This Never Happens

April 8th, 2019

By Anne Lowrey

Bad Trip Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Nunca ha pasado aquí,” he repeated. I shrugged as if I didn’t hear him, though I understood every word.

“This never happens.”

Except it did. I sat silently in the back of the rusted car that was taking me slowly away from the events of the past few days. I had run out of words to say in Spanish. In the middle of Colombia’s coffee country, with nothing but the clothes on my back, I was too exhausted to be angry.

“This never happens” was all anybody seemed to be able to say to me when I told them. Each time the phrase came it spoke with a loaded look that also pleaded, “Please don’t tell anyone.”

Why did getting robbed with a gun to my head feel like some terrible secret I’d be forced to keep?

I couldn’t think about that now. I needed to get to the nearest airport. There, with only a torn and faded police report in hand, I would somehow board a plane to Bogota and get to the U.S. Embassy for my emergency passport. Soon, I thought, I’d be home. I didn’t dare yet wonder what that might feel like.

As the car turned, I was jolted out of disorientation. Looking past the dashboard ahead at the road, I held back tears as the driver turned his weathered hands gently across the leather steering wheel. It seemed the closer I got to leaving Colombia, the more I let myself feel the depth of the pain. I thought back to my first few days in the country.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

Jaimee and I came to Colombia as travel writers, openhearted and eager to show the world a place safe and beautiful and worth traveling to. She and I had met only a few months prior on assignment in Acapulco, and under the blistering Mexican sun, became instant friends. Historically a glamorous oceanfront destination, Acapulco was now haunted by (and losing money from) its reputation for violence. Our job was to dig deep, guided of course by the local tourism board, to present the positives to prospective travelers.

The thrill of having achieved this in Acapulco left us both clamoring for our next adventure, both silently drawn to a place that perhaps was similarly misunderstood. Together we scanned the world map for the next country waiting to be featured and discovered. We imagined dots on an atlas as if each were waiting for us with open arms, filled with the culture and kindness we had come to expect, each brimming with beauty, stuffed with stories wanting to be told.

“What about Colombia?” I said.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” She, like so many before her, had asked.

“I hear it’s really improving,” I assured her. “Lots of people I know have gone and actually said it was their favorite place in South America.” Still, she didn’t seem convinced.

In the weeks that followed, I gathered the evidence to present my case: the brightly-colored doors of Cartagena, wooden stairs winding to the scenic top of El Penol rock, even a remote tropical island off the coast of paradise we could scuba dive from. What was your favorite part about Colombia? I’d asked of the many travelers in my life. Their answer was always the same: the people. That alone was good enough for me.

“We can do all of this and more with a month there,” I explained. “Though we’ll want to leave a bit of time open, to see where the stories take us.”

Before long we are buzzing the front gate bell of a hostel in Medellin, one of the country’s best-known cities. There the story is clear: in a place that once had the highest murder rate in the world, a city made infamous by cocaine and cartels, there is still much beauty to be found. From the interiors of the trendy Colombian cafes to the revitalized urban plazas, to the tram that now runs from its gleaming metro all the way to the fringes of the rainforest, it seems that Medellin is rising and shining out of the shadows. From above, you can spot shiny new escalators and even elegantly designed new local libraries, each running through the comunas dotted below and, as we are proudly told, providing residents access to non-drug related prosperity for the first time in decades.

Our days pass quickly in beautiful Medellin. Plane tickets are booked, itineraries formed, friends made. We feel especially fortunate to meet one woman in particular. She is the leader of the free city walking tour we take through otherwise intimidating parts of Medellin. With her light skin, reddish hair, and perfect English, at first we don’t recognize that she is Colombian.

“I’m not just Colombian,” she tells us. “I’m paisa.” Born and raised in Antioquia, the department of the country Medellin is in, she beamed with pride in her heritage and like many others from there, sees herself as a bit different than the rest of Colombia.

Jaimee and I begin to ask her questions we wouldn’t ask anyone else. We learned quickly not to mention the name Pablo Escobar, arguably the world’s most infamous criminal — for the wounds are still fresh and the whole of the country yearns to be known for any thing other than him.

Even our new friend’s family had been personally affected. For members of her family, like so many, the choice was to leave their home or lose their lives, which I gather is part of the reason she’s so firmly grounded in her paisa identity today.

She lets us in the local secrets hidden underneath this new, shiny facade: why, in fact, prostitutes stand counterintuitively by the church, where the best fried chicken can be found, why Colombians are so eager to celebrate life. Motioning us to come closer, she is the first to tell us about “dar papaya,” a phrase in Spanish that every Colombian who values themselves knows intimately. Translating roughly to “giving papaya,” it is “unnecessarily giving the opportunity for something to happen, exposing himself, risking himself, being in danger, being innocent.” In simple terms, it’s knowing that flashing your wealth means someone will want to take it from you.

“For Colombians,” she explains, “‘dar papaya’ is one of the biggest sins anyone can commit, because they believe that there will always be someone who takes advantage of it. That is to say, someone will always take the fruit that is shown.” We nod in understanding.

We share our love of Colombian coffee with her. At her and so many others’ urging, we decide to move on as the city prepares for Halloween, one of its biggest celebrations. We sleep soundly that evening with plans to get the next bus to the coffee country first thing in the morning.

The morning bus, and as it turns out the only direct bus, is already fully booked. Advised to head to the station to see if we can’t grab a spot regardless, we strap on our well-worn backpacks and step into the depot wide-eyed and ready for the countryside.

I hand over my card to pay for the route, an eight or so hour ride on a plush-looking coach to the city of Armenia, where we’ll catch a smaller bus for less than an hour to the scenic small town we have booked our next guesthouse in. I hand my large backpack to the bus attendant as we approach our ride, and he inquires in Spanish what my final destination will be.

Vamos a Salento,” I tell him. I pause as I look at him juggling 4 or 5 large suitcases, his thin arms buried by the weight of all of our things. He can’t be more than 12 or 13 years old.

“You should get the direct bus to Salento,” he tells me, still conversing in Spanish, to which I reply that there are no more direct buses today.

“You should stay in Medellin and wait for the direct bus,” the small boy insists. But I explain that tonight is Halloween and all the accommodation I know of is fully booked. His wide eyes shift sharply away from mine. He seems conflicted. No matter his hesitation, his job was still to make sure I got on the bus. Rushed to board by the shoves of passengers behind me, I stepped aboard the bus to Salento despite his low whispers.

Eight hours later we found ourselves in what seemed exactly like the same depot we departed from. There were the same rows of black and red coach buses, many blaring rhythmic tunes and most surrounded by some small person selling snacks. Jaimee and I know we have to find our next bus quickly, as it’s the last one that runs for the evening.

Salento? Dónde está el autobús por Salento?” We run through the station strapped to our heavy packs, stopping men in cowboy hats and frantically asking many people to kindly point us in the right direction.

Our frenzy to arrive on the right bus ends with us being the first to board a much smaller vehicle, one that couldn’t have held more than twenty people. It feels eerily empty in comparison to the flurry of activity elsewhere. I continue to ask passerbys my one-word question, “Salento?”

Some short minutes later the bus has obtained a few more fellow passengers, and we begin to crawl out of the depot. I wonder as I look around at the others around me, Am I on the right bus? I had asked enough times to be more than a little certain. I did notice that we were the only tourists…but since when, in all my years of traveling, was that a cause for concern? I put in my headphones and drifted off, leaning my head against the cold window as I prepare for the final leg of our long journey.

The bus slowed to a halt no more than ten minutes later. Out the window I notice the shadowy outline of a church. It’s not yet dark out, but it’s getting there. I didn’t realize this bus stopped anywhere else, thinking no more of the five people we pick up on the outskirts of town. With them a few families climb on board, squishing into the back beside me. Little girls no more than five years old, dressed in their sparkling princess costumes, are eager to show me their trick-or-treat loot. I smile widely at them and decline their offer to share their candy as we giggle together and speak softly in Spanish. The sun continues to set.

I awaken sharply from my daydreaming out the window. Nearly just as soon as the light had disappeared from the sky, I feel my headphones yanked suddenly and violently from my ears. Before I have time to realize what is happening, I feel the chain of a favorite necklace similarly ripped from my neck. With the bus picking up speed and the fluorescent lights flung on, I see from the periphery as five men leap to the aisles of the bus. Each of them held a black handgun.

My eyes scan the small bus interior in utter disbelief. One of them stands defiantly at the front. Another holds a gun to the bus driver’s head. I look over at Jaimee and see a woman beside her. She is armed as well, and searching frantically my friend’s seat for her Apple laptop.

I struggle to take all of this in; I hear the woman in front of me sobbing like her life depends on it long before I notice the teenager shaking in front of me. Like the rest of them, he had a gun fragilely draping from his fingertips.

The boy searched my body for valuables. I nudged my small backpack, the one I keep on me at all times, the one with my money, computer, camera, lenses, and passport in it…thinking that if I pushed it enough under the seat in front of me perhaps it would go unnoticed. The reach of his hands continues across my lap and then, underneath my clothes, causing me to force his hand away. It was a sudden movement I wouldn’t have made from any place other than pure instinct, and a mistake I quickly realized wasn’t smart with a gun pointed at me.

He stopped his search of my body and proceeded to the floor. I’ll never forget the noise he made when he found my bag under the seat. It was a sound as if to say nothing more than, ah…this is what you’ve been keeping from me. This is what I thought you might have on you when I boarded this bus with this loaded gun.

With every valuable I owned now in his arms, the teenager who had been assigned to rob me stood in the aisle beside me. The bus lights went down, and I sat slightly petrified next to him. The Colombian woman in front of me was still crying.

How could he sit there with all of my things? He’s just a kid, I thought. And why did this happen to me? I wasn’t giving papaya — other than my blond hair I didn’t stand out; I am dressed like a ragged backpacker. I don’t look rich, but I don’t look Colombian either. This kid doesn’t stop to know I grew up with a Colombian aunt, that I’m here to prove how wonderful his country is, that I’m near fluent in Spanish.

With complete calm, I realize the one item that I need to ask him for in this moment. I speak in a low whisper, channeling my aunt’s accent to him. The Spanish flows from my lips without thought. I need my passport.

He begins to search my small bag, eventually handing me a red leather luggage tag that is nearly the size of a passport. I had removed it from my black backpack when we landed, realizing it made me stand out too much.

It was not my passport, but he was trying. He began to ask me where in the bag he could find it. For a moment, I felt that he might be able to give me the one thing I really did not want to let go of.

Mid-sentence I sense the presence of another man, another gun. I raise my eyes from the floor where my bag sat and stare directly into the barrel of a loaded gun. I feel the cold metal pressed lightly to my temple. Acting again out of pure instinct, I duck and cover my head with both my arms.

I now know that part of my mind has blocked this moment out to some degree, but in this moment I do feel that I am about to lose my life. I can no longer see the figures of the hijackers, not even their outlines. I only feel them, feel the charge in the air that must come from the waiting for their moment of escape, from the holding of a firearm in each of their hands.

I don’t look up again until the lights flash on and the group of men and women with guns rush to depart. We have reached their exit point. They leave the bus with every bag on board. They take every item I have traveled with, down to the cheap jewelry I was wearing. What will they do with my journal, I wonder? They can’t even read it.

The bus drives slowly on, the driver now without a loaded gun at his head, until it stutters to a stop. The lights remain on, but the darkness is fully upon us. It hits me that we are in the middle of a Colombian jungle. I feel the woman seated in front of me reach for my hand. She squeezes it with every ounce of her strength, as though it might transport us both out of this nightmare. I look down at my hand as if to feel some pain, either physical or emotional. I feel nothing.

The bus isn’t going anywhere. I’m eerily calm and clear-headed, almost detached from everything happening around me. Sitting in shock and disbelief, I’m as if I’m merely a witness to it all, watching everything take place from behind a protective partition. It’s not until cars begin to pass us, and the young girls, still dressed in their princess outfits, begin to bang loudly with their small hands on the bus windows to try and get their attention. Each car flies past us, a bus full of people stopped in the middle of the highway, but no one will stop. The cries of the small girls grows louder and more desperate. This is yet another sound that I will never forget.

The policia arrive suspiciously soon. They seem overly concerned with what I lost in the hijacking. All I can think about is how the bus still isn’t moving. As the police officer asks me to estimate the total amount of what I just lost, my mind wanders to imagine the robbers running back to the bus and shooting us through the back window. Can we please turn the engine back on and drive away to anywhere that isn’t here? For the first time in all my life, I feel completely powerless.

I don’t think I formed a coherent thought for the next few hours. Not even the Spanish that flowed effortlessly from my mouth, words that I didn’t even know I knew, came from a conscious place. Then sitting in the Salento police station, where we had been escorted, I was jolted back to reality with a few words from one of the officers, “can’t you just get the money back from your American insurance?”

I lost a necklace that belonged to my grandmother. I lost a journal that I’ve kept on five different continents. I lost photos I didn’t have time to backup in between trips, I thought. No, the money from the insurance I don’t have will not buy me back these things. I believed my life would end tonight. But how do I begin to explain this?

Name? Address? Age? Profession? The questions barked at me in Spanish are seeming endless. I shudder to think of navigating the experience had I not known the language. I notice that hardly anyone else from the bus has accompanied us to the police station.

“I’m a journalist,” I tell them. Though I usually have to think through whether to divulge this information when abroad, I state it matter-of-factly, and for the first time in all this organized chaos, I see an officer’s ears perk up as if something is out of the ordinary.

“I came to Colombia to write an article about it, to help bring tourists here.” I tell them. “How can I do that when I just lost my livelihood?” I scan their faces for a reaction, for any recognition of the meaning of my words. I get nothing.

“You need to wait here until we finish filing the reports. Then we’ll take you to your guesthouse.” They gesture to two empty chairs at the end of a row in the main room. I don’t want to go with them to our guesthouse. I don’t trust them at all. But without money or so much as a cell phone, what choice do I have?

We arrive at our planned accommodation on a small finca, or farm, in the back of cop cars like a couple of fugitives. Over the next few days that is exactly what we will feel like…we’re not guests at the house, but two terrified travelers waiting out the holiday weekend. We were two friends without so much as an identification card or a clean pair of underwear on us. We didn’t dare cry or complain, and as I would soon learn, we most certainly could not ask any questions.

This never happens.

Which is how I found myself sinking into the bench seat of that rusted car. The sadness in the eyes of that old Colombian man expressed understanding as I ran inside to the guesthouse computer to email my mother, powerless on the other side of the world, the numbers and letters of his license plate. At least she’d have this information in the event that she didn’t hear from me in the next 12 hours.

I had had plenty of time to call and block all of my credit cards, to plead with the embassy to process our emergency passport applications the moment they opened, to search the faces of every local I met for a shred of empathy. I hadn’t yet had a moment to wonder what this meant for me as a traveler, as a human being who had trusted nearly every person she came into contact with, no matter what part of town or which foreign country she found herself in. I was numb. I was terrified. I was relieved to be alive.

When they took my passport photo for the emergency passport in Bogota, I was so exhausted from crying and not sleeping that I couldn’t even keep both eyes open. My eyes twitched back and forth frantically as if in constant search of respite.

I was so scared of getting in cabs even to and from the embassy that I stopped three different police officers each time to vet the drivers before I would get in. I had “exchanged” money with a fellow traveler at the guesthouse, a young German backpacker who had given me cash after my solemn story in exchange for my promise to PayPal him the money once I got home. I had taken just enough to pay for our passports and our taxis, and no more.

So when the American embassy told us we’d be required to purchase passport-sized photographs for our rush application, we asked why no one had told us we needed money for that prior. We’d also need to leave the embassy to get the photos taken. That wasn’t “a service they provided.” I searched the American agent’s eyes for empathy, but again we were met with none of the warmth I had come to expect.

“Please, we have no money for our cab to the airport if we spend the last of our cash on these photos. Is there no way you can take them here?” She pursed her lips and nodded no. They can’t help us. If they gave money to us, they’d have to give it to everyone. She tells me she is sorry. I sigh in disbelief, but also relief at feeling perhaps one step closer to leaving this place.

The final hours before our departure were stacked with the additional stress of not being guaranteed same-day processing for our passports, the single item we’d be boarding the plane to go home with. As I sat in the hard plastic chair, I felt some tiny comfort knowing that at that moment, I was technically on American soil. I closed my eyes for the first time in days, took a deep breath, and heard my assigned number called over the loudspeaker.

“A46?” The American embassy agent confirmed with a question as I leapt eagerly to the counter.

“Your passport has been issued. Have a safe trip home,” she said as she passed the thin blue book under the glass partition. She met my eyes. I looked back at her with quiet resignation.

A few steps from the window I opened my passport and glimpsed at my own passport photo with devastation and pity. I did not recognize the woman in that photo.

Flipping through the final two or three pages, I came upon some money tucked into the back. Puzzled, I turned my head as I felt a half-smile come across my face. This wasn’t policy — she had made that clear. But in that moment, she gave me more than just what I needed to get home — she gave me understanding.

The words she had spoken moments earlier became the last sound from Colombia I’d never forget.

“This happens all the time.”

Anne Lowrey is an award-winning freelance travel writer based in San Francisco. She is a member of the content teams for both TripAdvisor and Skyscanner, with freelance work appearing in publications such as BBC Travel and Eater. Anne passionately believes you don’t have to give up the life you’re already living to see the world. She blogs at Part-Time Traveler, which emphasizes the connection between and balance of travel and home. She holds degrees in English and Global Studies from UCLA.

