Grand Prize Silver Winner: Bubble-Up

March 17th, 2017

By Katherine Jamieson

A tropical love story in Guyana.

The one-room schoolhouse rang with the din of teenage girls’ voices in the humid afternoon air. Someone had erased the sentences with their adjectives and nouns underlined from the black wooden slab we used for a chalkboard and scrawled out a rough schedule for the upcoming concert: Indranie—Chutney dance; Onica—I Believe I Can Fly; Wanda—Modeling. Scratchy dub music played on the school’s dinged up tape deck, and a few girls gyrated their hips seductively to the deep bass line while the others sat around languidly braiding each other’s hair.

Deborah, the school prefect and informal director of the concert, was complaining to me. “Miss, dem first year girls actin’ stupidy, talking nuff nonsense. Miss, we must tell dem speak properly, and learn they lines, right, Miss?”

“Yes, yes, Deborah, please help them learn their lines,” I said fanning myself with some loose papers. I was sitting at one of the student desks, trying to imagine how the chaos in front of me would turn into a performance in the next six weeks, when we heard thumping sounds on the staircase. Mayon, a short, soft-spoken girl popped her head into the dim interior of the room.

“Miss, mail come for you, Miss,” she said under her breath. Happy for an excuse to escape, I followed her out into the blinding sunlight and down the open-air stairs to the first floor of the YWCA building. The cement walled office was a cool refuge from the heat of the upstairs.

How dem girls doin’?” asked Amanda, the bookkeeper, smiling knowingly as she glanced up from her handwritten ledger.

“Oh, you know, we tryin’,” I said and she laughed at my use of the noncommittal Creolese expression. A radio played softly behind her, the baritone announcer of “Voice of Guyana” announcing that water shortages would continue indefinitely.

A white envelope sat on a pile of student papers on my desk. My name and address were handwritten in blue ink with a wavy print, the work of a pen gripped between arthritic fingers. Ministry secretary, I thought. I got my official correspondence at work, the invitations to meetings with the many committees, groups and coalitions of the development world.

But flattening the page against my scarred wooden desk I could see that it was not the carbon-blue tinged product of a typewriter. In my hands was the crisp work of a computer printer, as rare in Guyana as a piece of good chocolate or a glass of wine.

Dear Katherine,
I had the pleasure of meeting you recently. I know you work at the YWCA. I find you very attractive and the only reason I am writing to you instead of approaching you in person is because I am a woman. I wish I could see your face when you react to the last sentence. This is the first time I am doing this and I am still very unsure that I will post this letter. I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm.

Does the fact that a woman finds you attractive repulse and disgust you, or are you indifferent to this attraction? Does it leave you cold or is there a bit of interest on your part? If this letter repel and offend you I apologize and suggest you stop reading now and destroy this letter. If it leave you cold and indifferent then please forgive me for approaching you in the first place. Like I said it’s the only way I could know. If there is a bit of interest on your part then the next step is how can I know without you knowing who I am. It should be obvious that I will not give my real name or address to you.

Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. I am not a ‘nut-case’ as you Americans say. I have no intention of stalking you, threatening you or making your life miserable in any way. I just want to know if you are interested, and if you are, how can we get to know each other better. If you are interested please send a letter with one word in it, either YES or MAYBE. If you are not, the letter should say NO. Send it to ‘Murray’ at post office box 10880. If I don’t hear from you I will take it that’s a NO. Please believe me when I say I have no intention of trying to destroy your life here in Guyana.


My first thought was that the letter was a trick played by another volunteer. People were known to get a little punchy out at their rural worksites. But the author had brought in vestiges of British English (“post this letter”), and dropped the “s”s on their verbs, as in Creolese, the Guyanese spoken dialect, a subtle but sure sign it was from a Guyanese. There was also urgency in the tone, which made me think Murray, whoever she was, was serious.

“Good news ya get?” asked Amanda. I looked up from the letter to her wide brown eyes, and warm, easy smile. She was a little older than I was, in her mid-20s, and, like most Guyanese she loved a good joke. Could she be Murray? But there was nothing sly or coy about her question, and she seemed quite happy with the cricket player she’d recently been going dancing with every weekend. It seemed unlikely.

“Just one of the Board ladies complaining about the girls again,” I said, tucking the letter back into its envelope and sliding it into my bag. “You know how they like talk.” Amanda, no fan of the middle-aged, upper-class women who decided her meager salary, gave me a knowing look.
“They best mind their own,” she said, shaking her head.

Back upstairs I rejoined the girls who were practicing a vaguely pornographic dance routine to the song Me Wan Dugga Dugga. I was still thinking about the letter. Murray? What kind of Guyanese woman uses “Murray”—a decidedly un-sexy and un-Guyanese name—for a pseudonym?

I am not writing to you because I assume you are so inclined, but because it’s the only way I can know if you’re interested. Such a delicate work: inclined. The Guyanese I knew were far more irreverent about sex, and didn’t dance around the topic. But this was a unique situation and the author clearly had a great deal to lose. She was choosing her words carefully.

I am Guyanese and you should know by now how our society reacts to people whose tastes are not of the norm. Of course, she had to know that this wasn’t only the case in Guyana. But what was most unnerving was that Murray, whoever she was, had guessed right about me.

“Y’alright, Miss?” Deborah asked. I studied her open face looking for signs that she might know why I was distracted. Murray? But my students, Deborah included, were largely guileless, much more likely to blurt out a secret attraction than compose a letter and deliver it to my desk. Every year a few of them filled out school enrollment forms and under the category of “Sex” marked “Yes.”

“I’m all right. You know, Guyana hot.” I had found this to be a great catchall excuse. In truth, I did feel unbearably hot in that moment.

“Yes, Miss, Guyana hot!” Deborah agreed, nodding vigorously. “Ya must sip a drink with ice in the afternoon, Miss, to keep the blood down from ya face.” My students loved to give their foreign teacher advice about how to survive in the tropics.

“Deborah, I have to leave for the market now. You’ll keep working with the girls on the dances?” The need to leave the stuffy room and the terrible, rough recordings of the dub music was suddenly intense.

“Yes, yes, Miss, no problem, Miss,” she reassured me in her confident Prefect voice. Seeing my distracted look she added, “Don’ take it on, Miss! The Y-teens concert gon’ be something’, Miss. Nobody ehn’t gon’ forget it for long time!”

Like so many of my projects at the YWCA, the Y-teens concert had started off innocently enough. The girls signed on with their typical manic enthusiasm for anything non-academic, and the Headmistress, Mrs. Corlette, agreed that it would be good for them to do something that made them feel like they were attending a “regular” school. The May Rodrigues (a Portuguese name pronounced “Rodreegz”) Vocational Training Center was for “Early School-Leavers,” the Guyanese euphemism for high school dropouts. Most of our students had had limited education and many couldn’t read beyond an elementary level. The school was charged with teaching them basic skills and a trade before they were released into the world of early adulthood, which generally meant pregnancy.

I had been working as a “Youth Development” volunteer at the YWCA of Georgetown for less than a year, and I had accomplished little, failing even to define the basic outline of my job. Before school began it had been deadly quiet. The director, a kind but distracted woman, seemed rather startled when I showed up for work each day in the professional-tropical outfits I’d bought in the States. Without any clear direction, I took on various projects with gusto: cataloguing the library of dusty, donated books; attending Ministry of Youth meetings. Still, most of my early days were spent sitting at my desk in the office, watching the director shuffle papers and waiting until I could head to the market to shop for dinner.

The girls began to trickle in around July, meeting in the director’s small office accompanied by their young-looking mothers and often a sibling or two in tow. They were silent for the most part, chastened, sitting up straight in their best, pressed church clothes. An air of desperation hovered over these admission meetings, a sense of last resort. Having missed out on more formal education, the girls were there to learn a trade—strawcraft, crochet, food and nutrition, typing—which their families hoped would enable them to earn an income.

By September, the trickle was a torrent. Gone were the demure girls of those early interviews, and in their place was a jostling mass of young teenagers tromping up the rickety wooden steps “skinning teeth,” teasing each other, and flirting with the occasional boy who stumbled into the building. The schoolroom could barely contain them, and chairs, notebooks, pencils and teachers were always in short supply. Down in the office we braced ourselves for the morning onrush of almost a hundred girls fresh off the speeding minibuses from poor neighborhoods all over Georgetown: Albouystown, La Penitence, South Ruimveldt, Tiger Bay.

It didn’t take long for the girls to find me. While just weeks before I had been at loose ends, now I found myself flooded with interest, curiosity, demand. “Miss, Miss!” came the cry as I walked through the hallways, followed quickly by a girl weaving her thin arm through mine, making an urgent request for something: a favor, a treat, a little bit of money. The girls wanted my friendship, but they also saw that I could provide things their teachers couldn’t, or weren’t willing to. I was only a few years old, and they assumed I was from “New Yawrk,” the city they believed encompassed the whole of the United States, which they knew from soap operas, movies and luxuriant Red Lobster commercials on the pirated TV stations. Mostly, I was just different from anyone else they had ever met, and this made them think I could give them what they needed, even when I couldn’t.

The girls drove the energy of the Y, pushing against its conservative, “Christian,” origins, and giving it a reason to exist beyond a staid female social club (husbands complained the letters “YWCA” stood for “Your Wife Constantly Away”). In truth, ours was only a stopgap, makeshift program. The two full-time teachers in their 60s could not make up for all the failings of the Guyanese educational system, or the years of instruction the girls had missed because they were sick or caring for siblings. There were never enough books or pens or notebooks; the girls sat around for hours, sometimes whole days, copying notes or crocheting doilies, braiding each other’s hair or filing their nails. Still, every morning they arrived dressed in their freshly pressed uniforms: white, short-sleeved, collared shirts with a patch of the school’s crest sewn above the breast pocket. Like me, they were dressed and ready and young, but ready for what? We all seemed to be waiting for an answer.

My job was to bring “youth development” to this school, a vague mandate that included teaching “life skills” like “time management,” “goal-setting,” and other concepts that made no sense in Guyanese culture. At 22, I too fell under this category of “youth,” clumped right in with my students at the age of potential, vibrancy, leadership. The problem was that none of us knew how to tap this effectively; I, like they, felt stultified and somehow misunderstood. Eventually, I gave up trying to teach the curriculum that had been thrust on me and looked for other ways to engage the bristling hum of the girls’ pent-up energy and desires. And so, the idea for the concert was born.

“Eh, eh, dese gals gon’ drive me pressure up again!” Mrs. Corlette said as I entered the school office, slamming her hands down so hard on the plastic, floral desk cover that a red pencil dropped to the floor. The Headmistress was in her 50s, short and stout with Jeri-curls that shook seismically when she was angry. “Good morning, Miss Katrin. How ya do?” she asked, as she bent down to pick it up.

“Fine, Mrs. Corlette. You wanted me?” For a moment I wondered if Mrs. Corlette—Verley was her first name—was the author of the anonymous letter. Could Verley be Murray? The thought was ridiculous. Instead of attraction, Mrs. Corlette often seemed to be irritated with my exuberance and the extra work that fell to her when I wasn’t able to follow through on all my big plans.
“Yes, yes, gal, sit down,” she said, and I pulled up a wooden chair opposite her. The school office was so narrow that only her desk, a student’s desk and a few chairs could fit in the room. Sunlight filtered in through the wooden boards nailed over the open-air windows, and outside we could hear the nursery school children singing from the yard: There’s a brown girl in the ring, la, la, la, la!

The Headmistress wet a handkerchief with purple liquid from a bottle on the desk and began to daub her forehead. “I want to hear about this concert for Y-Teens. Dese gals tellin’ me all sorts of tings, and you know how dey like mek story,” she said. She fixed me with her strong, intelligent gaze and I squirmed against the hard wooden chair.

“Well, I know we have a lot of work left to do, but the concert’s not for a few weeks…” I began nervously detailing my conversations with the DJs and soda vendors, and describing, as best I could, the ever-shifting menu of performances the girls were planning. As I spoke, she took careful notes in her precise, floral script. In the few months since she had taken over the administration of the school, Mrs. Corlette had established the first ever schedule of classes. She had a deep, generous laugh, but in the downstairs office we often heard her thundering strides through the ceiling, her usually resonant tone turned nasal when she yelled. Outside the classroom she was the picture of composure. The girls lowered their eyes and quieted when they saw her.

The Headmistress had sensed, correctly, that I was in over my head with the concert. My students’ lives were dominated by the unending drudgery of caring for younger siblings, cooking and cleaning, with breaks only for school and church. Without realizing it, I had unwittingly put in motion the major social event of their year, perhaps of their young lives. This night was their opportunity to wear what the Headmistress called “naked skin clothes,” and impress the boys who they otherwise never got to see. All my efforts to tone it down had been firmly rejected. “No, Miss,” they explained patiently. “For bubble-up you must have…,” and then they would list various non-negotiable standards: a full sound system, printed tickets, a photographer, a raffle and drinks and food to sell. The task of organizing all of this had fallen on me, and I was wandering in a wilderness of Guyanese teenage party-planning, barely keeping it all together.

Mrs. Corlette sighed when I finished. “Ok, Katrin. Ya must just tell me if ya need help.” Then she added, “We have to watch dese girls, ya know. We must careful none gon’ to the Sea Wall afterwards!” She laughed at the reference to an infamous spot where young couples met. Part of the unspoken job of the school was to keep our students from getting pregnant before they graduated. Every afternoon, boys would appear on their bikes and circle the building in long, lazy arcs. The teachers watched these boys and they watched the girls who they came to visit. I had only a vague idea of the “wickedness” they feared: girls sleeping with minibus drivers for free rides; furtive meetings in the stretches of farmland behind the city neighborhoods. We were supposed to stop this, to mold the girls to a vision of propriety from a past Guyanese generation. Fortunately, no one knew quite how ill-suited I was for the job.

As I was gathering up my notes to leave, Mrs. Corlette stopped me. “Tell me more about dis Youth Challenge project. Dese girls know they must be walking in the jungle with snakes, carry heavy bags, no make-up and ears rings?” She raised her thin eyebrows skeptically.

In addition to the concert, I was also trying to get some of my students to be a part of Youth Challenge, an international organization that brings young Guyanese, Canadians and Australians into the Interior of the country to do service projects. The vast majority of Guyana is uncharted wilderness—jungles, savannahs, mountains and rivers—and this was the first group I’d heard about that gave young people a chance to explore their own country.

Initially a group of girls had shown some interest, so I started helping them raise money for the trip. Then, one by one they began dropping out. “Miss, me mudda say no, Miss,” they told me, without further explanation. The sudden change of heart confused me, until the women in the front office set me straight.

