Adventure Travel Silver Winner: That Old Time Religion

April 25th, 2018

By James Michael Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Africa, all names have meaning.

He had named his son for me.

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

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

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

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

Grand Prize Bronze Winner: Mitty in Rome

March 16th, 2018

By Juilene Osborne-McKnight

Grand Prize Bronze winner of the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards


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

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

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

Italy flips the fiction switch.

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

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

Pay attention!

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

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

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

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

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

St Luigi de Francesii

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

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

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

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

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

The paintings are Caravaggios.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not surprising, because his rages are titanic, thunderous.

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

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

He laughs suddenly, a gusting of wind.

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

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

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

“Of certainty,” he says. “Of course.”

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

Fearsome indeed.

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

Ostia Antica

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

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

 Non non Professoressa.

They pay full price.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you?”

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

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

He lifts her chin.

“But perhaps not always a slave, eh?”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

In Italy, time sends postcards.


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

The square was empty.

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

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

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

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

Perhaps the only one who ever understood.

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

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

Because the work, at last, is holy.

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

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

He rises with his chisel in his hand.

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

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Crossing Shibuya

March 7th, 2018

By Aaron Gilbreath

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“Record store.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Grand Prize Gold Winner: All the Grains of Sand

March 1st, 2018

By Angelique Stevens

It was a full moon, which meant from my vantage point, I could see his naked silhouette shining blue as he washed his body behind the big lorry. I was naked too, behind the Land Rover.  The body was so familiar, that wiry frame, those graceful hands, the shaven head and the point of his beard. We had both gone, separately, to bathe behind the circle of vehicles that surrounded our camp. I had been so careful about choosing a spot farther away from the men sitting around the fire that I hadn’t realized I moved myself closer to the place where the crew washed. At some point, mid-bath, I turned my head and there he was, no more than 20 feet away bent double scooping water from his basin and splashing it on his chest.

He was the driver for our small group evaluating the water wells we had drilled over the last ten years. I had already spent two months with him and two other people, a cook, and the Africa Director who translated for me. But on this night, his naked form under that moonlight was much different—the outline of his thin legs against the amber glow from the fire on the other side, the curve at his shoulders where he bent over the washbasin facing the lorry, the cup of his palm as he splashed water onto his mid-section. I squatted closer to the Land Rover, my back against the tire, my tan body more visible at night than his jet-black skin. I put my fingers on the wet ground near my feet to steady myself and watched him in silence.

I remembered the day a few weeks earlier when I watched his hand sling pants over the bathroom fence in the compound in Wau and relished the sound of the nylon loofah coursing over rough skin. He was taking a rare daytime shower so that he could attend Friday prayers in town. He was different from the others, maybe because he was Muslim or maybe because he was, like me, also not from South Sudan. He was from Uganda. He didn’t walk around in basketball shorts after his nightly showers like the other guys. He didn’t shower behind the Land Rover when it was just the four of us in the field. He went off into the bush with his little jug of water before his prayers. He didn’t wash his face or his hands or change his clothes or wipe his feet in front of anyone. It seemed so private to me, so opposite from what I had experienced since my arrival in South Sudan. I had felt so exposed as the only westerner in our crew and the only female in many places I went. Seeing his shadowed silhouette a truck length away strangely comforted me.

Earlier that evening, when I said I didn’t want to take a shower, one of the guys on the crew looked at me as if I were crazy to go to bed dirty. But I was in a place where no matter what I did, or how well I cleaned, sand found its way into the tiniest crevices: my belly button, my underwear, my hair. I’d take my feet out of boots I’d worn all day and there’d be sand between my toes. I’d get into my tent after an evening bath and still drag in dirt. I’d roll around on it in my sleeping bag, wipe it from exposed skin. It was useless during the day to try to stop it, to wash or to clean knowing that wet skin only attracted more. The earth has a distinct iron smell in South Sudan that pervades everything, sun-seared clay, centuries-old struggles pouring out of sweat-soaked skin—life commingled with nature. When I first arrived, I smelled it pungent on people fresh from the bush. I kept it out—held my breath or turned my head. But it had started soaking into my clothes and into my gear no matter how hard I scrubbed them. The sun baked it onto my limbs during the day. Sometimes I resigned myself knowing it would force its way through my pores and deep into my veins.

In the villages where women pounded grain, girls cut wood, and families built their own thatched roof and mud huts every year, the constant dirt seemed natural; but when it breached even the western-style buildings like those in our fenced-in compound with lovely tiled floors and wooden desks and generator-powered computers, it felt as if progress were just a façade. Inside western-style buildings, earthen silt layered everything. We’d keep the doors closed during the day, turn the fans on above when the generator was working, but each morning, again the dirt had discovered even the smallest of crevices, inside drawers, underneath lamp covers, in between the cracks of the computer keyboard. Constantly we fought against ancient South Sudanese sand.

Inside the compound, we didn’t have showers; we had a three-sided fence and a basin for washing. As the only female in the compound, I never walked around in shorts after bathing either. When we were out in the field camping in the villages, I didn’t wear a towel between the wash and the tent either. I had learned to be vigilant behind the Land Rover with my back against the vehicle, crouched below the windows watching for walkers on the path behind us. I hung all of my clothes on the mirror, and then put them on in the dark. I’m not sure what I was trying to hide when bathing under the moon like that was the most natural thing I’d ever done.

Maybe I was just trying to salvage what was left of my anonymity. I was unmistakably the only foreigner everywhere I went in South Sudan. I was coffee skin and long straight hair in a sea of stick thin and purple black bodies. Everywhere I went I had become a curiosity. Even in the darkness under the moonlight, my skin did not blend in. Since I had arrived two months earlier, we had put on over fifteen hundred miles travelling to villages in Western Bahr El Ghazal and Warrap States evaluating water wells and the only time I ever saw another westerner was inside the city-sized walled compound of the UN in Wau. Still reeling from decades of civil war and ethnic strife, South Sudan was not a place for tourists

In the villages, children, stick thin and expectant, stared up at me, adults moved closer. I knew for some I was a novelty; and for others, especially the small ones, I was an object of uncertainty. In each new village, dozens of voices spoke to me in Dinka as if I could comprehend. Every time I stepped out of the Land Rover in a new place, the scene was the same. I’d turn toward the breeze and force one foot in front of the other into the curious crowd gathering around me. Calloused bare feet stepped back. Little faces sneezed uncovered into the wind, and wafting in that same breeze: sour diarrhea, weeks old sweat, dried iron clay, dust and skin. A small toddler might peer out from behind his brother’s shirt. I might smile at him, he might scream and run.

In one village, an old man in a blue jellaba moved toward me, his flowing blue linen keeping him cool. His right eye, cataract milk; his left, black blue; his whites, a mixture of sun yellow and clay red. The alcohol on his breath came in waves. His voice bellowed. His leg grazed mine as he moved his hand up towards my neck. Instinctively, I turned and blocked him. My face reddened for a second. I projected myself into the crowd looking at me looking back at them. I saw myself, my light brown skin, my curved edges, the breeze pressing my blouse against my chest. I was keenly aware of my difference, my silhouette, my obvious prosperity—the soft round of my belly, the D-cup above it pressing against white sheer polyester.

In another village, a lady wearing a tattered men’s button-down shirt as a dress stepped toward me as I moved closer to the well. Her feet, like leather, made her immune to earthen thorns. She had already lost her right pinky toe. Her toes grazed against mine.  The clefts of her aged body emitted the smell of iron compounded by sweat, the smoke of last night’s fire, cow manure. Both of her arms reached out to rest on my shoulders. She took a strand of my hair in her left hand and held it between her fingertips and moved it around so she could feel the texture of it, soft, smooth, and straight so unlike hers which was razored close to her head. With both of her thumbs, she shifted the hair on both sides of my shoulders toward the back behind my neck like a hairdresser might. Braver still, she reached through my hair, so that she could comb it, or feel it between her fingers like one does with sand at the beach. She was so close to me I saw the pores on her face, the etched scars on her forehead—the telltale signs of her tribe and her age. I wondered what she saw on my face.

At some point, maybe around six weeks in, I understood that if I looked closely, I could read the story of life written in the callouses, the scars, the lost limbs, the sagging breasts. Life had etched itself into the lines of their bodies and they wore those marks like a map through their past—either purposefully or incidentally—in the ritualistic scarring of foreheads, or in the dung-ashing of faces, or the circumcising of toddlers under a fig tree; in the long and slender black shiny bodies bathing in swamps; the top-naked women pumping water at wells.

I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with this lifestyle, with making my own stories so vulnerable, my scars so visible—the inch-long stab line under my left shoulder from a fight with bottles in the sixth grade; the two screw holes on either side of my right knee where the doctor drilled to set my leg after a car accident, the blue triangle shape under my bottom lip that I got when my face slammed into the steps by those three girls after school. If I had not spent so many years hiding, I might have chosen my own marks to tell the story of my life: above my lip, a diamond pattern, perhaps, for my first kiss; maybe a slit in each of my thumbs for the time I first smoked a joint; a pattern of dots like a V burned onto my belly—for when, at age 16, I had sex with that boy I liked, two slashes on both of my calves for the time I ran away.

During my first week in the bush, I had mastered bathing with a scarf like a towel around my body. That way, I would never get caught naked and vulnerable. But I got tired of washing and wringing out the scarf every night along with my underwear, then maneuvering dry clothes and muddy feet underneath it. Life was already hard enough in Africa, so by the second week I had shed the scarf and bathed naked under the moon like everyone else.

I can’t explain how I felt that night under the moonlight though. Squatting by the Land Rover in the dark, watching that silhouette less than twenty feet away washing away the layers—both of us barefoot and naked on brambled dirt, the water dripping off our legs into a muddy mess at our feet, hyenas howling in the darkness—our vulnerability coalesced underneath a singular moon. It lit up my insides: the life we had endured together over the last two months. In that instance, I felt communion: flesh and full.

It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have had, because you live in another world that doesn’t allow you to commune so naturally, a world filled with walls and steel and wood and constructions to close you in, to clothe you, to shelter you, to hide your imperfections, your calluses, your dirt. It doesn’t matter that you’re also feeling guilty because he doesn’t see you watching him, because you have made yourself so small against the tire of the Land Rover. Because you forgot even to take a breath, you’re no longer cupping your own hands to splash water over your naked midsection to rinse the bubbles sliding down your shiny tan skin. Instead, you’re squatting close enough to the tire of the Land Rover that you can feel its tread press against your back, one hand down, five fingers touching the wet dirt stopping you from falling over into the mud.

And then you wonder. Did he see you already? You were here first, slowly feeling your way through the dark, taking off your clothes, placing each piece carefully on the resin chair beside you, waiting until the soap was in a place so you could find it in the dark like a blind person, the basin on the ground in between your feet, your back an inch away from the passenger door so you could see facing the dark. Finally, you took off your panties while your bra was still on. Then you slipped your hands behind your back and separated the bra’s clasp and placed both garments on the top of the pile, and not until everything was in place did you stand up, lay the towel over the chair’s back and begin to pour water over your head, over your skin under that full moon and scrubbed the hardened callouses, the smoothed over scars, soaped the earth-blackened patches—a baptismal, a cleansing of all the grains of sand, of all the infinitesimal uncertainties.

Angelique Stevens’s non-fiction can be found in The Chattahoochee Review, Cleaver, Shark Reef, and a number of anthologies. Her essay, “Exposure,” won silver in the Solas Awards for Best Women’s Travel Writing in 2013, and her experimental essay, “Spiral,” was published in the anthology, Friend Follow, Text, which was nominated by Foreword Review for Best Anthology of the Year. She holds an MFA from Bennington College and she finds her inspiration in wandering, being in places that push the boundaries of comfort, experience, knowledge, and hunger. She is currently writing a travel memoir about her trip to South Sudan.

Culture and Ideas Gold Winner: Some Vague Stars to the South

December 25th, 2017

By Dave Zoby

Syria, and the ancient lessons of friendship.

Dust-covered aluminum satellite dishes rimmed the rooftops. During the heat of the day, electrical circuits popped audibly, faltering all afternoon. Mid-day, the bakers came out in their floured aprons to read the state paper in the shade of their doorways. There was the sweet-shop, the pharmacy, the place to buy shoes, a booth for a haircut. And always the joyful roar of farm tractors strumming the streets, the farmers seated at the wheel, a load of watermelons stacked on a wobbly trailer. We snapped the requisite photos of the Omayyad Palace in Damascus—even me, in a half-hearted way, with a cheap camera my mother had leant me. There must be hundreds of images from our meeting with the Grand Mufti: the Mufti in the middle of the group, the Mufti smiling, looking serious, pious. I memorized his famous quote: There is no holy war. Only peace is holy. The government sent their own photographer, and I stood in the back row. You can almost make me out.