The Place Where Norman Slept

March 31st, 2019

By Teresa O’Kane

Animal Encounters Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

Norman is a solitary old bull elephant who lives on Amakhala Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Years ago, he spent his days with his elephant friend George, until George had a battle with an electric fence. These days Norman wanders alone, joining the breeding herd only during mating season. The rest of the time he observes the other elephants from a distance or ignores them completely. Norman is bigger than most elephants his age. He is the one who asserts discipline over the herd and metes out punishment when he and his eight tons deem it necessary.

I first heard about Norman during a two-night campout on Amakhala earlier in our training. During one of our walks, we came upon the remains of a decaying elephant lying on a gently sloping hillside. We could smell the scene long before we saw it. Sun-bleached bones picked clean by hyenas and vultures were strewn widely around the area. The putrefied hide of the elephant lay folded over on itself like a discarded area rug. The place felt creepy. We turned to our mentor, Schalk, and asked how the elephant had died.

“This was a problem elephant,” he began. “He was unpredictable. He routinely approached vehicles, pestered other elephants, and disrupted tranquility amongst the herd. The other elephants were nervous whenever he was around. Then one day, another elephant, Norman, decided to take matters into his own hands.” Schalk went on to say that the battle between the two elephants went on for several hours and that the shrieking of the herd as they watched the carnage could be heard a kilometer away.

My initial reaction to the story was that I wanted to stay as far away as possible from an animal as violent as Norman. Though Schalk always referred to him as a wonderful old elephant, each time I encountered Norman I felt on edge—until the day of my assessment.

Three of us were being evaluated that day, Scott, me, and a young Brit named Lewis. We each picked which animal we wanted to track and be tested on. When it was Scott’s turn he said, “I want to track Norman.” I was surprised and a little annoyed. Being around Norman still made me nervous. Eight tons is a lot of angry elephant. I gave Scott a look, (Seriously?) and fell in behind Lewis as we began tracking Norman.

But it wasn’t long before I was completely engrossed in looking for signs of Norman. Tracking animals had become the most compelling aspect of my time in the bush. I don’t necessarily ever need to lay eyes on the animal. It’s enough to figure out from their spoor what they did that day. It was like reading the diary of a wild thing.

We had tracked Norman’s spoor for over an hour on foot and by vehicle before his footprints disappeared in an area of tall grass and bushes. Peering into a wall of bushy shrubs, Schalk asked us to return to the vehicle, saying, “I want to go a little further on my own.”

Shortly, we heard a strange sound coming from the bushes. Then suddenly Schalk was running towards us at full tilt with an enormous smile on his face. We quickly opened the doors of the vehicle and were half in half out when Schalk whispered, “It’s Norman.” Schalk leaned on the door and caught his breath. “He’s sleeping. He was so still I thought, oh no, here is another dead elephant. But then he snored.”

“That was the sound we heard,” I said at a giddy whisper.

Schalk started the vehicle and moved it behind a large clump of bushes near Norman’s bedroom. Then we waited for Norman to wake up.

I stared into the thicket through binoculars. Each time Norman exhaled, the leaves on the bush next to him fluttered. We crept closer until we could hear him farting and snoring. We quietly made lunch. We made coffee. Finally, after an hour passed, we heard branches snapping. Norman was waking up. He exited his den stiffly and blinked in the bright sun.

Using bushes and trees as cover, we walked parallel to Norman as he slowly made his way to a waterhole some eighth of a kilometer away. After a long drowsy drink, he retraced his steps. He paused briefly at the place where he had napped, before finally disappearing over a small hill and out of view.

“That was incredible. Can we see Norman’s bedroom?” I asked as we neared the thicket. What I saw there completely changed my opinion of Norman once and for all.

The place where Norman slept was under a ceiling of branches intertwined with wispy vines that bore petite blue flowers. A large patch of soft dry earth was Norman’s mattress and in the center of it was a perfect impression of a sleeping elephant. Up near where his trunk had lain was a bone, the hipbone of another elephant.

“Oh my.” Schalk said quietly. “This must be one of Tom’s bones. Tom was another old elephant friend of Norman’s.”

On the way to his nap, Norman had visited Tom’s nearby gravesite and picked out a piece of his old friend to take with him as he napped. We stared at Norman’s outline and at Tom’s bone and thought about all we knew, and what we can’t ever know about the complexity of elephant relationships.

A wonderful old elephant indeed.

Teresa O’Kane writes about travel and adventure from her home in California and from around the world. She sailed a catamaran from California to Hawaii, trekked in the Himalayas, worked as a construction manager on a bridge project in Zambia, hiked more than 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago, and traveled to 120 countries and all seven continents. She is honored to be a member of The Explorer’s Club. Her book, Sarfari Jema, was the winner of the 2012 Indie Book Award for Best Memoir and 2013 finalist for Best Travel Book.

The House on KVR Swamy Road

March 14th, 2019

By Sivani Babu

Grand Prize Bronze Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

We push through a sea of people and cows, the dust and smog swirling red and heavy, giving the scene around us the hazy air of a vintage photograph. A calf chews languidly on a banana as flies buzz around its head. We walk down the street as the tinny sound of temple music floats by and the aromas of everyday life assault our senses: fruits, spices, incense, the musk of oxen, diesel, smoke. Nearly two decades have passed since I last walked KVR Swamy Road, but I still remember the childhood admonitions to keep the dust down by not dragging my feet. I laugh. A drop in the bucket, I think to myself, but I make sure to pick my feet up anyway, hopping, jumping, leaping over puddles and pungent piles of cow manure.

I hold my memories close. I’ve missed this place. It was such a significant part of my childhood that it is hard to believe I have gone so long without returning. Emotions, like humming birds, flit around, constantly changing directions. I am excited to see my uncles again after all these years. I am nervous to meet their wives and children. I am curious to see how the place has changed. And I am hopeful that it hasn’t really changed at all — that the memories, some long forgotten, will still be there, waiting for me.

My parents and I, flanked by my uncles, arrive at a small wooden door. Has that always been there?

One of my uncles opens the narrow door, revealing a private alleyway that separates two buildings. Shafts of sunlight flood the space between the structures as gray water trickles through a narrow drainage canal that runs the length of the alley. I stoop down, step through the door, and slip off my shoes, the feel of cool cement on my bare feet plunging me into a memory.

~ ~ ~

Thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap. I was six years old and running across the room, trying to see how loudly I could slap my feet against the concrete floor. The sound was captivating — a novelty compared to my carpeted existence back home in California.
Outside, the heat was fierce, the sun: relentless. Rickshaws, bicycle bells, car horns, and the mooing of cows all mingled in the familiar symphony that I’d come to associate with summers in Rajahmundry, India.

Thwap, thwap, thwap.

Nimadhee!” — gently — my mom chided as I ran by, lapsing into her mother tongue, a language she seldom spoke at home.

I slowed and softened my steps for a moment — just long enough for her to return to the conversation she was having with her brothers and sisters. Then, buoyed by their raucous laughter at my back, I was off again, slapping away at full speed. I joined my cousins on the terrace, our own laughter blending with the chorus as we peered over the terrace wall and gazed down at the scene below: men on motorbikes dodging rickshaws and cyclists; women on foot balancing woven baskets atop their heads. I watched the baskets full of eggplant and mangos, squash and sapota go by.

The house on KVR Swamy Road didn’t look like a house — at least not like the houses I knew. I was a child of California’s Central Coast. Aside from the homes of my friends, which were a lot like my own, the only house I really knew was the stucco structure with the red tiled roof and fruit trees in the yard where the scent of the Pacific lingered on a westerly breeze. The floors were carpeted, the walls of my bedroom were papered with delicate purple butterflies and posters of Magic Johnson, and the only people who lived there were my parents, my siblings, and me.

But the house on KVR Swamy Road was different. It was actually three concrete, whitewashed houses bought over several years. The individual buildings were connected on the lower levels in certain places, but by the third floor — the top floor — the buildings were separate. The ground floor held my Thatha’s — my grandfather’s — print shop, and the family, immediate and extended, lived in the sixty-two rooms above, sharing one kitchen, one dining room, and a handful of squatty potties.

After marrying my mom, my dad jokingly started calling the house Kothaval Chavadi after the famous wholesale vegetable market that supplied produce to millions of people in Madras. The house was never quiet. It was always bursting with people, not just family, but also friends, employees, and business associates. No one ever knew who was supposed to be in the house and who wasn’t, so the assumption was that everyone belonged. Anybody could wander in off the street, and as long as they didn’t act shifty, they’d be served a full meal and treated like the old friend they just might be.
We were the only part of the family in the United States, so during the summer, my mom would take me and my siblings to Rajahmundry and we’d stay with family in the house that looked nothing like a house but that was undoubtedly a home.

~ ~ ~

More than fifteen years after my last childhood visit, I stand in a shaft of sunlight between the buildings and look around. The din outside the narrow door fades away. I was nine the last time I’d stood in this alley. After my grandparents died, my mom had stopped bringing us back here. Most of the doors are closed. The alley is silent. I take a few steps. I want so badly for them to take me back in time. Instead, they take me to my great aunt’s room, to a woman I’ve always called “Big Ammamma” — Big Grandma.
I remember her as a woman of stature — a woman who towered over everyone, but she no longer towers over me. She’s been hunched by age, and also, I am not nine years old anymore. My five-foot seven-inch frame means that few people in India tower over me these days. But it is more than her height that has changed. She is quieter. Her voice shakier. Her presence more delicate.

Ela unnaru?” How are you? I ask her in stilted Telegu, my words rusty from decades of disuse.

She laughs at my attempt, pulls me in and kisses my cheek, and then promptly asks me when I’m getting married.

On a solo trip to India, my dad once told his entire family that I was engaged (I wasn’t) just so he could avoid having a similar conversation. I briefly consider taking a page from his book. He’s standing behind me and I’m certain he would back my play, but my mom is standing next to me, and she would never approve.

“We’ll see,” I say, and the conversation immediately comes to a lull.

I look around the room and then out to the alley and the closed door across the way. Something feels off. And the only thing that is familiar is the scent of coconut oil in Big Ammamma’s hair.

~ ~ ~

The whirs, bangs, and whooshes of the enormous printing presses reverberated off the concrete walls. I sat with Thatha in his office as he worked, the scent of tobacco and cloves drifting from his clothes. I’d made a habit of throwing out his cigarettes when he wasn’t looking.

“You shouldn’t smoke,” I would say to him, filled with the indignance of a child.

A’unu, Amma,” — yes, Mom — he would say, smiling, his glimmering eyes framed by the thick, black rims of his glasses. He never got angry and never complained, but he didn’t quit either.

I’d been his tiny shadow all day long, splashing around as he filled barrels in the morning when the water came on for an hour, following him as he introduced me — his “granddaughter from America” — to some of the shop owners next door, sitting across from him as he taught me to play chess, and tagging along as he went down to the print shop.

Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had been in the book publishing business since 1882 and was steeped in history. Thatha and his brothers inherited the business from their father and in the 1940s, as India moved toward independence, the family had taken great risks to print and distribute contraband, pro-independence literature. As the story went, they’d printed the contraband in broad daylight and at night, they’d caught up on their normal publishing jobs. The only thing more surprising than the brazenness of the operation was that it had been successful. The British only ever became suspicious at night and their nighttime raids proved fruitless.

A history of revolution was fine and good, but at six years old, I really just wanted to play with the printing presses. And even when he should have, Thatha never really said no to me.

Work stopped as he picked me up and stood me on a stool. There was an organized box of typeset letters in front of me. I had watched the machine and the men who ran it all morning long. I knew what to do. I grabbed a handful of letters and set them into the printing press. My spoken Telegu was decent — honed out of necessity during these summer trips — but my ability to read it was nonexistent. I set complete gibberish and then, with Thatha’s help, pulled a lever to ink and print it. It didn’t matter that I had printed nonsense. I had a Cheshire cat grin on my face, and so did Thatha.

~ ~ ~

Now, as an adult, I am back in the house, still trying to get my bearings. Where was the kitchen where we’d heated water on the stove for early morning bucket baths? Where was the dining room where I’d begged to sit on the floor and eat with the adults?

“Where was the print shop and Thatha’s office?” I ask Thamma Rao Uncle, one of my mom’s five brothers.

“It is no more.”

I know what that means. The print shop was destroyed several years prior when the government demolished part of the building to widen the street.

“Is there anything left?” I ask, wondering if there might be books or a small piece of machinery that I could take back with me. I know the answer, but I am still saddened when another uncle, Dharma Rao, confirms it.

I try to hide my disappointment but am unsuccessful.

Chustanu. For you, I will look,” Dharma Rao Uncle offers.

I thank him, and I know that he will look, but I suspect there is nothing left to find.

~ ~ ~

The town had grown dark and all of the oil lamps in the house had been extinguished. We’d wiled the hours away playing cards and carom board, laughter filling the night until it was well past bed time. Thatha had set up a row of cots on the terrace for all of the kids and I climbed into mine. Blanketed by the sweet scent of jasmine and camphor, I counted shooting stars, wishing on each of them as they passed overhead until I fell asleep.

~ ~ ~

“What about the terrace?” I ask my mom, who in turn asks her brother.
I am desperate after all these years to find something that feels familiar and so many of my memories are tied to that terrace: nights under the stars, my uncles hammering a giant block of ice into small pieces to fill the cooler of bottled water and Thums Up cola that they’d bought for our visit; sewing fresh flowers into sweet-smelling, colorful garlands; flying kites in the afternoon swelter, their neon colors shimmering in the heat as the concrete scorched the soles of my bare feet.

I look hopefully at my uncle and he gives me the head nod, the one that simultaneously combines the nod for yes with the shake for no and means whatever you want it to mean. I would laugh, except that I need to know the answer.

“No. You can see where it was from the roof, but we cannot go up. It is locked.” He explains that the terrace was gone and though it is possible to see where it was, they no longer have access to that part of the house. It does not belong to them. After my grandparents died, it passed to a member of the extended family who keeps it locked and keeps people out.

I sigh and look at my hands in my lap. Eshwar Rao, my youngest uncle, stands abruptly and leaves the room. I wonder where he is going, but I sit and listen as the conversation moves on and then dies. This silence, too, is strange and unfamiliar.

Why had I thought that after nearly two decades, the memories would still be here?

When he returns to the room, Eshwar Rao Uncle has a key in his hand.

“Come with me,” he says.

I stand and follow him up a narrow staircase. As we near the top, the staircase turns and there is a drop in the ceiling.

“Watch your –” he starts to say, but he is too late.

I smack my head against the concrete, stumbling as bright golden dots swarm my vision like bumble bees. I blink a few times then reach up and rub my forehead, pleased to see my hand come away with only a dusting of chalky whitewash rather than a smear of blood. I’d never had to duck as a kid.

Eshwar Rao Uncle cringes and hisses. “Are you okay?” he asks.

I am and we keep going.

I follow him up the remainder of the stairs and then down a walkway past more closed doors. Something is nagging at me. We reach another door and I watch silently as he slips the key into the heavy metal padlock. Something is still bugging me.

We step out onto the roof.

“There,” he points. When I follow his gaze, I find a brand-new building — one I’ve never seen before.

The key is still dangling in Eshwar Rao Uncle’s hand and I finally realize what has been bothering me.

The doors.

There are no doors in my memories of the house on KVR Swamy Road. They were there, I’m sure, but no one ever closed them and so it was as if they didn’t exist. The closed doors came later — after Thatha, the last of the family’s true patriarchs, had died; after Kalahasti, Thamma Rao & Sons had fractured and splintered; after the buildings had been divided among quarreling extended family members; and after the government had demolished so much of the home to widen the road below. That had been the final blow. They’d sheared off half of the house and left the building unfinished — half-destroyed rooms open to the street, allowing the memories to escape until they were gone just like the terrace where I’d once slept under a canvas of night that smoldered with embers from millions of miles ago.

How, I wonder, could there be nothing left?

I want to cry.

I want to hug Thatha.

“Will you come to our home?”

The voice surprises me. It belongs to Dharma Rao Uncle’s oldest daughter. A teenage girl who I’ve only just met. She skipped school to spend time with me, her cousin from America, and I have welcomed her company throughout the day. While my once boisterous uncles have grown quiet with age and haven’t said much, she has filled the void created by their silence and I am grateful for that. I hadn’t noticed, but she had followed Eshwar Rao Uncle and me up to the roof, as had her parents, I realize. They all look at me expectantly.

“Of course,” I say, turning back toward the door and the walkway and the stairs. Their home is in the building next door.

“We will go this way,” my uncle says, stopping me midstride and gesturing across the alley as I turn toward him. “Like when you were small.”

I follow him across the roof.

I’ve spent the entire day looking for parts of the house that feel familiar. I’d wanted to see the places and people that had made my early stays in India as important as they were. I’d wanted to see things that reminded me of my grandfather — to linger in the life of a man whose impact on me was disproportionately larger than the amount of time I spent with him before he died. I’d wanted to gather those memories like flowers and press them between the pages of my mind — to take them with me.

But there was, it seemed, nothing to gather. Thatha was gone. When I was nine, he’d suffered a stroke while my family and I were in the air, returning from what would be our last summer visit. My grandmother had followed shortly after. The house had been irretrievably changed after that. The people, too, in so many ways. And I was no longer a dewy-eyed child. But I’d carried this place with me. I’d slept under the stars in Death Valley and remembered those nights on the terrace. I’d studied the game of chess, finding beauty in the strategy and growing into an accomplished young chess player, and remembered those early lessons. And I’d opened brand new books, breathing in the scent of ink on paper, running my fingers over gold-stamped bindings and elegant typography, and remembered my grandfather.

Maybe that was the point.

