Beyond Baobabs

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“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

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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 as 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; for 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

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Sorry Excuse for a Story

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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.

Summer Interlude

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A seasonal time warp dropped me into a brief summer idyll last week. In the day and a half it took me to drive nearly halfway across the lower U.S., I transitioned from late winter rain and fog to luminous blue skies, cottony clouds, and soft, warm air.

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In the early hours, the atmosphere was thick with fog and the greasy refinery stench of East Texas, Lake Charles, and Baton Rouge. As I pushed on, the petrochemical panorama eventually gave way to tangly brown swamps crouching below the causeways of Louisiana.

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For me, it’s always an eerie part of the drive – a divided road propped up on pylons above the brackish water, followed by bridges over the Atchafalaya Basin’s Henderson Swamp, an enormous and ghostly pool of water in which half-buried trees appear to be drowning. Billboards hawk boudin and cracklins for miles, neither of which tempted me to stray from my path hard east.

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The mist slowly lifted, and so did my spirits, as I spied skeins of birds unspooling over the low-country wetlands of Mississippi and Alabama and, later, a shimmering expanse of water dancing with hard white points of light near Pensacola.

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The second morning, fields of bristly marsh grasses appeared, my sign that coastal Georgia was near. I-10 straight east, Houston to Jacksonville, and then a short northern jog. That’s all it took to land me in a hot summer milieu that smelled just like childhood.

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It lasted all week, a gift of lightness and the very best kind of nostalgia. “School’s out!” the fresh air cried, and we flung the windows open and popped in the screens at my parents’ sunny house. It was summer break in mid-February, and I hungrily inhaled the sweet and earthy scent of grass and warm soil. I marveled as flowers and ferns began to sprout from one day to the next. A chorus of birdsong was my morning wake-up call, and cheeping insects serenaded the dog and me on her last trip outside each night.

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I pedaled an old bike into the wind, savoring the delectable mix of hot sun and cool air on bare arms. In the company of my parents and younger sister, we revisited old pastimes, ducking into the DQ for long-eschewed treats and lolling on the couch with the NY Times crossword in the evening. The aroma of fresh shrimp and veggies rose from the grill, and a hint of chlorine, fertilizer, and light mildew – all smells I strangely love – put the finishing touches on my olden-days reverie. The years and cares that had been piling up rolled away, and if my birthday hadn’t been at the end of that exquisite week, I might have been convinced I was several decades younger.

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Which leads me to graceful aging …

A highlight of the week was a walk on Jekyll Island’s Driftwood Beach, a popular, well-loved shoreline that had somehow eluded my acquaintance in many years of being so close by. It was immediately obvious this had been a terrible oversight!

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Jekyll’s northern beaches are slowly eroding; each year, more and more sand is pushed by the sea and dumped on the south end of the island. In that process, centuries-old live oaks and pines are uprooted and scattered across the hard sand that is constantly pounded by ocean currents and then baked by the sun.IMG_0892

A few trees remain rooted but most are sun-bleached carcasses strewn about like sculptures in an outdoor art exhibit. While the otherworldly scene has become popular for wedding shoots, my sister and I used it like the children we had regressed to, climbing barefoot on trunks, branches, and toppled root systems as our father amusedly looked on.IMG_0852

The driftwood has an admirable, simple beauty, a spare look that’s enhanced by the blue of the ocean beyond and the pinkish tinge of early sunset. We roamed aimlessly for a while, climbed some more, took our photos, then slipped back through the ferns and palms to the road. Like the buffed and whitened old trees, my own troubled edges were scrubbed clean by my week in the sun, and I came home rejuvenated, eager to reclaim the simple pleasures of summer and youth, every day.

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Home again

 

Searching for Silver Linings in Ecuador

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Weather can be a cruel travel companion. Sometimes its best version comes along on a trip and makes everything better and brighter. Most times, it simply hovers in the background, a wallflower friend, neither making nor breaking the voyage. But on rare occasions, it becomes the escort from hell, a negative force that colors every aspect of a trip.

For much of our recent trip to Ecuador, we were accompanied by a physical and proverbial black cloud, making this country – a place that others have celebrated and which well-traveled friends had recently described as “a place everyone should see” – a bit of a disappointment to us. While almost all of our frustrations were directly or indirectly caused by variations on the theme of bad weather, there were other disenchantments as well, and it took our powers of positive thinking to salvage our week.

