April 25th, 2018

By James Michael Dorsey

Stories have always come to me in Africa.  I can’t say if it’s the taste, the smells, or the sheer antiquity of the land; or maybe it’s just the sense of belonging I have while I am there, but the words always come.

Because it is a continent lacking in written languages, storytelling serves to preserve not only local history and culture, but also the daily lives so often lost in recorded history.  In Africa, more than in the west, storytelling is an art form.  In West Africa, everyone has a story, and Abraham Boko had more than most.

Ours was a serendipitous meeting founded in a coffee shop in Togo where he was saying his farewells to a tourist group he had just led on something called the “Voodoo Trail.”  He was a gregarious talker, this Togolese giant, whose personality filled the room more than his bulk, and before long we shared a table to discuss our various encounters with world religions.

As my knowledge of Voodoo was limited to movies and books, I had never thought it to be in the realm of religion.  With my then worldly naiveté, I had filed all such unknown things into a xenophobic pile, never to be opened.  But I was there to listen and learn.

Abraham was not exactly a witch doctor as that would be too limiting a term for a man of his talents.  He spoke three local languages and several dialects, but more than anything, he was a griot, one of that ancient brotherhood of nomadic story tellers and myth keepers so treasured throughout the land.  He spoke as he drove; tracing images in the air with one hand, his lyrical voice merging with the sounds of the road, enticing me to an undiscovered place.

He alternated fact with fiction, spiritual with the material, because in Voodoo there is no horizon between the two.  His stories were filled with countless, nameless deities and forest spirits, mischievous sprites that brought Keebler elves to mind, ethereal ancestors that hovered about, and mythical creatures of unknown gender, both good and evil.  He used words like Picasso used paint and I heard truth in every one.  That and his infectious belly laugh drew me in.

He emphatically declared that Voodoo was the oldest known religion on earth, begun in nearby Benin almost six millenniums ago, and an estimated 60% of all West Africans still practice it in one form or another.  Today it remains the official religion of the country.  I thought that to be a story within itself, so when he offered his professional services for the next several days, we shook hands and I placed myself in his care.

The word Voodoo comes with many spellings and is generally attributed to the early Fon people of Benin, in whose language a loose translation means, “spirit” or “deity.”

Animism began as ignorant mans’ awed response to nature, and as it evolved, one omnipotent, unknowable deity gradually emerged who had no name, but who sent forth “Loa” or minor spirits to rule over the daily affairs of the world.  That, in the simplest of terms, became Voodoo.  It carries no dogma, has no rules, and is, in fact, different in each and every village, town, and city, and yet it carries great importance across a third of Africa, much of the Caribbean, and even a southern United State.

All of this was imparted to me by Abraham in a non-stop monologue punctuated with a razor sharp wit and his infectious sense of humor.  It was grand theater in a moving vehicle.  As we drifted ever deeper into the African interior, I felt time regress.  We were exploring another era for which I left my world behind, lost track of days, and had no use for time.  I became an inquisitive child in the bush.

We began deep in the forests of western Benin at a most unusual rock formation that resembles a giant lizard.  It is covered with petroglyphs depicting people dancing around a fire with arms raised simultaneously to the sun and moon, and is much more definitive than similar sites around the world.  Since it is officially dated to 6,000 years ago, local lore says that is physical proof that the first voodoo ceremony took place there.  If that is so, then Voodoo pre-dates all of the earliest forms of organized religion.

We stayed in a different village each night, always welcomed as friends.   There would be an evening fire followed by storytelling of both myth and legend, and each of equal quality.  I likened the griots of West Africa to court performers of the Renaissance but with more panache.  I played drums at a harvest festival, held a baby at a name giving ceremony, and drank more than one “magic “potion.  I danced around a fire with people in a trance, and shared a potent pipe with tribal elders under a blinding white moon.  I could not begin to describe what it was I ate each day.

I gave myself up to the moment and joined a diversity of Voodoo practitioners that was stunning, ranging from the most remote bush nomads, to government officials, to the most sophisticated of townspeople.  The city boy was getting an education.

To simplify an ever evolving belief system, it is a faith that unites people with their ancestors and spirits to aid them in their daily life.  This is achieved through ceremony and dance, always with music, and occasionally, the sacrifice of animals, although this practice is fortunately, quickly falling by the wayside.  For a non- practitioner to explain it more fully is impossible, but in its purest form, it is the earliest and most benign positive thinking system in history, pre-dating Joel Osteen by six thousand years.  It is at once, Kabuki Theater, a religious gathering, festival, community dance, and generally an excuse to cut loose.  I found great similarities between Voodoo and western style Christianity, and here is why.

It originally left Africa in the rotting hulls of slave ships hauling human cargo to the new world and by the time it reached Haiti, it added black to white magic.  Eventually it reached New Orleans, where it merged seamlessly with Catholicism, as New Orleans has always been more Caribbean than American.  Every Christian saint, right up to the Virgin Mary, has a Voodoo equivalent, and Voodoo ceremonies are openly conducted in more than one Catholic Church.  There is even a statue in one church to Saint Expedite, who is a Voodoo deity, but not a Christian one.  Perhaps the greatest example of transplanted Voodoo is Mardi Gras, the vestigial result of a harvest festival that migrated from Burkina Faso in the fog of history.

The most significant incident of our entire journey took place on our final day together.  We had driven overnight to a remote village to attend an Egun Gun (Egoon Goon) dance.  The Egun are a secret male society that use flamboyant costumes in ceremonies in which they work themselves into a trance in order to channel deceased ancestors.  As their vehicles, they become quite literally, the living dead, at least for an hour or so.

The general bush belief of rural tribes is that their ancestors literally sleep only inches below in the earth, as opposed to a Christian belief in a heaven, and they can, with the help of facilitators such as the Egun, re-visit their families through their surrogate bodies.  It is supposed to be a time of joy and celebration, but just not this time.

