Road Trip – U.S. Variety

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I could have driven coast-to-coast (and more) if I wanted to rack up 3500 miles on my odometer last month, but I took a little east-central oval-ish ride instead, tooling along back roads and some major U.S. interstates over the course of three weeks. Everyone – family, friends, strangers – thought I was nuts to load my 14-year-old pup into the car and set off (essentially) alone on an elongated loop through twelve states and the District of Columbia.

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Traveling north out of Houston, the roads offer sights of both natural beauty and man-made mess. The pine trees look and smell delicious, much more so than the scruffy BBQ joints, and occasional glimpses of small, pretty lakes are a nice counterbalance to the scrap yard scenes that litter the outskirts of many a small town along the main route up through East Texas. The roads are mostly local access, so while screaming along at the posted speed limit of 75 mph, you have to be keenly aware that those same small towns and their hapless drivers may suddenly appear, and be ready to slam on the brakes at every at-grade crossing for the first five hours.

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Entering Arkansas, it’s a bit of a relief to get on an interstate for a few hours and, unlike many larger highways, I-30 heading northeast toward Hot Springs and Little Rock has some very attractive scenery – more of those towering pines and azure lakes, with the junk hidden away beyond the exits. I make an impromptu 30-minute stop to say hello to my son in Little Rock and then power on through Memphis, feeling good, bouncing in my seat, waving my dance hands, and writing my novel in my head. Damn, I love driving.

A few hours later, my mood has crashed; it’s gotten dark, I’ve stopped singing, the dog is restless, and I’m counting the miles to the exit for the small town in Tennessee where I’ve booked a room. Twelve hours in, and I’m whipped, so I have little energy to make a change or a fuss when I check into a dirty room up three flights of steps that are sticky with badly disguised vomit stains. This is a stairway I have to navigate four times to get the dog, her stuff, my stuff, and the cooler into the room. Who loves road trips now?

I do; I still do! It’s a cool, dewy morning as I leave Jackson, Tennessee the next day, and my spirits have trampolined right back up. I’ve blown through Nashville before my coffee buzz wears off, and just as it does, I have some relaxing horse country to meander through for a while in Kentucky. Once in Ohio, I feel I’m in the home stretch for the day and after a brief roller coaster ride on the trestle bridges of West Virginia’s skinny northern panhandle and the harrowingly thin gauntlet of I-70 soon afterward, I’m home in western Pennsylvania, my stopping point for a while.

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Because 1500 miles is mere child’s play, I throw in a round trip to DC for good measure a few days after arriving in the Laurel Highlands of PA. I find Washington quite charming now that I no longer reside there, and I poke around Logan Circle and my old haunts for a day before returning to the mountains. I never tire of the route down or back through rural Maryland, and my heart leaps like it’s the first time I’ve seen the multicolored patchwork of farms that spread out below the plateaus I’ve traversed for decades.

I finally settle in at our house in the mountains, helping my parents with household tasks, walking in the woods, taking in several art exhibits in Pittsburgh, and sleeping with the windows thrown open every night, something impossible to do in Houston almost any time of year. One night, my mother calls down “The neighbor kids are having a bonfire – come see – it’s huge!” My father and I are talking, and we take our sweet time getting up to take a look. I immediately know it is no bonfire; in fact, I am sure the house next door is engulfed in an inferno. I see a structure burning inside the flames, flames that are suddenly twice as high as the house. We call 911 and await the fire engines from whatever VFD might respond way out here in the country. It’s a good 45 minutes and several small explosions later that the hose trucks finally arrive, and we learn that a camper has burned down to its frame, torching two other vehicles and consuming nearby trees in its fiery frenzy.

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I eventually leave the mountains and peaceful farms of western Pennsylvania for the mind numbing drive west to Chicago. There are no two turnpikes more deathly boring than those in Ohio and Indiana, and this is the only stretch of my thousands of miles that I would happily give up. I engage in painful nostalgia for several days in Illinois, even daring to drive past my house of 20+ years, but I also get a lot of things done that need doing. It’s a bittersweet stay, but I leave feeling okay that this is no longer my home. I have foolishly and poorly planned my driving days and end up viewing an 85% eclipse in a Walgreen’s parking lot instead of being in the zone of totality in southern Illinois, which I will drive very near the next day. (I’m usually a planner extraordinaire: I am clearly slipping.)

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The next day is a driving delight once I’ve passed St. Louis, itself one of those perennially stirring city visions as you first spy its famous arch from a bridge over the Mississippi. Southern Missouri brings the Ozarks and a winding highway carved into rough layers of limestone. There are other karst features to ogle, like springs and caves, but I can’t get enough of the stone cliffs that jut out of the heavy tree growth. I am in no hurry today, even knowing I have a long way to go to get into Northwest Arkansas. The old dog is a trooper, snoozing away in the back seat miles and weeks into our journey, as I dawdle down the highway.

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I’m filled with energy as I pull into Bentonville, Arkansas, nine hours later, so I decide to feed the dog and ditch her in the hotel to try to get into the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art before they close so I can view the Dale Chihuly outdoor sculptures at dusk.

 

The art in the woods is indescribable; how do you adequately explain glass balloons that peek out of tree limbs or a stand of purple light sabers in a clearing? Art ensconced in nature is my newest obsession, and I got two doses on this trip, the first in Pittsburgh’s Frick Museum greenhouse. Bentonville itself is picture perfect, probably because the Walton family helps keep it that way (I think cynically), and once again, I’m falling for Arkansas against all odds.

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The final day’s drive is a revelation – new ground for me, with the middle patch a rough and remote route. I mosey through university-town Fayetteville for an hour or so, scoop up my son from a business meeting, and then hug the western border of Arkansas as we head due south, later hopping the state line into Oklahoma and entering an unexpected world. We’re on some kind of old logging road that alternately climbs and then barrels downhill at irregular intervals, making my ears continually pop and my stomach lurch as we round each new bend and see jewel-toned valleys beyond precipitous drop-offs. If I’m lucky, I can squeak by the huge trucks piled with felled tree trunks; if not, I chug behind them on the uphills until they thunder ahead of me just over the crests. I see my first Cherokee Nation license plate, and I do not see a gas station or any services for many miles. It is a dramatic and wild expanse, the narrow road a gash in dark, forbidding hills, a segment where I am glad for some human company today.

But soon we’re back in north Texas and we eventually reconnect with the crazy rifle-range of a road that leads us back into Houston. Tonight, the traffic headed south is quite thin; it is the night before Harvey is due in town, and I celebrate these last hours of driving freedom before the deluge.

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Next week we are off on another road trip, this one of the European variety (sans dog) … be back soon!

When Will We Turn the Corner?

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I remember reading with childlike wonder Bama’s recent post about the watery paradise of Inle Lake in Myanmar. Never did I imagine that weeks later I would be living in similar surroundings or that my liquid world would have arisen due to a Biblical deluge that has left my city crippled for months and years to come.

Thankfully, my own home is still safe and largely dry, but our fellow citizens here in Houston are swimming out of their family homes and onto boats. Some are hacking through their attics with axes to reach their rooftops to wait for rescue. Our airport runway photos show wavelets reminiscent of the Mediterranean Sea, and our 10- and 12-lane interstates, viewed from above, could be river deltas.