“You know, Katrin,” Amanda told me, shaking her head. “Malaria is serious business.” Maylene chimed in that “tigers” roamed in the Interior, and then they both laughed that “jumbies”, or ghosts, might come when you spend a night in the jungle. They informed me that most Guyanese avoid the Interior at all costs for these real and imagined dangers. Meanwhile I had been blithely promoting the wonders of the traveling there, never realizing how engrained the distrust of this region is, or how I would be looked upon for encouraging its exploration.

“We still have a few girls interested, Mrs. Corlette. The Director, Ardis, and I are meeting about it today,” I told her.

“The Rasta girl?” she asked.

“She’s not Rasta, but yes, the one with locks. She’s a student at the University of Guyana, and she’s traveled all over throughout the Interior, in the jungles and mountains. She says it’s quite safe, really.”

“Ok, Katrin,” she said as she turned back to the papers on her desk. “Ya must know what you’re doing,” she added, her tone implying just the opposite.

When Ardis came later that day I was meeting with some of the girls about the concert and I had to ask her to wait.

But the girls were too distracted by my visitor to continue. “Who your nice friend, Miss? Me like she hair,” my student Abiola said reverently, reaching over to touch Ardis’ ringlets.

“Abiola, I’m not sure Miss Sanmoogan wants…” I started, but Ardis waved me off.

“Ya Rasta?” the girl asked, pulling the tight curl to its surprising full length. Ardis laughed.

“No, I just don’t relax my hair. I twist it. See?” She separated a few strands and then wound them back together, one over the other, until the curl popped back into place.

“It look nice, Miss,” Abiola said, trying it with her own hair.

“Sorry about that,” I said, sitting down next to her after the girls had left.

“All these students must keep you busy.”

“Oh yeah. You seem comfortable with them,” I said. “Have you done a lot of teaching?”

“Not really. I just grew up with a lot of girls like this, over in Hadfield.” Hadfield was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Georgetown.

“Really?” I said, and then regretted it. I had assumed from her standard English and high position at Youth Challenge that she’d come from a well-off family. But she didn’t seem to be offended.

“Most of the Youth Challenge participants we work with are from Georgetown’s top high schools,” she said. “I’ve been trying to get more girls like these interested for a while.”

“Well, about that, we’ve had a lot of drop-outs since we last talked. The girls are telling me that their parents won’t let them go,” I said apologetically.

“Yeah, Guyanese don’t like risk too much, you know?” she laughed. “The Interior can be dangerous, of course, but only if you don’t know what you’re doing. We’ve been going there for years,” she said. She reassured me that even if only a couple of girls from the Y ended up on the trip, she’d be happy. “I’d like to organize something bigger for them too,” she suggested. “Would you be open to taking a camping trip beforehand to give them a little practice living outdoors?”

“I think they’d love it,” I said. “But I can’t do anything until this concert is over in May.”

“Oh right, the big concert they’re all talking about. I’d like to come. Can I buy tickets?”

“Seriously? It’s going to be a madhouse. I can barely keep track of who’s performing, and I’m beginning to think it’s all just a big excuse for them to meet up with boys.” Ardis laughed.

“I’m sure that’s true, but it still sounds like fun. My secondary school used to do these kinds of concerts every month.”

“Ok, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” I said, smiling.

“You can’t scare me off,” she said. “Now how much are the tickets?”

A few weeks had passed since I’d found Murray’s letter on my desk, and I still had no idea who’d written it. I imagined that it must have come from a Guyanese woman I’d met briefly, perhaps at a party or through another volunteer. But when I thought about it no one came to mind. I’d also ruled out all the women I met through the Y. Maylene in the office was both very Pentecostal Christian and devoted to her husband. The mothers of my students were too burdened to be seeking out new romantic liaisons, and the Board members were all decidedly stodgy and straight.

Early on, it had occurred to me that Ardis may have been the letter-writer, but I quickly ruled her out. She was very friendly and generous with her time, but also a bit formal. There was a quiet privacy about her, and I sensed that she had only a small, select group of friends. An anonymous love letter seemed too obvious, too common for her. Then there was the fact of her beauty. She was naturally striking, though she wore no makeup and little jewelry. After one of our meetings she’d run into a very handsome black man she knew, and there seemed to be chemistry between them. I imagined she must have many potential lovers, if she was not involved with someone already.

I hadn’t responded to the letter because it seemed too dicey to reveal my sexuality to someone I didn’t know. Please do not show this letter to anyone with the intention of finding out who I am so that you can draw me out and humiliate me. Murray’s words summed up my own fears. I was curious, but it didn’t seem worth the risk if I had no idea if the person on the other end could be trusted.

Although I’d had a few girlfriends toward the end of college, I’d been dating a man named Todd almost since the beginning of my time in Guyana. We’d gotten together early on when we were set up with neighboring homestay families, but now we lived a few hours away by bus and seeing each other was more of a challenge. I’d thought about breaking things off with him, but Guyana was a hard place to live and the idea of being single here didn’t appeal to either of us. Still, we were bickering more often when we saw each other; I was feeling restless though I wasn’t ready to admit it to him or myself.

Three days before the concert, Todd called to say he wanted to come. Because I’d been so busy at school, I hadn’t gone to visit him in a few weeks. The letter lay in the top drawer of my dresser, but I’d never gotten around to telling him about it.

“You do know it’s going to be loud and hot?” I asked him. “Really hot.”

“I just want to see you. How’s it going?” I could barely hear his voice over the crackly line. Todd lived in a small town along the highway and there was no phone service in his house, so he was calling from the health clinic next door. I was sitting on the floor of my house in blackout, with invisible mosquitoes buzzing around in the darkness. Candle flames flickered high in the corners, furniture throwing long shadows across the shiny, wooden floor.

“I’m in one of the acts now. You can’t watch,” I said. I’d been teaching some of the girls sign language, but they didn’t want to perform alone, so I’d agreed to join them.

“Of course not. Though, it can’t be worse than when you read the poem at the evening student graduation,” he chuckled. I cringed. Todd and I had worked at the Y together when we’d first come to Guyana, before we’d gotten our full-time job placements. I’d given an impassioned reading of a poem by a Guyanese author, which was met with blank looks and a smattering of awkward applause.

“You’ll probably end up selling drinks and moving a lot of heavy stuff around,” I said.

“You can’t talk me out of this. If I take another bath in the Atlantic, I’m going to lose my shit.” There was a “brown-out,” an extended period of blackout, in Todd’s area, and he hadn’t had electricity or running water for several months. Showers at my apartment were another major incentive for him to visit these days.

“How’s the concert going, anyway?”

“I’m just hoping no one gets pregnant afterward.”

“Good luck,” he said, laughing.

We got to the school early on the day of the concert, and Todd and I loaded blocks of ice into metal basins, resting the bright sodas on top where they glowed like costume jewelry. Some wiry teenage boys arrived wearing baggy pants and gold chains so heavy they seemed to strain their thin necks. Where we should put dis, Miss? they asked, wheeling in twelve enormous speakers. The scarred wooden floor looked vulnerable under the hundreds of pounds of equipment, even before the DJ started testing the system and the room began to shake. Todd shot me a look.

“You said you wanted to come….”

“I know,” he said. “Let’s just get through this and get a drink.”

“Hello, Miss!” my students called, running up to me smelling of heavy perfume. Excitement mixed with roiling hormones had brought them to a fever pitch. At the school they were not even allowed to wear ribbons, but tonight their hair had been straightened and curled, set into complex configurations that swept up off their heads or flattened against their faces in spikes. They wore metallic bellbottoms and rhinestone encrusted halter-tops; spandex dresses with ribbing; flowing silk saris. Their lips sparkled with magenta glitter. A few of them had fake eyelashes.

“I feel underdressed,” I whispered to Todd.

“You mean overdressed?” he said, pointing to Deborah who had showed up in a clear plastic dress over nylon shorts and a bikini top.

Ardis and her friend, a British development worker, arrived about half an hour early. I was busy selling drinks so I didn’t see them at first, but she waved from the doorway as they went into the classroom. I waved back, as I made change for one of my students.

“Who was that?” Todd asked.

“Oh, that’s Ardis,” I said. “The one I was telling you about who takes kids into the Interior.”
“Could she be more beautiful?” he said, glancing inside as she took her seat.

I nodded, pushing the sodas deeper into the basin of melted ice as the Headmistress made her regal entrance. She was wearing more make-up herself, and had on a stylish, low-cut blouse.

“Everyting all right, Miss Katrin?she asked, laughing her deep belly laugh and grasping my upper arms in her strong hands. “When ya come Guyana, bet you didn’t expect dis!” she said, clapping her hand on my back.

“I’ll just be glad when it’s over, Mrs. Corlette,” I said, and she laughed again.

Right before the show, I pushed my way through crowds of girls and parents to find Ardis and thank her for coming. “I’m sure there are other things you’d rather be doing on a Saturday night,” I said.

“No, this is great,” she said speaking loudly so I could hear her over the music. “It brings it all back.”

“I’ll be ready for some quiet nights in the jungle after this,” I said.

“Me too!” she said.

After some negotiation with the DJs to lower the music to a less painful level, the concert finally began. Deborah and another girl were the informal MCs, introducing the acts. Most involved dancing with the girls imitating the popular Soca performers they saw on TV, winding their hips in fast, rhythmic gyrations. A few of the Indian girls danced to music from popular Indian movies, wearing full saris and gold jewelry around their necks and ankles.

“Modeling” consisted of girls stalking across the room and giving provocative looks to the audience over their shoulders. A few of my students sang popular R & B songs in surprisingly clear and rich voices, while others recited poems in memorized monotones. We didn’t have enough chairs, and many of the girls and the boys they’d invited stood at the sides and back of the room, singing and sometimes dancing along with the performers.

During the concert, I moved between the main performance room and the balcony, where Todd was still selling our now dwindling supply of drinks. He pulled me on to his lap, and offered me a red soda. “What time is it? Hasn’t this been going on for a few hours?” he asked.

“It’s only 7:00 now, and we’ve still got about half the acts to go,” I said, pushing the damp hair away from his forehead. “You can back to my place if you want and I’ll meet you there.” He shook his head.

“No, I wouldn’t miss seeing you up there,” he said, smiling.

Only as I took the stage after a raucous rendition of a dub hit, did it occur to me how completely out of place my act was with the whole concert. All night long the wooden planks had been creaking under the thunderous dancing, the crowd exploding with laughter and cheers. It was hard to distinguish between performers and guests; the more popular the act, the closer the audience came to rushing the stage.

In contrast, I’d taught my students to perform to a gospel song in sign language with me. After all the overtly sexual songs and dances, I’d be introducing the first religious music of the evening. I blushed a little as we began, realizing that once again my act was completely out of step with the culture around me.

Someone asked the question
Why do we sing?
When we lift our hands to Jesus,
What do we really mean?

Only one of my students, a tough-looking girl named Carol, had agreed to do the performance with me, and we signed together in unison. I looked out over the crowd of my students and their families, the Headmistress, and Ardis. The audience was not thumping or calling out, but they were listening. Our performance seemed to have shocked them into silence. All eyes in the room were on us.

Someone may be wondering
When we sing our song
At times we may be crying
And nothings even wrong

Ardis’ face stood out, her long neck and hair distinguishing her from the crowd, and I smiled at her. Later she would ask me why I had worn so much eye shadow that evening, though I hadn’t been wearing any makeup at all. Only when I looked at a picture of myself on stage did I realize that the light was shining on the reflective coating of my glasses and had tinted my eyelids bright pastel pink and purple. The rest of the audience must have noticed it also, and I can only imagine how strange I looked to them: violet eyelids, pink skin, singing silently with my arms and hands.

Todd had come in from the balcony now and was standing in the shadows at the back of the room. He looked wilted from the heat, and bemused by my oddball act. Mostly he looked ready to go home. The song played on, building to its finale:

And when the song is over
We’ve all said
In your heart just keep on singing
And the song will never end

Carol and I continued, our fingers and hands moving quickly and finally dropping our arms to our sides. Then the audience did as we had taught them in the beginning: they applauded as a deaf audience would, shaking their hands in the air, fingers loose. I looked out at all the brown and black and yellow hands waving at us, at Will’s white hands, and Ardis’ thin light brown hands. It was beautiful and strange to be appreciated in this subtle way on this loud night, in this loud country. For a moment, I heard the silence completely, and I saw how I had created it.

It felt as if all the grime of Georgetown was being seared away as the bus hurtled to our campsite the next week. The sunset was fierce that evening. Violet and magenta streaks shot from a line of palm trees in the distance, and once we reached the highway I sensed a new Guyana altogether. Gone were the piles of trash and blocky buildings, the blaring music and crowds. Sugar cane and rice fields bordered the initial stretch of asphalt, but as we moved further toward the Interior, cultivation stopped and the houses petered out. Then it was green, green for miles, green as far as any of us could see.

It was getting dark by the time we arrived, so we set a fire in the pit and cooked chicken and rice. The girls were excited and talkative, full of questions about camping trips Ardis had taken in the past. She and I had originally planned to sleep in the spare, military barracks with the girls so we wouldn’t have to pitch a tent. It was a clear night, though, so Ardis suggested we hang up our hammocks and sleep outside on the porch where it was cooler.

I was trying to arrange my sleeping bag and sheets in the hammock when she said, “Do you want some?” She was holding a bottle of cream liqueur.

“I’d love some, as long as the girls don’t find out,” I said.

“Of course,” she said. “We’ll be discreet.” She was already pouring the thick, tan liquid into the plastic mugs we had used for dinner.

“This stuff is my favorite,” she said. “Have you tried it?”

“A few times,” I said taking the mug. “Oh, wow, that’s amazing. Like an alcoholic milkshake.”

It was a mellow night, the heat tempered by the foliage. Chirps and croaks erupted from the nearby jungle. We picked up our conversation from our weekly meetings, and she told me about her thesis project, a study of male prostitution in Georgetown. She had been interviewing Guyanese drag queens for the last few months with a group of her classmates. As we talked, I could see her small profile, her mouth opened wide when she laughed, her high cheekbones shadowed in the dim moonlight. The rest of her body was hidden in her sleeping bag, deep in the low-hanging hammock.

“They’re out there every night, and there are always john’s for them. Married guys, of course,” she said. The drag queens were beat up often, either by their customers or boys who went after them at night just for fun. With the rate of HIV rising rapidly, they were most likely already positive or soon would be. “It’s a pretty impossible life, being a transsexual in Guyana,” she told me.

I felt warm and light from the liqueur and the easy conversation between us. There didn’t seem to be any risk in telling her now. “You know, I just got something from a woman,” I said, pausing. “Who’s interested in me.” Ardis raised her eyebrows. I told her about the letter.

“Wow,” she said when I finished. “So you have no idea who wrote it?”

“Nope. I’ve thought a lot about it, and I can’t figure out who it could have been.”

“Are you going to respond?” she asked, shifting in her sleeping bag.

