Grand Prize Gold Winner: Headlights

March 1st, 2021

By Marcia DeSanctis

There was danger, even in the presence of angels.

February is not the ideal time for a road trip to northern France, but the moodiness of the sea, wind, and sky appeals to a certain breed of loner like me, drawn to the echoing voids of the off-season. Coastal Normandy is famous for its dramatic weather, and in winter, it grows wilder still, with thrashing winds and squalls of frozen sleet that churn up from the English Channel. The region is a sweep of battlegrounds and fortified castles, stone-cold Norman abbeys, and craggy ports that have hosted centuries of departing and returning soldiers. Here, God and war forge their strange alliance, as they often do, and the backdrop of tempests, tides, and occasional shards of sunlight render it fertile ground for ghosts and their keepers.

I had endeavored to Mont St. Michel to seek some perfect solitude. One night was all I could spare for a brief reconciliation between me and my universe, an instant quelling of the racing brain. I had always wanted to spend a night in the small village beneath the monastery and the dead of winter seemed an ideal time to do it—with the theatrical weather but without swarms of visitors filing into the one narrow street. I hoped, just for a spell, to experience the abbey as the pilgrims had, in this place that brings such wonder to the eye that only heavenly devotion and fear of hell could have conceived it. Over a thousand years ago, men had achieved the near impossible and built a church atop a 276-foot granite rock in the middle of a bay slashed by monster tides and some of the fiercest currents on earth.

To get there, let alone ferry construction materials on their backs, meant to brave wind, fog, quicksand, and a rushing sea. Later, pilgrims were obliged to wait for low tide to cross over to Mont St. Michel, but there was always risk, one the faithful were willing to take. By the time they arrived to commune in silence with the resident monks, they had already weeded themselves out and proven their piety along with their mettle.

I suppose I sought some clue of the divine here, as well. In France, I often venture into the dusky wombs of cathedrals, basilicas, and rural parishes. While inside these limestone temples, I look for proof of the almighty (signs anyway) and the wisdom of saints. In Europe, crosses loom over every village, admonishing me with very little subtlety of what I can never really abandon. I’m a committed former Catholic, but the church I was born into and raised in still whispers to me daily. It is a firm, plaintive voice that offers one truth: This is who you are. 

I’m not brave enough to have renounced my religion outright. Instead, I chucked it aside. Sunday school did an excellent job of teaching me everything and everyone I was meant to fear. But not long after my confirmation, I began to crave adventure with boys—a definite no-no with the nuns. Soon word sunk in that women were outcasts in the church and the Pope was okay with that. Eventually, I learned that some of the priests in my native Boston might be criminals. I slipped away, stopped going to mass. All that I absorbed from catechism—guilt, sin, purgatory, mercy, the promise of heaven and intense dread of the alternative—still unwittingly shapes my life.

Most of the time when I enter a church, once I cross myself at the holy water font, the outline of faith emerges, as if this ancient gesture tracing out a crucifix on my head and chest offers entry not just to a place of worship but also to comfort and certainty. When I’m in a pew, the sacred space above me intuits my secrets, listens to and forgives them all. For what if not salvation would the ancients construct these elaborate structures, embellish them with statuary and stories told in colored glass? It is safer to believe, and in a church, I do.  And then, it dissipates as soon as I exit from sanctuary to sunlight.

These bursts of affinity with something ancient and vast bring not exactly euphoria, but calm. We mortals are not the most important force on earth, so I can get over myself already. Maybe, at Mont St. Michel, with its near miraculous back-story, I’d again find that holy, ethereal sunbeam I never stop chasing. All I needed was a few minutes.

Days earlier, I had passed through the Normandy battlefields under a wintry sky that one moment was glazed soft pink and the next, opaque under a concrete wall of sleet. It’s the least I could do: hike through spiky gorse, cross the beach and imagine the final heartbeats of all the living boys who had died exactly where I stood. I drove to cemeteries and gravesites and to the great Tapestry of Bayeux. The story of William the Conqueror, the local bastard turned king, unfolds in staggering detail on this thousand-year-old strip of linen. In one scene, Harold, the eventual usurper—at least from the point of view of the French—rescues two soldiers from the quicksand of Mont-Saint-Michel. Even then, the perils of this forbidden place were fabled and feared.

I steered my car among the flooded roads and highways, until, at last, I rounded the coastal route on the Route des Champeaux. And there it was, rising on the horizon like a volcano. The sight of Mont St. Michel is perhaps most sublime when emerging from night or sinking into twilight—now pink, now gold, now white, now black, now white again—but at 2 p.m. on a somber day, it still exerted an astonishing grandiosity. I pulled over into a gully and exited the car to offer myself fully to this encounter. In this heightened state, I could ascribe no words to my emotions that carried both wonder for its beauty and terror for its power.

A few minutes later I parked my car and took the bus along the causeway. I was last here two decades ago, in July. Then, I wore a tank top, and a water bottle sloshed around my purse. The heat had been severe, and I trekked barefoot across the tidal flats, sun baking my back, flip-flops in hand. It was suffocatingly, grotesquely crowded and all of us tourists gazed up hopefully at the monastery, as if vying for a gulp of oxygen. And there he was: Archangel Michael, the prince of them all, commander of God’s army and Catholicism’s literal angel of death. He descends in our final hour to assist the dying and escort us to heaven as long as we proclaim our faith. It was he, during a visitation in 706, who told the local bishop “to build here and build high.” His gold figure crowns the spire of Mont St. Michel and on that sunny day, his wings and raised sword seemed to throw sparks into the sky.

I was surprised when the bus stopped in the middle of a mudflat and left me a fair distance from the bottom of the hill and the village—it was supposed to stop right at the foot of town. The driver instructed me to walk the rest of the way. Indeed, the stormy February weather had made a mess of things, and the approach was also a massive construction zone. Bulldozers and Bobcats were scattered beside the path, as were orange plastic ribbons that formed makeshift do-not-cross fences. It was, I learned, the home stretch for the colossal reclamation project that would return the sea to the bay of Mont St. Michel, which had been partially silted over by centuries of agricultural development. The effect of this silting had been to inhibit the regular sluicing of water to and from the Cousenon River into the bay, so the Mont was no longer the true island it had been when the monks built the church.

The currents, though, were unchanged: still erratic and still deadly. High tide can rise up to 45 feet and water sweeps in at an astonishing 200 feet per minute. Occasionally a video pops up on YouTube of fools who try to beat the sea, fail, and get rescued by helicopter. Also, periodically some deluded danger junkie wanders into the quicksand—there is still quicksand, too—and must be pulled to safety.

Every bit of me was drenched and spattered as I traipsed toward the village, and when I reached the hotel, the desk attendant scurried to welcome me. I was desperate to peel the soaking clothes from my body, and she dispatched me to my room, where I filled up the tub. Steam erupted off my clothes when I draped them on the drying rack. The radiator crackled with heat and the panes of the leaded windows were coated with rainwater. Beyond was a sweep of bay the color of boiling milk. My body ached with comfort in the bath, and I struggled not to doze off.

When I ventured out later that day, the street that strained to accommodate half a million tourists a year was hushed with the absence of people. The biscuit stands were open, though, and the stacks of primary-colored tins of galettes and sablés were the picture of optimism. I climbed to the abbey, and walked around the monastery and the Merveille—the church—stopping at the cloister lined with boxwoods and tidy colonnaded allées, a green respite on this grim day. From here was a view up the Norman and down the Breton coasts and surrounding it all, the sea. It was gray and thick as wet cement while the sky bore the whites of drifting snow.

I wandered through the chambers and chapels, the vacant assembly rooms and grand halls that bore no reminders of their bustling pasts. I stood at altars and under crosses, friezes and seawater-green stained-glass windows. I gazed up at Gothic choirs, vaults, and across to fireplaces, crucifixes, and the gold-cloaked figure of Notre-Dame-du-Mont-Tombe. But I struggled to feel the presence of a deity in these rooms. The best I could do was reflect on the ingenuity of the men who believed in one so strongly they carried boulders across this godforsaken landscape, hoisted them up, and erected a monument in tribute. I yearned to experience this strength of conviction but all I could do was admire theirs. Here, in the emptiness of a medieval abbey, I felt strangely empty, too. I couldn’t even summon a prayer to murmur.

After dinner, darkness crept into the village while the rain dissipated into drizzle, then mist, and at last a cold, clear night. Spotlights replaced daylight and the building was transformed. From a mottled edifice coated with lichen, tarnish, and rain, it turned pale and fortress-like, stained by shadows from sconces affixed to the façade. The turrets, covered in charcoal slate, had receded into blackness. I descended to the bottom of the village so I could look up at the structure again.

There, perched on the tip of the great spire, was Saint Michael the Archangel, so airborne he seemed to have just touched down. Behind and above him, clouds leaped across the disk of what was now almost a full moon. The light shone on the sword that pierced the sky and his wings spread in both directions. Warmth seeped honey-like over me. I stared and stared. It—he—was spectacular, so high, so permanent, so patient, and somehow powerful. I could not look away until my neck started to ache.

Here, from below, I understood that on this island, faith was proportional to distance. Its power was in the ever-fluid movement of sky over weather over water over stone. The pilgrims must have shared my wonder, exhausted their supply of adjectives and exclamations, even if many met a merciless end on their way here. They ventured to this desolate place with a belief so vast only isolation could accommodate it. Here, now, was the moment I had come for, the elusive crucible of trust and awe and relief. This is who you are. And right then I believed. The simplicity of my certitude caught me in the throat.

At 4:00 the next morning, I gathered my clothes from the heating rack, and woke the desk clerk to confirm with her the special off-hours bus I ordered to take me to the parking lot. I had a meeting in Burgundy at 2 p.m., and it was easily an eight-hour drive. “It is waiting for you,” she said.

The rain had returned, hammering, and the structure on the hill that had choked me up hours earlier had slipped behind the gloom. My epiphany about the divine, too, got stuffed back in my travel bag. There was one lonely sound above the wind: my rubber boots clomping on the path down to the landing area. There was no bus. But given that the day before I had to get off and walk a couple hundred yards to the village because of rain and construction, I assumed that today would call for a similar contingency. So I stepped off the road, switched on my iPhone flashlight and took what I believed was the same parallel walkway toward the place I had been deposited yesterday.

I walked with speed and purpose, anticipating the relief I would encounter when I reached the bus and then, my car. Grit scraped the wheels of my bag, splashing mud on me as I proceeded. All at once, the trek seemed too far and too long. There was no bus, no turnaround, no clearing. There were no Bobcats or bulldozers. Only wind, sleet and desolation.

And suddenly, there was a proliferation of warning signs that alarmed me: “It is extremely dangerous to venture alone into the bay including immediately close to Mont-Saint-Michel.” Passing minutes, then a half hour, leeched my optimism until it hung emptily about me. My parka had absorbed many times its weight in rain and pressed upon my shoulders. The iPhone formed only a wan pool of light before me. I could not discern how close I might be to the water, the tides, blackout. On the bright side, my rubber boots, high and heavy, clutched and warmed everything south of my knees as if they were sentient beings. They seemed to be sacrificing their lives for the integrity of my ankles and feet, and I loved them with all my might.

“Good boots,” I cooed as if they might answer back.

But they were leading me nowhere. I stopped. I still had cell service so I dialed the hotel. “Where’s the bus?” I asked. Panic scraped my windpipe.

“It’s right at the bottom,” she said.

“But it wasn’t there!”

“He probably turned around when he didn’t see you.”

“I took a wrong turn,” I said. The call cut off with an echo of sheer hopelessness.

It seemed absurd to be lost only yards from the third most popular tourist attraction in France. I walked and walked, sloshing through a thin blanket of mud on what seemed like a solid path, disconsolate and captive on the road that had no visible beginning or end, composing my obituary. A mother of two, it would read, vanished in the quicksand of Mont St. Michel. Not embarrassing, exactly. Like a snakebite or a failed rip cord, it was an adventurer’s demise. But I was a traveler, not a daredevil. Exploring is great, but danger is for fools.

Fools like me.

It didn’t seem appropriate to appeal to the almighty, whose existence I pondered and doubted not six hours earlier. So I reluctantly turned to look for Archangel Michael on the spire but he was invisible, shrouded under the veil of winter and night. Maybe that was a good thing. God’s avenger was also the angel of death.

It was so frighteningly dark. I heard the lapping of water amongst the drone of rainfall. I set forth again. The wind swept around me, forming icy walls that I walked right through, emerging colder and wetter than before. There was little chance I was near the bay, because the dreaded high tide was three days away, after the full moon. But this sea is unpredictable, and I also wondered, when I put my foot in a deeper batch of clay, if this could be quicksand. Relief when I kept my stride, but for my level of clarity, I may have been walking in circles.  I pictured my husband, my children, our universe that was miniscule compared to this pitiless place. I craved the sanity of my morning routine: coffee, toast. Life.

And then, lights. Small, low ones seeping through the pearly curtain of vapor to form an incandescent glow. They approached me from straight ahead, and declared to my relief that I was traveling along a real road and not the soggy clay barrens. The car pulled up and someone reached across to open the door.

I never saw really saw him clearly. Blue eyes or brown, pale complexion or ruddy—I haven’t a clue. But I remember the grayish spikes of his hair and the sharp contours of his profile, both outlined from the glare of his car’s headlights, which froze amidst the wall of rain and bounced back through the windshield with the potency of a 10-watt bulb.  His voice was soothing, not quite caffeinated, and very annoyed. It must have been alarming to see my drenched figure shuffling in the inky pre-dawn and then, for this wretched human to take a seat in his car.

“Oh my God,” I cried, “I…”

“What in God’s name are you doing out here?” he said.

“I’m lost and I…”

Au nom de Dieu,” he said. “This is incredibly dangerous!”

“I couldn’t find the bus,” I sniffed.

“Didn’t you see the warning signs?” he asked. He shook his head again and again.

We crawled along a firm, mud-coated road, probably carved by landscaping crews to ease the wholesale re-shaping of the tidal flats. I never asked if the danger he kept pointing out referred to my general foolishness—the weather, the hour of day, my exposure and my solitude. My hunch is that his admonishments alluded to something more ominous: that I had wandered into a truly perilous place where I risked misfortune from construction debris, or more likely, from nature’s force, against which anyone throughout history—the saint, the sinner, the reverent, the skeptic—has been powerless. Mont St. Michel was never a place for the weak.

“I did but it was too late,” I said.

“You are very lucky, Madame,” he said, and as he spoke his voice shifted from reproachful to kind.


He drove to a well-lit turnaround and stopped the car. I should have passed directly through this clearing an hour earlier, but somehow, inexplicably, I had diverged. The bus was there, idling.

“Be careful,” he said. “Soyez sage.”

“Thank you,” I said to his nodding profile. “Thank you.” He brightened with a fraction of a smile, which caused his cheeks to shift upward. The dark swallowed his car instantaneously, as if it had never existed.

I have no idea who he was. I was too cold, distraught, and embarrassed to ask. Maybe he was a worker finishing up the night shift. Perhaps he was a cop on security detail. The site foreman surveying the periphery. I will never know how he found me roaming around this treacherous place in the middle of an ice storm, just when I was ready to call it quits and give myself over to quicksand or dawn, whichever came first.

What is certain is that ten minutes later, I warmed up my car just as daylight glided into place to reveal another soaked winter day in Normandy. As I rounded the highway, I gasped at the distant sight of Mont St. Michel, its jagged black form stark against the soft gray of the sky. How elegant the spire seemed that morning as Archangel Michael emerged, gleaming, from behind the clouds. How worthy of a prayer.

Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist who writes for Travel + Leisure, Vogue, Departures, and other publications. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling book 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go, and has appeared multiple times in The Best Travel Writing and The Best Women’s Travel Writing anthologies. Her essay collection, A Hard Place to Leave, will come out in April 2022. 

The Trip That Took Me

September 3rd, 2020

By Marcie Kaplan

Elder Travel Bronze Winner in the Fourteenth Annual Solas Awards

The Himalayas helped her find intimacy, faith, and reassurance.

I had my first tingly feeling when we were hiking up through woods from a 10,000-foot Himalayan pass to a monastery, and we passed soldiers in camouflage. I expected surprises in Bhutan, a Buddhist country about happiness more than money, and had been surprised by the trail’s red limbs with bulbous, mossy growths that seemed to reach out at me. But I hadn’t expected soldiers in camouflage. My guide, Pema, greeted them, “Kuzuzangbo la,” and continued on, signaling me not to ask questions, I thought, so I nodded politely to the soldiers and followed Pema.

We emerged into what was a clearing with about 75 towering poles. Thin strips of prayer flags ran the poles’ length, waving, fluttering and rippling in the wind, making a soothing, hissing sound. We crested the hill they were on to a 360-degree Himalayan panorama, shrouded, revealed and laced by moving clouds. Before us was a goemba, a monastery with a temple of whitewashed mud and ornately carved wood—swarming with soldiers. Pema chatted with a robed monk and told me the Elder Queen Mother was there. Another tingly feeling—not apprehension but thrill this time—royalty! We removed our hiking boots, I leaned my trekking poles against the temple wall, and we went in.

Four days earlier, my plane had threaded through the Himalayan peaks to land in Bhutan. I’d exited the airport into a large semicircle of smiling Bhutanese holding companies’ signs and looking at me expectantly. The guides, required for every visitor. Traditionally dressed, the men in knee socks and ghos—knee-length, belted robes—and women in kiras—floor-length, wrap-around dresses. I spotted a 30-ish man holding a sign with my tour company’s name and felt relief to be claimed.

Here I was, a 69-year-old woman arriving for two weeks—the first, sightseeing, the second, a trek. Cortisone shots in arthritic joints, NSAIDs, altitude sickness medicine—check, check, check. To my surprise, I’d been the only person to sign up for my tour, so it was just Pema, a driver and me the first week, and on the trek, Pema and me hiking, plus cook, cook’s assistant, and horseman in our camp at night. I’d worried about talking with a stranger all day every day, but so far Pema and I’d gotten along. We’d even developed an in-joke, phrases following thank you—“You’re welcome,” “mention not,” “my pleasure,” etc.—which he said would earn us merit towards our next incarnations. I was familiar with Buddhist beliefs from my meditation practice at home in Boston, and also I welcomed this possible increase in good luck. The first seven decades of my life had gone OK except in the love department. Relationships had ended, and then I’d settled into a fun, loving, meaningful, safe life of women friends, with great conversations and activities, and no threat of past hurts recurring. At 49, I’d adopted my 11-week-old daughter. A single mom, I’d not had time or space for dating. Now my daughter was in college, and I was “free” again. I’d tested the waters a few months earlier and gone out with an architect twice. We were as different as Mormons and Jews, which actually was the situation, him Mormon, me Jew. He lived an inactive life on a shoestring, while I flew to far sides of the world to hike. Surprisingly, though, we could talk and laugh about everything. A friend and I had done the breast stroke around Walden Pond for an hour discussing what I should do about him. Around in circles we swam, me confused as ever. He’d canceled our third date and disappeared. Fine—I hadn’t figured out what to do, anyway. Then just before I flew to Bhutan, he’d surfaced and asked to see me before I left. I said I’d see him after I got back.