The beautiful park I wrote about in my first weeks here is now submerged up to the treetops, and more water is expected in the bayous today, both rainfall and a controlled release of reservoir water to save upstream dams. When will it end? We had heard that the worst would be over by daybreak today, but there are sheets of rain lashing our windows as I type, and the Army Corps reservoir release has only just begun. My phone continues to blare out flood warnings, and the trees are whipping and waving dramatically hours after the last tornado threats.

We have all seen such horrible images on TV, in the papers, and online, so I leave you with some happier scenes from the last day of my recent 4000-mile road trip, completed as I pulled into the garage mere hours before Hurricane Harvey arrived. These Dale Chihuly sculptures are nestled in the forested trails of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Around every corner was another marvel – brighter, happier scenes for my troubled mind.

Let’s Talk About Arkansas

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At the edge of your seat? That’s what I thought. Here in the U.S., Arkansas does not get a great deal of respect outside its own borders. As one of the states ranking lowest in education, highest in levels of obesity – and perhaps because of the stereotypes based on those two facts – one of the least-visited states in the country, Arkansas strikes some as a sad little backwater full of banjo-strumming, catfish-eating rednecks down south somewhere. Don’t believe it.

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I’ve always gravitated to and been a champion of underdog locales, so I’m here to dispel some of the myths about Arkansas, one of the most naturally beautiful states in our country. Yes, it is; it really is! I started traveling to Arkansas a few years ago when my youngest son took a job in Little Rock, a place where he didn’t even want to interview but, once there, he embraced this artsy little city and threw himself into local affairs. Every time I visit, I find more to like, and it begins with the scenic appeal of the undulating, verdant topography.

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The Natural State has millions of acres of national forest land, including two mountain ranges, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. There are miles and miles of streams and rivers, the two biggest being the Arkansas and the Mississippi. Trails and campsites, dozens of lakes, caves, and even hot springs draw visitors and entertain locals alike. Boating, canoeing, fishing, and hiking are accessible almost from border to border with national and state parks galore, including one of the oldest and most visited parks in the country – Hot Springs National Park.

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Arkansas’s appeal goes beyond the great outdoors, though. Its capital, Little Rock, is a quirky little city, with quaint throwbacks like a streetcar system and ’50s era drugstores and barbershops side by side with spiffy bespoke tailors and well-groomed suburban shopping malls.

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Its distinctive neighborhoods are connected by a few main thoroughfares, and many are worth a drive-through and a stop – perhaps a morning farmer’s market in SoMa (the up-and-coming South Main Street area), then on to a Cajun lunch or taco in tiny Riverdale, a late afternoon latte in boho Hillcrest, dinner in the more stately Heights, then back downtown for a nightcap or some music.

Farther west, the houses are huge and the lawns are manicured, but the hilly roads are a constant, dipping and curving amid the ubiquitous tree-covered greenery, and biking and walking paths are also given all over the city, especially along the Arkansas River.

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Little Rock’s compact downtown boasts an array of live music venues, including a picturesque riverfront amphitheater, as well as a few tall corporate headquarters that assert LR is a real city, the usual mix of small local cafes and fancier big restaurants, art galleries, and new tech spaces. Old warehouses have been converted into stylish lofts, chic new condos and apartments are popping up here and there, and everything is a short walk away. For those so inclined, those strolls can take in the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, as well as the impressive Heifer International headquarters building and information center.

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Like any river town, Little Rock has a plethora of bridges – old railroad trestles, sparkling new spans, and my favorite (and best-named), the Big Dam Bridge. The latter is an engineering marvel to view and, even better, it’s in an area of woodsy trails and pedestrian bridges just minutes outside of downtown.

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There is much more to discover in Arkansas, and I have every intention of doing just that. Tops on my list is the Crystal Bridges Museum, a glass jewel box of American art nestled into the forests of Northwest Arkansas. Nearby is the charming town of Eureka Springs, as well as Fayetteville, home of the state university and a city I’ve always wanted to visit ever since novelist Ellen Gilchrist made it the home of her main character in The Annunciation (and herself in real life). In my mind, Fayetteville is a classic college town of bookshops and art stores, cafes and boutique shops, set amid the same rolling landscape I’ve already raved about, and it sounds like a perfect little base for the museum and hot springs visit, too.

If Arkansas is languishing near the bottom of your travel list, don’t be afraid – it’s not all razorback hogs, hillbillies, and moonshine! Come on down here and check it out – it really is a great blend of small-town charm and natural beauty.

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Daydreaming in the Delta

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We had covered Argentina from top to bottom, starting way up north at Iguazú Falls and winging it south almost to the tip of the continent to Patagonia. Bracketing those extremes were two stays in Buenos Aires, and this last one, for a few days before we finally flew home, was all about relaxation and absorbing all that we’d seen.

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We settled into our bohemian little neighborhood, Palermo Soho, and planned very little for the sultry days and nights we had remaining. We ambled slowly through the narrow streets, licking ice cream cones, drinking wine, and popping into shops and markets at our whim. We photographed the doors and the vibrant street art, napped at the pool, and then ate and drank some more.

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For one last outing, we roused ourselves to meet up with a business colleague who wanted to show us the town of Tigre and the Paraná Delta of waterways and islands that surrounds it. The area is a huge tangle of rivers and land covering over 5000 square miles, one of the biggest deltas in the world and one of the few that do not empty into an ocean. Here, the milky, muddy Paraná River splits into innumerable smaller channels and forms an ever-changing pattern of sediment-built, tree-covered islands.

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We glide along in our gleaming, polished wood boat, brushed occasionally by willow branches and slipping in and out of sunlight. There are occasional signs that the delta was once both more and less than it is now. Belle époque-style buildings grace the shores closer to Tigre itself, and there are glimpses of larger houses hiding behind some of the modest, multi-colored cottages on stilts that line the shore.

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As we chug lazily toward the Rio de la Plata, the river that divides Argentina and Uruguay, the little spits of land become more remote, and we can almost imagine the days when jaguars roamed here, giving their name (tigres) to the area. Tree branches cast their flickering shadows on the water, and the deeper we go off the main streams, the more we feel we’re on a Heart of Darkness kind of journey. All of us are lost in our own thoughts, staring dreamily at the languid water, as we work our way farther into the mysterious estuary and become more and more removed from the frenetic pace of modern life.

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As we leave the tour boat channels, we crack one lazy eye open to watch local families spread laundry and other belongings in yards and on docks, and see lithe, sun-kissed children leap like dancers from launch to moorings. Mail boats, water taxis, and grocery dinghies ply these unhurried canals, and rudimentary cafes hide among the foliage; we would never find them without our native friend.

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Around a bend in the river, we part the leaves of some overhanging trees and pull up to a weathered dock. We clamber out of the boat, climb the stairs, and are greeted by a man in shorts and little else. Our host knows the ropes and orders quickly for us: a bucketful of icy beers and a couple of margarita pizzas, which arrive with a mound of the freshest, greenest basil I’ve ever seen piled on top.

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Sated and groggier than we were when we stopped, we pile back into the launch and begin the hour-long ride back to the marina. As we bob and skim back through the waterways, we awake from our floating dream and reenter the world of bigger boats, river commerce, tourists, and finally, roads and cars. Our lazy day in Tigre and the Delta is our final memory of Argentina and a great way to finish off the otherwise bustling city of Buenos Aires.

