Road Trip to the Border

Tags

, , , , , ,

There are no guns or robberies in this story, no convertibles, and, I’m sorry to say, no trysts with a young Brad Pitt. We are no Thelma and Louise; we’re just L and L on our own girls’ road trip with plenty of laughs, a whole lot of talking, maybe a little bit of wine, more than a few foodstuffs that rarely pass our lips on a regular basis, and even a few “daring” border crossings.

In pre-pandemic January, my friend L flew from Chicago to Houston to take a four-day road trip with me into the middle of Texas. As a little background, L is one of those people who is interested in everything (that is a good thing), and the mere mention of a place or activity, no matter where it was heard or read, can send her off on a quest. (I still thank our lucky stars for her voracious guidebook reading, or we would have never screeched to a halt a few decades ago to herd our six kids into the best sheep farm ever in New Zealand!)

With that in mind, you must know that this trip largely came about because of an article L saw on a plane in American Way magazine, in which the tiny city of Del Rio, Texas, was featured. She was convinced by the flattering multi-page spread that Del Rio had to be the best kept travel secret ever, “a peach of a town” she kept calling it, and she wanted to make it the centerpiece of our trip.

I did some research of my own and quickly determined that the small town on the Mexican border sounded like a good place to drop in. For a day. Max. It did have some appealing draws – new art galleries and craft beer bars in the small downtown, a curious mix of vegetation and wildlife based on its location, and nearby, incredible prehistoric cave drawings and an International Dark Sky Sanctuary. A nice bonus would be a walk over the bridge linking Del Rio and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, if we got our way. (Lots of people tried to dissuade us from getting our way. Before we left, we got the usual friends-and-family lectures on U.S./Mexico border towns, and even the front desk employees at our hotel looked at us in dismay when we asked how we could make the crossing. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

We left Houston on a weekday morning, hoping to get to San Antonio for lunch and Del Rio for dinner. We planned to spend the evening and the next day in that peach of a town, and then move on to Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock, Dripping Springs, Luckenback, and every farm-to-market road we could find on the way back home. While many of those places deserve to be, and have previously been, chronicled here, the rest of today’s story is all about Del Rio and its Mexican sister city, Acuña.

Our first glimpse of the magazine-lauded qualities of Del Rio turned out to be the bright yellow Julio’s tortilla chip factory and restaurant, right on our route into town. We resisted a stop, but we did succumb to a supermarket purchase of a jumbo-sized bag of the famous chips to power our ride the next day. (As a side note, there were also Buc-ee’s sea salt caramels, home-made chocolate chip cookies from another hotel, and a few more wonderfully unhealthy treats consumed along the way.)

We “explored” downtown Del Rio that evening; almost everything was closed, but we did find a great little craft brewpub with good beer, some comfort food, and most important, a couple of young girls who worked there who assured us that a walk into Acuña the next day would be safe and fun.

Wednesday dawned wet and dreary, with a heavy mass of swollen clouds nearly touching the ground, so we had to ditch our bird sanctuary hiking plans and replace them with a nature museum and a drive across the Lake Amistad dam – half in the U.S. and half in Mexico – in case we got rained out (or chickened out) of the walk across the border later.

Having accidentally driven into Mexico from El Paso a number of years ago, and then getting stuck there for hours trying to get back into the U.S. with a rental car and a minor daughter with no ID, I was a little more skittish than necessary about driving past the sign that warned LAST CHANCE TO TURN AROUND BEFORE ENTERING MEXICO.”

So we made mistake #1. We parked outside that gate and walked in. It appeared that only vehicles could go to the right, so we went left … apparently into an official area where entry was forbidden. We walked for about two minutes before we were approached by the border police and pointed right back out to our car.

Still confused but slightly emboldened by the instructions he gave us, we got in the car, crossed our fingers, and went through the official lane to cross the bridge. A quarter of the way across the bridge/dam, we saw a parking area on the side and got out to see what we could see. Almost before we saw anything, shots rang out, a peppery rat-a-tat-tat that sent us jumping back into the car and hightailing it down the ramp into the U.S entry checkpoint, our minds full of violent scenarios.

The immigration officer was semi-amused. “Those were shots to ward off the turkey buzzards,” she smiled, barely. “Did you at least get to the commemorative plaque in the middle?”

“Umm, no,” we replied sheepishly. “If we actually enter Mexico, will we be able to get back in here easily?”

“It’s hardly a border; you’ll be in the middle of the bridge. You can park and then turn around. I’ll be here,” she added. I could sense her trying hard not to roll her eyes.

Since there were no other travelers and no lines, we finally went to stand with one foot in each country, straddling the Rio Grande, sort of, and contemplating the forbidding terrain on either side of the river. Re-entry was quick and easy, as promised, and we were on our way back to Del Rio.

We couldn’t really say that was going to Mexico, could we? Googlemaps and some other online sleuthing led us next to a bleak parking lot on the U.S. side of the Del Río-Ciudad Acuña International Bridge. We waded through giant mud puddles, slogged for a mile down the berm of a 4-lane highway, crossed the bridge, and finally reached an impressively large and modern Port of Entry complex. We went through customs with about two other visitors on foot, wound through a series of corridors, and landed in Acuña just before noon.

The welcome sign suggested it was party time, but unfortunately, the town was a bit less colorful, with only a few little bodegas and kitschy shops open for business. (To be fair, the weather was truly dismal.) We strolled up and down the main drag, Miguel Hidalgo, and finally lucked into the one spot we’d read about for lunch: La Fama, a more modern bar/restaurant with a homey atmosphere and good food and beer.

In the past, Acuña apparently had quite a late-night scene; a string of clubs and bars drew crowds of students and others, and during the day, citizens of both towns crossed the border for work and school. Even though much of the after-dark revelry ramped down with the rise of warring cartels, the cities avoided much of the drug-fueled violence of other border towns, and today, as in many places along the Rio Grande, Ciudad Acuña and Del Rio still have a symbiotic and easy relationship.

Hundreds of workers continue to go over the border and back each day for work, children are driven to private schools on the other side, and the economy is inseparably integrated. The mayors of the two towns are friendly, cooperating daily on big things, like international trade and infrastructure projects, as well as smaller details like easy border crossings for their residents. It all works just fine, as far as we could discern. No big walls, no big deal, just the way it should be.

By mid-afternoon, we had crossed back into the U.S. for the third time (the immigration officer asked us why we had two stamps in the last four hours!) and were on our way north into the better-known Hill Country. Although the next three days had many highlights of their own, I had to admit the unlikely destination L had discovered in her in-flight reading ended up being the part of the road trip that stuck with us longest. There’s a whole other world out there, and a lot of it is just a short road trip away from home!

A Better Kind of Isolation

Tags

, , , , , , ,

For the second time in little over a year, I point my car northwest on a 1000-mile journey, and then retrace it, through some of the bleakest land in the country. There and back in 32 hours last year, and there and back again a few weeks ago, this time sweetened in the middle by a most joyous event: the birth of our first grandchild. That the trip follows on the heels of a solid two months sequestered at home makes it all the more liberating, and I savor the trip almost as much as the heart-bursting reason behind it.IMG_0803

Like the previous trip, I do this one alone and almost in silence – no podcasts for me, or playlists, or even the radio most of the way (there really is no radio reception most of the way!). These are the times my thoughts get to meander as far as the land does, without limits or defined edges.IMG_5615

My mind yawns open like the arroyos out the window; the past and future wander into my head while the present plays out amid the rocking horse oil pumps, the wind turbines, the fields of grain and cattle, the ridges and folds and dusty flats that are palpable beneath my wheels. I point my phone camera out the bug-splattered windows over and over again, trying to capture a strange bliss I could never properly explain.

IMG_5667 2

I savor mile after mile, hour upon hour, of the Texas Panhandle – beige and chalky, then red and earthy, reeking of cows, and beaten by wind. For long stretches I hear what sounds like a thin metal whip flaying the roof of my vehicle. It abates as I slow from 80 mph to pass through tiny, rural towns – a few battered houses, a feed store, a gas station from the ‘50s, a BBQ joint, a Chinese or Mexican restaurant from time to time.

IMG_5642

In a few spots, I might catch a glimpse of a strip joint like the (surely beachy) Player’s Bikini Club, or perhaps a big-ass gun shop, or an ad for a steak the size of New York, none of which feature in my daily life and are therefore endlessly amusing to me.

In a matter of seconds, I’m through these towns and back on the open road. Many people would find the sere landscape dull or depressing, but I find its scoured featurelessness profoundly pleasurable. It’s a blank backdrop for old camp songs, writing ideas, life-plan reviews, a phone call here and there. I barely need to turn the wheel, and the hours effortlessly slip by.

IMG_5696

I’ve started from barely above sea level, and by the time I hit Amarillo, Texas, I’m at 3000 feet, riding the high plains ever higher, to almost 4000 feet by the time I reach Dalhart, nearly 5000 by the Texas-New Mexico state line. I never feel I’ve left flat ground, though, inching through those feet of ascent ever so slowly.