One thing I’d noticed in my first few days in Bhutan was how intimate the Bhutanese were. I sat in the front seat of the SUV with our driver, and Pema sat in back and leaned forward to tell me about Bhutan, his face near my shoulder. He and our driver and hotel and restaurant staffs all seemed attentive to my comfort. Did I want a drink? Did the space heater in my room work well? If I was wearing hiking pants with small pockets, Pema held out his hand, took my phone and tucked it into the folds of his gho, where the material was gathered and tucked into two pouches roomy as knapsacks. And this care wasn’t just reserved for tourists. On a hike past a construction site, the construction manager in hard hat knelt behind Pema to refold Pema’s gho, line up the material and re-tie the belt, while Pema stood staring out at the valley below us.

Built into the first week’s sightseeing and day hikes were conditioning for the trek and adjusting to altitude. We were about halfway from Boston’s sea level to the trek’s highest point, a 16,000-foot pass. We visited villages, nunneries, dzongs—secular and religious fortresses—all with cascades of Himalayan views. Pema talked about the Elder Queen Mother and her foundation’s wise, compassionate work: eco-stoves, women’s economic empowerment, climate resilient water harvesting, green technology, nutrition initiatives, hydro-electrification, early childhood care.

The Elder Queen Mother was the first wife of Bhutan’s 4th,king—a polygamous king, his 2nd, 3d and 4th wives, her younger sisters. He’d abdicated in 2006 in favor of his eldest son, the 5th and current king, to help Bhutan shift from monarchy to democratic, constitutional monarchy, “because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit.” His abdication illustrated another Bhutan quality I’d noticed: clear-seeing through conditioned views. Bhutan now had an elected Parliament, and a prime minister headed the government. Interviews with each citizen about what does and doesn’t work informed public policy and the Queen’s foundation projects. In 2011, when he wed, the 5th king announced he’d have only one wife.

Now, at the monatery, Pema and I stepped into the long, crowded temple. Twenty monks in saffron robes stood against the opposite wall, chanting. People sat at the far end of the room, and two people, a couple in Western hiking clothes, sat near me on cushions. At my end of the room was a gold-skinned Guru Rinpoche statue, almost the height of the room, festooned with colorful fabrics, glittery gold ornaments, dangling earrings, and lotus flowers and leaves. I’d already learned from Pema that Guru Rinpoche was “the second Buddha,” an 8th-century master who’d brought Buddhism from India to Bhutan. Now, in the temple, soldiers in camouflage and men in ghos milled about in Guru Rinpoche’s shadows.

I sank onto a cushion, listened to chanting and watched. A smiling man in a gho bowed and extended a tray to me with cookies and hot tea. How did he know before I knew what I wanted? Warm during our uphill hike, I was cold sitting in the temple. I ate a cookie and sipped tea and felt restored. Then gazed about and realized from billboard-size pictures I’d seen that one of the people I’d noticed at the far end of the room was the Elder Queen Mother. I zoomed in, studied her. She was dressed in a kira and kneeling, her legs tucked under her, on a raised platform. On her left knelt a younger woman. On the Queen’s right was a throne, and, sitting in it, a robed child who looked to be around three years old.

All of them completely still. The three-year-old staring, the Queen and the younger woman, dignified, relaxed, hands in prayer at their chests, gazing intently down the room at Guru Rinpoche. The child’s stare looked engaged, not bored or restless. How long could the three of them not move? I waited for the child to turn rambunctious and the women to shift positions. Didn’t happen. I wondered if I could sit that still when I meditated.

The monks stopped chanting and filed out. I wondered, where were they were going? Did they like their lives? The Queen turned her head and looked in the direction of us three Westerners and smiled, surprising me. Was she looking at us? She said, “Please come forward and be blessed by my grandson.” My God, not only was she looking at us, she was talking to us. The other two Westerners started to stand. I clambered to standing, my leg muscles having stiffened, and took faltering steps off my cushion in my socks. We three crossed the empty center of the room and, one by one, approached the throne and bowed our heads. The toddler touched the tops of our heads with a scepter. Well I actually didn’t know what he touched us with—I couldn’t see while I bowed and, busy trying to walk gracefully, hadn’t paid attention to the other two. Then the three of us were standing in the middle of the room, and I didn’t know what to do next—walk out, or get permission to walk out, or what? I enjoyed the clueless feeling and wanted to bask in unpredictability—what a pleasure in not knowing what I was doing next! The Queen smiled at us and asked, “Can you stay for a few minutes so we might speak together?”

My age seemed to plummet from 69 to 5, I felt so star-struck, like we three Westerners were the Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion, and Tin Man before the Great and Powerful Oz.

We made up a tiny half-circle, our two guides at our outer edge. The Queen smiled and asked where we were from. The couple said Italy, I answered, and the Queen gestured towards the young woman next to her and said her daughter, who now smiled at me, had gone to high school in Boston and did I know the school? The daughter looked attentively at me. What weird luck. I said my daughter had gone to that school. The Queen and Princess exclaimed and laughed. I felt my smile looked lunatic. The Queen said her daughter went to Stanford and Harvard Law School and was known as the Princess Lawyer. She asked the couple and me about our time in Bhutan. I said I’d been the only one to sign up for my tour, so it was just my guide and me. She said, “It’s auspicious.” Auspicious, hmm. I’d felt worried, she had faith.

I remembered a slogan on my tour company’s website—“You don’t take a trip. A trip takes you.” I considered substituting her faith for my doubt.

She asked our guides if they’d told us the monastery’s history. Pema said he’d been planning to once we were inside—his usual timing—and the Queen said she’d tell us, herself, if we’d like. Yes, we’d like. She seemed to want to. I felt drawn to her now, not to her royalty but to her warmth.

She said that in 2003, her husband, then king, led the Bhutan Army to the southern border to fight Indian rebels sheltering there. They wanted independence for India’s northeastern states, to their south. India had pressed Bhutan to eject them, and Bhutan had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with them for years, and now its military, in its first operation, would remove them. The Queen’s son, a 19-year-old Oxford student, left England to join his father in leading the troops. The Queen was frantic with worry, desperate for her husband and son to return home safe, and raced here to the monastery, in less than half the time she usually took, to appeal to Guru Rimpoche. Since she talked about her feelings—desperate and frantic—I felt connected with her as she talked. She found the monastery in ruins, only the Guru Rimpoche statue in reasonable shape. Distraught, she knelt before him and offered him a deal: she’d restore the monastery if he’d safeguard her husband and son. “Implicit was I wouldn’t restore the monastery if he didn’t,” she said, laughing. I felt connected with her because of her humor. Her husband and son returned home safe. She launched the monastery project. Laborers carried heavy stones and lumber up the trail through the forest of “ancient trees, primitive trees”—she and I saw those woods the same way. The laborers, whose praises she sang, took four years to finish.

She glanced towards the throne, which I now saw was empty, the child gone, and said her grandson was the reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche. She laughed, maybe guessing how this information might fall on skeptical, Western ears, and said that, a year earlier, when he was two and a half, he’d told his parents he was Guru Rimpoche’s reincarnation. They therefore had brought him to the Guru’s ruined monastery in India, to test his claim. When they arrived, a tour was in progress. The guide pointed to stones he said had been the library, and the toddler said, “No, that was the granary.” He was correct, the guide resigned, and the toddler led the rest of the tour of the Guru Rimpoche monastery. The Queen nodded to the empty throne and said, “The original him” and laughed. She said her grandson was an “old soul” and didn’t laugh—maybe she knew that concept was embraced in the West. She invited us to file past the Guru Rinpoche statue on our way out to make a wish. I was delighted for another possible shot at good luck. Before I turned from where I stood, about 20 feet away from the Lawyer Princess, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her when she’d graduated from high school. She laughed and said, “A long time ago! 1999.” The Queen asked, “When did your daughter graduate?” I said, “2016.” There was back and forth women talk that felt like home. The Princess said, “Please give your daughter my warmest regards,” and the Queen said, “Please give her my warmest regards, also.” I’d be on it that night on WhatsApp—this was one time conveying regards wouldn’t fall through the cracks.

We three Westerners filed past Guru Rimpoche, and I asked him for a boyfriend.

Pema and I retrieved boots and poles, returned to the trail to proceed to another monastery, and hiked silently, both of us moved, no inside jokes.

Our trek began three days later. My highest hiking ever was to 14,000 feet, and I’d had altitude sickness at 12,000 feet in two different parts of the world. Planning my Bhutan trip, I’d hoped my ascent had been too fast those two times, and the slower acclimatization of the Bhutan trek would make a difference. Now, as Pema and I hiked and gained altitude, my stomach clenched, and I felt nauseous and light-headed. I persevered. We talked about his cycling competitions on routes over passes, and my daughter. He didn’t ask if I was married, I didn’t say. I thought asking might seem rude to him. It didn’t seem rude to me—I asked about his love life, and he talked about his favorite girlfriend.

We ascended three days, the knot in my stomach tightening, low-level light-headedness and nausea constant, appetite disappearing. For acclimatization, we remained in the same campground the third and fourth nights before the 16,000-foot pass. After that third night, I roused myself before dawn and stood surrounded by dark peaks that framed the up-close, brilliant, gold-and-orange sunrise on the East face of Jomolhari. An unclimbed 24,000-foot mountain. In Bhutan, it’s illegal to climb peaks higher than 20,000 feet, because they belong to the gods. The unclimbed Jomolhari looked sacred to me, like a temple.

The night before the ascent to the pass, I lay in my sleeping bag in my tent, in long underwear, fleece jacket, down jacket, wool hat, mittens, my sleeping bag lined with thermal liner, the bag’s hood cinched over my forehead, exposing only my mouth and nose to air so I could breathe. I was tired of feeling sick, scared of feeling sicker, and freezing, and fantasized about reversing direction in the morning and going down. To a heated hotel, relaxed stomach, hot shower and restaurant buffet. I got up the next morning early again to see sunrise on Jomolhari again and, walking to the toilet tent in the dark, passing wandering yaks, noticed, to my surprise, I was breathing deeply. I hadn’t realized I hadn’t been breathing deeply, but apparently I hadn’t been and now I was. Again. Should I abandon my plan to turn around? I wondered. At breakfast, I forced myself to sit in the camping chair at the tiny camping table in the sun, yaks walking by, and eat muesli and eggs. Pema came over and said I needed to decide whether I wanted to press on or turn around, by 2:00 p.m., so he could call the crew and let them know where to set up camp for the night.

I’d postpone the decision. We started trekking, headed for the pass. By late morning, I was still hiking, plowing on, and up, past two long, narrow lakes, one emerald, one deep blue, in a brown valley with snow-covered mountains, Jomolhari and pointy, 22,000-foot Jichu Drake, in the background. Deschi, the cook’s assistant, arrived with lunch in his backpack, and Pema and he lay a cloth down on the grass to picnic. The thought of eating did not appeal. I asked if I could skip lunch and hike on, and they’d catch up, and Pema said yes, since there was only one trail, there was no chance of my getting lost. I continued on. Alone on the trail for the first time in Bhutan, I suddenly got on a roll and wanted to see how fast I could go. I practically ran. Up. After a while, the trail turned, and I saw the valley way below me, Pema and Deschi, tiny figures standing and packing lunch items in a backpack. Amazing how clear my view of them was. I turned and raced on. The pass came into view ahead, above me, a dip between two peaks, tiny prayer flags strung across. I was thrilled. I continued. An hour later, I heard Pema and Deschi behind me. Pema said, “We couldn’t catch up with you.” I was so proud—they couldn’t catch up with me! I didn’t tell him I was proud, since I felt guilty I’d maybe caused him stress. Now, the three of us hiking together, I relaxed. I saw I’d been nervous—I hadn’t realized I’d felt nervous—that I’d get lost in the Himalayas with scant chance of survival. Now I hiked, no longer nervous. Above us, the small, square prayer flags strung across the pass, whipping in the wind, became larger. I hiked looking up at them. I neared them, and my vision blurred from tears, not from the wind in my eyes but from relief and triumph.

At the pass, Pema took pictures of me with my phone, including ridiculous ones, like of me curtsying in hiking boots. I felt free to be ridiculous or whatever I wanted to be, for several minutes. I’d earned it.

What I didn’t know was that ascending was the easy part. Now that we were descending, the trail of slippery, dry dirt and rock slanted down, bordered by steep cliffs. I was terrified I’d fall. Horse teams came up from behind to pass. Where on this narrow path could I step aside? And there were big steps from rock down to rock—painful for knees, and scary, that knees would cave and I’d plummet. Pema at times walked slowly next to the trail, on the steeply slanted slope, holding my hand, or taking my hand to help me ease down a big drop from rock to rock. A trekking group streamed past, me inched up the inclined side of the trail to make way for them. I could never hike at their pace. I remembered the Queen saying having my own guide was auspicious. Was she right or what? Turned out I’d needed help, and I had it.

The trek’s last day, we descended more than 5,000 feet. I limited the frequency of my glances below to where we were headed. Way below. Flat ground, a river winding through it, teensy, tiny SUVs. Which stayed teensy, tiny no matter how long I didn’t let myself look, how infrequently I looked. As teensy, tiny as they’d looked an hour earlier. I despaired. I persevered. I had no choice. I was a walking machine.

It took me six hours to descend. It took most people four, and the trekking group that had passed me, two.

I didn’t care. I’d completed the trek. I was thrilled. I’d scored a personal best in altitude.

With one more day for me in Bhutan, Pema and I went shopping on a street of stores in the small airport town. I found a pair of silver earrings, wide as miniature chandeliers, with tiny bells dangling. I put them on and looked in a mirror propped on a shelf stacked with neatly folded yak wool shawls. Pema leaned in, our faces side by side in the mirror, his reflected eyes looking at my reflected eyes, his reflected mouth moving. “Those earrings will bring you a husband,” he said. So he knew without asking.

Eight months later, in Boston, sitting at my dining room table, wearing the earrings, I’m writing about the trip that took me. The architect is sitting across from me, drawing a landscaped building on a big piece of paper. I like working together, him drawing, me writing. Love has bloomed. Maybe my trip helped in a way that my usual problem-solver, talking with women friends, couldn’t. Who knows? The architect had taken a couple months’ break to think things through, and I’d visited Bhutan—to find intimacy, faith, reassurance I could get help when I’m scared.

Marcie Kaplan is a writer, forensic psychologist and mom. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Magazine and other periodicals. She lives in the Boston area and considers Walden Pond, New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Acadia National Park as homes. She is returning to Bhutan when she finishes the memoir she’s writing, since now it also feels like home.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Cubana Be, Cubana Bop

April 30th, 2020

By Tom Miller

The best guitar maker in Cuba.

Three events—baseball, Pope Jon Paul’s visit, and the Elián González case—exposed Cuba to the American public far beyond the embargo. Yet it was the improbable success of a handful of aging musicians that exposed a Cuba few knew and expanded the country’s audiences far beyond its bashers or its cheerleaders. The musicians went by the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, their music came from the 1950s and earlier, and their appeal was resolutely apolitical. On a visit to Havana, the American musician and producer Ry Cooder, not finding the musicians he sought, teamed up with Cuban producer Juan de Marcos to produce an album of exquisite sounds from another era.

One of Cooder’s Cuba visits coincided with Hurricane Irene which stormed through Havana one night inundating streets near the coast and knocking down power poles throughout the city. In San Miguel del Padrón, a poor, working class suburb southeast of the capital, Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his wife Marta heard the torrential downpour and howling wind, warily took note of the water entering their hundred-year-old wood house, and went back to sleep. The high-ceilinged front room had a few merciless leaks, and the wind overturned the couple’s only furniture, a straw chair and a wicker couch, yet in all they survived Irene better than most. The next morning the nimble guitar maker went to his back room workshop, took the plastic sheet off an instrument he was working on, brushed huge puddles of water from his workbench that came in through the porous roof, and began his day. Marta spent the morning sweeping water, which covered most of the front room, out the front door.

Juanito Rodríguez Peña had been making and playing guitars, treses, and lutes for much of his life. The tres is most succinctly described as a slightly smaller guitar with three sets of two strings each. The Cuban lute, commonly called a laúd, has a pear-shaped body, usually with eighteen strings. Rodríguez Peña, born in the nearby suburb of Luyanó more than seven decades earlier, had gained a measure of notoriety throughout Cuba for his regular appearances on the popular radio program, “Vivimos en Campo Alegre” and the television show, “Palmas y Cañas.” Both programs feature Rodríguez Peña’s forte, música guajira—traditional acoustic music from the countryside. Rodríguez Peña performed around Havana frequently and, drawing on precariously few resources, made and repaired instruments. His raw materials appear irregularly and sometimes serendipitously—much like the bus that carried him into town to rehearsals, studios, and performances. To follow the story of Juanito Rodríguez Peña and his survival is to likewise get a sense of Cuba today—it involves, in varying proportions, inventiveness, skill, resourcefulness, and occasional good fortune.

Rodríguez Peña’s most recent good fortune began about four years ago. Among the knowing musicians who have bought guitars from him was Compay Segundo, the nonagenarian Santiago de Cuba native who, with other elder statesmen of Cuban music, won a Grammy for his part in the Buena Vista Social Club ensemble. The music that Segundo plays comes from the far end of the nineteenth century at the far end of the island. During the initial Buena Vista recording session in 1996 Ry Cooder asked Compay where he got his guitar.

This was no idle chatter between musicians. There was something about Segundo’s guitar that piqued Cooder’s curiosity. As both producer and musician, Cooder has had the admirable distinction of having strummed quality instruments throughout the world, and his recordings over the years reveal a man obsessed with perfection. If you’re thinking about buying a guitar or a tres or a laúd in Havana, Segundo advised, Juanito Rodríguez Peña is your man. Two days later the guitar player from Southern California and the guitar maker from San Miguel del Padrón met, and right away the former bought two instruments from the latter: a reconditioned laúd originally made by Rodríguez Peña’s father Andrés, a guitar maker who died more than thirty years earlier, and a tres that Rodríguez Peña had converted from a requinto, a small similar instrument from Mexico. Cooder considered Rodríguez Peña a master craftsman. Rodríguez Peña thought of Cooder as a tall and amiable foreigner.

A year later Cooder asked Rodríguez Peña to build an instrument for him from scratch. “As a luthier he stands apart from any other string instrument maker I know,” says Cooder. “He is an old-world folk artist. Since there are no music stores per se in Cuba, one simply has to know of the makers. In America and Europe musicians have two or five or dozens of their own instruments. In Cuba, you have one. Musicians bring their battered instruments to Rodríguez Peña and he makes chicken soup from stones. His guitars tell a certain story when you play them. There’s something about how he positions the neck, how he frets an instrument. I look for the joinery and the woodworking, the angle of the neck where it joins the body, the height of the strings at the bridge, the set up of the stress points. That’s what determines how it sounds. It’s what makes a Stradivarius a Stradivarius.”