This was 2007. All the businesses displayed banners with the president’s face. From the looks of it, it seemed Syrians adored Bashar Al Assad. And because I didn’t understand one-party politics, because, out of the group, I was certainly the least knowledgeable about the country, I often posed by these banners and asked my fellow scholars to snap my photo. You may call it naiveté, but that’s not exactly correct. My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why. Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil. They read from Rumi in study groups, and pointed out that this archway or this winding street whispered pre-Ottoman. But I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syria lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam.  I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me, and the truly hardcore.

As a boy I had been exposed to Middle Eastern food, rooms full of Arabs, and semi-Arabs, a few covert drams of whiskey. My grandfather and father were journeymen in the kitchen. They didn’t mind butchering their own meat in our kitchen sink. They poached small game in little twists of forest within the city limits. They ate kibbe raw, off their fingers, and couldn’t stay away from various Syria desserts.  Garden tomatoes, eggplants, and fig trees where subjects which sent them into long mesmerizing conversations. I remembered my Arab uncle making a fool of himself by flipping coffee cups upside down and pretending to read the future in the rivulets and seeps, the intricate designs you see in such simple things. He did this, principally, for the attention of young women. He was bullshitting the whole time, talking shit about the space between light and dark, the ravens he saw in there, the steps to a castle, and the wavy lines he interpreted as instability. He couldn’t be stopped. He said he could only see forty days into the querent’s future. He suggested she sit in his lap. Putting his thumb in the cup and twisting, he always ended the reading by what he called “opening the heart.”  I could do this too, if things got rough.

~ ~ ~

My airfare and hotels were all covered by the grant. Various mosques and extravagant venues were carefully chosen by the organizers. Textbooks, food, and other expenses paid in full. Tours of ruins, V.I.P. treatment at Damascus’s National Theater with snacks provided by the city’s two oldest bakeries. It was an astonishing thing to receive, certainly a thing that required a great deal of grace to accept. I received some training in St. Louis, where the trip originated. We discussed the Battle of Kadesh and learned to say As-salamu alaykum. Vaguely, the professor described the early Syrians, as “The People of the Sea.” We talked about some of the important dates of Islam. The very tone of the orientation, the smell of new carpet in the lecture halls, the coolness of the untouched textbooks, suggested that I was way over my head. One of my classmates said, “When the Muslims conquered Egypt and got their hands on all of the world’s supply of papyrus, that’s when the ideas started to fly, man.” I agreed, but I had no idea what he was talking about. I worried that, sooner or later, I’d be exposed as a fraud, and be expelled from the group. I thought maybe I should bow out. But how do you come clean once you’ve begun?

My assigned roommate sat beside me on the multiple legs of the journey. A professor in Digital Media from Tennessee, he was a photographer with several phallic lenses. He opened a padded cased and showed me a fleet of 8gig camera cards which he meant to fill with images of what-have-you. He told me he slept naked and warned me that he snored.

Remedial, jet-lagged, sweating out the Heinekens I had consumed on the jet, I suffered in a classroom adjacent to the National Heritage Museum. I had not been studying Islam for years, as many of the others had. I didn’t think much of calligraphy. The frequent and insidious tea breaks could not resuscitate me. One Syria scholar was shocked that I knew nothing of the Hittites. It seemed, at first, when we met, he had such high hopes for me. He had come to American and completed his dissertation in Syrian history. Stanford alum, he gave up on me, as did the others, one by one, as they learned I knew nothing, or close to nothing. The professors demurely lectured toward the other students, not me. And I remain grateful that they left me alone. Suhail, a wiry Syrian who served as a sort of fixer for our group, sat beside me outside the lecture hall during one of our breaks and smoked a cigarette. I pretended to go over my notes.

“You are only homesick,” he said out of nowhere.

“Not me,” I said

We sat in the heat and watched the traffic melt by.  Racing pigeons were flaring above the various government buildings like mercury. When it was time to return to the lectures, Suhail patted my knee.

~ ~ ~

The lectures were brutal. I knew zero about the scientific advancements that came from this part of the world. Saladin? Forget it. A hipster from Cleveland who went about central Damascus with a t-shirt depicting Nasrallah, a shirt you wouldn’t dare wear in the States in 2007, sat with me and Suhail by the National Museum. We were all having hot tea in 100 degree heat. The hipster grilled me—politely—about my credentials. And though he never said it, I could tell he was puzzled by my very existence, my attendance in the mandatory classes on the civilizations between the Euphrates and the Tigris.  He was a part-time cartoonist, and dedicated activist. He did yoga in his room each morning. He kept a ponytail. His life’s dream was to visit the Golan Heights, which you could see rising over the city, a camelback of black brush and sand. Why would anyone want to go up there?

Each night, at various restaurants in Damascus, I excelled in eating and lounging about for long hours over Turkish coffee. Everyone went to sleep, while I strolled the streets of the Old City, or read from the textbooks under the pools of light spilling from the convent where we stayed. The second week of the program, I tried to read the coffee grinds of Dr. Kelly Grimm, a beautiful professor of ceramics from some Midwestern university I had never heard of. This was my only capital, my single chance for program romance. The coffee leaked upon the white tablecloth. A waiter shyly tried to intervene. Dr. Grimm found it all uninteresting, anticlimactic. She went out to smoke with another woman just as I was opening the heart.

Suhail winced when he saw me attempting to read coffee grinds. He came along on most nights and ate with us, though his appetite was nothing like mine. He was a teacher at a high school adjacent to the Old City. He, it was pointed out, dabbled in poetry, and at one time had a minor publishing career. He blushed when he talked about his poetry collection, Straight Street Poems. He wanted to talk more than eat. The night after my feeble attempt to woo Dr. Grimm with tassology,  Suhail and I strolled to a narghile bar where we smoked apple sisha into the wee hours, the traffic trickling until you could walk across interchanges which only hours before were teeming with buses and traffic. We closed the place down. Then we walked all over vacant Damascus. We crossed footbridges spanning trickles of waste water and trash.  Camels and cows lowed from within the city holding pens. The six-lane intersections were as quiet as roses. I reached down and touched the pavement. It was still warm from the day’s sun. The smell of jasmine took over where the diesel left off. I sat down in the street and looked up at the stars.

“Why are you doing this?” said Suhail. “People will think you’re crazy.” But he was smiling, looking up at the heavens too.

The next morning in class, I took no notes and just allowed the words to wash over me as Dr. So and So discussed the Romans and Greeks, and their competing influence on the country, the ruins they left behind, the art, the alphabet, and the bits of colored pottery you can simply bend down and pick up nearly everywhere. I was almost sleeping, listening to the sounds of traffic and street vendors outside the lecture hall. Had the boy who sold colorful twists of candy made a sale? Had the women selling little sour fruits found refuge in the shade? We were three tea breaks from dinner, where I could reclaim my station as gourmand, daring provocateur of calf brains, and idiot for organ meats. On my hands, I could still feel the heat of those hot streets, the vibration of buses and micros, and farm tractors carrying all types of produce, and even a disinterested cow riding toward the souks where she’d become meat in a few minutes, her liver displayed on hooks, her purple spleen, her shocking lungs.

~ ~ ~

Nothing puzzled Suhail more than learning that I had no children, no sons in particular. He asked if I was healthy, and nodded toward my crotch. I told him I was okay. But it didn’t make sense to him, no sons. He asked me questions about my Syrian surname. I tried to throw him off by ordering strawberry shisha, apricot. Where, exactly, was my family from? What mountain town or river drainage? Was I in touch with them?
I had to come clean. While the boy attendant was refreshing our narghile with lumps of charcoal, I told Suhail that I really didn’t have a connection to the land or people, that I had bullshitted the application. I had no idea where my Syrian family came from. I’m no scholar, I told him. I’m from a long line of hucksters. I had just come along for the ride. I grinned and hit the narghile.

“It’s not true,” he said.  “You are certainly one of us.” This was the first time I had ever seen him irritated. But he quickly recovered and we went to some courtyard and watched teens playing goblet drums. Between sets he told me it was better to be a live sparrow than a stuffed hawk. With this in mind, we continued our friendship and ventured into the dark, curled and ancient streets of a city that may or may not exist.

He took me around to see the National Theater, a private tour. He brought me wandering with his brothers, who were clerks and bankers, dedicated narghile smokers, readers of Shakespeare, fishermen who fished up north with hand-lines with simple stones tied to the end as weights. When his brothers learned I had no sons, they whispered a bit in Arabic and then argued.

We continued our nocturnal sojourns of the city. There were immense fountains blooming amid flowered intersections; there were columns of long-gone Roman palaces rising up from random streets, glimpses of ruins here and there. Suhail wanted me to see it all. He suggested, if I was willing, that we go look for some of my Arab relatives. The problem with Suhail is that he wanted so desperately to believe in a general goodness of humanity. Each night he sought me out.  He had a hunch on how to reconnect me with my lost family. “Down south,” he said. “That’s where they are. They are wheat farmers, growers.”

Suhail lavished me with parables of wealthy sheikhs who gave everything they owned away to the poor. I was polite enough to listen, but just barely. He suggested that I was related to these great and generous men. “David, you need to know these people,” he said. “Their gift is for growing things in the desert.” But allegory has always left me cold. Still, I found myself spending more and more time with Suhail, and almost no time with the Americans. What I liked about Islam was my indifference toward it, the way I seemed to float above it. I like seeing myself this way, impervious to a force that sucked in billions. Suhail suggested I was more Syrian than American, and that explained our friendship.

I wanted him to understand me too. I enjoyed my life as a half-assed agnostic, first world fuck-off, and I told him so. I’d hate, I explained, to pass myself off as something I was not, even though I had done exactly that to get into the program. Whenever I expressed self-doubt or humility, Suhail went crazy for it. After one such occasion, he even showed me photos of his two daughters and his son, but never his wife.  I had come to Syria to smoke shisha, to, perhaps, strike up an academic love affair with someone from another city. I had come to be far away from America where things had not been going well for me. But the idea was always to go back to the same point and start again exactly where I had left off.  Suhail’s persistent pursuit of my soul was a drag, an annoyance. I decided to change the subject.

He was nipping on the water pipe, drinking a juice when I asked him about The Prophet (peace be upon him). I wanted to know how devout Suhail was. He shrugged and kept smoking. When I brought up President Assad, he rolled his eyes. Suhail was more interested in my life. He asked again and again, “No wife, not ever? No girlfriend?” Should I tell him about the Russian house flipper back in America who I frequently slept with in half-finished condo units, buckets of stucco and grout lying about, the smell of fresh paint, rug burns, cigarettes left over from the plumbers who had checked in earlier that day? Should I tell him about her refusal to use articles of speech, as in: You come with wine bottle, and afterward paint stairway. I had been offering free labor as a way of getting out of love-making. I tore out ancient carpet and ferried defrocked toilets to the city dump in exchange for my freedom. Suhail didn’t need to hear about any of this. This was our last night together, and I didn’t want to spoil it.

After smoking, we went to a bakery and ate some kollaj with cheese with some young Imams who were going to the city holding pens to butcher. They wrapped their knives in canvas bags, and you could hear the heavy blades grind upon one another when the men went up the street laughing. Suhail and I sat on the cool marble steps of a mosque. He walked with me through the gates of Old City, down Bad ash-Sharqi, to the Christian Quarter where I had my room. I told him that I had been having trouble sleeping.

“For how long have you had this problem?” he said.

“Most my life.”

He paused on the sidewalk, thought for a moment, and offered that what I was experiencing was merely God seeking me. He had experienced the same thing several times in his life, once when his oldest daughter was gravely ill. He picked at a jasmine bush. And then we said goodbye, shook hands. I thought I’d never see him again. The next day I was leaving for a two-week spin of the country, complete with scholars and multiple all-night bus rides.

~ ~ ~

That night my insomnia was worse than ever. My roommate, the shutterbug, snored with incredible conviction. I caught glimpses of his fuzzy scrotum in the slants of light pouring in from Bad ash-Sharqi. He farted outrageously.

I gathered my textbooks and sat on the stoop of the convent. I read about Islam, particularly intrigued by the section in the Qur’an where Muhammad (peace be upon him) learns to read. He’s off by himself when the angel Gabriel bursts in on him and commands him to read. The boy says he is not one who can read. The angel, undaunted and apparently hearing none of it, seizes the boy and commands him to read. He refuses. So the angel embraces the boy until he passes out. When he awakes, the angel is gone and he discovers that he can read.