IMG_0805

Deeper into New Mexico, the gradual rise becomes steeper; by the time I get to Raton Pass and thunder down into Colorado, I am at almost 8000 feet, and both before and after the pass, my views become more three-dimensional and colorful. Late spring growth softens the land, and pine trees begin to replace the drier juniper, cottonwood and mesquite varieties. Distant peaks poke out of the corrugated foreground, some still snow-covered, adding a depth of field that I welcome in spite of my contentment with the monotony.IMG_5725

There are even some less natural sparks of color from time to time. My favorite is Cadillac Ranch, a field of half-buried cars outside of Amarillo, a scene I have wanted to see on the first three passes over this route. On the way home, I finally go out of my way to stop.IMG_0857

The installation is surreal – a garish row of spray-painted Caddies with their tail fins rising out of a sun-bleached cow pasture – and I roam the perimeter as much as I can, avoiding the painters who are encouraged to make their own marks on the “sculpture” of ten cars, originally buried nose-down here in 1974.

IMG_0834

IMG_0829

IMG_0840

IMG_0817

It is an hour before sundown on a scorching evening; the western rays are blinding, and the hot wind out in the field has me parched within minutes. Still, I walk slowly back to the car, prolonging what will be my last night in the vast emptiness.IMG_0855

As I drive closer to low ground, humidity, and the big city, I don’t want the trip to end. I choose an alternate way into Houston, sticking to smaller roads that bisect horse farms and white-fenced meadows. And then I am back to the 13-lane Katy Freeway, the gauntlet I must run to get home. Muscles tensed and brain overloaded for the first time in weeks, I finally snap the radio on. Already buffeted by stimuli, I figure a little more won’t hurt. I’ll stay in overdrive in my lush green surroundings for the next month, and then … I’ll make the same soothing trip all over again!

Hello from Houston

Tags

, , , , , ,

The group of friends moved together on the pier, jostling and laughing, one boy hip-checking another, three girls giggling in a group hug … “Noooooo,” I find my brain screaming,”Separate! You can’t be that close to each other!”

IMG_0441

Six feet apart, fellas, six feet!

Is my hometown another place where people are not following government restrictions on gathering? Well, yes, sort of, in a few places, but that scene described above is an example of what I’ve been yelling at people in movies and on the pages of the books I’m reading! Our new normal has become so firmly entrenched in my mind already that I am not even distinguishing real-life physical contact with fictional or virtual closeness. What will this do to our post-COVID lives and attitudes, I have to wonder?

IMG_0444

Silly reactions and philosophizing aside, we are here in Houston being rule-followers, like many of my blogging friends from all over the world. We canceled our trip to Southeast Asia in February for fear we might get stranded there, and now we are looking at those destinations as perhaps safer places to be right now than in our own individual-liberty-obsessed land (1).

IMG_0451

My beloved running routes along the bayous are now packed with stir-crazy people wanting to get out of the house. Most are well-behaved, sticking to their side of the paths and maintaining appropriate physical distances. Some are still way too bunched-up with groups of friends, and a few infuriating idiots are passing balls and tackling each other, climbing over the closed dog-park fence, or taking turns pressing their grubby fingers down on the water fountain spigot. As of today, I will be running in the streets; they are emptier anyway, and I am less likely to work myself up over the rule-breakers.

IMG_0415

Here in my house, my husband is working non-stop from an upper floor, trying to keep his company and its customers solvent. We are lucky to have his continued salary and the ability to buy some extra food and leave a few generous tips when we get takeout meals. My own paltry pay (barely worthwhile in normal times) has stopped as I cannot do much work for my employer from home. Last week I was a whirlwind, cleaning and baking and organizing, and now I’m feeling like a lazy slob.

IMG_0445

Yesterday, we escaped with an outing a few hours west to see the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes that sprout each spring on the roadsides of Texas. The giant freeways were empty on our way out of the city, the shopping centers and car dealerships eerily deserted. Being in the country was therapeutic and temporarily calming, but now we are back in the house, J very stressed and I at loose ends.

I’m aware that this is the worst post I’ve ever written – disjointed, incohesive, and just plain boring – but like others, I wanted to connect in some way with the wider world (2). Please stay safe and healthy and sane as we all work together to stop this virus.

ADDENDA:

(1) It bears noting that I greatly value the individual freedoms our country affords us, and I am very lucky to have been born here. But I also value science, common sense, community spirit, and public health, so sometimes those personal rights need to be subjugated for the common good, and I think there are people and places that are understanding that better than we are right now.

(2) I need you, readers! My three kids have about had it with my incessant texts and emails, jokes and cartoons! 🙂

Where Ruins Rule

Tags

, , , , , , ,

When we suddenly find a flight to Antigua, Guatemala after a last-minute change of travel plans, we’ve got to act fast. In the next 24 hours, we need to find lodging, a list of top sightseeing stops, a few active outings, and a way to get around. We do an obligatory Google exploration and then hit the search bars on the websites of a few blogging friends we seem to remember have been here (thank you, Alison and Don and Nicole!), and in a few short hours, we have a preliminary plan.

IMG_0080

We quickly see what we expected to see: the cheerful metal of the chicken buses, the alabaster church fronts, the small Mayan women wrapped in jewel-toned garments and stooped under their loads of street wares. The chock-a-block markets, the volcanoes that loom over the town and stud the countryside. The chocolate, the coffee, the jade.

IMG_0096

IMG_0232

And then a strange thing happens. We really have no major objectives here; in fact, we have a perfect excuse to just be – we’ve had no time to plan! – to take things in, to let the city in through our eyes and our minds for a few days. We slooowww down, and J patiently lets me stop and photograph things that do not tell a typical kind of travel story.

IMG_0089

Writers and readers love whole, substantial things – buildings and shrines, temples and monuments. Histories, records, narratives. The more we amble aimlessly around Antigua, the more I am drawn to its pieces, and the bits that draw me the most are the walls – both the scuffed-up sides of ordinary buildings and the decaying exteriors of the enormous number of ruins in this earthquake-terrorized town.

IMG_0101

What draws me so insistently to these panels of imperfection? At home, I like modern architecture and clean lines, sleek surfaces and a dearth of clutter, yet the chipped and faded paint on the crumbling walls pulls me in, as do the hulking structures, half hollowed out, strewn around the town, their deterioration conjuring the past even as they sit among the trappings of modern life.

IMG_0104

They please the eye first, a patchwork of color and texture, a random splash of shapes not specifically formed by man. The elements have crafted this art; the rain has faded the reds, the volcanic dirt has darkened the yellows, the brush of body parts and clothing has burnished the blues. Then they begin to work on memory, evoking time gone by both here and everywhere – the rise and fall of civilizations, of peoples and ideas.

Which color came first? Was it the oxidized reds and ochres that appear most frequently? The yellows seem old, too, and so soft, almost as if they were done in colored pencil.

IMG_0013

I imagine the whites being added later, maybe the blues also, as later generations cooled the colors down, an attempt to add a little crisp cleanness to the hot, dusty town perhaps.

IMG_0115

Paul Cooper, writing in a BBC art and culture article, says “[ruins] are places an observer can get lost, where time slips away.” I feel this happening at the sanctuary of San Francisco, a complex of religious structures outside of the main streets that is without question my favorite place in town.

IMG_0023

There is a functioning church here, a faded beauty after multiple earthquakes altered its form over the years, but it’s the gardens around the church where a trance sets in and time does slip away. There are fields of stone rising from the earth, heaving up from the grass and among the palm trees.

IMG_0027

Bougainvillea languishes on a shattered stairwell; splintered archways admit huge ovals of sky, and more gaping holes yawn in pitted walls. New green growth sprouts from dirt-filled crevices between stone and brick; I’m transfixed by the apposition of destruction and regrowth.

IMG_0030

At a certain point, though, I snap to, and begin to question my infatuation with the decay. Is this like disaster tourism, wanting to exalt for the sake of art and literature what was a horrific time for generations of Guatemalans? Am I imposing a developed world appreciation for those “artistic” mottled walls on the modest city shops when they are really just a result of poverty, a fix that is simply unaffordable?

IMG_0070

Cooper comes to my rescue on the first count. “Mankind has always lived among its own ruins. Since our earliest history, we have explored ruined places, feared them and drawn inspiration from them, and we can trace that complex fascination in our art and writing.” I study the pockmarked walls again and decide they have been left this way on purpose, and thankfully so. They are stunning and warm, simple and inviting.

IMG_9954

We do hike our volcano, climb up to the cross on a hilltop overlooking the town, stray into a church or two, but for the most part, this stay is all about wandering and wondering for me.

Antigua – so aptly named – is a reminder that we carry the past, both good and bad, with us always. The things we build may not last what the earth throws at them either, but what is left has its own beauty and power. Especially here in Antigua.

IMG_0264

 

This is Not Thailand!

Tags

, , , , , ,

The bags were 99% packed, and all systems were go for our trip to Southeast Asia on Wednesday evening. And then they weren’t. What changed? As I noted in my last post, we’d wavered a little on leaving for a long vacation in a place increasingly affected by the coronavirus outbreak, but all of our knowledge, intuition, and local contacts suggested that we were extremely unlikely to actually catch anything.

Including our flights! We’d already rebooked our return flights (a time-consuming and stressful task), which had a problematic Hong Kong layover. As the number of virus cases mounted, however, we began to rethink the seven regional flights we had booked and even our return via Tokyo. We didn’t have that many destinations, but many of our flights involved layovers back in Bangkok, and we started to eliminate some of them in an attempt to salvage our trip.