Since the dancer is channeling the living dead, the belief is that anyone he touches will be drawn, for good or bad, into the spirit world.  Now, the good people of West Africa all expect to enter that world one day, but only after a long and happy life here on earth first, and they have no desire to speed up the process. The dancers go out of their way not to touch anyone, and each of them has a man assigned to them who uses a long stick to intervene should a dancer approach a viewer too closely.  I was observing all of this through my view finder and not taking in the big picture when a dancer passed me, and his long flowing robe grazed my arm.  So much for the guy with the big stick.

There was immediate silence. Drummers stopped, the world quit spinning, and people froze in place.  The chief witch doctor, known as a Mambo, stood up and began barking orders.  Abraham told me to keep perfectly still.  My immediate reaction was one of those inappropriate giggles that involuntarily come from deep inside at awkward moments, like laughing at a traffic accident.

A most serious looking gentleman rushed to my side and began chanting while passing a strange object over, and all around my body, much like a TSA screener at an airport.  Abraham explained that he was using the femur of a lion, inlaid with magical cowrie shells and killed by a mighty warrior, and thus was a powerful weapon against bad ju-ju; his term for what I was experiencing.   People began to close in, forming an ever tightening circle around me.

Only then did the enormity of the situation hit me.  I had not only gone from observer to participant in an ancient ritual in the blink of an eye, but I was undergoing an exorcism!

Now, even though I had no personal concerns of forest demons hustling me off into the netherworld, the crowd of people surrounding me at that point did, and that realization was daunting.  I got the feeling that if I were to be physically lifted to be carried away by whatever means, they would all grab hold and not let go of me, not because it would be a terrible thing, but because as an outsider I would not understand what was happening to me.  I was their guest and this should not happen.

The mambo with the lion femur finished passing it over my body and slumped to the ground as two young men came to assist him back to his seat, physically and emotionally spent.  Abraham was explaining everything to me in real time and said that if successful, the bad ju-ju had been drawn out of me and into the lion bone.  So I asked him what came next, and he looked at the ground and said quietly, “We wait and see.”

The next few moments were the greatest emotional crisis I have experienced on a journey.  I was the focal point of a religious ritual I did not personally believe in, but had the greatest respect for, and so I had an obligation to continue with all due severity. I was in unchartered territory, treading water, but I had to make the believers believe that I was one of them.  I stood there like the bullseye of a target, waiting.

My heart pounded like a hammer under the baking sun.  An intruder coming upon the scene might think it a movie set.  Hundreds of eyes were on me, chanting, praying, and willing good to overcome evil.  It was then that I noticed the dancer whose robes had touched my arm.  He had removed his headgear and was watching with fierce intent.  It hit me, perhaps naively, that if he could do that, his ancestor spirit must not be interested in me.  I was OK!

After several moments, the head man loudly pronounced something I could not understand and the village erupted like the crowd at a college football touchdown.  I would be fine, but the momentary elation again turned silent.

The crowd began touching me, taking my hand, pushing small children forward to have me lay a hand on their head.  Abraham explained that I had gone to the edge of the spirit world and come back, and no one had done that before.  He said that certainly, if I had been a villager, I would have been taken away, but that as a foreigner, I had very powerful ju-ju, so people wanted to touch me in hopes of it entering them.  Abraham embraced me and I could see he had been crying.  We stayed until I had spoken to every person in the village, even though none of us had any idea what the other was saying.  In the end, I fell into the Land Rover like a limp rag.

Such a powerful experience shaped my emotions for the next several days.  I just did not feel normal and Abraham explained that it was lingering spirits still refusing to let me go.  While I did not truly believe that, at journeys’ end, with all western prejudices and stereotypes of Voodoo exposed, I came away with a new appreciation for the world’s oldest religion.

Since that time I have stayed in touch with Abraham.  He is one of those enlightened few who enter your life for a few days on the road and manage to find the path into your heart.  Even though he keeps trying, I still consider myself ignorant of much of the nuances of Voodoo.

Most recently a talisman arrived in the mail with an announcement of the birth of Abraham’s new son.  He told me that he took the infant to a diviner to find out what life path he would follow and was told that he would be a powerful leader who would use words to communicate.

In Africa, all names have meaning.

He had named his son for me.

James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author and explorer who has traveled in 48 countries to visit remote cultures before they vanish.

He has written for Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, BBC Wildlife, Geographic Expeditions, Panorama, and is a frequent contributor to United Airlines and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Wend, Natural History, and GoNomad. He writes for numerous African magazines, and is a travel consultant to Brown & Hudson of London, and correspondent for Camerapix International of Nairobi.

His last book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available from all major booksellers. His stories have appeared in 18 anthologies, including The Best Travel Writing (Volumes 10, and 11) from Travelers’ Tales, plus the 2016 Lonely Planet Travel Anthology. He has won the grand prize for best travel writing from the Solas Awards, Transitions Abroad, and Nowhere Magazine.

He is a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner: Mitty in Rome

March 16th, 2018

By Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Grand Prize Bronze winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards


They have cleaned the fountain in the Piazza of Santa Maria in Trastevere. This means that it no longer works.  Water spills over the basin and down the sides.

On the lone dry step, the King of the Gypsies has taken his throne.  He is young – well, younger than me, which qualifies enough of the world these days.  He wears a patchwork coat of many colors and a pair of old pajama pants.  He carries a tall staff whose top is adorned with feathery rags in profuse colors.  Some days I see him begging; in early mornings on my way to work I have seen him asleep in doorways. But I have also seen men kneel before him and buss both of his cheeks.

Full disclosure requires me to say that I have invented his lofty title. He may not even be a gypsy, let alone a king.  He may be just a tattered leftover hippie.  But this is the problem with traveling and teaching in Italy while residing permanently in a fiction mind.

Italy flips the fiction switch.

The winding medieval streets echo the footfalls of the Gypsy King.  He is running, his staff held high, his feet flying over the rain-wet cobblestones.  The backpack was easy to nick, lying there against the chair. And stealing is never wrong if it helps the tribe.

