Travel and Healing Silver Winner: Moorstones

December 12th, 2016

By Anne Sigmon

A weight of awe, not easy to be borne,
Fell suddenly upon my spirit
—From “The Monument” by William Wordsworth

At nearly one in the morning, the night was black around me—not even a sliver of moon to hang onto. Standing on the damp, foggy grounds of my English manor house hotel, I felt adrift, like an uneasy ghost wandering the moor. I struggled to make sense of the series of calamities that, over the previous six months, had slammed the people I loved. My mother was dead. My brother-in-law’s health was fragile. A miscarriage had cost my family a much-wanted child. One good friend’s husband had died, another’s was desperately, irretrievably ill. Two friends had lost sisters, far too young, to senseless tragedies. Now my cousin—only fifty-eight years old—faced what we all knew would be her final battle with cancer.

I felt cursed, like the precinct of my heart had been strafed by God.

My faith in shreds, my confidence in life shaken, I had come to Cornwall—English land of myth and ancient mystery—to rest my soul and to ponder the haunting fields of primal stone that had been sacred here for six thousand years.

I wondered what these ancient rock temples had meant to the stone and bronze-age people who built them, and to the people who held them holy still. Could these enchanted stones speak to my unmoored heart? If so, what would they say?

The high granite plateaus of Cornwall—rocky outcrops, boggy moors, and windswept cliffs—harbor the greatest concentration of prehistoric stone monuments in Britain: colossal aboveground tombs known as quoits or dolmen; man-tall stone sentinels called menhirs, and enigmatic stone circles with magnetic properties and mysterious force fields. Many of these cryptic stones are aligned with each other, or with the sunset or sunrise on the equinoxes or solstices. It’s a magical vista that has been invested with supernatural power since hunter-gatherer clans first settled here six thousand years ago.

The day before my midnight wanderings, I’d driven into Cornwall alone, heading south down Highway A30. As I crested a hill, the eighty-square-mile plain of Bodmin Moor stretched below me. Under circles of darkening clouds, the moor was a patchwork of yellowy bogs and shamrock-green fields. Crop and pastureland were cordoned into off-kilter rectangular and trapezoidal plots by hedges of dark granite called moorstone. The heft of these ancient walls was camouflaged by cascades of brushy plants. Towering above the landscape, imposing bald granite outcrops called tors jutted from hillsides. Like knots on a spiny massif, the tors—Rough Tor, Stowe’s Pound, Tregarrick, Carn Brea, Trencom—slice through the center of the Cornish peninsula, coursing south toward the Celtic Sea.

Looking down from a highway viewpoint at this eerie landscape, I felt the weight of these primeval stones on my heart—the eons of life, hope, and death that have played out here. I shivered and skipped a breath, disturbed by a palpable force of time and inevitability.

Not far from my lookout, Tregarrick Tor stands on a small tributary of the River Fowey. It is, at a thousand feet, one of the highest points on Bodmin moor.  Some of Cornwell’s earliest hunting bands once took refuge here.  I imagined them clothed in bearskin hides, brandishing spear throwers, skulking through the undergrowth of a hazelwood and beech forest; Cornwall was covered by woodlands then. Life was short—about thirty years—and hard. Set on high ground, often near water, the tors offered shelter, warmth, and viewpoints to spot prey. Over time, wandering clans camped together at these points of sanctuary, to share information, seek mates, and exchange gifts.

Perhaps these prehistoric hunters saw the tors as ancient buildings constructed by ancestor/creator gods. Maybe this is where clans from the north moved in and began to share astonishing information on how to take seeds from the plants they’d gathered and bury them in rows. People learned to water and fertilize the seeds and to coax emmer wheat, barley, lentils, and flax from the rocky soil. They worked the ground with hand axe tools struck from hard volcanic greenstone found nearby, and fashioned flint sickles to harvest the grain. This was the dawn of a new age—the Neolithic, or new Stone Age—which lasted in Cornwall for fifteen hundred years, from roughly 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

Incredibly, one of the first things these people did—just as they abandoned their hide teepees and settled into hamlets of thatched huts, before they built walls around the tors to enclose crop and pasture land—was to turn their eyes heavenward and build some of the most incredible structures known to history: megalithic stone tombs.

Called quoits in Cornwall (and, elsewhere, dolmen—which means “stone table”), these monuments became, over time, much more than gravesites. Visible from afar, the enormous structures marked clan territory. They also served as the focal point for community rituals and, historians believe, an emerging—and fervent—religion based on ancestor worship.

In the West, we no longer worship ancestors. Or do we? I thought of my father, dead for fifteen years. In life I’d always adored him. My promised to him to take care of my mother was the most solemn pledge I’d ever made. Now she had joined him. Their staunch protestant faith had assured them—without question—that, after death, they’d be together in a tangible, sentient heaven. My own faith was murkier, of less comfort in loss.

Leaving my highway overlook, I drove toward Trethevy Quoit, one of the best preserved megalithic tombs in Britain. Less than two miles away, it perches atop an ancient mound in an open field near the 19th Century Cornish mining village of Tremark Coombe. Known locally as the Giant’s House, Trethevy is an immense stone rectangle with a slanting top, built about 3,700 BC.

I arrived in late afternoon. Skylarks twittered from trees at the edge of the field; the air smelled of grass and dried mud. The weather had cleared and filmy cirrus clouds drifted above the quoit. Its dark granite glittered golden in the sun.

The walls of the “house” are formed by six (originally seven) colossal granite slabs. They are, on average, ten feet tall—almost twice the height of the Neolithic men who raised them. The “roof” is a single twelve-foot capstone weighing well more than 20,000 pounds. Today it tilts wildly at about a forty-five degree angle, but once sat flat atop the walls. Most peculiar is a circular hole in the highest corner of the capstone that many antiquaries believe was used for astronomical sightings to mark the seasons. The chamber inside is large enough, archeologists say, to hold perhaps thirty bodies—clan leaders—who were buried with the weapons and treasures they’d need in an afterlife that they, like my parents, were sure would come.

After circling the monument for a time, awed by this crowning achievement of stone-age construction, I walked up the mound and stood in the shadow of the capstone. Shoving hard against a bulwark, I was struck by its immutable heft—a symbol of power and also, it seemed to me, of hope.

Trethevy Quoit and more than forty similar dolmen were raised in England in what archeologists describe as a seventy-five-year frenzy of building between about 3,700 and 3,650 BC. This was a time long before wheels, pulleys, or pack animals—and 1,200 years before the miracle of Stonehenge or the earliest Egyptian pyramid at Sakkara.

I tried to imagine the effort of a hundred men—surely it would have taken that many, or more—laboriously striking greenstone into primitive choppers, fastening the stones with twine to wooden hafts. Straining, in burning sun and biting cold, they swung their axes and toppled trees, then stripped the branches to build rolling logs and dredges. Using all the might the community could muster, grunting and swearing men wrenched each stone onto the log sled, fastened it with leather straps, hauled the wobbly contraption over uneven ground, heaved the stones up an earthen ramp, and, with what seems to me inconceivable effort, hoisted the behemoths into place. It must have taken years.

Why? Why build this gargantuan granite temple instead of walls and hedges to protect their crops and pasture their animals, instead of boats to increase the yield of fish?

The answer, I thought, must lie in belief.

Archeologists say sites like Trethevy show that our stone-age ancestors believed in a journey to an afterlife. This was nothing new. Scholars now believe humans began to conceive of religion—god, spirit, salvation, afterlife—almost as soon as they could think.  What some experts consider the world’s earliest religious monument—celebrating ritual worship of the python—was erected in Botswana 70,000 years ago.

It’s no different for humans today, I thought. The death of my mother and the suffering of my family and friends this year had provoked me to ask some hard questions about my own beliefs. What does it mean to cease to exist? What will it be like, when my time comes, to feel myself slip over the final precipice, into a black anesthesia of nothing? I’ve closed my eyes and tried, many times, to imagine it, but I can’t. I can imagine myself lost, hurt, afraid, falling into protracted sleep. But even in extremis, I can’t imagine myself without some hope of awakening.

Perhaps people have always felt this way. Over the millennia, they have conceived of a savior god-spirit in so many different ways. And, often, they’ve turned to stone as a durable symbol of shelter and hope for salvation.

Standing on the mound at Trethevy with my hand on the warm granite tomb, I felt the power in that space—the gravitas of great age and supreme effort—but also an aura of peace. It was as though, by being there, I was absorbing the faith the builders had in the ability of these god-blessed stones to save them.

It would be almost five thousand years before descendants of these stone-age English forbears once again attempted to raise stone to godly heights. In the Middle Ages, about 1100 AD, they began to construct the great gothic cathedrals. Closest of these to Cornwall is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter in Exeter, fifty miles from Trethevy Quoit.

On the afternoon I visited Exeter, twelve bells pealed the closing of the day from the 130-foot-high Norman tower. In the Lady Chapel, I bowed my head for evensong. Above me, pairs of trumpeting angels carved in medieval times paid homage to the Madonna shining down from 15th C stained glass. As the voices of twelve a cappella choristers filled the vault of this great space, I imagined the heaven its builders saw.

Leaving the service, an adjacent chapel door stood open. On the altar, in place of icons, a slat box heaped with river stones drew me in. Next to it sat boxes of pebbles, seashells, tiny pinecones, and wispy feathers. On the floor, votive candles flickered on a slab of slate, illuminating cairns that unknown supplicants had fashioned from the materials in these boxes. Tiny stone miniatures of the way-posts found by ancient graves, these cairns, I thought, must point the way toward the sacred, to the faith in the future that had abandoned me.

A tear trickled down my cheek as I bent over the boxes and chose a pretty mauve river stone—my mother’s favorite color—a gray pebble, and a tiny feather, then arranged them on the stone altar with the others.  One after another, I remembered loved ones who were in pain: my sister who, like me, grieved for our mother and worried about her husband; my cousin and my friends who faced incalculable loss. I closed my eyes and conjured their faces in happier times, wrapped each face in love and healing wishes, and, for each one, built a cairn, lit a candle, said prayers for deliverance, for healing, for faith, peace—and for hope.

Now we humans have come full circle, I thought, like the ancients, inclining to earth stones to help us face an uncertain future. I turned to leave the chapel, but some ineffable force held me back. I stood in the flickering candlelight feeling close to the spirits of those I loved.  Finally I reached back into the boxes and pulled out stones, shells, and feather to build another cairn. This one was for me.

And as I touch this stone
I feel the hands of those
My brothers
Who at dawn of human life
Erected to that same Old Sun
This temple of eternal praise, and thanked the
Source of Light and Love for just
Another day - to be alive.

—From “The Stillness of This Hill” by Edward Williams (1747-1826)


Anne Sigmon is a California writer, stroke survivor, and autoimmune patient who covers adventure travel for people with health limitations. Her stories about travel to remote corners from Burma to Ethiopia, Iran, and Uzbekistan appear regularly in magazines and anthologies, most recently Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of the Ancient Celts and Bradt Guides’ To Oldly Go.

Travel and Food Bronze Winner: Youth Hostel Cuisine

December 5th, 2016

By Bonnie Morris

Notes from a Woman Backpacker.

Food and drink will tempt you constantly—crepes on the streets of Paris, smorgasbord in Scandinavia, beer in Germany… —“Planning European Travel,” Harvard Student Agencies; Let’s Go Europe 1982

When I began to travel, as a young woman of twenty back in 1981, I traveled cheap. I had no trust fund, no credit card, no aspirations to Grand Tour prestige. I’d just arrived in Israel for my junior year abroad, and Israel was the first other country I’d ever traveled in, aside from border crossings to Tijuana with my parents.

My plan was to see all of Israel from top to bottom in that year, but also to backpack further in the surrounding region while a delicate peace prevailed (this was just after the Camp David Accords.) My tourism had to be scraped from the monthly budget of $100 for food and expenses I received while studying at Tel Aviv University, but $100 a month went amazingly far in 1981, when a bag of Jaffa grapefruit cost five cents on the streets of Jerusalem. As the Israeli shekel inflated wildly, with one-one-hundredth-of-a-shekel coins, thin and light as fingernails, accumulating like pirate treasure in my backpack,  five U.S. dollars bought three days’ worth of groceries.

I plotted a travel plan for that year overseas. After all, I was now based on the Mediterranean, within reach (by bus or third-class boat) of Jerusalem, Egypt, Lebanon, Cyprus, Athens, and–once one gained a toehold on Europe–anywhere served by the infamous “Magic Bus” charters. I wanted it all, and my International Student Identity Card was burning through my canvas wallet. Dismissing the potential risks for a female traveling solo, with a lifetime of family camping trip smarts behind me, I used Tel Aviv University’s generous schedule of vacation days to explore every youth hostel from the Sinai desert to the Swiss Alps. During my first week off from Hebrew immersion classes, I racked up seven countries. And through all that time, and at all of those unpredictable overnight crash pads, the strangest challenge of hosteling was where and how to eat.

Some hostels had kitchens. Many forbade cooking. Some allowed storing food in a community fridge—although other backpackers might be tempted to chow down on whatever precious treats one left unguarded. Not being able to get a meal on short notice was surprisingly common in food-centric Israel: depending on religious holidays (and whether a village was Jewish, Muslim or Christian), local groceries, cafes and bus lines shut down on Friday or Saturday or Sunday. Could a backpacker survive on apples and stashed granola? This was years before the availability of canned “energy drinks” and protein bars.

Swapping snacks, and tips on local cafes, thus became a ritual of making friends at youth hostels. As I would learn, traveling beyond Israel to other lands, there were other survival skills, too, in the subculture of youth hostels:

  1. Befriend a rock star and let her treat you out to dinner.
  2. Flaunt hostel rules by hiding perishable groceries in the snow on your windowsill.
  3. Read the hostel’s guestbook upon arrival to find out what relationships have been going on in the communal kitchen–then shop appropriately.

The Hostels of Israel

Even in 1981, when budget backpacking was a rite of passage for most counter-culturists, youth hostels weren’t for the finicky. One rolled into a bed still stained from strangers, tried to sleep while others snored (or came in drunk), and woke before dawn itching from uncalculated bedbug bites, only to fend off advances from the hostel’s leering manager. Worse still, fellow-travelers might look and smell like hippies but espouse surprisingly right-wing views–particularly in the Holy Land, where religious pilgrims made up a good percentage of all travelers. Men were not the only rigid defenders of doctrine.  I arrived at one hostel very hungry, fresh from a three-day camelback trek through the Sinai desert with Bedouin guides, and of course now it was Friday night (the Sabbath) and every grocery had just closed. But some previous guest had left a bottle of milk and a tin of Osem-brand banana powder in the hostel’s kitchen. By chopping ice into the froth, I concocted two sweet milkshakes: one for myself, and one for the other young woman staying overnight. Then I made the mistake of telling her I was a feminist—and interested in applying to rabbinical school. Launching upwards from the kitchen table, this bunkmate delivered a diatribe on how offended she was by the mere suggestion of a woman rabbi. The only meal I’d had in two days sank in my belly. And at a youth hostel, it’s never easy to avoid the one other person in your room.

Far more amusing were the times I stayed in Jerusalem’s pleasant Swedish Youth Hostel, right in the heart of the Old City, and with dorm-style bunkbeds that introduced women to one another’s peculiarities right away. Here was a typical weekend. On the first night, we were all kept awake by the Jamaican evangelist, whose bedside prayers progressed to a crescendo of speaking in tongues. The next night, my bunkmate was a Brit named Susan Whitby—better known as Lora Logic, of the eighties punk band X-Ray Specs. I was thrilled to dine at the Old City’s Danish Tea House with a real rock star, and later she mailed me one of her new albums. I spent my last evening at the hostel reading Arab history while nibbling delicious Jordan almonds and garinim (sunflower seeds), until an elderly woman sat bolt upright on her bunk and screamed in a German accent, “Please tell me how long you will be crunching and spitting out NUTS?”

A typical co-ed hostel in a seedy part of Eilat, the resort city attracting flocks of backpackers to the Red Sea and coppery desert beyond, offered four beds to a room, kitchen and shower access, 60 shekels a night. First came the bus trip through the southern crescent of Israel, tidy fields bordered by graceful eucalyptus rows, then miles of sandy brown rock formations, then full ghostly moonlight over muted desert hills, canyons, all depth and shadow. No sign of human habitation for miles in any direction; but suddenly a passenger would flag our bus down in the remotest wilderness. Soldiers disembarked in the middle of nowhere. The moon glared. Plastic sacs of mocha-milk were the only snack sold at a brief rest stop near some kibbutz. When we finally reached Eilat, aggressive humanity bloomed: at the first sight of our backpacks coming off the bus, dozens of young male reps from local youth hostels attacked passengers with a hard sell in four languages at once. I’d learned how to bark, in Hebrew, “Too much!” “I’ll find a cheaper room!” and “Back off, sir!”, although this only led to further harassment: “Hey, sweetheart, where you going?” “Why do you walk away, my darling? You do not like me?” “You are so serious; you break my heart!” In Eilat I ended up having to share a hostel dorm room with eight men, who solved their dinner problem by pirating all the other guests’ cheese and fruit from the group refrigerator, whereas I felt compelled to go back out amid the wolf-whistles and actually buy my own meal. When I returned, the kitchen had been overtaken by two more religious male guests, who were vainly attempting to make a Shabbat blessing over wine just as a screaming fight broke out in the stairwell between landlords.