A visit to Rodríguez Peña’s workshop can be disorienting. One expects the mild disarray of a carpenter, with tools of his trade, stacks of wood, and sawdust lying about. Instead one is confronted by an almost barren workspace. The only objects in sight were a small throw rug, a hand saw, an almost empty can of ninety percent cane alcohol, and a Stanley electric saw. “I haven’t tried it in a long time,” Rodríguez Peña tells me. “I’m not sure it works.” A single fluorescent light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminates more spider webs than guitars. Additional light shines through the windows and great gaps in the roof. The front panel of an old stand-up bass rests against a far wall. “It comes from Luyanó. I haven’t decided what to do with it yet,” he explains. Rodríguez Peña has lived in this house since 1939, and it was right here that as a young boy he would sit in the corner and watch his father at work.

“My father’s workshop used to extend a little farther out. He would make furniture and doors as well as instruments. Eventually he devoted himself to the luthier trade. He allowed me to cut wood sometimes, but I couldn’t use his electric sander. He was proud of me, but he never let me make instruments by myself. The parents of that era were real strict. Domineering.” Rodríguez Peña turns his fist as if tightening a faucet. “I really didn’t begin my work until he died.”

Rodríguez Peña has few supplies but a world of suppliers. He has no tools to calibrate depth or measure width, yet by eyeballing the wood his pieces fit snugly together. Somewhat by happenstance my family found itself in the middle of a typical Cuban problem and its typically Cuban solution. My wife Regla was visiting her father, a retired Havana carpenter, and dropped in, on my behalf, on Rodríguez Peña. The guitar maker told her in passing that he needed a particular type of lacquer for his work. Regla mentioned this to her father, who allowed as how he had some of that lacquer he no longer used. She relayed this news to Rodríguez Peña, who, the next day, rode the bus to my father-in-law’s. The two elderly woodworkers chewed the fat for a while, and Rodríguez Peña got his lacquer.

Fulfilling Rodríguez Peña’s professional needs was usually not so easy, but he did rely a lot on friendships. As a licensed independent craftsman he could get wood from the government, it never seems to be the right type or age. For many years carpenter and luthier friends would simply give him planks of wood. Or he would go scavenging, traipsing through sites where the ruins of once-splendid homes might offer up the right wood. Sometimes he’d explore the trash built up on the streets of Luyanó. Such excursions are now rare for Rodríguez Peña, who when I met him had recently celebrated his seventy-first birthday, but on an unseasonably muggy winter afternoon he and I accompany one of his suppliers, forty-two-year-old guitar maker Luis García, on his wood-hunting rounds.

García, who learned guitar-making from a Mexican master, lives on the first floor of an enormous apartment building across the street from a cigarette plant and a bicycle repair shop. “I made guitars in a factory,” García said as we pull away from the curb and drive by the nearby baseball stadium, “but I didn’t like the production-line work.” He directs our driver down pot-holed side streets in the Cerro neighborhood. “Pull over there,” he instructs, pointing toward a narrow street. “Sometimes there’s a trash pile on the far side.” Havana’s anguished efforts to keep up with itself means fewer trash pick-ups, hence more and bigger trash piles. This can be good if you’re dumpster diving for wood, but at this particular corner, after walking the perimeter of the junk heap, García and Rodríguez Peña both shake their heads. “I go out looking just about every evening after dinner,” García explains as we get moving again, “either on foot or bicycle. Often I don’t get home until midnight. I stop to visit friends and family. In the last six years I’ve found six complete mahogany beds. I hardly ever skip a night. If you miss a night you might miss a bed. Let’s try over there.”

Scavengers are either trash collectors or object hunters, author Paul Auster observed in In the County of Last Things. “A good object hunter,” notes Auster, “must be quick, you must be clever, and you must know where to look.” García agrees with Auster: “What another has seen fit to throw away”— Auster again — “you must examine, dissect, and bring back to life.”

The trash pile García points to on the corner looks more promising, and we all climb out. Across the street sits a once-lovely building now in its final stages of decay. Its Greek columns lay prostrate and broken on the ground with chunks of concrete lying about the rubble. A dog barks from a third floor window in a nearby building; children shoot marbles on the corner. García reaches carefully into the pile and pulls out a flat piece of dry wood about three feet by four feet and hands it to Rodríguez Peña. “Rosewood,” the master craftsman says, tapping it as he holds it up to his ear. He runs his hand over it and taps it again.

“Rosewood,” he repeats. “Too new. New wood is no good. It has to be forty or fifty years old.” A few blocks away we stop again and find another piece. Rodríguez Peña lifts it to gauge its heft. “Nails. It’s got nails in it. It won’t do.”

“See that corner?” García asks. “One night I found a piano top there. Another night I found some furniture. It’s my best place. I always check it out.” Yet by the end of our hunt all we’ve collected is a warning from a traffic cop for drifting slightly over the center white line.

One evening not long thereafter, Rodríguez Peña, laúd in hand, traveled by bus into Havana with his wife Marta to perform with his group, JRP, at a cultural center in the heart of town. Juanito’s five-man group attracted upwards of a hundred appreciative spectators, including the tall foreigner and his wife. Many in the audience were themselves from the countryside, and this was one of the few opportunities they had in the city to comfortably connect with their culture and see live música guajira. Rodríguez Peña, his thin, five-foot ten frame clad in a freshly pressed guayabera and dark slacks, played the laúd that evening, an instrument as refined in sound as it is in verse. The late Andalusian poet Rafael Alberti used the laúd in metaphoric verse to set the migration from North Africa to Spain and on to the New World. “In the beginning was the laúd,” his poem opens. His poet’s-eye view of history described the break-up of the Spanish empire: laúds, he wrote, “ignite their bridges in sparks of gold, along the stars that Spain has lost.”

It’s an instrument that ignited Efraín Amador, a Cuban who has devoted his life to the laúd and tres as both composer and performer. Amador, his country’s leading authority on the two instruments, has strummed Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart on the laúd in concerts throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas with his wife accompanying on the piano. “It took me years to convince the Instituto Superior de Arte here that these weren’t just some hillbilly instruments,” the fifty-three-year-old told me in his home in Guanabacoa, outside Havana, “that they deserved to be studied alongside the piano and violin.” In the late 1980s the laúd and tres got official approval, and Amador is now their champion. His personal collection includes a laúd from Rodríguez Peña.

Six months after Cooder ordered his instrument; Rodríguez Peña had given it a lot of thought but not much time. Although Cooder has become associated worldwide with Cuban music through the success of the Buena Vista Social Club, in Cuba itself radio did not play songs from the CD, stores did not sell it, and, with the exception of a few special screenings, theaters had not shown the film. The guitar maker, clueless to the Buena Vista album or its producer’s identity, continually referred to Cooder simply as “the tall foreigner.”

When Cooder next visited Rodríguez Peña, he brought along enough wood for his own instrument and plenty more, and enough lacquer and glue to build and recondition a dozen used instruments. “¡Que bárbaro!” Rodríguez Peña cried out when he saw the gifts. “Outrageous!” It was a reunion of sorts, and the player and the maker hugged warmly. Rodríguez Peña picked up a sheet of Alaska sitka spruce from Cooder and tapped it next to his ear, listening for its resonance. He did this often, testing the wood with the intense wonderment of a child. “Hear that?” he said, holding it next to my ear. Actually I didn’t hear what the master guitar maker heard, but I did see the gleam in his eye. Rodríguez Peña and the tall foreigner talked about the pending construction of the instrument, a tres. Neither the world-class guitarist nor the world-class luthier spoke the other’s language, but they chatted amiably about the tres with very little help from a third party.

“In the modern era of guitar making you may have master craftsmen,” Cooder told me later, “but a number of different specialists’ hands work on the same instrument. Rarely do you find one shop where one maker works on one instrument from start to finish. You simply can’t get instruments like this anymore, not in the competitive marketplace. Rodríguez Peña doesn’t work in the contemporary commercial environment so he can make the effort to bring forth the best. We live in an era of technical proficiency, but this goes far beyond that. You could not replicate an instrument from him in New York, London, or Los Angeles.”

Cooder returned to Rodríguez Peña’s modest home the next day, not to further along the tres, but for a lesson on the laúd. With the master and the teacher at work, it hardly mattered that they come from very different backgrounds, occupy extremely different stations in life, or that neither of them reads sheet music. Cooder was learning to play the “Zapateo Cubano,” and Rodríguez Peña was showing him on his own laúd how best to position his hands. Never have I seen twenty such educated fingers at play.

A day later Rodríguez Peña unlocked an old tobacco-scented armoire in the bedroom and showed me where he keeps two of his own instruments. Then he pulled away a blanket on a table to reveal two more he is working on. After that he took me over to a bookshelf and uncovered yet two more. Most of his instruments were safely stored in the house’s only room with no overhead leaks. Finally he escorted me out through the workshop to his narrow backyard. We passed by a painting of Rodríguez Peña’s younger brother Orlando, whose death in a traffic accident some twenty-five years earlier still brought sorrow to his usually cheerful face.

“As soon as I finish the tres I’ll build a new cinderblock workshop,” he announced, designing his new workplace with his hands. The backyard, where Marta hung clothes to dry, yielded bananas, mangoes, guayaba, and frutabomba, and their sweet aroma wafted through the house. A pig Rodríguez Peña was fattening up for the family Christmas fiesta snorfed by, and the guitar maker drew a hand across his throat and smiled.

The laúd teacher still beamed from the previous day’s lesson. “The foreigner learned the ‘Zapateo’ in its entirety! It was in 6/8 time. He’s extremely talented and intelligent. He has an excellent sense of rhythm. What did you say his name is?”

When we passed back through the bedroom I noticed a Bible next to some plastic flowers, open to the Book of Luke.” Rodríguez Peña goes to Pentecostal meetings. “We sing. We talk of God. It’s every Wednesday night for an hour or so. With all my music and guitar making, I haven’t had much time for it lately.” Rodríguez Peña was also a member of Cuba’s Communist Party, and had been for more than twenty years. “We had a study session last Saturday,” he said of his Party chapter. “We discussed the problems of the revolution and read some of the country’s laws.” Likewise, he serves on the neighborhood Committee for the Defense of the Revolution. “We keep the streets clean. It’s volunteer revolutionary work. We paint the curbs. We discuss neighborhood problems at our meetings.”

A couple of evenings later I was chatting with Rodríguez Peña and his wife in their daughter’s house just across the street from their own, when the electricity suddenly shut down throughout the neighborhood. It was time for the weekly two hour blackout. I commiserated with them about this hardship, but almost as one the entire family rose to contradict me. “No, don’t you see? We used to have blackouts every day for hours at a time. Things are getting back to normal.”

Rodríguez Peña stood on his daughter’s front porch and plucked out a riff on his tres. The next day he would ask local municipal officials for a permit to patch up his hurricane damaged roof with wood and corrugated metal he hoped to find. On the way he plans to stop at the bank to pay his monthly eighty peso license fee to maintain an independent repair shop. He assured me he will get to the tall foreigner’s tres as soon as things are in order.

Tom Miller has brought out eleven books during his fifty-year career writing about conflict and culture in the southwest borderlands and Latin America. His titles include The Panama Hat Trail, Trading with the Enemy, and Revenge of the Saguaro. He has won three Solas Awards and was editor of Travelers’ Tales Cuba. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, LIFE, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The New Yorker, and many other rags and mags.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Our Ravaged Lady

April 16th, 2020

By Erin Byrne

Little by little, his spirit expanded in harmony with the cathedral.
—Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

She’s had many lives and here was the burnt offering of another.

Notre Dame’s lace spire sizzled and crumbled as it fell, and the gigantic hole it created became a cauldron. Flames, golden to orange to red, assaulted the lavender-tinged Paris sky, and smoke billowed in gray and white explosions. Silhouetted against glowing cinders, her bell towers stood dignified but unprotected.

Four hundred firefighters wrestled with the blaze as the stone edifice trapped heat and smoke, which rendered much of the higher flames in the “forest” of 850-year-old ceiling beams unreachable. The beams had been catching fire like kindling for a half hour before anyone was aware that a false alarm had indeed been real, and it was out of control by the time the firefighters arrived. Scorched by fierce heat, some ran in to rescue precious relics, the crown of thorns, a piece of the cross, while others faced the inferno.

My friends and I stood on the edge of Île Saint Louis and watched, mouths agape, tears stinging our eyes, joining in a collective, horror-filled gasp as the cathedral battled for her very existence. The hollow, meandering roar of the conflagration was punctuated by the thunder of falling wood and stone, and the screeching of twisting iron and crackling flames.

Hugo’s “vast symphony of stone” had Stravinskied.

~ ~ ~

Louis XIV, that long-haired hippie of a monarch (was not Versailles a manicured version of Burning Man?) is said to have posed in his ermine robe, hands on hips, and declared, “L’état, c’est moi.” The state, that’s me. I myself had noted in an essay a few years earlier, in an obsession with Notre Dame’s mysterious yet innocent psyche, that in some way, she and I were one.

As she burned, my gut echoed the sentiment. During the past few years, I’d broken my shoulder and had two concussions; my father had died; I’d gone through a divorce after a 32-year marriage; moved from Washington to California and started over; and ushered my two twenty-something sons into the world of adulthood with all the attenuating letting go. I had suffered a stroke, had a heart recorder inserted surgically, and sustained two more concussions, the most recent of which I was in the midst of recovering from the night of the fire. The glow was extra-rosy, and the cries of onlookers deafening as the crowd edged ever closer to my dizzy, claustrophobic brain.

In spite of this, I was in Paris to do research for my novel and a few literary events, and to see friends. In hindsight, I sought escape.

The next day, Emmanuel Macron addressed the people of Paris: “Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place we live our greatest moments from wars to pandemics to liberations.”

Notre Dame, situated in the precise center of the starting point of the roads of Paris and of France (kilometer zero), has lived several tumultuous lives. Her first stone was laid in 1163, and it is easy to envisage the faithful lighting candles around that one stone. Our Lady was completed after roughly two hundred years of hard labor. She was graced with her bell towers and received her best feature, North and South Rose Windows, glittering eyes from which her spirit shone forth.

When she was about three centuries old, Catholics slaughtered Protestant Huguenots en masse over a three day killing spree, which was celebrated at her altar as a great victory. Soon afterwards Huguenots attacked her façade, starting the fad of hacking the heads off of her statues that would continue for centuries.

When she was four, our hippie friend, realizing that Gothic was out, Baroque was in, ripped out her eyes. Later, Hugo would rant, Who has installed cold white glass in the place of those stained glass windows that caused the astonished eyes of our ancestors to pause between the rose window of the main entrance and the pointed arches of the apse?

When she was five, fanatics came after her again, this time Revolutionaries, hacking off more statues’ heads, melting down all but one of her precious bells to make cannons, attacking her spire (flèche, which also means ‘arrow’), and renaming her The Temple of Reason.

Soon after this, a great rudeness was performed at her altar. The Emperor Napoleon seized the moment, forever memorialized by Jacques Louis David, grabbed power from the Pope and crowned first himself and then his empress Josephine. The French abhor bad manners; Our Lady may have been embarrassed.

Through all of this, people lit candles under bright or colorless glass, in turmoil and in peacetime, in sorrow or in joy.

Then Victor Hugo took up his pen, and with the flourish of a virtuoso, created a character whom, in the slickest conceit ever penned by a writer, was so intertwined with the cathedral that …

He was its soul. To such a point was he, that those who knew that Quasimodo once existed, now find that the cathedral seems deserted, inanimate, dead. You feel that there is something missing. This immense body is empty; it is a skeleton. The spirit has departed; you see the place it left, and that is all. It is like a skull: the sockets of the eyes are still there, but the gaze has disappeared.

At the time, Notre Dame was a spectral wreck, perfectly matching Hugo’s image. The people demanded a fitting abode for Quasimodo and the city renovated, adding new window-glazes, new statues and murals, even a new spire. It was a total makeover, but the hunchback had to wait twenty-five years for his new home.

Bombs, bullets and shrapnel punctured her skin during the first World War. She is built of sturdy stuff, stone, but by this time she may have felt disaster-prone. Again, her eyes were removed during the occupation of Paris. She endured four long years of blind silence, with her bells mute. By the Liberation, Our Lady’s demise was imminent. Hitler ordered his agent in Paris to detonate her, and it is by the luck of von Choltitz’s defiance, or (as the French prefer) the timing of the Liberation, that she was saved.

On that day in August 1944, Charles de Gaulle marched down the Champs-Éysées and took a car to Notre Dame. Parisians had fought the Germans from the barricades—piles of tables and chairs and desks and stools, with any weapon they could get their hands on—and chaos still reigned. German snipers remained high in the Gothic arches.

BBC Correspondent Bob Reids radio broadcast described the scene:

And now, here comes General de Gaulle.

The general’s now turned to face the square and this huge crowd of Parisians [machine gun fire]. He’s being presented to people [more machine gun fire]. He’s being received [shouts and shot] …. marching [more fire, even when the general is marching into the cathedral].

De Gaulle walked straight ahead, shoulders high, his 6 1/2 foot tall frame never flinching, with bullets zinging from all sides, and people scampering for shelter, into a blizzard of fire from the rafters. He remained for a fifteen minute celebration.

Her bells rang again that day. Our Lady of Paris, who had waited a long time for this, envisioned a new future, and sang.

She had acquired much wisdom, but she had aged. Her toilette couldn’t keep up with the layers of grime and dirt that time had marked upon her, so in 1963, she had a bath. Cleaned from top to toe, she shone pristine again, just in time to witness the riots of 1968. She continued to be a site for protests, and after the terrorists attacks of 2013 and 2015, was often branded with a red or orange terrorist alert, with machine-gunned guards roaming her grounds in a state of constant vigilance.

Through her years, she offered sanctuary, repose, and contemplation, as millions filed into her glorious interior to meander, listen to music soar to the heavens, and light candles. The faithful in Notre Dame, when they have paused to ignite a votive, have been in the company of universal humanity. Pagan Romans lit wicks near images of their emperors, and in Jewish culture, a perpetual light has always been kept burning in temples and synagogues. Some Muslims light lanterns during Ramadan and on the graves of their loved ones. Hindus ignite diyas, and Tibetan Buddhists yak-butter-lamps.

But those who ignite candles in Notre Dame are not the ones providing the light. Our Lady has been imbued, whether by legend or literature, with human qualities, and it is she who illuminates.

~ ~ ~

The week after the fire, I had been invited to read as guest writer at a popular Spoken Word series, and chose my original essay about the cathedral. I had analyzed her inside and out extensively, going deep and using my intellect with zest, for my brain was my center, and I’d written the best essay it could conjure. But my chest burned all day, dizziness and chills wracked my body. By the time I took the stage in an underground cavern packed with poets, artists, and musicians, my throat raged and my voice faltered. “Her scars and sweetnesses were mine,” I read, wondering if my connection to this cathedral was a blessing or a curse.