With every adjustment, we ran into a domino effect of problems. Eliminate Cambodia and the four planes associated with just that one stop? Oops, no flights from Luang Prabang to Danang a few days earlier. Spend more time in Chiang Mai? Nope; Laos was already getting short shrift, and what was the point of flying for over 24 hours to get to Asia and then cut our top destinations short?

Neither our friends on the ground in Thailand and Vietnam nor our families in the U.S. pushed us in any one direction, but there were plenty of signs that this might not be the carefree and fun vacation we had planned six months ago. We are not retired and have obligations at home, and we could ill afford a problem at any point with a return. Though getting sick was not even on our radar, getting stuck or, worse, potentially quarantined based on where we had been, was a worry.

It did us in. Call us wimps, but we wanted to really enjoy this trip and not just get through it. Thirty-six hours before takeoff, we pulled the plug. Before I canceled all the flights, hotels, guides, and drivers, we went online, searched for cheap fares to anywhere we’d never been, and bought tickets for Guatemala for one day after our original departure date. We didn’t even really have to repack the bags!

So here we are in Antigua, the old capital of Guatemala, where we landed two hours before we would have in Bangkok even though we left a full day later! It’ll be a short stay, but it’s a nice consolation prize for the trip to which we sadly bid adieu. For the next few days, we’ll speak Spanish and climb volcanoes, but we’ll be headed back to Bangkok and all of our other SE Asian stops in November if all goes well!

Buenas noches, all, and thanks for all the support throughout our decision-making process!

To Go or Not to Go?

Tags

, , , , , , ,

It’s countdown day 10! A mere week and a half separates us from takeoff on our long-awaited flight to Bangkok and Southeast Asia. We drained a couple of frequent flyer accounts for some cushy Business Class seats, and we cashed in a bunch of hotel and credit card points for a string of comfortable hotel stays throughout Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

We made plans to meet several blogging friends; we have tours set up and hikes charted out. I’ve practiced my Vietnamese greetings and refreshed my internal map of Bangkok’s streets and the way to a fun rooftop bar. I’ve even started a little pile of clothes and toiletries, shoes and sunscreen, plane entertainment and sundry supplies.

But with each passing day this week, our trip becomes a little more untenable. The Wuhan, China-based coronavirus is putting a growing crimp on things, and it’s not because we have any real fear of getting the disease. Our concerns now are that we could get stranded in a country that has decided to close its airports (we route home through Hong Kong, for example), or that once in Southeast Asia, we will find things shuttered or devoid of life.

A few days ago, we were still gung-ho on going. Fewer crowds – yay! We are not going to China itself – no problems for us! The news media always overblow everything, we rationalize. Today, we are beginning to worry for real. Bangkok department stores are scanning temperatures, Hong Kong’s streets are emptying out, a few more cases are cropping up in the countries to which we are heading. What if …? we keep asking ourselves on a burgeoning list of topics. Wahhhhhhhh!

Unwinding the trip may take as long as planning it out. Can I shift everything to fall; will we be safely out of the woods with the virus by then? Will my airlines and hotels let me make changes or cancel without massive fees? Where else might we escape in these two and a half weeks we have carved out of our busy schedules?

I’m curious to hear some of your thoughts. Do we stay or do we go?

Two Fleet Feet Out the Door

Tags

, , ,

I’ve largely disappeared online, and that’s mainly because both of my feet have been (literally) running all over the country in recent months.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 9.35.09 PM

My days have been filled with physical activity, and my time in front of a screen has correspondingly shriveled. There are a few things I miss about that (for one, my novel has been stalled at about three-quarters done for months), but I am filled with vigor as I travel across the country and put some ground under my feet at every stop.

IMG_7701

With more to come on this topic later, I have been putting many miles on my running shoes the last six months or so. Much of it is hiking-specific training out on the streets, running paths, and trails both here in Houston and wherever I am traveling. It served me well in Bhutan, and I expect it to show even stronger returns during almost two weeks of hiking this August in Idaho and Utah.

IMG_7586

There’s no better way to get to know a new place, or to poke into different parts of a known town, than to run or walk its streets and trails. Here at home, I’ve investigated new running routes many times a week, often in the very early morning (another new discovery for me!) because of the sweltering temperatures and humidity.

IMG_7737

J and I have ventured out to other spots in our own state, like cute, little Brenham, historic Nacogdoches, and beer-lovers’ Shiner.IMG_7128IMG_7133IMG_7129

On my own, I’ve plied the usual summer roads to and from Georgia and Pennsylvania, as well as some little diversions en route:

IMG_7197

IMG_7210

More special trips included a glorious four days in Colorado where one of our sons lives with his wife, with lots of fresh mountain air and sunshine, family and good food. I learned that running at over 5000 feet of elevation is a snap compared with running in 90% humidity, and we all put in several solid days of hiking in the foothills nearby.

IMG_7234

IMG_7248

A four-day trip to the Bay Area/Marin County was another huge winner, with jogging and biking paths at every turn, as well as a chance to do some nice, long hikes, including the 15-mile round-trip Dipsea Trail, several 10-mile days in Golden Gate State Recreation Area and the Marin Headlands, as well as some city time, which of course included a walk over the Golden Gate Bridge and back.

IMG_7327

IMG_7301 2

I squeezed in a girls’ weekend in Boston where our daughter is living for the summer, and on Saturday we cranked out a 5-mile run and a follow-up 10 miles of walking in blissfully cool temps in the city, both excellent compensations for all the pizza, ice cream, wine, and lobster rolls we consumed in two days!

IMG_7566

A four-day holiday work break for the 4th of July found us in the oldest town in Texas, surprisingly charming Nacogdoches in the Piney Woods of the eastern part of the state.

IMG_7645

I once again explored on fast feet by morning and at a hiking pace all afternoon for a few days here and in Ouachita National Forest in central Arkansas as we moved north. We finished off the weekend in Fayetteville and environs, once again relishing Northwest Arkansas’s natural beauty and quirky little towns.

When my feet have finally been propped up for the evening, I’ve tried to keep up with your blog posts and happenings. Some days I may have mustered a mere “Like” (or not, if you don’t have that button), but please know I have still been reading and keeping up with your adventures. The more I have focused on what is here in front of me each day, the less I have been able to keep up with social media. It’s been very freeing, and over time, any stress or guilt I’ve felt about it has dissipated as well. My Instagram time has contracted to nearly zero hours per day (and Facebook was already dead to me), allowing me to read blog posts, which I find much more fulfilling, as well as all the other literature I consume on a daily basis, while still spending much of my day out in the real world.

IMG_7330

As summer and the tug to be outside wane, I’m sure I will reappear more regularly in this space and in yours. Meanwhile, happy summer to all from wherever I am at the moment!

A Little More Bhutan

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

I’m short on fully-formed thoughts about Bhutan. There’s no real story here, just some impressions that are as disjointed as my memories from this trip seem to be for some reason.

The flight into Paro. It’s a doozy. By some accounts, Paro is the third most dangerous airport in the world. On nearly every list, it’s one of the top ten scariest. I manage to get a window seat for the thrill of descending into that valley and twisting and turning to land on the runway at the bottom.

Are we gonna scrape?!

The prayer flags. I love a good mess of prayer flags. And by mess, I mean that joyful jumble of color, caught in the wind, sending good thoughts up into the universe. Added bonus when these vibrant supplications are attached to swinging suspension bridges, my favorite Himalayan mode of passage.

Church and state. Buddhism and its often cheerful monks are ever-present, a perennially appealing backdrop to life in the Himalaya, and they exist here in relative harmony with an elected government and a king (and his father), who are impressive stewards of all aspects of Bhutanese life. National happiness is a holistic goal here, with a balance always being sought among economic interests, environmental concerns, health, education, living standards, and psychological wellbeing and resilience. Noble ideals, seemingly well carried out.

Color and geometry. I’ve always been a sucker for Himalayan art and architecture in their native habitat. A mash-up of colors and shapes I would not abide at home makes me inexplicably happy in this part of the world.


Animals, animals everywhere. Temple cats, bridge and courtyard dogs, and a few stray cows to boot. Most are well-fed, and all are secure enough to sleep just about anywhere.

The landscapes. I went to Bhutan for the mountains and the trails that lead up through those elevated rocks and trees. I may not have gotten the trek I signed up for, but I got plenty of altitude, exercise, and other views. I could/should do a whole post on our day hike to the Tiger’s Nest alone; people find it fascinating, and it was a fulfilling day with a very special prize at the end. But … maybe some other day!

IMG_6419
IMG_6632

The Weather and I: Bhutan Edition

Tags

, , , , , ,

As I’ve recounted a number of times (especially here and here), the weather and I have a troubled relationship. Occasionally, we are the happiest of companions in everyday life and moments of adventure, but too often we are at odds, and the likelihood of weather-related disappointment seems to rise with the remoteness of my destination. Drop me into a place I’ve dreamed of for years, somewhere that costs thousands of dollars and double-digit hours to reach, and the tease of a few days of sunshine inevitably morphs into unseasonable cold or precipitation or both.