I heard the static of speakers as The Call to Prayer rang up over the city. I noticed that there was a nun in the garden, in the eerie first light, snipping at jasmine, hunched over and watering flowers. How long she had been there I could not say. City birds, dusty and nondescript, came out and fluttered about the church spires, nesting here and there in the speakers strung upon the domes of mosques. In a few hours we were taking off to Aleppo. We were stopping at various sites along the way: a Bedouin encampment where we’d eat, as a group, an entire lamb, the Dead Cities, the beehive villages, Qala’at Samaan, Palmyra, various French Crusader castles. We’d sleep in the desert, have long conversations with sects of ancient Christians. But it was Aleppo in which I was most interested.

~ ~ ~

As I entered the bus the next morning, still groggy from the strawberry shisha, the heavy pastries, there sat Suhail. He had a tiny backpack in his lap, a camera strung on his neck, a packed lunch. He had shaved and put on a dark blue button-up shirt. He was saving a spot for me, courting my soul again. During the night, amid a terrible bout of insomnia, he had decided to come along. He said he had prayed about it. God had told him to follow me into the desert

“And your wife? You just said you were going without asking?” I said.

“Some of these things you are going to see, I have never seen for myself,” he said, softly. There were enough seats on the bus for everyone to have their own space, but he insisted we sit together.  He had some sort of date bread wrapped in a tissue and he offered it to me. He wanted none for himself. He just wanted to watch my face while I tasted the first bite. On his face was the urge to apologize, soft eyes the color of beer that searched mine. I had mentioned date bread three days earlier, and now my lap was full of it, still warm. Outside, the desert was flowing by, sand hummocks laced with motorcycle tracks, flocks of distraught and panting sheep, young shepherds grabbing slices of early shade and yakking on their mobiles.

At Palmyra I tried to shake Suhail between the tea kiosk and the groups of children selling camera batteries. He caught up to me. He wanted badly for me to understand something.  Leaning close to me, sometimes resting his hand on my shoulder, he read the descriptions of textiles behind the glass. The faces of men and women carved on the sarcophagus are the faces of city officials, rich people who helped build the city, he said. He wanted to take my picture by the Sun Temple, walk with me along the streets where the priests led the animals to slaughter two thousand years or so earlier (I was no good at dates.) At the midnight feast, Suhail boldly picked through the carcass of the lamb to make sure I received the best bits.

I had had enough. I had to pull away from this embrace of my soul, this gift of friendship, because, quite honestly, I hadn’t asked for it. I abandoned Suhail at a rest stop near Homs. I approached a high school administrator from the Twin Cities, and began to pal around with him, leaving Suhail to grasp about for conversation at the roadside tea huts, the flimsy food stands where women made khubz mohala over stick fires. I found my own seat in the bus and pretended to read. Suhail sat alone. Now when he caught up to me and walked along, he clasped his hands behind his back and let me do the talking. He had a book for me—Omar Khayyam—which he had written the following inside the jacket: My friend, you have a pure heart and a curious mind. He underlined friend twice. He presented this to me on a Roman road, in the middle of nowhere.

When we entered the great marble courtyard of the hotel that would serve as our headquarters in Aleppo, I gave the entire group the slip and ascended the landing where I could look out over the city alone, the great Citadel strung with banners depicting Assad, spindly pigeon stalls roosting atop clay-colored apartments, clay-colored people. The Call to Prayer went up over the city, and so rose the birds. I waited for the group to filter out of the lobby, then, I went down and booked my own room. I wanted to be alone.

I flopped on my bed and watched Egyptian music videos for the rest of the afternoon. I was a no-show for the city tour, ditched the lecture on the Citadel. Instead, I snuck out to the souks, sat for long hours in antique shops pretending to be interested in swords. I acted as if I wanted to buy a curved steel dagger from the 1800s.  I drank tea with shop keeps until we all nearly burst. We played checkers, or a game kind of like checkers. I found out-of-the-way narghile bars where the proprietors sent a boy out for Heinekens. I drank the beer in paper bags to avoid scandal. If God was seeking me—using Suhail as his spokesman—he was doing a pathetic job, for I avoided Suhail, the whole group really, for three days, telling them I was sick, and sneaking into Aleppo at nightfall.

Of course, hearing I was ill, Suhail appointed himself as my nurse. He burst into my room one afternoon with a bag full of medicines and bottles of purified water. He watched music videos with me while I experimented with painkillers and over-the-counter opiates. Things improved. The Call to Prayer burbled through the haze of the evening, the voices echoing and doubling over rooftops as far as you could see. Racing pigeons filled the buttery sunset. I admitted that I had been faking sickness and having marvelous adventures in the souks. I wanted to show Suhail some of these places. In the depths of the markets, I bought exquisite tapestries, baggies of spices, carved jewelry boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, and handfuls of almonds and dates for Suhail and me. I was doing what I had seen so many of my American counterparts do: collecting mementos that proved I had been somewhere.

Then we saw a necklace made of coral and sterling and it stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was the drugs, or the fact that I was going home in a week, but I imagined buying this necklace and giving it to my sister, or my mother, or even the Russian, who had grown in esteem and beauty now that I hadn’t seen her in months.  Suhail noticed me looking at the coral and intervened in my behalf. The merchant had been speaking to me in Arabic. We were whisked away by some young men, taken up a winding staircase to a tearoom where we were seated beside an old man with a white beard. The room was full of silver urns, delicate glassware, red-eyed racing pigeons in gold cages, a taxidermied desert cobra posed as if striking. The room had everything but the necklace I wanted to purchase. Suhail told me to be patient. We drank mint tea. I refused the raw deer’s milk. The man with the beard said the pigeons were worth one thousand American dollars, but they were not for sale. Suhail translated. Merchants came in with necklaces made of turquoise, amber, and hammered sheets of gold so thin I was afraid to touch them. This went on for hours. I saw so many pieces of jewelry that I nearly forgot what the original coral necklace looked like. Suhail was calm, while I was growing annoyed. Finally, the coral necklace appeared in a silver box. It had already been decided that I would buy it. The price was now the only concern.

The old man looked up from his pipe. He said in perfect English, “Who is this for? A sweetheart?”

“My mother,” I said.

He smiled, smoked the narghile.

“Your friend tells me you come from farmers, so I will give you a special price.”

Later, we went into a mosque off a side street. It was small, cool inside, tiled with turquoise designs. Suhail and I sat on the floor, leaned back against the marble columns. I was tired. There were some other men talking quietly, asquat here and there. You could hear the city outside gnawing on the final hours of the day. Suhail was sleeping, a suggestion of a smile on his face, the same button-up he had been wearing for days. Beard stubble was rising on his chin. He had all of my packages gathered around him, his fingers looped in the satchel that held the necklace. The merchant who sold us the necklace came in and sat across from me. This was somehow arranged, part of the transaction. He asked me if I knew what the name Suhail meant in Arabic. He didn’t wait for me to guess. It meant the calm, or the stars you can see in the south.

“But only from Syria,” said the man. “You won’t see them when you go back to America.”
I made a pillow of the many scarves I had purchased. I sat back and stared up at the ceiling, the endlessness of the design. In my hands were prayer beads, and though I believed in nothing, I worried them, turning them over and over.

~ ~ ~

There was a problem with my visa in Frankfurt. I was delayed, while the others went back to the States. I hugged the cartoonist goodbye. Dr. Grimm pressed my hand automatically. I was put up in a gray, rained-upon hotel by the airport. My luggage was elsewhere, so I had to beg for a toothbrush. The German bartender asked me if I was homesick. I wasn’t sure. After nearly three days in airports, I took a taxi to my house on Lincoln Street. The porch looked dilapidated, earthen. The yard was dead from lack of water. It was like walking on straw. But, in my absence, three huge dusty sunflowers had risen up mysteriously on the shady side of the house. Their broad black leaves drooped like robes. Their ancient heads leaned stoically. My luggage, full of spices and beautiful scarves, my camera, and even the coral necklace, which now seemed like a huge mistake, was lost somewhere between Frankfurt and Denver.

I turned on my cell phone for the first time in months. There were messages from my mother, too many. There was a dental appointment I had missed badly. My mailbox sagged with artifacts of pizza companies, mattress sales, local elections, phony keys that promised I had won a car. I tossed it all away while I listened to the voice messages. The Russian said: Hello, you have been gone long time. I have new electrician boyfriend. Goodbye. The condiments in my refrigerator had moldered into gneiss.

At night my insomnia was back. I read the Khayyam in bed until I couldn’t stand it anymore. God was pursuing me again, this time with the toilet ghost flushing, and this idea that Syria and all of the people I saw in the streets was something I made up in my mind. An illusion, I decided. Or at least I had no way of proving any of this. I got up, half dressed, went out into the yard. To the south you couldn’t see any stars, just sagging powerlines and haze. I yanked the sunflowers out, their roots showering my bare feet with clots of dirt, their black seeds spraying here and there.

Dave Zoby’s essays have appeared in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, and other publications.

Bad Trip Bronze Winner: Like Dust in a Storm

July 31st, 2017

By Sivani Babu

A tragic close call in rural Colorado.

Useless. I wiped at my sunglasses with my dirty hands, trying to clear the droplets that settled on the lenses. The water smeared and streaked across, creeping into dust filled crevices and turning to mud. It became even harder to see and I gave up, pushing the glasses into my muddy and matted hair where they came to rest atop my head. Useless. I could relate.

My mind moved a few paces slower than my legs as I surveyed the accordions of crumpled metal and pebbled safety glass that surrounded me. The stench of diesel and Dos XX, refusing to be settled by the steady rain, oozed into my cotton button-down and my jeans. The white hood of an eighteen-wheeler looked almost pristine, except that it was no longer attached to its tractor and had instead been thrown into the roadside grass. Minutes before, the highway and the wreck had both been obscured by a suffocating sea of red earth sent hurtling through the air by unforgiving winds. A dust storm—one of the worst Lamar, Colorado had seen in recent years. This was not the disaster for which I’d been prepared. But in signing up to chase storms, perhaps I should have been prepared for anything.

There are places in the world that few people see even as they pass through them. Lamar is one of those places. It is not the Colorado immortalized on Coors bottles and in John Denver songs. There are no “cathedral mountains” to climb and no “silver clouds below.” Far to the east, Lamar lies in the drought-stricken Southern Plains—in red dirt country. The hills are petite, the cattle plentiful, the roads flat and straight, and if you head east, you’ll see Kansas miles before you get there. For a photographer obsessed with weather, this part of the country is an uneasy paradise.

In the late spring and early summer months, furious, billowing thunderheads punch into cobalt skies like explosions filmed in slow motion. “Fists of God” they’re sometimes called. They tower over the landscape, moving over farmland, oilfields, and small towns. Illuminated from within by lightning, they dump rain and hail until they exhaust themselves and collapse. The hail can destroy roofs, shatter windows, decimate crops. It can be catastrophic, but when conditions are just right, it’s only the beginning.

In early 2015, I sat in various sun-drenched cafes and coffee shops with friends and mentioned that I would be spending a week in the coming summer chasing storms in Tornado Alley with Warren Faidley, a veteran storm chaser and photographer. More than one person responded with an exasperated, “Of course you are.” Storm chasing, it seemed, was the latest in a long line of adventures that appeared to be designed to cause my friends and family an inordinate amount of worry. In reality, it was the latest in a long line of compulsions to capture in photographs the humbling power of nature—those reminders of our insignificance that I seemed to crave.

As a child of California’s Central Coast, I grew up knowing that at some point I would feel the ground move beneath my feet, but the specter of natural disaster never loomed. Instead it was packed away in an ice chest alongside cans of soup and AA batteries and stashed in the garage. Most people learned to live with it. I learned to love it. The physical power of nature was intoxicating and yet it also grounded me. Serious earthquakes were rare, of course, but even those smallest rumbles that left the chandeliers swaying gently were a reminder that no matter how solid the ground felt, there was always something beneath the surface that could make it roll like the ocean. Decades later near Lamar, as the curtain of dust closed in around us and the road disappeared, I had to wonder if in trying to capture what I so loved about the power of nature, I had forgotten the lessons it taught me.

I shot one last photo as we pulled over, getting as far from the road as we could without risking a rollover. Everything outside the car had turned a shade of rust that grew darker as the moments passed.

“We need to get further away from the road,” said Warren. We had both seen the semi lumber to a stop alongside us, the squealing of its breaks cutting through the whipping wind. We had seen it and known that our position was far less safe than it had been. I abandoned my camera on the floorboard as we simultaneously reached for our respective door handles, but before either of us could push open our doors we heard the moaning crunch of metal on metal. The semi lurched forward. We fled into the storm.