I look over at Dharma Rao Uncle standing on the roof and remember how I had used him as a human jungle gym in my youth. I smile at the memory and listen. I hear the laughter that once bounded off of the concrete walls and floors, and I smell the faint scents of jasmine and camphor, of tobacco and cloves. I slap my feet against the concrete, grinning as we near the edge of the roof. How many times had I taken this route between buildings as a child? Dozens? Hundreds? I take one quick glance down at the alley several stories below.

And then, just as I had so many times before, I leap.

Sivani Babu is the co-founder and creative director of Hidden Compass. She is an award-winning nature photographer and travel writer whose work has appeared on BBC Travel and CNN, as well as in Backpacker, Outdoor Photographer, Iron Horse Literary Review, and Expressions, the North American Nature Photography Association’s annual showcase of the best nature images. Her photos have been displayed in galleries and exhibits around the world. Sivani graduated from the University of Chicago and served as a Teach for America corps member before attending the University of Pennsylvania Law School, but her love of adventure and storytelling (and her diminished sense of self-preservation) ultimately took her away from a career as a federal public defender and sent her sailing to Antarctica, chasing storms through Tornado Alley, exploring the remote Yukon Territory in winter on crutches, and road tripping across the U.S. with her septuagenarian former high school speech and debate coach.

Grand Prize Silver Winner: The Citroën and the Pomegranate

March 5th, 2019

By Matthew Félix

Grand Prize Silver Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I’ve traveled extensively.  But you’d never know it from the looks of my apartment.  Between an almost obsessive insistence on traveling light—never carrying more than one backpack, which fits into any overhead bin—and a general aversion to accumulating things, I hardly ever bring back mementos from the road.

That’s what made my attraction to the pomegranates all the more peculiar.

There were several of them, in three different sizes, each in an irresistible flaming red that called to mind the poppy’s licentious crimson.  They caught my eye no sooner than I had entered my favorite shop on Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian street that serves as Istanbul’s commercial spinal cord. As I knew from my year-long stay two decades earlier, in addition to baubles like the pomegranates, the store featured an intriguing variety of select books, fascinating old maps, and all manner of objects harkening back to the city’s rich Ottoman past.

The pomegranates, however, were the work of a contemporary artist and, even as I perused the rest of the store, again and again my gaze was drawn back to them.  Perhaps it was that striking color, catching my eye like a torero’s cape commanding the unwavering attention of a bull.  Maybe the recollection of the pomegranate’s divinely sweet nectar had set my taste buds aflame.  Or, it might have been the way the shiny enamel brought to life a fruit with such a glorious history, one reaching all the way back to antiquity. When the Greek goddess Persephone was tricked into consuming six pomegranate seeds, she was condemned to spend half of each year in the underworld.  For the Egyptians, the fruit was a potent symbol of prosperity.

Whatever it was, I wanted one.

But what was I going to do with it?

I was only two months into a six-month trip that would take me to more than a dozen countries.  How could I justify carrying around an object that was not only relatively heavy but even somewhat fragile, one that in the absence of a pile of papers to weigh down served no other purpose than to look pretty? Despite the unmistakable insistence I felt coming from somewhere deep inside, I just couldn’t convince myself it made any sense.

I left the store empty-handed.

~ ~ ~

A couple of weeks later it occurred to me that a book I’d seen in the shop on Istiklal Caddesi would make a perfect gift for one of my Turkish friends.

I headed to the store, happy for a pretext to return. The book, after all, was only half the reason I was excited, a convenient excuse to go back.  What I was even more interested in were the pomegranates.  Already, before I’d set foot in the store, they were calling to me again.  Once there, I made a beeline for them, their allure this time even stronger than the last.

Taking into my hands the impeccable rendering of the illustrious fruit, I savored the feel of its cool surface, my fingertips gliding over the smooth enamel.  I admired the lifelike form as I cradled it in my palm, enamored of its incomparable color.

As though contemplating a potential lover I couldn’t risk letting get away a second time, everything in my being—except reason—resolutely opened up to it, as if taking a cue from the blossom that crowned it.
I didn’t merely want to buy the pomegranate.

I was supposed to.

So I did.

~ ~ ~

After an inspiring, productive month, I boarded a plane for the other end of the Mediterranean, sorry to leave Istanbul behind.  I’d spent time with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I’d relived fond memories from a distant past.  I’d made unforgettable new ones I’d carry with me far into the future.  Still, I was looking forward to finding myself in Barcelona for the start of summer.

Little could I have known that, although the beach was in plain sight of the tiny studio I’d rented atop a tower in the Barri Gòtic, I would scarcely sink my toes into the sand.  Day after day, night after night—often not finishing until four or five in the morning—I was consumed by a creative drive the likes of which I’d never experienced.  I had come to Europe with the intention of finishing the final draft of my first novel, and that proved to be my sole obsession for the entire month.  I didn’t go to the beach.  I didn’t go out.  I didn’t return to the Sagrada Familia or the Picasso museum, just a few doors down.  My refuge in the sky had 360-degree views of the city, mountains, and sea, ensuring I had all the inspiration I needed to stay glued to my desk and focused on the task at hand.

When the time came to say goodbye to the Ciutat Comtal and turn my sights towards a land of volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls, I was struck by a sense of missed opportunity. I had just spent a month in the heart of a neighborhood full of unique, independently-owned shops and boutiques. Even for someone with little interest in buying things, it seemed a shame not to have stepped inside a single one.  Fortunately, I still had an entire afternoon to do just that.

Strolling into a store housed in one of the area’s countless medieval buildings, cavernous edifices with thick stone walls and few, if any, windows other than those in front, I meandered over to a rack of T-shirts.  Lackadaisically flipping through one, then another, almost having to force myself to make the effort, an unexpected surge of delight shot from my hand to my head, as though I’d stuck my finger into a socket.

I loved it right away.

As iconic as baguettes and berets.  Simple yet practical.  Depending on the country, commonly referred to as two horses, ugly duckling, or flying dustbin.  Like the Fiat 500 in Italy, emblematic of not only France, but all of Europe. Indeed, if a movie took place in France in the 70s or 80s, a Citroën 2CV was guaranteed to make a cameo, if not have a starring role.

I had to have that shirt.

Fortunately, unlike my struggle with the pomegranate, this time around there was no need for debate.
It was functional. It was inexpensive. It was easy to pack.

It was mine.

~ ~ ~

Strange that after the excitement of our initial meeting, my new favorite shirt would end up forgotten in the depths of my backpack for the better part of a month.  By the time it reemerged, I had left Björk singing to the whales on her own, touched down in Paris just in time for a transit strike, and beheld the sun rising through the window of a train traversing the Alps. I had lost myself in the engineering and architectural marvel that is Venice (and had the mosquito bites to prove it), and endured a disappointing ferry ride in which all the sensory pleasures of yesteryear—the salty wind in my face, the blistering sun on my skin, the raucous cries of gulls overhead—had been sacrificed in the name of speed.  The ferry was more plane than boat, its fuselage lacking a single outdoor space for passengers to make any sort of contact with the sea.

Eventually, somehow I had also ended up on Hvar.

I hadn’t planned on it.  But neither had I planned on the challenges I faced in Rovinj. For a solid week three children pounded on the uncarpeted hardwood floors above me.  An indignant elderly woman followed who woke me up at 6:30 AM every day of her two-week stay. Meanwhile, an unannounced construction project got underway just outside my door, resulting in endless hours of shouting, banging, and drilling. This was no place to write. Or sleep. Or even think. When a critical miscalculation caused the laborers to bust a hole in my ceiling, showering the living room with plaster, I packed my bags and headed south.

Hvar was an unspoilt paradise of olive, fig, and pine trees, of roads lined with fennel and fields perfumed by lavender, of stunning limestone cliffs, quaint mountain villages, and a deep blue sea out of which other islands rose in all directions.

I rented a little stone cottage from a retired Croatian couple who lived in a home catty-corner to mine.  Our houses shared a charming courtyard that not only had an old, functioning well at its center, but was covered with containers of flowers and opened onto breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside.

It was perfect.  All of it.  And I was suddenly very grateful to have been forced to leave Rovinj.

~ ~ ~

One day as I walked out my front door, my host looked down at my Citroën T-shirt and reacted with even more enthusiasm than I had the day I found it.

“That was my first car!” he exclaimed, prematurely exhaling the drag he’d taken just before I stepped outside.  A quarter century my senior, he had a small but spry frame, a thick beard with specks of grey like ash from the cigarette inevitably dangling from his lips, and an optimistic twinkle in his eye.

With a mixture of pride and nostalgia, he proceeded to reminisce about the car and its eccentricities, which went well beyond the peculiar design of its exterior.  Vaguely resembling a Volkswagen beetle à la française but boxier, it had the comical distinction of headlamps that popped up in front, making it look even more like a bug than its German contemporary.

I was glad my T-shirt had made such an impression. For me growing up, the Citroën was a novel, quirky symbol of a far-off world I hoped one day to explore. For my host, it was part of a past he had lived firsthand and held very close to his heart.

~ ~ ~

After a couple of weeks in “the Mediterranean as it once was,” I again found myself packing my bags.  As I did, I was troubled for reasons that went well beyond my reluctance to leave.

During the entirety of my stay, my hosts had gone above and beyond the call of duty, making me feel much more like a friend of the family than a paying guest.  An unexpected bowl of fresh figs appeared at my door.  A delicious spaghetti dinner landed on my table. I was invited to take as much zucchini as I could eat from the garden, and I was given even more in the way of invaluable information and helpful recommendations about the island.

We had also laughed our asses off.

Given their incomparable hospitality, I wanted to give each of my new friends a token of my appreciation. But I was stumped.

He was easy. Although I would be sad to part with it so soon, clearly the T-shirt was meant to be his.
The problem was that I didn’t have anything for her. I couldn’t think of a single thing on the tiny island whose entire economy was oriented to tourists that wouldn’t be horribly cliché to give to a local.

My final night in the cottage, having spent days brainstorming but coming up empty-handed, I was finally forced to face the truth: if I didn’t have anything for her, I couldn’t give anything to him.  Not even the shirt, despite how much he had loved it.  My expression of thanks would have to be limited to words.
Then came a knock at the door.

I opened it to discover my host standing in the darkness, holding a plate of three crepes.  I may not have had a parting gift for his wife, but she had one for me.

“What kind are they?” I asked, after expressing how grateful I was for yet another thoughtful gesture.
“I’m not sure how to say it in English,” he said, stroking his beard and wracking his brain.

“It’s a big red fruit…”

The wheels in my own head began to turn.

“And it has lots of little…”

“Pomegranate!”  I exclaimed.  “Is it a pomegranate?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” he smiled, unfamiliar with the word. “But it grows on a tree over there.”

I had already noticed the huge pomegranate tree on the edge of the property, so I had no doubt we were talking about the same fruit.

I was stunned.

Not only had my hosts given me what would prove to be the best crepes I’d ever had in my life, they had also just handed me the last-minute answer to my conundrum.  Evidently I’d been premature in declaring it a lost cause.

The pomegranate from Istanbul. Buried even deeper in my backpack than the T-shirt had been, I’d forgotten all about it.  An object I had worked so hard to resist, but eventually had to concede feeling unquestionably compelled to buy. Now I knew why. Just like the only other souvenir I’d acquired on my travels, it wasn’t for me.

~ ~ ~

The next morning when my host removed the newspaper in which I’d wrapped memories of his first car, his face lit up as though he were reliving them all over again.  Before his wife opened her gift, I asked him to tell her, “Remember last night.”

“Remember last night?” she repeated in Croatian, looking up at me inquisitively, having no clue what my cryptic comment might mean.

No sooner had she ripped her present from the headlines than she let out a joyful cry.  Multiple waves of laughter followed, as she looked at me incredulously, like someone doubting how a magician has just pulled a rabbit from his hat.

Her disbelief—though great—was nothing compared to my own.

How was it even possible?  Each link in the peculiar chain of events was not only improbable in and of itself, but ostensibly unrelated to the others, isolated occurrences months apart in countries scattered from one end of the Mediterranean to the other.  I rarely make purchases.  Of all things, why the pomegranate, when I had already decided against it? Why had I been compelled to spend my last hours in Barcelona exploring shops I’d ignored for a month, only to immediately find a T-shirt I had to have?  What were the chances of a hole being busted in my ceiling, never mind that it would catapult me to an island 350 miles away I had no plans to visit?  There were more than 1,000 in Croatia.  Why that one?  And how had my host decided what to make, when for some reason she was drawn into her kitchen late the last night of my visit?

Most importantly of all, how could I explain the mind-boggling twist of fate in the final moments of my stay that had brought everything together on a plate of crepes?

The answer was simple.

I couldn’t.

Matthew Félix is an author, traveler, and host of the Matthew Félix On Air video podcast. His debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition. His With Open Arms: Short Stories of Misadventures in Morocco has topped the Amazon Africa category, as well as the Morocco one three times.
Stories from Matthew’s new book, Porcelain Travels, won three 2019 Solas Awards, as well as Gold for Humor in the 2018 Solas Awards. Publishers Weekly noted that, “Felix returns with an offbeat yet funny collection…united by a common theme.” Porcelain Travels recounts Matthew’s unforgettable experiences in, on, and around toilets, tubs, and showers encountered on his travels.

Grand Prize Gold Winner: The Mystery of the Sahara

March 1st, 2019

By David Robinson

Grand Prize Gold Winner of the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

In 1965, I was driven across the Sahara by a woman whose real name I never knew. I’ve been trying to find her ever since.

I was working in Nigeria at the time. In West Africa, even if you never see the actual Sahara, you are always conscious of its presence to the north. During the winter months, the desert asserts itself through the Harmatan winds that kick up dust storms and cause dry skin, hacking coughs, and chills among the populace as well as vivid sunsets. But in any season, just to see a Hausa man on the street is to feel the pull of the desert.

I learned about the Sahara through literature and history. The earliest foreigners had come to West Africa across the desert long before ships ever set Europeans on the southern shores, and I had read avidly the journals and accounts of all the early travelers. The Sahara has always acted as a conduit as well as a barrier, accommodating exchange but blocking conquest. Whereas Christianity had arrived dramatically by sea and by gun, Islam filtered silently across the desert by caravan, establishing itself through trade and intermarriage more than force of arms. The weight of the desert has always tugged against the power of the sea, and Nigeria, which fronts both, is to this day divided between ocean-borne and desert-borne influences. Much of the political tension in Nigeria can be traced to attempts to keep these opposing forces in some kind of equilibrium.

The idea of crossing the desert—the specific possibility—came to me in the Kingsway supermarket in Ibadan where, while shopping, I picked up a brochure advertising Sahara Tours. Having read so much about the Sahara, I was ready to experience the desert myself; it was time to live the literature.
At the address given on the brochure—for a Dr. E. A. Thomas—a woman opened the door a crack and quickly looked me up and down before inviting me into a simple, darkened flat. The woman turned out to be Dr. Thomas, the sole proprietor of Sahara Tours—owner, driver, guide, mechanic and medical doctor. Without apology, she made it clear she was in Nigeria only to collect enough passengers to pay for her return to the desert, the only place on earth she felt at home. Without fully realizing it, I had met a recluse, a refugee from civilization.

The specifics of the route she outlined meant little to me at that first meeting, but I was impressed that she spoke of the Sahara as a real place, not some metaphor or abstraction. She made the exotic seem familiar. She, too, was down to earth, tanned and weathered, shorts and sandals, cigarette and scotch. Not Doctor any longer but Helen. I signed up on the spot.

My notes help me reconstruct our route; Kano. Zinder. Agadez. En Guezzam. Tamanrasset. Adrar. Beni Abbas. Then Fez and finally Tangiers. Romantic places which Helen Thomas allowed me to experience. Assisted by my photographs, I can recall the changing landscape of the Sahara as it slowly unfolded around us. We saw very little of the classic rippled sand dunes that had previously been my image of the Sahara. Nor was the desert empty, as I had assumed. Instead, it was full of constantly changing variations in color and texture. Beneath the grand horizons, details stood out. Out of vastness, I discovered nuance.

We had a Land Rover with a cook/steward and two other passengers, but after the first day, Helen sensed that I embraced the desert with enthusiasm while the others were merely enduring it. She moved me up to the front seat for the entire trip so I could photograph and we could talk. Both of us, Helen as driver and I as photographer, were attuned to the subtleties of the desert much as a sailor becomes alert to the changing mood of the sea. Helen knew the desert, and the people of the desert certainly knew her. Border crossings were warm reunions without formalities. Towns welcomed us. Helen knew all the best French restaurants in the Sahara—this I had never imagined—and traveling in the desert, I put on weight. One afternoon, a Tuareg camel-man rushed us as if to protect his territory. At first just a solitary dot on the horizon, the closer he galloped toward us as straight and insistent as a bullet, the more foreboding he looked. Dressed head to toe in the distinctive dark indigo, amulets, sword and rifle flying, he had recognized Helen’s Land Rover and come to greet her. Of course. With her intervention, I photographed him, rode his camel, drank its delicious warm milk.

This and a kaleidoscope of other experiences I remember. Crimson sunsets with no shadows. Sleeping in the sand still warm from the day, without bugs or insects, a skein of stars overhead almost within reach. The dotted line of a camel caravan stretching across the horizon. Roast gazelle on a spit. January rains—the first in 213 years in the central desert—causing buildings, even whole towns, to slide into the earth whence they had come. A dozen people huddled together under a solitary tree waiting for transport. They had been there six days. The sudden shock of coming upon a French nuclear zone in the middle of the desert, with its Foreign Legion checkpost, paved roads, no stopping allowed, the sudden intrusion of dread upon reverie. Snow in the mountains over the Mediterranean and the souk of Fez where Helen helped me buy blankets for friends from a shopkeeper who served us sweet tea. Pigeon pie with its delicious sugary crust.