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Transient, Fickle, or Genetically Mutant?

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This past spring, I left one of the most transient cities I’ve ever lived in; every few years, entire apartments and office buildings turn over, and a fresh crop of hopeful newcomers arrives in Washington, DC. Of course, there are plenty of career folks in town, and people working outside the government, but my take on my year in DC was that everyone was a short-timer, and those transient residents did not want or need new friends. Feeling temporary myself, I made little effort to settle in, and 2016 ended up being one of the loneliest years of my life as I insisted on leaving the city every chance I got.

The funny thing is that I thought I loved impermanence and being on the move. For decades, I dreamed of moving and, even more radically, of becoming nomadic in some form. I am so comfortable traveling and making myself feel at home all over the world that I thought this was the life that suited me best, not the stable, boring, predictable life I had.

Could I have been wrong all along? For that year, at least, I suffered without good friends. I pined for my familiar, tiny grocery store. I became cranky without all my belongings. I realized I had grown roots that were way deeper and stronger than I knew, and when I cavalierly ripped them out of their home soil, I killed something I had undervalued.

So we left DC and resettled more permanently in yet another place, and some of those tethers and connections have begun to repair themselves. I have formed an eclectic group of friends and have grown fond of my house, my neighborhood, and my new city at large. So why am I suddenly, eagerly reading articles about vanlife and people in motor homes with an alarming level of interest? Is that foot that is always poised over the threshold responsible for the weeks-long European road trip I recently put together for the fall?

In the middle of all this thinking about transience and fickleness, berating myself for my grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side attitude, I happened across an article on the so-called “wanderlust gene,” a mutation of the DRD4 gene that helps control dopamine and, thus, learning and reward. If the desire to explore and roam does lie within our genome, it may be the DRD4-7r variant that is the cause of our restlessness, according to dozens of studies that have been published in the last few years, and an astonishing 20% of us might carry it. I like this idea! It’s not a character flaw; it’s in my genetic makeup to seek change and movement!

As I ponder the reasons for always wanting to be where I am not, I leave you with these photos of some of the most transient people on earth – the nomads who live on the Mongolian steppe – and their portable homes. They have moved four times since I left them last summer, and I’ve almost kept up with them, leaving two houses and moving to a third in that time. I plan to stay put for at least another season, but after that anything’s fair game!

Friends on Foot

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I wake up, groaning, in a 35-degree lodge, my stomach in spasms, and my head pounding at an altitude of nearly 14,000 feet, a good week into the Everest Base Camp trek in Nepal. How am I going to do this today, I wonder? Teeth chattering, I dress and stumble out to the small dining room, thinking about how I can tell the guide I can’t possibly go up another 1000 feet or more this morning. And then a guy from Alaska pushes a bowl of warm oatmeal and a mug of coffee at me and gently encourages me to eat. A young woman leaves her mom’s side as we get up from the table and commiserates about my cramps, and our guide slaps me five as we gingerly step into a snowy, misty morning. You’re looking good, Miss Lexie – ready to go? And indeed, there I went, held up by people I didn’t even know when I landed in Kathmandu two weeks before.

Tramping across this Earth has been one of the highlights of my life and, more often than not, I have been introduced to new lands in the company of strangers. Even when I have set off with family members or existing friends, I have collected what I always call “my hiking friends,” people I’ve met on the trail who become fast friends for as long as the trek lasts, and sometimes longer.

On rare occasions, those people become real friends, and some have joined me on future walks. While others do eventually slip away and become simply holiday card recipients or pleasant memories, there is a small circle of us, including a few guides, who will always be connected long after we left the pathways.

My husband and kids tease me about my hiking friends, wondering how I can become so attached to people with whom I have spent a mere week or two. But a week of post-hike beers and dinners gives friendship formation a power boost, and believe me, three days in camps with no showers and one toilet tent creates an intimacy one rarely experiences with friends at home! In a matter of days, we think nothing of sharing our trail food or embarrassing stories, and we take care of each other in ways that belie the brief life of our relationship.

Every step of the budding bond is accelerated when we spend our waking hours chatting on a tough mountain track and our evenings sharing meals, pains, and more life stories. Most of us are in the early-impressions phase of trying to be agreeable and supportive, and friendship blooms quickly and easily with those who are open to it.

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In the last decade, I have met my Nepal hiking friends for a ski trip in Utah and reunited with them on the Paine Circuit in Chile, hosted my Tanzanian guide in our home in Chicago, gone back to Peru and linked up with my Inca Trail guides again for some smaller walks on my own, and recently had another Himalayan hiking friend over for dinner here in Houston. They may not be my everyday pals, but my hiking friends and I have a singular connection that I cannot share with anyone else, and my life is richer for them.

A Sunday Drive

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It’s a summer weekend several decades ago, and my dad is seeking company for his customary Sunday activity: a drive in the country. As usual, I am the only taker. Sometimes we look at houses, occasionally we explore new areas, but most of the time we just drive out into the country and admire the rustic fences, the barns, the crops, and above it all, the sweeping sky. We chat or we don’t, and we inevitably end up at a Dairy Queen for a twist cone at the end of the day. These yawning days are among my favorite childhood memories.

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Flash forward, and there is still something about an unscheduled Sunday that cries out for a jaunt in the car. Yesterday I answered the call, and we loaded the vehicle with the dog, some water, and a few snacks, and headed northwest from Houston to enjoy a spectacular spring day on the road.

Our destination is the perfect distance away (less than two hours) and has an additional attraction; a town called Bryan, Texas, named after my distant relative, William Jennings Bryan. Three-time presidential candidate (and perpetual loser), secretary of state, famed orator, and attorney both admired and ridiculed, Bryan is a direct ancestor on my father’s side of the family. Hailing from Illinois originally, but a long-time resident of Nebraska (where my grandfather was born), Bryan somehow left his mark quite deeply in Texas, where he owned a winter home and farm.

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The journey itself ends up being the enchantment. The sky is a blue bed of white puffballs, and the early crops are a cheerful lemon-green. Rural fences always rope me in, and today is no exception. We see white pickets, split rails, and dark wood dividers on both sides of the road. We get off the main highway as often as possible and keep swerving off onto the berm to photograph the ranch gates, both simple and elaborate, along the way. We follow the web of farm-to-market (FM) routes, observing the network of roads that physically connect rural America to our large cities.

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My husband eats a Texas-sized beef brisket sandwich at a popular BBQ joint at 11 am, halfway through the drive out, and is still sated when we arrive home in the late afternoon. We stop at a famous rest stop/gas station to fuel up at bargain prices and peruse the outlandish array of paraphernalia available there, from fresh fudge to hot dogs, homemade kolaches to every bag snack you’ve ever heard of, stuffed animals to camouflage gear, and the “cleanest restrooms in America.”

The historic town of Bryan is closed down on this Sunday afternoon, which is fitting given William Jennings’ religious bent later in life. We wander through the downtown streets for a few blocks anyway and then load the old pooch back in the car and retrace our route back to the big city.

