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

April 30th, 2020

By Tom Miller

The best guitar maker in Cuba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Grand Prize Gold Winner: Our Ravaged Lady

April 16th, 2020

By Erin Byrne

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BBC Correspondent Bob Reids radio broadcast described the scene:

And now, here comes General de Gaulle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are in the time of the interim

Where everything seems withheld.

The path you took to get here has washed out;

The way forward is still concealed from you.

The old is not old enough to have died away;

The new is still too young to be born.

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

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

What is being transfigured here is your mind,

And it is difficult and slow to become new.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

March 31st, 2020

By Chase Nelson

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

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

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

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

This time, Death rode with us.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“¿Listo?” she said.

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

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

Her hair looked perfect.

***

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

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

Keep breathing, I remember saying to myself.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

It’s over.

Thank you.

I’m sorry.

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

We counted to three. We rested her down.

We counted to three. We lifted the body.

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

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

***

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

***

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

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


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

Grand Prize Silver Winner: Love in a Time of Abundance

March 2nd, 2020

By Amanda Castleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Static crackles out of the speaker. Unintelligible.

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

“This is underwear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~

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

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

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

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

~~

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it sound like?” I ask.

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

“That might be my grandfather!” Diesel exclaims.

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

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

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

“Once for regret.”

I shiver and stride away.

~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost Blond in Nepal

May 6th, 2019

By Nancy Bartley

Funny Travel Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

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

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

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

“Your hair,” he said. “Blond!”

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

“NO,” I shouted. “No!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Nuns on a Train

April 29th, 2019

By Ashley Seashore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

My new savior, indeed.


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

Strangers in the Bush

April 22nd, 2019

By Susan Bloch

Destination Story Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

That Other Hijab Story

April 15th, 2019

By Maryah Converse

Culture and Ideas Gold Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why I never talk about that other time.

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We assured him that we would follow his advice.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.

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