This trip was intended to be a hiatus from my own life. I had had three books come out in one year, and in the midst of book launches, my father had a heart attack and stroke and died. As I grew up, he had taken me sailing, taught me to worship jazz, and been intertwined in my boys’ lives. He had given me a strong foundation and infused my existence with humor and love, and his death hurt in a place that seemed unreachable.

After the stroke, I had failed to accept the fact that my life expectancy had lowered, and that at times my brain was toast. Daily tasks like pressing garlic or doing dishes caused my head to explode in migraines, I forgot appointments, struggled to find words, and mixed up numbers. Depression and anxiety are part of concussion damage, and emotionally I went from zero to one hundred in a flash, and was so tired that I had to nap frequently. It takes time, the doctors said, to recover.

I’d assumed, falsely, that I was emotionally prepared for the divorce, so had been shocked when grief tore through me. I had not calculated this. I pined for our old house in Washington as I put precious items from it on the mantle, on walls and shelves in my California home. Scenes unspooled like film reels of vacations and holidays with our sons. The grief of this split ignited others (as griefs always do), and I mourned again my sister, who had died in 2006 at the age of forty-two, and the more recent death of my dad.

When the divorce was final, I did not see a way forward. I had not ‘dated’ since I was in my twenties but had no desire to be a nun. I raged at the ravages of age on my appearance, but ventured out. I received as with a branding iron the experiences American society seems to expect of single women, and chocked up soul-sapping, time-wasting endeavors with Louis XIV types that fizzled out.

John O’Donohue, Celtic poet, wrote about this in-between time:

You are in the time of the interim

Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;

The way forward is still concealed from you.

The old is not old enough to have died away;

The new is still too young to be born.

My brain worsened. Even so much as a sip of wine caused vertigo, events siphoned my energy at an alarming rate, and I had to concentrate with extra care to maneuver around Paris, a city I knew like the back of my hand, as if I’d lost my compass arrow. I began to wonder if I should have taken this trip. Writing took twice as long; I could work on scenes but had trouble integrating them into the whole book. Something was missing.

In addition, the gilet jaunes (Yellow Vests) angrily prowled the streets on Saturdays en masse, with the ruined Notre Dame a new target for protests, and I was sick with bronchitis. I recalled another stanza from O’Donohue:

What is being transfigured here is your mind,

And it is difficult and slow to become new.

The Sun King also, according to the memoirs of the Duchess of Orleans, so hated to suffer waiting that after one courtier appeared at the last minute, he was said to have drawled as he flicked his hair, lounging in leisure at Versailles, “J’ai failli attendre.” I almost had to wait. He considered it his Divine Right never to deign to do so but Parisians have learned— through revolutions, wars, reigns, and riots, in queues and métro stations, in bistros and museums—that most of us have to wait a little.

Attendre also means to expect, a difference in meaning that fills a wait with visions and possibilities. A long line ahead of the entrance to a Dalí exhibit at the Pompidou gives one a chance to consider the mustachioed genius wielding his paintbrush or pencil (or just about anything he got his hands on) with panache. A cluster of diners in the foyer of a bistro allows one to be overtaken by celestial scents and anticipation to stir the blood.

People flocked to the Île to ponder Notre Dame’s cinders and ash, her gaping hole in the center of her flying buttresses, her singed but intact rose windows, like eyes with smudged mascara. Other languages were heard, but French voices were silent. The people of Paris just stood and looked at Notre Dame—an elegant Parisienne in white, a swarthy father holding the hands of twin boys, two old men dressed with old-fashioned tidiness— for they have learned that the past is prologue.

I had seen this kind of homage before, when the bells of Notre Dame were replaced in 2013. That winter, the new bells had been displayed in the nave of the cathedral. Bleachers were set out in Place Jean Paul II so that people could sit on freezing-cold metal seats, view the bell towers and meditate on the sound of the old bells and the new. Tourists fidgeted, but Parisians sat still as statues. Three old ladies in black wool coats and colorful scarves and hats, their lipstick fresh, sat just so; a family of five, looking bedraggled in worn coats, nodded; a young couple snuggled side by side with intertwined legs and heads together. All sat considering the bell towers, knowing that soon the new bells would be in there and imagining the sound of them. Would they be sharper or gentler, hollow or full? The people honored the old and envisioned the new, for to Parisians they are one and the same. To wait is to expect.

After the fire, although fever and chills persisted, I dragged myself out to observe the people of Paris and scrutinize the cathedral from all sides. I’d noticed the week before that my favorite verdigris statues of the apostles who usually stood at the base of the spire were covered with scaffolding. I’d wondered at the time whether they were still there; I couldn’t tell. Henri Cartier-Bresson had photographed them in 1948 and in his photo, I’d always thought they appeared to move as if transformed to humans. It turned out they’d been removed for the renovation so had been spared incineration.

One day, as I wove my way to Café Saint Régis on the tip of Île Saint Louis, music soared, piped in on loudspeakers. Violins climbed and dipped, flutes danced. I pushed through an extra-thick throng gathered on the edge of the Île, and when I reached the intersection with Notre Dame on my left, I saw that gendarmes were removing the orange cones by the bridge, which had been closed to all but essential foot traffic. Was the bridge open?

I settled in a tiny booth facing the cathedral. The music became a voice, chanting, and the people chanted back. It was Good Friday; Easter was in two days. In the middle of Pont Saint Louis stood a priest in a blindingly white robe who conducted a full mass in a voice so deep and resonating that it stirred something inside of me. People filed onto the bridge for communion, while in the background Notre Dame, humble and helpless yet majestic, looked on. She has learned that the way forward is through. Through revolution and renovation, through chaotic firing from all sides, through coronations and turmoil and grief. She would rise again.

~ ~ ~

Five months later, back in California, I find current news and photos. The cause of the blaze has been narrowed to either a cigarette tossed by a construction worker or the electrical system of the bells. “Clumsy human response and false assumptions” contributed to the extent of the damage, but ingenious strategy helped save her. The bell towers had been a mere fifteen minutes from crumbling from the heat, but the firemen had arced water over the blaze to dampen them. Hundreds of tons of lead in the spire and roof were released and children at schools nearby have been at risk. The scaffolding on the exterior of the spire welded together, encasing the cathedral and heightening the danger of collapse.

All summer, her roof was opened to the elements, and is now covered, but no one can move anything, because all has not yet settled. Her interior is a jumble of accumulated debris. Wood charred like pick-ups-sticks and chunks of stone lie everywhere—on the floor in pinpoint rays of sunlight, on shredded cane chairs, among piles of ashes. Everything could cave in at any moment, so she is still precarious and nothing can be done. Notre Dame remains a ‘triage site’.

Upon my return home, it became obvious that my brain symptoms had worsened. I was tested by two neurologists, who diagnosed post-concussion syndrome. I asked why I seemed so prone to concussions (among other things), and learned that when you have one concussion, you are exponentially more likely to have another, an even higher chance of having a third, and a forth happens more easily. The testing revealed a chasm in memory, in word retrieval, in vision. The fender-bender bump had sparked the cumulative effects of the stroke and all four concussions.

My summer has been spent resting my brain. Writing has been jagged and is an act of faith, but improving. I have had long, luxurious visits my sons, with more down-time than usual. My friends have overlooked my scatterbrained spaciness and last minute cancellations. They have made meals and daydreamed with me about meeting an intelligent, silver-haired surfer or a swarthy, sweet-natured poet (sans branding irons). Attending my first big family event as an ex-wife, I was warmly embraced by the new incarnation of my old family.

During this suspended summer-into-fall, I often wake up all alone with an iron band of fear sinking into my chest: My brain is not yet strong enough to be my center and has left a terrifying void there. But I have come to see that Hugo’s belief in Quasimodo swinging from those flammable rafters, Charles de Gaulle’s heroic stride, and the resilience that Our Lady herself displayed in all her brokenness are qualities not of the brain but of the heart.

Recently, my family scattered some of my dad’s ashes into the bay of Puget Sound, Washington. It has been almost three years and we agreed it was the perfect time to do it; we were glad we waited. As his ashes floated and swirled, then sank into the murkiness, chips and clumps mingling with the water, we spoke of his humor, the music he played on the piano and drums, and his fiercely loyal love—all that is left of him.

I look around my home in California at what remains of my previous life: The Greek vase and the Swedish plate on my mantle, the crystal candle holders on the table, photos of the four of us as a family in the old way and the new, my dad’s bongo drums, my sister’s silver bracelet. I have had to wait like Quasimodo, but I have a new home where I live my greatest moments, my wars, my pandemics, my liberations.

What remains in the interior of Notre Dame, the center of Paris? Inside the strong stuff of which she is constructed, among the detritus and dust, stands the altar with its gold cross, and next to that, the marble pietà where the cathedral’s namesake holds her departed with love. She is in the time of the interim, when everything seems withheld. She’s been there before and will be again, but the center of the center remains and the rest is reimagined.

Each night I light a few candles and let them burn awhile while I contemplate them in the way I learned from the people of Paris. Three candles in a row: Past, present, and future. Sometimes the past fizzles out (gratefully), or it’s time for a new present (a fresh start), or the future grows dim (but still illuminated).

A few nights ago, the past and the future went out at exactly the same moment, so tonight fresh candles burn brightly, with the lower flame of the present in the center, creating a silhouette of Notre Dame as she now stands, with her tall spire gone, and her low center flanked by her bell towers. I remember that cauldron of violent flames licking the sky.

Parisien magazine, in their commemorative issue, wrote, La catastophe nous renvoie à nous humilité et notre impuissance. The catastrophe refers to our humility and our helplessness. It is during those times when I am aware of both that what endures becomes clear.

What will Notre Dame’s next life be like? Images of ideas from a worldwide contest to design a new spire include a glass solar roof with an urban farm; a greenhouse sanctuary for birds; a new home for Notre Dame’s 180,000 bees; a blue-tiled roof made from recycled ocean plastic; and a swimming pool with the verdigris apostles as lifeguards.

Until Our Ravaged Lady rises from the ashes, we will just have to do as she always has, to feel our universal humanity and stand with dignity in our humility and helplessness, light a few candles … and wait a little.

Author’s note: Now, nearly a year after the fire, I am once again in Paris. Christmas came and went with no mass, no restoration, and very little movement. Her eyes were once again painstakingly removed, and robots have cleared bits of rubble, but her iron cage must first be removed piece by piece, and there is still a high chance that her roof could cave in. She stands patiently in the winter-to-spring air while workmen compare plans and people stop to stare. She will endure.

Erin Byrne is author ofWings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Parisand Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, and writer of The Storykeeper  film. Erin’s work has won Grand Prize Solas Awards for Travel Story of the Year, the Foreword Indies Book of the Year, an Accolade Award for film, and the Pinnacle Achievement Award. She has taught writing at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, at Book Passage, and on Deep Travel trips, and is host of LitWings event series in the Bay Area and Paris, which features writers, photographers, and filmmakers.

Erin is Collaborating Curator of Travel Writing and Photography for The Creative Process Exhibition, which was launched at the Sorbonne and travels to the world’s leading universities. Her screenplay, Siesta, is in pre-production in Spain, and she is working on a novel set in occupied Paris, Illuminations.

Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie): Dark Train to Cusco

March 31st, 2020

By Chase Nelson

A modern-day rescue mission raises questions of life and death.

With her husband looking on, we took turns pumping her heart for her, pushing blood to her organs, to her extremities, hoping for a gasp to bring her back, tearful and afraid, from wherever she was now.

Technically, they were called compressions. Less technically they were called rib-breaking, breast-exposing, desperate attempts at resurrection.

I kept thinking of a painting I’d once seen of King Philip II of Spain: the small dark brown irises afloat in the white globes of big round eyes, pasty skin, hair a regal red. Lying in the aisle of the train, the woman looked like Spanish royalty. We beat the woman’s chest on that train, as it drummed and snaked through the canyons of the Peruvian jungle. The same jungles and canyons that had once watched the Spaniards bring the Incan Empire to an end. Back then, Death had arrived on horseback.

This time, Death rode with us.


Earlier that I day I stood among the ruins of Machu Picchu—a citadel built on a thin saddle between two jagged peaks, surrounded by thick highland jungle and sheer cliffs.

“The truth is no one knows what it was or what they did here,” said my guide Carlos.

He was of Quechua descent, the name of the language and the people of this region who would have been part of the Incan Empire. But even he knew little for certain of the beliefs or history beyond the day the Spanish arrived. “Many theories, but for now just theories.”

We walked through the ruins. I saw a team of archaeologists scrubbing at the dirt with over-sized toothbrushes. No matter where I stood, I could smell the cologne of Europeans and the fried food from the mountain-top cafe. As groups of other visitors swirled around and past us, I heard German, and Japanese, French and Spanish. But no Quechua.

All of us filed along the restricted pathway, taking turns touching the old altars, a procession, like an open casket funeral for a once great civilization.

“You have to remember,” said Carlos, “This place was forgotten for four hundred years. Left and covered by jungle.”


Fingers tapped my shoulder and I followed them to an arm to a neck to dark hair, that framed a face with big dark eyes and full lips — just as I’d envisioned all Argentinean women — a face that in any other case I’d be falling dangerously and prematurely in love with.

“¿Listo?” she said.

It was both a question and a demand: asking me if I was ready to stop performing chest compressions, telling me it was time for the next person to take my place.

It was a gruesome game of musical chairs and with each switch, hope dimmed in the aisle of that train where four of us squeezed in between seats and passengers to straddle the woman’s body. She seemed too young for this. Perhaps sixty-five. She was saturated in her own urine, ribs loose, broken, eyes wide and unsearching, unburdened, and unbelievably far, far away.

Her hair looked perfect.


Just an hour earlier, as I’d boarded the train to Cusco from platform four,  the conductor had asked me to move to this train-car so that a young boy could sit near his parents. I was traveling solo and I didn’t protest, particularly when I discovered that my new seat was at a table with three Argentinean women in their thirties, all of them doctors.

Just my luck, I thought and smiled and got breathlessly nervous because they were pretty and dark haired and had accents and even at 34, I hadn’t quite figured out how to speak around pretty.

Keep breathing, I remember saying to myself.


Listo,” I replied. I finished up a few chest compressions and dismounted the body, standing and backing down the aisle, careful not to step on toes or bump elbows. Our train rolled on toward the next town and we rolled on and off the body.


For five days, I had pounded up and down the canyons to reach Machu Picchu. Carlos guided our small group as we walked along the Salkantay Trail — an old Incan road. We were high in the mountains, above the tree-line. A place of bare, jagged rock and clouds that swirled around peaks and into the valleys below.

“Look at these stones. This is Incan,” said Carlos. Cinderblock-sized rocks were laid into the ground, cut to fit tightly together. “Most of their roads were laid like this at one point.”

We breathed hard at the high altitude, thin crisp air stinging our noses and faces. The rectangular stones in the ground meant that six hundred years ago, someone had carried them there, cut them, and placed them as pieces in the vast puzzle of a thriving civilization.

“How big was their road system?” I asked as we moved on.

“Almost 40,000 kilometers,” he said, “25,000 miles…That we’ve found,” he added.


My chest had slowly tightened when I’d boarded this train-car, squeezing at my lungs and pressing on my throat until my heart thumped with the train. I thought it had been something I ate, then I thought it was about pretty Latin girls with accents. But it grew until it was so hard to breathe that I was just plain scared.

¡Señora! ¡Señora!” The shouts came from behind me. Then, “¡Ayuda!”

Before I turned, before I saw the woman collapse, before all of that, I saw the face of the doctor sitting across from me. A face can say so much.

The woman’s husband cried out — a cry that, even in memory, makes me want to cover my ears.


The world came alive on our second day of the trek as Carlos led us into the buzz of highland jungle. Every few miles he’d point out another set of stones, what remained of the old roads.

It had taken the Incan Empire 300 years to grow from a tribe of herdsmen to an empire that stretched from modern day Columbia into Chile along the western Andes. Three hundred years of walls and roads built stone-by-stone over the steep mountains we had climbed, cut through the unyielding green mass of jungle in which we now traveled.

We plodded along on a blanket of a million leaves and barks and rotting woods and insects which melted to an earth so rich it muddied everything it touched a blood red.

Vines hung above us and hugged to roots and strangled trees. One plant feeding on another, pushing its branches and foliage higher than that which it consumed. Layer upon layer of life held in an earthly womb.


Night came quickly to the train in the canyon, the jungle trees thickening the darkness around us and the peaks of the Andes towering above, hiding the sky.

Cuarenta minutos,” said one of the doctors. Time was an irrelevant construct here. We just kept working.

The screeches and saw buzz of night birds and insects were hurled through the windows into our passing train, screaming haunting questions into my mind. How does a train carrying tourists every day not have a proper med kit or defibrillator? Why are we still doing CPR after forty minutes? Where the hell are we? And, where is the god damn hospital?


Conquistador. Spanish for conqueror. The title was given to Francisco Pizarro before he left Spain for the new world.

I looked for sadness or anger or any emotion in Carlos as he recounted this history. But I found none — not in his tone, and not in his face.

Pizarro had arrived on Incan soil in 1526. First, he brought disease, mostly smallpox. It decimated the population, killing the Incan ruler and his only heir. Civil war broke out and the empire was already teetering when Pizarro returned ten years later with cavalry, muskets, and canons.

Fifty years. That’s what it took for the empire to be engulfed by a new world. In 1572, the head of Tupac Amaru — the last Incan chief leading the last small resistance in the mountains — was set on a Spanish pike. Conquerors.

“The stories we know of them now are only what the conquistadors chronicled for Europe,” he said. “Everything disappeared.”

I imagine it was then that the vines began to crawl over the stones of Machu Picchu.


Slowing, the train rolled to a stop. A sea of curious faces floated outside. The ambulance lights dyed the world red. Two Peruvian medics brought a wooden backboard down the narrow aisle. Hands fumbled at the emergency exit window, no one quite sure how it worked.

Finally, it popped free and the car was flooded with the cool night air and the loud whispers of a curious mob. And then we stopped and looked at each other. One by one, a glance.

It’s over.

Thank you.

I’m sorry.

We counted to three. We turned her on her side and placed the backboard under her.

We counted to three. We rested her down.

We counted to three. We lifted the body.

Our tired hands and backs worked together to make something heavy feel so light as we passed it, her, the dead, out the train window.

Volume returned to our world, the window popped closed, I found my seat, and the train drummed and snaked off down the canyon again. A drink service cart rolled by. Someone giggled at the end of the car. Others returned to their phones and flipped through pictures of a dead city. The world turned. Less a woman.


Months later after I’d returned home, I found myself searching online for a painting of King Phillip the II. I think I wanted to see her face again. The likeness was certainly there. The same eyes and the red hair. Below the painting were the dates of his rule, 1556–98.  He had been the King of Spain when the Incan Empire took its last breath.


When we see the way the jungle melts to red earth, when we touch the old stones that will never speak, how can we even wonder what is coming? Death is a heavy body passed out the window at a small town at the mouth of the canyon. The train will slow, and hardly stop, and then, will just keep going.

It’s just a matter of when and how, and maybe, what stone citadel we leave behind, waiting to be unearthed once more.