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We’ve accomplished little, but we’ve temporarily cleared our heads in all that fresh air and sprawling land. Unfortunately, mine is now spinning with thoughts, reflecting on presidents and populations, of byways and barriers. This is what most of America looks like geographically, even as the majority of our population moves into urban environments.

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In Bryan’s day and our recent past, this dichotomy did not seriously threaten our cohesion as a nation; in fact, those FM roads connected more than just farmers and our city tables. But now our differences, the other kinds of fences we have put up at home and around the world, have helped to create the calamity of our current leadership.

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While I was piloting and pondering, France was rejecting a vision of the world where a nation can only house one type of person, where only the market-makers matter, and where outside interference can amplify those differences and scare people into a frightening, reactionary decision. We were not so careful or clear-headed here, but my hope is that the strong French results will somehow nudge the world back onto the kind of road that connects rather than divides.

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Warning Signs

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Yolyn Am canyon was a welcome stop in our exploration of Mongolia last summer. We had been on the steppe for over a week, baking under the Eurasian high summer sun, and we were headed to the even hotter Gobi Desert when we boarded a tiny propeller plane for the south and the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains.

From flat, scrubby expanses, we arrived in a deep, cool gorge for an invigorating hike inside towering walls. Yolyn Am (named after the yol, or lammergeyer, a vulture-like bird) is known in part for its ice field that lingers well into the summer, and we saw remnants of this as we criss-crossed a running stream at the base of the canyon.

Although the hike was lengthy and we had to pick our way carefully in some of the narrower stretches, there was only minor danger encountered that day. Nevertheless, we got a huge kick out of all the warning or admonitory signs on our way into the trailhead! Can you determine what to watch out for or refrain from doing here?

Turning Childhood Memories into Wanderlust

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Are we nuts? I scowled at my husband, as we boarded the plane and crammed ourselves and three little kids into the economy seats of a plane bound for London. We had put our farther-flung travels on hold for the toddler years, but now it was time to load everybody up and start seeing the world through fresh young eyes.

We soon found we had nothing to fear. From takeoff that summer day, we discovered our kids were born to travel. They entertained themselves or slept the entire flight, they stayed up all the next day until bedtime, and they believed me when I said there was no such thing as jet lag, spending all of day two on their feet, in the tube, in the parks and museums and churches and shops, and they topped it off with a night at the theater. They were 5, 8 and 10 years old; I have to say I was pretty impressed.

We stayed with friends in London and started some great travel memories, the kind of recollections kids have of their trips, not necessarily the kind adults and travel bloggers write about. They remember minding the gap as we rode back and forth into the city, gawking at the torture devices in the Tower of London, snuggling a new Paddington Bear toy, and the sheer magnitude of choices at the food court at Harrods. They remember the crushing crowds at the theater, but not much about the play. They recall it being scorching hot outside Big Ben and Parliament, but nothing about the places themselves.

Paris was next, via the Eurostar train through the chunnel, a ride that is still remembered for the orange juice that was spilled on my daughter’s white sweater rather than for the transportation wonder that it was. Strongest memory of the Eiffel Tower? The awful pizza – who puts weird mushrooms on pizza, they cried! (Who eats in the Eiffel Tower, we should have been asking.) Continental toilets were the subject of many a journal entry; my oldest was intrigued with the different flushing mechanisms, the water flow, the seats – you name it; he cataloged it.

Notre Dame is remembered for its roof and the winding stairs that got them there; back then you could go the whole way up, and we spent well over an hour looking out over the rooftops, but no one has any memory of going inside. Parisian cuisine? They ordered steak frites or jambon et fromage sandwiches at every single restaurant for every single meal (except for that sad Eiffel Tower pizza). We rented a spacious apartment decades before AirBnb, and they remember … the lobby.

The French countryside brought new delights. What kid would not love Mont St Michel and the idea that we could be stranded there when the tide came in? Forget the abbey; that natural moat was the cool part. Dinard was a charming beach town, but here they had the coziest, whitest beds, all three crammed together in a toile-covered room, and that Grand Hotel may still be their favorite hotel in the world. Monet’s garden delighted my daughter, perhaps in part for its flowers and green benches, but mostly because she remembered she had gotten out of a day of preschool to attend the Monet exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago with me years before. And, to them, the D-Day beaches represented the end of a different kind of World War: a huge fight between mom and dad over asking for directions! (To be honest, that hours-long argument and the driving in circles all over Normandy are my strongest memories of that historic place as well.)

Belgium brought panic and a three-way police lookout when we sailed through a toll area without paying the toll (by accident) and the kids were certain we would be arrested, but it also brought one of the most relaxing afternoons we had, meandering though Bruges, eating chocolates and posing on every little stone bridge we crossed.

Our final destination, the Netherlands, where my brother was living with his family, is somewhat properly remembered for our visit to Anne Frank’s house, an evening canal cruise, and the pannenkoeken houses, but what they would say really sticks in their minds is the stone their cousin threw at our youngest’s head in their backyard. Or the porn movie that came on as my brother tried to change the TV channel. Or the girls in the windows in the red light district, which they struggled to comprehend. Or the topless beach near Scheveningen.

Ahem, there is a theme developing there, but it was a different kind of lust that was growing in the kids on that first big trip. Today, those little tykes have a wanderlust that matches their mother’s, and I think all those mundane memories of other countries were the spark. All three kids spent some portion of their college lives overseas, continued to travel with us for many years, have worked overseas in Israel, Ireland, South Africa, Ghana and Malawi, and now take their own road and train and bus trips, wrangling their friends and significant others to step away from home to create more silly, random memories.

Happy in Houston – Part 1

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After almost a month in Houston, I am surprised and not surprised at how quickly I have regained my happiness. Houston is one of those cities – and Texas one of those states – that elicit sneers and grunts from those who don’t know them. I endured my share of puzzled reactions when we excitedly announced that we would be leaving Chicago and Washington, DC, for the Bayou City, so my goal is to surprise my readers with some of the great things about my new hometown.

One of my favorite first impressions is the incredible outdoor link between my neighborhood and the city. Buffalo Bayou Park is a green space stretching for about two miles from the Montrose neighborhood to the edge of downtown Houston. There are bike paths, walking trails, a skate park, kayak rentals, disc golf, a dog park, and more, all nestled into a ribbon of land on both sides of Buffalo Bayou. Houstonia magazine called the park, finished less than two years ago, “Houston’s new front porch,” and that it is; from morning to night, people ply the paths, sit on the benches, and otherwise savor the outdoors here, just in front of the skyscrapers that stretch for block after block downtown.

My new morning routine is becoming a short walk or drive to the park, followed by a brisk hike, jog, or bike ride within the green confines. I can spend 30 minutes, an hour, or longer winding my way through the spring wildflowers on the banks of the bayou, watching dogs frolic in the Ritz Carlton of dog enclosures, or passing under the Waugh bat bridge, where thousands of Mexican freetail bats emerge and soar against the city backdrop each evening. I can stay low and close to the water’s edge and disappear into nature, or I can ride higher on the paths, closer to street level, and stop at any of a number of sculptures, fountains, gardens, or memorials.

One of the coolest surprises here is that the park was designed with the knowledge that it would flood. In Houston’s tropical climate, rains can be heavy, and the bayous and streets flood numerous times each year. Engineers took into account the fact that waters would rise up to and occasionally above the top of the bayou banks, so they placed electrical lines above the floodplain and used materials like raw concrete and galvanized steel that could hold up under water.