He hopes that there is something in the pack worth selling.  He ducks under an archway, yanks the zipper and fumbles inside the bag.  One jacket. Worthless, but it will fit some member of his family.  An iPad. Password protected. Too bad, because it has a camera.  It might have fetched a hundred euro.  Something else, heavy, in the bottom of the bag.  He reaches in, fishes it into the weak yellow light cast by the streetlamp.  And then for the first time in his life, the wild Gypsy King knows the slow thunder, the hot wrench of fear.

Pay attention!

In Trastevere every resident owns a dog or two and there are no laws regarding scoopers.  The resulting offal is smeared into the pavement by Vespas and street cleaning machines; the walker must be constantly vigilant.

Tourists must be vigilant against the gypsies too.  Italian cities like Milan have outlawed them completely, but gypsies are omnipresent in Rome. Near Colosseo and at the train station, they will reach into purses and pockets.  At the trattorias of Trastevere, they beg tableside.

One day a gypsy came to my table.  She began to weep, instantaneous and soggy.  She pointed to her mouth.  I offered her bread, but she waved her hand in disdain and stalked away. A half hour later she returned. She pointed imperiously to my basket of bread and to my Irish friend Rosie’s chicken. Neither of us had enough Italian to ask her if bread and chicken would persuade her to leave us alone. I handed the gypsy the entire basket of bread; Rosie gave her a parsley-dotted chicken breast. The gypsy slapped the slab of chicken between two slices of thick Roman bread and strode away, now fortified for the real work of the begging.

Sounds fictive, doesn’t it?  But no, this is straight reportage.

When considering how and why Italy spurs the fictive imagination so easily, this may be the first clue: here the truth is far, far stranger than the fiction.

St Luigi de Francesii

We have come to the French Church of Rome where I hope to feel some mastery of language. I have been stuttering through my Italian for weeks; thus far, I can order food and buy tickets for the Metro.

In French, I stand a chance of having an actual conversation, a thought beyond pasta and biglietti.  In French, I might hazard a metaphor.

Beside the door, at the  Cathedral desk, sits a bespectacled Oriental man who speaks flawless Parisian French. We converse about French Masses and stained-glass windows and I feel a deep sense of personal victory. I wonder if he feels the same each time he speaks the language. I wonder how he learned it and where and why.

Before my mind can begin to spin his story—the escape from China after Tiananmen Square, the hidden year in a French monastery—our friend Mike, professor of Roman art history, leads us to the front corner of the church where a crowd clusters around an Italian guide who holds an iPad aloft.  On the iPad, I can see a shadowy angel.

Behind her in the murky corner are three indistinct paintings, but she inserts a euro into a little machine and a light flickers on.

The paintings are Caravaggios.

Unprotected by glass or guards, adorning the walls of the chapel, are The Calling, The Martyrdom and The Inspiration of St. Matthew. There is no gate, not so much as a rope between us and the painting.

In The Inspiration of St. Matthew, an angel floats above the Saint, his brooding wings the dark gray and black of Roman ravens, his white robe swirling around him in a cyclone of fabric. Matthew, garbed in deep yellow-orange, is kneeling on a rough-hewn stool.  Characteristic of Caravaggio, the saint’s feet are dirty.

I know that Caravaggio was a man with anger issues, that he tried to instigate fights around Rome, especially when he was flush. I have read that eventually he killed a man and spent the rest of his life on the run. I know that he often painted peasants, harlots. Of course, he was the master of chiaroscuro.

Professor Mike tells us that these paintings are some of Caravaggio’s earliest and that he was living in the home of a Cardinal just behind the church.  And then he makes the mistake of saying that The Inspiration of St. Matthew is not the original painting, that the Church would not hang the original painting because it was theologically incorrect. Volatile Caravaggio was required to render an entirely new painting.  He did so.  In one month. Just like that, I have forgotten our Oriental gate man.  I am standing in a room with Caravaggio.

“Damn their eyes!  Damn their money-grubbing souls.”

He slaps the dark background on the blank canvas, gestures with his brush at his model.

“Theologically incorrect!  As if they know theology in their rich palaces, their gold and marble churches.  Jesus consorted with harlots! Taxmen.  Poor people in bare feet.”

He gestures at the model.  “Bare feet! Can you ever imagine one of them with their crimson robes and their excellent wines in their bare feet?”

He is so agitated now that the stabbing brush sends droplets of paint flying through the air.  The model steps aside as one deep burgundy droplet lands on the bench where he has been kneeling.  He swabs at it with a cloth, rearranges his knee on a dry spot, draws his saffron robe around him.  He has learned to remain perfectly quiet during these tirades, still as an object. 

He has been modeling St. Matthew for months now, one tableau after another.  Caravaggio pays well, but it is surely the money of the Church.  The artist’s studio is dark and cluttered, his living rooms noxious with the smell of leftover food and unwashed clothing.  The light is feeble, edging in through a single window, as if fearful of the artist.

Not surprising, because his rages are titanic, thunderous.

Now he swabs his brush through the delirious orange on his palette.

“I will give them theology. God lives among the dirty and the poor. I will give them a pigeon-winged angel.”

He laughs suddenly, a gusting of wind.

“What say you, my Matthew? Should I send you a raven or a pigeon?”

The model realizes that an answer is required of him.  He sighs.  “Either would be fearsome,” he says. “Or any angel.”

The artist regards him for a moment, his head tilted, then he nods, a smile spreading across the wide face.

“Of certainty,” he says. “Of course.”

The light in the alcove snaps off. Sometime, while I was Mittying away, the Italian guide and her charges have disappeared. In fact, everyone has disappeared. I am standing alone in the shadowed alcove. I regard the three paintings from my solitary darkness. Through the light from the rainy window, one thing stands out in each painting: the hand of Christ, the whirling robe of the angel, the gleaming body of St. Matthew’s murderer.  Each looks as though it has been lit intentionally by the wan light from this very window.

Fearsome indeed.

Back in my appartamente, I discover that the original St. Matthew and the Angel was destroyed by bombing in World War II.  I feel a terrible sense of personal loss. I search it out on the Internet. Trapped in its digital world, the original painting still tells its story. St. Matthew is a bald, gangling peasant, his arms work-roped, his feet dirty, his face in the presence of the angel confused, frightened.  But the leaning, childlike angel has white, white wings.