What my photographs don’t show, but what I remember even more vividly than the Saharan landscape, is Helen Thomas herself. As she drove, slowly she unfurled the story of her life. We discovered we were kindred spirits, and I was a good listener. My journey across the Sahara became the trace of Helen Thomas’ life.

Born in Indonesia of Dutch and Swedish parents, she was 52. At age 16, she had been sent to boarding school in Switzerland to be trained as a concert pianist. But she developed problems in her wrist and hands that required seven operations—to enable her to play professionally. Through the operations, however, she became more interested in medicine than music and enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris to study medicine. She became a doctor, met and married a Frenchman. On their honeymoon in 1938, they drove a Model T Ford from Tangiers across the Sahara to Lagos, crossing 250 bridges south of Kano alone.

When World War Two came, she joined the French army as an ambulance driver. Her husband was killed in the war. She joined the Maquis and received the Croix de Guerre, one of the few civilians ever to receive it. She also worked for British Intelligence. She spoke seven languages. Because she looked and spoke German, she was sent behind enemy lines to Berlin. When the war ended, she had seen enough of cities and so-called civilization and appealed to the French Government to help her get away. In recognition of her service, the French created a post of Health Officer in the Sahara for her. She did research on disease and worked with the French Army to improve sanitary conditions in villages. She had lived in the desert ever since the war—21 years.

She had driven one and a half million miles in the Sahara and learned every part of it. At one point, she had spent three months without seeing a single person but at the end of that time was only 1/4 mile off course. When she blew her horn, the villagers came over the dune just ahead to greet her.

Three times she won the driving competition held every five years by the French Army. Part One was a road race, the fastest time between two points. For Part Two, competitors were blindfolded and left in a remote place with a compass but no maps and told to find their way back. Part Three was to locate a broken-down vehicle and fix it. As a result of her victories, she was exempted from the restriction of convoy travel, free to travel anywhere in the desert, alone.

However, when Independence came in 1960, the French transferred control of the Sahara to a number of separate African states, and she could no longer travel the desert freely. She needed a visa for Nigeria in order to set up operations there, so she cabled a South African friend, “Will You Marry Me?” He cabled back, “Prepared. When?” They were married but never saw each other again. Hence, her name of Thomas.

~ ~ ~

Helen Thomas died of pneumonia within weeks of her return to Nigeria after our trip. Except for the return journey with passengers she collected in Tangiers, mine was her last trip in the desert.

I no longer feel the pull of the Sahara, but I am still captivated by Helen Thomas. I am hoping one day to find her—in order to learn who she really was. My attempts have led me to the places where I might intersect with her life, trying to verify her story and my memory. My task is made difficult because I do not know her name; I don’t know who I am looking for. “Thomas” was an appellation of convenience. I never learned her maiden name, nor do I know her French married name. I am searching for a ghost.

In Paris I went to the French Army records for the Sahara, hoping to find some account of the road races. But those records were in storage and inaccessible. I hired a researcher to check records of foreign students and women at the Sorbonne. She tells me there is no medical school at the Sorbonne. In Wydner Library at Harvard, I read everything I could find of recent vintage on the Sahara. I have checked the Internet and written scholars and other Sahara travelers. I have been to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City to research South African Thomases. In 1999, I returned to Nigeria and was able to go to the hospital in Ibadan where expatriate death records are kept. By conning my way in, I was able to flip through the dusty files myself. No record. I went to the homes of long-time expatriates and historians to enquire if they had ever run across her.

No one knows the person I am looking for, since I can not tell them who she is. Those who might know her name are dying off. So, nothing yet, but I’m not finished. Maybe the French Army records will be unsealed and I can get back to Paris. And, there is still Switzerland, although I can’t be certain in which of the 32 Cantons she studied. Then there are records in Holland and Indonesia to go through, searching for a girl, a woman, a survivor.

Deserts are full of mirages, shimmering images that dissolve when one comes closer. Out of the Sahara for many years, I can still see Helen Thomas—whoever she may be—trying to satisfy myself that what I thought I knew then, I did indeed know.

David Robinson is a photographer and writer, with four photography monographs published. His writings have also been published in Travelers’ Tales Italy, The Gift of Travel, and The Adventure of Food. He lives in Sausalito, California.

Travel Memoir Gold Winner: Mideast Uprising

July 30th, 2018

By Sharon Kreider

Before the internet, Google, or cellphones, the journey overland from Europe to Asia took time, ingenuity, and more than a little courage. Travel through Turkey, Iran, and Syria can be difficult today but was especially challenging for a young, white twenty-year-old woman touring these regions alone in the 1970s.

In February 1977, I found myself stuck at Gubulak, the border crossing from Turkey into Iran. Johan, someone I met in Greece, and I had been turned away from a Syrian boundary a few weeks earlier. Naively, we thought a bus service would just be there. Not only did such a thing not exist, but Iran had travel bans from sunset to sunrise. I was also completely unaware that civil resistance had commenced in Iran which led to the Islamic Revolution and the overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi or ‘the Shah.’ I didn’t see another woman anywhere.

“The roads close at sunset. Iran has strict laws about this and just about everything it seems,” Johan groaned. “There are no places to hang out either at this hole.”

I looked at the hard, ugly benches and the gray cement walls of the compound building. “Can we wait here until morning?” We only had thirty minutes until the border between Turkey and Iran locked up for the day.

Johan folded his arms. “I asked the guard that. He rolled his eyes. I assume that meant no.”

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” The dark night had settled like a fog from the sea, cool and all-encompassing. “Do they send us back into Turkey or what?”

Johan shrugged. “I dunno.” He sat next to me and put his long legs up on his rucksack. I felt comforted by at least knowing one person in this uninviting environment.

We both spotted him at the same time. His long brown hair fell almost to his elbows and he carried a small canvas bag, slung across his shoulder. He nodded when he saw us and ambled our way, indifferent to the hostile sentry.

“Comrades, looks like we’re all in the same boat here.” He spoke with a honeyed American accent, smooth and soft.

Johan got up to shake his hand. “Yep. Name’s Johan, from Holland. And this is my friend Sharon, from Canada. We met on Rhodos trying to find a boat to Marmaris and decided to travel together to India.”

“Hi.” I gave a beauty queen wave, my arm bent at the elbow.

We sat on the inflexible pew and chatted about what to do.

His name was Larry. He pronounced his name in long drawn out syllables, Texas style: Laaarrrrreeee. “You know. Someone told me you can hitch a ride into Tehran with truck drivers from Eastern Europe. They’re less strict about company rules and apparently like the camaraderie, especially with a beautiful woman. Wanna try?” He looked at me.

I blushed and wondered how he got such flawless teeth. “I guess. We don’t have a lot of options.” I turned to face Johan. “What do you think?”

“Worth a shot. Stay here with our backpacks and we’ll ask around.” He looked out the window. “There seems to be a lot of big trucks out there and they can’t drive until morning.”

I watched Larry and Johan disappear into the ebony shadows and waited, attentive to the guards’ stares. One watchman came over, scoffed, and pointed to the large black and white clock on the wall. I held back the sarcasm. Yes, I knew the border would close soon. I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh.

The two-day bus ride from Ankara to this boundary had been unpleasant at best: the foul smells of rotten garlic on a packed bus, the overnight at a horrid motel, and the nasty outhouses at pit stops made me gag. Surely, Iran would be better than northeastern Turkey.

Larry rapped on my shoulder. “We found two truck drivers from Bulgaria who are willing to take us to Tehran. They don’t speak much English—just a few words. It takes about two days.” He beamed. His chest puffed up as if he wore a light down vest. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. We can sleep in the front of their cabs.”

The two Bulgarian truck drivers shook our hands. The shorter man had a beard and showed us a picture of his family. The thicker man’s belly protruded over his belt. Flecks of gray around his temples showed he must’ve been in his forties. The bearded man’s name was Sergey and the elder was Micha.

The three of us unrolled our sleeping bags and had a restless sleep, bumping into each other throughout the night. I woke early, eager to get going. Sergey and Micha were already up and motioned for us to be ready to leave in five minutes. We quickly used the latrine and left.  Johan and Larry rode with Micha and I traveled with Sergey. I didn’t think to ask why they separated us like that. We halted for a rest mid-morning and the truckers shared food from their home; chunks of hearty whole wheat bread and cheese, juice, and fruit. In the late afternoon, we took another break at a small settlement and ate at a quiet outdoor eatery—rice pilaf, flat bread, and warm water from a spigot.

At sunset, the two trucks pulled off onto a long off-ramp and parked at the back of a long row of trucks, snuggly tucked within inches of each other. They looked like toy matchbox cars. Within minutes a number of semis parked behind us and we were frozen in place until morning. Darkness descended quickly. Stars appeared and a cool evening replaced the hot, dry day. Miles of barren hills and parched earth surrounded our little camp. I had spent the day looking at this waterless land, with only a few poor villages here and there to break the monotony.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to Sergey unzipping my sleeping bag. He rolled on top of me and began to fondle my breasts.

“No!” I yelled. “Get off me!”

Sergey laughed and said a few unfamiliar words. He started to unbutton my blouse and held my arms down.

I screamed and tried to wrestle his every move. I pointed to his family picture.

He laughed. I think he thought this was part of sexual play. We fought for what seemed like a long time, but probably only about ten minutes. Then, he just froze, looked at me, and apologized. He crawled back into his compartment and fell asleep. The loud snores kept me awake, but mostly I feared he’d try to assault me again. I thought about what my Turkish friend Davud had said, about women in this part of the world. “Unmarried women live virtuously at home until their fathers have arranged for their marriages. Women do not go out alone and do not take a trip with single men.” I did not know women were discouraged, even forbidden, from being in public places without proper attire or company. Women who openly shared the public domain were considered freely available, in other words, prostitutes. Maybe that’s why Sergey gave us a ride.

The next day we woke at sunrise and departed hastily. I focused my attention on the desolate landscape and avoided any eye contact with Sergey.

At our final rest break before Tehran, Johan stared at me. “What’s up? You seem sad?”

Sergey and Micha sat near us and laughed.

Johan and Larry thanked the Bulgarian men for their kindness. I sat on my pack and watched. I couldn’t bring myself to thank them, even though they did us a huge favor. Sergey glanced my way and waved. I didn’t wave back.

The bus, headed to Tehran’s city center, squealed around corners sending the passengers from side to side. I hung on to the overhead rail with both hands to steady myself from falling into an Iranian man. The full bus contained mostly men with one woman in a long, loose outer garment covering her whole body from head to foot or a burqa up front.

We tried several hotels and inns. At each place, the door slammed in our faces. The keepers shook their heads. I heard one man, in broken English say, “Oh, no, no. No foreigners allowed.” We took it personally, not understanding that the launch of the Iranian rebellion was underfoot.

Finally, we saw two tourists in the street. Larry yelled, “Hey. Can you help us?”

“Only one place in Tehran for foreigners right now,” one of the men told us. “Some uprising is going on about America and they think all of us are from the United States even if we are from Germany.”

The taller of the two travelers tapped his foot. “I don’t like it here and plan on leaving as soon as my visa comes through. You better go to the embassy tomorrow. I heard it takes at least a week and there’s not much you can do because of the riots at night.”

I perked up. Riots? Uprising? Sounds exciting. I whispered to Johan. “Let’s go out tonight and see what’s happening?”

Johan lifted his eyebrows. “First, let’s find lodging and food.”

Figures. Johan is thinking about his stomach, I thought.

The only place for outsiders to stay in Tehran was a four-story dilapidated dwelling with one shower house for the men and one for women, a cafeteria and office on the first floor, and several rooms on the second and third floor. The crowded, filthy dormitory on the fourth floor reeked of backed up toilets. But there was nothing we could do. We settled in to the dormitory until a room opened on the second floor. We ate in the cafeteria that first night and slept fitfully on sagging cots. Larry pegged it perfectly. “This place is a rip-off.”

The next day we took a bus into modern Tehran and stood in line for hours to apply for Afghani visas. When my turn came, the male clerk barked, “Passport. Open it up and leave it right here.” He tapped his index finger to a spot on the work surface. “Do not touch me.”

Who does he think he is? I thought. Geez, okay already. I did as he asked and offered a smile, trying to appear friendly.

He did not smile back. After several silent minutes, he slid my passport across the countertop, careful not to make any contact with my skin and said, “Okay, you come back in five days for visa.” His gaze felt cold and foreboding, like the chills I got once walking down a deserted alley in Vancouver.

On the third night, I convinced Johan to go out into the city. I had heard loud noises and pops of what I suspected to be rifles. Earlier in the day, I had watched a procession of tanks rumble down our street. Men sat on top and wore white turbans. They shouted things from a loud speaker. I didn’t understand a word. Johan seemed troubled, but I found the insurgency electrifying.

Iranian men, and women in full burqas, filled the streets yelling and holding up signs. I couldn’t read the symbols. Several had a picture of an older man with a long white beard.

Johan held onto my sweatshirt. “I don’t like the look of this.”

Suddenly a group of men rushed past carrying fire sticks above their heads. They looked like athletes running in the Olympics. A few screamed something and then others joined in. The frenzied crowd’s momentum picked up speed and the urgency tasted acidic and hot. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead and the air felt saturated and seared like a steak on a boiling grill. Tiny panicky bubbles began to bounce in my veins. A loud bang erupted to my left, but I couldn’t see because the crowd had strengthened in numbers. I was swept into a human river bursting with a mania I couldn’t comprehend.

Someone grabbed my arm. I turned to face a woman in a light blue burqa who pulled me away from the thunder and onto a street curb. She lifted her veil and I saw she had the same skin color as me.

She spoke English. “What are you doing here?” Her voice high pitched and vehement. “This is dangerous. Get out. Now!” She pushed me into a bush.

I heard Johan holler my name and I yelled back, “Over here!”

He clutched my hand and pulled me up. “Wow. Let’s go.” A loud explosion echoed off the walls of a concrete building.

We ran down a side street and made our way back to the hotel. No one told me revolt could be so thrilling. The Iranian peoples’ passion moved and terrified me at the same time. The turmoil lasted into the early morning hours.

In the cafeteria, everyone talked about the upheaval, the opinions as diverse as we were. “Yah, I heard a few people got killed.” “I’m getting out of here as quick as I can.” “Oh, this will pass.” “They need the Shah.” “Better to go into modern Tehran right now.” “I’m scared.” “No big deal, just chill.” “Let’s get stoned.”

I didn’t go out at night again and we waited impatiently for our visas. Johan and I got ours first.

Larry would have to remain in Iran. “It’s because I’m American, I think. You guys go on ahead. I’ll meet you in Herat. There’s a really nice place there.” He jotted down the name of the inn. “It’ll seem like paradise after this.”

The uprising of Iran’s needs—both oppressive and worrisome—had strengthened during the week. I looked at the filmy disk of the sun and nodded. “I’m looking forward to being in another country. Hope you can join us soon.” I began to understand a little of the world around me. A culture built on modesty with a strict adherence to the Quran. A woman should shield her face and body from public view. Many of the Muslims seemed to shun anything western; handshakes, laughter, movies, books, dancing, alcohol.

We hugged and Larry gave us a bag of dried fruit and freshly-roasted pistachios for the long bus ride across the extensive Iranian desert.

When we got to about a hundred yards from the Afghani border the bus suddenly stopped. Native men in their turbans, and women in their burqas, began to murmur. The children’s eyes grew wide with alarm. I looked at Johan.

A big, burly man got on the bus. He yelled, “Baksheesh. Baksheesh. BAKSHEESH.”

I whispered, “Are we supposed to give him money? Is this blackmail or are we being robbed?” I slinked into my sweatshirt, trying not to stand out.

The man walked down the aisle and paused at each passenger, demanding some sort of pay out. I can’t remember now if he had a gun. I kept my eyes on the ground.

Johan gave him a few dollars.

The man grabbed the money and snorted. “You more, no?”

Johan stood up, easily a foot higher than the man and said, “No, I don’t have any more money right now.”

The man grunted a few times and left. Then, the bus driver got back on and drove to the border as if nothing had happened.

Once through Afghani customs, I asked one of the local men, “What was that back there? Why did that man demand money like that? Does this happen all the time?”

Two bus mates replied at the same time, “Oh yes, every day. Same thing. Bus driver and man make extra money. Drive to border or leave you in desert. You pick.” They both grinned revealing tobacco stained teeth.


We found the lodge Larry had recommended, just outside Herat. One word to describe the place—beautiful. The hotel’s several rooms formed a rectangle around a large, enclosed courtyard. In the center of the square, a fountain splashed water into a blue-tiled pool. The shrubs were in bloom; effervescent pinks, dazzling scarlet, oranges and yellows next to spring greenery. I let out a long sigh. Thank god I made it out of Iran. Today I’d add—Thank god I made it out of Iran—alive.

~ ~ ~

Sharon Kreider is a freelance writer after a thirty year career as a licensed school and professional counselor. This is an excerpt from her book, No Direction Known: How traveling alone to Asia saved my life. She is currently writing a series of short stories inspired by her recent travels in Australia, and she is a member of the Northern Colorado Writers Guild.