A long-awaited high-altitude trek in Bhutan was no exception. My pre-trip materials listed daytime temperatures in the 50s to 70s, ideal weather for some steep hiking in the Himalaya and sleeping in our tents above 12,000 feet for several nights. As the trip neared, however, my weather app showed numbers that were half the predicted temperatures, and I tossed an extra gaiter, a second pair of gloves, and a third layer of clothing into my duffel.

In our first few days exploring the capital, Thimphu, and warming our legs up on a few day hikes at 8-10,000 feet, we all breathed a sigh of relief as the cloud, shower, and snowflake symbols on our phones each morning proved totally inaccurate. As the days went on, we laughed, carefree and blissfully ignorant, at the crazy disconnect between what we were seeing with our own eyes and what the forecasters were suggesting. Our trek would be fine! The weather app clearly didn’t work in Bhutan. All of the prognostications were wrong!

Until they weren’t. We started a drive into the remote Haa Valley to begin the trekking and camping portion of our trip, and only an hour or so into our ascent to Chele La, a pass at 13,000+ feet, we were on slushy roads and enveloped in mist and rain, then sleet and snow. We slowed to a crawl – thank god, as I was terrified on the one-lane road with two-way traffic, switchbacking up and down the S-curves with no guardrails – and finally reached our small lodge for the night before the trek began.

We learned the next morning that the weather wouldn’t just make our trek miserable; it would cause the entire thing to be cancelled. I was crushed. Seriously heartbroken. I’d come to Bhutan for two main reasons – to hike to the Tiger’s Nest (a very successful foray – stay tuned for that) and to trek and sleep among Himalayan peaks like Chomolhari, Kanchenjunga, and Jichu Drake. Beyond that, my hiking mates and I had specifically come prepared for the possibility or rain and snow, so when we were told the horses and porters and guide were not up for the trek, we were doubly dismayed.

The next day’s eagerly-anticipated trip on foot became, instead, a slow and bone-jarring drive back east, past Paro and on to Thimphu again, where lower elevations might mean better weather. A frigid, wet night of camping along the Wang Chhu river did not initially bear this out, but our luck returned briefly in the morning, when the rain ceased and the sun came out for a solid day of hiking above the Punakha valley, a verdant expanse of pine forests overlooking lime green and yellow rice paddies below.  A little extra consolation was a chance to see Punakha Dzong, an impressive fortress at the Y of two rivers, site of the original capital of Bhutan.

My spirits rose. Surely we would wake to another balmy day in the valley, get in one more good, long day of replacement hiking, and finally be able to at least see Chomolhari and the string of mountains visible from Dochu La, the pass on the high road we would retrace as we returned to Paro yet again. We celebrated in our dining tent with beer, wine, and numerous rounds of 505, the Bhutanese card game we had learned from our guide the night before. My unrelenting (some might say unreasonable) optimism filled me with a bubbly buoyancy; our group’s courteous reaction to disappointment and our lack of anger and complaint were being rewarded. I’m prone to karmic explanations in everyday life, and being in Bhutan, coached daily on Buddhist precepts by our guide, had reinforced the idea that we get what we deserve.

A crack of thunder in the early hours of the next morning shattered that notion. Seconds later, a torrent of water lashed my tent, and I leapt to close the ventilation flaps. The rays of hope that had lulled me to sleep were as obscured as the plastic window out the front of my clammy abode. I stared past fat droplets of water to a low-hanging mist and abandoned any thoughts of an adequate hike again that day. We packed up the camp, walked desultorily on a short muddy path to a small temple (another in a string of temples that became poor substitutes for outdoor exertion) , and clambered into the van for the return trip over socked-in Dochu La. In ten days in Bhutan, I never once laid eyes on the high peaks I had come to see, never hiked a full, long day to collapse contentedly into my tent, ready to get up the next day, and push forward again, and again, over the 14,000-foot passes and through the rhododendron forests, high meadows, and rarefied air that I crave for years until I can get back to the Himalaya. It had been 6 1/2 years, and for all I knew, it could be 6 1/2 more before I’d get back to this part of the world.

The weather and I will always knock heads, it seems, but perhaps our guide, Sonam, was right when he said that karma does not mean good or bad luck; rather, karma simply takes us where we are meant to go or be, and in our case, this was perhaps the Punakha Valley, one of the most compelling landscapes in Bhutan and one that we were sorry we were going to miss because of our far-western trekking route. Maybe we needed to be present on the prayer flag-draped suspension bridge where one of our group members scattered the ashes of her late husband.

Or bonding with five new friends in a dripping tent, united in our shared frustration. Perhaps we were meant to visit the Sunday produce market in tiny Haa, a town and valley that only opened to outsiders in 2001, or the home and farm of our guide, where we ate breakfast and played darts with his elderly father in the yard.

Maybe we were just supposed to learn not to cast blame for decisions we might not have made ourselves, or to see that other treasures exist outside of the places we expected to find them. Maybe all I was meant to learn was that if the weather is the biggest of my problems, I am a pretty lucky gal!

More on Bhutan’s many charms in upcoming posts.

 

Aloha, Unknown Beauty!

Tags

, , , , , , ,

We put Hawaii aside in our minds years ago, dismissing it as a destination for people who didn’t like to be as active as we did. Old people, we thought. Maybe corporate conventioneers. Let’s use our fit and functional years to climb steep paths and take 15-hour flights and sleep in tents and apply for difficult visas, we reasoned. Hawaii will be there when we can no longer do all those things, when we want to go sit on a beach with an umbrella drink in hand.

img_4779

What changed? I don’t know really; all of a sudden, we just got an urge to see Hawaii. It helped that our adventuresome son had recently raved about his trip, our lively parents had loved the place, and so many of our energetic friends had returned multiple times to the islands.

So, no, we didn’t get old or lazy, but we did have two big birthdays to observe early this year and had narrowed our celebration spot to Namibia or Hawaii (slightly different choices, I know!). Hawaii won.

img_4651

We’re so glad it did. And we were so wrong in our previous thinking. Maybe some people hang out on beach chairs sipping tropical cocktails for a week in Waikiki, but we were able to find more than enough to do on two of the lush, green islands that make up this chain of volcanic dots in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

img_4892

We started on Oahu. With the main Hawaiian airport, skyscrapered Honolulu, jam-packed Diamondhead, and yes, clichéd Waikiki on its shores, Oahu was routinely dissed by many friends who gave us travel advice. It’s too urban, too touristy, too congested, many tsk-tsked. But a close friend who knows Hawaii well convinced us to head directly out of Honolulu upon landing and hightail it to the quieter North Shore. A little research turned up more hiking options there than almost anywhere else in the islands, and we spent four days in an area with very little of the built-up feel of the southern shore or the other islands with strips of resort hotels.

img_4709

We passed our days on a series of coastal trails, among them a long, sandy stroll to the northern tip, Kahuku Point;

img_4738

img_4747

a rough, windy walk out to far-west Kaena Point;

img_4735

img_4928

and a pine needle-laden path to a huge, old banyan tree and on to a World World II pillbox near Kawela Bay.

img_4797

We ate from a shrimp truck, a local sandwich shop, and a 68-year-old shave ice stand in surfer-town Haleiwa while we admired the surfboards (and a few surfers, too – sorry, J) standing up against many a brightly-painted building. We watched those colorful boards in action, too, at the Banzai Pipeline, where young and old alike unfolded their tanned torsos in the curl of a huge wave pounding toward shore.

img_4895

Our next stop was the Big Island, this one recommended by many who had found the land mass the most ecologically diverse and the “real Hawaii,” as we heard more than once. The first claim was easy to prove: in the next four days, we drove from lava fields to verdant gardens to ranch lands to desert scrub to one of the most serene and stunning beaches we’d ever seen. And back again, more than once, through these variations.

img_5329

As we had on Oahu, we sought out some small communities, like Volcano Village, a street of about ten buildings near Volcanoes National Park, where we stayed in an old YMCA camp-turned-inn. After last year’s eruption of Kilauea, the world’s most active and dangerous volcano, parts of the crater rim drive were devastated and the breathtaking lava lake at Halema’uma’u crater collapsed and drained, leaving a vast field of dried-up, smoking lava.

img_5040

The effects of Kilauea’s huge 1959 eruption are still eerily visible as well, making the visit to the park both mind-blowing and a little disappointing (in spite of our good fortune that its federal employees had kept it open during the government shutdown).

img_5012

We also particularly enjoyed tiny Hawi on the northern edge of the island, where we caught an impromptu hula performance by a group of senior citizens and ate at a kitchsy restaurant that was part of Hawi’s rebound from ghost-town status in recent years. Near here, we took our steepest hike of the trip, picking our way slowly down a pitched, root-strewn path into the Pololu Valley that started with this panoply of warnings:

img_5182

We felt secure enough in our footwork (and stayed hard to the non-cliff side!) and were rewarded with a misty, black sand beach … and then the long climb back up and out. It was the workout we were looking for, and the views may have been the most remarkable of the trip.

img_5190

A shorter down- and uphill trail took us through the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden just outside Hilo. Given its internet presence and lofty name, I expected a major tourist attraction but was very pleasantly surprised to drive in on a 1½-lane, S-curve road and find a magical oasis that was the result of one man’s 8-year effort to clear and replant this Onomea Valley hillside in the late 70s.

