Elder Travel Bronze Winner: Driving with Gods

February 13th, 2017

By Carol J. Arnold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rishikesh, in the north.”

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

“Yes, Madame.”

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

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

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

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

“Fifty-one, Madame.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this about?” Andy asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Namaste, Samir.” I whispered.

The god in me sees the god in you.

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

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

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

“A god?”

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

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


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

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

January 16th, 2017

By Rosie Cohan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew he didn’t mean my donkey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think Ali’s grandfather would be smiling too.


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

Travel and Sports Silver Winner: The Tour du Mont Blanc

January 9th, 2017

By Marianne Bohr

Mother Nature always wins.

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

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

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

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

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

The Hike

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Honorable Mention: The Terracotta Life

January 2nd, 2017

By Lola Åkerström

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Travel and Healing Bronze Winner: Gift Along the Way

December 26th, 2016

By Rosemary Hanrahan

The healing power of being present.

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

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

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

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

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

But that day was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rational side responded, “Hell, yes!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Travel and Shopping Bronze Winner: A Village Under the Sky

December 19th, 2016

By Donna Lawrence

A view of another woman’s life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

Travelers' Tales