How on earth did I find these places? My guidebooks for locating affordable youth hostels were four budget traveler publications from 1980-81: Frommer’s Israel on $20 a Day, Frommer’s Greece and Yugoslavia on $15 and $20 A Day, and the Harvard Student Agencies’ Let’s Go Europe and Let’s Go Greece, Israel and Egypt. I still have these aging paperbacks; from their pages flutter notes and budgets, chocolate wrappers and youth hostel business cards. It never occurred to me to stay in a hotel. In listing the truly budget youth hostels, the ones where I always ended up, the authors might acknowledge “This hostel is of the no-frills variety.” But fortunately, I was a no-frills sort of gal.

From Athens to Switzerland

After weeks of exploring Israel, I felt ready to set my sights on Europe. Veteran backpackers advised taking the boat from Haifa to Athens, via Cyprus and Rhodes; one could sleep on deck and avoid paying for a berth. Then, once in Athens, backpackers could book a bus to anywhere through one of the many agencies catering to budget student travelers. Everyone assured me this was an easy and affordable way to go all the way from Israel to the Swiss Alps, if I wished; and they were right. What was not easy or possible was feeding oneself en route.

In Haifa, I boarded the creaking Arion, armed with two poppy-seed rolls and an Elite Superman chocolate bar,  expecting to buy dinner on board that night. But although the small ship boasted a white-clothed dining room, several fancy lounges with bar service, a disco with live band, and duty-free shops, backpackers who had paid the low “deck class” rate to park our sleeping bags under the stars soon learned that we were barred from the better decks. Our kind were actually locked at one end of the ship, with a grilled gate between our empty stomachs and the nicer lounges. This soon caused a rebellion. The unmovable Greek stewards (three very handsome men named Asmos, Dasmos and Pagmos) finally relented and allowed me personally into the Tourist Snack Bar, where I was both overcharged and short-changed for the privilege of eating something called a Hellas Club Sandwich. After I disembarked in Piraeus still hungry and now soaked from a thunder and lightning storm at sea, I headed to 11 Amerikis Street, the Athenian YWCA–called, in Greek, the XEN. That meant women, and that was all I needed to reestablish comfort and security.

Having eaten just one sandwich in 48 hours, I found street food in Greece to be fantastic. It was possible to scarf down phyllo-dough-based delicacies all day, every day, cheese-filled triangles and spinach-filled triangles and honeyed baklava triangles all for mere pocket change, until one’s fingers glistened with oil and tiny flakes of phyllo dough littered every inch of one’s clothing. If one tired of forkless dining, inexpensive cafes with sea views offered tenderly transliterated specials such as “Lamp Chop” and “Squeeds Wit Rice.” I sipped ouzo; I rattled with olives; I was happy. And the XEN hostel was a woman-only refuge from streets teeming with sexual harassment–Athens being the only city in the world where a policeman pinched me in broad daylight. Unlike the hostels I was accustomed to in Israel, XEN resembled a chaperoned Seven Sisters dorm, complete with marble staircases, balconies, cool white bedding, and a breakfast straight from Mount Olympus: each day began with peach nectar, chocolate, bread and butter and marmalade, goat cheese and fresh eggs. Fortified with dignified in-house nourishment, I raced off to climb the Akroplis, the temple of Poseidon at Sounion, and other tourist sights until several days later my Magic Bus left for Zurich, via Yugoslavia.

I had my “safe” hostels all picked out for Zurich and the Alps, if I ever made it to Switzerland.  Let’s Go Europe was frank in its assessment of travel and hygiene risks, right down to recommending which countries, cities, neighborhoods, and actual city addresses were best for a young American woman.  But a journey by bus across three borders presented fresh challenges: sleeping upright among snoring and sniveling strangers; packing nourishing food.

For the long bus trip, I brought every flavor of canned fruit juice available from the Greek grocery mart: peach, pear, plum. I brought a sack of almonds and a box of cookies, and I naively assumed I could buy snacks along the way. It never occurred to me that there would be nowhere to change money into local currency when we stopped at the borders of Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland—or that local currency was demanded to use local toilets. And so we wound our merry way through pastoral villages in cool morning mists, sixty unwashed backpackers dying for a bathroom and a meal, drooling at the sight of tidy Yugoslavian farmyards just beyond our windowglass. Kilometer after kilometer of milk buckets, freshwater pumps, dried corn, peppers, pumpkins, eggplants, gourds, baskets of eggs and freshly plucked chickens being dressed for dinner by women in kerchiefs—and no stopping to eat.

Just before reaching Italy, we finally stopped at a roadside stand beside a farmer’s cottage, and had the dreamlike experience of exchanging Western hard currency for freshly laid brown eggs and well water. The road signs changed to “Tutto Con Coca Cola,” and one-way traffic arrows advised “Senso unico” as we roared past Venice at 3 a.m.  By breakfast time we were in Milan, but now it was Sunday, with no place open for us to stop and buy breakfast. Through the bus windows we watched overcoated Italians hurrying to church.

Once I was in Switzerland the quality of both hostels and hostel food made up for previous austerity. I first stayed at Zurich’s Martahaus, another YWCA, for 18 Swiss francs a night, or roughly ten dollars. This gave me a dorm cubicle with towels, washcloths, my own waterglass, a huge down mattress and blankets, coat hangers, and free hot showers. Breakfast, which came with the price of lodging, was enough to fill my belly for hours: an entire pot of hot chocolate, a basket of fresh rolls, and all the butter and jam I could spread. Wee travel-sized tins of honey and jam found their way from the breakfast table into my pockets for daily strolls around town, and that was all I needed for sustenance until late afternoon. When I hiked in the mountains, following chamoix and deer and rabbit tracks up to Kleine Schedigg and Brandegg, clean snowballs were my bottled water, tasting of treeline and sky, and a raspberry jam or honey packet dribbled over a snowball made for an improvised Snow-Cone as tasty as any childhood memory. When my energy flagged around 4 p.m., I’d seek out an inexpensive restaurant and wolf down the cheapest item on the menu, which was always Italian food: ravioli et salat. Once or twice I upgraded to raclette, the authentic Alpine cheese dish invented by past generations of thrifty snowbound Swiss families. Like fondue, raclette evolved as a way to use up stale bread and cheese, but improved on mere dunking by offering toasted cheese scraped onto a sizzling hot plate with chives, new potatoes and pickled onions. In this manner, surviving on youth hostel breakfasts and snowball lunches, I “did” Switzerland by dining out just one meal a day.

I moved on to visit Grindelwald, which in addition to spectacular skiing and climbing offered an Olympic-level iceskating facility (der Eis Hall.)  This arena was open to the public several hours daily, and I skated my heart out, finally mastering the cross-over while precocious child athletes whizzed around me—but I emerged very hungry at midday with my entire daily food budget blown on skate rentals.  Keeping food in the rooms or dorms of most Swiss hostels was verboten, part of an uber-cleanliness dictum, but anyone with a ticking brain could see that a ski town offered sneaky possibilities such as burying small quantities of milk, juice and cheese in certain piled-up snowbanks surrounding the dorm. For a handy, personal refrigerator, I kept bottles of milk and yogurt on the icy windowsill just beyond my bunkbed, and observed various males in the dorm using a similar method for chilling beer.

For low-cost Swiss foodstuffs, one naturally shopped where the locals went: at the Co-op grocery. There, an entire bag of croissants cost less than one chocolate bar, as did utterly delicious herbal cheese spreads. Packaged wursts and dusty Italian salamis dangled over the Orangensaft and Appelsaft juices. When the Co-op was closed, Switzerland also offered vending machines at most train stations, selling loaves of bread, tiny jars of peanut butter and yoghurt—and home pregnancy test kits.

Pregnancy kits? As the male guests at the hostel stomped in to our darkened dorm at 11 p.m. each evening, just making the curfew, I wondered how many previous female travelers had blundered into Alpine pregnancy with one of these beasts: managing to sound like a dozen instead of five or six, they lurched in on their heavy boots, slapped on all the lights, jangled their gear onto coat hangers and roared with beery laughter while turning on water full blast at every dorm sink. Finally bedding down in the dark, they’d spend the next hour or two thrashing above and below me on squeaky-springed beds, guffawing and talking in loud normal voices, blowing their noses. Then the snoring and breaking of wind began. If skiing trails were good, at 5 a.m. various members of the male snoring platoon would get up and go, but leave all the windows open, blowing der Foehnwind into our faces.

Returning to Israel, I took the train from Zurich to Athens, believing this a classier option than the Magic Bus. This left me with six dollars, 243 shekels, 53 schillings, 3 dinars, 38 drachmas and 15 Swiss centimes. After Austria my compartment filled with Yugoslav soldiers, cutting chunks of meat from a leg of mutton wrapped in brown paper. They enthusiastically offered me beer, mutton, — and pornographic magazines. When they all removed their shoes and went to sleep in a big pile, inviting me to join them, the ten unwashed socks in my face drove me down the hall to sleep sitting up beside an old woman. Out of food, out of privacy, and my whole body on alert that night.

At 2 a.m. we arrived in Athens, and I took a taxi to the airport, where I slept on a fly-covered bench for four hours before boarding the short El-Al flight back to Israel. Typically, El Al offered an enormous meal, although the trip to Ben-Gurion airport lasted less than 90 minutes. I wolfed down warm rolls, chicken and potato salad, mocha-flavored mousse. “Are you going to eat your apples?” I asked the Israeli couple next to me. “What about your desserts?”

Backpacking New Zealand at Forty

That was my first year as a world traveler; and I’m glad to say that my use of quirky youth hostels didn’t end in 1982. Even during my thirties and early forties, when I had clearly ceased to be a “youth,” I returned to some of the same old fleabags in Israel and Greece, and I made cheerful use of “backpackers” throughout New Zealand. There, no one aspired to pretentiousness; and jolly hostel names reflected this mellow Kiwi vibe: The Mousetrap, The Pickled Parrot, The Missing Leg, The Ebb and Flo, The Lazy Hedgehog, The Stray Possum, The Funk House, The Melting Pot, Southern Laughter, Bad Jelly. During my travels in New Zealand I stayed at Just The Ducks’ Nuts, The Pipi Patch Lodge, and The Brown Kiwi.

“Be a Good Kiwi: Don’t Litter,” advised every trash can, and Intercity Bus rules warned “No Eating! No Drinking! Backpacks GO UNDERNEATH!” But hostels had enormous kitchens and one could eat and cook in them. This camaraderie was encouraged by the Budget Backpacker Accommodation guide: “We no longer need to hunt our own meals or grind our own grains, but we can still explore the local market, discover some local food, learn what to do with it, and share all that in an international communal hostel meal.”  Lounges burst with friendly travelers sharing their Marmite, Sanitarium Brand Fruity Bix, Lemon & Paeroa, canned sliced lamb’s tongues, apricot muesli bars, and canned hot something-or-other with a sketch of a schoolgirl in fierce field hockey uniform. At the Pipi Patch Lodge in Bay of Islands, I took a hot tub under the stars (in this case, the Southern Cross) with carefree young Brits on open-end round-the-world tickets, and we sipped hot Milo and fed the gulls banana chips right from our hands. Though I was twice the age of these other backpackers, they invited me to join them in front of the telly. Would I like some candy? Sprats? Pinky? Moro? Cherry Ripe? Banana-toffee pudding, self-saucing pudding? Everyone kindly, everything shared. My days of eating snow-balls were well behind me.

Near Mt. Manganui I stayed at the Duck’s Nuts hostel, which turned out to be full of kiwifruit pickers—big men in muddy boots, and, briefly recalling Switzerland, I opted out of the dorm and (now a salaried grown-up) took the big double front room with bay views all to myself, for a whopping $13 a night. The men were in the kitchen toasting bread, drinking beer and rolling joints, so I dined at the big motel just across the park, which offered Sunday dinner for $5: roast lamb, kumara, carrots and peas, cabbage, potatoes, beets, rolls, then rice pudding and chocolate bread pudding. I needn’t have avoided the fruitpickers, though: when I came in, they were lying before the fire watching telly, absolutely silent and then emotionally choking up over an American soap opera. They offered me pickled onions in rum and honey, and when I begged off to go to sleep wished me “Cheers” and “Good on ya,” making sure the next day that I got safely to my bus.

I’ve just turned fifty-three, and my enthusiasm for world travel hasn’t faded a bit. I’m staying in more bed and breakfast inns, true. But I’m not afraid of road food/hostel food, the great cuisine of travel and adventure. I travel with the grapefruit spoon packed too.


Bonnie Morris is a women’s studies professor at George Washington University, and the author of twelve books, three of which were finalists for the Lambda Literary Award. Her two most recent books were Women’s History for Beginners, which won second prize in the New England Book Festival; and The Schoolgirl’s Atlas, which won the Finishing Line Press prize for a first volume of poems by a woman writer. Her work has appeared in more than fifty anthologies of women’s writing and in the Washington Post, Comstock Review, Memoir, Gastronomica, Chatauqua, Del Sol, Lilith, and the Gay and Lesbian Review. Learn more here.

Travel and Sports Bronze Winner: Parahawking in Nepal

November 28th, 2016

By MJ Pramik

Seeing the world anew.

When I hit sixty, my eldest daughter said, ‘Sixty is the new forty.’ These words spawned in me a wanderlust the likes of which I couldn’t believe, and weeks after my birthday I challenged myself to go alone to Antarctica. After cavorting with flocks of frenzied penguins and climbing out of a dormant volcano, I returned to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego – and an email bearing the news that my ninety-one-year-old father was fading fast. I rushed from Argentina to Ohio to hold his hand for the last five days of his life. I never did tell him, a great watcher of birds, about my adventure with the penguins he would have so loved.

After witnessing my father’s death, I resolved to live more fully in each moment. My most vivid moments come when I’m somewhere new, moving through uncharted waters or air. Not only did I commit to hitting the road more frequently each year, I pledged to my father’s memory to let go of fears that, at sixty, still held me back.

I have a particular fear of heights. Even Ferris wheels stop me cold. My breath freezes whenever the bucket pauses at the top. I have peered warily at the London Eye, never gathering the gumption to purchase a ticket; similarly, I have always adamantly refused to look down from the Empire State Building, and when flying I automatically select an aisle seat.

However, having watched my father face death with grace and courage, I vowed to face life without the reticence and trepidation that had tugged at me for a lifetime. It was in this spirit of abandon that I pulled a running jump (with some help from a launch crew) off the over 4700‑foot Sarangkot Mountain in Pokhara, Nepal to parahawk with a bird named Kevin.

Before I went to Nepal, the concept of parahawking had never entered my consciousness. The British falconer Scott Mason and his crew created this hybrid of falconry and paragliding in 2001, melding adventure with conservation. The Parahawking Project educates about hawk and vulture flight behaviour and how these birds survive in the wild. Through parahawking tandem rides, the organisation raises funds to restore the nearly decimated vulture population in Nepal.

Vultures have an enduring image problem. People often envision them circling above a nearly dead animal, ready to dive in once it heaves its last breath. On top of humans’ general distaste for these creatures, a crisis occurred in the late 1990s when Nepalese, Indian, and Pakistani farmers, as a compassionate gesture, treated their farm animals with the anti-inflammatory diclofenac to reduce their pain as they aged. These creatures eventually died in the open and, as the many varieties of Asian vultures rid the streets of the carrion, the diclofenac-laced flesh poisoned the birds and their numbers decreased precipitously.

Parahawking consists of tandem paragliding while feeding water buffalo meat to a large raptor. I hung suspended in a bag seat while Scott, a seasoned British paraglider and expert falconer, sat behind me and operated the guide lines and controls. On my maiden flight, I paired with Kevin, a trained white-feathered Egyptian vulture whose black-tipped white wings were a stunning sight to behold, spanning five-and-a-half feet.

Kevin is a rescue bird. The Egyptian vulture, which inhabits southern Europe, northern Africa, and western and southern Asia, is one of ten species nearing extinction. On Phewa Lake, Scott’s base and home to his young family, Kevin demonstrated his species’ expertise at the use of tools by dropping rocks onto an egg to crack the shell. His thin beak and long neck allows him to claim carrion larger birds cannot.