img_5103

img_5090

We had our nicest dinner of the trip in crisp and cool Waimea, Hawaii’s higher-elevation ranchland that felt a little bit Outback, a little bit Texas in its look and spirit. We made the drive from sea level to 3000 feet and back a couple of times, never tiring of the vistas in either direction.

img_5162

On the Kohala coast, we happened upon the Ala Kahakai National Historic Trail, a 175-mile network of seaside walking paths that ran near our hotel. After hiking the section nearby, we re-joined the trail twenty miles down the coast toward Kona a few days later, where we wandered through Kekaha Kai State Park one morning.

img_5165

img_5289

We picked our way through clots of hardened lava for several long, hot slogs, rounding a corner every once in a while to a new viewpoint where, I must admit, I found myself saying “Oh, it’s just another beach.”

img_5266

img_5273

Nine days in paradise may have made me sound jaded, but Hawaii is far from ho-hum. There are so many brilliant flowers, so much ambrosia-like pineapple and other fruit, and so many postcard-perfect palm trees bowing down to white sand beaches that I can barely imagine the days when I thought it would be an uninspired destination.

img_5267

I never really thought about the fact that I could stay in the U.S. and be in Polynesia at the same time, surrounded by South Pacific motifs and visages, Aussie and Kiwi accents, and signs and menus in Japanese, to mention just a few of the cultural treats throughout our travels. We made a point to try and see the “real Hawaii,” on two feet as much as we could, and we think we succeeded. We ate breakfast with barefooted surfers on the north coast of Oahu, had to nix a hike when the only parking was in a seedy neighborhood crawling with cop cars, and missed getting some musubi at a 7-11 when a guy out front decided to take his pants off, scaring us off.

But we also stayed at a couple of beautiful oceanfront hotels, watched the sun rise and set over palm trees and limpid seas, swam in the ocean, and drank coffee in a warm and breezy open-air restaurant every morning.

img_5340

We spent our last day in … yep, Waikiki, and we loved the whole loud, lit-up place. J wore the Hawaiian shirt his dad brought back decades ago, I wore more sundresses in a week and a half than I have in years, and one day at the pool, wearing the pink and orange flowered flip-flops gifted by the hotel, I ordered my own tropical umbrella drink with no shame at all. Mahalo, beautiful state – we will be back for more!

img_4972

A Snowy Beach Day on the Moon

Tags

, , , , , ,

We drove, astonished, down the hard-packed road, a crust of white stuff on our right and a mound of it on the left. It was 70 degrees and sunny, but everything else suggested an Arctic landscape.

IMG_4181

Leaving the car a few minutes later, the opposite impression was formed as we climbed a dune line under the hot sun, fully expecting the sea to appear as we crested the small hill. The heat, the snow, the coastal ambiance; where on earth were we?

IMG_4143

IMG_4141

You likely did not guess New Mexico, and we never would have either. But there we were, less than two hours outside of El Paso, Texas, getting the equivalent of a ski trip, a seashore vacation, and maybe even a short lunar excursion one day last weekend.

IMG_4207

I read about White Sands National Monument a few months ago, and the stark beauty had pulled at me ever since. Quick, reasonably-priced flights from Houston to El Paso allowed me to convince husband J to get away for a long weekend to west Texas and New Mexico, where we started at White Sands and worked our way back east to Guadelupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns.

IMG_4194

The otherworldly dunes at White Sands did not disappoint. Spread across hundreds of square miles in the Tularosa Basin, the great white waves of gypsum sand rise and fall, in some areas burying yucca plants that fight back by extending their flowering stalks skyward.

IMG_4251

Tufts of hardy desert grasses cling to the ground beneath, and even the occasional cottonwood tree perseveres, helping provide shade for the creatures that thrive in the desert. Shrubs and wildflowers add a spot of pale color here and there.

IMG_4165

Driving farther into the park led to more wintry scenes, however, with higher mounds and long stretches of open sand unpunctuated by flora, looking every bit like powdery snow. We had much of the park to ourselves in early November, but we caught sight of a few sledders, walkers, and photographers as we trudged into the whiteness, noting any possible landmarks to guarantee our ability to retrace our steps, not an easy task in the monochromatic expanse.

IMG_4191

Unlike most deserts, White Sands holds onto much of the water that falls during the summer monsoon season. It lies just beneath the surface of the sand, itself formed by the wind-whipped gypsum flakes that have been driven into this basin in the Chihuahuan Desert for the last 10,000 years.

IMG_4268

The sand is as fine as that on a Caribbean beach, but it is also wet enough to pack down into roads and is much cleaner than the organic sand found on tropical beaches around the world.

IMG_4255

It sweeps like whipped cream, then folds and gathers in ridges, shadows forming in the corrugated surface that turn it into anything your mind can imagine –  the Sahara, the Atlantic coast, a pockmarked moonscape.

IMG_4289

IMG_4317

This unspoiled preserve and all its permutations captivated me all afternoon. We stuck around for sunset, when rosy hues melted into cloudless blues, all forming a colorfully striped background for the now-pastel dunes in the foreground, and drove away reluctantly only after the sun had completely disappeared from this strange little patch of Earth.

IMG_4292

IMG_4288

Beyond Baobabs

Tags

, , , , , , ,

“Why Madagascar?” I ask Lisa when she suggests I visit during her four-month anchorage off the coast of this Indian Ocean island. I’m thinking I might wait until one of her next few stops, in South Africa or maybe Namibia, to parachute into her floating world for a brief stay. But baobabs, the thick, upside-down African trees I’ve seen once before, are one quirky draw, and I am eager to interact in the wild with lemurs, the tiny primates that live only in Madagascar. Beyond the unique flora and fauna, however, I know little about this poor island nation and am unconvinced I should spend thousands of dollars and many days of my time to get to it for a week or so this summer.

I let the idea languish until I try to explain to my sister one day why I can’t get the idea out of my head. By then, I’ve found flights both ways using miles, devoured all the links Lisa has sent on the country, and read her enthusiastic reviews of Nosy Be, the biggest island off the northwest coast of Madagascar. I hang up feeling I have convinced my sister I should go … and then wonder why on earth I haven’t booked it yet! I lock it down that afternoon.

A few months later, I land in Hell-ville, the only real city on Nosy Be, meet Lisa and The Captain for the first time (a story in itself), and am whisked to their sailboat for the next week. I tried hard to include parts of the main island in my visit, but even though I am a pretty brave solo female traveler, everything I read says it is a very bad idea to try getting around there on my own. Once on the boat, listening to The Captain relate his own aborted attempt to travel there with a friend, I am glad I elected to simply stay on the water and see the smaller islands in the Mozambique Channel.

I throw myself wholeheartedly into the life aquatic. I pop up jetlag-free after night one in my rocking boat-cradle, stuff myself into a wetsuit, strap on a mask and a snorkel, and topple over the side of the dinghy for my first Indian Ocean swim, this time with sea turtles off the coast of Nosy Sakatia.

Photo Credit: Lisa Dorenfest

My underwater camera does not do justice to these majestic creatures, who munch a while on the bottom plant growth, then breast-stroke to the surface in graceful slow-motion, all within inches of us humans.

I’ve been here less than a day, and I’m already in another world, lulled by the sea, by the creatures and coral below, by a patch of jumping fish flashing in the sun above. I feel extravagantly far from home.

A diurnal rhythm emerges in the following days – up with the sun and usually out with the local fleet in the morning and, later, drinks on deck as the same orb sets, igniting the sea and coastline. The local boats are things of great beauty and ingenuity. Often simple, wooden canoe-like vessels with home-made sails, the boats and their dexterous sailors skim the ocean in search of fish, as a means of transportation among islands, and even as small floating purveyors of goods like fruits and vegetables.

Day’s end comes earlier here, not too far south of the equator, and by 6 pm, we have front row seats for the sunset show in various anchorages. Whether it is illuminating the water, a nearby landmass, another boat, or just the shiny metal parts of ours, the sun is our nightly source of art and entertainment, a tangerine-pink glow that deepens in front of our eyes before our watery world plunges into darkness.

In between wake-up and a climb back into my cozy berth below-deck, there is a new kind of magic every day: the bestowing of gifts upon the mpanjaka (island queen) on still-primitive Nosy Mamoko. A hike almost the whole way around that rocky island with friendly local Thom, the epitome of patience as we scramble for hours over slippery rocks and I somehow snap the sole off my shoe halfway through.

More snorkeling, this time off Tanikely, where we spy vast schools of flat, round fish and a huge red snapper. On the more developed Komba, I play a one-on-one soccer match with a six-year-old while Lisa is busy taking and printing photos of the islanders, and there I also meet an enigmatic Italian man who has singlehandedly transformed life on one end of the island over the last twenty-five years. We hike along the beach and up into the hills, and miraculously find a crusty baguette (we are both bread fiends) at the end of the day on the dusty main street.

I seek out the lemurs, the bright-eyed prosimian primates that live only on Madagascar. I’ve been lucky to see lemurs in a research facility before, so I know the little imps will be friendly. I am not, however, wholly expecting to become their jungle gym. I should know that the little bits of banana I carry to attract them will mean lemurs on my arms, my shoulders, and my legs, with the capper being a lemur fight on my head, my hair snarled beyond redemption.