Chase Nelson is an explorer and writer. He draws from his diverse life experience as a software designer in San Francisco, an English teacher in Florence, a backcountry skier climbing peaks from the Alps to the Andes, and a raft-guide in Idaho. He is curious and writes about diversity in nature, culture, and their convergence in humanity’s evolution. He is also the host of the Chase Wildly Podcast, which explores rites of passage and personal growth in the past and now.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Love in a Time of Abundance

March 2nd, 2020

By Amanda Castleman

Navigating grief with the Okavango Delta’s last generation of Bushmen hunter-gatherers.

When he was 15, Ditshebo “Dicks” Tsima took his spear into the bush. Hunting was still legal in Botswana’s Okavango Delta then, so he could follow an ancient coming-of-age tradition, practiced for around 200,000 years by his people: the Bushmen.

Most young men ran down giraffes, their lean muscles churning to pace the world’s tallest animals, which can cruise comfortably at 10 mph. Hour after hour, they pursued the lolloping giants through the mosaic landscape where Africa’s last wetland wilderness drains into the Kalahari Desert. Islands, scrub, and grasslands all flashed by: a fractal terrain of riverine lushness and heat-seared dust. “You chase them until they get exhausted and stand their ground,” Dicks explains. “Then you spear them. That’s the best way for a family to judge your worth. If you can chase down a giraffe, then your in-laws know you will take good care of your bride.”

Dicks wanted nothing more than to impress Lehutsana Mosweu and her parents. So he chose a riskier path: taking down a mother leopard guarding her cubs. “I could have considered less dangerous animals like steenboks and impalas,” he says. “But a brave warrior takes the spotted cat.”

Leopards often sit in the sausage trees, hiding among the fragrant flowers, so they can drop down on antelopes. But Dicks found one in the open, stalking a hare across the semi-arid savanna. He hid behind a termite mound and threw his spear. It missed … soaring right over her head. His second spear didn’t deter her either.

“Then the spotted cat was on me!” he says. “She jumped on my chest, with all of her claws hooked in. She was about to go for the throat and suffocate me.”

The leopard paused to adjust her grip and Dicks’ hunting dogs bit her. “I grabbed a spear and was running away. I thought I was sweating, but when I stopped I realized it was blood.”

His bravery and strength still impressed Lehutsana. They have been married for 16 years now.

“You had to get through these challenges before you could be a man,” Dicks says. “But it’s not a practice anymore because of the law and western culture.”

I find his survival story oddly comforting, as we sit stranded beside a pride of lions.


The big cats lounge, submerged in the thigh-high grass, snuffling and grooming beside the running board of our Land Cruiser. Flies buzz in their fur, which is marred by cuts, snagged by thorns, and smeared with the blood of other animals.

The lions drowse and yawn and resettle themselves, so close I can count their incisors, rose fading to an ivory hue at the fine, sharp tips. “Ooooohf,” they sigh, bathing each other. Their carrion breath eddies in the afternoon heat.

We can’t push-start the truck without tripping over them. And everyone here knows: stepping out of a vehicle means stepping into the food chain.

My friend Paul Joseph Brown twists on the bench seat. As a photographer, he’s covered wars, revolutions, famine, and genocide. He now focuses on poverty and health challenges throughout the developing world. Paul is no cream puff. But wild apex predators are straight-up snuggling with our tires. 

“Dude,” he whispers, his eyebrows climbing. “We are stuck beside lions.”

On the other hand, my nerves remain steady — numb, even.

Last year, my partner Doug and I were primary caregivers during two intense family deaths within a seven-month stretch. Each stripped away vanities and everyday worries like a thirsty elephant debarking a baobab trunk.

Grief, I realized, still has its claws hooked deep as Dicks’ leopard.

The air draws tight as an old drum skin. “The Great Thirstland” locals call it. The terrain attracts some of the world’s most endangered mammals, including lions, cheetahs, and the largest savanna elephant population. Not to mention African wild dogs, petite predators with Mickey Mouse ears and polka-dot coats who can hit speeds of 44 mph and bring down gazelles. It’s a small wonder UNESCO named the delta its 1,000th World Heritage Site.

The guides tinker with a sputtering radio, finally broadcasting an almost comical, “The lions are close. Please come out and help?”

Static crackles out of the speaker. Unintelligible.

We’d brought spare parts for the truck and communication system in from Maun. But in our excitement, we scrambled out for game drives without doing any maintenance, hoping to front-load the storytelling before more guests arrived. So now our group of five sits, sipping gin-and-tonics from Thermos lids, as dusk creeps over the plains and glittering waterways.


Humanity’s most ancient bloodline springs from this part of Africa, where hunter-gatherers have thrived since modern man emerged. As James Suzman, author of Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, explained in an interview, “until about 20,000 years ago, they were unquestionably the most successful society on planet Earth. Somehow, they found a kind of balance between sustainability, their environment, hunting and gathering, and living that made them unbelievably enduring. They were there for an extraordinarily long time. That makes them unique.”

Their descendants followed in their footsteps until the late 1980s, when the Botswanan government forcibly resettled the Bushmen, later banning hunting entirely. But instead of letting their prowess fade into legend, the Bukakhwe tribe opened the first indigenous-owned safari camp in the country: Bushman Plains.

Dicks, who is one of the co-owners, says: “All these skills come from generation to generation to generation and now to me. I grew up sleeping in the bush with no cotton, no shoes, seeing only my family. I was around 10 when the government decided to educate Bushmen kids. They had to track us to take us to school.”

Lessons were taught in Setswana or English, and Dicks spoke neither. He kept leaving class to find his older brother, Ola, who eventually helped him trade his tanned-hide apron for more modern clothing.

“I took [a garment] out of the plastic and asked him, ‘what is this?’”

“This is underwear.”

“How do I do it? Can I put it up on my head?”

“There are three holes, one for your waist and two for your legs.”

“OK, fine,” Dicks says. “So I put on the underwear, then go out and call my friends, laughing: ‘look at this funny thing!’ I take it off and give it to the next guy. I don’t even know who was the last one to own it. It went in circles. This is how we wear clothing out. Nothing is more ideal.”

I try to fuse this mental image with the 41-year-old leader and visionary entrepreneur before me. Even on the dustiest game drives, Dicks always looks impeccable with his head shaved smooth and his crisply pressed khakis and button-down shirts. He speaks in the low, controlled tones of an expert tracker trying not to alarm animals. He has that intimidating British Empire pronunciation — unsurprisingly, as Botswana only achieved independence in 1966 and remains part of the Commonwealth. Still, it’s hard for a Yank like me to reconcile that accent with confusion about tighty-whities, however hilarious.

As the guffaws fade, Dicks guides us back to the heart of the matter with his usual grace. “Our traditional skills are getting smaller, they are at risk of dying. My children watch TV, my daughter plays computer games …”

The Bukakhwe hope the camp will preserve their ancient tracking and survival knowledge for their kids, but also for their guests. “At Bushman Plains, we are not putting on a show. We are sharing our culture openly with everyone who is interested to learn. Every human being has got a tiny nip of Africa in them.” He glances at my skin, made even more fish-belly pale by mineral sunscreen. “Even you.” Everyone cracks up again.

Dicks recovers first and continues: “It is everyone’s identity. When you come here on safari, you’re coming home.”


I appreciate the warm welcome. But it’s hard to untangle the idea of “home” from the hardships my family has faced there lately.

I can’t unhear Doug’s mother as a tumor strangled her spine: the cries of an animal in a saw-toothed trap, hurt crowding out every sense, even a sense of self. And part of me remains stuck in the E.R., where the man I called my brother woke up, clawing his skin and pleading to die after 17 years of crippling, chronic disease peaked. I swaddled his gaunt body in clean, hot blankets, crooning and rocking him, until he finally slept.

I retreated to the waiting room. “I can’t do this,” I told Doug at the time. “I’m not that grown up.”

“No one ever is,” he said, belting his arms around me. “But we still have to.”


I did it, of course, and we endured. Our world winnowed to one of singular purpose: making sure our loved ones were not left alone with their fear. Never had privilege mixed so closely with pain than in those stark, beautiful, heart-rending weeks. What I couldn’t fathom was how to come back — how to escape the leopard.


As it turns out, breaking down next to lions focuses the mind … at least for a Seattle city-slicker like me.

The big cats remain sacked out a few feet away. They look like grand, stoic statues outside a library, that is if library statues occasionally let loose great ripping farts, rank from a diet of game meat. Apparently, being “king of beasts” isn’t all about lithe, murderous grace.

Heat starts streaming from the desert, escaping into the cloudless night sky, and the temperature drops toward 50°F. American wildlife biologist Bill Given, the camp’s only non-Botswanan shareholder, catches my worried glance at the truck’s flannel-lined ponchos. “The Bushmen grew up in the cross-over generation, the last to hunt and forage,” he says. “They have mental maps of the land and know how to avoid dangerous animals. We could walk back safely, no problem, even in the dark. Or we could just sleep here—it’s all good!”

I hold still, listening to the predators breathe in the dark, curled tight beside us. Isn’t it worth one night of discomfort to lie down among lions? 

Then the distant grumble of a truck splits the savanna’s silence. The guides swing our spotlight around and signal. Finally the jeep pulls up, full of eager faces from one of the other three camps in the barely touristed area.

Oblivious to our plight, they announce, “Hey, we heard there were lions here!”

We point toward the grass and they’re treated to a glimpse of the hindmost cat’s rump, as the pride steals away to a more serene thicket.

The guides climb out and jumpstart our truck. Then we lurch into the black velvet night, tires clawing over rutted tracks, grass hummocks, and the occasional strand of barbed wire. We pull our feet high, as we ford the delta’s channels, water swamping the cab’s floor, then streaming away through drain holes.

My adrenaline does the same, leaving me alone with grief’s hollowness once again.


Western culture has long romanticized the people who thrived in the Great Thirstland. Take Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. After the furor of WWII, her industrialist father wanted to reconnect with his family and chose a singular avenue: searching for the Kalahari Desert Bushmen. They encountered the Juwa tribe after several months … and returned repeatedly, sometimes staying for entire years. Her mother trained as an anthropologist. So did her brother, who was also a documentary filmmaker and fierce political advocate for the Bushmen. Elizabeth studied English alongside Sylvia Plath at Smith College, then turned out the 1958 classic, The Harmless People — one of the bestselling anthropology titles of all time.

“Their culture insists that they share with each other,” she wrote, “and it has never happened that a Bushman failed to share objects, food, or water with other members of his band, for without very rigid cooperation Bushmen could not survive the famines and droughts that the Kalahari offers them.”

Yet Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, for all of her ethnographical care, fell prey to the era’s prevailing theory: that hunter-gatherers lived difficult, precarious lives. Eight more years would elapse before Richard Borshay Lee, who studied the Ju/’hoansi-!Kung Bushmen on the border of Botswana and Namibia, changed anthropology forever. His bombshell: hunter-gatherers only averaged 15 to 17 hours of work each week, even in one of the earth’s least hospitable environments.

Marshall Sahlins, then a University of Michigan professor, took things a step further. “The original affluent society was none other than the hunter’s — in which all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied,” he declared. “To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times.” As the Summer of Love began in 1967, activists for peace and equality lionized this view of the Bushmen.

It would be easy now to do it again. But as the Information Age grows ever more frenetic, not even the Bushmen can revive the Old Way.

Their kids want WhatsApp, Fortnite, and modern conveniences — and why shouldn’t they?


Two days after the lion-side breakdown, six of us slip single file through the scrub near camp.

“We believe the gods help us … and they do,” says Motswasele “Diesel” Tshosa, the Bushman Plains guide leading the heritage walk.

We skirt a tower of giraffes as he elaborates: “When I wake, I have to let the gods — and my ancestors — know what activities I’m doing and ask for their strength. Often they reply through the woodpeckers.”

Diesel continues as we trek: “They have many calls. Some for regret.” He whistles once. “Shreeeeiii!”

Shrike-shrike-shrike signals ‘let’s go!’ Then there’s the laughter,” he pauses. “It resembles a person sharpening a knife and can mean ‘let’s hunt’ or ‘visitors are arriving.’”

“What does it sound like?” I ask.

On cue, a woodpecker replies from a nearby tree. “Tsa-tsa tsa-tsa!”

“That might be my grandfather!” Diesel exclaims.

What would it be like, I wonder, to feel my mother-in-law’s boundless love again, reflected in creatures of my Pacific Northwest home? To hear my brother’s shy bark of laughter in the “kwok” of a raven?

Would I be less angry about their fierce independence and mistrust of doctors, which made their deaths messier and more painful for us all? Would it be easier to forgive a year lost to hospitals, red tape, and the grim task of cleaning out their homes? Could I grieve the holes they left in our lives more cleanly if I felt them watching over us?
Raised agnostic, I have no framework to soften the sorrow. Only nature helps and I haven’t been getting outside enough.

The woodpecker whistles again. My eyes slip down to my notebook and take in my scrawl.

“Once for regret.”

I shiver and stride away.


That evening, the truck rattles towards camp, then detours into a nearby meadow. “Surprise!” Dicks announces. “Tonight we are cooking on the fire like the generations before us.”

Lehutsana and her team already have a blaze going, circled by logs and stumps for seating. They grill eland tenderloin, as a kudu stew simmers. Stars appear like eyes staring down from dark wilderness above. All 16 of us — staff and guests — draw tight around the flames. The scene is as old as time. At the day’s end, we gather to share our food, warmth, stories, and laughter.

What abundance could be greater than the freedom to care for each other?

The Gordian Knot in my chest, snarled tight since that first diagnosis 17 months ago, slackens a few degrees.

I realize that Doug and I never faltered in caring for those we love. If the woodpeckers sing of regret, it’s only for our loss.

For the first time, I put down some of the pain, letting it seep away like the Okavango River dissolving into the Great Thirstland.

The grief remains, of course … just as the Bukakhwe still mourn 200,000 years of the world’s most enduring and successful culture, changed forever in the span of Dicks’ Gen X childhood.

He was born an owner and guardian of this harsh terrain, hunting and gathering in a small family group, moving swiftly and lightly to let areas rejuvenate. The government tore all that away, turning the Bushmen into a marginalized minority in a rapidly changing modern state, subject to underpants and other tyrannies. Yet here he and his people are, back on their ancestral lands, remixing the Old Way and the new into something extraordinary. Not just a cultural seed bank, but a community — one with arms wide to welcome us all home, reaffirming our shared humanity and connection to nature.

To see them adapt gives me hope. For the first time, I start to imagine that a path out of my own fog might exist.


A voice cuts across my heavy thoughts. “Night drive! Let’s go see the lions again!” We pile back into the repaired Land Cruiser and careen across the delta. To my untutored eye, we move in a series of pivots and lunges like the wild leaps of a flea. But the guides unerringly take us to the last known location of the big cats, then begin tracking by spotlight at an incredible speed. It is like watching Frida Kahlo paint or Eddie Van Halen shred. I realize then that no one will ever come close to possessing the virtuoso survival skills of the last generation of hunters here in this extraordinary landscape.

Golden grass splits and bows before the truck’s bumper, as we thresh across the savanna. The effect is hypnotic and after a dawn start, a long day, and two beers, I doze lightly until we jerk to a stop beside a perfectly featureless wall of waist-high vegetation.

A sleepy grunt rumbles behind the veil. We roll forward slightly, mashing down more stalks, and suddenly I am face to face with a lioness.

We blink fully awake at the same time, focus sharpening. I raise my camera and her copper eyes drill right into mine through the viewfinder.

For a moment, I feel a deep connection to the Okavango and the people sharing its abundance. The Bukakhwe tribe’s brave new world is big enough for us all: the cats, the awestruck guests, and the children receiving the Bushmen legacy: humanity’s most ancient skills.

These people have escaped the suspended animation of pure grief. They have found a way through and so can I; for I have lain down with lions and found a measure of peace at last.
Writer and photographer Amanda Castleman lives on the traditional land of Seattle’s first people, the Duwamish. A Lowell Thomas Award winner, she has contributed to AFAR, Outside, Sierra, BBC Travel, Delta Sky, American Way, Robb Report, Scuba Diving, Bon Appétit, Coastal Living and The New York Times. She has also worked on 30-odd books, including titles for Frommer’s and National Geographic. A longtime instructor, Amanda recently founded Write Like a Honey Badger, an online school offering scholarships to POC, non-binary and LGBTQIA authors.

Almost Blond in Nepal

May 6th, 2019

By Nancy Bartley

Funny Travel Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I never asked to look like a female wrestler. You know the blondes in bikinis who toss each other around the ring or wallow wantonly through mud. But then again, maybe my problem simply was a matter of hair color – streaks of blond highlights in my brown hair, hair-coloring that marked me as distinctively western from my bangs to my trekking pants.

I was in disbelief when one of the men gathered around the television at my hotel first mistook me for a pro wrestler. I’m a writer, not a wrestler, I protested. I was in Nepal, going to Mount Everest Base Camp to do a book on an American mountain climber who had two-minutes of fame for the heroic rescue of a climber left for dead. But the trouble began long before I boarded the Twin Otter for Lukla and the remote regions of Nepal. It began in Thamel, the tourist section of Kathmandu where trekkers and climbers buy outdoor gear at good prices. I was minutes from the hotel when a young man began to follow closely behind me. As I would learn, he had a great fascination with my hair.

Anthropologists say we are genetically programmed to see hair as a sign of fertility, and apparently he was no exception. Consider the fairy tale Rapunzel, her hero climbs her golden tresses to win her. And in the biblical story of Sampson, he lost his power when sneaky Delilah cut his hair. Both stories are examples of the human fascination for the mop on top. Add the televised image of half-naked female wrestlers and some primitive force of nature is released. Whether or not the young man following me was also a wrestling fan, I don’t know. I just knew it was becoming frightening to have him walk behind me, stroking my head like it was a lucky charm.

“Your hair,” he said. “Blond!”

“Go away!” I told him. I walked faster. He picked up the pace. “I like YOUR HAIR, I want to talk to you.”

“NO,” I shouted. “No!”

We continued down the street this way, his paws on my hair and me trying to escape his advances. In desperation I darted into a store and the shop keeper saw what was going on and ordered him away. When I emerged a few minutes later, Hairman was waiting. I continued through the crowded streets. As I tried to avoid being run over by mopeds, bicycle rickshaws and the occasional taxi, I begged Hairman to leave me alone and quit touching my hair. He persisted. I shouted, “Back off!’’ But when he was still not deterred, and I’d had half an hour or more of hair stroking, I stopped. As I expected, he collided against me. That’s when I cocked my arm and slugged him in the nose.

He screamed. He spouted curses. Only then did I see a police officer. That’s when I fled into a store and out the backdoor, down a street and quickly jumped into a bicycle rickshaw without first asking the price.

“Take me to my hotel!” I shouted, showing the driver the business card and pointing a short distance away. He took off pedaling in the wrong direction.

“Wrong way!” I cried. “You’re going the wrong way!”