The wind screamed in my ears pelting us with tiny darts of fine dirt. I grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled it over my nose and mouth, but the chalky grit still coated my teeth and tongue. It found its way around my sunglasses and into my eyes, through my shirt and into my lungs. The drivers license and credit card that I had shoved into a pocket were ripped out and carried away. We ran toward safety, toward a field that we could not see, but that we knew was there. Inch by inch the dust stole our sight until I could barely make out Warren’s shadowy form only a few steps away. By the time I saw the fence, it was almost too late and I skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding a face first tumble into barbwire. There was no hesitation. We dropped to our stomachs and slithered under, the wire tearing at the clothes on our backs.

Four uncomfortable minutes later, the world began to brighten. The cry of the wind became less angry. The air was still red with dust, but more sunlight filtered through. Then came the rain, a gentle tapping that seemed so at odds with the punishing fury of the storm we had just witnessed. But any relief we might have felt was carried away in the wind that still blew across the road. Revealing themselves like ghostly apparitions were the outlines of eighteen wheelers and family cars, unmoving and unmistakably deformed.

Taking in the destruction, we slid back under the barbwire and sprinted to our car to summon help. On the phone with the emergency dispatcher, terms like “mass casualty” and “fatalities” hung in the air. Each moment revealed a new horror as the rain worked to settle the dust.

“Oh, God,” Warren’s soft exclamation drew my attention to a dark pickup truck crushed against the rear of a semi. Not for the first or last time, we both wondered if anyone could have survived. Warren spoke the words I’d been unwilling to, “We were lucky, my friend.”

He was not just a storm chaser and photographer. Warren was also a weather safety expert who had been a firefighter and, at one time, a certified EMT. His resume as a first responder included places that had become part of the national consciousness, places like Joplin and Moore. He knew how he would respond in a situation like ours because he had done it before. I, on the other hand, was untested.

I followed Warren’s lead, but we were quickly separated as we both worked to exert control over the chaos. I moved toward the rear of the accident and he toward the front. Triage.

“Were you transporting hazardous materials, hazmat?”

The truck driver looked at me with confusion on his face that could just as easily have been caused by a language barrier as by the head and facial wounds that were dripping dark blood. I opened my mouth to repeat the question in Spanish, but comprehension came before I could.


Questions about cargo and injuries passed through my lips, the answers filed away for the cavalry that was enroute. From the string of crushed cars and trucks and eighteen-wheeled giants the answers came, some in complete sentences, others in grunts and moans. The clearest answers were given in silence, in the absence of even the faintest beat of a pulse, but there was little time to dwell before moving down the line. Ensnared in a state of controlled urgency, my attention turned from the truck driver with blood flowing freely from his face, to a woman who had pulled herself from her destroyed car, to a clear liquid that I hoped was just water that seemed to be spilling onto the road from the trailer of a semi.

Disaster had always been a theoretical possibility. The flip side to the coin that allows some people to win the lottery, and I was, after all, hoping to see something capable of immense destruction. I had thought that if confronted with it, I might be frightened. Instead, in the moment I felt little emotion at all. But as an impossibly bright rainbow blossomed in the field behind the accident, something finally bubbled through the fissures.

The rainbow dripped in thick, saturated color as it framed the accident from end to end. Under any other circumstance I would have smiled and marveled at it. I would have rushed to set up my camera. But at that moment it felt obscene. It felt personal. It felt like nature was mocking us.

“Fuck you,” I said softly to the colors. “Fuck you.”

~ ~ ~

In the mayhem of the moment, it was rare to think of anything other than what I was doing and, occasionally, the helplessness I felt at doing it. It took a while for emergency personnel to get to our rural location and in that time, traffic had backed up down the highway. People had gotten out of their cars to watch. They’d stood on the side of the road with their phones taking photos, but I only saw one or two try to help. Maybe they knew. Maybe they could see in our faces how frustratingly useless we felt.

There were the walking wounded. People whose injuries looked worse than they were. People who through a combination of adrenaline and sheer will had extricated themselves from their crushed vehicles and who wandered the wreckage. There were the trapped. People whose bodies had been so engulfed in collapsed metal shells that we could not reach them. People for whom we could do nothing but try to talk to them and hope they answered. And then there were the others. The ones whose most painful wounds were not physical at all.

“I think my mom is gone.” The voice belonged to a bloody and shaking woman who stood alongside me as firefighters moved around her car. If there were any tears, they were hidden in the raindrops on her face. I said nothing, but took her hand. I knew she was right.

We stood side by side, watching the firefighters work. Next to me, the woman’s shivering caught my attention. She was wet, cold, and in shock. I began removing the cotton button-down that I’d been wearing as a top layer. It reeked. It was paper thin and soaked through with rain and mud. It would have done nothing to keep her warm, but it was all I had. Before I could finish peeling it from my skin, though, a man emerged with a heavy jacket from the eighteen wheeler that had collided with the woman’s car and driven it into the rear of another. His complexion was several shades lighter than I imagined was normal, his eyes dark with grief. Fault or not, he wore the guilt as though it were a coat as heavy as the one he draped over the woman’s shoulders.

The truck driver stayed close and after much convincing, when the woman agreed to go with her father who had already been taken to an ambulance, the driver walked her down the road while I squatted on the passenger side of her car and began talking to her husband. He had been driving. He was one of the trapped.

His body was contorted, filling the gaps left in the crumpled car. The rear end of a semi intruded into the space that had once held him, his wife, and his in-laws. Only two remained.

“Philip?” I called out, “Can you hear me?” From deep in the car came a groaned response and every other sound was extinguished. I searched for things to say. “Where are you from? Are you from around here?”

“From…Wiley.” I had heard someone say that emergency personnel from nearby Wiley were also responding to the scene.

“Oh, yeah? Those guys are coming out to help, too. There are a lot of people working to get you out of here. Where were you guys coming from today?”

A pause and then, “Houston.” Houston. They had been on the road for 12 hours and were likely no more than 20 minutes from home when they got caught in the storm. Sounds rushed back. The tapping of rain, the rustling of grass, the humming of engines, the voices of firefighters talking about how to free Philip from the wreckage. I rose to my feet to listen to the conversation. Lifting the trailer off of him was the best option, but they did not yet have the necessary equipment. The semi looked like it could still be driven. They wanted to try moving it, to pull it forward, but it was hard to tell where the semi ended and the car began. The wreckage was so grotesquely intertwined that it was impossible to know if moving the semi forward would free the man trapped inside or injure him further.

“If he yells or screams, anything, tell us and we’ll stop.” The firefighter was giving me direction.

“Okay,” I nodded before returning to a squat by the passenger side of the car.

“Philip?” I called out again. Silence. “Philip?” More insistent this time. “You still with me?” He answered and I mentally stomped down the panic that I’d only barely kept from my voice. “These guys are going to try to get you out of there. They’re going to try to get that truck off of you, but you gotta let us know if it starts to hurt, alright?” If it starts to hurt? I shook my head.

The semi roared to life as firefighters shouted instructions to each other, a cacophony that I did my best to follow even as I concentrated on the man in front of me. I backed away a few feet, just far enough to be clear of any debris that might get dislodged from the damaged behemoth that still towered over us. By fractions of an inch, the semi moved forward, but within seconds, I heard Philip’s painful moan.

“Wait!” I yelled and like a chain the message was passed in shouts to the driver who stopped instantly. Whatever I said next, the engine fell quiet. Once again it was just me and Philip.

The silence stretched longer than it should have. “Philip?” The response was weaker than before. “I promise these guys are doing everything they can. You just gotta keep hangin’ in there. Okay? Just stay with me.”

I sounded like a bad television show—the kind with stories and dialogue that could take the very real wreckage around me and make it seem like a set in some Hollywood studio. But the lifeless woman behind Philip was real. I had tried to give her daughter my wet shirt. She was real and she was constantly in my vision because I was looking at Philip and trying to keep our inane conversation going. I asked him about his family, his home, anything I could think of to keep him talking. When I ran out of things to ask, I started over, internally berating myself for my inability to sound like anything more than a poorly cast, fictional character. Life imitates art, but life imitating bad art seemed as unacceptable as the rainbow that still burned over the field behind me.

It was late that evening when the barbwire on the fence was cut and fence posts knocked down to make way for an enormous metal creature that rumbled through the field. I wondered where it had come from that the quickest way to us was through the field rather than down the road. It was the sort of machine I’d seen a hundred times, but couldn’t name. It rolled over the grass and up to the semi that still trapped Philip. By that time, I’d been moved out of my position at the passenger door. There were so many people working to free him that I was trying to stay out of the way. I’d retreated to stand in front of the car that Warren and I had abandoned hours ago. Filled with a need to do something, I grabbed my camera and photographed a firefighter silhouetted in the glowing sunset as he stood atop the machine that would free Philip.

Philip was the last one out that night. The only one who left by helicopter. And the one I wondered most about in the hours and days that followed. When the helicopter took off, Warren and I made our exit. A few goodbyes and exchanged handshakes and we were back on the deserted road to town.

Like quarterbacks after a tough loss, we analyzed the evening compulsively. What did we do right? How bizarre was that rainbow? What could we do differently next time? Next time. We used those words easily, as though the day’s events hadn’t been the confluence of time, place, and absurdity. As though some sort of “next time” was simply a given. Then again, for a man who spends his life chasing storms I suppose next time was all but guaranteed, and I had to acknowledge that, for me, it was more likely than for most.

But, if next time was a given, so too was the fact that we would head out again the next day. The forecast looked promising and our purpose was unaltered. That was hours away, though, and all I wanted as we trudged into our hotel was to wash off the grit of the day, to smell something other than fuel and spilt cargo, and to think. I tied my clothes up in a garbage bag before washing the dirt away. For the second time that day, falling water turned the dust on my skin and in my hair to mud, but this water was warm and it fell with more persistence. I watched it turn a diluted shade of the same rust color that had surrounded us hours before. The water circled, larger grains of sand sinking to the bottom of the current and trying stubbornly to stay before being swept away and spiraling down the drain. I breathed in the steam, a breath that filled my lungs and expanded my chest and triggered a coughing fit that brought the taste of chalk back to my tongue. It was the first of several that night.

Later, I sat up in bed balancing my computer on my knees and scrolling through the photos I had taken that day. The images filled in some of the information gaps that Warren and I had discovered on the way back to town. I could look at the photos clinically, could analyze them logically, and was troubled, though not surprised, by how easily it seemed I could set aside the emotions of the day in my own mental earthquake kit. The awfulness of what we’d witnessed, I thought, should be harder to put away.

When we had parted in the hotel lobby, Warren had told me that he hoped I would sleep well. Nightmares seemed acceptable, if a bit cliche, but I knew that when sleep eventually came, the nightmares would not. Instead, as I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, my thoughts meandered to all of the places I’d been recently. I had chased the palatial splendor of nature to some of the most remote locations on the planet. My travels had taken me to places I had never dreamt of seeing, but with increasingly less frequency did they take me home to the house where I grew up. At that thought, I was flooded with a sudden longing to hear my parents’ voices, an aching to know that they were safe and to tell them I love them. For most of my adult life, I had tried to spare them the worry that comes with having a daughter like me. I had become an expert at burying the lede, at slow bleeding the details of stories until they trickled out in a manner that would cause little concern, at waiting until I could find the humor in a particularly harrowing story before sharing any of it with them, but there was no humor to be found in the events of the day.

Picking up my cell phone, I stared at it as I silently warred with myself. It was well after midnight and their worry would start the moment the phone rang and the caller ID told them who was on the other end. They were a thousand miles away, sleeping with no knowledge of what had transpired, and I could let them be. But I had seen a daughter lose her mother that day, watched her follow her father to an ambulance.

The screen of my phone cast a soft blue light around the hotel room as my fingers slid over ten digits that I had been dialing for nearly thirty years. I knew who would answer. As a physician who had spent nearly all of the last three decades on call, my dad fielded all late night phone calls. His voice was alert to the reality that phone calls after midnight rarely bring good news and held only a hint of the slumber from which I’d woken him. I led with the two words that every parent wants to hear at the start of an unanticipated, late night conversation with their child, “I’m fine.”

~ ~ ~

The day I opened the first email from Philip’s son, was the day the feelings of uselessness started to fade. One by one, gracious messages filled my inbox. Philip’s son, friends of the accident victims, and finally from Philip himself after his release from the hospital. Their words were kind and grateful and although I still felt they were underserved, I was also reminded that sometimes it is not how much we can do that matters, but that we do what we can.

“It’s amazing I got to keep three of them,” Philip’s son had written to me. He’d lost his grandmother that day, but his parents and grandfather had survived. For that he was thankful and I wondered if I might have handled being in his position with as much grace.