Ostia Antica

Once it was the opulent Port of Rome, before the sea packed its bags and moved away, rendering the city obsolete, a beautiful ruin.

In my increasingly fluent Italian, I ask the fellow at the ticket window for a price break for my students (C’e un premio ridotto per mi studenti?)

 Non non Professoressa.

They pay full price.

Language may not be the ticket to the world after all.

But three of them have accompanied me today and I am hoping that they will feel the same magic that I felt on my first visit.

The day is glorious, that Roman blue and green that is too dazzling for any camera and my students are perishing with hunger. We select our lunches and carry them outside to sit in the sunshine.  We linger and tell stories, always stories.

One of my students met Pope Francis the day before.  He practiced everything he wished to say, but when the time came, he sputtered out, “You have a nice church.”  With good, self-deprecating humor, he tells us the story and we roll in our chairs with laughter.

Tourists from quieter countries eye us with suspicion, but the dogs of the place know a generous table when they hear one. Without warning, they line up beside us, an old yellow dog with a pronounced limp and a white mastiff bigger than a lab.  We feed them and they lie down beside us in the sun. I consider them a good omen.

After lunch, our papal storyteller launches himself down a weedy, unkempt hill toward a low-slung brick archway.  I watch as he leans his six foot plus frame down below the arch.  He turns and looks up at me.  “Professor,” he says, “I think you should come down here.”

I hesitate.  Are there ticks in Italy? Should they keep me from finding a story?

“Really,” he says urgently.  “You need to look down here.”

The ceiling is low; a series of descending arches fade away toward a circular room off in the distance.  In its center is a vague white statue, positioned beneath a weedy porthole, pale light gleaming down on marble.

I lower my head and duck-walk my way toward the statue, nearly crawling through the low-slung passageway. When I am close enough I stand and gasp.  My student has discovered a Mithraeum.

Mithras was a god of the Roman soldier; he gave hope to men who had been trained to die. The all male religion, which began in Persia, was practiced in secret temples, learned in hidden schools. It included seven very secretive levels of initiation, followed by feasts.  Much simplified, the young god Mithras slays a white bull; the bull’s death brings fertility to the Earth. For performing this task, Mithras is taken into heaven, where he serves as a mediator between god and man.

Our discovery is particularly spectacular this day because I have been teaching a course called Caesar vs. the Gauls – from the Gallic point of view – but heavy with the trappings of soldiery on both sides.  We have discussed both Mithraism and Druidism.

Here, deep beneath the earth, the boy Mithras sits astride the bull, yanking back hard on its neck. His right arm is raised, but the hand that holds the knife is gone. His curled marble hair is green with mildew. Spider webs dangle from the porthole above his head, catching the light, his frail and gossamer crown.

My student says, “Didn’t you tell us that there were Gallic slaves in this city?”

She has soaked the copper hair and braided it tight to her skull. Wet, it looks darker.  She hurries along the cryptoporticus beneath the villa. Rumor among the slaves is that Great Caesar – no greatness among her people – is to be honored at a banquet. 

Aeius forces her breathing to calm. Nothing can let them suspect what she is; her kind are the first to die under Caesar. Her markings are hidden, deep beneath her robes.

Her task is to protect the boy. To that end, she reminds herself to bend her knee before Caesar. The boy has never known his father, the great Chief of the Arverni, who languishes in the prison of Caesar. The boy must not be discovered for any slip on her part.

As she rises into sunlight, she sees that it is Lexis Barbatus, the bull worshipper, who stands guard at the door, his uniform gleaming in reds and metals. Barbatus pays her too much mind. She suspects that he spies for Caesar. All his questions probe. 

“Ah lovely Aeius,” he greets her.  “You have hidden the copper hair?”

“My master has asked me to serve at the feast.” She keeps her eyes lowered. She remembers to speak in broken Latin. Barbatus is not deterred.

“What will you say to Great Caesar?” he asks her.

“I am too lowly for Caesar,” she answers. 

“Are you?”

She mutters toward his sandals, “I am only a slave.”

She does not tell him that she knows his secret, has seen the boy astride the bull in his hidden temple below the ground. She does not tell him that her people knew of this religion long before Barbatus knew.

He lifts her chin.

“But perhaps not always a slave, eh?”

She wants to spit in his laughing eye. She longs to lift her hand, to intone the words that would fell him like his slaughtered bull.

She wants him to know that Caesar is not the only Power.

But she schools her face, thinks only of the boy.

I step from the cave into sunlight. Does history press its weight on everyone? Sometimes, I swear that I can hear them, see their shadows moving among the stones. The longer I stay in Italy, the harder it is to shake the past away, to carry on as though it is not whispering above us, below us, still animate in the air.


In my first sweltering week in Rome, I went to the Forum. I walked the Via Sacra, where Caesar himself walked, likewise St. Peter, St. Paul. My running shoes slid across the smooth stones, slipped into ruts left by chariot wheels. Flowering weeds bloomed in front of the Cloaca Maxima, the first sewer to drain this swamp, to allow the Romans to descend from their seven hills, to forge their terrifying Empire.

Later, deep beneath the Earth, carved into the soft tufa of Rome, I passed my hand across grave after grave in the catacombs of the early Christians.  Carved on the walls were the tributes of family members to a beloved daughter, a martyred son.  Past a labyrinth of hallways, up a tipsy set of stairs, we entered an oval chamber.  Here the Christians would hold feasts above the tombs.  Dies Natalis, they called them, making the day of death the day of birth instead.  A tiny stone, early graffiti really, says simply On this day I ate here with Peter and Paul.

And there, of course, is another novel—the befuddled saddened Peter, still bereft at the loss of his Lord, Paul with all his moral certainty, his charging energy.  Together. At a dining table.  In a catacomb.

Stories are out walking around, waiting to be seen, to be heard, to be told. All of us who tell them know that to be true.

In Italy, time sends postcards.


When I had been here for a while, I went to St. Peter’s Basilica very early in the morning.