The lower paths are often sandy after a downpour, but the walkways and bike lanes were designed to be easy to sweep clean. Buffalo Bayou Park is built along a natural body of water that is an integral part of the city’s drainage system, so park planners also planted native grasses, trees, and wildflowers whose roots would absorb water underground.

Beyond the practical results of all this planning, the design and flora create a natural habitat for wildlife and make the park feel like a real refuge from urban life. The biggest and most wonderful surprise of all, though, is the moment when you crest one of the graceful park bridges and see before you a bucolic, riparian scene: a trio of kayaks slipping away from a rough, natural shoreline, framed by flowering trees and bordered by shady pathways – all reflected in the shiny spires of the city skyline. The city and nature coexist here in the most surprising and wonderful way, and this park has fast become one of my favorite parts of my new life here in Houston.

Mementos, Boxes, and Some Advice

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They were so cute and innocuous at the beginning. When I first started traveling, I collected little knick-knacks from all around the world – miniature Greek vases, blown-glass penguins, and way too many little plates with Fox Glacier, the New York City skyline, or Dutch windmills etched and painted and stamped all over them. I was even on an animal kick for a few years; I bought a felt camel in Abu Dhabi, a carved wood llama from Peru, a leather giraffe in Tanzania, and a wooly sheep figure from Patagonia. My shelves and other furniture were soon housing a menagerie, and I felt like I was living in a trinket shop.

I’m not a clutter fan; I like my rooms (mostly) spare and my surfaces (mostly) bare. When I got tired of all the little tchotchkes, I cleared many of them away (into boxes … mistake!) and began buying fewer, but bigger and nicer, things: a rug, a wall-mounted kudu head made out of paper, an Alpine cowbell, a chief’s basket, larger pieces of art and, my favorite, a Buddha head from Tibet. I carefully selected only one thing on each trip, and it either had a function or added some artistic value to my home, reminding me every day of some of the fascinating places I’d been.

But if there is ever a time to reassess one’s acquisitiveness, it is before and after a whole residence has to be stuffed into boxes. The prayer wheel made the cut (good karma), but the Delft dishes did not. The Mongolian yak rope is just too cool to ditch, but the Ghanaian coasters had to go. Some of the bigger things are making my new house feel like home, but I remain overwhelmed by the smaller stuff emerging from boxes, some packed months or even years ago. I wince every time I encounter another little “gift” of packing paper wrapped around some small, unknown object.

When we prepared to leave Chicago, we rented a dumpster and pitched pound after pound of household junk inside, and we took anything clean, attractive, or usable to Goodwill. So how did I arrive here in Houston with more boxes of paperweights and tapestries, jeweled trays and woven hats that I hadn’t seen in years? I start the assessments again: OK, the boomerang can stay, but where am I supposed to put this leather drum and that teak bowl? Let’s just say I’ve already found a donation spot here, and they know my face and car well after two weeks in town.

Whether you’re a traveler or not, or a shopper or not, may I suggest you start cleaning your house or apartment out now? It’s really not a fun job, and it’s even less amusing when you’re under the gun and/or your significant other has trouble parting with things (see: Maasai spear). Luckily, in recent years, all I have really wanted to take home with me from my travels are memories and experiences. In many ways, this blog is now my travel memento, a repository for recollections, feelings, and affection for the places I’ve been. Best of all, it will not ever need to be put into or taken out of a box. I don’t ever want to see another box.

A Wild Ride on the Roof of the World

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We are nearing Day Zero, the day we drive away from one house and start the move to another, so I’m posting an entry from my blog’s earliest days today. The perspective from atop the world, almost literally, does my mind good at this bittersweet time.

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Driving in countries around the world is always an adventure. From the careening traffic on the autobahn and the peripherique, to the stop-and-go progress on a Scottish Highlands road full of sheep, to the heart-attack cliffs with no guardrails in mountains the world over, there is always a story about our international brothers’ driving habits. Penjo, our driver on the Friendship Highway – the route across the Tibetan Plateau (the “Roof of the World”) from Tibet to Nepal – was no exception.

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We left Lhasa early one morning for a cross-country adventure in a 4WD Mitsubishi SUV. A few hours out of Lhasa, we experienced the first of many so-called “pee breaks” which were really designed for our guide, Pasang, and our driver, Penjo, to take a smoking break. Timed passage on the road also meant that if we were going to arrive at a checkpoint too early, we had to either slow down or stop and wait until the time was OK. (This happened at every checkpoint since the law, meant to slow drivers down, really seemed to signify “drive as fast as humanly possible and then stop and wait until enough time has passed.”) Even using this finely-tuned strategy, Penjo managed to get a speeding ticket as we approached Shigatse, a hellhole (at least at that time) we discovered we should have been in no hurry to reach anyway.

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Getting to our hotel and dinner in Shigatse was like a barrel race as we were stymied by street after street under construction. We drove in circles through an apocalyptic landscape, a bombed-out scene of heavy construction equipment and vehicle-swallowing holes in the powdery streets. Penjo showed some serious moxie by driving on sidewalks, down one-way streets, in front of bulldozers, and through numerous barricades. Shigatse is a dusty town by nature, and all this earth-moving and car maneuvering left a deep coat of grime on the Pajero and a sneeze-inducing mass of dust in our nostrils.

The next day, after lunch in Tingri, we turned off onto a dirt road for the next three hours. This was a true washboard road, with constant ridges and bumps, along with switchbacks, steep climbs and descents, and barely two lanes across. Penjo did not disappoint, spending large periods of time on the oncoming traffic side of the road and squealing to dustcloud-raising stops in the loose gravel, precipitously close to various drop-offs, as he attempted to pass large trucks, SUVs and, really, any moving vehicle, beast, or human on the road. Penjo finally slowed down and the air finally cleared as we crossed our third and final high pass for the day at 17,500 feet, with a view of the entire Tibetan Himalaya range, including Makalo, Lhotse, Everest, and Cho Oyu.

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On our way back to Lhasa, we took a different route through a gorge along the Brahmaputra River. Penjo was at his finest today, offroading anytime the main road was closed. In Tibet, barricades indicating road closures are apparently simply something to drive around. This road was clearly closed, but Penjo decided we would take it anyway, which meant that at certain points we had to totally drive off the highway and go through pastures, fields, and people’s property. Many others had the same idea, including giant 18-wheelers! Penjo passed semis in a blur of dirt, drove through sagebrush, which we dragged along behind us until it shook loose, and swerved even more than usual.

Penjo’s driving was truly a thing to behold, with brake slamming, high speeds then incredibly slow ones, random veering, and aggressive crowding of other vehicles. Somehow we never worried too much; we decided people here drive like maniacs and have constant near accidents but never any actual accidents. At one point, Penjo almost nailed a dzo, but neither he nor the female owner of the dzo seemed the least bit perturbed as he screeched to a halt mere inches from the animal in the middle of the road.

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Penjo was a soft-spoken (Tibetan language only) man who was quite mild-mannered out of the vehicle. He had a sweet, shy smile and since we are alive to tell the tale, we have only the fondest memories of him!