The capriciousness of that day gnawed at me. I was under no illusions about fairness. Warren and I had been the ones courting danger, yet we had emerged from the storm unscathed, and that is the uncomfortable reality of nature: that it is indescribable beauty and arbitrary destruction. It is easier to romanticize it. To be seduced by the rainbow and forget the storm from which it came. But on a rural Colorado highway nature provided a violent reminder that another sunrise is promised to no one. That another chance to wrap my arms around my family, to cry tears of laughter with friends, to end a conversation with an I love you that does not need to be said, may never come. Because life is delicate. It cracks and it breaks and it disintegrates like earth starved for water. And when the winds blow, it is picked up and carried away like dust in a storm.

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in the story.

Sivani Babu is a California-based photographer, writer, former attorney, and perpetual Antarcticaphile. Her work has appeared in Nature Photographer and Backpacker magazines, on BBC Travel, and in various galleries in the western United States.

Destination Story Bronze Winner: Last Stop in Oklahoma

July 24th, 2017

By Robert Reid

An Okie expat and his 76-year-old uncle aim to summit the Black Mesa in the USA’s most unlucky and unwanted rectangle.

The road’s empty and rising slightly. I lean forward in the driver’s seat and look through the windshield to the biggest skies I’ve ever seen. An immense block of sea-blue smeared in white clouds presses down on fields of cut wheat, peppered in parts with small clumps of trees, a far-off farmhouse, a wind pump. My cellphone signal’s gone, and with it my GPS, so I’m guessing. Is this it?

“It looks different, doesn’t it?,” I ask hopefully, an hour west of Woodward. “Fewer trees, flatter, dryer?”

“It does?,” comes the reply. “Looked about the same to me.”

Riding shotgun is a 76-year-old from Ponca City in a royal-blue polo tucked into navy cargo shorts. A toothpick dangles from his mouth, and a straw fedora leans over his forehead. He pulls out his iPhone and takes a blurry photo of a field we pass at 60mph. This is David Mallory, my uncle.

I zoom past a copse of cottonwoods framing an empty picnic area. Then, thinking twice, I make a wild U-turn in the two-lane road and pull off onto a gravel lot. There stands a 10-foot sign marked with peeling, hand-painted watermelon-red lettering: “NO MAN’S LAND.”

The trip has started.

The Oklahoma Panhandle is America’s last destination. Every other town, peak, park or patch of weeds in the country will make it onto one of those top travel lists before the panhandle does. It’s a snub with history. Native Americans chased bison through its long-gone tall grass, but never settled. When joining the union, Texas simply sliced it from its own chubby panhandle, leaving a literal “No Man’s Land.” It finally joined Oklahoma by default, though many locals still feel disconnected from “down state.”

We’re not on vacation here, we’re on a pilgrimage. To see a 34- by 166-mile rectangle of plains that gave Oklahoma the best shape in the world. Because it’s that panhandle that transforms Oklahoma’s layout into a playground for the beholder’s imagination: a toppled hat to plop on your head, a pot to brew your stew, or a butcher’s cleaver pounding down on Texas. Without it, Oklahoma’s just a down-sized Dakota with a frayed bottom. We’ve seen it by map. Now we’re here to see the real thing.

I’m driving newly energized now, hungrily taking in ever parcel of land we pass, this panhandle land. My uncle, meanwhile, reaches back for some carrot sticks. That’s sort of our deal. I drive for a five-day trip I’ve plotted out. He supplies the car—a scratched-up Lexus with rearview mirror issues—and the cooler of snacks. Plus much of the conversation. “You’ll see some old man stuff on this,” he warns. “Like when I take my teeth out.”

A half-hour in, we pull into the wide Main Street in Beaver, where banks, a gift shop and a surviving Otasco occupy century-old brick buildings. The town’s known for its orangey dunes north of town and its cow-chip throwing contest in April. But we’re here for the cows.

It’s noon on a Tuesday and the parking lot for Beaver’s weekly cow auction is already filled with trucks and trailers with license plates of five states. We park by a neighboring silo and walk into the small auction house, where a plank-board amphitheater bends around a holding pin. A couple cowboys are in there, working hard. “UWP UWP UWP!,” they yell, as a team of heifers charge in, make a few wide-eyed circles in the dirt, then rush out a door on the opposite wall. All the while, the auctioneer calls out a steady plea for bids, his melody bouncing along the low notes before making an occasional unexpected rise.

After a few minutes, we move to the adjoining Sale Barn Café. A handful of bidders crowd a horseshoe bar and eat burgers, open-face roast sandwiches and greasy thin fries from paper plates. We sit next to a white-haired couple, both pushing 90. They’re regulars from Balko, here to price heifers.

“How old are you?,” my uncle finally asks the woman. He’s obsessed with age and health, so I expect this. She does not.

“You’re not supposed to ask a woman that!,” she says, only half-joking. “How old are you?”

“I’m 76.”

“Well, I’m 74.”

Growing up in Tulsa, my family would occasionally goad each other to try something new, “adventurous”—like trying Indian curry for the first time—by saying, “c’mon, Uncle David would do it.” Uncle David always loved a challenge, and our trip’s end goal—the eight-mile hike at Oklahoma’s highest point at the 4974-foot Black Mesa, at the Colorado/New Mexico border—has quickly become “that mountain” to him. He talks about it with everyone on the way. “You can’t just walk eight miles right off,” I warned him a couple months before the trip. After all, it’s been decades since he walk-ran that Tulsa Run. “Build yourself up. First walk a mile, then two…” But he never did. On top of that, he’s had a stent procedure a week before we set off.

This worries me. I really want to climb that mountain too.

~ ~ ~

Most of rural America is shrinking, population-wise, but not the panhandle’s biggest city, where we reach next. Guymon’s grown by 50% in the past dozen years. Short-termers come to work with wind or gas, many new Americans come to settle, often taking jobs at its pork-processing plant. Now the town’s Somali festival is in its third year, and it’s the only town in the state with a Latin-American majority. “Guymon’s like Ellis Island,” one local puts it. “People from all over coming to look for the American dream.”

Guymon quickly shows its diversity. We get goat stew and tacos at a Mexican restaurant made from an old gas station, then look at family rodeo photos at a western wear shop where a 6’3” cowboy named Gabe calls us “sir.” Afterwards we go for a smoothie at a café behind a strip mall that serves Filipino food. One of the employees is Liz McCulloch, is a 27-year-old with rock’n’roll bangs and a British accent. She moved here from the UK when she was a kid. “I like that there’s not much to do here,” she says. “Makes you go find something to do.”

Find something to do. I hear this a lot around the panhandle. After rains, teens like to go “mudding” by driving their trucks through soggy fields. Others just drive, taking random dirt roads, looking at skies, stars, thunderstorms. One local jokes, “the only thing there’s to do is drink and have sex.”

We fill a couple days here roaming the area instead. We peek into an abandoned homestead littered with tumbleweeds, see a double-headed calf at Goodwell’s No Man’s Land Museum, spy a Panhandle State rodeo practice, and after the sun falls, take side roads as the black sky fills with silent flashes of silent lightning.

~ ~ ~

An hour west, Boise City (pronounced “boyze city”) is the only city in the Lower 48 that got bombed in WWII. Air force pilots mistook it for a test site and dropped dud bombs “without definite reason,” as an understated The Boise City News story complained a few days later. No one was hurt, at least, and the pilots felt bad about it. We stop to see a fake bomb planted in the sidewalk by the courthouse, and to stock up on supplies. But at the family-run No Man’s Land Beef Jerky, the mom in her 80s warns us against climbing the Black Mesa. “A family went up once and their teenage son fell off and died,” she says. “And they continued their vacation anyway!”

Riding west from Boise City, the southwest takes over the plains. Distant lines of grayish brown rocks begin as ripples on the horizon, pushing up from a flat scrub brush crossed by ruts from the Santa Fe Trail. The road gently curves, dips, then rises. And the rocks – mostly Dakota sandstone formations – build up, finally topping hillsides like peekaboo crowns that gradually envelop us. Uncle David stares out. “I lived in Ponca City for 50 years and had no idea this was out here.”

We’re getting our first look at the area with a tour from panhandle-lifer Jane Apple, who owns, along with her husband, the Hitching Post B&B Ranch. “You got to know how to handle this country to live here. Because it’s so different,” says Jane, a red-haired 70-year-old with a slow drawl and plenty bounce in her step. “Also you need to have a tough gal. Because it’s a loooong way to Wal Mart.”

Driving us along dusty roads, Jane steers us off the road and up a grassy hillside, swerving around yucca plants, cholla cacti and juniper trees. Before us stands a hulking, crevassed sandstone mass. We get out, and Jane leads us by foot to the far side, where the fine-grained wall is pockmarked with etchings of stick figures, circular patterns, a few words. One seems to read “Coronatto 1541,” supposedly the work of one of Spanish explorer Coronado’s scouts.

~ ~ ~

As a travel writer, I take some pride in my ability to plan trips. But my career began with a disaster: a ski trip I organized for my uncle, dad and myself using an out-of-date Mobil travel guide. When we arrived in the mountains northwest of Denver, we found ourselves at an empty Bible summer resort. Hit with altitude sickness, my dad spent the first day vomiting, so Uncle David and I took off cross-country skiing into single-digit temperatures. Ice pelting our faces, we slipped and fell for several hours, me often stopping to wait for my uncle. Finally reaching the top of a grueling climb, I found a gentle slope heading back towards the van. And I just took off—no looking back. And I’ve never heard the end of it. “We made that turn, and my nephew took off,” as my uncle routinely repeats, often to strangers. “He left me behind to freeze!” I was 11.

The Black Mesa is here now, and I know – even if my uncle doesn’t – that he cannot climb it. He’s walking slower as the trip goes on, and this is eight miles. I go to bed pretty sure I’m going up anyway – even if it means leaving him behind. But in the night, something changes. I wake in darkness. I hear the wind howling outside, and my uncle’s heavy breaths. I lay and think awhile about that ski disaster, being in the panhandle at last, and that mesa out our cabin window. And I decide the top hardly matters. Whatever happens, I’m sticking with my uncle.

For the first time all trip, the morning is cold and gray. At breakfast, Monty Roberts, the curlicue-moustached owner of the Black Mesa B&B, sizes us up and warns us against hiking. “That wind really whips up there. I wouldn’t go today.” Monty’s a tough guy. He fell from a windmill decades ago and never bothered fixing the sharply bent bones of his hand. So I’m not sure he’s serious, but I let it go. Even my uncle, poking at his pancakes, glumly admits, “When an expert says he wouldn’t do it, you better not.”

So, we’re not going. Neither of us.

After so much build-up for the mesa, Kenton, a town of 20 people with three churches and no restaurants, feels anti-climatic at first. We drive to the Tri-State Marker, where Oklahoma meets Colorado and New Mexico; peek at preserved dinosaur footprints left by a prehistoric river bank; then take a long scenic ride, my uncle dozing off a few times. At the tiny Kenton Museum, our fourth (and favorite) museum of the panhandle, 86-year-old volunteer Asa Jones points out barbed-wire displays, dummies in Victorian dresses, found arrowheads, and a century-old photo of a kid moments before he drowned. “Over here is a shot of his funeral.” Uncle David asks about the mesa and Asa answers, “The last time I went up there, I fell right on my face.”

It’s late afternoon now. The wind’s died down. It’s sunny, clear – perfect. And, as if tugged by some unseen force, we find ourselves at the mesa trailhead. And we just start walking. It’s too late to go eight miles, but maybe we’ll take on a mile or so.

“Is that a man up there?,” Uncle David says, looking up at the mesa top, teasingly 800 feet above us. It’s clearly a bush. I know it’s a bush. But I cherish a rare excuse to use my binoculars, so I pull them out to investigate.

“It’s a bush.”

After a mile, we find a bench. We sit, have a sip of wine, bite or two of beef jerky. I ask why he really wanted to climb the mesa anyway.

“I guess, when you get right down to it, it wouldn’t really matter to anyone except me,” he says. “But at 76, I would have loved to be able to say I got to the top of that mountain.”

“What about at 77?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

We head back to the car, soaking up that last golden sun rays before dusk. Everything looks and feels great. I stop to look at the mesa again, then watch him going ahead, impressed. Uncle David always could kick it up a notch. When I catch up, he stops and turns back.

“I’m just glad you didn’t leave me this time.”

Me too.

Robert Reid is freelance travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and He’s authored a couple dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks and is currently National Geographic Traveler‘s Digital Nomad. He sometimes blogs, occasionally about his home state of Oklahoma.

Family Travel Bronze Winner: Warp Thread

July 17th, 2017

By Leslie Oh

A weaving workshop on the Navajo Reservation bonds a mother and daughter and offers a lesson about how to live a balanced life.