“No, it’s too much of a risk to write back. It feels like someone is trying to get me to admit something, and I don’t think it’s safe.” The tone of our conversation had dropped. “It’s amazing what gay people have to go through here, keeping everything secret. Not that it’s so much better in the States.”

“Yeah,” she said softly lying back. I could see the moonlight reflecting on her fine skin, her hair bunched in curly masses around her ears. Her hammock swung softly with the weight and motion of her body. We talked for a while afterwards, but it was getting late. Soon after, we were asleep.

The next day my students accused us of being witches, staying up all night cackling and keeping them awake. Even though we had had only a few hours of sleep, I had plenty of energy all day to run the seminars. The rest of the weekend we spent teaching and cooking with the girls, and chasing after turquoise butterflies as we hiked through the rainforest.

I had brought a camera and the girls begged me to take pictures of them, hanging off the tree house and hugging each other on the stairs. But Ardis ran away whenever I pointed the camera. It was just a joke at first, but as the weekend went on I realized how much I did want a picture of her. To remember the weekend, I thought to myself.

Finally I took a photo of her under an outdoor canopy. The girls are posing behind her, smiling at me, their hair still damp from the rain that had been falling all day. Ardis is lying down, her head resting against a wooden pole. Her head is tilted, her face slightly out of focus, her hair a blurry mass of curls. She is looking to the left, and I cannot tell if she was aware she is in the frame. I took the picture anyway. Against her will or not, I wasn’t sure.

A few days later Ardis called me at home.

“Hey,” I said, “how are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. I was wondering if you have a second to talk.”

We spoke about the weekend for a few minutes, then she broke in, her voice lower and more serious than I’d ever heard it. “There’s something else I need tell you. I haven’t been honest and I don’t feel right about it,” she said. She paused. My stomach tightened. “I sent you that letter.”

For a moment, I didn’t know which letter she meant, and then I did. My heart started to beat quickly. I took a few deep breaths, but not loud enough so she could hear them. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when you brought it up,” she said, “I just didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t think I’d ever hear back from you.” She sounded embarrassed and a little sad. But there was no regret in her voice, and that was what I was listening for.

I took a breath. “It’s Ok,” I said. “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you too.” I didn’t know what to say now. “Do you want to have lunch tomorrow to talk about it more?”

She paused. Then she laughed a little, nervously. Then I laughed, nervously. “Really, this is fine with you?” she asked again.

“Really,” I said, “Fine.”

Katherine Jamieson is a graduate of the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program who has been published in multiple volumes of The Best Women’s Travel Writing and The Best Travel Writing. This story won the Grand Prize Silver in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Story of the Year.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Jordan’s Bull

March 1st, 2017

By James Michael Dorsey

A magical day in Mali.

Hippos surfaced with wiggling ears as the boat man poled our dhow past the submerged herd. We were both tense, expecting a bluff charge, while only feet away white pelicans with long golden beaks floated in the shallows casually scooping minnows in their great fleshy pouches. On the opposite shore the grass huts of the Fulani glowed like fiery tumbleweeds in the hazy sunrise as bare-breasted women pounded their dirty wash on river rocks.

At this bend of Mali’s Niger River, the lethargic water resembles dark roasted coffee as it slowly meanders on towards the fabled city of Timbuktu. I was in old spear-and-loincloth Africa to chase the end of an era with my camera.

The Fulani, hereditary nomads of North Africa, had driven over 1,000 head of their cattle onto a small island to graze for a few days and as is their custom, they had surrounded them with their traditional grass huts. Fulani move about like the wind; they and those like them are vanishing from the African continent.

My dhow was piled with bunches of bananas, gifts of a delicacy hard to come by in such a remote place, as I knew from experience that when they saw me coming, the village children would swarm me on the beach, looking for treats.

While passing out the fruit I noticed one little boy sitting by himself, scooping mud from the river. He was fashioning curious animals out of the mud and laying them on a rock in the sand to bake in the sun. They struck me as wonderfully realistic from the hands of one so young. He worked with an intense concentration and the sureness of an instinctive artist that drew me to him. When I approached to tell him how much I liked his animals he did not speak or acknowledge me in any way, so I dropped off a banana, left him to his work, and walked up the bank to the village.

There, in front of a grass hut, I was warmly greeted by the village headman named Able who, noting my interest in the boy, told me his name was Jordan. “Like the river in the Bible,” he said. Able took both my hands in his and held my gaze as if searching for something in my face or demeanor until he finally added as a matter of fact, “He does not speak. He is touched by God.” He then asked me to sit with him and take tea.

While western medicine has un-pronounceable names and diagnoses for various mental states, it has been my experience that in many remote cultures, people like Jordan are often grouped under the title of “Touched by God.” In my own country such a child would probably be on a regimen of medications, therapy, or even confined to a “facility” to alter his behavior, but in rural Africa, people like Jordan are believed to exist on an alternate plane and are considered a liaison to the spirit world. Their condition is accepted as a gift to the village and they are often the people who become shamans or healers commanding both power and respect. In rural Africa there is no mental illness, only spirits, both evil and good.

I drank the obligatory welcome of tea and made small talk as custom demanded but could not take my eyes off the young boy at the waters’ edge. I asked Able if God ever spoke to Jordan or through him and his answer was only an enigmatic smile as he topped off my teacup. I knew that any further questions could only result in a conversation beyond my comprehension because to this man the physical and spirit worlds are intermingled and I am still a long way from being able to claim the same.

With Able’s blessing I wandered into the vast cattle herd to take my photos while clouds of grasshoppers fled my shadow. Men filled calabash gourds with the morning milk, then handed them off to young boys who carried the nectar back to the village. The women were busy ferrying goat skin bags of water to the herders. The air was full of bees swollen with pollen and the panoramic sky emphasized the vastness of the African plain. It was a travelers’ day when the voices of nature became an aria and the only mechanical sound was that of my shutter capturing limitless beauty. Woodsmoke mingled with the stench of a thousand feral longhorns when I felt a slight tug on my pants leg. I looked down just as Jordan slipped his hand into mine. I had not heard him coming and he had not said a word. Together we stood surrounded by baying cattle, taking in the moment. He was eating the banana.

I began to walk slowly and Jordan kept pace, his hand swallowed by my own. As we passed them, people stopped working and stood at an informal attention. I thought at first that they were simply offering a respectful welcome to a visitor but as we continued, I realized that it had nothing to do with me. They had stopped their work to acknowledge Jordan as he passed by, but it was more than that.

Travelers are often captured by a vortex beyond their comprehension. Remote journeys can sometimes be disorienting to the point of the wanderer asking themselves, “What just happened?” For many, attaining such a moment is the very reason for traveling. My reasons are built on a history of such events that always seem to find me while in Africa. It is a land steeped in animism, and marinated in voodoo; a land of myth, legend, and ceremony where there is no horizon between the material and spiritual worlds and, by keeping an open mind I have often found myself treading an edge between the two.

At first the sound was almost imperceptible from the constant breeze pushed along by the river, but it grew in intensity and volume until I could discern a harmonious chant. It was a traditional chant, the likes of which I have heard countless times in Africa, and yet it was its own. Rather than a narration followed by a chorus it was a constant mantra of the entire village emanating from their souls more than their lungs. It was a sound as old as the earth, a sound that held both agony and ecstasy. It was a sound I felt as much as heard. We were surrounded by the entire village, on their feet, chanting.

It was melodious and calming while suggesting an underlying current of power that enveloped me like a net. I floated in the moment, an organic piece of ancient Africa swept along in its mystery and ceremony. I was no longer a visitor but an integral part of the village, and I took in a panorama of the entire scene, hundreds of heads and shoulders interspersed in the vast herd, all turned inwards towards Jordan who still held my hand. His head was now tilted skyward, his eyes were closed, and he showed a tiny smile as he wiped banana from his chin.

Was this happening because the village holy man had left his trance to walk among them, or was I, this rare visitor, just an excuse for a spontaneous celebration? I had no idea what was taking place and I really did not care; I only wanted the moment to continue. Jordan was in another place, or perhaps he had summoned another place to our here and now and something inside at that moment told me he was indeed, touched by God. Whatever was happening was African, and could never be understood by a non-African, and that was enough for me to know. I just let the chant envelope me.

Jordan began to walk, this time leading me by the hand. The people parted as we passed them but continued their grand chorus. Time had slowed, sound intensified, colors glowed with brilliance, and I held the most sublime sense of belonging that has eluded me most times since. I remember herons flying overhead and egrets by the waterside and thinking how the emerald body of a dead cicada was the most brilliant green I had ever seen. The world had become intense. I was in my body but felt out of it being carried along by the wonderful melody. Hours may have passed, but I am sure it was only minutes before I found myself back at Able’s hut.

Jordan let go of my hand and returned to the riverside and his clay animals without ever having said a word. I do not remember the chanting coming to an end but suddenly all I heard was silence, and when I looked about, people were returning to work tending the cattle. I felt elated yet unsure, as if exiting a dream. Able’s face carried a knowing smile that made me wonder if other visitors had had such a day as mine.

It was late afternoon and the golden sky was turning crimson as the African sun submerged into the black water. People became silhouettes as Able walked me to the river’s edge where the boatman waited for my return. We exchanged no words because none were sufficient. Our mutual silence was enough validation that something extraordinary had taken place. As I walked past Jordan he rose and pressed something into my hand, folding my fingers around it with great solemnity. He did not speak and made no eye contact. He simply returned to his place by the water and his clay animals. His gift was small, hard, and cool in my hand and I held it there, not looking at it until we reached the center of the river. It was a tiny clay bull, just like those that had surrounded us all day, Paleolithic in simplicity, pregnant with symbolism.

I did not watch for hippos during our return crossing or notice the ethereal beauty of the West African sunset. I could only stare at the tiny figure in my palm, running my fingers over it and reliving the day in my soul. I did no analysis nor did I yearn for answers. In truth, I often prefer the what-if to what is, and this was one of those times. I wanted only the day as it was, now a memory, but one that I could recall whenever I wished by the tiny clay bull I now held in my hand. Since that day Jordan’s bull has become both talisman and artifact, and perhaps, even a relic.

Later, at a café in Timbuktu, I met two people who had both preceded me to the island. Both had taken notice of the silent boy by the water. They both told me he had not reacted to them in any way and the people had been friendly but had not sung or chanted. I could drive myself crazy with speculation of “Why me?” so I chose to go with “Why not me?”

Whether Jordan was “Touched by God” or simply a mute little boy, he held great face among his people and for his own reasons, took me into an unexplainable afternoon that has affected and elevated my life in the years that followed. I am sure the world is full of Jordans, mostly overlooked or even ignored, walking among us, visible only to those with open minds and hearts.

Maybe all it takes to have the kind of day a traveler prays for is to give a boy a banana.

James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in forty-five countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines’ Hemispheres and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, and Natural History, plus several African magazines. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, a travel consultant to Brown + Hudson of London, and a correspondent for the World Explorers Bureau. He is also a fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His stories have appeared in ten travel anthologies. He is a fifteen-time Solas Awards category winner and a contributor to The Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. This story won the Grand Prize Gold in the Eleventh Annual Solas Awards.

Family Travel Bronze Winner: Bellagio People

February 27th, 2017

By Suzanne Roberts

Getting naked with your new lover’s family.

Your lover’s family doesn’t like that you’re from California, that you’re only half Jewish (and the wrong half), but most of all, that you’re still married. While nobody seems to question your lover’s decision to have an affair with a married woman, everyone wonders about your lack of scruples. When you meet his sister in the lobby of the Bellagio, the first thing she says to you is, “Are you divorced yet?”

You tell her that in California, it takes six months.

“Well, I can’t see what’s taking so long,” she says.

“I’ve moved out. We’re separated. I filed for divorce.”

“But not divorced. I mean, technically, you’re married to someone else.”

But according to your lover’s mother, a prim woman who wears tailored outfits and a healthy dollop of makeup, the family agrees that if he loves you, which he claims that he does, you will be invited on the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip. Even if you are (unfortunately) still married. “We’re very accepting,” she says.

You meet the entire family in Las Vegas, including the grandmother who says, “We’re Bellagio people.”

The women carry enormous suitcases. The father remarks on how small yours is and says to his wife, “Look at that bag! Why can’t you carry a bag that small?”

The mother makes a face that says, Oh please! And when you say, “It’s just a weekend, right?” the mother looks at you like you have personally insulted her and her giant matching Louis Vuitton suitcase and carry-on bag, like you have no real appreciation for the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip.

You will soon find out that the Annual Family Las Vegas Trip is pre-planned to the minute, from drinks and dinner, to shopping excursions (for the ladies) and gambling (for the men), to the rental of the cabana at the pool, and most importantly, the golf (for the men) and spa day (for the ladies). An appointment for a massage has already been made for you. You will wonder if you can go golfing instead, and you will find out that no, you may not.

The women meet in the lady’s lounge, where you are to relax in your fluffy bathrobes and then follow a spa attendant to a room for a one-hour massage. Then you are to meet back at the ladies lounge for a sauna, steam room, or Jacuzzi. Your choice.

The first part goes well enough, most of the ladies flipping through magazines, the older ladies perusing Good Housekeeping or Martha Stewart Living, the younger ones looking at Marie Clare. You have brought along an eighteenth-century Gothic novel, Mathew Lewis’ The Monk.

One of the younger cousins asks you what you’re reading, and you are glad to talk about books, but maybe looking back, you were a little too enthusiastic.

“This is the greatest book,” you say, holding up a cover that features a naked monk being flown across a black sky by the claws of a demon. You should have taken the cousin’s strange smirk as a sign to stop talking, but you are nervous, and when you’re nervous, you talk. A lot.

“It’s about this monk, who everyone admires, but he is full of lust, and he has sex with this woman who turns out to be a demon. He ends up making a pact with the devil, and he unknowingly rapes his sister and kills his mother. All the while, he’s responsible for a pregnant nun being tortured in the catacombs of the dungeon.” You notice the cousin’s face drain of color, so you end your little book summary with “But the nun lives, even though the baby dies… and the monk, well, he gets punished.” You hold up the book with its graphic cover to show her.

You had never thought much about the naked monk on the book’s cover. Until now.

“Sounds…interesting,” she says in that way where the word interesting doesn’t really mean interesting.

“It is. I’m teaching it,” you say, as if that somehow would excuse you from reading something so scandalous.

“You’re teaching that?”

“Uh-huh. In freshman comp.”

“I never read anything like that in college.”

“No,” you say, “I imagine you didn’t.”

The cousin is about to ask you what you mean when you are saved by the attendant, calling your name.

After the massage, you meet, as planned, to go into the family-sized Jacuzzi together (your choice). You are naked under your robe—it is a women-only Jacuzzi, so you had thought naked was the appropriate choice.