Most Unforgettable Character Silver Winner: Hung, the Boat Woman of Hue

July 2nd, 2018

By Maxine Rose Schur

I raised the expectation,
You shook your head sadly.
Like fish in water and fowl in the air
It’s not easy to meet…
I saw you off on your way
And felt hundreds of jumbled feelings.
—Nguyen Binh (1918-1966)

For years I had loved the words “Perfume River.” I imagined sailing down this Vietnam waterway of which I knew nothing. I imagined it smelled gorgeous and the experience would be one of romance and poetry. That’s why on my single day in Hue, the ancient, imperial capital of Vietnam, the first thing I did was to inquire how to take a boat ride on the Perfume River.

Since I had only a day, I needed a short boat ride as I was keen on seeing the famous Imperial City, the 14th century walled palace complex, in the afternoon.  “No problem,” said the girl at the hotel desk. She told me she would arrange a taxi pickup for me in the morning to one of the dragon boats that provide voyages on the river. The boats, shaped and painted like dragons are designed for tourists. They stop at the main sites along the riverbank so you can hop on and off and they wait for you.

I didn’t have much time so she suggested I go directly to the Thien Mu pagoda and get a taste… or rather a whiff of the Perfume River, then return to Hue.

When I got to the dock I found a boat waiting for me and soon realized I was to be the only passenger. “Hallo Lady!” A thin, aged woman working on the boat, called to me.  She reached out to hold my arm and steady me as I jumped aboard the wobbly craft. She then bade me sit in a white plastic chair on the deck. Most of the dragon boats looked grand with two great dragon heads at the prow.  This boat had only one dragon head. Like the woman, it was small and weathered but I had complete confidence in its safety because the pilot, a silent, middle-aged man looked steady.

With a long wooden pole, the woman, agile as a child, pushed the boat away from the shore. The engine rumbled to a start and off I sailed down the Perfume River.

The river gets its name from the fragrant scent of the blossoms from nearby orchards, that in autumn, float along the water.  In autumn, the river must seem poetic but now in winter, the wide slow river was as gray as dust and the only fragrance I smelled was engine fuel.

I sat back and relaxed, watching other dragon boats chug past under the cloudy sky.

As soon as our journey was underway, the boat woman got busy. She unrolled a bamboo mat on the damp floorboards, went back into the small dim room— the only room on the boat—and emerged with a Styrofoam cooler of soft drinks for sale. I bought a can of Coke and the selling continued. The woman, toothless as a toddler, must have made at least eight trips back and forth into the room to present each time a different array of wares: silk pajamas, embroidered cloth bags, fresh water pearl earrings, horn bracelets, agate necklaces, key chains and sets of chopsticks, each charmingly tucked into a silk case. She spoke little English but enough to be tireless in her effort to sell. Each time she brought out something new, I shook my head regretfully to show I was not at all interested, but after a short while, seeing her look so very disheartened, I relented and bought a package of chopsticks. At this sale, she perked up and gave me a bottle of water in gratitude.

I couldn’t see much life from the boat as the riverbank was hidden in thick foliage so I became curious about the woman. I stole glances at her as she moved about. Her own stolen glances at me revealed she was equally curious. Now and then we smiled at each other but made no attempt to converse.

After an hour or so we came to the Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda. I jumped off the boat onto the sandbank and walked up the hill path, through the small pine forest to the pagoda. Built in 1601, it is the oldest religious structure in Vietnam and the crown of the Buddhist monastery surrounding it. The pale pink tower of the pagoda rises gracefully seven stories high, each story representing another stage of enlightenment.

The garden of the monastery surrounds the pagoda and you can enter a temple where a bored-looking boy, about ten years old, beats a large gong.  The pagoda and the grounds of the monastery exude peace. Yet this most tranquil place was a center for anti-government fervor during the early 60s. The tourists who jostle to take a photo of the 1950s Austin motorcar attest to the monastery’s eerie history of protest. It was here in 1963 that one of the monastery’s monks, Thich Quang Duc, drove the Austin to Saigon where he set himself afire in protest at the Catholic President Diem’s persecution of Buddhists.

Sobered by my visit to the monastery, I returned to the boat and we headed upstream, back to Hue. I was gratified that on the journey back, the boat woman didn’t try to sell me anything.  Like all Vietnamese, she was curious about a woman travelling alone and she began to ask me questions. We started to communicate with hand gestures and three-word sentences. I told her I was from America, that I had flown here from Hanoi and the next day I would be going over the Marble Mountains to Hoi An.  I told her my name and she told me her name was Hung, which I later learned means pink rose. With a hint of pride, she told me how old she was: sixty-five.

She asked my age and I told her.

We were the same age.

The knowledge stunned us both into silence… and melancholy.  For in that moment our light-hearted reaching toward each other, turned poignant.  Though the same age, my life was privileged. I was on vacation, overfed, with a full set of teeth, smiling, carefree, enjoying the freedom that comes with having leisure time and credit cards. She, was still doing hard physical labor and struggling to sell trinkets to one passenger and I sensed, struggling with something else.

The speed at which her smile vanished on realizing we were both sixty-five, told me she too may have felt the cruel disparity. For the rest of the ride, she no longer smiled.

When we did speak again, I learned she had been married when she was seventeen. She had loved her husband since she was a little girl and after they married, she bore seven children. One was her son, the dragon boat pilot with whom she now lived in the dark boat room. She had never left Hue. Ever.

As she spoke, I did the grim math.

She and I were nineteen years old in January of 1968. While I was in college, acting in plays and preparing for a fun-filled summer in Israel and Greece, she was a young mother in Hell. In January 1968 during the “Tet Offensive,” to take back control of the south, the Viet Cong captured Hue, set up a provisional Communist government and murdered thousands of civilians they thought were South Vietnam sympathizers. Nearly 3000 men, women and children were tortured, executed then thrown into mass graves. Another 2000 went missing. One hundred thousand residents lost their homes and no one in the city could have escaped the tragedy. After three weeks, the city lay in ruins and corpses lay everywhere. This was the infamous “Massacre at Hue.”

“Come,” the woman beckoned and I followed her into the cramped, shadowy room.  The room was painted mint green and was sparsely furnished: two more white plastic chairs, a television, a cooler for drinks and some benches on which bedding was piled. In the corner, rose stacks of cardboard boxes filled with her tourist wares. She walked over to a large, framed black and white photograph on the wall, pointed to it then pointed to herself.

“Me,” she said. “Marry.”

I looked up at the photo to see the face of pretty, teenage girl, an innocent bride.

“Beautiful.” I said. She understood this word and nodded.

“And your children?” I asked.

“No more,” she said quietly. “No more here. No more now.”  She pointed to her son whose back was facing us as he piloted the boat. “One boy. No more now.”

She didn’t have the words to tell me more; I didn’t have the words to ask her more. And, even if we shared the same language, we would have had no words that could matter.

No more now.

We docked in Hue, she helped me climb out of the boat and I waved goodbye to her. She stood at the prow waving back to me and she stayed waving much too long.

As the boat sailed away up the Perfume River, the figure of the woman shrunk smaller and it is that miniature waving image of her that haunts. Not because my last view of her was at such a great distance, but because my full understanding of her—what she lived through and how— was at such a great distance, forever impossible for me to justly breach.

Maxine Rose Schur‘s travel essays have appeared in numerous publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, Américas, The Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune,, National Geographic Traveler and Travelers’ Tales and Random House anthologies. Her essays have twice won the Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation. Maxine’s memoir, Places in Time, was named Best Travel Book of 2006 by the North American Travel Journalists Association and won the Gold award from the Society of American Travel Writers. Maxine is also the author of award-winning children’s books. For more information, see

Elder Travel Bronze Winner: Finding the House My Father Built

June 25th, 2018

By May Gee

A few thin, gray hairs skimmed the top of the elderly man’s pointed head, just like my father’s hair used to on his. Faint crinkles touched the skin around the old man’s eyes and deep creases ran from the edge of his nostrils to the outsides of his lips. All that was missing was a chest-length wispy mustache and goatee, and he could have been one of the Eight Immortals from Chinese mythology.

The venerable gentleman then held a tea cup above a large bowl and poured scalding liquid from the teapot into the cup. With a magician’s fingers, he deftly flipped it upside down to disgorge its contents while simultaneously pouring tea over the outside of the cup, quickly rotating it so that hot liquid covered every square inch of the surface without burning his fingers. On finishing, he carefully placed the cup upside down on a platter, stacking more processed cups around it and upwards until he finished with a flourish, leaving a small pyramid.

“Now we can drink,” he said with a smile. He then flipped over the cups and started pouring from the other teapot. “Please show me what you have,” he said with a wave of his hand.

“Is the pouring of the tea over the teacups meant to signal an auspicious start for our trip?” I asked the old man, not entirely familiar with local customs.

“Oh no,” he laughed. “You know how dirty these restaurants can be!”

I pulled out the album of four-by-six photos that my husband Ben and I had so laboriously worked on at home and smiled appreciatively across the table at my cousin Nancy and her husband Francis for finding Joe, the elderly gentleman who was to be our guide. I hoped Joe would prove to be as adept at finding my father’s village as he was with manipulating teacups.

“These are my parents on their wedding day,” I said, pointing to an old black-and-white photo. My father still had thick black hair, and he looked sternly at the camera. Dressed in a light-colored Western suit and tie, he had his hand on my mother’s shoulder. She wore a blouse with a traditional Chinese high-buttoned collar and loose floral pants, light stockings, and a pair of Mary Janes with a single strap across each ankle. Long, thin bangs covered her forehead, and she showed an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile.

“There’s more,” I said excitedly. A picture of my father’s whole family on my parents’ wedding day—his brothers and their wives, his sisters, nieces, nephews, and my grandparents. Also a print of the Google Map of where our village is and its GPS coordinates. The name, county, and province of the village in Chinese characters and pinyin. Likewise, the Chinese names of our parents and grandparents. Everything that I thought could be useful to identify our village and our family to anyone who might have known my parents before they left the village for the last time in 1947.

“Looks like you’ve done your homework,” Joe said, now convinced there was a chance for success. “Then it is settled. We will leave the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ll buy the bus tickets,” offered Shirley, Joe’s wife. “And I’ll try to get my old driver to take us around. It will be much better than just using a local taxi driver.”

Having taken care of business, we proceeded to have a sumptuous meal to kick off our grand adventure. Crispy Peking duck stuffed into pillowy white buns. Oversized twice-fried shrimp in a light white sauce spread over a bed of candied walnuts. Mixed vegetables and tofu with baby ears of corn decorating the greenery.

After we all finished eating, Joe and Shirley walked us to the bus station where we would meet them at 7:30 on the morning of our departure.

“Do you think it will take very long to get to the village from Kaiping?” I asked Ben when we were in our hotel room.

“It doesn’t look that far,” he said, scrolling through a map on his phone. “Maybe a half hour with the new roads they have?”

“Well, I’m still going to stuff these ‘good luck’ red envelopes with money, in case we meet somebody in the village.”

My oldest sister Sylvia had said that some of her old schoolmates could still be living there even though all our relatives had long since moved away. Sylvia, like my parents, had never returned to the village after she left for America. She declined to join us for health reasons.

My parents had both passed, but a couple of years before my mother died, she asked to return to China for one last time. By then we were afraid her frail bones and weak heart could not sustain the fourteen-hour flight and trip, and so we never brought her. I was making this trip for me—and them. “Take lots of pictures!” Sylvia had ordered me with a laugh.

That night I tossed and turned on the hard hotel bed. With nervous energy, I alternated between anticipation and anxiety. Would the village still be there? How would we find our house? What would be left of this now eighty-year-old house? I rose early the next morning after a fitful sleep.

We met Joe and Shirley at the bus station and then traveled from there to the mainland China transfer point. Even though China and Hong Kong are technically the same country, you still have to go through a formal border check. We got off our bus to enter the huge transfer terminal packed with hundreds of other people hurrying from line to line, passports and bus tickets in hand. Signs hung everywhere from the rafters and walls, their Chinese hieroglyphics confounding my foreign eyes. Like parents with small children, Joe and Shirley dragged us through security and customs. Shirley went on ahead to find our bus while Joe waited for the last of us to complete customs.

“Good thing we made it on time,” Joe laughed as we plopped in our seats. The driver had already started the engine. “Even though we have reserved seats, they don’t wait for you.” I felt lucky that we had Joe and Shirley as our guides. Francis had just reconnected with Joe at their fortieth high school reunion in Hong Kong prior to our trip. Francis casually mentioned we were planning to find Nancy’s and my father’s village near Kaiping, where Shirley had worked for years. On hearing that none of us had ever made this trip before, they insisted on accompanying us.

The bus was surprisingly comfortable, and the modern freeway smooth and lightly traveled. We passed fishing traps in the coastal waters and saw many small farms and the occasional farmer tilling the land using tools that could have been common hundreds of years ago. Joe said this four-and-a-half-hour trip used to take twenty hours just ten years ago, before they built the freeway.

My father traveled this road in reverse when he was only eleven. He came by himself, assuming a fake identity as a “paper son.” It was common at that time for Chinese villagers to send their brightest children to America using false papers so that they could work and send money back home to their starving families.

Later, my father returned to China, where he met and married my mother. Then he used his earnings to build a grand house, the only two-story house in the community. My mother often said it was “the most beautiful house in the village.” I supposed our family was wealthy because my mother would later whisper to me that “we hid gold coins in the walls,” concerned some burglar in America might overhear. As a child, these stories just sounded like fairy tales to me. And yet here I was, about to find out if fairy tales could come true.

We arrived in Kaiping and were greeted by Mr. Wong, Shirley’s former driver. An energetic young man in a white polo shirt and jeans, Mr. Wong was a gregarious sort who wore modish black glasses on his broad face. He laughed easily, showing big white teeth. Mr. Wong studied my photo album carefully, nodding his head at Joe and occasionally grunting as he turned the pages.

“Tell him about the GPS coordinates,” Ben urged Joe when he saw the navigation system in the late-model minivan. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a way to enter the GPS coordinates. Frustrated, all we could do to monitor our path was to view our map on our phones while Mr. Wong drove.

First stop was the central province visitor center. Three officials chattered in Chinese while they looked uncomprehendingly at my map, their perplexed faces clearly indicating that they had no idea where to find 同安村, Tung On Chyun, my father’s village. So Mr. Wong decided to just drive south.

As we left the silky-smooth asphalt of the major arteries to enter the country roads, we saw many crumbling stone buildings; often the pale mortar had peeled away to reveal a skeleton of brick walls underneath. Moss grew freely up their ragged walls and ferns sprang up from the tile rooftops. Watchtowers originally built as lookouts for bandits now looked more like bombed ruins than stone fortresses.

“Where are all the people?” I asked Joe.

“You’ll find there are two Chinas,” Joe said in measured tones. “New China, where they spend money on roads, skyscrapers, and department stores, and Old China, where there’s hardly money for anything at all. People leave to find jobs in New China.”

Entering Old China was like entering a time warp, where a few modern vehicles like mini-tractors, motorcycles, and cars traveled on old packed-dirt roads more suited for ox carts. It was where you saw ancient buildings and small farms tended by people wearing cone-shaped straw hats, thin cotton clothing, and loose pants from an earlier time. Maybe this was how things had appeared when my parents left the village.

I nervously fingered my lucky compass, turning it around in my hand until it was hot to the touch. South. East. West. North. South again. I watched helplessly as we ping-ponged all over Guangdong Province for hours. I guess we weren’t lost, exactly, but we didn’t know where we were.

Finally, Mr. Wong began accosting people in the street. You’d have thought we were in an ox cart the way he’d suddenly halt in the middle of the road, casually lean over to the pedestrian, flash his big teeth, and call out in Chinese, “A Sim, a Sim. Could you tell me where Tung On Chyun is?” The woman would smile back, they’d chat a bit with him, and then she would point this way or that, and off we’d go. Soon he was even getting out of the car and chasing people into their homes, his heels kicking high as he ran to catch up to them. He acted like it was his personal mission to find our village. No ordinary taxi driver would have done that.

“Good thing Sylvia didn’t come,” remarked Nancy. Like Sylvia, Nancy had also been born in China, went over to America as a teenager, but could still read and write Chinese. Ben and I never would have attempted this trip without Nancy.

“Yes, she wouldn’t have enjoyed riding on this bumpy road,” I agreed.

Sylvia, my only sibling born in China, came to America when she was sixteen. She also had fanciful tales about our house, like the time she woke up after a hard rain to find her slippers floating away in the water. She told us how she corralled one of those slippers and used it to catch fish swimming underneath her bed.
We traveled for hours without making progress. I felt stupid and naïve for only allocating one day for us to find my father’s village. Maybe the reason we couldn’t find it was because it was now under a freeway or dam in New China. Maybe we weren’t meant to find our village at all.

Suddenly, a woman riding a flashy red motorcycle sped by.

I remembered all the times my mother told us that red is a lucky color in China. “Follow her!” I shouted reflexively.

Mr. Wong gamely gave chase, tracing her path around corners and up and down narrow alleys. She finally halted after bursting into a clearing edged by worn stone houses. We were so relieved and excited to have caught up that we all streamed out of the car as soon as it stopped and headed toward the lady.

But as she was taking off her helmet, a grizzled old man wearing baggy Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt, and flip flops intercepted us.

“Who are you looking for?” he asked brusquely, taking on the fierce mien of a Foo Dog, a guardian lion that protects villages and women on red motorcycles.

“We’re looking for Chang Pooh Gin,” Nancy replied.

“He’s dead,” the old man scoffed, throwing his head back at the ridiculous statement. Had grandfather still been alive, he would have been over 140 years old.

“Yes, we know. We’re his granddaughters. We’re looking for his village.”

His face softened. “Oh. Go that way,” he said, pointing off to his left. “Your house is by the watchtower.”