Mom and I breathed deeply four times in the cool shadow of Table Mesa. In the distance, a worn road led southward through the Navajo Reservation and northward to Shiprock, New Mexico. The white tips of Dibe Nitsaa, Mount Hesperus, the sacred mountain of the North, whispered above. We stretched our arms into a sky as turquoise as the stone in the necklace Mom made me. Father Sky. Swollen gray clouds drifted slowly by. Then we folded ourselves in two; our fingertips brushed the red soil swirling about our feet. Mother Earth. Mom’s eyes remained closed as she inhaled one more time and brought her arms to her chest, the way she normally embraced me with all her might. I wanted to melt there but instead I stood awkwardly beside her, trying to mime a graceful pattern of arm and leg movements that resembled Tai Chi. We faced East (thinking), then South (planning), West (living), and North (wisdom).

Her short black hair settled into a curly halo around her beautiful round face, now unbelievably serene compared to moments earlier, when she had slammed her hand-carved weaving fork on the table and said, “Your Rez Mom sucks at this.”

“Me too,” I’d confessed. Our placemat-sized rugs continued to turn into hourglass shapes, no matter how many times we warned each other to think “loose.”

A few feet away from our meditation, five Caucasian women sat Indian style on tarps or folded Pendleton blankets. Before them, their looms displayed nearly finished rugs, which would soon win awards. Mothers, wives, grandmothers—all of them set aside these roles for five days to camp with no electricity and water on Master Weaver Sarah Natani’s ranch. The desert wind tangled wisps of blond and sandy brown hair loose from traditional Navajo buns at the base of their necks. The sun baked their skin. Stray dogs dozed on their laps. Ants about the length of fingernails scuttled between their toes. Odors of sheep and llama dung wafted from the corrals a few feet away. But they didn’t care. They appeared more authentic as Navajo weavers than Mom and I, weaving comfortably air-conditioned within the Natani home. And then because we stayed at a hotel for the sake of my two-year-old daughter, who spent our class time in a Shiprock daycare, we rolled in late every morning with a cup of Starbucks steaming in our hands.

I wondered what the other weavers thought about us, especially when Mom, who was the only student of Navajo heritage, had to weave with rubber gloves because the yarn irritated her skin. Mostly, they kept a respectful distance, maybe because we called Sarah Natani, Shinaali’ (paternal Grandmother). Mom’s paternal grandfather’s clan, Bit’ahni or Folded Arms, is a sister clan to Sarah Natani’s maternal clan, Hooghan lani or Many Hogans.

Everyone probably thought I was Navajo too, because I shared Mom’s skin and hair-color.

My expression of K’é (a Navajo tradition of introducing oneself through kinship terms), which I usually stumbled clumsily through, goes something like this: “I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Auxilia Chow of Shanghai, China, and John Hsu of Anhui, China. My Chinese name means Fragrant Grass. Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii, or Red Running into Water People, Clan adopted me after Mā Ma  died of liver cancer. My Navajo name means “journey with caring or journey to bring out gifts.”

The hot desert air seared my lungs and I began to sputter. Mom winked at me and threw her hands into a sky that was supposed to swallow our sorrows, but I couldn’t concentrate. No matter how much Mom loved me like the daughter she never had and tried to caulk the cracks in my grieving heart, I have always felt untethered. I could relate to something Shinaali’ Sarah’s best student had said when she refused a Navajo man’s commission for her to weave a Navajo rug for him, “Oh no! I’m white. I can’t. It’s not right.”

Shinaali’ Sarah was sitting in front of my loom when Mom and I finished our breathing exercise. The rhythmic patting of my Navajo weaving fork against the yarn in my loom reverberated off the walls. Whamp. Whamp. Whamp.

The afternoon sun streamed through a window in the ceiling, spotlighting a coal-burning stove that occupied the center of a Hogan-shaped room cluttered with couches and an assortment of looms. The largest loom, commanding the room’s attention, displayed a commissioned piece worth six thousand dollars. Shinaali’ Sarah claimed that the design had no special meaning, but I could see arrowheads within the bands of red and blue geometric shapes, which made me wonder whether the buyer needed protection. A portion of the displayed rug had already been rolled under the loom, while the rest towered several feet above my head.  Four of the eight walls to this room had doors that led to additional rooms, so that an aerial view of this home looked like a cross.

Mom and I approached our looms, which had been set up on a low table beside a life-sized oil painting of Shinaali’ Sarah and her husband, a traditional healer I invited to speak at a conference years ago. The first time I set eyes on this pair holding hands over breakfast, I remember telling my husband, “I hope we always love each other in this way.”

Shinaali’ Sarah smiled; the crinkles at the edge of her mouth accentuated a face loved by a lifetime of sun and wind. Her eyes were not those of an eighty-year-old woman, but the kind that enjoyed motorcycle rides at sunset.

“Very good,” Shinaali’ Sarah said to me. “I just fixed your crossed warp thread.” She handed me the batten, a flat piece of wood tapered at the ends for easy maneuvering between the warp threads. Her silver buckle clinked as she stood up. “Also, remember not to leave your batten in the loom. It stretches your warp threads and some people believe it brings bad luck.”

No wonder, I thought. My day had begun with a phone call from my husband about our brand new car requiring major repairs. Near the end of her life, Mā Ma attributed her illness to all kinds of superstitions. She had me convinced that it was safer to believe than ignore such warnings.

The traders we visited during the workshop told stories about blind, diseased, or deceased weavers who had broken weaving taboos and disrespected Grandmother Spider Woman (a Holy person who taught Weaving Woman how to weave, and she in turn taught the Navajos.) It has been easy to attribute all the bad luck in my life following this weaving workshop to taboos. Even now, five years later, heirloom necklaces that belonged to Mā Ma will spontaneously break upon my neck, spilling beads in random directions. An earring I wear will almost always lose its pair before the evening ends. To this day, I’m still discovering weaving taboos my daughter or I unknowingly broke: do not go between the poles of a loom when a rug is being woven because you will cause evil; do not let the loom of the weaving stand too long or it will tire and hurt you; do not make fun of your weaving or it will get worse and you will be poor.

Shinaali’ Sarah patted me on the shoulder as if she understood my angst and warmed me with a smile. Months before the workshop, she had lost her husband to the same disease Mā Ma died of. A long Navajo skirt swooshed about her ankles as she walked over to inspect Mom’s loom. As they began conversing in Navajo, I sat down in front of my loom and stared at the thin warp threads, which function like bones in flesh.

We had devoted a full day to the process of setting up the warp threads. After all, if you don’t get the structure and tension right, everything you hang on it falters.

I glanced at the wall where an ancient clock ticked noisily away. In a few hours, we would be wrapping up the last day of a workshop that I realize now I had weighted with unrealistic expectations.

Ten years prior to the workshop, I had the chance to move to the Rez, live with Mom, facilitate a partnership between traditional healers and Western practitioners at Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Faciliy where Mom works, and learn how to weave from Mom’s mother. Jobs, marriage, children, life got in the way, so much in the way that I only see Mom once every two to three years for just a few precious days. When Mom’s mother died, I signed us up for this workshop. I hoped weaving would ease Mom’s grief and my regret that rankled on those despairing nights when I felt that I turned down the wrong path and couldn’t find my way back to that crucial crossroad. I’ve always wondered if that missed opportunity resulted in my drift, unanchored to a place or culture. Neither an outsider nor an insider.

On the surface, the workshop satisfied a mother-daughter bond. We celebrated Mother’s Day and Mom had a chance to meet her granddaughter for the first time. The artist in us both (Mom comes from a long line of weavers and my bloodline is seeped with painters and photographers) thirsted for this knowledge: a master weaver willing to share techniques and cultural wisdom normally privileged for her descendants because she believes despite much controversy that the Navajo weaving tradition will die if it is not passed on, regardless of ethnicity.
Raging beneath all of this ran a desire I’m embarrassed to admit, a craving that began with Mā Ma ’s death and was amplified with the birth of my daughter to a desperate hunger to belong to something wise and ancient, bled in streambeds, trapped in rock layers, eroded in the earth.

I never told my husband I spent a $150 on a tension cord Shinaali’ Sarah braided from raw wool that she sheered, cleaned, carded, spun, and dyed from her own livestock. I had to own this itchy llama-reeking cord, which so far has served one brief role: stretching my warp threads tight on the only rug I’ve ever woven. I am not sure if it was because the tension cord in its unique braiding of white, gray, and dark brown yarn made my loom look more authentic than the Wal-Mart bleached machine-made cord I used for the first few days of the class. Or maybe I romanticized the notion that the cord represented lightning and embodied the legend of Grandmother Spider Woman, so that purchasing this tension cord might be the closest I could come to claiming the Navajo culture as my own. It seemed to make sense in a metaphoric way that I possessed something born and bred and crafted on the Rez.

But no matter what I bought or how much I concentrated at this workshop, I felt like I learned little. After all, Shinaali’ Sarah had said, “Weaving is more than just an art or craft. It is a way of life, essential to the Navajo culture.”

How did you learn a way of life in five days? Was it “wrong” for me to root for a culture I wasn’t born with? Did anyone else feel this way?

In later years, the other workshop attendees, many who have returned year-after-year to the ranch, emailed comforting words, confirming that I was not alone in these desires. But in that moment, only my loom listened. Mom had told me once that the loom is supposed to tell you what to do. It’s supposed to relax you.

Feeling isolated from the other weavers outside and with Mom laughing at something Shinaali’ Sarah said, I stared at my Ganado Red: a rug pattern developed in Mom’s hometown. Our Ganado Reds would share the typical black border filled with a red background. For her central design, Mom decided to try a gray and white diamond, which required a complicated skill of weaving diagonals. I chose the Spider Woman cross, not only because it is easy for a beginner to create but also because I liked the multitude of meanings bestowed in this symbol.

The cross can bring the blessing of rain. The number four is sacred and represents the sacred stones (abalone, turquoise, white shell, and jet), the sacred plants (corn, squash, beans, and tobacco), the sacred rivers (Colorado River, Little Colorado River, San Juan River, and the Rio Grande), or the four sacred mountains (Sis Naajini—Mount Blanca of the East, Tsoodzil—Mount Taylor of the South, Dook’o’oosliid—San Francisco Peaks of the West, and Dibe Nitsaa—Mount Hesperus of the North).

In weaving this rug, I hoped my daughter could have guiding principles if I ever died as Mā Ma did when I needed her most. I hoped she would trace her fingers along the spirit line I planned to weave into this rug and remember Grandmother Ursula’s story about Weaving Woman and how she became trapped in her rug from working too hard to make it perfect. Grandmother Spider Woman created the spirit line so that Weaving Woman could escape and warn others never to let pride become master of their spirit.

In weaving this rug, I wanted my daughter to connect to something larger than me.

After Shinaali’ Sarah fixed a few things on Mom’s rug, she grabbed a large floppy hat and said, “We are going to visit some trading posts and pick some plants for dyeing. Are you two coming?”

Mom and I were silent as Shinaali’ Sarah slid open her glass sliding door to inspect the rest of the class. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be right back so you can work on your rugs some more.”

The door shut and Mom and I sighed in the same breath. The 30 hours that we had set aside for this project were nearly exhausted. We knew it would be hard to find time to finish the rug in our daily schedule of cooking, cleaning, and working.

Two SUVs packed with the other women rolled off onto the highway in a cloud of red dust. We jumped in Mom’s car and hurried after them.

At the Two Grey Hills trading post, our class descended upon the weaving tools like vultures. Then, we wandered our way through the store until each of us ended up in a tiny room at the back. Weaved in elaborate designs of brown, white, and black, Two Grey Hill rugs lined the walls and covered the stone floor in stacks. The price tags ranged in the thousands, except for two very unusual rugs. The trader apologetically said, “Oh, these were weaved by Mary Silversmith, the world’s worst weaver. But we buy her rugs, because she’s probably the oldest weaver on the Rez. Blind as a bat, but still weaving!”

Not only were they priced attractively at $75 and $65, but we all fell in love with the abstract designs. It looked like the weaver had smeared her hand through the straight verticals, horizontals, and diagonals normally found in Navajo designs. A thick warp thread peeked out here and there through the unevenly hand-spun yarn. Sometimes the yarn hung loose from the warp. Other times, the weaver meant to use black, but stuck in blue yarn instead.

She had broken every standard of quality a collector looked for in a rug. Does the rug have straight edges and square corners? Nope. Are the lines within the rug straight and consistent? What lines?  Is the pattern centered on the rug? What pattern? Will the rug lie or hang flat? Never. Is the warp covered? Maybe 80 percent? Are the colors consistent? Definitely not. And yet, we all fought over purchasing Mary Silversmith’s rugs. And those of us who didn’t go home with one worried we’d missed out on owning something rare.