By the time you hang up your robe, and glance into the tub, you realize the mistake you have made. Not only are you the adulterous half-Jew from California, you are the only naked person, and to top it off, you are sporting a Brazilian bikini wax (special for your lover). The whole family—mother, sister, aunts, cousins, and grandma—stop talking when you submerge your naked, hairless body into the frothy tub. The sister glares at you and shakes her head.

You wish you had chosen the steam room, where the cloud of eucalyptus vapor might have hidden your nudity.

“How was your massage?” You ask another cousin, this one a little older and very pregnant; she is sitting across from you on the edge of the hot tub with her feet dangling in.

“It was just average,” she says as if she gets a massage every day of her life.

“Mine was really nice,” You say and then turned to the mother, who is wearing a navy one-piece with little sailor buttons, “Thanks again for making the reservations.”

“We’re glad you could come,” she says through a stiff smile, though she’s not looking in your direction, saving herself from seeing her son’s lover’s boobs bobbing about in the spa.

“The girl who massaged me acted like I was going to break,” the pregnant cousin complains, “but worse than that, she had these eyebrows that hadn’t been plucked for a really long time, so she had stray hairs everywhere. It looked so gross.”

Rather than asking her if she is serious (because you can already tell that she is), you nod, trying to look sympathetic, not with the gentle masseuse who maybe didn’t have time to get spa treatments herself, but with the very pregnant cousin.

Then you realize that you yourself have not had much time lately, and though you had tidied up your bikini area, you can’t remember the last time you plucked your own eyebrows. You know that if you reach up to touch them and check, it will seem obvious. So you just sit there with your arms crossed over your breasts wondering if your sweat smells like sauvignon blanc (it probably does).

You hope you have spent enough quality time with the lady folk, so you can get back up to the hotel room where there’s someone waiting (if the golf day is over) who will appreciate your new wax job.

After a couple of the women head to shower, you convince yourself that it is appropriate for you to leave, so you rush over to your towel and robe and head straight for the mirror in the bathroom.

Sure enough, your brows are wild with itinerant hairs. Even the middle section above your nose.

At the time, you do not know that your lover’s family will have an intervention (mostly successful) a few weeks later. That they will drive over to his house late in the night and beg him to quit you like you are a drug he has become addicted to (through no fault of his own).

For the moment, you are living under the belief that he will travel the world with you (indefinitely).

Sometime later, you will find out that he has been working under another assumption: in his version of you, you will be happy living on a suburban Midwestern Lake, baking your children Jack-o-Lantern cupcakes for Halloween. He does not yet know that operating an oven is not among your talents, nor that you do not want children for whom to bake orange treats.

All of this will come later.

All you know right now is that you are not Bellagio People.

Suzanne Roberts is the author of four books of poems and a memoir, Almost Somewhere (Bison Books, 2012), which won the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award. She has been published widely in journals, such as Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and National Geographic Traveler and anthologies, including The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Southern Sin, Tahoe Blues, and The Pacific Crest Trailside Reader. She holds a PhD in Literature and the Environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and currently teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low residency MFA programs in creative writing at Chatham and Sierra Nevada College. More information may be found on her website.

Destination Story Bronze Winner: King Cotton

February 20th, 2017

By Rosemary Davis

A visit to the home of the Mississippi blues.

Sometimes the answers aren’t easy. Driving down endless country roads—seeing nothing but identical rows of crops covering the flat, uneven land, one ponders the meaning of life.

But in one Southern town, the meaning of life can be summed up in two words: cotton and the blues.

Welcome to Clarksdale, Mississippi! Home of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker. Rumor has it that Mic Jagger once stopped by just to learn the harmonica. Known for its famous bluesmen, including the late Ike Turner, the townspeople supply the local cotton industry with a mighty workforce both in the fields and at the cotton gin.

This is my first trip to the Deep South. I wonder if all that much has changed in this town over the years. Like a jam session— small cafes, ladies fancy dress shops and old-fashioned dime stores mix well with historical murals on brick facades. One cobalt blue building mimics the color of the river named after this state, which flows just west of here.

Men of various ages congregate at a desolate gas station. They pass the news of the day, drink from paper sacks. Swat flies. Their faces reflect the slowness and repetition of their lives. The only thing that cuts the stillness is a semi roaring past.

It’s actually a town divided by race, and a set of railroad tracks. On one side of town, white middle-class families sit on the front stoop with their black help. The other side of the tracks is littered with run-down housing and vacant lots. You’ve read about towns like this, but these folks live here.

Tourist brochures in nearby Louisiana allude to slavery as if it were a benign afterthought—some kind of romantic fiction. I see a metal cage-like contraption on the site of a plantation and wonder if it was once used to punish slaves. What of the race relations in present day Clarksdale, have they changed? Do my Northern eyes misinterpret? Does my love of the blues draw me in closer?

The Delta Blues Museum comes to order. Once inside, the voice of BB King comforts the cds, tapes and stacks of the King Biscuit Times. A white guitar on display has its own muddy river meandering down its long neck. Photographs of blues greats flow through the room like a current. They give witness to the music. Say amen.

Our official town guide lets it slip that once the town fathers voted down a plan to bring a junior college and factory to the area. They didn’t want to give people any other option but picking cotton.

A headache drives me to a nearby pharmacy, after a quick lunch at the café. When I leave, a young man walking my way engages me in conversation. “You’re not from around here,” he quips. I explain that I am indeed from Minnesota. “It gets really cold up there doesn’t it?” He unknowingly settled on a Midwesterner’s favorite topic of discussion—the weather.

We gently banter back and forth as we tour downtown streets. Joe’s Grocery is permanently closed, along with other vacant boarded-up buildings. Others are open to plenty of customers. Twenty thousand people live in Clarksdale and my walking partner is one of its spontaneous ambassadors. When we part, the town no longer seems to be so anonymous. I muse how quickly we bridged age, race and gender.

Out in the fields the rain halts the picking and folks stream towards the cotton gin. Mountains of white cloud my vision as workers stand silhouetted in the enormous doorway. The fluffs are in-bedded with sharp, pointy seeds. Machines with hoses and claws manhandle, reshape and bundle. Working with the cotton seems hard and surprisingly dirty.

Smitty’s Juke Joint opens when the work is done. During most days it’s empty, but for a few friendly bartenders. Unassuming. But, at night, it explodes. Here told, the music comes from the dirt.

Momentum builds like a bonfire, with sunglasses worn inside. Musicians play with abandon despite bad cables and worn-out instruments. Middle-aged couples seductively move to the dance floor. Arms rise above heads; patrons clap and sway to the music. Sweat runs down a man’s neck and he swipes it with a white handkerchief. Next to a smoky, crowded pool table sits a woman with a navy blue straw hat. The shrieks, laughter and shouting give birth to a deafening chorus. “I’m free, free now….”

Alcohol makes the heartaches disappear for a while, that and the music. In the early morning darkness, the band members spill out into the alley. They speak to us northern whites reverently about their wives and children before hitting the road. We wish them well. One of the men pinches my ass when he helps me into the van.

Guitarist Eugene James invites us out to his place for a private concert the next afternoon. He works the fields, drives the trucks during the day and grooves by night. It’s a life. We arrive first and find a dilapidated shack on a deserted old road. There is absolutely nothing to see on the horizon. Eugene’s pickup eventually tumbles in, kicking up more dust, like trouble.

His lean frame ambles from the truck and joins us. His eyes show a myriad of experiences behind them. A gentle humor and his flirtatious ways attract my attention. I follow Eugene into his flea-infested living room, with its yellowing pictures of family on the wall and hand-me-down furniture. We check out the amplifier and other sound gear – moving them outside. The door, black with peeling paint, is left ajar. Its ripped screen hangs down.

My friends and I form a brigade across the wood porch, while Eugene begins picking his guitar from a tattered couch. Beyond him I see thin white blankets against the trees and sky. Red trucks in the distance bring the cotton home.

A storm that had been threatening begins. The chill surprises us. Rain thrashes down around that porch, so we listen more intently. Eugene’s guitar weeps and his voice rises and falls with the thunder. Deliver us from evil.

Rosemary Davis, a nonfiction writer and poet, received an MFA in writing from Hamline University. Her work has been published in Brevity, Minnesota Literature, A View from the Loft, the Open 2 Interpretation book series, the Minneapolis Star Tribune Travel Section and other anthologies and journals. Her interests include architecture, documentary films, and book arts. Rosemary tends a large overgrown garden and takes care of other people’s pets.

Elder Travel Bronze Winner: Driving with Gods

February 13th, 2017

By Carol J. Arnold

An old gypsy teaches a retired American visitor that getting lost is often the best way to find what you’re looking for.

It came out of nowhere, a horrendous crash like something had dropped from the sky, shattering the passenger window only a few feet from my face. “It’s okay,” my husband Andy said as I grabbed his hand, his rapid breaths only slightly less ragged than my own. “The glass is in one piece.”

“Are you well?” Samir turned and asked. Samir was our driver, a young man hired as part of our nine-week sojourn through India to celebrate our recent retirement from busy careers in San Francisco. We had been cruising down a Rajasthani highway, one of the few where cows, donkey carts or camels don’t share the road. Samir had insisted we sit in the backseat, a custom apparently left over from the days of the Raj, the proper place, it seemed, for sahibs and memsahibs.

Shaken but unhurt, we assured Samir we were okay. ”The bus,” was all he said as he turned the car around and sped off in the other direction. Within moments, we were driving alongside the front fender of the bus that had just passed going the other way. Having no alternative but to slow down, it pulled to the side of the road and stopped as Samir pulled over too. Jumping out of the car, he snapped open his phone and within seconds was talking in rapid fire Hindi. Andy got out of the car, looking perplexed. All the male passengers exited the bus including the driver. The women gawked out the bus window at me, still sitting in the car catching my breath.

After the phone call Samir conferred with the bus driver then explained to Andy and me in halting English that something had been tossed from the bus window, exactly what we never knew. “Not on purpose,” he assured us as I suspiciously scrutinized the passengers standing around him. We had had a bomb alert at our hotel in Delhi a few nights before requiring everyone to evacuate to the street. False alarm, we were told afterward, but the experience had left me jumpy.

Serious negotiations ensued between Samir and the bus driver. The passenger side of the windshield was splintered beyond repair, but beyond that there was no damage to the car. I could tell by the intensity of the conversation that Samir was driving a hard bargain. Finally, the bus driver handed over a wad of rupees. Samir stuffed the money in his pocket, mentioning something about a windshield replacement waiting us in Jaipur. He then held up his hands in prayer and bowed slightly to the bus driver, the Hindu Namaste that tells the other, “The god in me sees the god in you.” Without insurance adjusters, lawyers or police, Samir had settled the matter on the open road and we all went on our way.

We had met Samir the week before when he picked us up at our Delhi hotel to begin our driving tour of northern India. He was a professional driver assigned us by a short and shiny-faced man whose cramped and dimly lit travel office we wandered into our second day in the city. Racked with jet lag and overwhelmed by hordes of destitute people trying to separate us from our money, we had shelved our plans to travel solo through Rajasthan.
Rocky, as the travel agent called himself, was a smooth operator. “I know your needs, Madame,” he told me as we handed over a pile of cash for three weeks of hotels, a car and a driver. “You are a flower in my hands.”

The next day, a young man appeared at our hotel, decked out in a pale blue shirt, carefully pressed gray slacks, and a handkerchief folded neatly in his pocket. He was so clean he looked like he might squeak if you rubbed your finger across his skin. With his stunning white teeth gleaming in the hot Delhi sun and his jet-black hair falling seductively over his forehead, Samir could have been, if not a Greek god, certainly the Hindu equivalent. The thought crossed my mind that a flower in Rocky’s hand we may be, but this guy was the orchid.

Gazing into his eyes as we stood there in front of the hotel, I had the odd sense I knew Samir. Maybe I was his mother in a past life, I pondered, as I forced myself to look away. Noting the many decades between our ages, I knew grandmother was more likely. But there was something else, not quite maternal.

It had been almost thirty years since Andy and I took our marriage vows standing on a hillside overlooking the spectacular Big Sur coast. As much as we loved each other, the ecstasy of those first years together had gone the way of thin waists and thick hair. We had built a wonderful life together, but it was sometimes difficult to conjure up the rapture of our initial attraction. It had been replaced with something deeper and more solid, yes, but sometimes I longed for that pure, unadulterated thrill when I looked in his eyes. Would I have to accept never having that feeling again, I had wondered, concluding probably “yes.”

Samir took us around the city that first day, ending up at the spice market in Old Delhi. The crowds were so dense nothing could penetrate but rickshaws and ox carts. Samir negotiated for our bicycle rickshaw driver, a tiny man with missing front teeth and cloudy eyes who pumped us all down Chandni Chowk Road. We had told Samir we wanted to wander the market alone, but would appreciate his getting us there. Finally disembarking in front of a spice stand, we were immediately set upon by a group of gypsies who hustled us over to a stack of boxes containing various medicinal herbs, or so the sign said. Samir left us in the crowd to let us experience the market ourselves as we had asked.

Seeing him go, the women started dancing around us in circles, their beads and bangles jangling to the rhythm of their bobbing heads. This is fun, I told myself, as their withered leader produced some leafy stalks and began waving them in our direction. Soon the raucous laughter of the younger women swelled to high-pitched shrieks and their hips took on a hint of the bump and grind. A heady aroma—something between peppermint and vinegar—drifted through the humid air, mingling with the smell of cumin, coriander and cinnamon from the spice stands.

The fun of a moment ago was soon transformed into something less easily labeled an Interesting Travel Experience. The gypsy crone sidled up to me and began chanting unintelligible incantations in my ear. Her eyes glinting darkly and her shrieks drowning out those of the other women, she began wildly circling the fragrant herbs above my head. I glanced over at Andy who, like me, was sporting a frozen smile. Just as I felt I was about to start shrieking myself, Sumir emerged from nowhere, marching up to the woman and barking at her in pointed Hindi. Grudgingly, she pocketed the leaves and skulked off with her troops. Sumir extended his arm, which I immediately grabbed like it was a lifeline in a churning sea. His taut muscles rippled beneath the light cotton of his shirt as he hustled me down the street, Andy following close behind.

The next day, we visited the Taj Mahal. On the long drive from Delhi, Samir explained the meaning of the four Hindu gods whose pictures he had tacked to the dashboard of Rocky’s car. “This is Ganesha, for good luck,” he began, smiling, as I gazed at the dancing elephant whose left foot balanced precariously on the back of a rat. “And this one is for beauty,” he added, pointing to the last picture. He rested his hand on Lakshmi, a sensuous Hindu goddess whom at that moment I wanted nothing more than to be.