Choosing to fly off a cliff was not my usual modus operandi. I required a slight coaxing. Christina, organiser of my Nepal expedition, encouraged me. ‘They haven’t lost anyone yet,’ she said. But there’s always the first time, I thought.

However, my sixty-year-old new resolve allowed another rather surprising thought: If I must die someday, soaring through the unseen wind currents above the white Annapurnas will be as lovely place as any.

In the days leading up to the my flight I continued trekking the sites around Pokhara, panting my way up to the Shanti Stupa, or Peace Pagoda, the Buddhist shrine on an island in Phewa Lake adjoining Pokhara. The stunning Annapurnas kept me in the present.

My only instructions for parahawking were: leap off the cliff and keep running in case the chute doesn’t open. Right. My mind pressed my legs to move through the huge and powerful gusts of wind. However, matter over mind won and I slammed back into my harness seat. A crewmember had to help our tandem launch by essentially tossing me over the cliff. Then we were off, circling the Sarangkot with two dozen other paragliders.

In flight, we soared eye-to-eye with the enormous birds, following their movements to catch updrafts and keep our chute apparatus aloft. The eyesight of birds betters that of humans by ten to fifteen times. Their keen eyes identified the swirls of dust defining drafts and currents that were invisible to me on this bright, blue-skied day.

Suspended in the air, time stopped. Scott swooped up, whistled for Kevin. The graceful great vulture made his approach to my outstretched, leather-gloved hand that held his treat. He gently retrieved the fresh-cut water buffalo chunk that would fuel his long journeys through the air. We repeated this scene many times. I filled my lungs fully during each of the thirty minutes aloft.

One abrupt updraft did surprise me. I had to close my eyes and trust my pilot during a quick right jolt and ascent. We climbed several hundred feet fast, then turned and the entire snow-capped Annapurna range spread out before us, a heavenly vision.

The sky resplendent with multi-coloured chutes, I found I had no time to even consider my fear. Our half-hour flight ended so gently. Much like Kevin, we glided to a small patch of grass bordering Phewa Lake, smack-dab across the road from the impressive Maya Devi Temple. Enlightenment indeed.

I find myself agreeing more and more with my sometime travelling companion, an Australian septuagenarian whose motto is: ‘Comfort travel doesn’t interest me.’ If anything, I now seek discomfort travel, or travel that offers me opportunities to confront my fears, push my boundaries, expand my worldview, and build trust and connections with my fellow creatures on this earth.

I hear some people speak of bucket lists and thousands of places to see before they leave this earth, as if travel exists as a checklist to complete. I find that each second spent travelling breathes life into the following moment of time and place. I now see the distinct shape of each leaf on the trees lining my street and inhale the scent of cantaloupe in my local market with gratitude. I meditate while watching the birds gliding above my San Francisco home. Travelling deepens one’s senses and sense of self. It lengthens and stretches out the time we have to challenge ourselves to begin anew, each day to rise above this earth.


Mary Jean (MJ) Pramik moonlights as a medical writer, contributes to Travelers’ Tales “Venturing in” series on the Canal du Midi, Southern Greece and Ireland, and anthologies on Costa Rica, Bali, and Cornwall, England. She teaches graduate writing skills at San Francisco State University. MJ Pramik has won Solas Awards for her travel essays, blogs about travel and science at Field Notes: Travel in Times of Catastrophic Change.

Travel Memoir Bronze Winner: Singing Lesson

November 21st, 2016

By Megan McNamer

Taking Communion in a karaoke bar.

In the late Seventies, when all of Taiwan was under construction, there was a bar in the capital city of Taipei called the Club Kotobuki. It was a place to go for Japanese businessmen missing the home office. It may still be there, I don’t know. I haven’t been back.

As a female American student of Chinese, trying to cobble together a living teaching English, I would never have found this bar on my own. But I was brought there regularly during the fall and winter of my twenty-second year by a tall, soft-spoken, slightly pigeon-toed Japanese man named Saito Susumu. He had been sent to Taiwan by the Mitsubishi Company for the specific task of learning enough Mandarin Chinese to conduct trade on what everyone then called “the mainland,” and this he later did. I, on the other hand, was there to learn Chinese for reasons less definable. I had been few places in the world. I had just graduated from a state university not far from my hometown with a liberal arts degree qualifying me to do nothing that I was aware of. I had a large and painful yearning. Looming larger was a horror of moving into settled adulthood still at home.

The Club Kotobuki was underground and private, small, dark, and intimate. You could choose to sit on low, dimly-lit couches around tables of teak, or up at the brighter bar, where shining glasses lined the opposite mirror. There, patrons kept personalized bottles of Johnnie Walker, to be brought forth by lovely, silky Chinese women. Kneeling at the tables, hovering at the bar, these women filled and refilled our glasses, their hair falling forward like the first strong strokes of calligraphy.

Pineapple wedges appeared, each speared with a tasseled toothpick. Orange slices had a section of rind already lifted away from the pulp. Paper-wrapped chopsticks were peeled, snapped apart, and used to eat lychee fruit. Thumbnail-sized sunflower seeds set off the sweet of the fruit. The salty shells were rolled around the tongue, then quietly cracked once, slid into a cupped hand, and deposited into a blue, porcelain bowl.

Drinking whiskey in that bar was like taking a cure. Or communion. The glossy hostesses assumed an air of careful indulgence, handling the ice tongs like ceremonial objects in their small, precise hands. They treated me, the only female patron ever there — decidedly unlovely in my battered, irreplaceable, size 9 shoes, mildewed shirts, and rumpled bandannas covering perpetually dirty hair (I just could not figure out how to exist gracefully in the urban Asian tropics) — the same way they treated the smooth-suited businessmen: as if I were a large child in need of care. I loved it, without shame.

The Club Kotobuki was quiet except for low conversation, which, as in most bars, became increasingly animated and noisy as the night wore on. It was customary then for patrons to get up and sing. There was a piano player on call, a microphone, more for effect than necessity, and a songbook with lyrics, seldom consulted. The singing seemed to move out of the conversation; it was rarely an orchestrated event. But a marked transformation took place. Otherwise straitlaced and apparently stoic men sang with their eyes closed and a quaver to their voices. Saito Susumu – usually impassive, even constricted – sang in a booming baritone, using various, idiosyncratic hand gestures. He placed his fingertips delicately on his chest. He slowly extended his hand up and out, to encompass us all.

Not knowing Japanese, I could only guess at the songs’ subjects, but it seemed they must have to do with desperate love, death, and despair. When finished, my friend would regard the microphone quizzically before laying it gently on the piano. Then he’d come tiptoeing back to his place at the bar to resume, with much clearing of the throat, his carefully constructed English conversation.

I myself never sang. That’s not to say I wasn’t in demand. As a Westerner, as a young, female customer, I was a novelty. I was urged to sing – by my partner, by the butterfly barmaids, by the businessmen in blue – but I did not. This refusal was completely contrary to my nature. I am a born showoff and back home I had been known to sing at parties, appropriately or not, long and loud. But I sensed my sweet place at the Club Kotobuki required reticence. I was to stay the silent, wide-eyed foreigner, a scruffy girl who was both nicely strange and an apparent stranger to the multifarious ways of the world. I made the barmaids even more exquisite, the businessmen more natty and knowing, and I gave my partner – simply because I was a Westerner and a woman — the worldly look I knew he wanted.

But I have always regretted not, finally, doing it. I have always regretted not singing.

My life in Taipei felt so out-of-joint. I walked awkwardly down the streets, and everywhere I went I seemed to alter the landscape. The street vendors, the taxi drivers, the open-mouthed children – even things themselves, the fruit stand awning, the sign at the bus stop in Chinese characters, the laundry hanging from the temple, the bamboo scaffolding encasing every other building – seemed to cease normal activity or states of being as I approached and assume unnatural poses, with all attention brought to bear upon me. I couldn’t see them clearly, I couldn’t see what they were. After I passed I felt a subtle shuffling behind my back as these things and beings fell back into place and resumed their unfathomable lives.

I lived in an old, wooden, palm-draped house behind a cement wall studded with shards of Coke bottles, right in the center of the city. The house dated from the Japanese occupation period (the wall, I think, came later), and was scheduled to be demolished, along with the rest of the street – a busy, barely two-lane road of tiny shops with specific trades: a shoe repair place; a grass mat shop; a funeral store selling paper money, toy-sized paper cars, and paper televisions; the moon cake bakery; the shaved ice stand; the small tailor shop that displayed sumptuous white wedding dresses on ghostly pale mannequins. Buses and trucks rumbled by just outside the gate, but in my yard there was a carp pool and papaya trees.

The rooms of the house were rented to foreign students by a Chinese couple who had five grown sons living in the States. The house was in terrible disrepair. The roof leaked during the frequent torrential rains. When typhoons arrived, glib deejays from the USAF radio station advised us to cover our windows to avoid flying glass. In the clammy winter the walls and the already gray, flea-infested tatami mats went white with mildew. Hand-sized spiders rustled in the communal bathroom (once I rose from the toilet and a particularly hairy one lumbered out from under the lid). In the shared kitchen area, whenever someone approached, the walls reabsorbed rats. The carp pool was clogged with mud, and the papaya trees were nearly buried in a jumble of brush, boards, and tangled electrical wire, home to yowling cats.

I chose this house because of the location and the cheap rent, and, initially, it fulfilled some of my more romantic ideas about life abroad. I was led there by the hand as far as the front gate by a former tenant who had chosen it, I’m sure, for the same reasons. I didn’t stop to think why he was living somewhere else. After I started teaching English it occurred to me that my Chinese students did not live the way I did.

The Wangs – the large, sloth-like, perpetually bathrobed landlord and his tiny, sorrowful wife – kept to their own quarters and we kept to ours. There were three American women, counting me. Gwen was from New Jersey and had money and a good education and was out on a lark before picking a graduate school. Shari was from Los Angeles and had no money and worked hard at her Chinese, hoping for a job in the travel business. Her Vietnamese boyfriend had a questionable visa and was struggling at his hole-in-the-wall restaurant. There were two sallow Frenchmen who stayed closed off in their tiny room, laughing. A fussy Australian named Andrew sipped tea in a windowless shed behind the main house. Gretel, a morose German from then West Berlin, scuffled around in the crashing heat and humidity, chain smoking in a heavy, misshapen wool sweater.

I was embarrassed to talk on the phone in the hall. It was a pay phone the Wangs had installed for their lodgers – you who had to dig up the right kind of coin and calls were three minutes. I always carried a piece of paper with me to the dark, recessed phone shelf with my initial phrases written down. Usually I was calling one of my students, who would immediately switch to English upon hearing my voice.

I felt an instant, inexplicable guilt when I came to Taiwan that I couldn’t speak much Chinese and this feeling kept me from learning. It also made me feel alienated and angry at the local people and at the same time sad at our separateness. I spent long hours in my room reading pirated copies of novels like The Thorn Birds, popular that year, instead of studying Chinese or venturing out to practice it. I considered time spent with Americans or any English-speaking foreigners mostly wasted, but I had no real Chinese friends. My room felt unoccupied even when I was in it. When it wasn’t raining, the dulled sun held dust in shafts of light. Once I went down to the library of the United States Information Service, where the air conditioning was on so high you had to limit your visit, and watched a video called “A Tribute to Duke Ellington,” with Gladys Knight narrating. Then I cried in the bathroom. I ate peanuts and bananas for dinner, bought from vendors across the street.

After several months of this kind of life, I met Saito. This is what I called him, with some uncertainty. (“Saito san” seemed too formal, “Susumu” too familiar, and, to my ears, silly.) He had been invited, as I had, to go to the seaside with Donald Yu, an American-Chinese from San Francisco, also a student of Mandarin and a recent college graduate. Donald was in hiding from his first ever job, back home, as a computer programmer. His task had been figuring out “kill ratios” for nuclear weapons. The job made him feel bleak, he said, as if explanation were required. He was taking a break.

We went by bus to the seashore, switching twice. It was my first trip out of the city. Saito and I were to provide protection for Donald by acting as a buffer between him and the leader of the excursion, a Taiwanese girl who had taken the name of Debby. Debby had an unreciprocated crush on Donald, or Yu Ing-Long, as he, in turn, preferred to be called. This was the name given him by his Chinese teacher, since he had no real Chinese name, except for the Yu. The “Ing-Long” had to do, Donald said, with a dragon.

I had a Chinese name, too. It was Mai Jia-Ming, which invariably made Chinese laugh. They said it should belong to a boy, since Jia-Ming meant “household-intelligent,” or, conceivably, “the intelligent one of the household.” Mai means wheat. (My father was a cattle rancher then and also grew hay.) I’d chosen components of other names that were offered by my Chinese teacher, names such as Ming-Ming (“little charming one” – a different twist on the “ming”) and Jia-Ren (“house person”). I’d chosen the components and scrambled them.

Donald insisted on calling me by my made up Chinese name, and we were all to call him by his Chinese name, and the Chinese girl, as I’ve said, was Debby. Saito stayed Saito.

He didn’t speak much, and when he did, in English, his voice was very soft, with sentences riding on a long exhalation of breath, as if his otherwise ramrod, closed-up self had found a means of escape. I felt him watching me throughout the trip, and I resented it, just as I resented all the solemn stares on buses, in shops, and on the streets, making me feel sweaty and gawky and beleaguered. I didn’t like the way he wore knit slacks and leather shoes to the beach or the way he minced along the sand, and I disdained the shopping bag he carried his lunch and I-didn’t-know-what-else in. It had a picture on the side of a Japanese film starlet.

I hadn’t brought a lunch and was starving. A vendor came by selling what I had always taken to be entrails basted with fat. Pig gut-on-a-stick. To my horror, Saito was buying me one. Yu Ing-Long was up ahead with Debby. Saito handed the food to me and waited, his precise face polite, nothing more. I hesitated. Longing mixed with my anger. I bit. Saito smiled.

“Rice,” he sighed.

That was the turning point in our relationship, and eventually we became friends. He ordered decent meals for me in real restaurants, took me to temples and festivals I otherwise would have missed, and showed me how to figure out the buses. I, in turn, helped him with his English. Perched on bar stools, sipping our whiskey, we had long, stilted conversations in which he lectured me about something to do with the Meiji era. I think we were actually involved in a careful courtship, but it never was acknowledged, nor did it come to anything. He saw, I felt, how paralyzed I was, and I appreciated being known. That was all.

I came to love Taiwan, although I never really did like it. My first night back in the States I lay in bed at my sister’s quiet apartment in Portland and felt stricken with loss because I couldn’t feel the thundering trucks, smell the acid combination of rotting vegetables, sewage, and diesel, or hear the 2 a.m. call of the garbage man, who had always sounded as though he were being disemboweled.
If only they had insisted a little longer. At the Club Kotobuki. I would have stirred slowly from my place next to Saito at the bar and slid off the stool to the accompaniment of cheerful and doting applause. I would have picked up the microphone as if it were dangerous yet familiar, conferred briefly with the piano player, closed my eyes, and sung a perfect song – maybe in Chinese, maybe in Japanese, maybe in a language none of us knew at all.


Megan McNamer’s essays have appeared in Sports Illustrated, The Sun, Salon, Islands, and several anthologies. Her fiction has received Finalist awards in contests with New Millennium, Glimmer Train, the University of New Orleans Study Abroad contest, Writers at Work, and the St. Lawrence Press Big Moose Prize. She was executive director of the Missoula Writing Collaborative, a writers-in-the-schools program, from 2001-2014.

Honorable Mention: From Morocco, With Love

November 14th, 2016

By Anna Elkins

A progressive encounter of possibility.

Paris, Night, Letters

My love letter from the Sahara begins in Paris.

It is March and just after dark on the Île Saint-Louis. My friend Christina and I have arrived at a literary salon in a swanky apartment with high-beamed ceilings and low lights. The evening’s theme: letters written by hundreds of women a dozen years ago to a man featured as an eligible bachelor in Marie Claire.

The man is a Parisian installation artist. He kept the letters, and he has gathered philosophers, artists, and writers to fill this living room and engage in expansive dialogue about them. About Love. He tells us he will be creating an exhibit with the missives. He pulls them from his leather attaché case and reads excerpted declarations of desire and confessions of passion. The artist’s friend translates most of the conversation into English, shaping abstractions in the air with his long fingers.

The letters were written by hand in an era before the prevalence of texting and email, and the salon discussion—fueled by pastel macaroons and Champagne—traces the morphing shape of desire through the ages.

As the night progresses, the translator stops translating, the discussion heats up, and I wind down with the help of jetlag and a fading sugar rush. In the back of the room, I nod off, dreaming that Paris writes me a letter.