Maybe her design was intentional. After all, the silhouette of a bear could be seen in one. She could’ve been ahead of her times. But more importantly, she showed us that it’s okay to mess up and bend rules and not fit in.

On the way to the next trading post, Shinaali’ Sarah stopped our caravan alongside hip-high bushes growing beside a stand of junipers. As soon as we gathered around her and settled down, she said, “This is sage.” Her fingertips lovingly stroked the leaves. “Plants are alive. You must give them a good talk. Say a prayer. Ask for permission that we can cut some to dye yarn this afternoon.”

I waded through the bushes with Mom away from the other weavers. The sage brushed the sides of my legs, releasing its sweet aroma. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, feeling its medicine calm my anxieties. For a brief moment, I felt as if I’d lived here all my life.

When it grew harder to see by sunlight, Mom and I peeked at each other over our half-finished rugs. Sweat dripped down the sides of our faces. Our hair frizzed in the heat and our hands rubbed stiff necks.

How had we turned something relaxing into something stressful?  Mom chuckled and said, “We might as well go get my grandbaby and some ice cream!”

We carefully packed away our loom and wrapped our weaving tools in towels. Hugs and promises to keep in touch were exchanged with the other weavers. Then, we loaded up the car and Mom blasted the air conditioner.

Just as I thought that maybe Mary Silversmith had rubbed off on us and given us the courage not to be self-critical, Mom gripped the steering wheel and said, “I concentrated so hard today and I still fucked up!”

Her sentence froze the space between us. I panicked. We stared at each other, faces bleeding color, realizing several taboos were probably broken by her statement.

Minutes crept by until the tension in the air snapped. We giggled until our stomachs hurt.

Mom wiped the tears from her face, looked up to the sky and said, “Oooo Mom, I hope you didn’t hear what I just said.”

When I caught my breath, I said, “Mom, I love you. You are so funny.”

She grabbed my hand and pressed it to her heart. “Thank God I have a daughter. I tell you what,” she said. “I’m never going to show my rug to anyone.”

I basked in a mother’s love that I thought I had lost forever.

Mom floored the pedal once we exited the dirt road from Shinaali’ Sarah’s ranch. As soon our wheels thumped against the highway, I said, “Mom, I want your rug. You have to send it to me, when you’re done.”

She looked at me and laughed. “Okay. You have to send me yours too.”

“All right,” I agreed. At the moment, grounded by the Rez, I did intend to send her my rug.

While I was still finishing my rug, Mom mailed hers to me and I hung it in my daughter’s room. On evenings when my daughter demands that I read her a children’s book about Weaving Woman that Mom gave her, I lift her up to the rug so she can run her fingers along the spirit line and we reminisce about our first grandmother-mother-daughter trip on the Rez. She talks about the sheep on Grandma’s ranch and I  remember how many rules Mom and I broke.

When I finally finished mine, I wouldn’t let anyone see it, not even my husband. I decided to weave another rug for Mom, but I have not warped my loom since the workshop. A bucket worth of the expensive yarn Shinaali’ Sarah recommended sits in my closet: Brown Sheep, Lamb’s Pride, worsted weight, not bulky, not sport, single ply. I tell myself it’s because I’m worried about breaking taboos, but perhaps I am not allowing myself to live in hózhó.

Hózhó is the Navajo word that embodies a philosophy of beauty, balance, and harmony. When a weaver weaves, she is promising to walk in beauty or live in hózhó, straddling the borders of good and bad, sickness and health, happiness and sadness.

Today, I still haven’t found the courage to show Mom my rug. Maybe I don’t want her to see what a bad weaver I am. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll embarrass her. Or worse, perhaps, I still can’t believe that she loves me as her own.

I tell myself that hózhó is too difficult to achieve thousands of miles away from Mom and the Rez. But when I dare to examine my Ganado Red gathering dust at the bottom of a drawer, I wonder if the real problem is a crossed warp thread within.

Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays. Her writing and photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre, Parenting Magazine, Rosebud Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Under the Sun, Washington Post On Parenting, Washington Post Travel. Losing her mother and brother to hepatitis B at the age of 21 inspired her to found the Hepatitis B Initiative in 1997, which she later expanded to the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. area with Thomas Oh. Today, this award-winning nonprofit continues to operate in several states mobilizing communities to prevent liver diseases caused by hepatitis B and C among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, African Americans and other high-risk groups. Having earned an MFA and master’s in public health from Harvard, she is the recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, the first Julius B. Richmond Young Leader in Public Health Award, the first National Award for Excellence in Public Health Leadership, the Sun Memorial Award for exemplifying a commitment to improving the health and well-being of people in underserved populations, and the Schweitzer Award for reverence for life. She was also recently named White House Champions of Change for AAPI Storytelling and Art. See her website or follow her @lesliehsuoh.

Funny Travel Gold Winner: Monks and Monkey Poop on the Mountain

July 10th, 2017

By James Michael Dorsey

A pilgrimage gone wrong.

At first sight, the temple on the mountain seemed a folk tale come to life.

On my journey through Burma, the gleaming temple on the rock that guards Mount Popa had become my challenge, my grail, my pilgrimage, and there it towered above me like a finger of God pointing towards heaven.

Taung Kalat, the sacred monastery, is the jewel atop 777 stairs of a sheer tower of calcified magma that rises 2400 feet, the dramatic remains of a prehistoric eruption; topped by a golden temple. From afar it brings to mind a giant termite mound. The summit monastery was attended to solely by the Buddhist hermit monk U Khandi for a number of years, and is still watched over by a palace guard of sacred monkeys. It is also the ethereal abode of the 37 most powerful of Burmese Nats, the spirits of local Buddhism. In a religion dominated society it is a major point of pilgrimage and if any karma by association was available, Taung Kalat was the place to find it.

The single mud-lined street at its base was the village epicenter, whose stalls offered cheap plastic trinkets that clashed with the religious fervor of pilgrims on hands and knees. Many have crossed the country in this glacially slow fashion, arriving in torn rags but with flaming souls. Many will not stand fully upright until reaching the temple of Taung Kalat.

I removed my shoes and socks and bought an offering of burning sage for what I looked forward to as a day of spiritual renewal, hopefully with a pinch of enlightenment thrown in. I entered the line of faithful and had just taken the first step when the stench hit me, and looking at the towering staircase above, realized I was about to climb through 2000 feet of monkey poop.

It was everywhere, on the steps, the bannisters, the walls; impossible to go around. Apparently sacred monkeys don’t give a damn about hygiene and while it might sound strange to use both ubiquitous and poop in the same sentence, it is appropriate here. Fortunately, I could also see a vast fleet of tiny women all robed in what might be hazmat suits and all scrubbing like naval swabbies. Either way I had come in search of peace and knowledge and was not about to be defeated by mere feces. As I ascended the first few stairs, I was totally unprepared for one of the scrubbing women to thrust out her hand and demand money; after all, I had paid an entry fee with the implied caveat that it included a poop removal surcharge. But after each step another blue rubber glove shot out at me, all of which I declined until I felt and heard simultaneously the dull thud of a ball of monkey poop striking my posterior.

I wheeled around to confront whichever of the tiny rubber clad maidens had attacked me for failure to pay up and that is when I saw the first monkey. He was big and mean and had a Donald Trump scowl. He was also holding a fist-full of feces that he rolled around in his hands like a pitcher rubbing up a new ball. Just as he let fly in my direction I noticed eight or nine hundred of his compatriots had surrounded me. It did not help that the idiot climbing behind me had opened a large bag of hard candy and was dumping it on the ground so he could take photos of the swarming monkeys. You could hear his scream across the valley as they stripped his camera, watch, and ring; like sharks with blood in the water. I tucked my camera under my shirt, put my head down, and began climbing fast as I could go and thought I might be away from ground zero when the second ball of poop hit me.

Those monkeys were the most efficient crew of pirates I have ever encountered, and that includes the Gypsies of Rome. One had to marvel how they came at you in waves, one distracting you while the others swarm and relieve you of any possession that is not part of your anatomy and then trying to take some that are. They grabbed at my shirt buttons when I had nothing else to offer but I managed to keep my camera under my shirt. They use those same nimble fingers to hurl their feces with major league accuracy.

With aching knees and filthy feet I emerged from the endless stairs into a brilliant blue sky 2400 feet above where I started. My feet looked like they were encased in cement but the view in all directions defied words. I began to circle the summit walkway only to notice a distinct lack of monkeys, but that is when I saw the first monks.

They came out of the sun, silhouettes, like bandits in an aerial dogfight. Once again I could say ubiquitous as it sounds better here than it did with poop, because they were everywhere. That is not unusual in a Buddhist country, but these monks were not acting very monkly. There was no meditation or contemplation going on.

These were not your cloistered, chanting, alms begging monks; they were techno monks! Photo monks!

Everywhere I looked there were monks taking photos with I-phones, I-pads, and some even with actual cameras! They took pictures of each other that looked exactly the same! Those not taking photos were texting on their smart phones. Nor were they observing any vows of silence. In fact they were the noisiest people in the temple. It looked and sounded like a Silicon Valley toga party. For a country just emerging from four centuries behind the rest of the world, these guys were making up for lost time. I assumed they would not act this way at their own monastery and so they were visitors, monks on vacation as it were. Apparently I had discovered the spring break of monks.

No sooner had I stepped out onto a balcony than I was besieged by saffron robed, shaved-headed photophiles all toting selfie sticks. Now at that time, the ruling military junta of Burma had just begun to open the national doors to people like me and westerners were indeed an exotic rarity in remote places like Taung Kalat, but I quickly transcended rarity status to become an instant celebrity as dozens of monks and their families descended on me like a plague of wide angle locusts.

The monks, like the monkeys, came at me in waves, and so, for over an hour after I reached the summit I posed for and smiled at various electronic devices, arms around tiny people wearing orange sheets and wondering how they tell each other apart; still unable to savor the beauty of the temple insterior and certainly not achieving any peace or tranquility. There was also a touch of degradation as I was at least a foot taller than anyone who stood next to me that day making me feel like the extended middle finger of a fist.

Once inside, the interior of the temple was a curious blend of beautiful traditional statuary and painting, juxtaposed with gaudy Christmas tree lights and Las Vegas neon bling so often found in remote shrines. Haloes circled various Buddha heads, changing colors in clockwise direction, and flashing strings of lights illuminated every door frame and window. Elaborately clothed mannequins stand in for the ethereal Nats, their images emerging from piled offerings of food and money. To one unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, such scenes can project a carnival like atmosphere, but in fact, it is all done with purpose and deep reason. Sometimes the gaudiest is also the most fervent.

But even in this, the holiest of holies, there was no respite. Everyone wanted their photo with me and the nonstop flashes were blinding. I was feeling overwhelmed until the blonde walked in. She was tall and elegant as only a Scandinavian could be and her sudden presence stopped the monks in their barefoot tracks. There was an audible group sigh as she tossed her mane-like tresses in the wind and stood posed like a silhouette on a truckers’ mud flap. In the blink of an eye I was replaced by a Nordic goddess. She floated through the temple like a gazelle, smiling at one and all as dozens of tiny shaved heads swiveled at her passing. She was working the room as though it was a Vegas lounge and not a Buddhist temple. Suddenly, as if a silent whistle had been sounded, a massed throng of monks engulfed the young woman, solidly pinning her against a large smiling Buddha which made me wonder if he’d been smiling prior to that. Certainly by now, the sacred nats must have been smiling too.

A line was quickly formed and selfies were flying fast and furious. I took the lull in battle to stage my retreat. In my final look back I saw that perfect smiling face towering over a sea of shaved heads looking like a lawn statue surrounded by garden gnomes. It was unforgettable.

I was ready for the monkeys during my descent. I had picked up a discarded pair of rubber gloves on the way down; hygiene be damned, I then scooped up as much dung as I could hold and began to mold the perfect poop ball. I would not go quietly into the night. But while I was molding the poop in my hands it occurred to me that I had come to this place in search of peace and perhaps a little enlightenment and there I was preparing to do hand to hand combat with a monkey. I needed to rethink the moment.

Trump was there with his drooping leer when I arrived, projectile in hand, ready for launch. I looked him in the eye and that is something I have always been told never to do with a monkey. I dropped the dung ball and slowly raised my empty hands in surrender and he seemed to get it. He lowered his dung ball, not out of deference to me, but because he was suddenly distracted by an empty yogurt container blowing by in the wind. To him, even that was more interesting than I was at the moment, so suddenly no one wanted to take my photo and no monkey wanted to blast me with his poop. I had achieved insignificance and isn’t that the goal of a good Buddhist? Until that moment, I had always thought my great moment of enlightenment would be a bit more epic but you take what you can get.