What’s this, I thought, as my eyes lingered on the tawny skin of his hand? I remembered the gypsy, her leafy stalks circling my head. Could it be, I mused, that the herb she was waving about was the aromatized version of the proverbial Spanish Fly, the substance (its origin the subject of endless debate) my friends and I had giggled about in high school, something none of us had ever seen but had been told about? Boys, older girls had warned us, would be more than eager to throw one or two of whatever it was in our cokes, and nymphomaniacs we would instantly be.

Always in command, Samir left no stone unturned when it came to our wellbeing. In addition to the gods on his dashboard, he had hung a small mobile from the rearview mirror, a several-pieced replica of a favored Hindu temple, to accompany us on our journey. It’s metallic tinkling was a constant reminder of the spiritual life Samir seemed to hold so dear.

As we had left Delhi on our way to the Taj Mahal, he had pulled over at a dilapidated kiosk perched precariously in the middle of the road. As cars zoomed all around us, we came to stop in front of a faded photo of a bearded holy man surrounded with twinkling lights and wilted marigolds. With traffic zooming all around, Samir handed us a ten-rupee note. “To bless our journey,” he said as he motioned for me to rub my fingers on the greasy note. I complied and handed the note back to Samir who deposited it in a basket beneath the photo. Holding up his hands in prayer, he bowed to the holy man, then put the car in gear and took off.

Returning that night to Delhi, a dense mist of diesel fumes had settled into the humid Yamuna River valley. My vision of the astonishingly white Taj Mahal soon faded as the night and the road produced visions of their own. Shacks and carts lined both sides of the highway selling fruit, chapattis, dal, tobacco, and packs of betel leaf, the mild stimulant chewed by many Indian men and spit between the teeth at regular intervals. Tiny lights flickered in denuded trees as incense burned in broken branches. Fires roared in ancient 50-gallon drums where people cooked curries and sweets. Barefoot children played in suspect puddles as skinny dogs lurked in the shadows. Women in brilliant saris drifted through the night while scores of shiny cows wandered about chewing their cuds. Smells of dung, incense, spices, urine, smoke, and diesel fumes permeated the air in what we came to know as the signature odor of India.

All of this spilled out onto the highway itself, as if there were no distinction between the road and the pulsating, reeking life it took us through. Samir negotiated his way through the throng with all the dignity of a king, never once resorting to road rage, not even a hint. Inching the car past a herd of cows, we soon bogged down completely as a group of men ambled across the road carrying a dead body on their shoulders.

Andy and I stared out the window then back at each other, jaws agape. Intent on his driving, Samir merely rolled down the window of the car to adjust his side mirror. As he did, a soft breeze wafted through, jingling the hanging temple. Reaching out to calm it, Samir caressed each tinkling parts as if they were alive. In what could only be described as a swoon, my breath quickened as my head began to spin. “It’s so hot,” I said to Andy, knowing that wasn’t it at all. I longed to be that jingling temple, stroked and soothed by the hand of Samir. Embarrassed, I sat up straight. “How many more kilometers do we have, Samir?” I asked, smoothing the wrinkles of my blouse.

As we traveled through Rajasthan, Samir continued to hustle us through minor troubles with command and ease. Mostly he stayed in the background, letting us immerse ourselves in all that was India but knowing instinctively when this might overwhelm, and gently leading us away. Sometimes he would appear out of nowhere especially when I was sightseeing alone and a particularly aggressive beggar had attached himself to me. Never making a scene, he would shoo the beggar away with a few quiet words. Intuitively knowing where I wanted to go, he would take my arm and say, “This way, Madame, follow me.” I always did.

Samir worked very hard for Rocky, with hardly a day off. During one of our long days on the road he told me why.

“Where are you from, Samir?” I asked him.

“Rishikesh, in the north.”

“Oh, isn’t that the town famous for its yoga?”

“Yes, Madame.”

“Do you practice?” I inquired, thinking anyone who lived in a yoga town would.

“No, Madame. My parents are from there. They have house, many years old, our family house. It is broken. They can’t live there. I bring them to Delhi. We live together in my place.” Samir’s “place” was a room in old Delhi.

“I want to give my father and mother rupees so they can fix house and move back home. My parents don’t like Delhi. My father is very old. He was farmer but can’t work now.”

“How old is he, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Fifty-one, Madame.”

“Oh.” I did a quick calculation. At least I couldn’t be Samir’s grandmother, but according to his perception of “very old,” I was near dead.

Many times I asked Samir not to call me Madame. “Call me by my name,” I said. “That’s what we do in the U.S.” But this was a barrier he could not breach. Madame, it remained.

At the end of our last day in Rajasthan, Samir handed me a ragged notebook, very plain with lined paper. On the front cover were glued cut out photos– a rose, a temple, a deer, a mountain. “For you to keep tonight, Madame. I would be very happy if you write in my book.”

After dinner that evening I curled up on our hotel bed and opened Samir’s book. In it were pages of testimonials to Samir, his driving, his sweet ways. Some were in Hindi, others in German, French or Japanese. But most were written in various levels of English.

“Samir, you tell good joke,” one man said. “You and I like joke. We have big fun. Soji.”
“We have spent wonderful days with you Samir. You are a special person. Please come visit in Amsterdam. Fondly, the Van Dam family.”

“When will you get married, Samir? I hope soon. You’ll be a good husband. I’m not married. Love, Brigit.”

I read some of these to Andy who was sitting across the room studying a guidebook. In the middle of doing so, I broke down. Sobbing, I told Andy I would miss Samir and didn’t want to go on to the next leg of our journey.

“What’s this about?” Andy asked.

An awkward silence ensued. “The change,” I finally said even though we both knew that was long past.

Andy looked confused. “Hormones,” I added, “you know, female stuff.”

Hormones indeed. Clutching the pen, I began to write.

Dear Samir, I have never met anyone like you. You are gentle, sweet, strong, capable, spiritual, and gorgeous, everything I love in a man. I want to fuck your brains out.

Whoa! Quickly tearing out the page, I stuffed it in my backpack and started over. Dear Samir, You are a wonderful driver and a great companion. If you ever come to the U.S. we would love to have you visit us in San Francisco.

I pictured Samir in our guest bedroom, asleep in the big bed, his dark hair spilling over the pillow. Would the yellow percale sheets do, or the green? Lilies on the nightstand, or roses? Lost in my reverie, it took me a moment to notice the photograph that had fallen out of the book, a faded image of a dilapidated house on an eroded hillside. A tattered couple stood outside staring grimly at the camera. Samir’s parents.

On our return to Delhi, Samir stopped once again at a crumbling holy man kiosk. After blessing another ten-rupee note, he put it in the basket and held up his hands in prayer. As he did, I put my hands together too, but not at the old man in the picture. Facing Samir’s back, I bowed my head toward the back of his.

“Namaste, Samir.” I whispered.

The god in me sees the god in you.

When we returned home to San Francisco, I had time to peruse my photos. After downloading them all, I discovered one I hadn’t really looked at since I snapped it. It was Samir and Andy standing in front of a spice stand on Chandni Chowk road. Studying Samir, then Andy, my jaw dropped. With a few modifications like curly hair instead of straight, Samir could have been my husband’s son. He looked like Andy when I first met him. Samir had awakened something in me for sure, but that something was sitting right next to me in my living room reading The New York Times.

That night in bed, I cuddled up to Andy and whispered in his ear. “You are a god,” I said.

He laughed then stared at me when he saw I didn’t.

“A god?”

“Yes. I just hadn’t noticed for a while.”

He leaned over and kissed me, and there she was, the gypsy queen and her pungent herbs spinning wildly above our heads.

Carol J. Arnold’s work has appeared in Travelers’ Tales’ 2008 Best Women’s Travel Writing; Ars Medica, an anthology of medical literature; BARK Magazine; Composite Arts Journal; Pif Magazine; and Fourth River Journal, among others, both print and on-line. She was awarded New Millennium Journal’s 2009 first prize for flash fiction, and Honorable Mention for her nonfiction work. Her short story won an Honorable Mention in the 2008 John Steinbeck Short Story Contest sponsored by Reed Magazine. Her creative nonfiction essay won second prize in the 2013 Keats Soul Making Contest, and her short essays continue to be featured on San Francisco’s National Public Radio.

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Bronze Winner: Ali’s Heritage Garden

January 16th, 2017

By Rosie Cohan

One man’s efforts to preserve traditional culture as tourism changes his community.

Pink skid marks faded to purple in the blackening sky as lights popped on across Goreme, the stony Turkish village below me. I had checked into my room and then saw my friend, Ali, sitting alone on the terrace of the hotel he had built within the cave walls where his family had originally lived. Cave homes had been a common form of habitation in this rugged land.  Ali’s chair was turned toward the dark valleys on the opposite side of the illuminated village.  He was nursing a beer.

Iyi Aksamlar (Good evening), Ali. May I join you?” I saw a flash of melancholy disappear from his face as he turned and graciously pulled out a chair for me and then ordered a glass of wine for me. “Why are you sitting here alone?” I asked, taking the seat next to him.

His curly silver-streaked hair glistened in the moonlight and his muscular body looked tight and tense.  He answered me in a far away voice. “I was remembering my grandfather and his garden outside of the village. I used to love working there as a boy. I wonder what he would think of Goreme now? What would he think of me?”

“He would be proud. You’ve built some of the best hotels in Cappadocia. You work to preserve the local environment and traditions. You employ many people and support others through your generosity. You have a beautiful family.”

Ali lowered his eyes and whispered, “I don’t know what’s right or good anymore.” Then he was silent and resumed looking at the far away dark canyons. Having known Ali for fifteen years, I sensed we were done talking. I drank my wine quietly staring at hundreds of Tinker Bell lights shimmering in Goreme, which from many previous visits, had become like a second home to me.

Goreme is in the heart of Cappadocia: a moonscape land covered with hundreds of phallic towers with tilting tips, mysterious arched caves, and unique meringue-like conic tufa peaks called fairy chimneys. The fairy chimneys, a product of volcanic eruptions over ten million years ago, are unique natural structures that have been chiseled by wind, rain and snow and pose as curious sculptures all over this rugged land. Many were used as churches in the Middle Ages, adorned with Byzantine painted stories and icons. Variegated earth tone cliffs with swirled rose-colored layers hide several underground cities that housed Christians who were seeking safety, first from the Romans and then from various Turkish tribal regimes.

For centuries Cappadocia consisted of somewhat isolated subsistence farming communities. It really became a tourist destination around 1985, when UNESCO made the area a World Heritage Site. Now, pictures of fairy chimneys and the colorful hot air balloons floating in the sky every morning are on almost every brochure and tourist website about Turkey. Goreme is a “must see” place in all the tour books.

In 1993, a young and resourceful Ali saw an opportunity.  He put extra beds in his traditional family cave home in Goreme and opened it to backpackers who were coming but had no place to stay unless people invited them into their homes. Ali’s home-turned-pension soon became so popular that he had to expand. Although he had never seen a hotel, through trial and error, he created the first boutique cave hotel in Goreme. Built within the caves and fairy chimneys, each room melded with the natural environment.

Ali employed his friends and neighbors: local stonemasons did the construction, craftsmen created replicas of traditional Anatolian furniture, village women expertly embroidered bed linens and towels. Scouring Cappadocia for old urns, building materials, doors, farming tools and cultural artifacts, he placed them artistically around the hotel as reminders of the area’s agrarian way of life. As Ali became successful, others tried to copy his style.  But, I knew his business acumen, artistic sense, generous hospitality, and deep respect for village traditions and history could not be duplicated.

When I sat with Ali on the terrace, it had been two years since I was last in Goreme. The next morning I walked down to the village center and was shocked that almost all of the cave homes along the way had been replaced with hotels or restaurants. The neighbors, who used to wave and invite me into their cave homes as I passed, were gone. The old women dressed in embroidered flowered scarves and colorful pantaloons who gathered along on the cobblestone path to gossip, had disappeared. No girls were weaving their dowry rugs outside their homes. Instead, there were new shops along the road selling their rugs. The communal mill, once a busy meeting place where villagers took turns pushing the large wheat-grinding wheel, was now empty.  Hammering and drilling sounds could be heard everywhere, shattering the peace in the once tranquil village where the most noise one heard came from the clip-clop sound of donkey-led wagons filled with crops and families.

In town, tourists and young locals were sitting in new cafés focused on their mobile devices. They drank lattes instead of cay, Turkish tea, which is the lifeblood of Turkey. The thunder of motorcycles and ATVs cruising through town disturbed the previously slow-paced, lazy calm.

Feeling robbed of my memories, I saw Ali on the main street talking with his friend Mehmet in front of Mehmet’s rug shop. I ran to him and in a shaky voice with tears welling up I asked,  “Where have all the villagers gone? What’s happened to Goreme?”

Ali led me into Mehmet’s rug store. Surrounded by the deep red and black geometric patterns of Turkmen carpets and locally woven kilim rugs, Mehmet brought us cay while Ali explained:  “Many villagers have sold their caves and homes for amounts of money they never could have imagined. They have built more modern homes on the outskirts of town. They work in the new hotels, restaurants, hot air balloon companies, and travel agencies and make more money than they did from farming.  You can’t blame them for wanting a better life. The village could not stay the way you remember it. There is no going back.”

Of course, I wanted the villagers to have an easier life. But the traditional village I fell in love with was disappearing. Modernization and change was inévitable once Goreme opened up to the world of tourism. I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly. I knew I was foolish and selfish to want Goreme to stay frozen in time.

Ali then said, “ I have decided I must accept change in order to shape it. You must accept it too.”

A few days later, Ali picked me up in a jeep and took me to where his grandfather’s garden used to be. He was smiling and chatty, unlike the prior night on the terrace. We stopped at a steep community of ecru and rosy cliffs overlooking a rock-filled valley punctuated with dark green bushes. Ali was still in good shape for a middle-aged man as he scampered down the side of the cliff, a shower of loose stones in his wake. “I must hurry to pay some workers I hired. Can you make it down yourself?” he shouted up to me. “At the bottom, just follow the path.”

Not wanting to seem wimpy, but without looking too far down, I told him to go ahead. Soon I was perched on a narrow ledge frozen in place on the side of the cliff. Friends in the village were right when they said it would be difficult to reach Ali’s grandfather’s garden. I had scoffed at the warning thinking, “How difficult can a walk down a garden path be?” But standing on the precipice, I decided that climbing up and down cliffs must be part of the DNA of villagers in this land of peaks and valleys. Missing that chromosome, I finished the descent the best way I could, on my butt.

At the bottom, I followed a narrow path to a clearing surrounded by pockmarked cliff faces. From previous visits, I recognized these cavities as deserted pigeon houses. Ali had told me that as a boy, he had cleaned out these pigeon houses. Used as a natural fertilizer, pigeon poop had been a valuable commodity. A young man was judged worthy of marriage by the number of pigeon houses his family owned. If you were rich in pigeon poop, you were considered a good catch.