Paris, Morning, Mystery

I would expect Paris to write a gray and rainy letter in the spring. But this week, she’s using blue-sky paper and puffy, white-cloud ink. After dreams of quills and inkwells, I wake up in the not-so-swanky room Christina and I rented in the 12th arrondissment, feeling inspired and hopeful. After a café au lait, I feel inspired, hopeful, and ready to reply to Paris…preferably after a trip to the patisserie.

We begin the long walk toward the Seine. We pause at Notre-Dame with croissants before crossing the Pont au Double to the landmark bookstore Shakespeare and Company. We climb the stairs, past the inviting spines of books and uninviting signs prohibiting cameras.

At the top, I stop. There, squished in the narrow, upstairs hallway stands a tiny booth with a chair, table, and typewriter inside. The booth’s ceiling is just high enough for someone to sit upright.

A single sheet of blank grid paper curls out of the typewriter carriage. I accept the silent invitation and squeeze my 6-foot 3-inch self into the little booth—not much harder than squeezing around the bathtub where we’re staying.

I type “Once upon a time,” but there is no ink left in the ribbon. I lean forward and can just make out where the keys hit the paper’s grid lines. Then I scan up the page. Goosebumps stipple my arms. Another, inkless writer typed a phrase just before my own: from Morocco, with love.

“Christina, look!”

Of course, the letters are invisible unless you hold them about six inches from your face. I pull the sheet from the roller and show her.

She looks at the paper, then at me. She smiles. “That’s a good sign.”

Especially since we are on our way to Morocco to write.

I take the prophetic slip of paper with me.

Fez, Every Moment, Roused Senses

If Morocco were to write me a letter, it would smell like the tanneries, taste like date milk with orange blossom, feel like the cool zellij tile around a fountain, sound like the evening call to prayer, and look like a donkey.

I should say: If the city of Fez were to write me a letter.

Mine went something like this:

Dear Very Tall Madame,

They say you should not have expectations when you travel. I disagree. Here are a few suggestions:

Expect small children to point at you and old women to frown.

Expect men to accost or ignore you, depending on whether they believe (and hope) in the stereotypes of Western women or whether they are good men with wives at home.

Expect to start craving lamb-and-prune tagine cooked for hours over coals.

Expect to wonder what the woman thinks, who sits all day, draping crepe-thin dough over a domed grill.

Expect to see the street drains run with the color the dyers are using the day you walk past, trying to keep your shoes from turning blue or black or red.

Expect to wonder whether the donkey feels the rash his saddle has caused or if his raw skin has gone numb.

Expect moments of delight in the shape of golden leather babouches that fit your large feet, and expect moments of despair when cheated of dirham in the idiosyncratic business of bartering for them.

Expect to feel a sense of timelessness when you stand on a riad rooftop, looking out over a city that has hardly changed in a millennium, except for the satellite dishes.

Did I say expect? I meant anticipate.

Warmly,

Fez, Morocco

PS: Best babouche prices at my uncle’s shop!

Morocco, Days and Days, Wordsmithing

We meet a writer named Sid. He shares dinner with us, quoting poetry over revolving courses of bright vegetables served in small dishes. After a dessert of dates, we read poetry, write poetry, transform into poetry.

The week becomes words—words spoken, written, wrangled. Words sweet and spicy as oranges dusted with cinnamon. Words dark as unlit alleys at the base of steep houses. Words beating rhythm in time with the coppersmiths of Seffarine Square. Words energizing as spiced coffee. Words gathering like storm clouds over the Atlas Mountains and growing heavy enough to spill across pages and screens.

I begin to wonder how I will reply to this land.

Western Sahara, Always, Destiny

When we head to the desert, Sid joins us. We three travel to Erg Chebbi—a cluster of buildings on the lip of the Western Sahara. From the terrace of Dar el Janoub, we can walk across a bit of hardscrabble, pass a line of palms, and stand ankle-deep in warm sand within minutes.

We’ve brought our sunglasses and poetry collections. We’ve also brought a couple of overlander Spaniards we found along the way. We ran into them two days in a row, while stopping for lunch on the road from Fez. The two friends—both named Juan and dressed in safari gear—have loaded their Land Cruiser with Rioja and carry it discreetly around this conservative country in a goatskin canteen.

We are all thrilled we found each other.

Destino,” says one of the Juans, clapping his hands.

In the late afternoon, we climb into their Land Cruiser and drive to a nearby village, where local musicians play Gnawa songs until the sun begins its long descent into sand. On the return drive, the vehicle’s shadow stretches the length of a palm tree across the desert. We are invisible inside it—invisible until I look closer and see our narrow silhouettes laughing in the window frames.

Back at the hotel terrace, Sid pulls out a bilingual collection of Pablo Neruda, and Dos Juans solve the slight language barrier; with rosy bottles of Volubilia Gris, we take turns reading the poems in Spanish and English. Though no one says it, we know this gathering of five friends and strangers is travelers’ magic, found at the coordinates of openness and grace, and guaranteed to grow our hearts.

Later, as night deepens, we walk out to the crest of a dune to watch the stars. Sid quotes an ancient Urdu ghazal:

What is the second step of desire, Oh Lord?

Already with the first step,

I have reached the desert of possibility.

“Destino,” one of the Juans says again.

Nothing, says the other, as he walks out into the night.

And then there is silence, because nothing more should be said in a place of every possibility.

Sahara Sands, Dawn, Desire

I keep waiting for a letter from the mellow desert—so unlike Fez, who’d slapped one to my forehead upon arrival.

When dawn shoots across the dunes the next morning, I am already walking toward the sun. For this, I have to be alone.

I stand still as the crescent shadows shift. I stand until I hear the desert start to speak—to write—through me. It is a brief but lifelong letter, and I sign it in the cinnamon sands with the valediction I’d already received: from Morocco, with love.

When I look up, our letter rises all around—dune after dune in every direction; I’ve walked until the entire horizon is arcing sand.

I see what the women in France had wanted when they wrote to a man they did not know.

I see that receiving can be its own reply.

I see the heart of every letter, every language: the desire to connect—across humanity, landscape, and time—with something beyond words.

With Love.


Anna Elkins is a traveling poet and painter. She earned a BA in art and English and an MFA and Fulbright Fellowship in poetry. She has written, painted, and taught on six continents—exhibiting paintings and writing books along the way. Anna has set up her easel and writing desk in the mythical State of Jefferson. Find her words and images Anna Elkins is a traveling poet and painter. She earned a BA in art and English and an MFA and Fulbright Fellowship in poetry. She has written, painted, and taught on six continents—exhibiting paintings and writing books along the way. Anna has set up her easel and writing desk in the mythical State of Jefferson. Find her words and images here.

Men’s Travel Gold Winner: The Physics of Regret

November 7th, 2016

By Lance Mason

A suicide memoir, disrupted.

While any high-speed “get-off” from a motorcycle is a brush with death, each one is unique. So here you are, zipping over the asphalt at sixty miles per, and the next moment your machine’s wheels depart the ground. Its normal exhaust note, a throaty, twin-cylinder rumble-and-thump, vanishes, immediately replaced by the alarming, metallic whine of a combustion engine freed from resistance. In this blink-of-an-eye example of Newtonian physics, you are also airborne, floating, momentarily weightless, like an astronaut above the moon, and semi-nauseated by the gratuitous excitement. In this mystical moment of confusion, in your state of high levitation, you begin in earnest to consider your options. The clock of life has stopped.

You’ve heard of these episodes, how, just as the physical world flings at us a wild and dangerous threat, our perception shifts the speed of that incoming harm to a crawl. The tiger leaps! but time freezes—or near enough—and the ETA stretches out. The brain’s calculations on the imminent risk proceed unabated, even accelerate, but the perilous, suddenly-unstable slice of a moving universe intent on delivering us a heinous injury decelerates in the lens of one’s mind to a glacial pace. Though it’s all perception, perception is reality.

Married to the limits of your experience, though, you view such tales askance—until now. Now, like the astronaut, you are weightless, swinging free of gravity in some ineffable bubble of time in which the second hand has become the minute hand. Events unfold in your mind like the blossoming petals of a flower, unhurried and graceful. Still—and this is the thing—it won’t last. These critical seconds when it all slows down, like a collection of shiny droplets in the air—it’s all going to end, and it’s going to end badly. You know this, and you ask yourself when it will end, this quiet creep of fate through these elongated particles of time. To you, awash in this Einsteinian distortion, this is the existential question, because when it quits, when time shifts back from this quiet, unreal relativity to the daily, concrete world into which all of us were born, you—hapless, ill-fated, and unprepared—are going to be in a God-damned world of hurt.

Eighteen months ago, you sold a different bike, your first one, a venerable old Norton you’d ridden around Europe and across the States twenty years before. Now Cyril, the road-equipment guy to whom you sold it, has restored it. Actually, he’s re-restored it, because you first rescued it as a battered orphan, unridden since 1953, out of a West Wales hay-shed that June after the Isle of Man races. You’d spent the summer in Wootton Bassett stripping it down to piston rings, valve springs, and push-rod tubes, befriending every greasy garage and vintage bike nut within a two-hour drive, including that one-legged Spitfire pilot off the high street in Lyneham. But when you’d finally got the Norton together again, whole and newly painted gleaming black, you’d had the timing wrong and tore the heel off your boot and ripped shit out of your knee just trying to kick over the old beast’s water-bucket piston.

Eventually, though, you got it running properly, using a cigarette paper between the points, like Brendon showed you, measuring top-dead-center with a bent piece of coat-hanger down the sparkplug hole. Then the bike was sparkling, and you’d toured around England a bit, then Holland, Luxembourg, and the Rhineland, while it drew stares and even applause from a few devotees on street corners and filling-station forecourts.  Then September came, time to ship out.

Back to Holland you both went, and you loaded the Norton onto a cargo ship bound for Florida. It was a difficult separation. Somewhere along the line, in a canter over the Marlborough Downs on a dewy Sunday morning, or breaking for hot muffins and blueberry yoghurt on a bypass at the edge of Köln, the attachment had gone beyond the mechanical and the practical, and become something of a romance. You rode together, slept side by side, woke together, and rescued each other from snarled roundabouts, Germanic headwinds, and gloomy fog. And now, for many weeks, that black beauty, a vintage one-lunger with constant oil leaks but inconstant electrics, was going to be denied the freedom of those open-throttle, country highways. It would be locked in the hold of a rusting Dutch steamer, crossing over to Jacksonville on the open sea, then roughly off-loaded into some dank, humid, port-city warehouse.

And you’d done that. On a sad, sunny morning, you’d signed the papers, left the bike on the Rotterdam docks, and caught the train to Frankfurt to visit Karl and Monique, then to Walter and Hella’s in Hohenheim. Back by rail to Belgium, you rescued the sexy Lieve from the bolshy attention of those gawky German soldiers. You played the grateful guest of her family, while the two of you, sneaking around, made a mess of each other’s hand-washables in the moon shadows behind the Flemish pub, all well-fed, naughty bliss until your own departure day arrived. Then off you went from Antwerp, bound for Venezuela on the Czaszki, a Polish concrete-and-lumber freighter that made the pathetic Dutch vessel in Rotterdam look like a pocket Queen Mary. Down Europe’s western seaboard you’d coasted, through Lisbon, and then sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to the tiny port of Gaunta, west of Trinidad.

There are so many stories, so many particulars, from those two weeks at seathe half-mad, quasi-English-speaking signalman shouting the ship’s call-sign, “Alpha!  Papa!  Tango!  Zulu!” into his radio mic, you dredging up your university German during meals and social hours to avoid depressive isolation, and the captain, smoking Gitanes in his tattered, black-and-gold-braid jacket, banning you from the crew’s weight room on the poop-deck. You had a birthday onboard, shared with the family immigrating from the Mosel to Venezuela with forty cases of wine. The First Mate spun yarns of coastal trade in West Africa, the Guanta harbormaster angled for bribes to land the Czaszki, and you took a butt-busting bus ride through the hills to Caracas. Threads of memories, strings of stories.

Escaping Venezuela, you’d island-hopped up from Grenada to Martinique to a layover in Haiti, where you read in the newspaper of an American tourist who’d died that week and, delayed by paperwork, lay in his casket for two days in the tropical heat of the airport tarmac—until the expanding gases from his decomposition were ignited by a passing cigarette, exploding the entire package—corpse, coffin, the lot—across the runway at Port-au-Prince.

Pre-Miami Vice Miami, your first sight of the States in two years, had swayed with gentle rednecks, sweaty New Yorkers, and good Latin citizens. With your backpack and lug-soled boots and Swiss-Army-knife haircut, that’s how you had sensed the vibe. You hadn’t stuck around for the proof, though, because you were girded for a rendezvous, haunted by the sense of a clumsy reunion with a lover you’d ditched via some chickenshit alibi.  So you were hitching up to Jacksonville to buy her freedom, oil her up, and run off with her to the opposite coast.

It’s been the habit of men to refer to their machines in the feminine and, while no reasoning for this will placate the politically correct, it’s not due to a lack of respect for the vehicles. To the contrary. This rugged lady was nearly your age, given life in 1950 by the Norton factory in Birmingham. She was the ES2 model, a powerful, reliable 500cc push-rod single, with telescoping forks and sprung rear suspension. She was first cousin to the Manx Norton, world champion many times over, and the fastest, most nimble, and most respected bike of its era. Its ancestors and descendants are legend, as are its victories. This was no creampuff you were going to ride across America.

Three weeks later, worn down by Dixie rains, dusty plains, and Arizona badlands, the two of you pulled into a Union 76 station on a Sunday morning in Redlands, California, looking like a two-wheeled hobo camp. It was November, and Jimmy Carter had just been elected President. While you were gassing up, a bearded stranger sold you a nine-inch Bowie knife for the five dollars he needed to buy a half-pint cure for his hangover. You strapped the knife to your toolbox, threw your leg over your tired, dirty companion, and pointed the pair of you north. She was taking you home.

That afternoon, you shook your father’s hand for the first time in two years. The ES2 went into your parents’ garage, and the two of you never again chased the far horizon. You bought a house and brought the bike with you, but, even after a tear-down and a rebuild, she was just a curiosity, something for local bikers to smile at and for old guys to remember. No one had tasted and tested the road with her like you had, and the un-British population had little feel for Norton traditions, for the soldiers saved and lost by dispatches her ancestors had carried in the Great War and the next one, or for the famous wins of Geoff Duke and Mike Hailwood. So, she languished in the cobwebs and the dust, and you bought another bike, a later-model BMW, that you rode instead.

More years passed and you emigrated to New Zealand, packing along the Norton and the Beemer, this twin-cylinder Teutonic with the electric start, no oil leaks, and lights that always worked, a boring piece of iron that, at this very moment in your story, is gauchely defying gravity, flying horizontal at a mile a minute into the path of an oncoming car. It’s the “defying gravity” that makes you feel weightless, and, compared to the vehicle you’re about to collide with, you may as well be.

Yes, you’d left America again, this time eastward across the Pacific, and gone to work. The bikes arrived at Auckland’s Waitemata Harbor a few weeks later. You uncrated them and never kicked over the Norton again, never even sent flowers. The chrome- and nickel-plated fittings kept their luster; the luxurious curves of the fuel tank never lost their allure. But the long, slow, messy road to reconciliation was too daunting, too much of a commitment to renew, especially with the shiny German trollop ready to run with the flick of a key.  Eventually, you stopped the empty ritual of checking the old one’s oil, stopped even sitting astride her welcoming flanks. But you went to the historic races and unashamedly cheered for the Nortons, spun yarns about yours, and basked in the brotherhood. Still, it was the BMW you rode to the track, parking it in a distant corner, hidden from the unsuspecting, respectable knot of vintage-bike faithful.

These race meetings brought back other memories, from before the Norton. In 1976 you’d crossed the Irish Sea with Margaret to the Isle of Man T.T. races, camped with her in the paddock on the outskirts of Kirk Michael, and drank in the roars of the AJ and Manx and Matchless singles as they all stormed away toward Ballaugh Bridge. This had led you, a few weeks later, to Aberystwyth and, so, to all the adventures you and the Norton had carved out for yourselves.

But, once back in California, your eye had wandered, first to a ’72 Bonneville, and, later, a much younger Triumph Special, recently separated from its third owner. There was that fling with the Czech—a CZ 400 you’d taken in lieu of a debt—but you never were a dirt-bike man. There was the Hurricane, with the Rocket-3 Roadracer motor and flared pipes, and then the short-stroke Manx—middle-aged, but with a great pair of overhead cams. You even went completely mid-life crisis with the canary-yellow, three cylinder 955 RS, but only did 4000 miles on it in six years. Fitted in somewhere, you’d bought the Beemer: torquey, strong, dependable. It has always started, kept its cool, and braked politely, but it would never have the spark, the joie de vive of those dangerous, loopy, British tarts that might take you out forty miles on a morning ride and leave you stranded in the boonies.