The square was empty.

Inside, the space was momentarily a Church, not yet transformed as a tourist site. I wanted to see Michelangelo’s Pieta alone. The Madonna leaned above Jesus in the early morning light. Her tilted face was so young.  Her right arm was taut against the flesh of her son’s back, her face resigned to bearing up her broken child.

There is a story that the young Michelangelo was in the Vatican when he heard someone attribute his Pieta to the Milanese artist Gobbo.  Angered, Michelangelo sneaked into the church at night, a lamp of candles around his head, and by that meager flickering, carved his name across the Madonna’s chest.  Knowing that this would infuriate the Church, he had prepared a cart and donkey and he fled away in darkness.  Later, he came to think of his vanity as a sin, but what he knew then was this; the Madonna had been inside the marble and she had called, not to Gobbo, but to him.

He bends above the looking glass.  His is a face of angles and planes.  The bent nose, the wide domes beneath the high bones of the cheek.  The work has aged him.

Once, when he was young—an apprentice still—there was a boy who watched him practice at a dog.  “How did you know,” the child asked, “that the dog was hidden in the stone?”

Perhaps the only one who ever understood.

Now, his shoulders are crooked, permanently bent. His neck aches. Four years beneath the arch of that ceiling. Old as Jeremiah.  More years still of chipping, chipping, chipping at the stone, but what must he do?  “Can you see me?”  they ask him.  “Can you tell my story?”

He hopes that he has done just that, at least.

Because the work, at last, is holy.

It is past midnight and he is tired.  He yanks his velvet dressing gown of green around him, reaches for his work boots. He longs to lie down for just a moment, rest across his bed.

He regards the raw marble before him for a long silent time. Then, he nods once, sighs.

He rises with his chisel in his hand.

Juilene Osborne-McKnight is the author of four Irish historical novels, I am of Irelaunde, Daughter of Ireland, Bright Sword of Ireland, Song of Ireland, all from MacMillan, and the recent journalistic history of Ireland, The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans, from Pelican. Since 2013 she has been a travel writer and photographer for Calkins Media in Pennsylvania.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Crossing Shibuya

March 7th, 2018

By Aaron Gilbreath

Within Tokyo’s populous Shibuya ward lies the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. By some estimates, 2,500 people cross here during rush hour each time the signal changes. Locals call it “The Scramble.” Every day, over two million passengers pass through neighboring Shibuya Station, commuting to work and enjoying the area’s countless shops and restaurants. Many of them pass through The Scramble. When traffic lights turn red, they all turn red simultaneously, stopping ten lanes of automobile traffic and sending pedestrians from five separate crosswalks into the massive intersection. For nearly one full minute, people flood the street in what seems an explosion of human buckshot. To the casual observer, the surge resembles chaos ─ all these bodies, weaving and darting, moving in different directions across each other’s paths. Yet there is order to it, a choreographed chaos. As Los Angeles Times writer John M. Glionna said in 2011, “Despite so much humanity inhabiting such a confined space, there’s rarely a collision, sharp elbow, shoulder-brush or unkind word.” When you watch footage of The Scramble, you can’t help but wonder what holds this system together. How do people remain so well-behaved?

Tokyo residents learn to be aware of people around them and to share the city’s close quarters. Although Tokyo isn’t the world’s densest city ─ a few cities in India, China and Bangladesh are denser ─ Tokyo is one of the densest. 11,300 people live in Tokyo per square mile, compared to Mumbai at 80,100 per square mile, and Surat, India at 75,000. Tokyo space is scarce. It’s expensive. Because it’s precious, people respect it and give each other whatever room they can spare. They expect the same in return.

The reason The Scramble succeeds is culture. Busy places like Trader Joe’s in Manhattan require staff members to hold “End of Line” signs to help create order and civility, and too many Americans create traffic jams by refusing to let other cars merge in front of them on the freeway. But in Japan, the communal values and sense of responsibility that make capsule hotels work are the same values at work at Shibuya crossing. Crowded or not, pedestrians are largely considerate, and in places like the crossing, the combination of cultural factors fosters harmonious interactions and a polite type of madness. This uniquely Japanese species of conscientiousness is called omoiyari, and it applies to spatial awareness. “It means the active sensitivity to other people,” anthropology professor Merry White, and author of Coffee Life in Japan, told the Wall Street Journal. “It anticipates the needs and desires of other people. It’s not broad-brush, it’s fine-tuned.” Schools teach children omoiyari. That doesn’t mean places like the crossing doesn’t drive people crazy.

I spent a few days in Shibuya, first observing and walking The Scramble, and then interviewing pedestrians on the street. With the help of an old classmate’s bilingual niece, I asked people how they go about crossing here, if they have particular techniques, how crowds affect them and why they think The Scramble functions so smoothly. I also asked about a unique gesture that pedestrians supposedly use as a turn signal, called tegatana o kiru, or ‘sword hand.’ A lot of videos of The Scramble exist, but I had yet to find a detailed article about its inner workings in English. I wanted to understand it. One idea I kept wondering was whether group dynamics in Japan could teach Americans to improve the ways we get along. A cynical part of me doubted it. We were too far gone. But another part of me hoped that if we Westerners learned more about how the Japanese people made teeming shared spaces work, maybe we could learn to be more cognizant and respectful of each other. With half the earth’s seven billion people now living in cities, and the world population projected to reach 10.5 billion by 2050, we had better learn, because our future looks a lot like the crossing.

* * *

I first visited Shibuya on a Thursday afternoon. I was headed to the famous Disk Union record store. I feared I might get lost, so I drew myself a map. If you explore Tokyo, you eventually get lost, spending a lot of your time disoriented and confused, and once I got out of Shibuya Station, every direction looked the same. Was that north or south? Shibuya, like Shinjuku and Harajuku, was one massive circuit board of soaring glass towers striped with vertical signage and flashing lights. I knew the great crossing was nearby, but I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t see anything. Tokyo swallows its compass rose and devours the sun, leaving visitors with little natural sense of direction, only GPS on your phone if the battery works and you could get a signal, neither of which worked for me.