Finally! A real clue. He actually knew grandfather’s name and where our house was. And that it was near a watchtower, just as Sylvia had described. This had to be it. We thanked him profusely, leaving him and the lady on the red motorcycle who was smiling at us in amusement, and loaded back into the car with renewed hope.

Mr. Wong gunned the engine to speed down the road, only to be blocked by a banana grove that grew across the roadway. Undeterred, he suddenly swerved left where there was a small break in the foliage and a faint dirt path. The car tilted and strained. Then we finally popped out of the brush into another clearing. He stopped the car by a well, a small circular hole choked with weeds in the middle of a ten-by-ten feet concrete pad at the edge of the small village. A half dozen rundown gray brick buildings with tile roofs ran parallel to the pond. More houses stood behind them. The only signs of life were clothes hanging on a line between the buildings and a large pond. Golden-headed wheat listed languorously in the field beyond the pond.

Nancy and I walked over to a building with a small blue-and-white metal sign with Chinese characters written on it.

“Tung On Chyun!” shouted Nancy. “We found it. This is our fathers’ village!” Nancy and I slapped hands in a high-five victory dance.

We were so loud that a couple of elderly women came out to meet us. They looked like twigs in clothing, thin and severely bent over at nearly ninety-degree angles. Short, dusty, salt-and-pepper hair framed dark leathery faces textured from too many days in the sun. Gaps showed in their smiles.

“Hello, are you looking for someone?” the taller woman said, steadying herself with her hand on her hip.
“We’re Chang Pooh Gin’s granddaughters,” replied Nancy. She then told her our fathers’ names.

The woman stared at us for a few moments while she rummaged through her mind.

Then suddenly, “Aiiee! I know who you are. It’s been so long since your families moved away. I’m Guey-Sim, Guey-Sook’s wife.” She told the other lady to get her husband.

I recognized his name. “I’m May. My oldest sister Sylvia went to school with your husband,” I told her in my broken Chinese.

We introduced ourselves to Guey-Sook when he came out and talked for several minutes. Only six families lived in the village now, which might have had 150 people in its heyday.

“Can you take us to our house?” Nancy asked, remembering our mission. Nancy and her family lived in my father’s house for a time after my parents left the village.

Guey-Sook nodded, pointed his bent frame toward the watchtower and tilted forward. He moved surprisingly quickly along the narrow dirt path, his bushy white hair disappearing and reappearing through the overgrown brush as we walked in single file by deserted homes. Past a pile of life-sized pick-up logs, doorways with no doors, rooftops with ferns growing from the gutter. Past rooms devoid of life and light, with only a few broken vases to greet you.

I touched my compass in my pocket for good luck and to ward off my sense of foreboding. The village was practically abandoned now, a ghost of its former self. What would be left of “the most beautiful house in the village”?

Guey-Sook finally stopped. “This is it. This is your house,” he said, pointing at a two-story brick building sprouting up from the brush.

I smiled in relief and delight. We found it! It was still standing. Tall and majestic, fine brickwork framed the windows on undamaged walls that looked almost new. Nancy and I eagerly rushed in.

But as soon as we stepped through the doorless opening, I realized that this once-beautiful house was just like all the others in the village. Empty broken cabinets gaped at us as we walked into the kitchen. Green moss grew along the tops and sides of a water barrel in the corner and on the bricks supporting the concrete countertop. Ivy vines slithered uninvited into the kitchen.

We walked into the spacious main living area, whose contours were dimly lit by small-barred windows on the second floor. After my eyes adjusted to the faint light, I saw that a portion of the upstairs balcony had fallen into the center of the room, forming an impromptu wooden ramp between floors. The actual stairway was splintered and missing steps.

Nature was well on its way to reclaiming the innards of the house. Wooden structures, like the exposed wooden ceiling beams, had weathered into driftwood that now seemed barely able to support the weight above it. The floor, which at first glance appeared to be a packed dirt surface, was actually a layer of dirt that covered the original red tile flooring that peeked through in spots.

We all started exploring. Mr. Wong seemed to be drawn to various piles of rubble that I studiously avoided for fear of any creatures that might be lurking. He paid particular attention to the pile underneath the stairs that consisted of broken vases and bowls partially hidden by old two-by-fours, dried leaves, old rope, and broken balusters. Joe stopped in a smaller room on the opposite side. He pointed at some tall wooden banner boards with large faded Chinese characters. “I think the Red Guard stayed here during the Cultural Revolution,” he harrumphed. It made sense that the Red Guard would have commandeered the grandest house in the village.

As we picked our way through the rooms, I suddenly noticed delicate paintings on the wood of the fallen balcony and fresco artwork on the walls just below what would have been the first-floor ceiling. My mother had never told me about these paintings. Tall carved wooden room separators stood on the remains of the second floor.

Mr. Wong tapped me on the shoulder and lifted a dirt-encrusted rice bowl to my face. Nancy tilted the bowl toward the window to shine light into its center. “I think that’s your father’s name,” she said, looking at me in amazement.

“Bowls with names?”  I looked at Joe quizzically.

“In the old days, for village celebrations, everyone brought bowls with their name inscribed inside so that afterwards they knew who to return them to,” Joe explained.

Mr. Wong quickly returned with three more dirt-encrusted bowls.

“Look! This one has my father’s name,” exclaimed Nancy as she scraped dirt from the center of the bowl.
I gestured excitedly to Mr. Wong to find more. He nodded as his big white teeth gleamed in the dim light. He dug furiously in a dark corner, returning again and again. Vases. More bowls. Teacups. In the end, we found an inscribed rice bowl for my father, my three uncles, and grandfather, and a teacup with my grandfather’s name. Guey-Sim gave me newspaper and bags to pack our treasures while the others left to explore more of the village.

I held the rice bowl that my father once held and raised it up to the light, admiring its abstract and modern design, curling blue loops in serpentine and half-cloverleaf patterns flowing around the outside of the bowl. Then I looked up at the decorator panels, the wooden bannisters, and the delicate paintings. For a moment, I could see a handsome young couple on the second-floor balcony drinking tea and looking down on the open floor below. Filtered sunlight illuminated elegant paintings of birds, flowers, and calligraphy below them. Grace. Elegance. These were not words I ever associated with my hardworking immigrant parents who never took a vacation. How it must have torn at their souls to leave this all behind.

Guey-Sim leaned on a nearby stone platform to support her stooped figure. Past and present merged in the glow of the dimming evening light, her youthful frame withering from unrelenting travail so that she eventually looked twenty years older than my sister Sylvia, her contemporary. I remembered my lucky red envelopes and pressed one into her resisting hand. Finally she put it in her pocket. Our eyes glistened as they met since we both knew we’d probably never see each other again.

We never did find any gold in the walls. It was too dark by the time we discovered the bowls. But it didn’t matter because I discovered something even more precious than the bowls, which are now priceless family heirlooms. I glimpsed the sacrifice my parents had made in leaving their beautiful home and their ultimate wisdom in emigrating so that they and their children could enjoy a far more prosperous life.

We were all quiet on that bus ride back to Hong Kong. I thought about the fortuitous events that led to me holding our precious cargo in the bags in front of me. Francis reuniting with Joe after forty years. The lady on the red motorcycle and the old man in flip flops. Guey-Sim and Guey-Sook, who led us to the house my father built. Shirley.  And Mr. Wong, our most tenacious driver and amateur archaeologist. It was astonishing to think that these bowls survived hidden in the dirt for more than sixty-five years, through the Cultural Revolution, rain storms, and abandonment—just waiting for us to find them.

I told Joe how lucky we were and thanked him profusely for his help during our adventure. Joe chuckled like my father used to, and with a twinkle in his eye, he took my hands and said, “Lucky? Maybe it was just meant to be.”

After a long career in the computer industry, May Gee has returned to her first love, writing. She takes advantage of writing classes and seminars available in the San Francisco Bay Area and participates in a monthly writing group. May’s other hobbies are nature photography and agility training with her dog Toby.

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Welcome Back Again

June 18th, 2018

By Matthew Félix

Nine hours after leaving Fez, my French friend Sophie and I arrived in Tangier. Although we had walked to the train station the morning of our departure, this time we were arriving late at night. We opted to get a cab, a ride that shouldn’t have cost more than five or six dirhams, or less than a dollar.

Past experience having left me with a strong aversion to taxis—I’ll always choose walking great distances over taking a cab in places I don’t know—my stomach was wrapped in familiar knots as we came out of the station. Continuing past a couple of drivers who approached us, Sophie and I headed instead for the taxi at the head of the line. Surely that was only fair, after all. The fact the driver hadn’t gotten out to hassle prospective customers only made him that much more attractive.

We opened the door and got in, surprised to discover a man sitting in the passenger seat. He was talking amicably with the driver, so we assumed they were friends.

We told the cabbie where we were going, making sure to distinguish our hotel by the port from one with a similar name in another part of town. The passenger up front also clarified for the driver, with whom we conducted the conversation in Spanish. Once everything was in order—including the meter, turned on and starting from the base rate—we set off on a trip that should have lasted all of ten or fifteen minutes.

Heading into town, Sophie and I shot each other confused looks as we passed one, then another opportunity to turn towards the port. There were even signs at both intersections, in the unlikely event the driver had forgotten how to get to the city’s most defining landmark.

Before I could protest, Sophie moved forward in the seat, asking why we weren’t going towards the port. The driver explained we had to drop off the other passenger first—a complete surprise, since neither Sophie nor I had realized he was a paying customer.

I recalled my experiences in Turkey, where there are types of shared taxis. Was there something comparable in Morocco? If so, was that what this was? I decided to ask.

That was it exactly, the driver confirmed. We were in a shared taxi.

Great. Except it still didn’t feel right. Our taxi looked like all the rest, and at the train station we hadn’t seen any others waiting to fill up with multiple customers. Having no way of knowing for sure and already in the cab, there wasn’t much we could do.

Turning definitively away from the port and into the nouvelle ville, or “new” part of town, we drove along its main street, passing shops, cafés, and businesses familiar from our stay a few days earlier. Making another turn, when we got to the top of a hill we let out the passenger in front, who appeared to explain something as he paid the driver. The cabbie nodded dismissively, taking the man’s money and turning his attention back to the road.

Although in reality everything had been all wrong from the moment we got into the cab, only now did we discover how wrong it truly was.

The previous passenger had paid for his trip. Yet the driver hadn’t reset the meter. Once it was clear he wasn’t going to do so of his own accord, I politely reminded him, “You’re going to restart the meter, right?”
In a shocking setback sure to baffle the most experienced of neurolinguists, the driver suddenly forgot Spanish, a language he had spoken fluently until then. In its place, a series of grunts and gestures conveyed that, no, we would no longer be using the meter.

If it had been good enough for the Moroccan, it was good enough for us.

“Hold on, why aren’t you going to use the meter?”

More grunts and gestures came in reply, this time all of them incomprehensible. It was heart-wrenching to watch someone who had been so charming and articulate only moments before lose all verbal communication skills from one instant to the next. If he hadn’t managed to keep such an unfaltering eye on the road, I would have sworn we were witnessing him have a stroke.

“If we’re not going to use the meter, then how much?” I demanded.

His condition having already advanced to the next stage, this time he didn’t even respond. He was now a mere image of his former self.

“How much!” I demanded again, not bothering to hide my frustration. I knew the further we got down the hill, the more likely he’d feel justified in demanding payment, no matter how exorbitant the price—nor the fact we had never agreed to it.

When traffic forced us to a stop, the driver miraculously recovered his speech.

“Three thousand,” he said, like a malicious child trying to see how much he can get away with.

“Three thousand!” Sophie and I exclaimed in unison. We already knew the fare should have been five or six dirhams. Five or six. Not hundred. Not thousand. At night it might have been a little more, but not six hundred times as much. In addition to being taken for a ride, once again we were being taken for idiots.

“In that case, we’re leaving.”

Turning to Sophie, I added, “Let’s go!”

Grabbing our things—which we had been smart enough not to let the driver put into the trunk—we jumped out of the car, adrenaline rushing as fight-or-flight kicked in and we hustled down a side street. We moved quickly but didn’t run, reassured by the knowledge the driver couldn’t leave his car in the middle of a traffic jam.

But then I looked over my shoulder.

His bravado knowing no bounds, the cabbie had in fact left his car behind. Running after us like an enraged bull down a street in Pamplona, I couldn’t believe how fast his short, stubby legs carried his rotund body, which looked like it might burst at any moment.

“Run!” I shouted to Sophie, who was on the other side of the street.

How could this be happening? Why was the driver chasing us, as though we were the ones who had wronged him? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? Shouldn’t he have been the one beating a hasty retreat, ideally from the police, once we’d reported him? How could he honestly feel we owed him something? It was mind-boggling.

Despite having no qualms about grinding traffic to a halt, there were still limits to how far the cabbie could stray from his vehicle. Soon he was forced to give up the chase and turn around, a discordant chorus of angry horns calling him back.

Though glad to see him abandon the pursuit, I felt little relief. He knew where we were going. And we weren’t there yet.

“Come on!” I shouted to Sophie, encouraging her to pick up the pace.

When we came to a park separating the nouvelle ville from the medina, I felt another surge of anxiety. Situated on a well-lit slope, we may as well have been onstage. We were completely exposed to anyone in the plaza below or in the night market in front of the medina gateway, through which we had to pass to get to our hotel.

It was then that a little blue taxi tore into the plaza.

Despite the hundreds of them in Tangier, I knew right away this wasn’t just any little blue taxi. My body tensed, once more seized by fight-or-flight. As I debated what to do, I noticed the driver had picked up more customers. For a split second, it seemed encouraging. He couldn’t leave them to pick a fight with me, right?

Yet again I had underestimated him.

His car screeching to a halt in front of the medina archway, the driver jumped out and came running at me, stark, raving mad. I was mortified. I would have made a run for it right then and there, if it weren’t for my misgivings about leaving Sophie on her own, the lone woman in a night market full of men. But when the driver got too close, I had no choice. I had to run.

I didn’t go far, stopping as soon as I was out of his range, all the while desperately trying not to lose sight of Sophie. When the driver began yelling things in Arabic, I panicked even more, afraid of what lies he might be telling the quickly growing mob of men surrounding us.

“You didn’t do anything for us! We don’t owe you anything!” I yelled in French, so people would know there was more to the story.

I pushed my way back towards the center to be nearer to Sophie, only to be chased off a couple of more times. When I got a little too close on yet another attempt, the lunatic lunged at me as though I’d violated his only daughter. He was insane. Although I’d successfully avoided each of his previous attacks, this time he managed to grab my shoulder strap, swinging me around as though we were figure-skating partners. There was no way I was giving my bag up. With a determined tug I snapped it from his hands.

Our little spectacle having brought the night market to a standstill, we were now surrounded by about fifty men. I was living the chaotic mob scene from so many movies, and it was every bit as nightmarish as it had always looked on-screen. What were the men thinking? Who would they believe? What if they took sides with the cabbie? And where was Sophie? I couldn’t lose sight of Sophie. Her five-feet-four-inch frame did not exactly help her stand out in the crowd.

I was immensely relieved when some of the men held back the driver, allowing me to again retreat to the periphery. When I looked back at the center, however, my stomach dropped to the floor.

Sophie was on her own in the middle of the mob, standing face-to-face with the madman.

Although being a woman hadn’t exactly been advantageous for her thus far on our trip, Sophie figured that, in this particular instance, it would be. The driver wouldn’t hit a girl.

Having no insight into what was going through her mind, I panicked even more, watching helplessly from what felt like miles away. All at once I imagined a million horrible things that could happen to her. Abduction. Torture. Rape. I had to get back to the center. I had to get her out of it.

Muscling past the men in front of me, once more I found myself at Sophie’s side, yelling for her to come with me. Before she could react, the taxi driver went for me yet again, forcing me to the edge of the mob. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t leave her there. But every time I got anywhere near her, the driver came at me, forcing me to retreat.

As I was about to make another rescue attempt, I saw something peculiar. For just an instant the taxi driver paused from his histrionics, distracted by one of the men in the crowd. The man then handed him something.

What followed was even stranger. From one moment to the next the huge group began to disperse. What was happening? Where was everyone going? Where was Sophie? Now that people were going in all directions, my worst fear had come true.

I had lost her.

Frantic, I searched the disbanding crowd for some sign of Sophie. But she was nowhere to be found. My mind was racing and my body was trembling, as I struggled to keep it together.

“It’s okay. It’s okay,” said a young man next to me, trying to calm me down.

“You should find your friend,” added another, as though it hadn’t occurred to me. Again all I could imagine was Sophie being dragged off to some dark alley and subjected to all sorts of unthinkable abuse, only to then be sold into the sex trade.

“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do,” I retorted. I didn’t look at either man, for fear of missing what could be my last chance to see Sophie before she was taken away for good.

“She’s over there,” said another man, approaching me gently, like someone afraid of startling an abused animal.

Sure enough, there she was.

Apparently having escaped her would-be captors, Sophie had walked into the park. She was scanning the crowd for me, like I was for her.

Our eyes met. We ran to each other like long-lost lovers and embraced—but not for long. Turning towards the medina gate, we made a beeline for our hotel. It seemed we were out of danger but, given that neither of us knew why the driver had left, we couldn’t be sure.

Unable to hold back, the whole way to the hotel we gave voice to our outrage. At the same time, we prayed the driver wouldn’t be waiting for us when we got there. All we wanted was to be safe and sound inside, the rest of the world held securely at bay.

A few minutes later, we were back at the hotel.

The driver was nowhere to be found.

Still shaking from the trauma of the ordeal—our nerves not yet able to trust we were out of harm’s way—Sophie and I broke out leftovers from the train ride and sat down to a late-night snack on our little balcony facing the bay.