More posts on our Tibetan adventures:

A Love Affair with Lhasa

Face of a Pilgrim

Not for the Squeamish

Tobacco Road

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“Walk to the end of this road. When you see a bakery, make a slight left onto a dirt path, and when you get to a building, ask for Benito.” These were our instructions for a DIY tour of a tobacco farm just outside of Viñales, a small town in western Cuba that we were visiting for a few days. It sounded a bit vague, a bit sketchy, and a bit unlikely that we’d find someone on site, but we were game.

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Upon arrival by bus that morning, we had stopped into the local tourist office to try and arrange an outing. We wanted to hike, and we wanted to see a tobacco farm and learn how cigars were made. To our dismay, all of the trips were bundles of disparate activities, all crammed into 4-hour excursions that covered many things – none well. Our choices ended up being (a) to take a waterfall/cave/hiking/tobacco farm/horseback riding junket with a group, or (b) to improvise and find a farm and a hike on our own.

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At the third agency I visited, I exasperatedly asked the salesman if we could just find a farm and stop by, and to my amazement, he said yes and told me about Benito’s place just outside of town. After a quick lunch, I roped in my skeptical travel mates and we traipsed off to find it.

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And it worked! We straggled onto the property just as a small van of visitors was leaving, and impertinently asked if we could have our own tour. We were welcomed graciously and taken around to all of the barns and other buildings involved in growing, drying, and rolling tobacco for cigars.

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They charged us nothing and even shared a cigar and a “white coffee” (coffee laced with rum) with us at the end. We tipped them generously, bought some cigars to take home, snapped a few more photos, and went on our merry way after the easiest and most personalized tobacco farm tour we could have hoped for.

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A Graceful Turn to the Future

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I was feeling unsettled about my trip to Cuba even before it was time to step onto the plane a few weeks ago. The inscrutable little island had been near the top of my travel wish list for years. It had originally wormed its way into my consciousness through my reading and the stories of Cuban exiles I knew and admired, particularly my thesis advisor, who is vexed to this day about his native country. Cuba had an aura of impenetrability – both physical and psychological – that made it all the more attractive to me as a travel choice.

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Suddenly, though, Cuba seemed to be everyone’s new destination, and I was feeling peevish about that and my own life situation. Getting in before now had required joining a group, and I balked at paying the exorbitant fees and traveling as part of a package tour, so I stifled my desire and waited. As soon as individual entry was allowed, I jumped to make a plan, but after a Christmas break full of sorting and packing, dumpsters and goodbyes, I was utterly exhausted and cranky going into the trip, so that “plan” was quite vague. Basically, we (my sister and I and each of our daughters) had two cities in mind and a few Airbnbs booked. Luckily, this works just fine in Cuba!

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My first surprise was finding Havana light on Americans, but perhaps we avoided them with our choice of accommodations and activities. The throngs of tourists I expected (based on fawning articles, recent Instagram photos, and Facebook posts, all brimming with classic cars and peeling paint) did not materialize in our neighborhood or most places we visited. We spent our first three nights ensconced in a seedy building on a bustling local street, our dingy metal door right next to a window with Fidel’s portrait overseeing a small display of outdated ladies underwear. We loved it!

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A second (less thrilling) revelation was the need to stand in lines. I remembered, idiotically, that this was actually still a Communist country, and we started the endless queuing before we even left the airport, spending almost an hour waiting to exchange euros for CUCs. We stood outside state-run establishments, and we warily eyed the disorderly hordes outside the Etecsa offices waiting to buy internet cards.

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All the waiting, then buying supplies at shockingly under-stocked stores, and then waiting some more – all with no wifi since we stubbornly resisted the crowds – helped us understand the daily ordeals of the Cuban population even as the new, secondary economy grows almost daily. There are so many signs that change is coming or almost here, yet so many reminders that it really is not. As a traveler, I wondered which one I wanted? And then I wondered which one they wanted.

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Those three days exploring Havana were my favorites of the trip. Our apartment in Havana Centro was forbidding on the outside, but very clean and comfortable inside. We were able to walk most places, including the Malecón (which we were lucky to see on the first day as it became inaccessible after a fierce storm on day 2),

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Photo credit: K. Klein

Havana Vieja and all its charming small streets and plazas,

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and central Havana (which included the most unique restaurant visit of my life – chronicled here).

View from our Havana Centro apartment

View from our Havana Centro apartment

We dined at a classic state-run place that involved over an hour’s line-up outside, made a failed attempt to tour the Partagás cigar factory, and took numerous taxi rides all over the bigger-than-expected city in everything from utilitarian and supremely uncomfortable Russian Ladas to chugging and wheezing 1951 Plymouths or 1948 Buicks with no door handles, seat cushioning, or in one case, windows.

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After a foray into the tobacco-growing countryside (future post), we returned to Havana to experience a different part of town. This was to be our splurge – two nights in an old colonial house in what was billed as Havana’s poshest neighborhood. We were giddy with excitement after our humble digs in central Havana and Viñales. We had booked a place that showed white columns, a manicured lawn, a small pool, and huge rooms in the Playa/Miramar area. We pictured ourselves sashaying into Club Havana in cute sundresses and gleefully ogled the few fancy houses we saw from the bus windows on the way back into town.

Expectations are everything, as I’ve cautioned in previous posts, and those cheap places in Havana Centro and rural Viñales exceeded them: Hairdryers! Semi-modern bathrooms! What a deal! About to pay four times as much money, we fantasized about the luxuries we’d get in this fancy house in its stylin’ neighborhood … we would see the pre-revolution lifestyle of wealthy Habaneros up close and personal.

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Good from far but far from good

Then we rolled up to the place. The columns looked good from the street, the grass was green, and there were some palm trees,

but we entered our grand house to find mildewy rooms, cloyingly heavy decorating, open showers that sprayed the whole bathroom, NO POOL (filled in with concrete per government edict), no hairdryers, truly bizarre art (think wild cats in Shakespearean ruffles), abominable crumbling structures next door, few commercial establishments, and cold, gray, windy weather (the only part not their fault).

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Lounging by the concrete pool

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Our rooftop view

We salvaged the stay, finding another fun state-run outdoor restaurant nearby one night and paying 10 CUCs (US$10) for a day at the beach and pool at Club Havana (which looked nice enough but was eerily empty, with no visitors other than us and a middle-aged Russian lady in a bikini).

After two piña coladas each, we were finally feeling like the socialites and celebrities who’d hummed along to Frank Sinatra here in the 1940s and ‘50s … until our driver rolled up to fetch us in his rattletrap car and we crammed in and bounced our way back to the casa to the beats of 2017 Cuban hip-hop.

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Contrary to some opinions and the fears of those who can’t get to Cuba fast enough, there was little to suggest that this place is going to change inexorably in the coming months. It can be both charming and maddening at the same time, and the quirks that make it that way are not going to be ironed out overnight, for good or for bad. Like one of its famous classical ballerinas, Cuba is turning slowly, carefully, even gracefully, toward its new future – no sudden lurches, no wholesale jumps into a new reality.

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It’s a fascinating place, and when I stopped asking myself why and when, or good or bad, it delivered. I was being a terrible travel snob, I realized, and all those colorful car and fading façade photos that had seemed like overblown clichés before I went were authentic representations of Cuban life today. As my daughter said one afternoon as we snapped our 17,000th photo of a classic car against a crumbling building, “This just never gets old, does it?”