Moreover, none of these pretenders had taught you what she had, about post-war fuel petcocks and Amal carbs, about hand-changing tires or how to use a compression release. These memories were indelible, branded into you like scars on your heart, so on weekends in New Zealand, without words for these emotions, you hung around the racing pits with those other Norton people, keeping the connection warm and a little bit vital.

Yet the gray, joyless day finally did come, and you sold the comatose Norton to Cyril. He found you in Auto-Trader, brought his trailer down from Warkworth, and paid you the money. He tried to get all her books and papers, too, important things to you, and stuff he didn’t really need. You let him have a couple generic paperbacks, but not the things with memories, not the manuals or the photographs or the British registration papers that proved there’d been only one owner before you. You kept those things that were part of your first years together, the diagrams, the parts lists, the factory-approved, illustrated publications that took you through the myriad delicate steps of restoring life to the noble warhorse you’d found cast away in a drafty Welsh barn.

Now a year and a half has passed since you sold her to Cyril, and it’s late spring. A week ago you rang him up and asked how he was. How was the project? Yes, he said, he had finished the restoration and you’d be welcome to come up and see her, best on a Saturday when he was home from work. So, up you had come on the BMW, the rumbling, easy mistress that had tried to fill the empty spot in your memory’s trophy case.  Coated lightly in your own shame, you’d parked the big twin cylinder at the far end of Cyril’s drive, where it couldn’t be seen or smelled from the vehicle shed where he said he kept the Norton. You slipped off your helmet and gloves and crunched over the oyster-shell gravel to the open garage door.

In times to come, you’ll try to forget how the old girl looked and sounded, how every part gleamed in the light that cascaded through the windows of Cyril’s shed, the scalpel-sharp gold-on-black pin-striping and chrome trim and nickel-plated spokes showing a devotion to loving detail you had long ago forsaken. It was as though, after so long a time, and the difficult trials you’d endured together, she wanted to show you her best in front of others, but, in doing so, nearly broke your heart.

She fired first kick for Cyril, and then stood there rocking, rhythmic as a metronome, firm puffs of exhaust escaping with every other stroke. You couldn’t stand another glance. You paid your damp-eyed compliments and gave your thanks and walked away. Cyril called after you. “They’ve opened up the new section of road out Henderson way.” He paused, but you kept walking. “You might want to give it a go. Come back into Auckland from there, rather than the motorway.” Another pause. “Head north to Wellsford and swing a left at the Caltex station.” Rather than look back, you waved your thanks again over your shoulder. You did as he said, and this had led to this imminent conundrum rapidly imposing itself on your life.

Leaving Cyril to his glory, you mounted the BMW and motored up Highway 1, trying to recover your composure at seeing your former dance-partner so chipper and strong. Compared to her trim elegance and high breeding, this beefy, two-wheeled, German appliance is an even-swinging, plodding road goat. Maybe this acrid realization throws you off your game.

You’d made the left in Wellsford, and now, six or eight kilometers along, you meet a series of “S” bends cut into the hillsides, high banks up on the left, ravines and canyons down on the right. You’re still on the old two-laner and, speeding along, loping and swerving through the turns, you see loose rock and dirt in the roadway and gouges from heavy equipment. Do you get too loose with the throttle, too slow on the brake? Is your helmet’s visor misting up with emotion? Does your mind falter for a moment, mentally putting you on the right-hand, American side of the road, rather than the New Zealand left side?

Coming into a tight-ish left-hand bender, you’re on the correct side of the road, doing (we agree) sixty plus, when some potholes appear in front of you, just in the center of your lane. You upright a little to adjust your line into the turn, aiming for clear pavement between the potholes and the center, double yellow line. Too late, your vision and your logic coincide, and you see that patches of heavy gravel, like clusters of ball-bearings, have been pushed out of the potholes and onto that pavement you’re aiming for. Not a problem for cars. A problem for motorcycles.

There’s a high hill on the left, in the elbow of the turn, blocking your view of any on-coming traffic. Just as you’re thinking you have to ease off the throttle . . . not really thinking, just doing . . . in time . . . you hope, but . . . you’re wrong. The Beemer starts to skitter like a cockroach on a hotplate.

Gravel, slide, gravel, slide—Ping-clank! The chrome bar that curves out side-ways to protect the cylinders has just hit the pavement, causing several things to happen in the flick of a sphincter. Acting as a fulcrum, the bar turns the bike into a see-saw, lifting the rear tire off the asphalt and—Presto!—no more traction, therefore no more resistance for the motor, therefore (as mentioned earlier) the high-speed, anxiety-igniting engine whine.  As you attempt to crawl off this flailing, self-destructing contraption, it hits another pothole and stands up. This creates a version of what, in the pits and among racing types, is sometimes called “hooking up.”

This hooking-up is not what happens in bars and rave parties; it’s when traction that was lost at high speed is quickly regained. Too quickly. With velocity comes volatility, and, even if one were a world road-racing champion (i.e. not you), traction that comes back so unpredictably can’t be controlled. And as fast as it’s regained—alas!—it’s lost again when the bike, beset by manic instability, levitates. Think of yourself as a cowboy astride a six-legged rodeo bull abruptly overcome by a gran mal epileptic seizure. Add steel and gasoline.

You have no idea how, but sometime between the first instant of the slide and the present moment you have, via successive bolts of fortune, evaded death-via-impact with two cars coming at you. That, however, is now irrelevant because a third car is about to arrive, and you’re not going to miss it. You are, in Nature’s perfect justice, about to pay the ultimate price for abandoning the bike you truly loved—and the bike that loved you—in exchange for this hurtling mass of rubber and painted iron that is about to crush you to death against—what is it?—a red Honda Prelude.

Over the next immeasurable scintilla of time you have somehow successfully, though undeservedly, maneuvered yourself into a position in mid-air where you may leave this collision as a double amputee rather than a cadaver. The look on the face of the young man driving the Prelude, very close to you now, is a mixture of utter fascination, innocence, and terror. He is asking himself why you chose to commit suicide using his car, which you are now inspecting at extremely close quarters. You see that it is about eight years old, a heavily-oxidized burgundy, with what you take to be a stone chip in the upper right corner of the windshield.

When it comes, the concussion is something like being inside the barrel of a Howitzer on D-Day (it’s a sound your brain will replay in your head every night for weeks just at the moment sleep tries to overtake you). Like lightning, the violence hits its crescendo and passes in the same instant. Then everything is still. Completely disoriented, yet perceiving the stillness, you open your eyes.

The sky above appears through the oval shape of your helmet’s visored porthole. Evidently, you still have your head.  You’re lying on your back, on top of the small day-pack you were wearing when your previous world came detached from this one. Both your arms seem connected to your torso and, when you try wiggling your feet before looking down, you can hear your boots crackling over the gravel. Cool. Your feet are attached, so, more than likely, your legs are, too, and not broken. You rock your head to the right. It works. To the left. That works, too. Your neck is not broken, and you don’t seem to be paralyzed. God must be joking.

Using one hand to lever against the pavement, you slowly turn onto your side. So far, so good. You bend your right leg. Okay. You finally look down. You’re all there—improbably so, but so, nonetheless. You get onto your hands and knees. You hear voices inside your helmet, but you can’t tell what they’re saying. They are human voices, not the voices of Hell’s henchmen. You have escaped alive and evidently unharmed, so complete justice has been unfairly averted.

You rise up and remove your helmet. You’re standing in the same traffic lane you started in, the correct one, just a few yards up the road, facing back to the Prelude driver and two more equally astonished motorists who have stopped and, staring at you, stand as if bolted to the ground. It was their voices you heard, but you don’t take it all in just yet, because you hear a growling behind you. Turning, you see that you have been left behind by the BMW that has, incompatible with physics, mechanics, predictable fortune, or the odds from any bookie, landed upright on the left-hand side of the road, leaning against the cut-away bank thirty feet away, with its motor running. You walk slowly over and shut it off. You ass hurts like hell. But that’s all. Yes, your brain hurts, trying to comprehend how you survived what’s just happened, but other than that, and your inconceivably lucky bone-bruised ass, nothing else hurts. You’re not bleeding. You’re walking. All your limbs work. You can see. Can you talk?

“Hello.” You’ve turned around again and say this to the Prelude driver, a guy of about eighteen who looks as though he’s watching Jesus come out from behind The Rock on Easter Sunday. Your voice sounds a little high-pitched, a little elated. The Prelude kid just looks at you, waiting for you to disappear in a puff of smoke or turn into an alien. You don’t.

“I’m really sorry about your car,” you say. After the BMW shat its brains in the pothole gravel and flew through the air like a 500-lb Frisbee high on crack cocaine—and just as you miraculously cleared your valuables out of the path of destruction while hurtling through the lower atmosphere—the sharp, hard bits of the bike smacked into the driver’s side of the Prelude and opened up the sheet metal like a claw hammer through a beer can. The gaping, ragged incision down the length of the car exposes various window parts and steel supports inside.

The kid asks in a cartoon-like stutter, “Uh, are you, uh, all right?” His eyes strain out of his skull like lacquered ping-pong balls.

“Seems like it,” you say, at least as stunned by the evidence as he is, and a hundred times happier. Happier, that is, until you remember your old Norton back in Cyril’s garage.

As the kid drives you back to the Caltex station, where you’ll ring Cyril, explain what happened, and beg a ride to Auckland with his motorcycle trailer, you think about the answer to the questions you were asking yourself at the beginning of this petrol-headed cluster fuck: How long did it all last, from lift-off to impact to landing?  How long did you hang there suspended, cogitating over your fate?  How long did it take you to recognize that you’d left the dance with the wrong sweetheart?

To the memory of Dan Secord, M.D., who always swung for the fences.


Lance Mason was raised by working parents, products of the Great Depression. His first job was in his brother-in-law’s gas station in Oxnard, California. During school vacations, he picked lemons, packed lima beans, laid fiberglass, sold hot-dogs, and spliced cable for the local phone company where his mother worked. He has taught at UCLA, the National University in Natal, Brazil, and Otago University, Dunedin, New Zealand. In addition to overseas teaching, Mason has lived, worked, or traveled in more than 60 countries during a dozen trips around the world. His first publication was a piece in Voices of Survival, appearing alongside writers as diverse as William F. Buckley, Jr., Joan Baez, Indira Gandhi, Arthur C. Clarke, and Carl Sagan. His work has appeared in upstreet, City Works, Sea Spray, The Packing House Review, New Borders, Askew, The Santa Barbara Independent, and Solo Novo, as well as several professional journals. Pintsize Publications’ 2016 release of A Proficiency in Billiards, Mason’s first nonfiction collection, met with strong sales and great acclaim. He is nearing completion of his fifth novel, a saga of wealth, power, and perversion in modern China. His writing won four awards, including two golds, in the Tenth Annual Solas Awards.

Most Unforgettable Character Gold Winner: The Spinster of Atrani

October 31st, 2016

By Amber Paulen

Stories from the old can change the direction of life for the young.

Someone called my name and a figure came toward me—a shadow against the yellow lamplight of the road, and beyond that, of Atrani. It surprised me that someone knew me. I had been in the small town for only three hours and spent most of that time sitting in a damp cove where hearts and initials were etched into stone, watching the gray sky become night and the sea turn black and shimmery.

It was a midwinter evening obscured by loneliness, as the clouds earlier had obscured the blue of afternoon. But what could be done about loneliness? I had left my family, friends, and country with the finality of a one-way ticket. I was twenty-two and thought I could take on anything. After five months of lugging a backpack through Europe, I should have been buoyed up by my independence.

Yet here I was feeling sorry for myself, upset that my efforts to see my ex-boyfriend in Rome had proven fruitless. I told myself I wanted to see him because I needed a break from the anonymity of traveling alone, a conversation with a familiar person. But he hadn’t replied to my email during the five days I was in Rome, so I traveled south. The only plan I had made before traveling was that there was no plan; where I went, what I did, was guided by my whims and desires, precarious things.

As I crossed the road, I saw that the figure was Bernard, the talkative painter who lived alone up the mountain in Ravello: the guy I had met on the bus.

“This is great!” Bernard exclaimed when I stood before him, his curly russet hair filled with light. “I just left Grosdana’s to find you. She wants to meet you. She agreed. You can stay at her place.” Bernard took off walking and I followed. “I had a feeling you would be on the beach and I think you’ll really like Grosdana. She’s a superb woman. Su-perb!”

I kept pace with Bernard, under the brick arches, through the empty piazza, as I had done earlier that day when we got off the bus together and he led me to the hostel. He had told me not to stay at the hostel but with a friend of his who needed money. I hadn’t expected anything to come of the imperative, but now we were standing at Grosdana’s door. Above the apartment, its neighbors ascended the steep hill like a picture on a postcard of the Amalfi Coast. Bernard rapped, and light from the open doorway poured around the shape of a woman. “Bernard? You’re back. And Amber? Come in.”

A heavy green shawl hugged Grosdana’s shoulders. Her hennaed hair sprang on end. She walked deliberately to a long couch that consumed most of her studio apartment and lowered herself onto the cushions, which seemed to absorb her on contact. I sat next to her. Under the lamp, gold veins glinted in Grosdana’s ash-green eyes, tired and alive. She pulled a cigarette from a light blue pack labeled Ms and offered me one. Bernard sat on my other side, his hands gripping his knees, bouncing.

“Bernard says you’re staying at the hostel,” she said and lit her cigarette. She passed me the lighter, then leaned against the couch’s bolster. As I would learn, Grosdana’s every action was mirrored by inaction.

“Yes.” The hostel had white walls and a long row of empty beds. It was part of what had driven me out to the beach in such a gloomy, lonely mood.

“Who owns that? Ah, yes, the Guarellis? Right, Bernard? I don’t trust them completely. They’re charging you more than it’s worth, I think. Stay here with me for a week for one hundred euros. A good price for Atrani in the winter.”

I agreed. But it wasn’t up to me, I knew; the decision had already been made.

“Come here at eight to pick up the keys. And now, are you hungry? Bernard, stay and talk to Amber while I make pasta.”

“That’s O.K.,” I said. “I was planning on getting a sandwich.”

But Grosdana insisted I stay for dinner. I think I gave her the impression that I needed to be cared for: months of eating on a budget had intensified my thinness, and my clothes were frayed and worn. After dinner we three retired to the couch, where she and Bernard filled the apartment with conversation of the war in Croatia, Grosdana’s homeland. Their presence and words were blankets I wrapped around myself, a warmth and temporary respite from the effort of moving alone through the world.

~ ~ ~

The next morning, I left the hostel early and met Grosdana at her door. She handed me a ring of keys and went off to work. When I returned in the evening from exploring Atrani and Amalfi, she was already home. I handed her a 100-euro bill, and with the note balled into her palm she headed across the piazza to the tiny alimentari. Grosdana would insist on making me dinner every night of my stay.

Like the night before, once the table had been cleared, we went on Grosdana’s lead to the couch. Her studio apartment had no windows and the open room was sparsely decorated with ethnic knickknacks, such as a long-necked wooden woman with breasts that hung from her chest like long goat teats. But her stories filled the space.

Now, I have trouble pulling apart what she said and what I have since imagined.

“I’m a spinster,” Grosdana told me. Pleasure animated her aquiline face, sparked a flare of wrinkles around her eyes. “Which means I can do whatever I want, whenever I please.” A cigarette vacillated between her mouth and the ashtray. Occasionally, Grosdana’s soliloquy would suffer a fit of interminable coughing, followed by a minute of silence as her breath came back. I waited in silence.

“The old men of Atrani think I’m crazy to live alone and they tell me. A few have asked, ‘How can you possibly live without a man?’ And as they talk, I watch their fake teeth bumping in their gums. I laugh at them and ask back, ‘What can you offer a woman at your age?’ They think a woman’s happiness depends on a man. Ha! I tell them, ‘I’m happier alone than stuck with a wrinkled prune like you.’ I don’t mind them thinking I’m a little crazy. Their wives aren’t any happier than me.

“The longer a woman is alone the longer she’ll be alone. You see, I can never live with a man again. Imagine, if along came an old prune! Maybe, if we lived in separate houses and he provided for himself, cooked his own dinners and if he had money. Money would be good. The problem with old people is they get stuck thinking people need to be one way. They’re so rigid. And me too! I don’t have patience for men anymore. Men are like children, wanting to be taken care of, and that’s part of why I never married.

“I was with a man for many years though. I was in love with him. We had a son. When you are in love, then you’ll do anything for a man, even pretend to be someone you’re not and that’s fine, but be careful. How you are in the beginning creates a habit in the relationship. Then, years later, the man still expects you to be like you were—and that, of course, goes for your expectations of him, too.