The country is achingly poor, among the top ten neediest nations in the world, and the markets in Hell-ville are busy but ramshackle, a shocking amount of litter covers the main city shores, and local officials have no qualms about asking visitors for “little gifts” at the docks or the airport.

At the same time, the town feels comfortable and open to outsiders, and the true treasures both here and on the smaller islands are the people. We are met with shy smiles and sincere attempts to communicate everywhere we go. They are a beautiful and reserved bunch in general, sometimes even wary, but we feel absolutely welcome everywhere.

It’s a surprisingly rich cultural experience for such a short time in the country; we even luck into a brass band parade on Nosy Komba one morning and just miss getting to attend a festival on Mamoko the day before.

By the time I leave, baobabs are but a backdrop to this beguiling series of islands that broke off from the African continent millions of years ago. Much of an African nature remains, but Hell-ville and some of the more established islets also feel distinctively Polynesian, vaguely Arab, certainly French, with a healthy dash of other Southeast Asian flavors thrown in. It’s a mysterious and heady mix, and our small but unhurried explorations make for one of the most absorbing trips I’ve ever taken.

A Leap of Faith

Tags

, , , , ,

This travel story begins the way many do when I relay the news of my next trip to family and friends. Because there are times I travel on my own, to weird places, in strange ways, I sometimes get furrowed brows, worried shakes of the head, and occasionally outright outrage. This time, the questions start the same way but expand from there.

“I’m going to Madagascar!,” I announce.

Oh, cool … where is that again?

Why on earth do you want to go there?

Is J going with you?

Aren’t you afraid to fly alone (through Qatar, Ethiopia, Madagascar, and everywhere else on so many flights)?

And then:

You’ve never met the people you’re staying with in person?

You’re staying on a sailboat the whole time?

Wait, you’re transporting two suitcases full of stuff that they’ve had shipped to you?

The where, the why there, the inevitable husband question, and the fear query are typical. My mom is just a normal nervous parent when I fly so far away alone. My husband makes me locate a hospital on the island I’ll be near, just in case. My sister mentions very large insects. A startling number of my friends remain aghast at my globetrotting without a husband in tow.

But this time, almost everyone also wonders how I can trust my hosts, people I have never met beyond WordPress or email, with some musing that the sailboat parts and other products I have jammed into two extra bags could be full of cocaine or other contraband and that my “friends” have been playing me for a mule. By departure day, with its usual last-minute frenzy and edginess, even I am writing a thriller in my head about what happens to the naive American woman who gets thrown into a grim prison cell in Addis Ababa or Antananarivo and finds her blogging friend to be a carefully-constructed online personality designed to lure her into a life of smuggling.

But as always, my imagination has simply run wild, and the trip turns out just fine.

Actually, it’s way more than just fine; it is perhaps one of the most unique forays I have made into the world, a dreamlike seven days of sailing off the northwest coast of Madagascar with the inimitable Lisa and the Captain, whom I have come to know over the past four years through Lisa’s blog and, later, email.

I figured I’d like Lisa in person as much as I did through her words. We had discovered much in common: prior financial careers, years in Chicago, tomboyish childhoods, and wanderlust, of course. Through our correspondence, the list grew. One small example: as I readied a surprise gift of Frango mints and pondered other goodies to take my hosts, I asked what they might like as a treat. Frango mints, Lisa replied immediately, another sign that our friendship was meant to be. Seeing our identical flip-flops lying side-by-side on the deck a week later (or uncovering our shared obsession with toast) no longer seemed surprising; we were clearly sisters in a previous life (in a royal family, we agreed, laughing for the thousandth time onboard).

Lisa is the first blogger I’ve met in person. I used to recoil at the idea of people “making friends” with others online; I found the whole idea both ludicrous and sad. Why did these people have to turn to the internet for friendship, I smirked. Why would anyone fly anywhere, let alone for 48 hours overseas, to meet a stranger? I get it now. There was something about this virtual friendship that seemed solid and real, and when we met, it was as if we had known each other forever. The Captain began to refer to us as the “bumble bee convention” as he tried with varying levels of success to interrupt our constant buzz of conversation. I realized they (and certainly he) needed to take a leap of faith on me as well. What if I showed up to live for a week in a small, confined space with them and turned out to be a complete pain in the ass or someone on my own nefarious mission?

Madagascar itself was a distinctive destination that demands its own upcoming post, but I think the biggest impression of the trip was what life as a full-time circumnavigating sailor looks like. Some parts I adapted to very easily. I never got seasick, and I felt totally comfortable living, eating, and sleeping 24/7 on a sailboat. (I am actually land sick now, a full two days after leaving, a fate some people suffer for months afterward, and so far I seem to be one of them …) I loved the cruiser social life, motoring over to other boats in our dinghy for cocktails and appetizers and meeting people from all over the world who have become friends as they make their way around the globe. I could appreciate the minimalist way of life that is part of having one’s entire existence fit into a 15-meter vessel, and I fell easily into languid afternoons of “nothing to do” as we floated in our anchorages off a series of islands.

There were other parts of life at sea that would wear on me after a while, I think, and I marveled that Lisa and The Captain have been onboard their tiny home for five years now. I might get used to pumping a toilet 40 times every time I used it, but I was pretty eager to return to a gleaming bathroom with a spacious countertop and a shower. I suppose I would grow accustomed to washing my clothes in a basin of soapy water, agitating it with my feet, but I couldn’t wait to throw my salty, sandy clothes in a machine when I got home. I am fond of my husband, but I shudder at the thought of spending a 21-day passage at sea with him and only him, arguing non-stop over things large and (more likely) small. Last but not least, I think I would be terrified of those long sea passages, days and weeks of seeing nothing but ocean, sleeping in shifts and imagining ocean liners bearing down on me as I tossed about in frothy waves.

Lisa and The Captain not only do not fear or feel annoyed by these facts of life on a sailboat; they embrace and are invigorated by them. Lisa related her feelings of deep happiness on a solo night watch in a dark sea, Fabio never seemed to tire of cooking on a tiny stove or tinkering with the boat, and while they can squabble like any shore couple might, there is clearly an abiding affection between them that has survived or perhaps been enhanced by an interconnectedness born of true reliance on one other.

If you do not know Lisa, sail over to her blog and get a taste of her floating life and non-traditional choices. She and I talked a lot about what we want from life, the dreams we had or have for it, and what we have done or not done about it. In short, she has seized her opportunities while I have made only tentative grasps at mine. Yes, I saw another new country and I experienced a tiny taste of life on a boat, but I also saw what life has available for us if we are brave enough to really reach for it. This trip will ultimately reveal that the leap of faith I took to get there is a tiny one, and that some people are brave enough to jump into much more unknown waters. Thank you, Lisa and Fabio, for a matchless vacation and, beyond that, a vision of life lived to its fullest. You are both inspirations, and I would gladly take seven flights there and back to visit you again someday!

 

Lisa, lemurs, Lexie

0 for 2

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Over the hill, past my peak, on my last legs, going downhill: all of these hackneyed expressions for aging floated through my mind – quite appropriately for a mountain hiker, I might add – as I tried and failed last month to reach the summits of two of New England’s highest hills.

J and I were on an 8-day road trip around New England, starting in Stowe, Vermont. Our goal was to hike for at least five of those days and attempt to reach the tops of Mt. Mansfield, the uppermost point in Vermont, and Mt. Washington, whose elevation of almost 6300’ is the highest in New Hampshire and all of the Northeastern U.S.

The first was in our grasp – easily in J’s, and probably in mine with another thirty minutes of good, hard slogging. With a slightly too-late start, intermittent rain, and my exasperatingly slow speed on the steeper, rougher ascents, though, we found ourselves on the final pitch above Taft Lodge in the early afternoon, calculating how long it would take to finish getting up, maybe slip and slide back down, drive back to the hotel, take showers, and waltz into a wedding on time.

Our guess was “too long” and we were correct, showing up only shortly before the bride came down the aisle. While I was very exasperated with myself for this failure, and remorseful at holding J back, I grudgingly gave myself props for kicking off the hiking boots after all those hours and managing high heels for the remainder of the day and night!

Between Mansfield and Washington, we did not just sit around eating Ben & Jerry’s, Cabot cheddar, and maple candy (and looking in vain for cider doughnuts) although those fuels may have been consumed in larger quantities than usual. But we worked them off, and more, on other trails in the two states, all in an effort to prepare for the big one – a hike up Mt. Washington, an assembly of tree root- and boulder-strewn paths with about a 4000’ elevation change to reach the summit. As it turned out, all those hours going straight up and down in the woods may have burned me out.

Juggling my absolute desire to at least BE on the top and to reach it on my own two feet, I vacillated on a plan. We contemplated going up on the first cog train of the day even though everything we’d read said we were going to need 9-ish hours to climb up and back down, and this would delay our start. We toyed with hiking up and catching the cog back down, but that’s the only ticket they will not sell you because there is never a guarantee the train will run if the weather changes suddenly, and it often does. Attempting the hike first and failing might mean we’d not see the view from the top at all as the trains stop running at 2:30 pm.