A large map stood on a sign near the station exit, so I studied it. The shapes vaguely matched those on my drawing, though the image didn’t instill confidence. I looked around. Two young women and a man huddled nearby. When I asked for help, they smiled and nodded. “I’m looking for Disk Union,” I said.

“Record store.”

“Disk Union,” they kept saying. “Disk Union.”

Together we studied the map as they talked amongst themselves. While we stared at the maze of streets, the guy eventually found it on a map on his phone, and the group determined which way to walk. Smiling, they flashed a thumbs up. “Come with us,” one woman said.

They led me along a busy sidewalk beside the enormous station. They were nursing students with the Shibuya Red Cross. As we walked, one woman told me, “I went to New York, um─” Her gaze trailed off into space and she laughed. “I buy shows, gifts. Empire State Building. I went up to see the lights.” She looked at me as if for cues, then remembered: “My friend─at night.” She crossed her arms in an X to signal how her friend didn’t want to go out. “She was scared. But I wanted to go at night. To have fun.” Fun and danger, two basic ingredients in world travel. Here I was alone at sunset, being led not mugged by friendly strangers once again, as I had this entire trip.

“New York at night can be scary,” I said. “Nothing to worry about here. It is safer here.”

“Yes it is,” they said in unison, proud of this fact about their incredible country.

I’d imagined my first time at Shibuya Crossing as some profound experience that, like losing your virginity, I would have with intent. After preparing myself mentally, I would pause for a moment and draw a deep breath before diving into the throng and giving it the undivided attention of all my five senses. Instead, like your first time having sex, what happened happened spontaneously and quickly, without any of the imagined ceremony.

The three friends and I walked. When I looked up, I was standing on the edge of the world’s busiest intersection. There was the famous two-story Starbucks looming overhead. There was the big black and yellow L’Occitane en Provence cafe. And at my feet stretched the white painted lines of one of the five crosswalks. I’d viewed this in countless photographs. I’d built it up in my mind. Now here I was, with people gathering around and in front and behind me by the hundreds, their bodies forming a huge coalescing mass that snaked down two nearby streets.

Shoppers, commuters, school girls, teenagers, punks with died blue hair – the crossing contained a cross-section of the city. Businessmen’s fancy leather shoes clicked as they ran to their trains. Graying ladies shuffled as fast as they could, their hunched bodies dwarfed by the ruler straight skyscrapers. The nursing students kept talking, but their voices sank into the hum. I nodded blankly as my head spun to take it all in.

Maybe the first time was better without the buildup. What images couldn’t capture was the sensation. This gap between skyscrapers created a massive hall where the open air felt like the center of a sports arena, and the frigid winter wind blew through the vacuum, taking in the breath of thousands of commuters in this spot where tense, bustling Tokyo finally stopped walking for a moment and paused between appointments. Even more astounding than its appearance was the tension. The space held a sense of impending movement, of mounting inertia as all of those people pooled like water behind a dam, building pressure and waiting, all waiting, for that moment of release.

The signals said don’t walk and remained red. Tiny cabs and boxy vans rushed through the intersection, hugging the curves and seizing their moment before the cycle turned over and the crowds closed in.

The mob and I waited. And waited. The crowd behind me hardened. The cold air blew. As the Japanese proverb says, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” Then it happened. The green light flipped a switch inside us. We walked, all at once, as a body. But it wasn’t a body. It was thousands of tiny organelles that composed a cell, pinging and bouncing inside the intersection and somehow staying within the lines. The crowd was enormous, and moving in it made me wonder if this was how spawning salmon felt. Your individuality dissolved. You relinquished yourself to the group, and yet, somehow, you retained your autonomy as you weaved through the group, choosing how you maneuvered, or how you closed your eyes and didn’t maneuver at all, but instead walked forward, hoping to avoid impact with the people shooting past you, and waiting until it ended.

Pedestrians darted. They ducked. They did the New York City shoulder-tuck where they drew in their arms and pivoted their torso to avoid brushing each other. Some cut diagonally across peoples’ trajectories in order to increase efficiency, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and why make a big arc when you can make a beeline? The human buckshot fired from multiple muzzles, yet everyone remained calm. Those who ran seemed to to make the light or catch a train, not from panic. Most walked, calmly, coolly, and everyone in their path adjusted accordingly. Like a symphony, the collective result was miraculous in its complexity, with the component parts moving apart and in sync to create an ensemble that erased the individual. There was no me, no you or them. There was only we, this stream of bodies, passing without colliding.

The signal allots a full minute, but within seconds we had crossed. Like most important moments, this one passed before I could take it all in, and the event was so uneventful to my guides that they hardly noticed. They’d talked the entire time, asking me about America and music, then leading me past restaurants and clothing stores, and finally, to the record shop.

“Here it is,” the man said. There it was: one of the record stores I’d long wanted to visit. I felt excited to shop, yet my mind remained on the previous block. It felt like I’d just experienced one of the wonders of the modern world, and no one was talking about it. Hadn’t that been incredible? Didn’t they know how that was completely unique? The students smiled, and when I thanked them for their help, we all shook hands and the second woman said to me, “Have a good time in Japan.” Her kindness crushed me, and I felt ashamed that my Japanese was so limited that I could only reciprocate in English. They waved as they walked off, merging with the crowds that streamed through Shibuya. And once again I was alone amid the millions.

With a list of albums to find, I ducked down a narrow spiral staircase into the basement and pawed through crates of records and CDs for two hours. When I emerged, I spent time on the sidewalk, watching the swarms. I’d lived in New York for a year. I used to navigate Grand Central Station at rush hour. This was different. Two days later, I came back to speak with pedestrians to understand how this worked. As one Tokyo resident told me: “Crowds? They don’t bother me. This is organized. Everything is organized in Japan.”