“When this man and I were living together, I liked to read in bed. One night, when the man came to bed, he asked me to put down my book, turn and pay attention to him. He wanted to make love but I wanted to keep reading. Then he closed my book.

“We fought and I knew then that the relationship wouldn’t last, that I would leave. I didn’t think he would be that kind of a man. And eventually I left.

“I’ve never put down my book for a man. I have friends who set down their books when they are asked, and these women have nothing for themselves. Their husbands are uninterested, their children grown and gone. You can only give so much until there’s nothing left. When these women are alone they don’t know how to be alone, they know nothing about themselves. It’s as if they throw out their person when they set down their book.

“Remember what I tell you, so if you find yourself in a similar situation you can think, ‘This is what the old spinster in Atrani told me!’ Remember, a woman experiences herself as a person first and then as a woman. Whereas men think a woman is first a woman and second a person. It feels good to be a woman, but no woman wants to be a woman all the time. Many women are married to a life that only supports one half. I hope this will change.”

~ ~ ~

The soft mattress of Grosdana’s bed was unlike any I had slept on in the hostels; the downy pillows and comforter surrounded me as I stayed up to read and write in my journal. Her heavy breathing from the couch downstairs deepened into snoring that sounded like a chainsaw cutting through the apartment. I supposed, because I was paying, this bed was mine, but I didn’t feel I deserved it. Grosdana’s experiences towered over me. Against the wishes of her family, she had left Croatia when she was young, had adventures, and regretted nothing. And here she lived alone in the twilight of life, not indulging in loneliness or debilitating self-pity.

Grosdana’s experiences had created a towpath through long grasses. Not even in books had I come across a character, a female character, I could hold up as an example, who had journeyed away from home as I had, tossing away family expectations like the maps of cities already traveled. Before I told my family I was leaving the country, I had dropped out of university so I could save money for my journey—first one shock and then the other. I drew strength from Grosdana, and I think she sensed it.

Grosdana’s life was replete with domesticities and rituals that bound it together. Today, as she had done every morning, she made Turkish coffee and served it in porcelain cups so thin that the light shone through like lace. She said: “Don’t think during your first cigarette and coffee. The best way to start the day is with an empty mind.”

When only a sludge of coffee grounds remained at the bottom of her cup, Grosdana bemoaned the climb up the steep hill to the hotel—owned by a friend—where she worked. I lingered at the kitchen table after she left, but without her the apartment was lifeless.

I went out, taking the path to the right. It ascended back and forth past the stacked white houses of Atrani, arched over a ridge and finished down the hill in Amalfi. At the top of the ridge the wind blew in from the sea and I leaned my elbows on the low wall overlooking it. Wind played with my hair and I held it down. At the bottom of the hill, I passed through Amalfi and its shop displays of bottles of bright yellow limoncello, to the trails that led me up through the Lattari Mountains.

Grosdana never asked what I did with my days on the coast in the off-season, but if she had, I wouldn’t have known what to tell her. I sat in the sun when it shone or walked in the forest that climbed the cliffs of the coast. I sought unobstructed vistas where the cloudy sky and gray Mediterranean were a blurry, two-toned painting, the horizon barely a line.

I thought about where to go next. I was supposed to leave Grosdana’s in three days. My ex had finally emailed me, inviting me back to Rome, and I turned over the idea. If I went back to Rome, it would be the first time I saw him since our relationship had ended in the States.

Part of me wanted to know if he still liked me. Part of me wanted some familiar conversation. And another part of me wondered if I could keep on going without it.

~ ~ ~

In the evening, I returned to find the aroma of bread baking filled the windowless studio. Grosdana was sitting at the table smoking when I opened the door, nothing before her but an ashtray, a distant look in her eyes. At first I thought I had interrupted her, absorbed in the practice of one of her maxims, but she smiled warmly and stood, pushing back her chair. “Just in time,” she said. “Let’s check if the bread is ready.”

For dinner we ate pieces from the tan wreath of bread. Its soft texture was broken up by toasted hazelnuts, and the butter I spread on melted immediately. The outside was a perfect layer of crust. As I ate, I asked for the recipe.

Grosdana’s eyes betrayed pleasure while she continued to chew. “I thought you would like it. I’ll show you how to make it,” she said. “The best part about this bread is it’s cheap. And if you add nuts or olives or whatever you like, it tastes different every time.”

On my last day in Atrani, in the narrow hall that was Grosdana’s kitchen, she taught me how to make her spinster’s bread. I had decided I would go back to Naples for the night, call my ex and then probably catch the train to Rome. After she had deftly kneaded the lump of dough, Grosdana peeled off the scales it left between her fingers and brusquely rubbed them together under warm water. She dampened a tea towel and draped it over the pallid ball. “Now, leave it to rise in some warm place,” she said.

We waited on the couch for the bread to rise and, later, to bake. Grosdana lit a cigarette and, leaning back into the couch, picked up her monologue from the previous nights. “I’ve been thinking again about the man I was telling you about. I almost married him. When I first met him I never thought he would get so upset over my reading in bed.

“When we were first in love, he invited me to go with him on a business trip to Tunisia. He went a few days earlier than me. During our days apart, I had the most intense daydreams, him and me in a foreign country, palm trees, exotic foods, a luxurious hotel room, the clothes I would wear, the sleepiness his eyes got after making love, how we would walk hand-in-hand through the dusty streets.”

Grosdana’s laugh shook her body and lit the gold in her eyes. “Sometimes it’s like these things happened to me in another life, like I was another person. As I tell you about them, the time doesn’t seem so far past. I can picture everything so clearly. When you’re my age, you’ll see.

“Life is a mystery,” she added. Her voice had dropped in sudden seriousness.

“When I stepped off the plane in Tunis I entered my dream. As I rode in the taxi to the hotel it was as if I were drunk on the strange city. From the windows, I saw men dressed in traditional robes, the deep blue of the doorways and shutters. I smelled street food and spices mixed with dust.

“The taxi stopped at our hotel. While it waited before the big glass doors, I was to get ready for dinner and even though I knew it was waiting, I took my time. In front of the full-length mirror, I changed into one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever owned. Long and black, it caught the littlest light and shimmered. I prepared myself slowly. It’s good to leave a man waiting, to build his anticipation.

“The taxi driver opened the car door for me and as I stepped into it I became nervous for the first time. But as we drove through Tunis’s streets, through the blur of city lights, my nervousness left me. I opened the window and let in the warm, fresh air. I was being driven through a foreign city, wearing a beautiful dress, going to see the man I loved. I don’t know what happened to me during that moment, but it was as if everything was perfect and right, beautiful in a way I cannot explain. I fell in love with the country.

“At the restaurant, nothing was what I expected. The man put his arms around me and kissed me, but not with the passion I had imagined. I had completely forgotten about his business partners. After introductions, my lover pulled out my chair where I sat and we ate dinner as the men had a boring conversation. The best parts of the trip were the taxi rides through Tunis, when I had been alone.

“Of course, the man couldn’t be who I wanted him to be. I was smart to fall in love with Tunisia. Since that trip I have gone back many times. Have you ever been to Tunisia?”

I shook my head and told her I had never thought about going to Tunisia. But as she talked about the country and showed me the things she had bought there, the pastel tunics and the pail of blue paint, my curiosity was piqued.

“You must go if only for the color blue. It’s the most beautiful blue I have ever seen. In a city not far from Tunis, Sidi Bou Saïd, there are whitewashed houses with doors and windows painted this blue. You must go there. I don’t have many years left, but I want to live some of them in Sidi Bou Saïd. I am drawn there. Some days I think of nothing else.”

Grosdana stubbed out her last cigarette of the night and pushed herself off the couch to get ready for bed. I remained there until she was done, picturing a Tunisia where villages looked almost Greek, scattered between the desert and sea.

~ ~ ~

Early the following morning, I stood on the main road waiting for the bus back to Naples. From Naples I would take the overnight train to Palermo in Sicily, stay a few days, then go to Trapani, where I would catch the ferry to Tunis, as Grosdana had explained over breakfast. In Palermo I could sort out the details online at an internet cafe. Rain fell while I waited for the bus. The only other faces passed alone in their cars. Tires pulled up rips of water, windshield wipers oscillated frantically, and headlights smeared white on the wet pavement.

When the bus came, I tossed my dripping backpack on the floor and rested my head against a steamed window. I felt crazy pushing on like this, going to a continent I knew nothing about. North Africa made Europe seem easy, similar to the States, familiar. I thought of Grosdana and the pride in her voice when she said that word, crazy. I felt it, too.


Amber Paulen is currently continuing her studies at Columbia University in New York after more than a decade of living and traveling in and out of Europe. In the fourteen years between starting and finishing university she has worked many jobs in many cities. “The Spinster of Atrani,” was previously published in Front Porch Journal and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Elder Travel Silver Winner: To Live or Die in the Danakil

October 24th, 2016

By James Michael Dorsey

How to survive a suicidal trek up a volcano.

All six gunmen arrived at sunset, bought and paid for, and all we had to do was choose who would go with whom. Moussa was quite small as Afar tribesmen go and yet, everything about his manner suggested he was a predator. He squatted in the sand, chin to his knees, his opal eyes darting back and forth, missing nothing. Slowly producing a bone handled blade he began to sharpen it on a stone next to him, gently, methodically, running it back and forth, and as I watched his movements with interest I remember wondering as I chose him whether he would protect me or kill me.

I had received the call only two weeks prior from our friend, a volcanologist for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. She was leading a group of planetary scientists to study a rare shield volcano in the northern Ethiopian desert and wanted me to write about the journey. My wife, Irene, never one to be left behind, signed on immediately. We were going to the Danakil, home of the Afar people. I also naively assumed that with all the doctorates on board, NASA would be monitoring our every move by hovering satellite, ready to pluck us from the jaws of danger.

The Afar are Sunni Muslims and hereditary nomads who number about 1,500,000 spread throughout Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti. Their history can be traced back at least to the 13TH century when they first appear in the writings of the noted Moroccan historian, Ibn Sa’id. They are sometimes referred to as the Danakil as they are closely associated with the great desert of the same name.  They were introduced to the general public in “Arabian Sands,” an epic travel book by Wilfred Thesiger who crossed their land in 1935, calling them murderous thugs among other non-mentionable titles. By the mid-20th century there were numerous reports of them castrating trespassers on their land. This frightening reputation aside, they were also known for their exceptionally kind treatment of animals, especially their camels that they consider to be family members. The African Ass, extinct throughout the rest of the continent, thrives in their desert due to their protection, and while they might disembowel a trespasser, they would never intentionally step on a plant or flower.

Their homeland, in the Danakil Depression, is arguably the hottest and most barren wilderness on earth where temperatures hover around 120 degrees, (48.8 Celsius)   and they pay homage to local caliphs while recognizing no other government. Our destination, the Erta Ale volcano, vents its wrath in the center of that land of endless salt flats and brown blowing sand. It is sacred to the Afar in ways not easily understood by outsiders. The Afar stayed pretty much off the international grid until 1998 when Eritrea and Ethiopia fought a stalemated war on their land and since that time they have had almost complete autonomy as a buffer between the two uneasy nations due to their violent nature. They are single handedly credited with keeping Al Qaeda from crossing the Red Sea from Yemen into this part of Africa. All that aside, the Danakil has experienced numerous kidnappings for ransom over the past few decades, the credits for which have been claimed by just as many splinter terrorist groups.

Only a handful of Afar have assimilated into city life while even fewer make their living by cutting salt blocks from the desert floor under a relentless sun that they sell to the camel caravans. Each block brings them a rough equivalent of one U.S. dollar. Only recently the clans that live near the Erta Ale volcano have begun to admit trekkers, realizing this natural inferno to be a cash cow tourist draw. Their reputation and social skills aside, as it is in many cultures with no written language, their word is their bond, even unto death, and it was their word that saved my life.

Only after we arrived did we learn that NASA had refused funding and logistical support, labeling the journey “too dangerous” and so we were on our own. At that point I considered backing out, but logic came in third after curiosity and adventure. The Afar offered us access to the volcano provided we each hire one of them to act as security so what could go wrong?

This is a situation most explorers have to confront at one time or another, to trust a man with a gun who says he will protect you for a price. It is a roll of the dice and the bet is one’s life. Who knows why we do such things? It seems an inbred human flaw that our curiosity often results in our demise and yet many of us return to possible danger like moths to a flame. Such questions butt up against the meaning of life itself, a pursuit so far that seems to elude mortal man. I have no death wish but I prefer to meet it doing what I love rather than lying in a hospital bed one day wondering why I never chased the dream. And so we went to Ethiopia.

From the capital of Addis Ababa we flew northeast to the city of Mekele, still reeling from Eritrean artillery with cratered streets and shop windows covered by hastily nailed plywood boards. Tuk Tuks plied the streets carrying women wrapped in long shawls with hennaed eyes to shops riddled with bullet holes and shell hits whose shelves mostly sat empty of goods. Those we passed walking had the thousand yard stare of combat veterans. In a surreal encounter I chanced upon a desert tortoise wandering down the main road, his shell heavily dented, probably due to a shrapnel hit. The tortoise seemed an appropriate metaphor for the city itself, slowly moving forward, damaged but recovering.

From Mekele, an eight hour drive by Land Rover took us past countless artillery craters, burned out armored vehicles, and towering sand dunes that dwarfed us like rogue waves, deep into the Danakil.  There is nothing like vast desert to make one realize personal insignificance. Our two small vehicles raised such a cloud of dust as to announce our presence long before our arrival. In the late afternoon we pulled into the Afar outpost of Dodom, a rambling shanty town of home- made huts populated by sarong wearing young men with Kalashnikov rifles slung lazily across their shoulders. A handful of women, wrapped in long shawls, watched us with hennaed eyes, warily from the shadows. All we needed to do a scene from Arabian nights was a film crew. Money changed hands, loyalty oaths were sworn, and we were escorted to stone huts to await our night ascent of the volcano. It was supposed to be a three hour trek to the summit.

It was too hot to sleep or eat and I could not force down hot water without retching, so my personal stage was set early for disaster to come. Our intrepid group lay in a row inside the hut, panting like lizards and willing the temperature to fall, knowing it would not.

Irene had one good eye and the trail, such as it is, being razor sharp stratified magma, made us decide that she would ride a camel while the rest of us would go on foot. Our escorts arrived at sunset, and that is when I chose Moussa.

Feral as he was he oozed an undefinable quality that shown through his eyes and moved my gut to pick him. His black hair was a mass of curly ringlets that stuck out like a weed bursting through concrete in search of sunlight and his skin carried the hue of dark chocolate. He had that African look of a protein starved diet but his arms and legs were taught as bowstrings. His conglomerate costume of rags approached nakedness and where he got the purple colored crocs for his feet is anybody’s guess. And yet, something told me if I was going to be in a gunfight I’d want Moussa next to me.

Irene mounted her camel and was led off by her gunman as the rest of us fell into a single file to negotiate the uneven terrain under a moonless night. Our headlamps, bouncing off volcanic boulders, cast dancing shadows all about like a macabre puppet show, accentuating the eerie ambiance of the evening. It was viciously hot and the earth trembled as we walked up the volcano’s flank, a mere 600 feet in altitude gain over six miles to reach the churning cauldron of the lake at the summit. The deep indigo sky slowly revealed pinpricks of light as the Milky Way began to arch over us like a hazy silver rainbow.

The Afar, in their ragtag attire, cast off from previous trekkers, walked noiselessly over boot- lacerating ground in their plastic sandals and rubber flip flops. Their bodies carry no fat. They are burnt and dried by the sun until they resemble walking mummies, drained of all moisture; some faces etched by tribal scarring. Their rifles were extensions of their arms, rarely set down and never out of their reach. Every noise and each peripheral movement brought a reaction that only those who live in a war zone can give. Some had grenades hung from their belts that if exploded near the hardened magma would intensify the shrapnel a hundred fold. All of them had a dagger in their belt. Up close most are a mass of scars and more than a few have a milky eye from blowing sand. They are warriors from another era; first and foremost, warriors for whom tempered steel is how differences are settled and they are always at war with someone or something.

The Afar moved like wraiths and within minutes our group was spread over a vast area of the slope, hidden from each other by massive boulders. Irene was out of my sight and I was questioning the importance of our being there. In the velvety blankness Moussa would disappear for minutes at a time and then my headlamp would pick him up, squatting on top of a boulder, eyeing me like a cat ready to pounce.

My breath came harder with each step which I chalked up to advancing age and three plus decades of remote exploration, but after two more hours I could go no further and collapsed, sucking air in great gasps. I assumed it was a heart attack and remember looking up at the stars as the earth rumbled beneath me thinking it was such a beautiful place to die. I don’t remember how long I laid there and I may have passed out until I focused on the barrel of an automatic rifle aimed between my eyes. Moussa was straddling me, poking me with his Kalashnikov. From my haze I vaguely recall saying a prayer for Irene and waiting for Moussa to pull the trigger.