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Confounded by Cuba

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Complete coverage of last week’s trip to Cuba requires some additional digestion on my part; the full impact of this enigmatic country is much more confounding than I would have imagined based on others’ posts or my pre-trip reading. One place in particular, though, captured the range of impressions Havana leaves on the uninitiated: the fresh new ideas bursting from ruin, the colors, tastes and sounds that thrive amid decay and neglect, an ambience that is not easily explained or understood.

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We’ve been told by numerous friends and other tipsters about an amazing restaurant housed in an older building in central Havana. Unable to book a table for any evening we are in town, we persevere by showing up at the place at lunchtime opening hours. We approach the address on shabby streets and pull up short at a door that exposes a scene of extreme disarray. Scaffolding, piles of bricks and boards, sunlight streaming into cavernous rooms open to the sky, and a staircase that looks as if it might or might not bear our weight. We’re going to eat food here? my sister asks, incredulously.

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The building, a former mansion subdivided into what is now a partially abandoned tenement, unfolds from an entry flanked by two thick wooden doors crackling with dried paint.

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Greeted by a headless goddess and a view of a forsaken hallway, we take our first steps upward, turning to view our progress from time to time.

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At the second level, we stop, mouths agape at a surreal scene of row upon row of flapping white fabric in a vast room of open windows. We feel as if we’ve stumbled on an art installation of some sort, perhaps an entry in the Whitney Biennial, not the simple airing of tablecloth and napkin laundry from the restaurant above, as we discover on closer inspection and a stroll through the fluttering cloth.

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We continue our ascent slowly, savoring each surprise as it reveals itself. Ornate curlicues on the banisters (part with handrails, part without), an opening to an atrium, a bulky thing (sculpture?) on a landing, columns and arches, graffiti and water tanks.

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On the third floor, we finally reach the restaurant, as surprising in its elegance and finished state as a pearl in an oyster. We are in luck; we can have a table if we finish in less than two hours. We are fast-eating Americans; this is not a problem!

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The meal is excellent, the surroundings beautiful and relaxing. But this story is not about the establishment; it is about the unveiling of it. Like Cuba itself at this moment in history, the restaurant rises from long neglect to newfound stardom, from Communist-era living space to privately-owned paladar. The old-new friction can seem raw, and I found myself wanting to keep parts of Cuba covered up, protected from what is coming, preserved in its imperfect, faded, messy splendor.

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But that’s not my call, any more than it is to want the opposite – for parts of this inefficient, maddening place to get it together at times throughout my week there. After a week, Cuba is more of a mystery to me than it was before I went, and this building and restaurant epitomize the unpredictable dual nature of the travel world’s new darling. More to come as I try to make sense of my feelings about this bewildering place.

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It has long been my practice to avoid naming specific places of business in my blog posts. If you are headed to Havana and simply have to see this marvelous place, please send me a message at my blog email address (in the About section) and I will happily respond!

Boomerang!

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It’s a warm place (I looove warmth), it offers easy access to a whole Spanish-speaking continent (which I’ve only half explored), the city is now considered the most ethnically diverse in the U.S. (that means great culture, cuisine and more), housing is pretty affordable (I can’t wait to make a true home again), there are real neighborhoods less than 1-2 miles from downtown (urban feel with a little grass on the side), the restaurant scene is hopping (I love to eat out), U.S. flights are almost all of reasonable length (for reaching the kids and other family), overall cost of living is low (and there’s no state income tax), the museums and medical services are of world-class quality (for good times and bad), there is more green space than in any other top 10 U.S. metro area (we need that outdoor fix of walking and biking), and … you get it: we are pretty damn excited about our next home.

Ten months ago, I moved halfway across the U.S. from Chicago to Washington, DC, and now, with great excitement, we are making a wide U-turn and heading back to the Central Time Zone. Not to our original city, but to a whole different terrain and personality: Houston, Texas!

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I know lots of you are groaning “ugh … I was expecting something really great!” Well, we think Houston is really great. Like any place, big swaggering Texas has its negatives, but this move I am focused on pure positives, like all those things listed above. Add in the fact that Houston was the site of my very first real job assignment decades ago, and the place where I met my future husband, and we feel like winners to have scored a great job (for my husband) back in the Lone Star State, which I lauded on the blog a few years ago, incidentally.

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Less than two months from now, I’ll be unpacking another truck, and soon after, I’ll be selling you all on my new locale. You will like Houston when I’m done with you! Meanwhile, I’m off to Cuba this week to start off my year in another warm place, trying to put a rough 2016 behind me.

Happy New Year to all!

Out with the Old, In with the New!

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Is it the nature of things (or simply me and my itchy feet?) that just as I have (semi-happily) settled into my newest environment that I should suddenly find ahead of me a tantalizing new horizon? Its confirmation awaits the final details … stay tuned until after the holidays on this one!

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Meanwhile, 2016 – an annus horribilis for me in many ways – is nearing an end. The year started in a fine way, with a trip to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia, followed soon after by a much-needed solo trip to Nicaragua. Things were looking good – back-to-back Latino-flavored trips in my favorite kind of weather – warm!

Unfortunately, the latter getaway was bookended by (much) less relaxing journeys to take care of my ailing mother. February/March followed up with a relocation from long-time home Chicago to less-than-eagerly-anticipated Washington, DC., and the beginning of multiple back-and-forth drives between those two cities, usually with elderly dog in tow, for the next few months.

I did get a few kicks out of hoodwinking many of you for April Fool’s Day, and I also escaped to Aspen, Colorado, for a glorious string of days in the mountains, even as I struggled with sleeplessness (so not me!) in a bad bed, myriad frustrations in a tiny apartment with non-functional appliances, and a decline in health and fitness in my new urban lifestyle.

Summer brought another series of trips to and from the new DC residence, the old house in Illinois, and the parents’ house in Pennsylvania, but again, the stress of this peripatetic lifestyle, and worries about aging parents and dog, were salved by one of the most amazing trips of my lifetime – to Mongolia – chronicled in an embarrassment of posts in August. Two little side trips to Seoul rounded out that month quite nicely!

I bitched about DC more than I should have (in spite of landing a great new job at American University), lived vicariously through my daughter and her stint in Ghana this fall, and then finally came to terms with Washington by late autumn, just in time to contemplate leaving for greener pastures!

I plan to enjoy my family and our soon-to-be-listed home in Chicago over the holidays and just afterward, I will pop into Cuba for a week before facing head-on the next wave of changes about to wash over me. It’s all good – this time I’m up for the ride! Can’t wait to tell you more about it!

 

 

The Magic Outside my Door

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It’s no secret that I’ve been a reluctant transplant to Washington, DC, for the last nine months, and that was well before all the upheaval of the last few weeks. In my brain, I know it’s a beautiful city, but there was something in my heart that wouldn’t let me fully embrace this place.