* * *

Before Shibuya became a transit hub, the Shibuya family built a castle here in the 11th century. The land was rolling. The family farmed. Centuries passed. In the early 1600s, a Tokugawa shogun named Ieyasu built a castle in what’s now the Tokyo area. Back then, Tokyo was a fishing village called Edo. Kyoto was Japan’s capital, as it had been for eight hundred years. But that shifted in 1603 when the Tokugawa began their nearly 300 year rule, marking the time called the Edo Period which was defined by peace, economic growth, internal cohesion and isolation from the increasingly globalized world. Ieyasu made Tokyo his military headquarters, and the Shibuya family eventually abandoned their castle as Japan’s local clans relinquished power to the Tokugawa.

During the 1700s and 1800s, villagers moved to Tokyo for work. The small towns dotting the area swelled, and their edges began to connect, growing the collection of villages into one massive city, and filling the swaths of open land and swamps that lay in between. By 1800, over a million people lived in Tokyo, making it the world’s largest city. As historian Edward Seidensticker describes in his book Tokyo Rising, despite how huge Tokyo had become, in the late 1800s, Shibuya was still in the country, separate from Tokyo. That changed when the first Shibuya Station opened in 1885 to handle what eventually became the Yamanote Line. “It was with the Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War,” Seidensticker writes, “and especially the latter, that Shibuya began to turn into something more than a sleepy country village.”

Although Allied bombers destroyed much of Tokyo during WWII, people rebuilt it and quickly got back to living. As the population grew, so did the train lines, the stations and the need for electricity, and the Tokyo subway system grew into the most efficient and complex subway in the world, where trains almost always run on time.

If you’re a tourist in Tokyo, you’ll take a train to the hot spots: Shinjuku, Harajuku, Ginza and Shibuya. These are sakariba, which Seidensticker defines as bustling places “where crowds gather.” In Shibuya at night, lights from giant billboards and TV screens creat subtle flashes that make it look like God is flickering the cosmic dimmer on and off. Car headlights cast pedestrians’ shadows deep into the intersection. Night crowds are thinner but no less monumental.

People keep their eyes forward or aimed at their feet, whites hovering above paper surgical masks. It’s hard to tell if they’re uncomfortable or terrified. Their faces give little away. One night one teen did look horrified. Maybe he wasn’t used to Tokyo crowds. Maybe he was from inaka, the sticks. Otherwise, most people look confident, or at least blasé, as if this is just the way things are, no big deal.

Cars seem anxious, probably because they know the city favors trains and pedestrians. Some turn too late and get stuck in the intersection, where the crowd encases them and blocks their escape. One cab got stuck by a mob in the center of the crosswalk. Completely enclosed, people streamed all around it. The car sat swallowed, like cop cars during riots in America. Once the crowd thinned at the end of the cycle, the cab inched forward and wiggled free.

Now that I’d crossed it, it was time to go inside. So on one sunny Saturday, I stood on the street and asked pedestrians about their strategies for not running into other people. Interestingly, many didn’t realize they had a strategy until pushed to reflect on it.

Akari, a twenty-four-year-old graphic designer in a black coat and maroon ski cap, worked in Shibuya and had lived in Tokyo her whole life. Her technique? “I figure out which people are going to come right in front of me in the moment, and somehow avoid those people. I avoid people and kind of go forward diagonally.” Akari didn’t think Japan was too crowded, only certain Tokyo wards like Shibuya and Minato. “If you go a bit further out,” she said, “like Taitō Ward or Nerima Ward, it’s not too crowded.” The Scramble didn’t bother her, but having to commute home on the crowded Den-en-toshi subway line did. So did Harajuku’s Takeshita-dōri, a street she found so stressful she avoided it entirely.

Yōhei Kanata, twenty-nine, grew up in Osaka and moved to Tokyo three years ago. He had a simple technique: “Well, I can kind of see the route that I’m going to take in front of me. Like I know I want to cut through, like so.” Crowds were normal, so they rarely irked him, though he did get frustrated by drunk commuters who got too close on packed trains when he was tired after work. “They stink,” he said, “like reek of alcohol. Plus, they sway around.” The weird young punk kids called yankī also irritated him. “They’re always around yelling about something. When I see that I’m like, ‘What’s up with these guys?’ That’s about it.”

Skateboarding prepared thirty-four-year-old engineer Miwaya for The Scramble. Dressed in green pants, a green ski cap and a black knee-length jacket with a fur collar, he’d moved to Tokyo from Kushiro, Hokkaido ten years ago. To avoid bumping pedestrians, he stood close to the street, so when the light turned green, he was in front of the crowd. He laughed when he admitted this. “Is that too obvious? Everyone is trying not to run into others as they walk. Sometimes you do run into people not looking in front of them, but that’s rare.” He focused on what was in front of him and didn’t look to the sides. As a skater, he was good at maneuvering.

A young woman from Kanagawa, outside of Tokyo, tried to avoid Shibuya crossing on weekends. When she came here, she adjusted her speed to the pace of those around her. “If you do that you don’t usually run in to people,” she said. “Also, uh… I guess other than that I just am careful to look around me. I’ve never really thought about it. But yeah, it’s about the speed you walk. If you run or something, you sometimes run in to people around you. So I just try to follow the people around me, and then usually it’s fine.” In places like this and Tokyo Station, where Japanese country people and gaijin tourists go, she found it harder to walk, because they don’t know how to behave. But stations like Shinegawa and Ebisu are easier to navigate, because the businessmen and locals know which side of the sidewalk to walk on, how to correctly ride the escalator, and are generally more aware. “In the stations, it’s clear that you’re supposed to walk on the right or left side,” she said quietly, “but in this intersection there’s no division like that, so people kind of cross freely.” With people coming from The Scramble’s other side, she just looked directly in front of her. “I’m prepared to come to a crowded place,” she said, “so, how to put it… So I don’t really get annoyed at it unless I’m in a hurry.”

Hiroyo Murakami, fifty-one, lived in the quieter Sagamihara suburbs, but she grew up in Tokyo and its crowds. To her, you either accepted that this was the way things were, or you left. Although she recognized that the crossing’s scale made it world famous, she didn’t navigate with any method. “I just try not to run in to anyone,” she said. Wearing a red plaid scarf, black leather boots and pink sparkly nail polish, she found my questions about crowds interesting. “Well, maybe that’s one of Japan’s unique qualities,” she said. “You can’t walk peacefully. …Well, in more rural areas the streets are bigger and there aren’t as many people walking around, so it’s more calm. There’s also a lot of nature around, like mountains and such. So emotionally, it’s easier to feel at ease.”