“Want to see Monkey Temple?” he asked. I was afraid to jump out, not knowing if Hairman was about to avenge the state of his nose. Rickshaw Man stopped to ask for directions several times – a bad sign – and quickly we were lost and ended up at Kathmandu’s rush hour in a traffic circle filled with vegetable sellers, sleeping dogs, children, bonfires, herds of mopeds, cars and other rickshaws all milling about and honking like geese with bad sinuses. Gray, noxious exhaust blanketed everything. I looked around to see what the hold up was. That’s when a large black cow – not a nice country cow with daisy crowns but an urban sacred cow prone to sleeping on the highway median — ambled over and stuck her head in my lap. Time and traffic stood still as the cow chewed her cud and gave the look that let me know she too believed she had seen me in TV’s wrestling ring. Just then a woman who had been roasting corn over a bonfire built in the middle of traffic, threaded her way through the masses of metal and swatted the cow with a plastic bag. Bossie lurched half into the rickshaw, but at last retreated and moved along. The gridlock melted away with her departure and in minutes I was in front of my hotel. Just in time for the rickshaw driver to ask for “$20 American.’’ For my unwanted tour, I gave him $2, armed with the knowledge that I had just punched one man in the nose and could do it again.

With that introduction to the streets of Nepal, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the living conditions for women were deplorable. According to Human Rights Watch Nepal has the third highest rate of child marriage in Asia with 37 percent of girls marrying before 18; the practice of chaupadi, where menstruating women and girls are forced to live in crude sheds open to the elements, snakes and animals, still is practiced, despite the passage of a law criminalizing it. Nepal is one of only three countries in the world where men outlive women; the rate of maternal death during childbirth remains high as does the number of women who are abused. Women receive less education and are less literate than men, according to UNICEF and overall, there is a “feminization of poverty.” According to a 2018 study by the country’s government, the out of proportion percentage of women in poverty is due to unequal access to health care, opportunities, education and the paternal culture.

The country does have its female superstars even in the masculine world of mountain climbing and I met one, Pemba Doma Sherpa, who lived in a bright pink stucco house in a quiet Kathmandu neighborhood. She invited me to lunch and I saw the photo she proudly displayed on her dining room wall. In it she stood in native Sherpa dress next to King Birendra who was congratulating her for being the first Nepalese woman to climb the North Face of Mount Everest. Pemba had not let patriarchy stop her, even though her culture mandated her primary concern was to take care of her family, not climb mountains or guide foreign climbers. Several weeks after I met her, she fell to her death on Lhotse, a mountain adjacent to Everest and part of the Everest massif. She left behind a husband, a daughter and her legend.

When I arrived in this traditional culture with its rigid restrictions for women, I took western freedom of movement and self-determination for granted. In Nepal, men have all the freedom and the fun. Unless they are among the rare group of female mountain climbers and sherpas, Nepalese women wear traditional attire, saris in the city or for Sherpas, floor-length robes over pants of yak wool. Public displays of affection of any kind between men and women are forbidden. Yet it is far from being a puritanical society. The ancient Nepalese temples are festooned with every kind of erotic carving possible – even elephants doing things that elephants are not likely to do.

“There are 173 erotic carvings. Do you want to see them?” asked the bodyguard/ tour guide I hired. I glanced at the carving a bit too long, marveling at the gymnastics of those early pachyderms.

“Nepalese women don’t look,” he added.

An American climber suggested I avoid eye contact with Nepalese men and cast my eyes down as I walked. For someone wanting to see and experience the culture as it unfolded before me, it was not a pleasant thought to look only at my shoes. So my troubles continued, as I stubbornly insisted on being an independent western woman in a patriarchal culture. I requested a massage from the hotel health club. I was surprised when a white-smocked male arrived but at home I would not have hesitated to use his services. And this one unknotted tight muscles in my back. But as soon as I was lulled into a stupor he leaped onto the table, grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me upside down into the air. The move could have been called “pulled up carrot.” The sheet fell away and I dangled by my ankles. What had gone so wrong in communication? After he put me down, he stood back, gawked and muttered, “Beautiful, beautiful.”

New Year’s in Nepal falls in spring and the ancient ruins of Durbar Square was filled with people appearing to be taking their goats on shopping trips. There were goats on the roofs of buses, and goats tied near museums and outside stores. The goats – and in some cases yaks, chickens or other fowl, were on tap to be sacrificed on New Year’s to appease Hindu gods. And amidst the chaos, bells rang and incense burned and there were garlands of gold flowers. Like New Year’s Eve everywhere, Kathmandu rocked with celebration. My bodyguard/guide offered to show me the New Year’s Eve scene in Thamel. Soon we too were rushing through the crowded streets on a motorcycle roaring into an alley. Then we clambered up the back stairs to a cafe where only locals go. The folk music beat a steady tattoo and the men danced with men ONLY.

At midnight – the Nepalese men ran around and popped balloons and found other men to kiss and then everyone dashed out into the street to engage in their favorite game: traffic combat. Especially on New Year’s Eve, if you do not like the lane you’re in, you can make up your own. When you come head to head with an oncoming vehicle or cow – just honk. The one who honks the longest wins. The next day I was on my way to Base Camp, climbing into the small Twin Otter headed for Lukla, one of the most dangerous airports in the world. As we dipped suddenly out of the clouds and bore down upon an impossibly tiny runway, the pilot shouted, “Shit!”

We passengers looked at each other in shock but before we could say, “Hail Mary,” we were on the ground, taxiing toward a rock cliff, then making a sharp right near the hangar. After that hair-raising experience, nothing else could go wrong.

Several nights in tea houses, gathered around dung fires for warmth at Phakding, and I was climbing a steep and winding 2,727 feet in 4.7 miles to Namche Bazaar at 11,290 feet above sea level. When I arrived in the town where traders from Nepal and Tibet had gathered for hundreds of years, I was already very far away from cash machines, paved roads and easy communication access. That’s when my money was stolen from my backpack. One climber insisted I report it to the Namche Bazaar Police, telling me by doing so I might be re-compensated through my travelers insurance.

Clipping along with my trekking poles, I climbed the stairs to a squat stucco building parked next to an immense satellite dish. Goats and a yak grazed nearby. The furry tip of yak tails, used to make warm wool, hung on a clothesline and inside the police department one officer was boiling more tails and hanging them out to dry. A Bollywood soap opera babbled on a small TV set inside the station. Seeing me, one officer came out and then others poured in from the nearby hills. Finally, the entire police force of Namche Bazaar, about 10 officers who served the largest and final outpost for those climbing Everest, arrived and brought me a cup of tea. They all gathered around to hear me tell of the crime. We sat in white plastic chairs in a circle outside the station. The police inspector arrived and sat next to me. Where did the theft occur? How much money did I lose? Who took my money? What was the number on the missing credit card? Was I married? Did I like Nepal? Could I speak Nepali?

I was told to come back the next day. I did and once again, the police force gathered around me, someone brought me tea, and the questions began again: Where did the crime occur? Where was my son, brother, father, husband? Why was I not married? Why was I making this trip unaccompanied by a male relative? When did I plan to be married? Then the police inspector told me, “Come back tomorrow.” For four days I visited the station, answered questions that became increasingly personal. “How many children do you want?” the police inspector asked. I was sitting in a plastic chair surrounded by the police force when the leader of the goat pack, a large billy with curving horns and a white goatee, approached. He stood by my knees and gazed knowingly into my eyes. I think I had met him before on “Do you like goats?” the inspector asked.

“Sure,” I nervously answered. Again, someone brought me tea. Then came a request that I have my photo taken with the group. They stood on either side of me. The officer with the one lone rifle flexed his muscles in a Rambo-esque pose. I had been on the trail for 10 days, 10 days of sleeping in tea houses and tents, 10 days without washing my “almost blond” hair or without taking more than a bath out of a basin of water. I gritted my teeth in a mock grin as the camera zeroed in at the group. Finally, someone handed me something that appeared to be a police report, or a shopping list, or a page from a trashy novel. I didn’t know. It was entirely in Hindi.

“Come back tomorrow,” the police inspector said. “We’ll discuss marriage.” Report in hand, I trotted as fast as I could down the stone steps toward town. Then, I heard the clatter of feet behind me. My heart froze. I looked back. A whole new group of wrestling fans – the billygoat and his harem – were in hot pursuit.

Nancy Bartley is a multi-award-winning writer from Seattle who has shares in two Pulitzer Prizes for Breaking News as part of Seattle Times teams. She is a Fulbright Scholar and taught in Bulgaria and Colombia. Her first book, The Boy Who Shot the Sheriff, was short-listed for the Washington State Book Award in history. She is a frequent public speaker on her research. She’s also a prize-winning script writer and a doctoral candidate at the University of Washington.

Nuns on a Train

April 29th, 2019

By Ashley Seashore

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Half of my money is in my right shoe. My passport is in my left. The other half of my money is in an envelope in my underwear, and my credit cards, family photos, and one traveler’s check are in a flimsy pouch slung around my neck and hidden beneath my clothes. I have arrived in Rome in the dead of night at the wrong train station and I’m certain that the only reason I’ve been unmolested so far is thanks to the grace of a small crew of Sicilian nuns who have now left me.

Stazione Sant-Oreste is dark and empty. The shops and ticket counters are closed; the people are gone. There are too many shadows and echoes. I wait nervously as furrow-browed station patrolman Pierre-Luis takes my measure. Will he fulfill his promise to the nuns to look after me? Or will he do what I can see he wants to do, which is abandon me to whatever awaits me in the night? After all, he only made the promise so the nuns would stop yelling at him and poking him in the chest with their godly, determined fingers.

I didn’t recognize the ferocity of the holy women when I first encountered them in a train compartment in Torino. I was tired from over twenty hours of buses and trains already, and crestfallen because I had just learned that I’d been relying on the wrong timetable to get me to my final destination. Mine was a mere week old, but it was the wrong season. The train I needed didn’t exist again until the next winter. And that was only half the problem. When I realized my mistake, I found a payphone and used the last of my calling card to reach the hostel I’d booked in Rome, hoping they would take a message for a friend I was meeting there. My friend, however, had not shown up that day so they canceled our reservations. I had nowhere to stay.

But the only train to the Eternal City was about to depart, so I rushed through the station with my giant backpack bouncing up and down, and jammed my arm into the train door as it was closing. Squeezing myself and my giant nylon shell into the narrow corridor, an irritated conductor mumbled to me in Italian, checked my Europass, and jabbed his thumb toward the sleeping compartments. The ride would be long and slow, and I hoped for a nap to gird myself for whatever was coming next.

The first compartment I peeked into had a family with small children, already kicking the benches and pressing their squishy, food-smeared faces against the glass. In another was a single man. No thanks. I’d heard too many traveler legends about solo women on Italian trains with strange men.

Finally, I clicked open the flimsy door of the last compartment and there they were – three benevolent sisters, beaming up at me. “Come in, come in,” they beckoned, as if they’d been there waiting all along. There was one empty seat by the window.

The compartment was stuffy and small. I shoved my backpack onto the overhead shelf and went to my seat, trying to move delicately so I didn’t disturb the women’s calf-length gray skirts. I’d never been around nuns before and didn’t know how to behave. Should I be deferential? Fake some piety? Treat them like anyone else? Perhaps they would reject me when they learned I wasn’t Catholic – or allied with any religion, really. Or, worse, they’d use the hours-long train ride to proselytize, having pinned me into the seat furthest from the door. So many questions, but they put me at ease as soon as I sat down.

Sister Arnotta spoke English. The others nodded and smiled as she translated. She showed me a beautiful prayer card with the sacred heart on the front and a watercolor of their quaint convent on the back. She asked if I was Catholic. When I mumbled that I hadn’t been raised under any church, she smiled with benevolent pity and waved her hand. “No matter,” she said.

The nuns wanted to know more about me. Where I was from, where I was going, why was I alone? And, finally, why did I look so sad?

I tried to explain in the simplest terms for the sake of translation. “I’m arriving in Rome at the wrong station and the wrong time, and I don’t have a place to stay,” I told her.

Her Italian version properly conveyed the tragedy of my situation, and the other nuns clucked with sympathy and conferred amongst themselves. After a moment, Sister Arnotta declared, “We will help you.”
“Grazie,” I said gratefully. It was one of only a handful of Italian words I knew, but they were delighted.

We chatted more, Sister Arnotta unflagging in her attempts to understand me and translate to her sisters, but I was growing tired. And I was hungry. I brought out some bread and cheese that I’d been nibbling on since I left England and they offered me a simple, sweet baked roll. Their kindness seemed boundless.

Bread and conversation spent, I settled in and relaxed enough to sleep, grateful and content that my belongings were safe and so was my person. I wallowed in my predicament just a tad, wondering where my friend had gone instead of meeting me at the hostel and feeling distraught that my time in Rome might end up being quite lonely. But at the moment I was surrounded by lovely nuns. Surely things would be all right.

~ ~ ~

At one o’clock in the morning, we pulled into Oreste. The small cavalcade of nuns, led by Sister Arnotta, escorted me off the train. They yelled at anyone who didn’t get out of our way, rapped strangers on shoulders to hurry them up, punctuated their Italian with sharp hand gestures, and cleared the way so I could step down from the train like I was carrying the Infant Baby Jesus in my arms.

Amid the bustle of travelers, they wrangled the first polizia they saw, the young, chubby-cheeked Pierre-Luis, and sweetly beseeched him for help on my behalf, cooing and smiling as they presented me to him.

“No,” he replied, shaking his head and taking a step back. “No, no, no.”

How bedraggled could I possibly look? I thought. Was I too pathetic to merit sympathy?

But the sisters wouldn’t have a refusal from him. They yelled, they poked, they invoked things. Finally, he relented. Then they blessed me, invited me to their convent in Sicily, and whirled away in a flurry of gray wool and black shoes.

~ ~ ~

And now here I was, nun-less, be-backpacked, and bedraggled in an empty station with my fate in the hands of Pierre-Luis. At last he sighed and motioned for me to follow him.

Pierre-Luis led me along the platform to the police office, illuminated by a single, low-wattage bulb next to the door. It was a box of a room painted in bland yellow with economical steel desks and chairs that must have been there since Mussolini’s time. We were the only two in the place. On the desk was a phone. Pierre-Luis planted a chair right next to it. In the international language of abrupt gestures, he was very clearly saying, “I don’t want you here so let’s get this over with quickly.”

After twenty minutes, I’d combed through every hostel I could afford in my Let’s Go: Europe (1995 edition) and had zero prospects. Displeased but resigned, Pierre-Luis pointed to a long, hard wooden bench slammed against a mustard yellow wall. Again, the international language of abrupt gestures: I was to go over there and be quiet and possibly disappear if at all possible. Got it. I’d be happy to.

And I did. Until Pierre-Luis’s commanding officer came in, stopped in his tracks, and began yelling at Pierre-Luis. I wanted to defend the poor officer because I suddenly viewed him as my friend if not my lifeline, but I kept my mouth shut, even when two other officers came in and stared at me. The yelling crescendoed. I wished the wall behind me was actual mustard so I could just melt right into it.

After several heated moments, someone roughly shook my leg. “We are leaving,” one of the new officers told me.

“Where are you going?” I asked, sitting up. “Can I stay here?”

He shook his head. “You must go.” They hustled me out, backpack and all, locked the door, and jumped in a truck parked out front. They zoomed away and didn’t even glance back at me. Jerks.

But the joke was on them. Little did they know that there was absolutely nowhere in this dark, deserted, freak-me-out quiet station that I would rather be than camped out right there in front of the police office. At least they’d find my body quickly if something horrific happened.

So I stayed put. I plopped my backpack down on the cold concrete right next to the locked door and perched myself on top of it. There was a single lamp above me, trapped in a metal cage, that shone feebly in the darkness. I got out my journal, wrote ad nauseum about a boy problem I was having, and waited. The nuns had been saving graces, quite literally, and I only had a couple more hours until blessed sunrise when I hoped the city would wake up and the trains would start running again so I could high-tail it the hell out of Oreste.

The minutes crawled by. My hand grew tired from recounting the agony of a love-gone-wrong trip to Scotland. I heard the rumble of a vehicle and perked my head up. Headlights were coming towards me. I braced myself, took count of which shoe had my passport and which had my money, and was ready to run or fight depending on who was in the car.

But, as luck would have it, I am more stubborn than a squad of Italian polizia. The boys had returned. Grumbling, they ignored me as they got out of the truck and unlocked the office door, but they were quiet. Resigned, even. I knew I’d won. Sure enough, after a couple of minutes, the English-speaking officer, who later I’d learn was named Alex, emerged from the office and invited me in.

~ ~ ~

We passed the waning hours of the night companionably enough. They tried to teach me Italian, asked me questions about where I’m from in California, and gave me suggestions about where to go in Rome. Just before daybreak, an off-duty officer showed up dressed like he’d just come from a club. Tight black pants, fitted button-up, shiny, pointed shoes. He conferred with the officers for a moment, then turned to me.

“Would you like me to take you to the metro? The trains have started running.”

“Yes, please,” I said gratefully. I said ciao to the men who’d helped me because I didn’t give them a choice and followed my new savior out of the office.

“So,” the man in the shiny shoes said cheerfully. “We go to the trains. But first, coffee, yes?”

My new savior, indeed.

Ashley Seashore is a native Californian and reformed Valley Girl. Her work has appeared in Porthole, Fast Company, and She is the author of St. Justine & the Voms, a post-apocalyptic adventure romance set in the California wine country with heaps of vampire-zombies.

Strangers in the Bush

April 22nd, 2019

By Susan Bloch

Destination Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I’m traveling into unknown territory with a man I just met.

His name is Karl, my safari guide here in Namibia, and we’re driving along a coast shaped by death and diamonds. A coast where shifting sand dunes bury secrets, mysteries, and skeletons; where for centuries, Atlantic waves smashed sails, masts, gunwales, and rudders, against treacherous rocks; where secrets drowned and secrets were lost at sea; where secrets skulk in rusted ships’ keels and hulls and lie camouflaged inside the bleached whale ribcages littering the beaches. The secrets of what shipwrecked sailors did to survive the torture of thirst, hunger, and exposure; secrets shared between sailors and prostitutes about buried treasure; and in the late 1930s, how Germany’s secret plan to recapture Southern Africa was smuggled to Nazi sympathizers in the region. These tales had captivated me for decades. But no secret was ever so carefully guarded as that by Karl—his family scandal. The secret I didn’t know when the two of us trekked alone into the bush.

At dawn that morning, Karl picked me up at Walvis Bay International Airport. When he met me at the terminal exit, he stared at my purple roller suitcase just long enough for me to notice his lips press together. He wiped the palm of his right hand on the back of his crumpled khaki shorts and with his left, stroked the trim beard framing his suntanned face. With the build of a rugby player, each of his thighs was as big as both of mine together, and he towered over my petite five-foot-four frame. When he leaned over to pick up my luggage, his blond curls flopped over his frown and a hunting knife attached to his leather belt came into view.

“So glad to finally meet you,” he said. “How was your flight?”

“Fine, thank you, but long. Seattle is a long way from anywhere.”

“We have a little farther to go, and then you can chill. Okay?”