Dilemmas, dilemmas … and we’d already shot our chance to take the cog train the day before because we just didn’t want to rush through our shorter hikes and other rural sightseeing. We were there to relax and enjoy the scenery as well as conquer heights, we reminded ourselves.

And so we didn’t conquer heights, at least not fully and on foot, the way I’d wanted to. J didn’t even care that he hadn’t reached the summits, which he could have readily accomplished; he was thrilled to simply be out in nature and exerting himself. I, on the other hand, radiated disappointment and felt an impending doom, a portent of trail failures to come. I was always the hiker; I’d walked up iconic mountains all over the world, and J got dragged along the first few times. Now he was whizzing up the trails while my backpack felt heavier, my knees more quivery, my confidence shakier.

“It’s the journey, not the destination,” say books, friends, and inspirational posters. Bah! I enjoy the woods; I love the fresh air, and I adore walking all day long. But I don’t pant and scramble, claw and sweat for an entire day just for exercise or for fun. When I work that hard, it’s for a peak, or at least some target. By the time I realized we would not summit Mt. Washington on foot, I set the goal of simply getting above treeline, but we failed – I failed – even at that, spending hours and hours in the long green tunnels that characterize a lot of eastern hiking. We’d been wrapped in the woods for four days straight at this point, and I was sick of it. The forests that I generally love began to close in on me, and then my thoughts did the same, rendering me a crabby old lamenter of my departed youth.

We had ultimately elected to take the cog train that morning, which was a consolation prize of sorts. While it probably cost us the chance to chug to the top under our own power, I’m thrilled that we saw the summit views and meandered on the upper slopes for a short time on one of the sixty or so clear days the mountain gets per year. Score one after all.

 

Three for the Road

Tags

, , , , , , ,

There have been many contenders, but currently perched untouchably atop the podium of road trip competitors is Tuscany. I consider myself a bit of a driving tour connoisseur, having motored through almost every state in the mainland U.S. and all but a few countries in western, central, and eastern Europe. My top criteria for road trip nirvana are all met in Tuscany: smaller roads, little traffic, eye-popping vistas around every corner, and one after another enchanting hill town just often enough to get out and stretch the legs.

Our own little corner of the Tuscan countryside lies just outside the small town of Casole d’Elsa; like many other communities in the area, it’s a medieval hamlet up on a hill with a stone fort, narrow winding streets, and a variety of small shops, eateries, public buildings, and homes.

We can walk there from our pastoral lodging … or not. The Tuscan landscape encourages relaxation and just being, and we spend plenty of time with a bottle of wine, a few snacks, and a view of layered hills covered in spring flowers.

When we do stir, we have a panoply of other towns to visit, and first up is Volterra. A walled city of Etruscan origin, Volterra retains its city gates, an acropolis, and the foundations of ancient temples from that era, as well as the usual Roman ruins. We visit right after breakfast and ascribe our unanimous election of Volterra as our #1 hill town, in part, to that fact. There are few crowds, the town is spotlessly clean and well-cared for, and the views from the main piazza are swoon-worthy. We very much get the sense that the town belongs to its residents; while catering to tourists through shopping (mainly alabaster, the city’s chief product) and eating venues, Volterra feels very “real” and unperturbed by the infusion of visitors.

We leave Volterra by mid-morning for San Gimignano, a town we have very high hopes for given its uniqueness as the setting of multiple high towers that erupt from the rolling Tuscan knolls. Our anticipation builds as we pass a whimsical red sculpture encircling a view of the hills and, later, get a sneak peek at the walled town and its pillars from afar.

As we approach the triple-walled city (also from Etruscan times), we get our first inkling that this is no Volterra. We start to see large tour buses winding up the last few kilometers to town. We pass crowded parking lots and wonder why people are parking so far away. We inch closer in order to drop at least my parents at one of the main gates but fear we may never find them again amid the growing hordes of visitors.

San Gimignano has eight gates, a fact that will soon play a role in our small family group getting separated from each other. We end up parking in one of the lots we had just pooh-poohed and allow son T to walk into town while my parents and I wait for a shuttle bus. Big mistake. T enters the city at a different gate than the one we are dropped at, and we all, in our separate parts of this tourist madhouse of a town, wonder how this will all play out with no means of communication.

The two groups decide on their plans: our group of three takes the easy route and plops right down at a table near the main city gate and orders lunch. Group 2, the impatient T, ponders. He stays put for fifteen minutes at his gate, wanders nearby for another quarter hour, has a dawning of comprehension about the relative immobility of Group 1, then hightails it through the city to what he guesses is the main entrance. He is correct, and he finally approaches, panting and hot, just as lunch arrives. Disaster averted, but we’ve had an unlucky start in the Manhattan of medieval Tuscany.

Unlike its larger neighbor, Volterra, San Gimignano actually feels much busier and more populous. It is later in the day, and even the sleepy-headed tourists are up and out now, so part of the bigger feel here is likely due to the visiting crowds. Nevertheless, the architectural uniqueness adds to the big-city impression. From about 1200 AD on, San Gimignano became the site of two centuries’ worth of competition between its wealthiest families, with these rivals striving to build ever taller tower houses. By the end of the Medieval period, there were some 72 of these stone skyscrapers, and 14 of them remain today.

As we leave town after a long and crowded stroll, we question whether we should try to squeeze in another city visit today. Oh, hell … my parents are only in their mid-eighties; we might as well make them walk another few hours today! But really, there is no arm-twisting involved, and we set off for the largest place of the day: Siena.

As we enter the town, the streets are not crowded, and the tourists seem to have left for the day. We easily find a parking garage that says “Cathedral Parking.” Great luck – the church is, in fact, our main target this afternoon! We begin to walk in the direction of a few other people and marvel at our good fortune to be here at such a quiet, peaceful time.

fullsizeoutput_452d

Until we realize there really should be more people. And that the 5-minute walk Google maps has over-confidently promised us has now been going on for more like 12-15. We blame it on my mom and her slow-but-steady pace. Like many mothers, she is regularly accused of dallying, too much window shopping, not paying attention to signs, and anything else delaying progress, but she is actually not at fault today. No, it appears we have simply parked at the very far end of the city, and as we wend our way closer, other visitors do materialize, and we finally find ourselves in the large square in front of Siena’s imposing black-and-white striped cathedral.

We are too tired to really enjoy it. My dad finds it garish, and the rest of us think it’s okay. We are impressed with the stacking of the black and white marble to heights that seem unimaginable in the days it was built, and we very much like the chairs that are available for us to sit on. After a few minutes of taking in the now-familiar Catholic furnishings, we gather the energy (and my worried wits) to go back down (the slippery marble stairs with no handrail) into the square for another short rest before making the lengthy walk back to the car.

It’s been an exhausting day, but we make the short drive home and rally with a Tuscan toast. A plate of cheeses and breads, a bottle of very local red (right from the property), and a Vernaccia from San Gimignano are appropriate refreshments for the early evening, and we sit on our patio overlooking the hills we’ve driven all day. Tomorrow is another day in paradise, and we have no agenda. Either way –  eventful or unhurried – we all find Tuscany to be the star of the trip.

Mexican Modern

Tags

, , , , , , , ,

Picture Mexico, or go just about anywhere in the country, and what you see is color, pattern, texture, and more color. Boldly striped serapes, painted pottery, corner food carts bursting with fresh fruits and vegetables, and the national green-white-red theme on everything from flags to clothing to souvenirs. Surely you envision something like this:

Vibrant dwellings like Frida Kahlo’s casa azul in Coyoacán, the pastel streetscapes in Roma Norte and La Condesa, and Rivera’s and Siqueiros’s multicolor murals have been around for decades. Going back even further, both indigenous and European-influenced art, from pre-Columbian to baroque to neoclassical to revolutionary to today’s street art and handicrafts, have long exhibited a fondness for bright hues and busy patterns. You expect paint jobs like this:

And walls of this sort:

Local architecture and design – Aztec, Mayan, on through the Spanish conquistadors and the post-colonial years, and well into the 21st century – have featured intricately carved wood, the heavy textures of lava and cantera stone, and motifs that are geometric or ornate in nature. You marvel at these:

Mexico is most certainly not the place to go for sleek lines, minimalist style, or all-white interiors. For glossy black expanses and shiny metallic facades. Right?

Wrong. Mexico City, these days a must-see destination for world travelers in search of the next hip stop for food, culture, and nightlife, has modern curiosities hiding in many corners of the sprawling metropolis.

A few weeks ago, I spent my first day in CDMX hanging out in Santa Fe, the new-ish business center in the southwest quadrant of the city. It’s not a culturally rich place; in fact, it’s a bit sterile and boring, but it’s calming and peaceful in the Zen-like way that clean design and natural vegetation can be in the middle of an enormous, hectic city.

I floated from fountains to gardens, under wings of canvas and onto glossy cantilevered terraces, past living walls and koi ponds. I sat on a bench in a park of tiered grasses and dipped my hand in a pool edged with metal and stones. For twenty-four hours, I felt like I was on a retreat tucked away from the 21 million people in Mexico City’s overall metropolitan area.