The night we now looked out upon felt like an entirely different one from what we had left behind on the street. Other than the occasional rustling of a nearby palm, there was almost no movement or sound. Even the port parking lot, normally active at almost any hour, was quiet.

As we cracked pistachios and passed the water bottle back and forth, Sophie told me about her experience.
“I was confronting the taxi driver, and he suddenly only wanted 14 dirhams.”

“Instead of 3000?” I asked incredulously.

“Yeah. A guy next to me explained the price of 3000 was in cents, not in whole dirhams.”

“What? As if we were supposed to know that! Besides, 3000 cents still equals 30 dirhams, which is six times what the price should have been,” I calculated. “He knew we didn’t know the price was in cents—it was all part of the scam.”

“Of course it was. That’s why, when I was talking to him, he cut the price in half. He knew the original price was absurd, but he still wanted something. When I asked why he suddenly only wanted 14, he wouldn’t say. I had a bill in my pocket I almost gave him, just so he’d leave us alone, but I didn’t. I should have. It wasn’t that much money.”

“That’s not the point! He was a liar and a thief, and we shouldn’t have had to pay to shut him up. It might have been easier, but it wouldn’t have been right.”

“Well, right or wrong, it doesn’t matter, since for whatever reason, he finally decided to leave.”

I told Sophie about the exchange I’d witnessed between the driver and the man in the crowd.

“I really think he gave him money on our behalf,” I concluded. It wasn’t right that he had felt compelled to do so, but I was touched he had. “That stranger had our back.”

Upon our return to the hotel, desperate for a shoulder to cry on, Sophie and I had wasted no time telling the men in reception about our ordeal. Not only did they adamantly confirm the driver should have used the meter and that the price he asked was exorbitant, they also urged us to go to the tourist police. Books were kept with photos of every driver in the city. If we could identify ours, his license would be revoked.
As much as I would have loved to see the shameless brute punished for what he had done not only to us but no doubt to other tourists as well, I hesitated. It was already well past midnight, and we were leaving first thing in the morning. What’s more, despite the hotel manager’s assurances to the contrary, all I could imagine was having to pay my way out of a Moroccan police station. I just wasn’t up for it. I was too shell-shocked. I couldn’t trust anyone so soon after what had happened.

“It hurts us, too,” regretted the hotel manager, attempting one last time to convince me to go to the police. “It’s a constant struggle.”

I knew he was right, and I felt bad for letting him down. In the morning, a little shaken up but otherwise unharmed, we would be going back to Spain. He, on the other hand, along with countless others who made their living from tourism, would be suffering the consequences of not only what had happened to Sophie and me, but many other similar incidents throughout the country. They would be witness to few, if any, of them; but, they’d feel their impact, nowhere more so than in their pocketbooks.

A longtime resident of San Francisco, Matthew Félix has also lived in Spain, France, and Turkey. Adventure, humor, and spirituality infuse his work, which often draws on his time living in the Mediterranean, as well as his travels in over fifty countries. Matthew’s debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of how a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition gets him out of his head, so he can follow his heart. Matthew’s collection of travel stories, With Open Arms, recounts his humorous and harrowing experiences on two trips to Morocco. See more of his work at

Adventure Travel Gold Winner: The Five Wise Men of the Voodoo Trail

June 11th, 2018

By Kevin Dimetres

The feeling was unfamiliar. Alone, I sat on the splintered wooden bench while the passersby sized me up with skeptical curiosity. Their skin glistened with sweat, accentuating the slash marks lacing both sides of their faces. The slash marks had been deliberately crafted into their visage, haunting me with wonder. Images of celestial snakes and sword-wielding gods decorated the decrepit dwellings surrounding me. This was a faraway world, and for the first time in as long as I could remember as a traveler, I felt the fear of the unknown begin to surge in my veins.

I was in the center of Ouidah, the spiritual mecca of Vodun, immersed in the shadowy culture of voodoo lore. The slash marks were the results of ritual scarification, a tradition in which emblematic scars are etched into the skin as symbolic protection from evil spirits. To an uninitiated outsider like myself, the tattoo-like scars were a bone-chilling ritual from an ancient religion cloaked in mystery and misconceptions.

Understanding its essence had become my travel Holy Grail, and I was willing to explore the depths of its holiest places to discover its truths.

It is known as “voodoo” back home in the States, and its pop-culture perception is saturated with notions of wickedness and awe. It was the native religion of the slaves transported to the Americas from West Africa’s Slave Coast, and it’s been subject to outlaw, demonization, and dogmatic reconstruction since it set sail across the Atlantic Ocean. Voodoo’s associations with witchcraft and evil sorcery were a calculated product of propaganda, a Hollywood production of delusion designed to influence the cultural assimilation/cultural destruction of Africans adapting to life in the New World. Its truths have remained obscure, clouded by apprehensions of fear, hidden behind perceptions of “the other.”

Voodoo exists today in the Americas as a syncretic belief set, producing evolutionary branches of the African religion in Louisiana, Brazil and Haiti. Its roots can be traced to the Gbe-speaking ethnic groups of West Africa, particularly the Fon people in modern day Benin. In fact, the term “voodoo” is derived from the Fon word “Vodun (Vodoun/Voudoun),” which translates to “spirit” in the local language.
Traditional African Vodun remains a mystery to a majority of the outside world. It has survived virtually untouched in Benin, where nearly half of the population practices the animistic spirituality in its purest form. As one of only two countries today (along with Haiti) to recognize Vodun as an official religion. Benin proudly considers itself the “Birthplace of Voodoo.”

I wanted to see life through their perspective, and to discover the realities of their spiritual approach to life. A dance alongside the spirits and superstitions of Vodun lore inevitably began in Ouidah.

As one of Africa’s largest slave trade trading ports during the 18th and 19th centuries, Ouidah prospered as an extension of the ruthless Dahomey Kingdom. Following the abolition of slavery and the collapse of Dahomey rule, Ouidah remained a spiritual epicenter for native African religions, specifically Vodun.

Today Ouidah is home to a variety of mystical landmarks honoring its cultural past, such as the Temple of Pythons and the Sacred Forest of King Kpasse. Vodun is not a religion practiced casually; in this part of the world, Vodun is a way of life.

The depth of Vodun spirituality is massive and variations exist within the different ethnic, regional and historical practices, but I’ll briefly explain the basics – as I can best understand them – for the sake of clarity.

Vodun considers itself to be a monotheistic faith, whose primary creator goddess is called Mawu. The existence of a vast pantheon of lesser gods is recognized, each associated with natural forces in a similar structure to the religious pantheons of ancient Greece and ancient Egypt. These lesser gods interact with Mawu on behalf of the spirits on earth, whose relationship with the divine Supreme Being is akin to the heavenly saints and angels of Christianity.

While practitioners of Vodun, known as Vodounci, recognize the entire Vodun pantheon, individuals usually focus their energies toward a select few of their favored deities. Some examples of prominent Vodun deities and the realms of their natural powers include Sakpata (earth/health), Heviosso (sky), Egou (metals/craftsmanship), Legba (masculinity/crossroads), and Dan (prosperity/communication).

Each deity is associated with a signature dance and drumbeat, and veneration of the gods is expressed by dancing and drumming to these unique rhythms.

Worship is conducted through ritual interaction with fetishes (consecrated shrines dedicated to the living spirits of Vodun deities and ancestral family members). Fetishes are often makeshift memorials located inside the homes and villages of their adherents, as well as anthropomorphized sculptures of Vodun deities- the historical root of the fabled “voodoo doll.”

Communication with the fetishes usually begins by waking up the spirits through offerings of gin and communal sips of sodabi- a traditional West African moonshine type of liquor made from fermented palm tree sap. Prayers are recited simultaneously accompanied by communication with the spirit world via cowry shells; the shells are rolled like dice and their landing positions are interpreted as direct messages from the Vodun spirits.

These spiritual consultations are orchestrated by a Vodun priest or priestess, referred to as a Vodounon, respectively, whose role is similar to a shaman. These mystical gurus play an important role in their communities for their healing powers and spiritual wisdom, providing insight on health, relationships, justice and the connections to the metaphysical world around them.

The perspective boundaries separating “intensely spiritual” and “obsessively superstitious” can fade into gray at times, but Vodon pulsates with an undeniable reality that everything in life has meaning; every moment is alive.

I had no formal plans beyond finding a seat on that bench that first day alone in Ouidah; I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was approached. I was playing dice with the universe choosing to traverse this continent without prior connections, but like most parts of the developing world, they tend to find you before you find them.

Dressed in a traditional shirt and trousers, known as a Beninese bomba, Odjo walked toward me with a muscular gait and the confident swagger of a man in his physical prime. A local shop owner and proud father of two twin baby boys, Odjo sensed an opportunity. He spoke a decent amount of English – a rarity in that part of the world – and offered to show me around town in exchange for a small fee.

The good fortune of connecting with an English-speaking local with a good pulse on the community cannot be understated; navigating rural Africa would have been impossible without someone like Odjo. I doubled down on his offer, asking Odjo to be my personal guide exploring Benin’s Vodun culture in exchange for a higher price tag. We both recognized the auspiciousness of our chance encounter, and we happily shook hands. Our friendship began in a spark of fortuity and intrigue.

Odjo introduced me to countless Vodun priests and practitioners throughout Ouidah over the next several days. He acted as my guide and translator, mediating conversations between myself and the major players of the Vodun communities. I was less concerned with the dogmatic minutiae and more interested in understanding the overarching philosophies of Vodun. I was prepared to start each conversation with a simple two-part question: what is Vodun, and how could it be used to live a better life?

The ethereal world of Vodun would welcome me with open arms.

Agaja came from a village a few miles outside of Ouidah. He wore a traditional blue bomba accented with red and black patches and a cap above his head. His beaded necklaces hung low near his waist, swaying to the slow pace of his strut as he approached me with an ironclad demeanor, seemingly impervious to the highs of delight and the lows of fear. His calmness was contagious as he sat down on the wooden chair in front of me.

“What you must understand,” he spoke in a baritone voice while his eyes looked through me, “is that what goes around, comes around.”

I inquired about the similarities to the concept of karma, but he was unfamiliar with the term.

“What you give, you will receive. What you do to others, will be done to you.”
His hands shot back and forth through the air as he spoke, like a conductor leading an orchestra in slow motion.

“Violence brings more violence. If you use Vodun as a weapon against your enemies, then your enemies, in this life or the next, will use violence against you. You cannot achieve peace through violence. If you want peace, then you must first ask for peace, and then give peace.”

I prodded Agaja with more questions about his subtle reference to the notion of reincarnation and Vodun’s concept of the cycle of life.

“Death is like a comma, not a period. Nature exists in a state of duality, the cycle of life. The sun rises, the sun sets and rises again. The flowers die, become food for the earth and come to life again. Such is life here on earth and in the spirit world. It is the cycle of life, ongoing and eternal. What goes around comes around, so you must live your life accordingly.”

I nicknamed Agaja the Voodoo Buddha, but neither he nor Odjo got the joke. We departed the village and headed further outside of Ouidah, seemingly treading farther back into time.

A grotesque fetish featuring a pair of horns and a prominent phallus marked the entrance to Glele’s village. This was Legba, the trickster Vodun deity of the crossroads, and similar fetiches placed at the gateways of rural villages were ubiquitous throughout Benin.

Glele was thickly built with broad shoulders, a bulging neck and the bald head of a battering-ram. He liked to wear a live python around his neck like a collar, though his intimidating guise was offset by a jovial demeanor and a hair-trigger smile.

His home featured a large fetish dedicated to his patron deity Dan, the serpent god associated with communication to the spirit world and believed to endow its adherents with prosperity. My admission was determined by his snake’s reaction to being placed on my shoulders; after Glele had laid its body against the back of my neck, the snake coiled around me until it silently found a position of comfort. I was allowed to proceed.

“The snake alerts me to negative energy; but he seems to like you,” he chuckled as he prepared our shots of Sodabi. He handed me a cup, then took the snake from around my neck and placed it gently back around his.

“Vodun is very powerful, but it is neither good nor bad. It has no intention. It is like a knife, or a spear. It sits still, without emotion. It is you who stabs the knife or throws the spear, who determines its energy.”

The concept of using Vodun as a weapon captivated me with curiosity, so I encouraged him to elaborate. He spoke of an ancient system of justice that predates the legal systems of the modern world.

“Vodun may be used for justice, yes. If another man kills your wife, what do you do? Revenge by your hand would continue in a cycle of violence, so instead, you may pray to Heaviosso, the Vodun sky god and purveyor of justice. Perhaps he strikes down your enemy in a rage of thunder and lightning.”

In a land which has historically lacked the luxuries of an effective criminal justice system, I could understand the practicality of Vodun justice.

“But you must understand, Vodun is not a toy. You must use wisdom. You must have responsibility. You could hurt yourself and hurt others. Just like the blade of a sword, it is sharp, do not play with it like a toy.”

The more he spoke of Vodun, the more he appeared like a Jedi master elucidating on The Force from Star Wars.

“You want to make this girl fall in love with you, Vodun will make it happen. You want to heal this sickness, Vodun will make it happen. You want to grow crops for food, Vodun will make it happen. Whatever you want, the Vodun spirit will give… But you must first ask… And you must use Vodun for positivity only. If you use Vodun for negativity, in a bad way, it will come back to you.”

Glele put the snake back around my neck as I contemplated his words. The snake snuggled up in a comfortable position, and he proceeded with an unexpected question for me.

“So… what is it that you want from Vodun?”

I momentarily went blank, sensing the weight of karma and personal responsibility on my conscious similar to the way the snake had coiled itself around my neck.
“I want to understand… To be able to see the world the way you do, through the eyes of a Vodounon.”

He paused for a moment, silently reflecting on his thoughts, looking at the snake wrapped around my neck. He rolled the cowry shells, mumbled something in an unfamiliar language, then turned back toward me.

“Okay my friend. Vodun shall reveal itself to you.”

I took a break from Ouidah for a few days while Odjo returned to his business and family. In the meantime, I explored the side streets of Benin’s coastal highway when Tessi and I first crossed paths. He wore a collared orange and black shirt with shorts and sandals, striding with a hop to his step like he was jamming to a song playing inside his head. He spoke five different languages, including English, much to my delight, and conveyed an infectious friendliness that was rare in Benin.

He took an interest in my Vodun curiosity upon our introduction, and he offered to help me along my journey simply for the sake of helping.

Tessi was an old soul in a young man’s body. He liked to sit back with one foot resting over his knee, with a habit of extended pauses of contemplation before jolting upright with vigor as his stream of consciousness flowed into spoken words.

Born of a Christian mother and Vodun father, Tessi was considered a Christian at birth. His original name was David. At the age of four, he fell seriously ill, falling into a coma for multiple days before being pronounced dead.

It was at that moment that his aunt, a Vodun priestess, called on the spirit of his deceased grandfather to help bring him back to life. As the story goes, his grandfather reincarnated into David’s body, helping maintain his lifeforce, while his body began to heal. David miraculously survived with a full memory of the ordeal. Later, he formally converted to Vodun, choosing to be called Tessi as his native African name.

His home had individual rooms for fetiches dedicated to Egou, the warrior god of metals and craftsmanship; Dan, the rainbow-colored snake god, who also served as the patron deity of his grandfather; and Sakpata, the god of the earth with associations to health and wellness.

Tessi’s concept of Vodun was holistic and harmonious.

“We are all connected. We call it the spirit of Africa; the spirit of Vodun, which is the connection. The earth, nature, the living beings, the spirit world; everything is connected. This is Vodun.”

His convictions were strong, and his energetic sense of spirit overflowed as he spoke. In his eyes, there was a sense of meaning to the occurrences of everyday life.

“Everything happens for a reason. It is the way of Vodun. That is why our individual character is so important. How we handle adversity and opportunity; they happen for a reason, and we must embrace the path presented to us. Like when I first met you wandering alone on that street… You may have appeared lost, but no, I knew that you were there for a reason. We are connected, you see…”

I had to give him credit; in a land where corruption is rampant, opportunities are scarce and trust is rare, Tessi was overflowing with enthusiasm and integrity. But I needed more clarification on the nature of Vodun. Was it an abstract natural force, or did it have a deeper meaning? What was the underlying point of it all?

“My brother, think of it this way… what is the point of music? What is the point of dancing? You see, we are all connected, like the individual notes in the symphony of life. We are all one. So, my brother, go make beautiful music. Everyone that crosses your path is a musical note in the song that is life. Everyone and everything, the plants and animals, the earth, we all must create the melodies to make life on earth like beautiful music. That, my brother, is Vodun.”

Tessi had been born in a hut in a small African village, yet he possessed the wisdom of a thousand lifetimes. He called it “L’espirit d’afrique.” If he does not one day end up as a leader of his country, the world will be a lesser place for it.

Tessi agreed to take me to a rural African market farther inland and far off the beaten path. We ventured out on his motorbike, following the bumpy dirt roads, which diverged into narrowing footpaths, to a primeval part of the world trapped in an ancient way of life.

The cinderblock walls were decorated with images of an obscure crocodile god; the lone doorway was guarded by a white sheet of linen dancing against the breeze. Otherworldly chanting could be heard from within the the roofless structure. We parked the bike and began to explore, forgetting about the market at which we would never arrive.

Tessi clapped his hands twice, upon which an elderly woman draped in a royal blue shawl appeared at the doorway. Other individuals in similar garb looked on from behind her, fixated on the unusual foreigner, who was clearly in a time and place that he did not belong.