Next to the unpaved curb, Karl unlocked his SUV and opened the passenger door, and I stepped up to get into the passenger seat. My foot slipped on the side bar and I stumbled back onto the paving.

“Here, hold onto this handle and go up with your right foot first, not your left,” Karl said.

Then he leaned forward, pressed his palms on my back to stop my wobbling, and I plopped down inside, next to the gear box. While Karl tossed my bag in the back, I turned around looking for our travel companions, but instead saw only two sleeping bags covered in plastic sheeting, occupying the empty seats behind us.
“When do the rest of the group join us?” I asked before he closed door.

“Just you and me this time,” Karl said. “You’re the first woman to do a trip like this with me.”

I smiled to mask my nervousness but couldn’t speak. We both knew this was not the trip I signed up for. Karl had been quite clear in our pre-trip emails: a group of four people minimum—including a few experienced wildlife campers—along with Karl’s two Rhodesian Ridgebacks and a couple of .375 caliber Magnum rifles. Karl had assured me we’d be well protected against attacks by desert lions, hyenas, and elephants. While Karl walked around to the driver’s door, my mind raced ahead imagining the worst. If Karl had a heart attack, was gored by a desert elephant tusk, or was bitten by a black mamba, we’d be doomed. I’d never fired a rifle nor a gun of any sort, driven a vehicle with six gears, or used a compass.

For centuries, women have hiked across Southern Africa under the tutelage of seasoned guides and I wasn’t breaking new ground. But I was a rookie wildlife camper who’d only traveled in luxury organized groups. It was crazy for just the two of us to drive off into the veldt on our own. After the thirty-hour flight, my head felt heavy and I was tempted to call off the trip. Instead, I sighed, too tired to make any sensible decisions. I’d spent six months planning this trip and hoped that being close to nature would help me recover from my husband’s death. I longed to feel John’s hand over mine; longed to hear him tell me what to do; longed to hear him whisper, “You’ll be fine.” The logical thing, he’d probably tell me, would be to go back to the city and join another group. After all, this was the first trip ever I’d taken without him. This compounded my dilemma. For almost two years, I argued with myself, I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to throw off my widow’s shroud. I’d come this far and felt reluctant to give up now.

If Karl sensed my quandary about being with him on my own, he didn’t show it. Whistling, he climbed into the driver’s seat of the six-seater safari jeep, turned the key in the ignition, and put the vehicle in gear. The back of our 4×4 was loaded with a plastic jerry can filled with drinking water; a blackened frying pan; a dented kettle with a scorched underside; potatoes; onions; butternut squash; a pack of matches; an all-in-one can and bottle opener; a chiller crammed with boerewors (South African sausage) and lamb chops; and a wooden box packed with other necessities: sliced bread, boxes of UHT milk, tea, coffee, sugar, pasta, canned beans, a bottle of canola oil, and a case of Lion lager. A rifle lay on top of my pup tent but we had no GPS and nothing to prevent the venom of cobra or puff adder from killing us.

“Each snake requires its own antivenom, which has to be refrigerated,” Karl revealed when I admitted my off-the-chart snake phobia. “The only thing we can do is drive like hell to the nearest clinic and hope they have the antidote.” He chuckled and rubbed a muscular forearm across his forehead. “Never happened yet in all these years I’ve been a guide. It’s unusual to get a request to camp and hike in this area, and I’m looking forward to trying this out with you.” Karl tapped his thumbs on the steering wheel.

He looked at me from the driver’s seat. His green eyes and freckled cheeks faced me full on with calmness and composure. “First, we need to get you a pair of kudu-skin, veldskoen hiking boots like mine.” Karl picked up one foot and showed me the barely worn thick-ridged sole underneath. “These have covered thousands of kilometers and are still going strong. You won’t get far in those white sneakers.”

I raised my hand and covered my mouth. I was glad Karl didn’t know I had hair mousse and a hairdryer at the bottom of my suitcase.

“Then, we drive north along these beaches. In a few days, we’ll turn east to camp and hike across the veldt to climb kopjes, for the rock paintings way off the tourist track that you want to see.”

I tried to block out my friends’ warnings about this trip. They’d told me I should opt for a more conventional safari, where tourists drive around in air-conditioned minivans, sleep in luxury rondavels—huts with en-suite bathrooms—and enjoy gourmet meals in the camp restaurant, all under the eyes of watchful rangers. Maybe I should’ve listened, but I felt the need to track game on foot through the bush and view remote rock art far away from tour groups. Twisting my wedding ring around and around, I wondered how camping in a scarcely populated country filled with snakes and silence—stretching three hundred miles between the Hoanib River in the north to the Ugab River in the south and framed by quicksand and marshlands in Kaokoland to the east—could possibly be a cure for my grief. Surely, the healing power of nature and time away from work would be that catalyst. But perhaps it wasn’t quite enough. I needed to be shaken out of my comfort zone. The impulse to heal urged me to take a step toward my new protectors: Karl, a campfire, the Southern Cross, and luck. If I am to go back into the world, surely now is the time, and this is the place.

At the outskirts of Walvis Bay, we stopped at a shoe store, filled with the familiar smell of new leather, where under Karl’s guidance I bought my veldskoen hiking boots. The kudu skin fit snuggly around my ankles and the thick crepe soles cushioned my feet. It’d been ages since someone helped me choose new shoes, and I smiled, my first authentic smile since landing. I strode back to the jeep and this time, there was no need for Karl to push me up. An unfamiliar sense of recklessness overwhelmed me and with the abandon of a carefree teenager, I plonked my new tan veldskoen on the dashboard.

Our journey begins here—tapped under a dense fog created by the clash of the icy Atlantic Ocean on our left and the broiling Namib Desert on our right, where visibility is negligible. The Skeleton Coast—an apt name for this shoreline filled with tales of ancient demons and modern disasters. Karl shifts gears when we scrape over scrub and bounce through potholes but doesn’t slow down.

“Even nowadays,” Karl says, noting my frown, “fishing boats and stupid surfers vanish in the fog and sand. We still sometimes find a human skull or thigh bones. Some centuries old, some more recent.”
Twenty-foot waves smash on the white beaches and spray flies into the air. Drops dribble down Karl’s side window as we drive on. An involuntary shiver travels up my spine.

“The San, you know,” Karl continues, “are the longest surviving hunter-gatherer society and they’ve lived here for over 70,000 years. They call this place The Land God Made in Anger. Hard to believe that in 1487, they chased the crew of the São Cristóvão, captained by the Portuguese explorer, Bartolomeu Dias, back to their caravel only with arrows.”

“Unbelievable. Against all those cannons and rifles.” I shift my spine against the back of my seat and my hunched shoulders fall away from my ears.

“But let me tell you, this didn’t stop other European explorers from trying to exploit the region, even though they were terrified of being stranded here. They called this coast The Gates of Hell.”

We drive past, I remember reading how, despite all the horror stories, German explorers, seduced by the lure of diamond fortunes, colonized the territory in 1884. How Namibia changed hands when, after the First World War, the League of Nations handed Namibia over to South Africa to govern. These new rulers not only imposed apartheid practices but also siphoned off the country’s rich mineral wealth—uranium, vanadium, lithium, and tungsten, as well as diamonds. Finally, in 1990, after seventy-five years of foreign rule, Namibia gained independence. Now the Skeleton Coast is home to a few vacation fishing villages, deserted diamond mines, and three coastal cities—Walvis Bay, Swakopmund, and Luderitz, which thrive on tourism and a vibrant fishing industry.

Karl squirts the jeep’s washer fluid and turns on the wipers to clear the brown mush—a batter of moisture and dust—streaking the windscreen We drive past the barbed wire fencing that straddles Kolmanskop, once a thriving diamond-mining center—the site of drunken brawls, a hidden diamond, sex in a shack with someone else’s wife, and tormented love across the racial divide. No roads or paths lead up to this ghost town and yet derelict trucks lie parked outside roofless, deserted buildings.

Wind whips up the sand, which blows through tiny cracks in the closed car windows.

From behind a shed, a terrified herd of springbok rush out and leap over the jeep’s hood, their hooves kicking up thick clouds of fine desert sand. Upon landing, they immediately jump up again and then again—their bodies curved, legs stiff, backs arched.

“You know,” Karl says, “they can leap twelve or thirteen feet—we call it pronking. Amazing animals.”

“And so beautiful, with that brown strip on their white faces. I love those big brown eyes.”

Just then, my own eyes begin water and I worry I’ve smudged my mascara. Already, my cheeks feel like paper; by the time this trip is over my skin will be dried out and I’ll look fifteen years older. Twisting around in my seat to look for my sunscreen and a bandana to tie over my nose, I notice a red first-aid kit the size of my iPad. Inside I see a packet of Band-Aids, a gauze bandage, bottle of Dettol antiseptic, a tube of antihistamine cream, and a jar of Vaseline. I’m glad I brought along a tube of antibiotic cream. Only when I rub the sun lotion into my chin do I realize my jaw is clenched tight.

An hour later, we stop in a semi-desert region near Wlotzkasbaken, a small fishing village. When I open the door, I scan the area for scorpions, snake holes, and black widow spiders. Only when I see no signs of movement do I step on the ground.

Karl stands waiting, his arms folded. Then he beckons.

“See these fields of lichens and fungi? There are over a hundred different kinds,” Karl points out. “They’re a mix between a fungus and algae, and this is the only part of the world they grow.” He leans down, picks a small piece of an apricot-colored, lace-like plant covering the rocks, and squeezes a sticky liquid onto my palm.

“Gorgeous,” Karl says. “It smells like fresh strawberries.”

He takes in a deep breath and closes his eyes, but I’m still in turmoil and struggling to enter his world. I sniff the liquid on my palm, but all I can smell is my own two-day-old perspiration.

“The plant absorbs water from the fog and turns this dark color. Springboks eat it for nutrition and drinking water, otherwise they’d not be able to survive here. These plants have been around for thousands of years and are now a protected species.”

Next, Karl points out a flat plant stretching almost four feet in diameter called Welwitschia; the crown is woody and dark brown resembling an elephant’s inverted foot.

“Feel its leaves,” he says. I stroke the unexpectedly smooth, rubbery surface. “This relic from the Jurassic period can live as long as fifteen hundred years. If weather or an animal’s hooves damage the leaves, it heals itself and lives on. The long roots suck up any moisture and stop soil erosion.” Karl puts his hands under the foliage, “Come and feel how cool it is underneath.”

But I step back and clasp my hands behind my back, scared I’ll get bitten or stung. Karl frowns but then his eyes soften.

“It’s okay to be cautious, but you can trust me. Come see the marks on the stones here,” Karl says, his voice animated. “A jackal has just licked off the moisture. Here is his spoor.”

Squatting next to Karl, I struggle to see the animal’s footprints in the sand but follow his index finger to focus on a desert beetle using its bumpy shell to extract water from fog-laden winds. A precious drop of liquid rolls slowly along a ridge of its protective casing into the insect’s mouth. And then another and another. Hypnotized by its determination to survive, I stretch forward to watch how long the bug will persevere. What must be a half-hour later, Karl taps me on the shoulder, takes my elbow, and helps me stand.

“We need to move on so that we’re settled before it gets dark.”

That first night, we camp on a flat stretch of firm sand near Henjies Bay, one of the few small vacation fishing villages in the area. Karl helps me set up my pup tent and rolls his sleeping bag out in the open a few yards from mine. We build a camp fire, drink a couple of beers, cook lamb chops and whole onions, and nestle potatoes in the coals. We do the dishes—he washes and I dry—and I excuse myself to find a bathroom behind a bush, brush my teeth, and finally, snuggle into my sleeping bag in the tent.

After that, each evening follows a typical pattern. As dusk settles, Karl looks for a safe spot to camp, racing over boulders as if he were on a tarred highway. Then we find a flat sandy area with no lion tracks, elephant poop, or snake holes. Soon, flames rise from crackling acacia logs; a lemony-scented resin oozes from them. Sparks shoot into the onyx sky adorned with a pale crescent moon that turns over the month into a bright full moon. The African cuckoos stop their regular knocking, and the bulbuls stop warbling. Stars cluster around us, and we look for shooting stars in the clear night sky. Aromas of grilled boerewors with roasted onions, garlic, pumpkin, and cabbage, seasoned with peri-peri, a local chili powder, fill the air. I expected baked beans and cans of Campbell’s soup, but every dinner is an olfactory and culinary nirvana. It has been years since anyone cooked for me. I sink into my canvas camping chair as if I were floating on the Milky Way.

Before turning in, I fill a small plastic bowl with soapy water, scan the landscape for creepy crawlies, and step behind a nearby rock to wash away the dust from my own nooks and crannies. After a final cup of rooibos tea at the campfire, I crawl into my tent and zip the door, reluctantly locking out the Southern Cross, Taurus, Jupiter, Leo, and Orion’s Belt but glad to know aardwolves, civets, and porcupines would have to chomp through the metal zipper to get inside. Karl unrolls his sleeping bag in the open, a few yards away from my tent, his rifle by his side. Soon, oblivious to hyena cackles and the pebbles under my thin camping mattress, I fall into a deep sleep. I can’t remember when I last slept for nine hours without tossing and turning.

In the mornings, the smell of coffee and bacon entices me to pull on my jeans, T-shirt, and socks. Then I turn my boots over and pat the soles to make sure there are no scorpions inside before slipping them on and tying the laces. Eggs poach in scooped-out orange skin. A bouquet of smoky grilled toast, orange-flavored eggs, and coffee with sweetened condensed milk fills the air.

We head off across the flat plains of Damaraland. Every night we camp in a new unenclosed area—Spitzkoppe, the Doros Crater, Burnt Mountain, and Organ Pipes, where dolerite columns line the sides of a small valley. One evening we sleep near a petrified forest filled with fossilized trees. We spend our days climbing cliffs and crags that take us through a variety of unusual rock formations over thirty feet high.

“This is a scary place,” I say, “I wouldn’t like to be here at night with these sculptures of apes, crocodiles, rhinos, and witches.”

“Ja, for sure. Remember, these shapes came after a huge volcano collapsed here some eighty million years ago,” Karl explains, letting out a low whistle. “The wind and infrequent but torrential rain storms turned it into nature’s best art gallery.”

One afternoon, in the shadow of two towering granite mountains, Karl parks the vehicle near a boulder as high as a three-story building.

“Watch out for this,” he says, pointing at a nearby tree. “If you touch it you can die. When the San were hunter-gatherers, they used the tree’s white sap to poison the tips of their arrows.” I flinch and tuck my elbows in tight and note the shape of the leaves, while Karl strides on ahead.

“This is where we’ll see the rock paintings that most people never get to view. They’re hidden behind these crags,” Karl says. He reaches back to help me jump over a crevice that looks as wide as a city bus.
“C’mon, you can jump this,” Karl insists when I balk. He looks me up and down. “You’re so curious about everything. Now, with those new skoene, for sure you can make it. I want you to see this artwork. Man, it’s something else.”

The crevice is deep, dark, and menacing, but looking straight ahead, I leap toward Karl’s outstretched hands. He grasps my forearm and pulls me over toward him, then steadies my right ankle. The wind whispers as I crawl to the top of the kopje, where Karl finds a piece of art and history about one hundred feet wide on a wall underneath a rock that overlooks an endless escarpment.

Five or maybe even twenty thousand years ago, artists used brushes made from the tails and manes of wildebeest to paint men with spears running after a lion. A group of women holding hands in a circle stands close by. For a while, Karl and I are quiet and still, as if we were standing in a holy place. I take several deep slow breaths, savoring this divine silence. We have the world to ourselves. On cue, the breeze abates and my T-shirt stops fluttering. The longer I gaze, the more shadows and etchings I see—a baby tied on a woman’s back, a baby rhino with an exaggerated long horn, and men sprinting, their legs flying in the air. Almost an hour later, Karl walks within inches of the rock face and clears his throat.

“Researchers say that the red and brown colors are made from finely ground iron oxide mixed with a binder made from animal fat or urine,” he says, pointing at the etchings on the pinkish rock face. “The paint penetrated the sandstone surfaces, which is why the paintings still look so good after thousands of years.”

Charcoal outlines of buried ostrich eggs are harder to spot. Karl explains how the San pierced the shells, sucked out the yolks and whites, filled the empty shells with water during the rainy season, and then buried them. These “eggs” served as their only water source during the long dry season.

“On the ground, you can still find the hunter’s chisels and spear tips.” Karl picks up a few sculpted stones. “Luckily, very few people know this place exists, so the stones are safe for now.”

I fold my palms around pointed stones, stroking them and trying to imagine what it must’ve been like, living so intimately with nature. I marvel at the San’s ability to thrive in what initially seemed like such a harsh landscape, but here is evidence of an ancient, durable economic organization.

“Life as a hunter-gather was not constant work as we tend to imagine, and except for extreme drought, the San had a reliable, well-balanced diet until they had to share the land with white farmers,” Karl says, reading my mind. “When the Germans annexed South West Africa, now Namibia, in the 1880s, they drove the San off their land and destroyed their way of life. Their only way to survive was to farm goats or chickens or work in the diamond mines, and many struggled to make this difficult transition.”

We stay for hours, looking for and sharing stories on the stone surface before we move to the next cave, the next stone, the next cliff, and the next mountain. Karl jumps from rock to rock like a mountain goat and often reaches for my hand and then shoulder when he sees me wobbling on a loose rock or stumbling over a boulder. My body begins to feel lighter and my footsteps more confident as Karl steers me along unmarked paths.

One morning, as we’re packing up to move to our next camp, an elephant walks within fifty feet of my tent and lifts his trunk as if to say hello. I hold my breath and raise my hand to wave back, but Karl cautions me to keep absolutely still.

“You don’t want to scare the beast,” he whispers. “He’ll run fast and, man, we won’t stand a chance.”
The elephant turns and moves on—only then do I let out my breath. On another day, I crouch behind a bush watching a tower of giraffe saunter around thorny acacia trees and strip the leaves but not the thorns, their long tongues wrapping the foliage as if they were rolling cigarettes. Wildebeests, with their wrinkled necks, graze among herds of zebras and springbok and look up anxiously as we approach. A flock of lemony-yellow weaverbirds construct their intricate nests; nearby, a female ostrich sprints away from her group.

“She looks like my Aunt Flora clinging to her shopping bag and running for the bus,” I say.

“Ja,” Karl says laughing. “And that one behind her looks like my neighbor Jan when he goes jogging. He’s chasing her now, I think he fancies her.”

“And she’s pecking at his neck to stay away.”

Vultures ignore us when we kneel to watch them picking at a sable antelope carcass. By the time they hop off, barely able to fly because of their distended bellies, no blood or meat remains on the antelope skeleton. I spend an hour inspired by the courage of a dung beetle rolling a ball of elephant poop twenty times its size up a hill and even appreciate the putrid stench of a rotting kudu carcass as hyenas crunch the bones. Defiant brittlebush shrubs sprout out of crevices, enticing me to hike miles every day. My legs seem to fly across boulders, my back feels straighter, my neck looser, and I haven’t had to take a headache pill for days. In a dusty village, we stop to refuel the jeep, fill the jerry can with water, and buy a cup of Nescafé from a tin shack. Karl chats with shop owners in Khoisan, the local dialect, which is unusual for a white man.