But the pigeons and the tradition had disappeared after the appearance of commercial fertilizers about thirty years earlier. The garden was overgrown with dense brush, the fruit trees were dormant, and the vineyard fallow. Huge boulders had fallen blocking the surrounding cave entrances. I saw Ali talking with the workmen and then he turned to me. “I will make an organic garden here in my grandfather’s garden to honor the old ways,” he announced, his dark eyes shining.

“Great,” I said, forcing enthusiasm. But, given the rough terrain and condition of the area, I couldn’t’t imagine how he was going to reincarnate the garden of his youth.

I left Goreme and didn’t return until two years later. It was harvest time and the garden had been completed. Ali invited me to join some of his hotel guests there the next morning to make pekmez, a sweet syrup made from grape juice thickened with mineral-filled local clay. It’s the local cure-all, healing everything from the flu to a hangover.  I accepted cheerfully, but absolutely dreaded the climb down.

The next morning, we heard a tractor’s heavy coughing as it crawled up the road towing a large, wooden wagon-like contraption that resembled pictures of Noah’s Ark.  We piled in and as we chugged above the village through the silent landscape of fairy chimneys and fields of yellow squash along the road, Ali shared the history of the area and his memories of agrarian life in his grandfather’s time.  As a young boy helping his grandfather, he had led the family donkey loaded with baskets of fruit and vegetables up the steep cliffs. His passionate descriptions of traditional culture and the local community life captivated us.

We arrived at the spot where I had slid down the cliff and to my astonishment, I saw stone steps and a rope-railing.  With a mischievous smile and dark eyes flashing, Ali whispered, “I learned from your last visit I had to build a better path to the garden. You won’t need to use your ass.”

I knew he didn’t mean my donkey.

At the bottom of the cliff, we walked past an orchard with trees drooping under the weight of blushing apples, chartreuse quince, and seductive purple figs.  Rose bushes, geraniums, and nasturtium replaced the previously tangled overgrowth.

When we arrived at a clearing, two smiling sunbaked women were standing over an outdoor wood-burning oven carved into the rock.  Wearing delicately embroidered white headscarves and patterned tops and pantaloons that didn’t’t match, but somehow went together, they were making gozleme, a flatbread rolled very thin, like a tortilla.  The smell of dough baking over the open fire increased my appetite. A picnic table was set with a typical Turkish breakfast: boiled eggs (gathered from the chickens strutting around), local cheeses, and sweet tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, olives cured with local spices and garlic all from Ali’s garden. Hearing echoes of cooing, I looked up at the once barren condominium complex of dovecotes.  Ali had brought 2,000 pigeons back to the garden to produce organic fertilizer.

After breakfast, we hiked to the vineyard to harvest plump bunches of grapes. The grapes were then brought to another part of the garden where Ali had built a village house with a flat roof.  I had seen this type of house when I first came to Goreme fifteen years earlier.  At that time, barefooted village women with pulled up pantaloons danced on their flat rooftops stomping the grapes. Every night, for about two weeks, the hillsides were lit up from the fires outside each home as the grape juice was cooked to make pekmez for the long winter.

We donned rubber boots and were helped onto the recreated flat roof.  Slipping and sliding on the skins and seeds, we took turns stomping the grapes on the roof. Unfortunately, as I was stomping, I fell into the pekmez mess on the roof.  My pride was hurt more than my body.  While everyone was laughing at my expense, the village women brought me clean, local garments, pantaloons, and a top to change into. Ali started calling me “Sachar Rosie,” clumsy Rosie, from then on.

I washed my clothes by hand and hung them from nearby bushes to dry. The buckets of juice, produced before my fall, were poured into huge hand-hammered copper pots set upon a blazing wood fire.

Lusty aromas of lamb sizzling on the fire and bulgur wheat simmering with tomato sauce and chilies called us back to the eating area. Ibrahim, a local winemaker, was pouring his wine. After a glass or two, it seemed to have rivaled anything I had tasted from Napa or Bordeaux.

Ali had arranged for a saz player to serenade us. A saz is a traditional stringed instrument with a deep rounded back. The young musician looked like a Turkish Johnny Cash: dark hair, black shirt, leather pants and vest. Like any good country singer, he sang soulful songs about lost love.

Without our noticing it, the day had slipped away.  We piled into jeeps to go back to town drunk with wine and wonder as the tangerine sun set over the dark shadowed cliffs.  One woman announced, “This is one of the best days I have had traveling in any country.  I will never forget the garden and what Ali has taught us about traditional life and the great experiences he created for us today.”

That night, sitting on the hotel terrace I reflected on the day and how complicated the impact of tourism is on a community. It had brought prosperity and a higher standard of living to many in Goreme, allowing the village to invest more in education and  social and city services.  Exposure to different cultures and values has widened people’s views of the world, especially the younger generations who will create the future.

Yet, the modernization that tourism demands had increased noise, traffic, and strain on the ecology of the area. Changes have occurred in family life and other relationships due to the 24/7 demands of tourism and competition for tourist dollars. It seems inevitable that many old ways of life disappear when a community becomes a tourist destination.  Conscious efforts, such as Ali’s, are needed to manage change and preserve the traditions, landscape, and the attributes that have made Goreme so appealing in the first place.

Keeping one foot in the past, another in the present and his eyes on the future, Ali had again found ways to weld together the double-edged sword of preservation and progress. The making of gozleme and pekmez, the traditional melodies of the saz floating through the canyons where pigeons now fly, all these will keep the area’s collective memory alive. They also delight tourists who seek cultural authenticity. Perhaps, I hoped, others will copy Ali’s preservation efforts, just as they did when he built his cave hotel.

Just then, Ali came bounding up the stone steps, interrupting my thoughts.

“Tomorrow night I am celebrating the full moon with a barbecue in the garden. Can you come?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”  I replied, smiling gratefully.

I think Ali’s grandfather would be smiling too.

Rosie Cohan left home for summer camp at age nine and has been a passionate traveler ever since. An award winning travel writer, she has traveled to fifty countries, including fifteen trips to Turkey, her “home away from home.” Through her storytelling, Rosie describes the beauty of the natural world and introduces readers to fascinating characters and different cultural traditions; while showing us the universality of the human experience. Rosie has a Master’s Degree in Community and Organizational Planning from UC Berkeley.  As an international management and organizational development consultant, she has published articles in several professional magazines and journals. Rosie lives and writes in Berkeley, California, truly a world unto itself.

Travel and Sports Silver Winner: The Tour du Mont Blanc

January 9th, 2017

By Marianne Bohr

Mother Nature always wins.

The Tour du Mont Blanc, affectionately known to its devotees as the TMB, is one of the world’s classic long-distance footpaths and is a capstone event on our European itinerary. Experiencing the Alpine wilderness in the presence of the dramatic ice-capped peaks is the proverbial icing on our backpacking, sabbatical-year cake. In seven days, we’ll hike seventy-five miles around Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps at 15,770 feet, undertake elevation gains and losses of over 36,000 feet, cross through three countries with seven companions, and complete one magnificent hike. We signed up for the hike before we left the States, having read about it in a hiking magazine years before. The writer did a good job of communicating his enthusiasm for not only the physical beauty of the TMB but also the excitement of the challenge and the thrill of doing it with a partner. Joe and I love undertaking personal challenges, as well as discovering new places, just the two of us. It’s like having secrets no one else knows and that only we share. Once we read about it, we knew the TMB would be one of those shared experiences.

The circular route goes from village to village, ascending through flower-filled meadows and up precipitous, barren mountain passes. It winds its way through vertiginous, scree-strewn elevations and descends through quaint hamlets into green valleys overlooked by intimidating glaciers in France, Italy, and Switzerland. The trail begins in the Chamonix Valley and traces its way through its international neighbors—the Val Ferret in Italy and the Trient Valley in Switzerland.

The complete 105-mile TMB requires a ten-day commitment. We’ll undertake a slightly abbreviated version by doing the “less interesting” legs, those that follow paved roads, in support vans. We’ll walk from France to Italy, on into Switzerland and then back to France, progressing from one rustic mountain refuge to the next. I find a wealth of information about the Mont Blanc loop on the Internet and have Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc, the de facto Bible on this classic hike. Because the fair-weather season is so brief, the mountain refuges (some of which cannot be reserved) fill up quickly in summer. I read reports of hikers at the end of a long day of trekking fifteen-plus miles being stranded with no place to stay in sometimes-below-freezing night temperatures. This possibility, combined with fickle mountain weather, sealed the deal. We’ve opted for a guided TMB excursion with Boundless Journeys, an adventure outfitter.

Our TMB program is inaugurated at L’Oustalet, our comfortably rustic Chamonix inn, with drinks on the back lawn. Our tall, handsome French guide and quintessential outdoorsman, Eric, meets us with the understated enthusiasm we’ll come to expect from him. As our fellow hikers materialize one by one, we size each other up to see where we fall on the relative fitness scale. In the days leading up to the excursion, I was anxious. Will our companions for a week of intense trekking be older or younger? Will they be less or more in shape? Will we see their hard-body physiques and realize we’re in over our hiking heads?

As it turns out, our abilities, while not identical, are compatible, and, somewhat more important, our senses of humor are in sync. The fuzzy silhouettes of fellow hikers we imagined have now materialized as real people: a twentysomething Australian couple; a research librarian and her New York real estate husband; an attorney from Rhode Island; and Eric, our guide, a Chamonix native. It looks like the weeklong adventure will be not only physical but social as well for our affable ensemble of eight.

The Hike

The morning of the mountain adventure we dreamed about for so long finally dawns. Despite how excited I am, I do my best not to sound too chirpy when we meet up with our group in the breakfast room—I don’t want them thinking I’m not serious about what we’re about to undertake. Our Grindelwald training hikes under our belts, well-broken-in boots supporting our feet, and trekking poles at the ready, we’re reasonably confident as we start the ascent of what is billed as our “TMB practice hike.” But the romantic images of gentle bucolic inclines through Alpine meadows are now very real rocky ascents rising defiantly in front of us, daring us to climb.

A cable car deposits us beyond the tree line in the shadow of a bread-knife range of peaks on the northern side of the Chamonix valley. This inaugural time together allows Eric to assess our hiking abilities and helps us learn to trust his close personal relationship with the terrain. It doesn’t take long before we hang on his every word and take as gospel everything he says. If Eric predicts it will cool off, we soon feel a chilly breeze. If he suggests taking pictures from a certain promontory and we listen, we’re assured of photos with the absolute best backdrops. When Eric tells us to don foul-weather cover, it will start spritzing, guaranteed.

From the valley’s northern slope, we look across the rooftops of Chamonix far below to the pristine white dome of Mont Blanc rising on the southern side. We have an incredible view of the big guy, the imposing mass that anchors the corners of France, Switzerland, and Italy fifteen thousand feet in the sky. Our orientation day is graced by visits from sturdy ibex, wild goats with enormous backward-curving horns standing watch on rocky ledges. As they do in early summer, one adolescent is dutifully scratching off his long white winter cover against the stiff, bristly branches of scrub bushes, allowing his short, sandy summer coat to appear. We also spy the more elusive, graceful, and wiry chamois, an entirely different species of goat-antelope careering down a steep, rock-strewn slope. Alpine marmots—adorable, oversize ground squirrels—are our constant companions, always on the lookout beside their holes and sounding repeated whistling alarms whenever we approach.

We’re humbled by our first day’s exercise and talk excitedly about the days ahead with our companions over dinner.

~ ~ ~

Our hike starts high above the village of Les Houches, where a cable car drops us in a flower-filled mountain meadow at the foot of a glacier. A vaporous mist puts the Chamonix valley below into soft focus, and we head up and around the mountain and then through the Col du Tricot toward our first night’s destination.

A hiking trifecta graces our first day. We feel the frosty spray of a mountain torrent and gushing waterfall; pass over a swollen, raging river on a bobbing suspension bridge; and witness a gossamer rainbow after gentle rain. Our picnic lunch in a green pasture studded with daisies is cut short by drizzle, but the sun soon returns and we pack away our slickers for the rest of the day. The scenery is reminiscent of Colorado, from the shaded trail through fragrant pines and groves of rustling aspens to the snowcapped vistas across the valley. Seven hours after starting, we reach our destination village nestled beside a noisy stream with just enough time for much-needed showers before dinner. Our day had plenty of literal ups and downs, but the difficulty level was manageable. I can do this, I think; I’m definitely ready for more.

As we come to expect each evening after dinner, our muscles protest getting up from the table after having relaxed and then tightened during our meal. The ascent to our room is a painful reminder of the miles we covered that day. On this first night, our room is three flights up and each step is successively more difficult. Eric warned that the weather report for the following day, reputed to be one of the most difficult legs of the TMB, is less than propitious and that we should make sure we’re prepared. Like obedient schoolchildren, we lay out our waterproof foul-weather layers, down some extra-strength Tylenol, and collapse into the tumble of duvets.

Eric is right, as always. About everything. The next leg of the hike is wet, cold, strenuous, and long. The morning dawned under light cloud cover, but by early afternoon, we’re making our way through gentle mist that turns to opaque fog as we reach the snow line. At one point midascent up steep, interminable slick rock, my overworked lungs burn a hole in my chest and I ask myself as I bend over, yet again, to fully catch my breath, Did we actually pay to put ourselves through this agony? The terrain changes from rocky to muddy to an increasingly thick cover of slushy snow over the course of just several hundred yards. Cold rain and scalpel-sharp winds soon follow, and the mist is so thick by now that we can see only the heels of fellow hikers’ boots in front of us. If ever we were crazy enough to think we could tackle the TMB independently, such delusional pretentions evaporate in the obscurity. The incline remains steep and all is eerily silent, save the slushy sounds of one boot being planted in front of the other in the prints Eric cut ahead of us in the snow. The fog thickens further as the rain pelts our slickers and soaks our pants. From the tail end of our string of hikers comes the plaintive query: “Have we reached Nepal yet?” The timing for a giggle is opportune, since the hiking hero in me is fading, succumbing to the elements in lonely frustration. Joe and I haven’t exchanged a word in hours, and I’m chilled to the bone, foul-weather paraphernalia notwithstanding. The backs of my heels have blistered despite significant applications of moleskin, and my pinkies are now simply two, chafed hot spots. I will myself to continue every step of the way as we draw closer to the elusive pass.

The fog is such that had we been on our own, we surely would have missed the trail markers and been hopelessly lost—a dangerous proposition at over eight thousand feet. Even my ordinarily reliable sense of direction would have failed us. But just as my last reserves of will are waning and my spirits are about to hit rock bottom, the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme miraculously appears out of the mist at the pass. The rustic wooden hut with a central potbellied stove is the oasis I visualized over these cold, wet hours, and a mug of hot tea never tasted so good. The refuge is filled with the cheerful energy of grateful, shivering hikers sipping steaming beverages, resting in various stages of undress on long wooden benches, outer layers drying on clotheslines overhead. The atmosphere is festive, the room humid, and the windows fogged; no one is anxious to head back into the elements.