As we ventured back into the urban core, we stopped at another modern surprise: the Museo Soumaya, a smooth and curvy, metal-scaled appendage pushing into the air in tony Polanco. Funded by Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest men in the world, and named after his late wife, the museum holds the largest collection of Rodin sculptures outside of France, a record-setting assortment of ancient Mexican coins, and a staggering number of European and Mexican paintings. As is usually the case with me and museums, the bones of this one drew me as much as the contents. The palette was white, white, and white (walls, ceiling, and floors), and the six levels were joined by a Guggenheim-ish spiral staircase.

After a day and a half, we settled into the more familiar Mexico to eat tacos and roam the markets amid the usual splashes of color and liveliness in the capital. But make no mistake, the modern is alive and well in CDMX, and its presence is a pleasing counterpoint, a different little jewel in an already rewarding treasure chest.

***

And just for fun … some local color of a different type: dog school in Parque Mexico in La Condesa, my favorite find of our mid-week Mexican mini-trip!

Rome Two Ways

Tags

, , , , ,

I got a double dose of Rome last month in more than one way. In round one, with my parents, I got in three days of the city as a repository of antiquities, with a guide at all the hot spots.

In a return a week later with my son, we roamed the modern-day capital on our own, certainly seeing plenty of tourist sites for his first-time visit, but spending more of our time just walking, sitting in random cafes, and poking around less frequented quarters of the city.

The learner in me always appreciates a guided tour, and we covered a huge amount of ground in the early days, working our way through the centuries, from deeply BC to the relatively modern medieval period and beyond. I’m not much of a history buff, but the depth and breadth of the past’s footprint here is formidable, and its presence in a large, vibrant city is both anomalous and perfectly fitting.

From the Colosseum’s sheer size and gory records to the feats of engineering at the Pantheon, from the somewhat underwhelming Spanish Steps to the overwhelming, over-the-top Trevi fountain, we are in the grip of the city’s history even as we delight in its modern sophistication.

Whether you’re officially there for the ruins or not, Rome will show them to you. As T and I wander the city later in search of mundane, contemporary places, we stumble onto the remains of Trajan’s column and forum, nestled up against a trendy wine bar.

Every time we return to our hotel, we casually glance at another cat-infested field of columns, completely unaware that the Largo di Torre Argentino area is one of the oldest vestiges of the early city.

We learn to look for ancient outlines, for example, in the Piazza Navona, whose shape mirrors that of the circa 80 AD stadium serving as the current square’s foundation, and even in parking lots whose forms follow the contours of the small amphitheaters that lie below them. Like Athens, Rome is a ramble in and out of periods of time separated by millennia.

In between gulps of history, we stuff our bellies with a different kind of sustenance: Roman-style pizza and enough caprese salads to last … well, at least the rest of the summer. We cool off with fresh fruit at Campo de Fiori and melting gelato in the twisty little streets of Trastevere. A non-pasta eater at home, I fall madly in love with cacio e pepe, eating it four out of seven nights in Rome. Even this basic, age-old dish conjures up the Roman Empire, intertwining ancient history and modern life once again.

During both stays, we relish the natural parts of the scenery as much as the buildings in the fair late spring weeks. We crane our heads upward, admiring the mother of all wisteria vines cascading down a house in the Ludovisi neighborhood, as well as the ubiquitous Mediterranean pines that cover the city in a haphazard canopy of broccoli-esque crowns.

We stoop to regard the much daintier pink and white flowers tumbling down the Spanish steps.

A peek off a Vatican balcony offers a refreshing view of simple morning shade amid all the papal pomp, and Palatine Hill offers a soft, green diversion from the sternly marbled Forum down below.

From introduction to finale, Rome repeatedly shows us her two faces – the archeological smorgasbord and the thriving modern capital. As we depart the city by taxi early our final day, tired and preoccupied with upcoming travel details, the Colosseum suddenly appears against the post-dawn sky. We’ve already seen every inch of it inside and out with our official tickets, but as the ordinary morning sunshine illuminates the arched openings in an extraordinary way, we feel full force the inseparable connection between past and present that Rome embodies.

 

An Impressive Pair

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I left for Italy brokenhearted, barely more than a day after saying a sooner-than-expected goodbye to my home and travel companion of the last 14.5 years – my dear, sweet pup. After nearly three decades, I was abruptly launched into a new era of life and travel, a time in which I suddenly had no living creature dependent on me for life. I imagine this will feel liberating someday; at the start of my trip, it felt unmooring at best.

Having lost one caretaker role, though, I embraced an unlikely one for the next few weeks – the balancing act of playing travel coordinator for two separated generations: my eighty-something parents in the first week, and my millennial son who jumped into the mix partway through. All three are bright, active, capable, interesting, and interested people, but I still felt the burden of getting them all from place to place and making sure everyone was having a good time. Old habits die hard, and early on, I struggled to relax into the first trip in years where there was nothing at home to fret about. (My husband was home alone, but he handles that with aplomb!)

Despite my apparent need to worry about something or someone at all times, my first charges were pretty damn impressive. From the very outset, I watched my 85- and 86-year-old parents navigate Rome’s irregular cobblestone streets for hours, starting a few minutes after we had landed from an overnight flight and stashed our bags at our hotel’s reception. My dad has two artificial knees, and my mom has one of those plus a brand-new pacemaker, yet neither blinked an eye at the idea of ascending and descending the Spanish Steps with no hand rails, walking uphill and downhill and occasionally in circles in search of lunch and dinner spots, or staying up until it was really time for bed to avoid jet lag the next day.

Both popped up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the following mornings for hours of sightseeing – walking the full circumference of both levels of the Colosseum, pressing through a crush of humanity at the Trevi Fountain, ambling through the Pantheon and Campo de Fiori, and doing the “simple” things like scouting out two meals a day on our own. A three-hour tour of the Vatican, all on their feet, was followed by a never-ending walk to lunch in the hot sun. In Florence, they toured the gigantic Uffizi all morning and still had the wherewithal to walk to and then fire intelligent questions at our guide at the Accademia Gallery that afternoon.

In spite of my constant fears of a fall, they stepped safely onto the Grand Canal water bus to the Piazza San Marco in Venice, clambered onto the Frecciarossa train, and repeatedly climbed a steep flight of stairs to our Florence apartment (which mom could not stop calling “the Airbub,” thinking that little “n” was a “u”), all the while maintaining a level of good cheer that was extraordinary. By the end, I know they were tired, but they chugged on until the very last minute when we put them into a cab in Venice.

They drank wine every night, sampled new foods, attempted a little Italian, unpacked and repacked suitcases, adjusted to an ever-changing lineup of new beds, helped navigate on a succession of poorly-signposted routes, caught early morning cabs and trains, peed in iffy gas station restrooms, wandered through three Tuscan hill towns in one very full day, shopped in crowded Florence (well, OK, that was mostly just mom), and got lost and then figured it out on their own on the one afternoon I let them out of my sight.

There were naturally some frustrating moments; no matter how adept these octogenarians may be, they simply cannot cover as much ground in a day as a twenty-something guy and his hiker mom can (and that’s OK). They got a little cocky, wanting to manhandle their own bags on slippery stone stairs (not gonna happen), and they got up ridiculously early to get ready for each day (sorry, guys, you know how I value my sleep). But there was so much fun, and plenty of hilarity, too: on our final night together, finishing off the last bottle of wine before they flew home alone, my mother turned to her grandson and said, “In three minutes, can you explain the internet to me?”

We were an unlikely group, but the trip was a resounding success, thanks in no small part to the gumption of my amazing parents. (Don’t worry, T – you will be praised in future posts!). I’m happy to have inherited at least some of their zest for life and can only hope to maintain it until I am their age and beyond.

 

Better Blues

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Get out of town, I urged myself. A mini roadtrip is always a balm, and my Sunday drive a few days ago was no exception, a country comfort for my bruised urban soul. I aimed the car west, alone, in the late morning, looking to find the sea of blue that sprouts this time of year in central Texas.

IMG_1101

DSC_0726

In late March and early April, the bluebonnets arrive. At least two forms of these lupines are native to Texas, but an ambitious Highway Department program in the 1930s to beautify the landscape spread the delicate state flower ever wider.

IMG_1116IMG_1136

Five species now border many major highways in the state, and they are joined by numerous other wildflowers, like Indian paintbrush, pink evening primrose, and Indian blanket.

IMG_1138

DSC_0723

Envious of all the young families plopping their Easter-clad children in the flowers, I returned home in the late afternoon, picked up the old lady pooch, and settled her into her own blue bed right here in Houston’s Hermann Park.

From highway berms to private farms, Hill Country towns to city parks, Texas is awash in wildflowers this time of year. The best are yet to come, but this little glimpse put a big smile on my face.

DSC_0721DSC_0724

fullsizeoutput_3d88.jpeg

A Sorry Excuse for a Story

Tags

, , , ,

Tell us a story, said the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge this past week. I have a sorry one to tell.

Once upon a time, there was a trusting and naïve woman making a happy new life in a fresh house and city. Last week, that life was shattered like her kitchen window, rendering her, in rough order, terrified, nauseous, paranoid, agitated, irritated, stoic, and resolved. In one week, she has fortified the house, bought new electronics, and begun the daunting task of recreating the documents, both physical and virtual, that will allow her to step back into the world.

When she does, she may return for a little peace to this magical grove of trees, discovered the day before the intrusion that sent her days into a tailspin.

Hope to be back to happy travel posts soon.