I had gone to Taung Kalat in search of the spiritual and it was certainly there, just buried under several tons of dung. Most of the locals who live near the mountain spend their lives in service to Buddha as either a monk or nun and their culture was already ancient when mine was being born. Many of them have climbed the stairs for years, sometimes on hands and knees and all have offered prayers and entreaties to the 37 sacred Nats housed on the summit. My presence happened to be a rare and different distraction but it was never meant to disrupt.

While the monkeys seemed comical to me, to the local population, they are sacred. They are their own selves on a lower evolutionary plane and believe that climbing the stairs with them adds to the karma necessary to come back as a person in another life. When the monkeys act out it is the Nats using them to admonish the people for their various shortcomings. There are holy men within the temple who smear themselves with the dung both as a protection and a reminder that they are but equals with their simian cousins. Such is Buddhism.

Enlightenment does not come in a day or a month, or even a lifetime for most of us, and it is certainly not attainable simply by visiting places or people. I come to these places not expecting to find answers but because everyone there seems to have a slightly better handle on that aspect of life than I do and I’m hoping for just a little bit of that to come my way.

If it comes coated with monkey dung that is just fine with me.

James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting vanishing cultures. He is a former contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, Lonely Planet, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, Wend, and Natural History. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, and a travel consultant to Brown & Hudson of London. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available on all major bookseller websites. His stories have appeared in 13 travel anthologies. He is a 13-time Solas Award winner from Travelers’ Tales and a contributor to their Best Travel Writing, Volumes 10 and 11. He is a fellow of the Explorers’ Club and former director of the Adventurers’ Club.

Travel and Healing Gold Winner: Into Celtic Twilight

July 3rd, 2017

By Erin Byrne

The air is the region of the invisible.
—John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

It is morning on the west coast of Ireland on a swath of pebbly beach with an emerald hillside and plateau off to the right. Cloudish sky, pewter water. Beyond the lapping of the waves comes a faint yet beckoning wail, like the highest note of a flute, heard by those who achieve a certain kind of quiet. A haunted sense of synchronicity surges through me: I’m home again.

Once before this has occurred, eight years ago when I traveled here and spiraled through a childhood in the green that had never happened. The conviction that this had once been my home was odd and defied categorizing. When I returned to the states, Irish poetry, philosophy and lore offered insight, especially the writings of William Butler Yeats, whose book The Celtic Twilight, was written as he traveled around the west of Ireland collecting accounts of the supernatural, of encounters with spirits. These Irish people, as Yeats described, favored by their own characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour, have understanding of imaginative things.

I concluded I’d been in the thrall of the faeries. But this certainty has faded in the time that has passed since, and I’ve mused that it was all just fancy, wishful thinking, a yearning to connect with the land of my ancestors.

But here, now, this beach viewed from above seems to be a border between existences.

As a girl growing up in America, my stigma was a freckled face, “red” hair, and a ski-jump nose. Even now, in middle age, I stand out in crowds. Other differences I’ve kept hidden: my secret joy is writing poems; a clandestine poet, I am. Animals, wild ones—birds, horses, deer—are drawn to me; they approach and stare, and we communicate. When passing a graveyard in a small Idaho town, or the Stephansdom Crypt in Vienna, or Père Lachaise in Paris, I feel the dead as if their breath warms my skin. Various lives unspool and spin through me like fairy tales, and the joys, sorrows, hopes, and frights of the departed dissolve into my own mood.

Others do not feel these things; I am strange, set apart.

But here in Ireland, freckles sprinkle skin like flecks of gold, heads flame, and noses swoop up. History’s risings and revolutions were envisioned and enacted by poets, and the people speak in lyrical phrases: Ah, and weren’t your sons lovely when you last were here? The youngest had it in his head to fish the River Nore, and determined he was as well. I feel such affinity with speakers who arrange words thus.

Our first day here, across the bridge from Inistioge in the countryside of County Kilkenny, a cluster of cows romped to greet me as old friends, and after our visit their velvety heads turned to follow my steps. In the cemetery of a tiny village, lichen crept over stone, and the words of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, May the lives they lived unfold further in spirit were realized as grandfathers and fine ladies and twin girls long deceased laughed and shouted from one world as their loved ones keened in this one. These worlds seemed to me not parallel but intersecting.

This was different from Idaho, Vienna, or Paris: I recognized my people. Yeats might have looked up from penning Celtic Twilight, peered over his spectacles and smiled: Some speak with the dead, and with some who have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home.

We drove south through County Cork and up through Kerry, eight of us, extended family. Behind me in the back seats maps were rustled, exits called out, whisperings and jokes exchanged. Out the window blurred long-memorized gates and lanes. Looking ahead I anticipated a tree around this corner, a farmhouse around that, but wished away this anomaly of the never-seen familiar.

One afternoon, we visited Caher Conor, to the west of Dingle town, where beehive huts, once as many as 400, covered the hillside here creating a village called Fahan. Their history is unknown, the dates slippery. The first inhabitants of Ireland arrived in 7500 B.C., and these stone domes could have been built as early as the Bronze Age or as recently as the 12th century when the Normans shoved the Irish to the edges of the land, but my imagination veered away from all timelines. Inside, under the corbelled arrangement of rocks, an echo resounded. The others milled about outside, seeing, doing, enjoying, and I was alone in my secret that I’d lived there, disturbed by the known air.

This trip comes at a time of personal searching, amid seismic shifts in my stability. I have permanent roots in Seattle, where I grew and raised a family; perennial roots in Paris, where I’ve often stayed for long periods to teach, write, and film; and am currently casting about in efforts to develop initial roots in Sausalito.

Over the past decade, I’ve worked hard to fine-tune the receptors that read one’s own heart, and feel pulled by some intuitive force to Sausalito, where I’ve gone regularly for a writing conference, for literary events, and to see friends. In almost every way it is a new start for me in that place of shores and seagulls and sailboats, of sea breezes and mists.

I felt ripped away to come on this trip to Ireland, which extended a trip to Europe four weeks beyond the time I’d planned to be gone, in addition to an already-full travel dossier. The tentative threads I’d put out had only started to search for soft places to burrow into the ground in California. I’d begun to be settled in my nest, embraced by friends, finding my place in the literary culture of the Bay Area—and interrupting this progress was frustrating. I feared that for me, home would always be everywhere and nowhere at once.

In Ireland in this untethered state, although I loved my companions, I yearned for solitude, my usual mode of travel. When alone, I sensed things under the surface of a place. This tension between the inner and the outer is always there but seldom felt. There is only one thing required of me then.

So I begged off the day of driving the Ring of Kerry, stuck close to our rented house near Ventry Bay, and stayed outside all day with ears open. Sheep crooned and cows bellowed, and the wind swooshed through trees carrying something else I strained to hear. Ghosts and hours passed as I glided in and out of clouds of reverie. The group returned, boisterous and exuberant, but I didn’t mention I’d been communicating with spirits.

My experience seems so different from what everyone else is enjoying. It is an inconvenience, vaguely embarrassing, so this next day I’ve joined in. It is near this beach that I feel most strongly the fusing of the inner and outer, as if an invisible reality invites me to venture to a place where the words “here” and “now” transfigure, and where dimensions commingle.

As my travel companions gaze at sights, and point and exclaim, all I want to do is lose myself in memory-dreams of cottages with hearth-fires and straw beds, and listen to the Irish speaking in their lilting cadences, to the sheep and the cows and the wind. I wonder, what is the use of this, these days of feeling like some kind of timeless Irish Goddess? Why did I come here again, to this place where such weird things happen? Perhaps the greatest risk of travel is not that we won’t like a place or have a good time, but that we will experience the unthinkable and not understand a single thing about it. Then the light seeps out, we cannot easily see, outlines morph, and shadows appear. We have been twirled into an unlit no-man’s-land of the mind and are lost.

By evening, my thoughts carry a lyrical accent, each word light, accentuated. I have been to many foreign places but never have I heard my own thoughts reflect another tongue. My brain is moving to a different rhythm now. I run my hands over the top of a stone wall of sharpish rocks stacked in familiar order; recall sunlight flashing on red blooms of wild fuchsias; taste rough, sweet soda bread and feel the grains traverse the same path through my body as they did when I was a toddler, an adolescent, a teen. I re-live my ages and stages, agreeing with more words by O’Donohue: Your soul has more refined antennae than your mind or ego.

An evening in Dingle: Warmed by dinner and drinks and stories and laughter, I feel ensconced again with my family, and wonder if each of them may have been living through their own inner happenings. As daylight shifts restlessly, we amble up a street lined with shop façades painted green and blue and white, colors that deepen in the dusk—galleries and shops and so many pubs: Foxy John’s Hardware Store Pub, Dick Mack’s, O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub.

We step into O’Flaherty’s and are hit by the promising scent of Guinness being poured, being swallowed, being spilled, being felt. People stand on a wooden floor, laughing, talking, but listening expectantly in the smoky air. I am pulled toward a corner and settle in, apart again, and straighten my back against the green painted wall, which is plastered with newspaper clippings. The paper is yellow but the news is fresh, telling of rebellions and risings and poetic sacrifices. This tumult is current: It is 2016 and 1916 and I am in two places at once, in this corner and moving toward the center of the room as three men, Fergus Ó’Flaithheartaigh, Bríd Uí Bhriain, and Tom Lynch, position themselves on chairs surrounded by instruments: fiddle, flute, accordion, banjo, and guitar.

The music begins. The fiddle circles and rises, activates this very inner spot where body links to spirit, the place from which we as human beings perceive. It is where this music I danced to as a child fizzes, and I’m back to mornings in fields with long grasses swishing my legs, and afternoons on pebbles with gray wavelets foaming under my toes, and evenings of feet whirring upon wooden floors with sawdust bouncing, and myself twirling, clapping, nodding. Against the green wall, the back of my neck thrums. To understand this sensation that is beautiful but terrible in its alienation, I must let my spirit leave O’Flaherty’s and participate in this intersecting scene. It is required of me.

Night, I dance in a clearing on the plateau as moonlight glows on the green and the music plays me into a frothy faery frenzy. Cottages above, beach below, pipes in the wind. I lift my skirt, tap my toes, and spin upon impossible waves. As my heels stomp the ground, I feel the roots of centuries, of millennia, and am entangled deep in solid and eternal groundedness. I have crossed over and my two existences have merged.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer.

Back in Sausalito I attempt to grasp what happened in Ireland. I know other travelers who have experienced similar fates: a young man who discovered fly-fishing on a trip to the Gallatin River in Montana as a boy now has access to a rhythm, patience and purpose in nature that extends to his job as a forester; a woman who, when in Israel, felt she became her great-great-grandmother, standing on the edge of the Jordan River watching her lover drown, developed a connection to her family at a time when she felt cut off from them; a man whose footsteps on a path in a rock garden in Kyoto, where the final stone must be found in the mind, led him to a merging of an exterior and interior sense of peace.

Here in Sausalito, this place I have been gradually drawn to, I recall the floundering feeling of new shoots trying but not yet connecting, but sometimes, like a surprise chess move that originates from a corner of the board, we find what we most need in a faraway place. I remember my roots so richly buried in Irish soil, like those of an old tree anchored in dark earth. I know what it feels like, this change I want.

I stand on the edge of my deck. It is the hour when the last rays of sun spotlight the undersides of clouds and the air carries the clarity of day and the uncertainty of night in equal parts, when leaves and branches transfigure from being bearers of green phosphorescence to black silhouettes, when darkness descends in time-lapsed moments and the next second suspends as the universe holds its breath.

An airplane coasts across the sky, a winged figure that becomes a soaring firefly in the pink tinged air, a vehicle filled with human beings who may be gliding toward lands where they’ll celebrate their own uncanny homecomings. As day goes from dusk to dark, this airplane does the same thing that travel requires of all of us. It moves: transverses borders, coasts over boundaries, lands in new worlds, and enters unimagined dimensions.

So I will try this without understanding it, this travel-induced spell of the faeries. I will imagine it. I don’t know if it will work to conjure roots here and now, but I’ve learned the metaphoric meaning of those words.

See the blue, the bay, the boats. Try to attain Yeats’s condition of quiet, and listen hard. Beyond the sea breeze, like the highest note of a flute. Feel it, dance.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer. We travel to come home.

Erin Byrne is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, winner of the Paris Book Festival Award, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco, writer of The Storykeeper film, and occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company, Paris and on Deep Travel trips.

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