After we’ve spent an hour warming ourselves with a couple doses of brew, Eric rounds us up and announces the weather has cleared. We pile on still-damp layers for the sharp descent to L’Auberge de la Nova. The fog has indeed lifted, the rain has slowed to a drizzle, and soon after we leave the hut, patches of blue sky appear and the valley below becomes visible. Initially thrilled to be finally heading down, I’m soon lamenting the direction change as my knees scream in pain. I was worried that the hike would reignite my premarathon hip pain but never imagined it my knees would cause me problems. Keeping them intact and successfully negotiating the slick, muddy trails down the slope amid melting snow patches requires serious assistance from my trekking poles. So lean on them I do as I make the balance of the trip down among grazing cows.

We reach a hamlet of old stone buildings, and to our spent bodies it’s paradise. Our simple hiker’s inn with one toilet and one shower shared by the dozen guests on our floor is as comfortable as a five-star resort. It provides a hearty dinner and a functional bed—all we need.

Subsequent days take us from Les Chapieux, France, to Courmayeur, Italy, and on to Finhaut, Switzerland. While hiking becomes slightly less difficult (is it because the weather is perfect, or could it be that we’re getting used to the daily exertion, the tempo of our steps, and the catastrophes that are our feet?), it never gets easy. As precarious as the day’s weather on the climb to the Croix du Bonhomme pass was, the balance of our days on the TMB are scrumptious: skittering cotton-candy clouds in a pure blue sky, and just enough cool breeze to moderate the sun.

Each morning we awaken to the familiar tick-tick-tick of trekking poles as hikers getting an early start pass our open windows. I spend my first few waking moments wishing I could bypass the day’s daunting climb, but my dogged spirit prevails (either that or I’m too embarrassed to say, “Today I’ll take the shuttle”). We acclimate to the rhythm of our days: on the trail by 9:00 a.m. and at our destination by late afternoon. Mornings start with relentless, lung-searing, uphill climbs, until we’re beyond the canopy of trees to the stunning view from a barren col, and we anticipate the promise of lush scenery over the crest, in the middle of which we’ll have a picnic lunch. We fill our water bottles and CamelBak bladders with pure glacier output from rushing streams and have our midday repasts in the company of whistling marmots, shrieking swifts, and squeaking, diving pipits, eerie cracks of glaciers in the distance. We then embark on the welcome dip into a new valley, always in the presence of the sleeping Mont Blanc giant, losing all the elevation we gained that morning.

One day, while trudging through a cow-filled pasture on our way up to that day’s pass, we stop at a dairy farm to watch sharp, grassy-flavored Beaufort cheese being made. The cows are milked in the pasture as they munch away, and then the milk is brought to the dairy and dumped into a gargantuan copper pot. From inside the damp cheese shed, whose nutty, moldy aroma is most pleasant, Eric buys a sizable chunk from a gargantuan cheese wheel that we demolish as part of our lunch. He always surprises us with new local specialties, but I draw the line at lardo, an Aosta Valley charcuterie made of fatback cured with herbs. I pass on the Italian delicacy, which looks like a pasty white fruit roll-up made of pure Crisco shortening.

We cross mountain glens splendidly carpeted with wildflowers: gentian violets, a lovely lavender-colored variety of Queen Anne’s lace, alpine crocuses, wild thyme, tiny marguerite daisies, and magnificent lupine. A dozen chamois sprint over a glacial snowfield, one by one nimbly negotiating the slippery slope with grace and speed. We trek through polite Swiss villages of chalets with Arcadian charm and window boxes spilling over with abundant pink and red geraniums. I stop often to look around and snap mental photos to preserve the images for as long as I can.

The panoramic vistas that come into view as we pass back into France from Switzerland are some of the prettiest of the hike, and we glimpse the village of Le Tour, our journey’s end, in miniature in the distance. I ask Eric, “Are you enjoying the commute home after your business trip in the Alps?” When he smiles and nods, I observe, “It certainly beats being stuck in a Washington, DC, traffic jam.”

We spend our final afternoon on the TMB descending through above-the-tree-line meadows and then delicate aspen woods. At times the aerobic ascents just about killed me, but I now experience little trouble heading down—as long as my reliable trekking poles support me. On the other hand, a couple fellow hikers are like mountain goats, going up without effort but finding the extended descents more difficult. In fact, halfway down to Le Tour, one of our comrades takes the gondola down to the finish line, rather than further destroy already-ravaged knees. Joe, as usual, emerges unscathed. And while every big and little muscle in my body aches and it will take my roughened heels and blistered, callused, chewed-up feet months to recover, the only lingering injury I sustain is some painful sun poisoning on my lower lip.

At the end of each day, we were dirty as dogs and tired as babies, and this trek was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever done, running a marathon included. But it scares me to think that tomorrow we’ll no longer be on the trail. Being outdoors in the presence of unbridled, unspoiled nature is a humbling experience and reminds us of just how insignificant we are compared with the wild. We’re guests passing through—part of the plan but not in charge, try as we might. We must acquiesce to nature and not the other way around, because, as Eric likes to remind us, the mountains will always win.

Marianne C. Bohr, freelance writer and editor, married her high school sweetheart and travel partner. With their two grown children, she follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives outside Washington, DC, where after decades in publishing, followed her Francophile muse to teach middle school French. Her first book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published by She Writes Press in September 2015.

Honorable Mention: The Terracotta Life

January 2nd, 2017

By Lola Åkerström

The winding road to Ville Montetiffi snakes along rolling hills with lush views of green vineyards, fields with grazing sheep, and farmland with old sheds and villas. Past the occasional cyclist training and struggling uphill. Past a car or two, far and few between. In the distance, you can just make out San Marino dramatically jutting out of the earth over the hills. For several kilometers, we were the only car on the road as we pressed further up into Emilia Romagna’s Sogliano al Rubicone province. There was no wireless coverage here. Montetiffi required that I fully immerse once I reached her.

I was on my way to the Camilletti-Reali’s rustic farm where they’ve been reviving the 500+ year old tradition of terracotta pan making by hand for decades. Rambo, the family’s dog, barked our arrival and Rosella came out to meet us with a smile, her eyes twinkling. Maurizio was spinning his lathe in the workshop, finishing up a pan, fingers dyed brown with clay.

Rosella and Maurizio Camilletti-Reali are the only artisans keeping the tradition of terracotta piadina clay pans called “Teglie” alive within this region. Piadina is an Italian flat bread made with wheat flour, lard or olive oil, salt, water, and a pinch of bicarbonate or yeast. It can be eaten with cheese and cold cuts like prosciutto or Parma ham as a sandwich or with sweeter fare like Nutella and jam or ricotta cheese topped with caramelized figs. Piadina is “PAT” certified which stands for Prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale, and is an official approval that the food item is a protected Italian regional food product.

Disillusioned with the daily grind years ago, the married couple bought their current farm in Ville Montetiffi and learned how to make traditional clay pans from an old potter in an effort to preserve the dying the tradition. Today, they’re the only ones making the terracotta pans in the region which they sell to small stores for resale as well as at regional artisan fairs.

Maurizio showed me some raw materials–red and blue clay as well as marbled calcites–which he uses to make the pans from scratch. After drying the clay, they are crushed into fine powder using a mallet and are ready to be used to form the pans. I watched the artist take his place at his wooden potter’s wheel. Watched his hands gently shape and craft the teglie mold. His eyes, the color of honey, scan the surface like lasers for any imperfections and his fingers swiftly correct the single one he finds.  Because he’s been doing this for roughly two decades, the rotating wooden lathe feels like an extension of his body.

Within minutes, a perfectly smooth flat pan was molded and ready to dry under the shade in the evening sun. The semi-dry clay pans are then transferred into a storage room where they sit to set for 7-8 weeks with regular rotations before baking them in a wood-burning kiln at 600-700 degrees. A long process that reaps its full benefit after close to two months.

But that was expected. Because here in the hills away from beach crowds in Rimini or bustling students in Bologna, slow living was essential to one’s craftsmanship as an artist. Working with your hands in a way that required full concentration without unnecessary distractions. This was a life I envied on some level. One which meant substituting what I constantly pursued with what I truly needed in addition to a near stress-less lifestyle. The life of an artist who drew inspiration from his surroundings and who relied on his surroundings to recharge his creativity.

Beyond living off their craft of making terracotta pans for sale, Maurizio and Rosella also live off the land in a sustainable and rustic way. Which meant at their invitation to join them for dinner, Maurizio went out to pick black cherries and fresh strawberries as well as green leafy vegetables for a salad from his farm. They get cheese and dried meats from neighbors several kilometers down the road who run their own small rustic farms as well.

Tonight, Rosella invited me into her warm kitchen to teach me how to make this regional specialty–piadina–from scratch. Their fourteen year old son, Fransesco, was in the background playing a video game on their computer.  She measured out flour as a kettle of cooking water whistled out smoke in the background. She mixed flour with salt, lard, and bicarbonate before kneading the dough into its familiar consistency with such skill that easily told me she’d been making piadina from scratch for close to twenty years.

Dinner was simple but hearty. Newly baked piadine we made together eaten with fresh salad tossed with salt and olive oil, caramelized figs which Maurizio had made himself, alongside ricotta and  parmesan cheese with a variety of cold cuts they pull from their fridge. I listen mostly. Upset that I couldn’t converse in Italian. After all, when I was a teenager, I’d spent at least two years teaching myself the language. But it didn’t matter now as we chatted over dinner with Nicholas, my guide and friend, acting as my impromptu translator. Upon finding out I was Nigerian, they told me about a Nigerian friend of theirs called “Friday” who lived down the hill.  I wondered if Montetiffi, the antithesis of the maddening rush of life in Lagos, Nigeria, had also seduced “Friday” as well. The ultimate calm.

I listened. Because if I talked, I couldn’t trust myself not to cry. Mostly because of their warmth, genuine hospitality, and love that surrounded that table. I saw a tiny piece of my own decision to leave the cutthroat corporate world reflected and validated in their artisan lifestyle. Life was truly meant for living in a way that didn’t necessarily mean amassing wealth one can never spend in a lifetime.

As Maurizio walks us to our car with the sun setting over Montetiffi up on a distant hill, he pauses. Takes in its golden rays as it washes over the landscape that spreads out all around us.

“I never get tired of seeing this after all these years,” he says in Italian, the sun’s warm light catching his honey colored eyes.

Lola Åkerström has written, photographed, and dispatched for various major publications around the world, including National Geographic. She has won many awards for her travel writing. She is based in Stockholm, Sweden. View her portfolio here.

Travel and Healing Bronze Winner: Gift Along the Way

December 26th, 2016

By Rosemary Hanrahan

The healing power of being present.

“Give me five dollars, Blan.” A young Haitian woman, unknown to me, asked in perfect English and extended her hand.

I had received many such requests during my five months living in the mountainous rural community of Fondwa in Haiti as I made my daily journey up the mountain to teach at the university.

Sometimes the ask came from little children laughing like kids laugh everywhere—a shy grin erupting into silly, toothless giggles. Sometimes the ask came from a mother with an orange-haired malnourished infant in her arms, and sometimes from a weary, old woman in a dirty tattered dress.

Occasionally a smart-alecky teenager would want money or my cell phone or my watch and then mock me in Creole, probably not aware that I understood the language.

Usually during these encounters I  shook my head, offered an uncomfortable smile and continued on, knowing that most everyone in the village was in need of economic support. I didn’t want to encourage begging. My justification was that I supported the local peasant association, which offered health and education programs for everyone in the community.

But that day was different.

I hardly noticed the steep and rocky, rutted path, or the sweat dripping down my face, neck and back. Even though it was early morning and the sun was still low, no shade existed along the way. The trees have been cut for wood, for farming, for charcoal, and for the road on which I journeyed.

Unlike most days, that day I ignored my backpack so heavy with water and books that I was nearly bent at a right angle from my waist.

That particular day my thoughts were of my father and my family in the United States.  I had just returned from an unexpected trip home to attend my mother’s funeral. She had passed away a few weeks earlier from a long struggle with diabetes and heart disease.

Returning to Haiti and my commitment as interim director of the university was one of the hardest decisions of my life. My father, a gifted and well-respected physician, was not only physically devastated by Parkinson’s disease, but also experiencing increasing dementia—and now the loss of my mother, his wife of nearly fifty years.

“Give me five dollars, Blan!” The woman repeated a little louder and more insistent.

“What do you want from me? I have nothing else to give you.” I muttered to the rocky path, and immediately felt ashamed. Tears escaped my eyes and mingled with my sweat. My eyes stung as if I deserved the punishment.

Of course the woman didn’t understand my response. It was likely those were the only words of English she knew. Nor did she understand that my presence in Haiti was akin to my personal “Sophie’s Choice.”

In addition to teaching at the university, I was also pursuing a Master of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh and my thesis work centered on establishing a Community HIV/AIDS  Program in Fondwa. The opportunity to live and share my medical knowledge and skills in a developing country was a lifelong dream. At age 48, how many more opportunities would I have?

But the realization of my dream came at a significant cost. It meant that I would no longer be there for the day-to-day needs of my parents. But having shouldered nearly all of the responsibility for three years, wasn’t it time for one of my other five siblings to step up?

My rational side responded, “Hell, yes!”

My always-the-responsible-daughter side was less certain.

As I trudged up the mountain each day after my mother’s death, I replayed conversations I had in the months immediately before I moved to Haiti.

On one of my father’s pretty good days, I asked him what he thought about my choice.

“I would do the same thing if I were you,” he replied and then drifted off to a sleepy confused state before I could ask him to share more about why. Did he find his life as a father and a physician less than he had hoped? Or did he see that my choices were different than his, but equally of merit?

My mother, on the other hand, was totally against my leaving. When I asked her, she said, “I just think you can do better.”

“Better” meant continuing to practice in the U.S., living near her and my father, and earning a nice salary and all that it afforded.

When she realized I had made up my mind, she added guilt to her disappointment—as all mothers do at times. “You’ll be sorry some day,” she warned.

On my anxious flight home to see my mother before she died, I wondered if that “some day” had arrived, and perhaps would never leave. The 1500 miles separating Haiti from Pittsburgh could not have seemed longer if I had swam to Miami and walked barefoot to my mother’s bedside. I was worried that her doctors were missing something or were giving up too soon.  And I knew, even if the time had come for her to go, that if I didn’t make it back to say good-bye, I would never forgive myself.

But I did make it back in time and we were gifted with a final short conversation when she acknowledged, “I’m proud of you. I hope you know that.”

Although I think I did know, I also needed to hear the words from her.

Within a few days of my return home it was clear that nothing I or anyone else could do would keep my mother’s heart beating. At the end, even the defibrillator and pacemaker that had been implanted in her chest two years earlier were wise enough to let her go quietly.