Washington is filled with limestone facades and mansard roofs I would rave about if they were in Paris. Streets with colorful row houses lined up under flowering trees fill my vibrant urban neighborhood, yet I desultorily snap photos of them and never look at them again. Impressive statues spring from a plethora of green parks, rowers ply the sparkling Potomac in slim shells, and gothic spires pierce the sky from Georgetown to Cathedral Heights. And still I said Meh …

But a month or so ago, a switch was flipped. We started to make a point to get out at least once a week with tourist eyes. I resisted – some places more than others. Great Falls promised and delivered some powerful nature, Rock Creek Park and Roosevelt Island got us deep into the woods in the midst of a major city, and Union Market produced one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’d had in a long time!

Languishing on the list, however, was Dumbarton Oaks, a house and garden in Georgetown that my husband had frequented years ago as a student. I pictured a few teak benches and some pedestrian flower beds, a boring colonial house and small parklet of limited interest.

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Proving my bias toward international inspiration, I got a comment from a blog reader way over in Sri Lanka (that’s you, Peta!) who gave me the final shove I needed to go see this place. On an abnormally warm, sunny day, we finally ventured through the gates to what turned out to be an enchanted garden of wonder and delight.

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Each “room” was a microcosm of magic: Nearly tropical pockets of ponds, flowers and giant leaves.

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Autumnal tableaux of pumpkins and pergolas draped with withering vines.

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A mossy wall with a tiny Pan and his flute, pointing the way to an oval pool, a long allée, and its vanishing point among a stand of still-green trees.

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A pebble garden, geometric latticework, and grassy steps in a worn amphitheater.

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Time stopped as we slowly wandered the grounds here and for a little while, I fell in love with my adopted city.

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Comfortable with (a little) Chaos

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Chaos sometimes happens when I travel and in retrospect, it has created many of my most powerful trip memories. Life at home is rarely chaotic; it follows a fairly predictable rhythm and most days I’m a slightly boring creature of habit. Drop me into a foreign locale, though, and I’m usually (strangely) OK with all hell breaking loose after a few days of acclimation.

Kathmandu has to be the all-time winner for daily bedlam. On first arrival, the sensory assault here was overwhelming in an almost frightening way. As I left the airport late at night, alone, I wondered if my days of solo female travel needed to finally come to an end. A good sleep later, I was feeling intrigued by the cows in the street; a few days into it, I was charmed by the jumble of vendors jammed into alleys; and two weeks later, I was truly, madly in love with this colorfully outrageous and unruly city, even when an electrical box exploded a few feet away, sending me and dozens of Nepalis running for cover.

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Athens – in full summer, blazing in 100-degree heat, and polluted by thousands of belching vehicles jam-packed into an overpopulated metropolis – ranks a close second. The chaos here was mostly car-based: the sharp and constant cacophony of horns, the shouting of drivers at one another, the parking on the sidewalks, and once, the abrupt and spontaneous gathering of four men to pick up and move, in a fit of pique, one of said cars parked on the sidewalk.

A skinny street in Istanbul, approaching Taksim Square, seemed placid enough – until we rounded a corner and came face to face with the beginnings of a protest. Waving signs and chanting mobs thickened in minutes, and the sudden crackle of firecrackers set my heart pounding, my head panicking, and my feet beating a retreat.

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Egg-throwing mobs similarly interrupted a pleasant morning stroll in Buenos Aires, and hurtling rickshaws threatened to cut us down as we tried in vain to cross a main street in Lhasa. Sweaty clumps of young men pressed (a little more than necessarily) close to my college girlfriends and me on a morning ride to class on Madrid’s metro years ago, trapping us and blocking our ability to get off at our station. Perhaps most frightening of all, a dense crowd at Sydney’s Y2K New Year’s celebration caused us to lose our 12-year-old for almost an hour as we were sucked into its vortex at the end of the fireworks show.

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We could play it safe. We could skip the crowds and the bigger cities. We could leave the kids at home. I could travel with others to some of the exotic but underdeveloped places I like to experience. Some of the chaos has been simply unpleasant, some horribly frustrating. A few situations have been potentially dangerous, and one or two downright scary. But when push comes to shove (literally!), the deepest imprints of my trips have often been the unexpectedly crazy moments that started the adrenaline pumping and the opening of the veins that take in the lifeblood of a place.

Happy Camper

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An unexpected glimpse of my childhood arrived in my inbox this past week. The camp I attended as a young girl had revamped their website and sent me a link, so I poked around it for a few minutes until I came to a video. I blithely clicked PLAY and for the next 30 minutes I was transported several decades back in time to a place that started my love affair with the great outdoors and in many ways transformed the arc of my life.

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The camp was founded over 70 years ago and most of the cabins and other facilities had seen little updating by my day, or since. (This is a good thing.) Green Cove is a traditional girls’ camp (the brother camp is nearby), a place where old-fashioned activities continue to be practiced in much the same ways they always have, perhaps with slightly better equipment. There are no team sports here, no competitions, no electronics, and no fancy anythings. The cabins and dining hall smell delightfully of mildew, and the furnishings are of the woodsy, rustic variety.

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Here we learned (and the girls still learn) to rock climb, build a fire, sail and kayak and canoe, and ride mountain bikes and horses. We handled carabiners, tent pegs, awls, pitons, booms, paddles, and reins. We got filthy almost every day, and we didn’t care if our wet hair stuck to our faces, our t-shirts got permanently stained, and our shoes and bathing suits never dried out over the course of a month or more. We ate hungrily at every family-style meal, and we burned off all of it and more every day in the lake and on the trails.

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We launched arrows and fired rifles, cast fishing lines and hoisted backpacks, carved wood, wove textiles, and enameled copper. We were trusted around sharp tools and hot fires, wobbly river rocks and skittish horses. We were given the confidence to lead the way on a steep ledge, the skill to clean a mare’s hoof, the faith to lean back into a rappel, the nerves to flip a kayak.

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In our free time, we swept high out over the lake on a giant swing and dropped into the cold, muddy water, played capture the flag until we were winded, lay back in the grass to count wooly white animals in the sky, wrote long letters home from our bunks, and napped, deeply. At night, we gathered around campfires, sang songs, played ping pong, opened mail from home, talked for hours in our cabins, and slept more soundly on a lumpy cot than we ever would again in a five-star bed.

Camp life was idyllic, but for me, the highlights of my months in the mountains were the wilderness trips. Starting at young ages, girls could start spending from 1 to 6 or more days out in nature, learning to live as one with the earth. I loved that Green Cove’s raison d’être was to encourage girls to seek outdoor adventures and to develop the skills needed to continually pursue challenges in the woods and mountains and, ultimately, life. I went into camp a very shy girl, a girl who played it safe. I emerged with the ammunition to get through my teenage and young adult years with some semblance of confidence, and I started down a path of world discovery, ideally on foot out in nature, that I still eagerly pursue today.

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I’m sure a few of my fellow campers no longer want to trek for weeks on end, go without showers for days at a time, or sleep on a flimsy mat under a sleeping bag on a buggy night. For me, it’s still heaven, and I still chase those interludes when iPhones and email, work deadlines and house projects fade into gray, and nothing lies before me each morning but a chance to put one foot in front of the other under a green canopy or on a rocky path. Camp changed my whole relationship with the world outside my door; I fell in love with it, and I never fell out.

Submitted as part of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Transmogrify

Photo Note: Not a single one of these photos is from camp! Those days were captured on a tiny, crummy old film camera, and I don’t even know where the prints might be.