“Toxoba, thank you,” I say, struggling to click my tongue on the x.

In the evenings, shelling and nibbling on peanuts and swigging beer by the campfire, Karl and I discuss the problems of refugees fleeing to Europe, Brexit, the rise of terrorism, and the consequences of climate change. He is surprisingly well informed for someone who’s never left the region.

“I guide about twenty lodge safari groups a year,” Karl tells me, stoking the embers with a stick. “I’m so lucky, man. People come here from all over the world. And I learn so much from them all.”

Near the end of our trip, I confide in Karl about John’s illness and the death sentence it cast upon us. He listens patiently.

“You know,” I say, as I pull the tab on my third can of lager, “John actually rowed a marathon, two weeks before he started feeling breathless. Only then, after a scan, we were told he was riddled with asbestos. No cure; nothing to do; only morphine for the pain.”

“Ja, such is life, I’m afraid. Shame. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

It has been a while since I talked with anyone about this painful time, but now I don’t cry or choke. I’m in a strange mood entering the anticlimax of this journey’s end, wishing I could stay on camping with Karl for another few weeks. We stare into the dying flames, silent, and I toss a few more logs onto the fire. It’s past midnight before we turn in.

On our last day, we walk through the dunes near another abandoned mine before we exit the park at the remote Ugab police station. A sudden squall grabs our travel permit from Karl’s hand, and we chase it, sinking up to our knees in the dunes, laughing as we flop near a shed with no door and sand almost up to the ceiling. The paper is nowhere to be seen when we stand up trying to steady ourselves.

“We might have to stay here forever if they don’t let us out,” Karl says.

I shake the dust off my head, put my cap back on, and laugh. If only.

Near the exit, we lean against the jeep, pull off our boots and bang out the sand. I open an iron gate displaying a sign with a skull and crossbones. Karl drives through, and I close it behind us. A border policeman stamps another piece of paper, takes a note from Karl, and hands me a T-shirt with “Skeleton Coast” in bold blue letters on a brown background. The wind whips around my calves as we walk back to the jeep and my feet sink into the fine sand. I step onto a human skull and scream. Karl turns, reaches for my forearm, and steadies me just before I’m about to fall over. Decades or maybe centuries ago, this other soul hadn’t made it. We have.

A few hours later, we drive into Swakopmund, a town built by German settlers, and stop for lunch at a café that resembles a timber-framed cottage in the Black Forest. As we tuck into juicy peri-peri chicken liver sandwiches, Karl leans toward me and says, “A while back we were well off here. My grandparents emigrated from Germany, and we had a five-hundred-acre sheep farm. My Ma, aach, a lovely woman, gave a German neighbor some diamonds to sell. When she went to collect her cash a few weeks later, this lady denied all knowledge of the stones.”

I wipe my mouth with my paper napkin, wondering where his story is going.

“So, the next day, my brother went with Ma to pressure the woman. They had a few drinks, smoked some dagga, and drove off with my rifle, only to scare her. They argued and mistakenly shot this lady—she died.”

Normally, I drink unsweetened coffee, but now I rip open a packet of sugar and scatter its contents into my coffee cup. With a trembling arm, I refill my cup with the strong brew, add more sugar, and gulp it down. As Karl barrels on, all I think about is that I’ve been alone in the veldt with a man from a family of murderers.

“That was a very bad time for me,” Karl continues. “My Pa didn’t want to be involved in this scandal, so he abandoned us and went to live in Cape Town.” He pushes his chair away from the table and rocks on its back legs. His eyes fill with tears. Karl’s voice fades to a whisper when he describes how he was reviled by the white community.

“The Blacks in the townships let me sleep in their shanties. Finally, I found a lawyer who agreed to represent us and spent a fortune on legal fees,” Karl mutters, dropping his forehead into his upturned palms. “But it didn’t help. Ma died in jail, and my brother, he’s out now. Tonight, he will join us for dinner.”

I shift toward the edge of my chair. Stoked on caffeine, sugar, and Linzer torte, I clamp my hands on my thighs and rub my knees. I’ve never met a murderer before and my stomach clenches. Maybe his pa did the right thing by leaving town, but I couldn’t bolt. My forefinger circles the rim of my coffee cup as my mind flies to dark places. Selfishly, I’m glad I didn’t know this before we set out into the bush. Scorpions and snakes would’ve been the least of my concerns. I would’ve watched his every move. The sharp butcher knife he used to chop vegetables and slice lamb chops would’ve haunted me; the rifle would have terrorized me; my friends’ voices would have taunted me with their smug “I told you so’s.”

Then my head sinks into my shoulders; the shame is all mine. I shiver, and yet I feel at odds with myself for judging him—for contaminating him with his family’s sins when we’d just spent such meaningful time alone together in the wild. He’d gone out of his way to show me rock paintings that most tourists and even locals knew nothing about; he’d cooked for me and pushed and pulled me up cliffs, and not once did I feel abandoned or threatened. For a fortnight, I’d trusted Karl with my life. How could I dismiss him now for a crime he did not commit? Banishing uncharitable thoughts, I feel his grief and imagine how tough it must have been for him to organize his mother’s funeral, how hard it must have been to mourn her. I lean forward and lay my palms on his sinewy forearms. His head slumps onto my hands. For almost two weeks we’d cooked together, slept a few feet away from each other, and trekked for miles in the wild, rarely seeing another soul. Now, surrounded by other diners in the only café in town, he is finally trusting me with his secret.

A chair scrapes, the ceiling fan whirrs, and a cell phone rings. Chilled, I pull my long-sleeved shirt on over my T-shirt and excuse myself to go to the bathroom. A tanned face I hadn’t seen for two weeks stares back at me. No longer gaunt and pale, I look ten years younger. The furrows above my brow are not quite so deep, and the crow’s feet around my eyes look less pronounced. This time on my own has brought me back into the world, and I smile at what I see. Outside, his eyes still moist, Karl leans against the dusty jeep. I touch his shoulder, and we climb in without speaking. The morning fog has cleared and icy Atlantic waves smack the bleached white sand. Seagulls flutter, squawk, and screech as they swoop and dive into the navy ocean. We carry on silently along the coastal road back to Walvis Bay. Tucking my left leg underneath me I turn to face him.

“Thanks for sharing your family story with me. I’m glad that things have settled down okay and that your brother is back in your life. I look forward to our dinner this evening before I fly out.”

Karl nods, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down a few times as he wipes his cheek.

“In the meantime,” I continue, “I’m up for another trip. How about organizing a camping trip to Botswana’s Okavango Swamps next year?”

Susan Bloch is a freelance writer living in Seattle. Her essay “The Mumbai Massacre” (Blue Lyra Review) received notable mention in The Best American Essays 2017. Her writing has also appeared in Tikkun, The Huffington Post, Quail Bell Magazine, Entropy Magazine, and Secret Histories, among others. You can find more of her work at

That Other Hijab Story

April 15th, 2019

By Maryah Converse

Culture and Ideas Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

When I tell people that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Jordan, the response is usually predictable: “Wow. How was that?”

How am I supposed to answer that in few enough words that their eyes don’t glaze over? Overwhelming. Amazing. The hardest job you’ll ever love. A place where I was always and inexplicably a foreigner and a daughter of the desert at the same time.

And sooner or later, they ask the inevitable question: “Did you have to…?”

Sometimes they know the right word (hijab) for the scarf wrapped and pinned about the head and neck. Sometimes they use the politically charged wrong word: burqa. European politicians use this word to describe the niqab face veil, usually black, which is the free choice of several educated Muslim women I know. The actual burqa is a specific garment, that head-to-toe tent, usually blue, with a grate over the eyes, which women in much of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan are forced to wear on pain of death or disfigurement.

Most often, though, people just give an all-encompassing wave from my head to my toes and leave the words up to me. “The hijab? No, I did not wear hijab. Except in mosques, of course. And that one time when my student’s grandfather who had been imam of a local mosque for twenty years wanted to speak to me, and his daughters asked me to wear hijab so that he would be comfortable sitting in the same room.”

“You weren’t pressured to cover up otherwise?”

“No.” Except for that one time that I never talk about.

~ ~ ~

I find it ironic that Americans ask it that way, “cover up,” because that is exactly what “hijab” means: dress modestly, not just on your head but in all your dress, men and women alike. In Jordan, modesty is equally the long shift dress known as an abaya, and the wide-cut pleated slacks that men wear. Yet, when Americans say “cover up,” most are only talking about my hair, just like when they (and yes, many Muslims) say “hijab.”

When I first moved back to Jordan again after the Peace Corps, I had a classmate who used to harass our teacher Ishraq about her sleek, stylish scarves. “I can see your hair!” he would exclaim when a wisp snuck out at her temple. “Now you have to marry me!”

I found it patronizing and insulting, and it always made me angry. Once, I confronted him about it, asked him to stop. “Why?” he asked. “It’s what her own religion demands. She even agreed with me when I asked her.”

I could not convince him that his literal interpretation of a fundamentalist reading of a polyvalent text divorced from its historical context was unfair and insulting. I tried to explain that like the Calvinism that had shaped his cultural and religious heritage, Islam teaches each Muslim to read the Qur’an and other historical sources and commentaries in order to reach her own understanding of God’s commandments. I pointed out that the Qur’an says that only God can know who is a believer in her heart, and what God sees in a Muslim’s heart matters on Judgement Day more than who has seen a wisp of her hair.

“But that’s what it says in the Qur’an,” he always insisted, even though the Qur’an only asks the modest woman to cover that which is usually covered, and the modest man to do likewise.

Which is why I never talk about that other time.

Too often in America, we infantilize these women as passive victims of a patriarchal oppression, but the Muslim women I knew in Jordan were strong, independent, opinionated, and sometimes defiant. Those are the stories I want to tell, the ones that undermine stereotypes instead of reinforcing them. Even though oppression is very real in many majority-Muslim communities, the position of women in those communities is so much more complex than a compulsory head covering.

~ ~ ~

The only woman other than me who did not wear hijab in the school where I taught in the Peace Corps was the counselor I’ll call Maram.

“My father told me not to,” I heard her tell the Islam teacher with titanium conviction. “He taught all his daughters that the hijab is a sacred symbol of faith, and that we should never wear it just because all the other girls were doing it. In fact, my father forbid his daughters from wearing hijab,” she said with steely pride, “unless and until we felt from the bottom of our hearts that we were called by God to do so.”

Since childhood, I had instinctively understood the hijab to be a sacred symbol, like wearing a yarmulke or a crucifix. This was the first Muslim woman I had heard explain it so succinctly, the first of many. And the first of many men I would come to know who insisted that their wives and daughters should make an informed, considered choice whether to cover themselves and to what degree.

Maram must have said the same to our students when they asked. Some of the more assertive, independent eighth graders relinquished the headscarves they had only recently begun wearing. I overheard one girl, defending her decision, proclaim, “Miss Maram said….”

My teacher Ishraq was an equally strong woman who chose to wear a neatly pinned, stylish headscarf. Fluent in English even without ever leaving Jordan, she had a college degree, a good job, and a stubborn mix of defiance and defense of tradition.

The love of her life was paraplegic in a country where disability is traditionally understood as a curse on entire extended families. Her father refused to allow their engagement, then forbade her from seeing her beloved at all. Ishraq told me that she understood her father’s concerns. He worried that for her to marry this man meant being his caregiver for the rest of their lives, meant being the primary breadwinner in a culture where men were heads of household.

She acknowledged that she might never have children, in a country where both husbands and wives derived their honor and prestige, even their names from their children. Her father did not understand, she said, that she wanted to measure her worth instead by her career successes and by honoring her heart. Even when her father imposed house arrest, Ishraq continued to defy him and maintain her relationship.

Out of respect for these and so many other strong, proud, devout Muslimah in and out of hijab, I do not like to talk about that other time, in Jordan’s desert south. I do not want to contribute yet another story to the dark side of the hijab we read about week after week in Western media. I want to represent the best things about the Muslims I have known and respected.

Still, I know all too well that there is a defensive hijab, worn not out of conviction but out of fear. I once succumbed to that dark side myself, and it haunts me every time I talk about the hijab.

My friend Philip, once an Arabic linguist in the military, was visiting me in Jordan. I had been showing him around the ancient rose-red city of Petra in the south, and we were headed back up north to my apartment in Amman. It had just started snowing in the mountains, and we missed the last bus up the King’s Highway. I was brainstorming our options in Arabic with a man at the bus station I’ll call Tamer.
Philip and I could take a local bus east to Ma’an on the Desert Highway, but Tamer called a friend and discovered that the last one of the day had already left. And I did not want to go through Ma’an. It was the only city in Jordan I had never visited, the only place that Peace Corps had forbidden us to go.

Wherever else I have ever gone in Jordan, I always felt completely safe. Everyone knew that the secret police were watching over me. If CNN ever picked up a story about an American coming to harm in Jordan, the kingdom would lose the generous foreign aid they depend on, and even the country’s conservatives didn’t really want that. This was not enough to reassure me in Ma’an, though.

Periodically, disagreements between tribes turned into real violence on the campus of the university there. At the time of Philip’s visit, several students had recently been killed and injured in Ma’an, prompting further violence and deaths as far away as the University of Jordan in Amman. Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood, banned in Jordan, but which exists nonetheless, favoring a militant response to Israel and a government closer to their conservative Salafi interpretations of Islam. The Brotherhood’s adherents are most concentrated in the area of Ma’an. On the rare occasion when riots break out in Jordan, which had also happened in recent years over the skyrocketing prices of bread and fuel, they usually happen in Ma’an first.

Finally, Tamer said, “I’ll drive you.” In America, I would never agree to this, but in Jordan, my adoptive ties with the second largest tribe in the small kingdom and my convincing Bedouin accent gave me a sense of security. Plus, I was with Philip, a protection on several levels, at least symbolically. We agreed to a surprisingly reasonable fare for this ride in the back of Tamer’s roughly twenty-year-old station wagon. The seats were covered in wool rugs, handwoven locally, possibly by Tamer’s grandmother. No one wore seatbelts.

We chatted on the drive, mostly in Arabic. Tamer wanted to know where I had learned my incongruously perfect educated Bedouin-become-urbanite Jordanian Arabic accent. I talked about my two years of Peace Corps, teaching English in a small Bedouin village in the north of the country.

“But you don’t live there now,” he guessed, knowing we were trying to get to the capital.
“No, I live in Amman now. I teach English at a community college, mostly to business people.”
I got Tamer and Philip laughing with stories about unlearning the most egregious markers of my hick Bedouin accent once I had moved to the city.

As we approached the Desert Highway, though, Tamer quieted. “You have a scarf,” he said, “right?”
“Yes,” I said, “I have a scarf.” Jordan’s mountain passes, not much higher in elevation than Petra, were filling up with snow, and Philip and I had gone pashmina shopping in the Amman souk earlier in the week. I had scarves in several colors, on my person and in my bag.

“You should put it on,” Tamer said, and I knew he did not mean for warmth.

I thought about Maram and Ishraq, and about an Afghan family friend back in the States who had worn hijab since her Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. “I wear the headscarf,” she told my mother, “to remind me of being in the Great Mosque with millions of pilgrims from all over the world, all gathered for the same great, peaceful purpose.”

I thought about a Pakistani-American friend. Coincidentally, after months of careful consideration, the first morning she wore a headscarf to school was September 11, 2001. Despite the backlash against Muslims that followed, she still wears the hijab today, as a statement of political defiance as well as religious devotion. Her sweet, erudite, Pakistani-American Muslim husband affirms her freedom to wear the hijab according to her own understanding of the Qur’an, but after she got married, the policing of her appearance by friends and family online became too much to bear. Rather than compromise her understanding of Islam, she retired from social media.

Thinking of all these women and more, I unwrapped the pashmina around my neck and pulled out my wallet, where I usually kept a couple safety pins clipped into the lining. The hijab was a symbol of the sacred, of peaceful unity, of devotion, and sometimes identity politics. Yet here I was, pinning a scarf under my chin, purely out of fear for my safety. I was queasy now over more than just my concerns about Ma’an.
As I wrapped myself in hijab, Tamer spoke in a low, urgent voice. “Listen,” he said, “you be careful in Ma’an. I’ll get as close as I can to the Amman bus, and you get right on it. If anyone talks to you, speak Arabic in your heaviest Bedouin accent, understood?”

He looked in the rearview mirror at Philip behind him. “You let her do the talking. You don’t say anything. Just stick together and don’t speak English until you get up the Desert Highway.”

We assured him that we would follow his advice.

“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” our driver said with forced confidence. “But you have to be careful in Ma’an.”

Driving into the Ma’an bus station, Tamer urged, “Remember, no English!” We thanked him and reassured him yet again that only I would speak, and in my thickest Bedouin accent.

No one bothered us. I asked the bus driver if he was going to Amman, he said yes, we got on the bus, sat down together—Philip on the aisle as a Jordanian husband or brother would do—and that was it. Some ten minutes later, barreling up the road, we began talking quietly. In English or Arabic, no one turned to look or even perked up an ear. Eventually, I unpinned and unwrapped my pashmina. There was no actual danger, and perhaps there never had been. Perhaps Tamer had overreacted, fallen into that paternalism that I usually chafed at in Jordan.

I was raised, in Ben Franklin’s own state, to believe that those who sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither. As a woman, though, almost every time I walk down the street, whether in Ma’an or Harlem, I know that it is rarely so simple. Sometimes I have to wonder, on my block in Newark, if I’m nervous because the man following too closely behind me is black, or just because he’s a man. Recently, on the sidewalk of a small town in New Hampshire, I found myself shrinking backward, heart racing with the same reflexive defensiveness to a white man in his seventies being genuinely friendly.

Wearing hijab was the right decision for myself at the time. Regardless, I felt that I had lost something. I had lost the sense that I was always safe in my adopted country and culture, always protected. Perhaps in part I do not tell this hijab story because, although my fear was real at the time, a sense of shame still lingers years later. It’s the same shame I feel when I wonder if I have profiled someone on the sidewalk for his color. I still regret that I succumbed in some small way to that dark side of the hijab, despite my sincere admiration of Islam and love of Jordan, despite my best, most sincerely felt intentions.

And I understand, in some very small way, what it means to wear the hijab out of fear, not devotion.

Maryah Converse was a Peace Corps educator in Jordan, 2004-2006, and was studying in Cairo during the 2011 Arab Spring. She has written for publications including From Sac, New Madrid Journal, BLYNKT, Silk Road Review, The Matador Review, and Michigan Quarterly Review. Gulf Stream Literary Magazine nominated her work for the 2017 Best of the Net collection, and she has twice been an honorable mention in the New Millennium Writing Awards. Maryah holds a Masters in Near Eastern Languages, teaches Arabic and English as foreign languages in the New York area, and blogs intermittently at This story previously appeared in From Sac, Volume 4, 2016.

Travelers' Tales