In the weeks after my return to Haiti, I found myself angrier at the constant requests for money, the hands extending out and pleading eyes that were inescapable on my walk—the walk I had once loved to make because it allowed me time for reflection. I reminded myself that I was not my thoughts. Yet, my mounting hostility threatened to engulf me and sabotage my relationships with people I cared about and respected and all that we hoped to achieve together.

The community HIV program we proposed had finally received initial funding, but was unfolding painfully slowly. At times, I questioned the commitment of my Haitian colleagues who were often distracted by other priorities and responsibilities. The constant struggle to communicate with the Cuban and Haitian faculty at the university was exhausting—despite knowing we all believed rural development was crucial to Haiti’s future. Even interviewing potential students, full of energy and idealism and eager to become a positive force for change in their troubled country, failed to rouse my enthusiasm.

All these worthy causes that had fueled my passion since my first visit to Haiti three years earlier, suddenly retreated from foremost in my thoughts and actions to the shadowy recesses of my grief.

I considered returning to the U.S. early. My heart ached for my father, and accomplishing all that I thought I could accomplish in Haiti, now seemed unimportant. But I feared if I left Haiti early I would never find peace at home either.

The evenings were most difficult for me. Dinner was a light and quick meal usually consisting of leftovers and finished just after Haiti’s early sunset. From seven o’clock on, I was left with my thoughts, the light of a my small headlamp and my mind crowded with the day’s conversations and thoughts of home.

One of those evenings I recalled a short conversation I had with my academic advisor in the U.S. a few days after my mother passed away.

I told him, “I  expected to get so much more done.  I’m not making enough of a difference.”

AIDS was taking mothers and fathers from families, and infants were being born with the disease at an increasing rate. We knew how to stop the progression; we had a plan in place. But my time and patience were running out.

My advisor suggested that I think of my months in Haiti as a gift  to the community and to myself—a precious gift given freely, without expectation of anything in return. He also advised me to start a journal and to make it simple and reflective, and non-judgmental.

I found a half empty spiral notebook where I had been keeping my endless “To Do List.” The list with numerous experts to consult, tasks to accomplish and websites to explore now seemed irrelevant. I tore out those pages, folded them and placed them in a drawer. And then, I began to write.

At first just random words and phrases came and then gradually I was able to put more structure to my thoughts. I wrote about gratitude for where I was, for the time I had with my parents, for the opportunity to be part of some greater cause beyond myself and my family. Journaling was a good first step back to finding the compassion and passion that had escaped me, but it was still difficult to sustain the positive energy when I confronted my busy days.

One day in particular stands out in my memory. I was walking along the road with my Haitian friend and mentor, Father Joseph and I noticed how he responded to one woman’s request for money.

When he encountered the same pleading eyes and outstretched begging hands that had distressed me, he didn’t turn away, or encourage her to take advantage of the community programs the peasant organizations had put in place. He certainly didn’t say that he had nothing to give or offer her a few goudes from his pocket. He simply listened for a few minutes.

Then he took the woman’s hands and smiled into her eyes, without a promise to do anything, and said, “I’m sorry for your suffering.” And he asked about her family.

Suddenly, I forgot the woman’s tattered clothes. I looked past the deep lines her troubled life had etched in her face and her knobby hands that had begged for money. I saw something I had not noticed before—the wisdom in her eyes as she agreed that life was difficult for her. I saw the joy in her face as she talked about her children and grandchildren, and the strength in her hands as she grasped Father Joseph’s hands when she smiled and said, “Wi, Bondye bon—Yes, God is good.”

Momentarily, I supposed that the connection was easier for Father to make because of his strong religious grounding and because he was Haitian. Then I realized, that while faith and spirituality certainly played a part, the transformation that occurred had more to do with listening. Father Joseph didn’t just hear her troubled words as I had heard. He listened to the fear and hope beneath her request and allowed her to find her voice and dignity.

I recalled  a lesson from early in medical school—to listen, see and touch first, solve and treat later.  I couldn’t do everything that needed to be done; in fact I couldn’t even do many of the most important things that I thought should be done—not for Haiti and not for my family. But I could do something. I could give my presence, a kind smile and a warm touch.

I can’t say my last few months in Haiti were happy; I continued to be plagued by sadness and guilt, which at times threatened to engulf me. But there were also beautiful moments of peace and contentment, that gradually stretched into hours and days.

Sometimes these moments came as I carried water back from the community water source, trying not to spill any and laughing with the other women when I always did. Moments of peace found me as I pinned my freshly laundered sheets to the clothesline in the morning, and again when I ran down the mountain and rescued my laundry from an unexpected afternoon drizzle. These simple meditative everyday practices gave me space and time to heal.

Moments of gentle clarity also came when I wrote words from my heart in my journal. Remembering these words became easier in the days that followed and I often paused on my way up the mountain to see and touch and listen to the men, women and children I was there to teach and heal and serve.

With a little time, I retrieved my “To Do List” and shortened it considerably to just a few immediate actions that we could reasonably accomplish during my remaining time in Haiti. With that, a little more of my lost passion and energy returned. I smiled, recalling the Haitian proverb, Piti piti wazo fe niche li—little by little the bird builds its nest.

Rosemary Hanrahan M.D., M.P.H. is a physician, author and professional wellness coach with 15 years of experience in the nonprofit sector and 25 years of experience practicing anatomic and clinical pathology. She has lived and volunteered in developing countries such as Nepal, Botswana, and Haiti. Rosemary was the 2003 and 2006 recipient of the College of American Pathologists Foundation Humanitarian Grant Award for her medical laboratory work in Haiti. In 2007, she also received the Delta Omega National Honor Society Award for Best Master’s Thesis in Public Health and the Outstanding Student Award for Academic Excellence from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Her first novel, When Dreams Touch, was released in 2014 and received multiple awards for independently published fiction. All proceeds from sales of the book are donated to health and education programs in Haiti.

Travel and Shopping Bronze Winner: A Village Under the Sky

December 19th, 2016

By Donna Lawrence

A view of another woman’s life.

The road to the Maasai village is gouged with deep holes and littered with rocks. It is barely a road at all. Our Land Cruiser slows to a crawl to tip and sway through a gully. The Maasai don’t need to keep their road in good condition. They don’t need a road at all. They walk. Yesterday we saw a Maasai man at dusk, walking alone across the Amboseli grasslands, while just beyond him, five giraffes loped in unison, their long necks stretched forward at the same angle. Soon, as darkness enveloped the foreground, we could only make out the silhouettes of the giraffes against the fading sky. On these same Kenya plains, a short time before, we had seen elephants, zebras, wildebeest, and even lions, yet this man was out there walking alone, with his walking stick.

The road, if you can call it that, going to the Maasai village must have been built for their visitors. The Maasai have had to change many things about their way of life since Kenya became a country in 1963. Their vast territory was reduced and their lifestyle restricted. They can no longer kill lions, which was historically their rite of passage into manhood. But in exchange for not killing lions, they are paid money by the government. With that money, they can buy cattle, which is their wealth. And, I learned this morning, they allow foreigners to come to their village and see how they still live—for $20 U.S. dollars per person. Yes, these Maasai have adapted well to their changing country.

We bounce along, and I brace myself to keep from being jostled too much inside the vehicle. I can see for miles over the low, lion-colored grass to horizontal acacia trees in the distance, and beyond them, hidden today behind thick clouds, is Mount Kilimanjaro. As we approach the village, a boy, tending goats, watches our vehicle pass. Ahead a group of rounded huts form a circle. We lurch and bump, and come to a dusty stop.

I am in awe of this land. Every minute of the trip, I have been happy as a child seeing giraffes and elephants a few feet away from our vehicle, close enough to hear the crunch when an elephant tugs free a clump of grass. I want to know more about the people who live here. I know that they are catering to tourists, a small group at a time, but that doesn’t matter. I am not going to let that cynical thought cloud the day. This is where they live, every day, in this circle of huts.

Several Maasai men have come out to greet us, smiling broadly. They wear red draped cotton garments, shukas, thrown over their shoulders, and earrings hanging heavily from their ear lobes. Most of them carry long sticks, like the walking stick we saw yesterday. One Maasai, the money collector, pulls back his shuka and reveals a faded green canvas waistpack with the words Micato Safaris on it. He accepts our money and stows the shillings and dollars in the waistpack. Maasai have the reputation of being fierce warriors—morani. These tall, smiling men do not look like fierce warriors to me.

Daniel, the Chief, welcomes us in English and leads us into his village. The low mud huts, built close together, form a large circle that defines the village. Inside is a smaller circle outlined by dry thorny bushes. This inner enclosure is where they keep their cattle at night, safe from lions and leopards. During the day, openings are left so the villagers can walk through. The soft dirt inside, Daniel says, is a mixture of mud and cattle dung. As he continues to talk, I am distracted by three small boys playing by the entrance to one of the dried, cracking mud huts. One of the boys wiggles his little fingers in a wave. I wave back and smile. They break into giggles.

Daniel wants to show us inside one of the huts. They too are made of a mud and dung mixture, which can be reapplied to the wood frame when needed. The entrance is low, and we must bend to get into the house, he says. Several of us bend and follow him through the tunnel-like entryway, which switches back in a hairpin turn before we get into the living quarters. I am last in line. It takes a moment to adjust to the darkness; the only visible opening is a hole in the roof over the firepit in the center of the room, which radiates heat from glowing ashes. It is hot and close in here. When the details of the room become clear, I see a woman sitting on a bed, holding a baby. Her face is quiet sadness. We are in her home and she does not want us here. The six of us are intruders. I look away. Daniel explains to us that the children sleep on that bed, and this one is the Mama’s bed. How can he not notice the sadness of the Mama? I wonder if she is one of his wives. I guess it does not matter to the warrior that the Mama does not want strangers coming into her home, staring at her as if she were part of the mud house. I bend to go out.

Back out in the bright sunlight, I see a group of women lining up to sing and dance for us in the mud and dung circle. They are dressed in colorful, draping clothes, extending to their ankles or to the ground. The men are all in different shades of red, but the women wear red, blue, or yellow, and their heads are shaved. A couple of them laugh shyly as they are about to begin their performance. Then they begin singing and swaying together. Their voices create a rich, rhythmic music in the open air. One voice leads, singing a Swahili phrase, then the rest follow in a chorus of response. The lead voice sings another phrase, and the others answer her with song. They are shoulder to shoulder, moving together in a graceful line, singing joyful words I can’t understand, and my heart dances with them. For the moment, I have forgotten the sad woman in the hut.

Too soon the women’s song is over and the men are going to show off their jumping skills. They leap straight up from a standing position, as if propelled by springs. They invite a couple of men from our group to join them in a jumping competition. The visitors try, and everyone smiles because the Maasai men are far superior at jumping. I see. This is a show, and we are part of it.

Most of the Maasai wear crude leather sandals, but some are barefoot. As we and our hosts walk across the soft dung and dirt circle, I am glad I wore boots. We are going to see their crafts, and we cross to what appears to be a small swap meet. Tables in a semi circle are loaded with beaded jewelry and small trinkets. I walk by the tables, smiling as the women behind the tables call to me and show me earrings, necklaces. The moment I pick up a necklace with a small, carved elephant, I am encircled by women reaching out with similar elephant necklaces, vying for my attention. I ask the price of the necklace in my hand. It is 1200 Kenya shillings, the vendor says, in fine English. That is just under $20 US. I know I am supposed to bargain, but I don’t want to tell her it is not worth that much. My husband, Bob, who has brought items to trade, joins in. I hear calls from all around me, “Misus, look at this beautiful necklace.” Bob starts to bargain. This woman with fine English is not interested in a Swiss Army knife or a flashlight. She wants shillings. Bob scoops up two more elephant necklaces to bargain for three. After negotiations, they have decided on a price for three: 600 shillings.

There are so many similar necklaces being thrust at me, I quickly put on my three elephant necklaces and fasten them, to show that they are mine. I cannot proceed along the tables alone. I am accompanied by women, and a few men, holding out their necklaces and earrings for me to buy, calling for my attention: Misus, look at this. Misus come this way. After a few minutes, Bob hands me another elephant necklace, which he just got in trade for four AA batteries. I fasten this one on as well. Now he is enthusiastically involved in trying to trade for a Maasai shield. My entourage of vendors follows close by me, still selling. I smile and tell them all thank you, but I do not need more necklaces. A young woman gently takes my wrist and I allow her to lead me to her table. She looks at me earnestly and tells me that her baby is four years old and I must buy something from her. I tell her that her things are lovely, but I do not need anything more. As I move on, a tall Maasai man takes hold of one of the elephant necklaces at my throat and says, “You must pay for this. My wife made this and you must pay for it.” I tell him that these have all been paid for. He towers over me and pokes me hard in the chest just below the necklace and repeats that I must pay for it. I tell him again that these were all paid for. I don’t know what else to say. I look around for help and Kennedy comes to my rescue. He extricates me from my accuser and tells me that he will take care of it. I should join the others who are going to see the Maasai school. Bob is finished with his trade and we walk on to the school buildings, outside the village, away from the warrior who says I didn’t pay. It is then that I realize that the necklace in dispute would have been the one that Bob got in trade for four AA batteries. This man doesn’t want batteries; he wants shillings. I feel foolish. I look back and see that Kennedy is following us. He has taken care of it.

In the small, wooden school building with a corrugated metal roof, a group of shaved-headed children prepare to sing for us. Most of the boys are wearing oversized T-shirts and shorts. The girls wear ill-fitted dresses that might be hand-me-downs from some faraway child, cast-off Sunday school dresses from American or European families. Although Kenya law requires that all children go to school, the boys far outnumber the girls. They sing to us in Swahili, then, a small, boy,  no more than five or six years old, steps forward to lead as they recite, one-two, buckle my shoe, three-four, shut the door. He smiles, he gestures, his eyes open wide as he performs each line of the poem, this entrancing three-foot tall showman. When he finishes, he takes quick, deep bows, his legs disappearing under his large, adult-size T-shirt.

It is time to leave. Getting back into the Land Cruiser, I remember the woman in the hut, whose intelligence hides behind sad eyes, whose future holds little hope of change. I wish for all of these women some choices in their lives, some respect, some comfort. But then catch myself, hearing these words in my head reflecting my own expectations. I saw laughing, singing, smiling women too. These Maasai women carry water, collect firewood, and watch their children play under the vast Kenya sky. Who is to say my world is better?

Donna Lawrence won the Silver award for Travel Memoir in the Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards for 2015. She has written for National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times, the San Diego Daily Transcript, Ohio Magazine, Miami Magazine, and many other magazines and newspapers. She is the author of Leave Only Paw Prints, Dog Hikes in San Diego County, published by Sunbelt Publications. She lives in Los Angeles.

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