It was an unparalleled moment of serendipity; we had accidentally wandered into a ceremonial gathering of priests and priestesses partaking in a sacred ritual in a rural tobossi-houe- otherwise known as a Vodun “trance house.”

Tessi negotiated our entrance based on his Vodun connections, but not before I rid myself of my western attire and draped a white linen around my waist in a similar fashion to the others. They wore robes of white and royal blue with matching beaded necklaces. Silent feet bearing scars from a lifetime of shoeless labor poked out from under the robes.

The tobossi-houe was dedicated to the spirit of a locally venerated crocodile deity (whose name I never knew). The chief Vodounon was identifiable by his flawless white tunic and a matching cap. He went by the name of Azangli. His presence was commanding, as he stood in silence with a penetrating, unshakable glare.

Azangli lifted his arm in our direction pointing his finger at the ground. It was a signal for Tessi and me to kneel before entering. A woman knelt alongside us and rolled the cowry shells while she spoke to the spirit world. She tapped my shoulder to observe; the cowry shells indicated a positive sign from the Vodun gods. Azangli gave us a dubious nod, allowing us to proceed.

The outer room hosted two life-sized crocodile figures, each dyed green with their jaws stretched open wide. The heads of the crocodiles were freshly covered in blood, remnants of a goat sacrifice from earlier that day. A wooden throne, shaped in the traditional design of the Dahomey kings, sat between them.

Azangli had moved behind the entrance to the inner room, his piercing eyes tracing each of our steps with an apprehensive glare.

The inner room was a sacred chamber featuring a stunning Vodun fetish unlike anything I had ever seen. A large rectangular altar was positioned in the middle of the room, roughly three feet high and maybe twice as wide. Layers of the skulls, skins, carved wooden objects, ornamented figures, offerings and other fetiche objects sloped like pyramid walls from its sides. Offerings of palm oil and bottles of gin lay close by. Atop the altar sat six crocodile heads; three life-sized carvings crafted from single blocks of wood, alongside three genuine crocodile skulls. Each of the crocodile jaws was open, with a large egg the size of a fist placed neatly at the end of its snout, between the upper and lower front two teeth.

This was the rural community’s holiest of holy sites, their sacred Vodun cathedral, and we had unintentionally interrupted a moment of ritual worship that my eyes were never meant to have seen.

Azangli pointed to the ground with the commanding presence of an emperor, and we quickly kneeled along with the other dozen or so Vodounons in front of the altar of crocodile skulls. He recited a prayer while our foreheads kissed the ground. The rest of the group remained silent.

A silver-haired woman wearing only a blue shawl around her waist handed me the bottle of sodabi. She moved about with the aging grace of royalty, appearing to be the high priestess of the sect; the spiritual queen to Azangli’s king. Tessi and I each took two sips, the first for ourselves, and the second to be spit out directly at the foot of the skulls.

She knelt before the altar and rolled the cowry shells to determine the fate of our visit. Azangli sat on his throne in silence while he anticipated the message of the gods.

She gave him a nod while she recited a prayer of gratitude in the Fon language. He returned the nod in our direction, speaking directly to us for the first time.

“You have no negative energy, and the Vodun spirits have welcomed you,” he said in a sonorous voice that echoed with a charismatic gravitas fit for a king.

I was overcome with a mix of euphoria and relief. I looked back at Tessi to see his face lit up with a confident “I told you so” shine in his eye.

“What is it that you want?” Azangli continued. “Answer me, and we shall pray together.”

Azangli’s question was literal, and he expected a precise answer. The Vodounons stared back at me in silent curiosity as soldiers of Azangli’s spiritual realm.

For a moment in time, all energies possessed by the Vodounons in the tobossi-houe would be focused on the subject of my request. That my wish would be granted was taken as an absolute certainty.

It was the law of attraction; ask and you shall receive. Azangli sensed my ignorance, switching roles from monarchical sorcerer to Jedi philosopher; he was the human incarnate of Yoda crossed with Professor X.

“If you want money, you will receive it, but you must help others who are poor. If you want food, you will receive it, but you must feed others who are hungry. If you want health, you will obtain it, but you must help others who are suffering. You must return to Benin to pay your respects, so you can share the blessings with the Vodun spirits.”

Vodun manifests itself like esoteric magnetism; it rewards humility and punishes hubris. Pay it forward, show gratitude, and the positive energies of Vodun would guide me to prosperity. Act selfishly or wish harm to others, and I would be punished to the identical degree.

The Vodounons circled around the room and knelt before Azangli, their hands held together solidifying an impenetrable ring around the altar. I knelt alone at the foot of the crocodile skulls with Azangli directly to my side. He sat on his throne and bellowed a prayer to the spirit world while the high priestess showered the crocodile altar with offerings of gin and palm oil.

The Vodounons were synchronized in rhythmic chanting in between deliberate pauses from Azangli. I kept my eyes tightly shut with my forehead buried in the dirt floor, internally balancing the flooding sensations of gratitude and awe. I tried to breathe slowly and soak in vitality of the moment. Time and space stood still as my ego momentarily vanished, only to return instantaneously with the unmistakable feeling of deja vu.

I raised my head to wipe the dirt from my face. The high priestess handed me a communal cup of sodabi, formally ending the ceremony. Azangli granted me a silent nod of approval while I stood on my knees, eye to eye with the jaws of a crocodile skull. I was offered a bowl of cassava and goat innards, and I politely chewed away at the rubbery flesh. Azangli appreciated my efforts, finally cracking a smile.

He offered me a single photo upon my exit, a solo portrait of himself on his throne. Then Tessi and I began our slow journey back towards the modern world.

Odjo had been awaiting my return to Ouidah. He had arranged for me to meet a highly revered Vodounon, assuring me that all of my questions about Vodun would be answered.

Zomadonou’s home was located down a dirt road extending inland from the outskirts of town. He was tall with a sinewy frame and gumby-like arms and legs, topped by a white cap similar to a Muslim taqiyah. He moved about with bolts of energy from the base of his spine, constantly veering in roundabout directions as his attention shuffled between thoughts like a mad scientist.

He welcomed Odjo and me with a toothy smile and a handful of cowry shells; a few rolls of the shells eliminated any further hesitations: Odjo and I were meant to be there.

“The power of Vodun is like the power of the sun,” he spoke with his palms open and arms spread outward, strategically tweaking his voice to emphasize his points. “Just as the sun gives energy to life on earth, Vodun gives life to energy on earth. It is the connection of life and energy, the duality.”

I asked about the similarity to Yin and Yang, but was met with a blank stare. The abstract philosophy was enchanting, but I wanted to understand its practical application.

“All living things consist of energy; this energy comes from the same source. Like sun rays that come from the sun; separate, but at their essence, the same. Vodun is like the sun, and we are the light… So, we must shine.”

This prehistoric animistic religion sounded remarkably like new age philosophy. I began to wonder if humanity’s approach to spirituality was coming full circle from the time of the ancients.

I wanted to know more. Could an outsider like myself harness the powers of Vodun?
“Vodun… You cannot touch it… Like light, it has no shape…” His hands maneuvered through the air as if he were sculpting his thoughts from an unseen block of clay.

“It begins with the state of your mind. Your mind creates your thoughts. Your thoughts become your behaviors. Your behaviors create the state of life on earth. So, the state of earth is a reflection of your mind. When the earth is suffering, it is a reflection of the mind of the people.”

The emphasis on the connection with the energies of the universe was evident, the role of positivity undeniable. But, the stigma of malicious evil spirits remained. The ritual scarification only seemed to intensify this fear, and I could not understand its practicality. I began to point to the scars and ask, but Zomadonou remained one step ahead.

“You do not understand the forces of evil spirits, because you cannot see them. The Vodun scars help us to see them; they know that we are watching. We defeat them with our mind.”

I had ventured too far into the deep end, and was no longer able to keep up. My face must have reflected my confusion, as Zomadonou sensed my optimistic curiosity begin to sour. He slyly turned his attention to a handful of cowry shells. Lighting a candle while he had a word with the spirits, he rolled the shells two times, then looked back at me. “I can cleanse you of the evil spirits, if you want, but first, you must ask for it yourself. Your Vodun power will be revealed to you.”

I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant… But how could I say no? I looked at Odjo, who gave me a nod; I returned the nod to Zomadonou.

“We will have a Vodun ceremony for you. To cleanse you of negative energy and evil spirits. The Vodun spirits give you protection, show you Vodun powers, now and in the future.”

I could feel the universe laughing at me once again. I had wanted to learn about Vodun from the perspective of its most spiritual adherents, and here I was, in the back alleys of Ouidah, with the opportunity to have a powerful Vodun priest perform a ritual ceremony to conquer evil energy and reveal the Vodun powers of my own inner spirit.

I was ready to go all the way.

I wore a white linen cloth over my teal Beninese trousers, no shoes or shirts allowed. The outdoor courtyard behind Zomadonou’s home featured conglomeration of peculiar fetiches laid out on a mat. The fetishes were covered in a messy blend of dust and dried blood. Their specific purpose remained unknown.

Zomadonou and I knelt in front of the fetish while he rolled the cowry shells and recited a prayer. Odjo and other locals had gathered around us as spectators, their eyes dancing with fervor at the site of a foreigner, who they began referring to as their brother.

A young girl handed Zomadonou two live chickens.

He held the chickens upside down, as if their legs were handles. A groundswell of fear consumed me once again; suddenly I knew what was coming. I had yet to witness ritual sacrifice as part of a Vodun ceremony, and I had never ever expected to be an active participant. The feeling was unnerving, but I had to respect the cultural norms; I was a guest in his home, and they were not my rules to reform. I looked into the chicken’s eyes and apologized from within.

Zomadonou traced the chickens over my body like a metal detecting wand, reciting a prayer in the Fon language throughout the process. Using a sanctified knife designated strictly for ritual sacrifice, he cut their throats one at a time and dripped the blood over the fetish in absolute silence.

It is during these moments that the Vodun spirits manifest on earth, deriving strength from the blood of the sacrifice, and performing the divine miracles of Vodun lore. In my case, that meant a spiritual cleanse of evil and negative energy, with the hope that my so-called Vodun powers would become actualized. Zomadonou again began to speak aloud to the spirits, while the chickens ceased to suffer.

The next step was a purification bath. Across the courtyard was a barrel filled with sanctified water and freshly gathered plants, whose mixture had been specifically formulated for my individual ceremony. I was instructed to drench myself completely in holy water using the vines that had been soaked inside the barrel. It was a cleansing in the most literal sense, and I was given privacy behind a white curtain hanging from clothesline in the courtyard.

I returned to the fetish mat and slowly took a seat on a stool placed near a circle drawn from flammable black powder. Zomadonou crouched next to me and placed a cup of dark powder on the ground. He opened the palm of his hand to reveal an unopened razor. Zomadonou slowly unwrapped the razor’s packaging while giving me a nod. My jaw clenched; I was petrified. My voice failed as my hand defensively shielded my face. Ritual scarification on my face was a line I would not cross.

Zomadonou laughed at my trepidation and turned his attention to the village children, who looked on as eager spectators just a few yards away. “We no longer cut our faces; look at the children,” he said in a confident tone.

It was something I had missed entirely. The faces of the children were clear and unblemished.

“Now we make the cuts very small… around the body,” he said as he waved his hand in a circular motion to my chest and shoulders.

I stared at the razor blade as my heart began to pound with the intensity of an African bongo drum. I took a deep breath and accepted the unknown outcome of my fate… there would be no going back.

He cut me twelve times; six pairs of small incisions on both shoulders, both sides of my torso, my chest and my back. The small slash marks were painless, the trails of blood minimal.

Zomadonou quickly rubbed the chalky mixture of soot-like powder deep into the open wounds, chanting to the gods. The powder instantly transformed the cuts into tattoos, solidifying their permanence and enhancing the visceral effects of scarification.

I felt no pain.

We broke from the formality of the festivities to share an evening meal with the local community. The growing darkness of night consumed Ouidah as we broke bread together. We returned to the outdoor courtyard and immediately consulted with the spirits. Situated before us was a fetish sack crowned with the heart of a chicken and soaked in scented oils and sacrificial blood.

I positioned myself directly inside the flammable black circle while Zomadonou called out to Sogbho, a potent sky god of the Vodun pantheon associated with the power of explosives. I cradled the fetish sack in my hand and balanced the chicken heart on the surface. I extended my arm outward toward the stars.

Zomadonou put a match to the base of the circle, its outer edge igniting in both directions. He shouted at the nighttime sky as I held the fetiish steady with the focus of a sniper. The onlookers were spellbound by the blazing circle of firecracker powder and booming Vodun oratory. Zomadonou’s arms thrashed through the smoke and shadows like an inflatable tubular air dancer, enhancing his grandiloquence in a cinematic fashion.

The fire burned out as Zomadonou’s words tapered off. The fetish remained steady; the heart did not fall. The audience roared with approval. Zomadonou confirmed that Sogbho triumphantly cleansed all negative energies and evil spirits from within me.

He took the fetish from my hand and led me into a shadowy crypt-like chamber at the far end of the courtyard for one final task.

He lit the chamber with scented candles, illuminating the carved wooden figures of Vodun gods and the sacrificial offerings of past ceremonies. We knelt before a small altar positioned against the center of the far wall. Zomadonou tactically moved the candles and fetishes along the edge alter. He rolled the cowry shells, crooning with the spirits one last time. He handed me a cup filled with dark powder, mixed it with soda, and instructed me to drink it all.

I had never come across any information regarding this type of ritual during my pre-trip research, and thoughts of its potentially harmful effects swirled through my head. When I asked what it was, the only answer I could get was “Vodun drink… so the Vodun stays with you.” He pointed to his gut before extending his finger in a circular wave around his body.

I wrapped both hands around the cup, held it to my lips and contemplated my fate. This was uncharted territory. The Holy Grail scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade flashed in my mind; his quest for knowledge of the divine had taken him through the depths of legends, until he held the cup of Christ in the palms of his hands. The stakes were a far cry from the fate of mankind, but nevertheless my moment had come. I had asked for knowledge of Vodun, and the final challenge now similarly rested within my own two hands. The allure of this ancient knowledge was irresistible.

I took a deep breath as I took one last look around the room, the shadows of Zomadonou and the fetish statues waved in the flickering candlelight of the crypt-like room. I shut my eyes, tilted the bottom of the cup to the pitch black ceiling, and let the Vodun drink flow inside me until every last drop was gone. It was surprisingly smooth, and it tasted like candy. I gradually opened my eyes, letting it all settle, slowly breathing in the tranquil fragrance of the scented candles.

I felt great.

I looked around the room, momentarily fixated on the reflections of light dancing against the scars and the smile adorning Zomadonou’s face. My own smile reflected his, and we started to laugh alongside each other. My hands no longer trembled. The muscles around my neck loosened up. The tightness in my back relaxed. The fear that had consumed me since that first moment in Ouidah began to melt away, until it evaporated completely. I was quickly seduced by a feeling of illumination, swept up in a profound moment of clarity.

The concept of evil was symbolic; the evil spirits had been a metaphor for fear.

The scarification served as an esoteric vaccination against the destructive malaise of fear. The ring of fire signified its metaphysical crematorium, symbolically incinerating the clutches of fear in a grandiose public execution. The ritual cleansing was a metaphorical polishing of our inner shine.

It all clicked.

Fear, particularly fear of “the other,” has divided humanity since the beginning. Fear prevents us from connecting. The evil spirits that have plagued the unity of the human race were never an external force to be battled with swords and superstitions; they were a force from within, an individual blemish on the universal consciousness of the human spirit.

United we stand. Divided we fall. It all became perfectly clear.

Zomadonou’s sacred chamber turned to complete darkness as he blew the candles out, but only then could I finally see the light.

So, what is Vodun?

Vodun is a dazzling expression of ancient mysticism and new age spirituality, which sees all life in the universe as a connected natural force. It is Buddhist karma crossed with The Force from Star Wars; an impartial power of the Law of Attraction traveling a circular path through the cycle of life. It is the prehistoric science of the natural world; a polytheistic system of divinity, reason, and justice; an omniscient answer to the mysteries of life.

It is the sound of music; the harmonious vibrations that flow from the rhythms of our mind.

It is the spiritual companion, the Yin to the Yang, of the life giving energy of the sun.

It is the organic energy which connects the physical and metaphysical realms, and it exists within us all. It can be influenced at will, by those keen enough to understand the nuances of its vitality; it is “the vibe.”

It is the universal divine spirit, known by many different names in many different cultures across the globe and throughout history; whatever you want to call it is ultimately up to you.

I had one final question for Zomadonou about the nature of my soul and the spirit of Vodun; I had been exposed to so much on this crusade, and I was trying to sort it all out.

“I want to know – this adventure to Africa and my whole experience with Vodun – Did I choose Vodun and create this journey myself, or did Vodun create this journey and choose to take me along for the ride?”

He sprang up from his seat in a eureka kind of moment, put both hands on my shoulders, and flashed his omniscient grin. Looking me straight in the eye, he began to answer. I should have seen it coming.


The following day I hitched a ride down West Africa’s coastal highway, en route to Farafina’s seaside Rasta beach in Grand Popo. I wanted a place to relax and reflect on it all, and sure enough, I found an empty hammock hanging from a palm tree waiting for me on the beach. The lyrics of Bob Marley echoed from a bar in the distance…“one love, one life…” As they say in Benin, “la vie est belle.”

Kevin Dimetres currently works as an educator and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area. His stories have been published in Travelers’ Tales, Immersion Travel Magazine, GoNOMAD, Transitions Abroad, InTravel Magazine, and the Washington Post. A collection of his work can be found on

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