At that moment, he laid down on the ground next to me, rifle under his head, wrapped himself in his robe, and within a minute he was snoring louder than the mountain. The absurdity of the situation hit me and I burst out laughing.

I was dying on the side of a convulsing volcano in a remote desert, next to a sleeping nomadic gunman, while my wife rode off into the night on a camel. You can’t make up stuff like that! It would be one of my greatest stories and no one would ever know it happened! It would die with me! I laughed until I was gasping for air and that awakened Moussa. Standing over us was the camel he had brought down from the summit; Irene’s camel, and only then did it hit me that she was safe at the top and that Moussa had come looking for me when I did not show up. My murderous gunman had come to my rescue.

He helped me to my feet, holding me upright, both hands on my shoulders, and held my gaze in his own for several seconds, asking without words if I was ok to continue. I felt no pain but my breath was drawing hard and there was no place to go but up. I looked ahead and saw the red glow of the summit, like a dancing aurora, no more than 100 yards away. I waved off the camel as it would have taken more effort to mount than to walk the final route. If it killed me it would be an appropriate death.

Together, arm in arm, we walked drunkenly towards the crest and for a second I imagined us as Hillary and Tenzing summiting Everest together, not that our journey was even a fraction so epic, and in hindsight I realize the absurdity of such a comparison, but that was my state of mind at the time.

We stood at the volcanos’edge for only a few seconds gazing into the churning stew of liquid earth belching up from far below. Gas bubbles exploded like fireworks showering burning, liquid confetti in all directions. Under better circumstances it would have been the light show of a lifetime. Irene found me in the dark and I staggered into her arms as Moussa directed both of us into a grass hut and I drifted off to sleep wondering why anyone would have built a grass hut at the edge of a live volcano.

It seemed only minutes later that Moussa was prodding me again with his rifle and I heard our party yelling to pack up fast. Dawn was just beginning to break when a gunshot ended the night. I was still in a blank haze and not thinking rationally at all when Moussa waved us down the trail and Irene led me off on foot. Within a hundred yards two more shots rang out. This time we heard the zing as the bullets passed over head and we dove for cover.

When you are being shot at you do not think. It might take a second for the whine of the bullet to register for what it is, but once it does, life becomes extremely intense and you merge with the ground, becoming a part of it.

Moussa was yelling and frantically waving us downward while aiming his rifle uphill when Irene stood up and fell over. At first I thought she had been hit, but her foot had lodged in a rock crevice and it twisted her ankle so severely she could not stand. In an instant Moussa was there with the camel and together we pushed her on top with no saddle, smacked it hard on the butt, and sent her careening down the trail away from the gunfire.

I descended fast as I could with Moussa at my side, my breath coming in short gasps. Every few seconds he would whirl backwards, his rifle leveled to fire, but there was no more shooting, and after a while he seemed to relax. I had no way of asking him what had happened and doubt that he would have told me if he could.   Perhaps the Afar were simply letting off steam, or having fun at our expense, or just maybe, one or two hotheads decided that killing us was preferable to guiding us as the money would be the same.

The next few hours are a hazy memory that seems like a dream recalled. I mechanically put one foot in front of the other and it took no effort to keep my mind blank. There was no sense of movement over the vast desolation, it was just too immense. My breaths still came with difficulty, like when someone has punched you in the stomach, but I was alive and in no pain so I just could not allow myself to consider any more than that. Each step was one closer to Irene.

Five hours and as many miles later, I collapsed again in a hut back at Dodom. My electrolytes were depleted and my body was involuntarily cramping into a fetal position. Irene, sure that I was dying, forced dry Gatorade down my throat that revived me enough to stand and she helped me to the Rover. In my haze, I was looking for Moussa to thank him and to offer him more money when the other Afar started yelling and I heard magazines being slammed into rifle breaches. I was pushed into the Rover and we took off with tires spinning, sending a rooster tail of sand into the air. No one shot at us as we drove away.

I never found out who had fired the shots at the summit or why, and I never saw Moussa again. My malevolent gunmen proved to be a guardian angel who has haunted my dreams ever since. Many times I have awakened at night, gasping for air while staring into a rifle barrel. If ever a debt was left unpaid, it is mine to this man, and all I can do now is pay it forward in the future.

Returning home we found that Irene had a fractured fibula and spent a month in a walking boot. I had multiple blood clots in both legs and lungs that accounted for my faux heart attack. Three different doctors told me I should have died on the volcano. It took me one year to recover. The scientists got their data and I got a great story.

A few months later, nine trekkers were awakened from a sound sleep inside the same grass huts on the summit of Erta Ale. According to the BBC, they were manhandled outside where five of them, German, Hungarian, and Austrian, were lined up and executed with AK47 Kalashnikov automatic rifles. The other four disappeared into the desert night.

Responsibility was claimed by The Afar Revolutionary Democratic Front Militia, the same tribal faction that Moussa was from.


James Michael Dorsey is an author, explorer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 45 countries. He has spent the past two decades researching remote cultures around the world. He is a contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines, The Christian Science Monitor, and Perceptive Travel. He has written for Colliers, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, Geo Ex Wanderlust, and Natural History. He is a foreign correspondent for CameraPix International and a travel consultant to Brown&Hudson of London. His latest book is Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails. His work has appeared in nine literary anthologies. He is an eight time Solas Award winner and a contributor to The Best Travel Writing, Volume 10. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a former director of the Adventurers club.

Animal Encounter Silver Winner: If Cats Could Type in Key West

October 17th, 2016

By Shelly Rivoli

It would be a literary pilgrimage for the grownups, but what would it be for the kids?

Their eyes combed the lush jungle landscape as we stood waiting at the gated entrance to 907 Whitehead Street. With a quiet gasp from my travel companions, the first orange splash of cat appeared, a bold stroke sauntering on four legs before the chartreuse shutters of the porch. It paused for a moment, gazing toward us as if daring the children to skip the queue, then turned to walk through the open door as if it owned the place.

“Do you think it has six toes?” my son whispered.

I held up crossed fingers where he could see and whispered back, “I hope so.”

As the official travel planner for our family, I often walk a fine line. Drag everyone to an activity too esoteric and risk mutiny, but build a trip around too many child-themed activities and at some point I may feel compelled to jab something sharp into my eye. For the most part, we’ve kept a good balance in our family’s travels. Though I wasn’t so sure how our visit to The Hemingway Home Museum in Key West was going to play out. After all, what did my three young children know of Ernest Hemingway?

Still, I vowed I would not travel all the way from San Francisco to Key West and miss my chance to stroll along Mr. Hemingway’s bookshelves, peer into his private chambers, and possibly gaze into the bathroom mirror where he’d examined his beard on so many mornings, including the one after my favorite poet broke his fist against it.

It would be a literary pilgrimage for the grownups, and—I secretly hoped—a possible antidote to the “plague of the blank page” I’d been battling for months.

But what would it be for the kids?

I imagined myself giving a parental preface upon arrival to underscore the significance of the place, something like, “One of America’s most famous writers lived here. He wrote novels, short stories, and nonfiction books, and some of his best and most important works were created here—right in this room in fact. And on THAT (we assume) typewriter.” But I already knew better. It doesn’t matter how many times you tell a child a place “is important because it’s important.” That’s not what will make it important to them.

There was only one thing I could think of that final day in Key West, one card to play that would get my young entourage to walk without grudge through the sweltering blocks of Old Town to visit the Hemingway home. It was the prospect of seeing cats there, “And quite possibly…” I widened my eyes for effect, “the legendary six-toed grandcats of Mr. Ernest Hemingway.”

“SIX toes?” cried the littlest.

“Wait a minute,” challenged the biggest. “How many toes do cats usually have?”

Cat research was quickly underway, and there was definite interest in visiting Hemingway’s cats at least, if not his home. Even better? Polydactyl—the scientific term for cats born with more than the standard set of five toes on the front and four toes on the back—could also be, the kids were quick to point out, the scientific term for their grandmother were she a dinosaur.

At last, we strode up the path toward the stunning Spanish Colonial that had stood abandoned and a shambles in 1931, the year that Ernest and Pauline moved in (his second wife of four). As the guide preparing to lead the next tour greeted us on the steps, the kids darted past her without salutation. On the far end of the porch, they’d spied a snoozing patchwork calico draped across the stonework corner.

I overheard a quiet counting followed by a very loud confirmation: “SIX TOES!!!”

I cringed, but the cat simply yawned in response and continued its siesta as if it were used to such invasions by small, paw-prodding visitors.

The guide called us to join our group in the dining room, with its African sculpture, assorted portraits of Hemingway, and photos of the famed second family that had called the house home. But the room was already packed. I did my best to listen from the doorway, watching as my husband wandered down the hall, taking in the rooms of the lower level on his own. I wondered for a moment if we shouldn’t follow his lead and see all we could before the kids lost patience. Though I hated to miss the storied details of the place I finally stood after imagining it for so long. I’d at least hear the introduction.

When the Hemingways arrived in Key West in 1928, planning only to stay long enough to retrieve a Ford Roadster that Pauline’s wealthy uncle had purchased for them, the town was nearly bankrupt. It hit upon hard times well before the Great Depression would come along, owing to the end of the shipwreck salvaging era that had built the community and the recent demise of the local sponging industry which had, for a time, sustained it.

Since the car had not yet arrived in Key West, the couple stayed on. And in the three weeks they waited for the Roadster, an inspired Ernest managed to finish the manuscript for A Farewell to Arms while he simultaneously fell in love with America’s southernmost city. When the Roadster finally arrived, it remained in Key West along with the Hemingways.

As she spoke, a sociable tabby padded down the hallway toward certain inspection.

“Only five toes,” the kids confirmed.

Three years later, Pauline’s Uncle Gus purchased the two-story villa as a gift for the couple—along with two other houses on the same property—from the City of Key West for a mere $8,000 in back taxes. The villa itself had been built in 1851 for Mr. Asa Tift, owner of one of the most prosperous salvaging operations in Key West history, with no expenses of architectural detail, marble fireplace, or carved wooden baluster spared.

Just days before, we’d seen Tift portrayed by a costumed interpreter at the Key West Shipwreck Museum, but when I turned to remind the kids, they were nowhere to be seen.

I politely sped through the first level of the house—and checked the status of the calico sleeping on the front porch—but didn’t see a one. Up the narrow staircase I went.

My stray children, along with two others, were quietly gathered at the end of a long display case filled with odds and ends from Hemingway’s life: war service medals, a signed baseball, old snapshots, and tax receipts for the property. The kids were not admiring the treasures within the case, however, but the tabby sprawled comfortably atop its glass lid. Beside the bold feline on display was a sign reading: “Please do not lean on glass.”

“I guess they should have written it in Cat,” my daughter grinned, giving him a gentle scratch between the ears.

Seeing that kids, cat, and museum artifacts appeared safe for the moment, I stepped into the neighboring room to see what I could learn from another tour in progress. It was the master bedroom, and the guide explained that the carved headboard had long ago served as a garden gate on the property. Ernest and Pauline had discovered it during their renovations to the house and both liked the look of it. When they discovered it was exactly the width of their bed, up the narrow staircase it went.

Above the bed hung a painting of the home with wide-footed cats in the foreground. And on the bed itself—which was chained off to prevent any person from presuming they could sit upon it—was a cat. With an exaggerated stretch, it rolled onto its other side, the black of its tuxedo fur commingling with chenille nubs of coverlet. The humans in the room, including the guide, looked on with affection.

How these cats, numbering somewhere between 40 and 50, came to be at the Hemingway home is a subject of much debate. While some argue they couldn’t possibly be related to any cat or cats the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author kept here in the 1930s, others insist they are indeed the direct descendants of the original six-toed kitten young Gregory and Patrick Hemingway named Snow White.

What is widely agreed upon is that Snow White was the polydactyl progeny of a six-toed seafaring cat named Snowball, whom Hemingway had often admired on the docks of Key West. Snowball belonged to Captain Harold Stanley Dexter who had sailed down to the Keys with her from Massachusetts, where polydactyls are not only more common but have been traditionally thought to bring good luck to sailors. Knowing how fond Hemingway was of Snowball, Dexter gave the writer Snowball’s kitten as a gift.

As we ventured out to the patio between the Hemingway home and the carriage house, five cats quickly came into view. Our original guide stood surrounded by the stripes, patches, and black tie get-up of the resident Hemingway cats, as she explained how the author had made a tradition of naming his own cats’ six-toed offspring after famed celebrities. We were all invited to pay our respects to Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, Ezra Pound, and several generations of four-legged “stars” laid to rest in the cat cemetery.

At last, it was my chance to see Hemingway’s writing studio, which it turned out was the upper level of the adjacent carriage house. In Hemingway’s early days here, there was an elevated walkway between the master bedroom of the main house and the second-story entrance to the studio. But all that remained now was a narrow iron stair case labeled “UP” on the left side and “DOWN” to the right, with tourists in transit on each.

I figured the kids, quite engaged with the cats on the ground, wouldn’t miss it a wink.

“I’ll be right back—I’m going up to have a look in the writing studio.” As I gestured up toward the pinnacle of steep steps beside us, I felt a fleeting pang of envy at the clear separation between “Papa” Hemingway’s work space and his home.

With cocked heads and curious eyebrows raised, the girls looked up from the cats, their faces somehow more mature than I remembered.

My firstborn stood, her gaze suddenly level with my collar bones.

Her younger sister crossed arms, then furrowed oddly familiar eyebrows.

“Do you want to come with me?”

Heads nodded quickly. Both girls did.

“Okay…” I couldn’t help but grin. “Then let’s do this.”

Together, we made way up the crowded steps of the converted carriage house, toward the room where Hemingway spent his early morning writing hours during what most agree was his most prolific period, toward the room where celebrated short stories like “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” the nonfiction book The Green Hills of Africa, the novel To Have and Have Not, and many other well-known works were penned, punctuated, and percussively typed.

Yet when we reached the top of the stairs, instead of entering a writing room we stepped into a holding cell. It was just a small entryway, not much bigger than a phone booth, from which visitors could view the studio between decorative iron bars.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I couldn’t help but grumble.

There we stood, pressed against the bars, as more and more visitors insinuated by way of shoulder and elbow that we should hurry up and snap our photo, genuflect, and exit the sacred space so that they might have a quick turn, too.

But I refused to be rushed.

If there is such a thing as “good writing vibes,” this room had to have plenty of it, and I would absorb every bit I could before exiting the staircase “Down.”

“Look!” my daughter pointed her slender finger through the bars.

At the far end of the studio, in an open window slept a cat, the long stripe of its tail hanging down from the sill like a limp exclamation point.

I inserted the lens of my camera between the bars that the cats could easily transgress, accepting that it was as close as I might ever get to Hemingway’s writing table.

My daughter laughed, “If you just showed up and didn’t know better, you’d think this writing studio belonged to the cats.”

“Maybe it does,” I shrugged, adjusting my focus on the typewriter.

Both daughters laughed in spite of the throat clearing behind us.

“People: Do not enter,” the big sister warned.

“Cats only!” the middle sister huffed.

I giggled as I snapped the shot.

“Imagine what stories they might write…” I dared, and of course they did.

We descended the stairs with visions of polydactyls pouncing on typewriters and running their own small publishing empire from a writing studio that once, long ago, was used by a man called Hemingway.

In the nearby shade of a banana tree, we found my son crouched down in quiet observation of an enormous orange tabby. “Look at his toes,” he whispered. He gently lifted a forepaw as we all leaned in for the count. “Seven toes!” he squealed.

The kids could have happily spent another hour hunting polydactyls in the shade of the African tulips, plumeria, and palm trees that surround the Hemingway home, but eventually it was time to leave and begin packing up for the long trip home.

Among the many souvenirs we brought back with us from Key West, I discovered something small and nearly invisible I hadn’t realized I’d acquired at the time. I only noticed it when I was suddenly compelled to pick up a pen—and start writing again.

~ ~ ~

Postscript: A poem

What if, like a six-toed seafaring cat,
I could slip between the iron bars
that separate His hallowed hall
from the daily deluge of onlookers?
If I could pad over to His typewriter
in the hours when no one can see?
If I could type one sentence upon it—
what would mine be?


Shelly Rivoli is an author, blogger, and freelance travel writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and three children. She’s received several awards for her blogging efforts, including the 2012 Bronze and 2013 Silver awards for Independent Travel Blog from the North American Travel Journalist’s Association (NATJA). Her most recent book, Travels with Baby, received the NATJA Gold Prize in Guidebooks and a Lowell Thomas Award.