Event planner Ryō Suzuki grew up in the suburbs of Kawauchi, Saitama and bought a house in a part of Shibuya that was close enough to work that he could avoid riding packed rush hour trains. At age forty, he’d had enough of that. For years he rode the Saikyo Line from Saitama, one of Tokyo’s most crowded. It was exhausting. On days off, he’d recuperate by avoiding busy places. During the week, he’d try to commute outside rush hour. Since he was in administration, he could choose when he came to work in Shibuya, so he changed his commute time, because he didn’t like it. A lot of people don’t like it. “Even just that change from being frustrated in the mornings by the crowds has been great,” he said, “so the last three or four years I’ve felt much better. It’s totally different.” He found Tokyo too crowded. “Definitely. It’s the worst. But I guess that’s just how it is.”

Despite being strongly influenced by crowds, and even after working near Shibuya crossing for so long, Suzuki had never thought about how he crossed here. “Oh, well if I do have a technique, it’s probably subconscious,” he said. “Nowadays there’s lots of people that are looking down at their phones while they walk, right? So there’s lots of people that don’t pay enough attention, which means you have to be more careful.” He squinted and thought more about it. “I mean, I’m sure a lot of people are kind of looking even if just out of the corner of their eyes, but there’s also those who really seem like they’re going to run in to you. So yeah, it does seem actually kind of dangerous. You’ve got to pay attention. Other than that I’m not really conscious of anything.”

Sixty-three-year-old architect Yōko Andō crossed the same way every time. “I stand and wait at a spot where I can cross to where I want to go in the least distance,” she said. “I just try to make sure that I can get around the people coming towards me. I think if you slow down a little bit you can get around people without running in to them.” Wearing in a long red dress and a wool sweater, she kept her hair in a clean, trim bob. Originally from Yokohama, she’d moved to Tokyo thirty-five years ago when she got married. Since she’d studied in Tokyo, it wasn’t a big adjustment. She only got annoyed when people on phones suddenly stopped in front of her. “Young people like to talk while they walk,” she said. “In Shibuya especially there are a lot of young people that walk slowly, so sometimes I do wish they’d speed up.” She wanted me to know that even though Tokyo was congested, not all of Japan was; the countryside was nice.

Example A: Kazushige Tanase, the forty-five-year-old local government official who lived in the spacious, forested Mie Prefecture and was visiting Tokyo on business. He didn’t have a method for crossing.

“Although one time I did turn away from it. I came out of the station, and there were so many people that I just decided not to try to cross.” He smiled and shook his head. “I’m here as a tourist though, so I just decided to go somewhere else. I’m from the countryside, so seeing so many people is a rarity for me.”

For nineteen-year-old Moe Kawamura, the crowds were too common. Dressed in an army coat and tan Ugg boots, she’d come to Tokyo from Yokohama last year for high school and said the train to Shibuya Station was way too much for her. The crossing was worse. To get through it, she held her backpack and purse in front of her so it didn’t brush anyone. That was her only technique. Being surrounded by people all the time drove her nuts. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being kind of pressured from behind and the people don’t leave for a while,” she said with a shrug. She found Tokyo’s density especially annoying when she was tired. “I go to school in Takadanobaba [Shinjuku], but the trains, even the one yesterday, are just completely packed. It’s really terrible.”

Twenty-six-year-old engineer Sassa Takahirō had no problems with crowds or Shibuya crossing. “Doesn’t bother me at all,” he said. “I just walk however I want. I’m not careful of anything in particular, but I’ve never run in to anyone.” Japanese cities were crowded by nature, but he felt the country met that challenge by being highly organized and efficient. “I’ve never had any unpleasant feelings about it,” he said. “I think Japan does things right.” Prepared and organized himself, he wore a black North Face fleece coat and a huge backcountry pack, equipped for the January cold and anything that came at him. Unlike the others, he actually knew of the pedestrian hand gesture I’d read about, tegatana o kiru. “It’s like a sword,” he said, demonstrating. “Japanese sword.” Although he didn’t use it, he saw some older people who did, though mostly as a joke. “Young people don’t use it,” he said. They need their hands for their phones.

* * *

I never saw sword hand at The Scramble, not once. When it finally appeared, it was inside a men’s room at quiet Sendagaya Station. A businessman in a dark suit and SARS mask was coming around a tight corner by the urinals. When he saw me there with my rolling luggage, he cut his outstretched hand ─ held right in front of him, like a fin ─ and turned the corner. It shocked me, and also disappointed. The one place I saw sword hand was here? Inside a five-urinal bathroom occupied by two people? That wasn’t what I’d imagined.

Later that day, another businessman did it while coming out of a narrow bathroom at a smoky izakaya near Shinjuku Station. It was late. He was drunk, but that didn’t affect his efficiency. When the bathroom door swung open, his eyes locked on mine, his hand went up straight and pointed forward, and he slipped past me back through the crowd toward his seat. There it was, sword hand twice in one day, but no more. It was worth the wait. Seeing how clearly the technique advertised intent and made sharing a tight space more manageable, I wished I could use it back in America, but people wouldn’t know what it meant. They’d probably think I was preparing to use karate to steal their wallet. Funny, in that tiny train station bathroom and smoky izakaya, the men didn’t even need it. I could see them. They saw me. But in The Scramble where sword hand seemed the most practical, no one used it. Like most gaijin, maybe I was missing something. “Sumimasen,” I said while we slipped past each other at Sendagaya. The man nodded and stepped to the urinal, then I slipped out onto the street.

Aaron Gilbreath is a nonfiction writer in Oregon. His stories have appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Brick, Saveur and Kenyon Review. An editor at Longreads, his book of personal essays, Everything We Don’t Know, came out last year, and he just released his new book This Is: Essays on Jazz.

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