Funny Travel Bronze Winner: Somewhere Under the Florentine Moon

October 10th, 2016

By Pamela Wright

What’s the Italian word for cougar?

I wasn’t overly concerned when I heard the shouting start in the apartment next door. I’d neglected to learn more than a few pleasantries in Italian before leaving Atlanta for Florence, so I was unable to decipher so much as the rudiments of the argument. I stopped unpacking my overstuffed suitcase and listened for a moment.

There were two combatants, one male and one female. His voice was gravelly and unsteady, hers crackled and shuddered. I smiled and imagined two adorable Florentine pensioners engaged in a harmless spat over the evening meal or whose turn it was to take out the trash, the sort of benign bickering that occurs occasionally but inevitably after many decades of an otherwise happy marriage.

As I continued sorting through piles of clothing and cosmetics, the voices became louder and more urgent. I could not understand the sum and substance of the argument, but the increasingly heated tone was universal: Aged or not, these people were pissed.

“Basta!” shouted the woman.

The old man responded with a lengthy barrage of unintelligible Italian, punctuated by something that sounded like puttana. That particular word sounded vaguely familiar, with a rather unsavory connotation. I thought it might have meant whore, or perhaps even the c-word, an epithet so vile that not even a hell-bent heathen like myself could be sufficiently enraged to utter it. I tried to imagine anyone daring to speak to my tiny but total-Southern-belle-badass grandmother in such a fashion and a shudder ran down my spine.

A loud crash erupted behind the bed. One of them had hurled what sounded like a very large piece of crockery against their side of the shared brick wall with sufficient force to launch flurries of red and umber dust into the late afternoon sunlight streaming in from the balcony. While I might have been unfamiliar with Italian culture and customs, in the rural South of my childhood, when folks got this het up, odds were pretty good that someone was going for a gun. Even my grandmother, always a practical woman, kept a pistol in her patent-leather pocketbook for quick and easy access. When compelled to brandish the weapon, she looked like the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Clint Eastwood.

Another stream of what I could only assume were expletives followed, and I stood dead still over my suitcase, a curling iron in one hand and a bottle of hairspray in the other. Neither would provide much defense unless the dispute next door was the result of an ill-considered home permanent. I heard the scraping of wood against wood, but before I could deduce its source, a crash stilled my breath and jolted the bed a good three inches away from its original position against the wall.

Jesus Christ, I thought. This isn’t an argument, it’s a mob hit!

My parents’ twenty-year marriage had ended badly, but even amidst the escalating anger and recrimination of its wretched, waning months I never heard anything remotely like this.

I dropped to the floor and scrambled beneath the bed for cover, my heart pounding in my throat. This was not at all what I had envisioned a few weeks before when I first hatched my somewhat impulsive plan for a solo vacation to Europe.

~ ~ ~

Unlike all of my female friends and relatives, I was both single and childless. Both were entirely my choice, and I was generally content with the life I had built for myself. A solitary creature by nature, the prospect of marriage loomed like a self-imposed prison sentence, and I had never been very comfortable with children. Little kids don’t drink wine and rarely follow politics, so after establishing what they hope Santa Claus will bring them for Christmas, I’m pretty much at loss for conversation.

By my early thirties, I was not merely resigned to la vita da single, I had come to revel in my self-imposed spinsterhood. I enjoyed the solitude and the independence to pursue my own interests, and I’d even developed an impressive set of landscaping and home improvement skills along the way.

Still, I did experience an occasional twinge of domestic existential angst. I sometimes watched young couples in a restaurant near my home as they fussed over cooing babies and leaned their heads close together in intimate conversation. I never wished I had that life, but every now and again I found myself wishing I wanted that life. As much as I relished my autonomy, there were moments when I wondered if the companionship and support of a life partner would be a worthy tradeoff for my independence. Granted, these moments were fleeting and almost always occasioned by such crises as the discovery of a roof leak in the wee hours of a stormy night or a dead possum in the basement, but it did cross my mind.

Men had drifted in and out of my life over the years, good men for the most part, some of whom had offered a lifetime of security in exchange for my last name. Marriage to any one of these men would have been a safe bet, and my refusals to accept boggled the minds of my married and desperate-to-be-married girlfriends. But I could not bring myself to gamble decades of my life and a kind man’s happiness against the off chance that the marital/maternal instincts would just kick in once I strapped on a wedding gown and said, “I do.” Worst case scenario, at least I have a spacious home. Eleven rooms will hold a lot of cats.

As the Big Four-Oh-My-God approached, I felt restless; I was happy but a bit unsettled. I suppose it was, at least in some small part, the realization that the life choices I had made so cavalierly during my twenties and thirties were becoming more limited. In ten years time, when the last of whatever good looks I was born with had faded and the Good Ship Fertility had sailed, what if I realized I had made a mistake?

It struck me that a change of scenery might soothe the soul, and I became intrigued with taking my first solo vacation abroad as a fortieth birthday present to myself. I spent weeks pouring over a stack of guidebooks, practically drooling over the picturesque scenes of rolling Tuscan hills and quaint medieval villages. I envisioned myself, confident and self-assured, frolicking through the achingly beautiful Italian countryside on a bicycle. A long, gossamer scarf would stream behind me from my swanlike throat, a la Grace Kelly opposite Cary Grant in one of those old movies I spent entirely too much time watching.

It would be altogether perfect.

I bought a plane ticket to Florence and rented an apartment right off the Ponte Vecchio, all paid in full and non-refundable in case I tried to chicken out. It was meant to be an adventure, the trip of a lifetime, a paean to my independence. I wanted to become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone.

And there I was. In Italy. Stuck under a bed.

Perhaps I had made a mistake. I could barely ride a bicycle on the sidewalk in front of my house, let alone through the Tuscan hillside. With my luck, coupled with an inherent clumsiness, I would undoubtedly get my Grace Kelly scarf caught in the spokes and throttle myself by the short, squatty neck. Suddenly the prospect of spending every Saturday night in a greasy barbeque joint with a squalling, red-faced baby and a NASCAR-obsessed, potbellied husband who would probably sleep through the storm and pretend he didn’t see the dead possum seemed more appealing.

As the battle continued unabated next door, I cautiously snaked one hand out from under the bed and felt blindly along the edge of the coverlet until I located my guidebook. More crockery shattered beyond the brick wall. The old man unleashed yet another litany of invectives at his companion. The old woman responded in kind.

Basta! BASTAAA!!!” she spat.

I burrowed deeper beneath the bed and paged through the guidebook to the “Helpful Words and Phrases” section until I found the B’s.

Basta {interjection}: enough; “that’ll do!”

Enough? From my perspective under the bed it sounded more like “May God have mercy on your soul, you rat bastard!!!”

By the time the last dapples of sunlight had slipped into shadows, my neighbors had mercifully retreated to their respective corners. Rich, spicy aromas wafted in through the open balcony window and I was overcome with hunger. Encouraged by the fact that the armistice next door had lasted a full and unabated five minutes, I pulled myself from under the bed and headed out the door in search of dinner. Hunger always bested fear in the end.

~ ~ ~

When I mentioned to people I was going to spend a week in Florence, Italy, alone, the invariable reaction (particularly from single women) was something along the lines of “Oooohh, maybe you’ll meet somebody! It’ll be just like that movie Under the Tuscan Sun!

I seriously doubted that this would be the case. I saw that movie. I liked that movie. But let me say, without a drop of false modesty, Diane Lane I most assuredly am not. Still, I could not deny the smallest, most fleeting of romantic musings in the weeks before I left Atlanta for Italy.

I had imagined spending the first night of my vacation in some lovely, out-of-the-way Florentine café, where I would while away the evening breathing in the same intoxicating air that had inspired Michelangelo and Botticelli, whilst a mustachioed waiter with impeccable old-world manners poured my wine and called me signorina with a twinkle in his eye. The music of Pavarotti would play softly in the background as a warm breeze lifted perfect waves of auburn hair from my creamy porcelain shoulders.

Somehow in this fantasy, my hair had grown about twelve inches into long, perfect waves. I had also become ten years younger, twenty pounds thinner, and grown creamy porcelain shoulders worthy of display, as if I would somehow morph into a red-headed version of Veronica Lake as I passed through customs.

In reality, I had stumbled (quite literally, thanks to sleep deprivation and a misplaced cobblestone) into a café a few blocks from my apartment on the far side of the ancient Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The unsmiling waiter, mustachioed but with eyes more bloodshot than twinkly, barely spoke as he took my order and quickly disappeared into the kitchen. It was a lovely, late September evening, but there was not another soul to be found on the restaurant patio. For a moment I wondered what the crowds of people spilling out of the trattoria next door knew that I didn’t, and if I had just wandered into the Florentine equivalent of Denny’s.

As I dined on mediocre bruschetta and overcooked ravioli in cream sauce washed down with copious amounts of Prosecco, a nice breeze began to blow. Alas, it did not lift long auburn waves from my (modestly covered) shoulders because I was in the process of growing out a horrifically bad haircut that had left me bearing a disturbing resemblance to my fourth grade school picture. If Pavarotti were playing softly in the background, I could not hear him over the tubercular-sounding cough emanating from somewhere deep inside the empty restaurant. I elected to take it on faith that the unfortunate consumptive had not prepared my food, but I nevertheless abandoned the remnants of pasta left on my plate. I didn’t want to carpe diem myself into a bad case of food poisoning on the very first night.

I felt a bit unsteady on my feet as I stood and made my way to the street. Perhaps I had exercised poor judgment in knocking back three glasses of wine in rapid succession after being awake for thirty-six hours straight. I took my time walking back to the apartment, peeking through shuttered windows into shops I might visit the next day and stopping to admire the moonlight as it danced across the surface of the Arno River.

One of my favorite aspects of travel is discovering the distinct smell that every city or country possesses. Every place I have ever visited lives in my memory according to its unique fragrance: the clean damp of Ireland, with notes of peat and wood smoke; the way the seventh arrondissement of Paris smells like butter and gruyere cheese melting into fresh, crusty bread; the metallic, energizing scent of New York City in December. Florence had a warm, ancient bouquet and a pleasant dustiness that was like breathing in the Renaissance itself.

As I stood by the river sucking up the essence of Italy, I detected a hint of musky cologne. I turned and found a man standing a few feet behind me, speaking Italian in my general direction. I looked over my shoulder. I assumed he was addressing someone else, but I was the only one there.

“Pardon?” I asked.

“You are American, yes?” he asked.

I thought it remarkable that he could place my accent based upon the utterance of only one word, but I quickly realized that as a nearly six-foot redhead I couldn’t exactly pass as a native.

“Yes, I am,” I offered hesitantly. I recalled a passage in my guidebook that warned of pickpockets and thieving bands of gypsy children who preyed upon American tourists. This guy certainly didn’t look menacing, in his well-tailored linen trousers and argyle sweater, but I was alone in a foreign country on a dark and largely deserted street.

The man quickly fell into step beside me as I began walking in the direction that my Prosecco-addled brain estimated would lead me to the safety of my fourth floor apartment. He said his name was Marco (of course it was!). I stole a glance at him as we passed beneath a street lamp. He was about my height and appeared to be somewhere in his thirties. And he was handsome … really handsome, with thick brown hair that fell in layers over a high forehead and an aquiline nose that could have been carved by an Italian master.

He attempted to make small talk as we walked, asking where I was from, how long I was staying in Florence, if I’d visited any of the surrounding towns. It took a few attempts for him to understand my name, but otherwise his English was very good, much better than my virtually nonexistent Italian. It all seemed innocent enough, but Marco was just far too good looking for this to be a pick-up. In Atlanta, a guy like this would be up to his spectacularly firm ass in co-eds and pageant girls, not scamming for a one-off with a bedraggled American tourist staring down the barrel of middle age. The only way I could conceivably draw his attention back home would be to spontaneously combust in the middle of the street.

As Marco continued to describe the wonders of Tuscany, I worked my tongue against my front teeth in a fruitless attempt to dislodge the errant fennel seed that had wedged itself there during dinner. I was suddenly painfully aware of the death grip my Spanx had around my waist, and I could practically feel the gravity pulling on my face. I certainly didn’t feel glamorous like Grace Kelly, or sultry like Veronica Lake. I felt sturdy and matronly, like Eleanor Roosevelt. The mugging scenario was starting to seem like the more likely objective.

“Well, I’ve enjoyed talking with you, but it’s been a long day and I should get back…” I said and quickened my step.

“But wait, please!” Marco grabbed my hand and pulled me to a stop beneath a streetlamp.

I didn’t know if I should be flattered or kick him in the balls and run like hell.

“You are so beautiful, you cannot leave yet. Please, come and have a beer with me. I will take you to the most beautiful place in Florence.”

Please, dear God, don’t let it be the trunk of his car!

I offered further protestations of exhaustion and jet lag, but Marco continued in his attempts to persuade me to accept his hospitality. I’ll admit, they were beginning to wear me down. I had no husband to account to; I was a free agent on the loose in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. There were no children waiting at home, only cats, and they pass no judgments. Cats are good that way.

Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated; hell, I probably would have tried to pick him up. Recapturing a moment of the reckless glory of my misspent youth was tempting, indeed. At the very least, it would make for a saucy story to share with all of the other old maids in the state-run nursing home where I would undoubtedly spend my twilight years.

Or it could end with my god-awful passport photo flashed across CNN as Anderson Cooper, grave of voice and furrowed of brow, warned against the dangers of American women traveling alone and succumbing to the devious and dangerous charms of foreign men.

Or maybe he was a perfectly nice, well-intentioned guy who had a thing for slightly older women in need of restrictive shapewear. I had heard that European men appreciated maturity in a woman as in a good wine or delicately nuanced artisanal cheese. I had always assumed it was bullshit, but who knew, maybe there was some truth to it. I scanned Marco’s face again, trying to work out exactly how far into his thirties he might be, and wondered how well the term “cougar” translated from English to Italian.

“Well, maybe just one beer, but only if it’s not far…” I began. Maybe it was the wine, but a second wind of energy began to course through my veins. Then I turned my gaze downward where it settled on my feet.

There exists, I am certain, an unwritten but inviolable international law mandating that all women over the age of twenty-five attempting entry to any European country must be in possession of the sturdy, low-heeled, oh-so-sensible but altogether-butt-ugly walking shoe. Said footwear must be worn at all times, as evidenced by the untold thousands of pairs that carry female travelers bunion-and-blister free from the banks of the Seine to the back alleys of Barcelona every year. And there I stood, fully compliant in my size nine-narrow, round-toed, hand-stitched Clark’s.

They were about as sexy as a colostomy bag.

I found it categorically impossible to entertain even the notion of playing the femme fatale, even the Eleanor Roosevelt version, while shod in what my mother had previously described as clodhoppers that she herself would not deign to wear to a rat killing. I nearly laughed out loud as I attempted to envision myself seated on a barstool beside Marco, legs crossed, hair tossed, as I loosened one shoe and let it dangle seductively from my perfectly manicured toes. Whereupon, its full and considerable weight would most assuredly fall to the floor with a crash so loud and resounding that all conversations would cease in its echo.

“Why are you smiling? Will you come with me or not?” Marco asked and tugged at my hand again … just a little too hard.

My smile faded as I again imagined my formidable black shoe dangling from the end of my foot. But this time it was dangling out of the open trunk of a late-model sports car as Anderson Cooper sighed and shook his lovely silver head. My burgeoning second wind blew itself out somewhere over the Arno River.

The giddy effects of the wine had abandoned me with a headache, and I was suddenly so exhausted I nearly swooned. I wasn’t a reckless kid anymore. I was a grown-up woman in sensible shoes.

Basta.

I took back my hand, then I took my leave.

The sky was blanketed with stars as I walked slowly toward my apartment, admiring the architecture and reflecting on the events of my first day in Italy. I wondered what my friends were doing back at home as I tried to compute the time difference. It would be daylight soon in Atlanta, time for the early morning rush of which-child-would-eat-what for breakfast and frantic searches for car keys and briefcases.

I began to consider that perhaps I had made a mistake in declining Marco’s offer of a drink and whatever else the invitation may or may not have implied. I was guilty of over-analyzing things on occasion. Would this prove to be another experience I might someday come to regret having not embraced? Sometimes a drink was just a drink, and after all, I had become the sort of woman who went to Italy alone … carpe diem.

I stopped and looked back over my shoulder to see if Marco was still standing beneath the streetlamp, but he had disappeared, somewhere under the Florentine moon.


Pamela Wright is a freelance writer from Atlanta, Georgia. Her personal essays have been published by Full Grown People, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, Purple Clover and in the anthology Not Your Mother’s Book . . . On Cats. She has been awarded a 2016 Solas Award for Best Travel Writing and the 2016 Rick Bragg Prize for Nonfiction.

Travelers' Tales