Quito

In Quito, my sister and I imagined we’d find a vibrant capital city with flowery colonial balconies, lively indigenous markets, and sunny plazas bordered by churches of every variety, all surrounded by Andean peaks. What we found was a smudged outline of that picture: a somewhat tired city, smothered in low-hanging clouds and choked with the black exhaust from dyspeptic buses and private vehicles. The historic part of the city had some of the requisite charm in the most popular tourist patches, but the rest of the hugely sprawling metropolis felt nondescript and lifeless to us. I like straying off the tourist paths, but this time the quieter streets and areas held little interest and even gave us a sense of uneasiness at times. We first stayed in La Mariscal, a neighborhood recommended for its energetic nightlife and restaurant options, but what we saw were some weary-looking prostitutes, a smattering of good places to eat, and bars and cafes seemingly meant to attract 20-somethings on a men’s outing.

Our optimistic natures saw beauty in the colorful houses tumbling down the steep hills surrounding the valley in which the city lay. Laughing at ourselves, we tried to make artsy photos out of the mist cloaking the skyline. We managed to find two tasty dinners even though the first restaurant “ran out” of all white wine and the second said the entrée brought to us was different from what we ordered because they recently revised the ingredients but hadn’t bothered to change the description. Oh, okay. And some of the suggestions mentioned by friends and online sources were simply rendered useless by the weather; why pay to take the teleférico for a bird’s eye view of the city when the city is covered by a big, gray flannel blanket? When we returned to the capital at the end of our week, we moved slightly north, closer to La Carolina Park and a more vibrant barrio and that small shift, along with a few hours of sun one day, was helpful in redeeming the city a bit in our eyes. Would we have felt differently overall about Quito in the sun? Hard to say, but probably.

Cotopaxi

After seeing everything we wanted to see in the capital, we eagerly anticipated what was to be the highlight of our hiking menu for the week. We had arranged a driver and guide to take us to Cotopaxi Mountain, an active volcano that we intended to hike up to 16,000 feet or higher if we felt good and the weather permitted. Friends who had been here a week before basked in the sun at the refuge and took stunning photos of the summit, and we were primed for more of the same. (Maybe we should have adjusted our expectations based on this couple’s attempt to take wedding photos with Cotopaxi as the backdrop …)

On our Cotopaxi morning, however, we woke to very cold temperatures, some 20 degrees below normal, as well as the extremely dense clouds and rain that we had apparently dragged along to Ecuador with us. We put on or packed all of our cold and wet weather gear, and went downstairs to meet the guide … who was a no-show. Several increasingly impatient and irritated phone calls later, we secured a replacement, who arrived 90 minutes late, a big deal because the weather worsens on Cotopaxi Mountain as the day progresses, even on a good day.

The late start, followed by a halting uphill slog on unpaved roads now running with mud, led to a miserable ascent on the cinder paths up the side of the volcano. We (hilariously and optimistically) chose the path that afforded great views of five surrounding peaks, but all we saw when we could lift our altitude-challenged heads was a haunting, blackish-gray slant of ash punctuated by squawking seagulls, whose eerie cawing as they wheeled above our heads just reinforced the gloomy doom of our surroundings.

We made it to the refuge at 15,900+ feet (see it? … squint hard; it’s there, below), but after resting and warming ourselves briefly, we took one look at the now snow-covered trail leading up to the lip of the glacier and decided we’d had enough.

Smart move. Seconds into our descent, we were lashed by small hail pellets that stung our faces and pinged off our rain jackets. A crack of thunder sounded as we rounded the first switchback, and our guide – slow and careful coming up with the high elevation – began to walk at a pace that required us to almost jog down the slippery ash to keep up.

As we dropped lower, the icy pills turned to wet snow and then to cold rain, soaking us to the skin anywhere we were not totally waterproofed. Back in the 4×4, we skidded down the mud tracks to leave the national park, learning that our guide was even more nervous than we were about being on the side of a mountain in an electrical storm.

Chugchilán

We left Quito quite happily, hoping that crossing the mountains into another province might lead us into a different weather system. It did – a worse one! Our first day in the mountains at a rustic lodge surrounded by dozens of hiking trails was a rain-fest. We hiked anyway because, well, we are hard-core and stubborn. Our jackets were sopping, our hiking shoes sodden and muddy, and our spirits as dampened as our clothing. But we (sort of) got our hikes in.

Even though we were surrounded by a smorgasbord of trails, all of the hike descriptions given out by the lodge were inadequate or incorrect, and none of the trails was marked in any way. Throw in the feral dogs that we were supposed to beat off with the sticks we got at the lodge, and it’s understandable that we might have aborted a few hikes before their natural ends.

After a surprisingly great night’s sleep in our little woodstove-heated room, we rose to a hallelujah moment – SUN peeking out from the clouds and revealing a deep and verdant canyon in full view from our window. We wolfed down our breakfasts, loaded our backpacks, and took off.

We got in a solid five hours of hiking before the deluge began. The elevation changes in this part of Ecuador are extreme; starting at 10,500 feet made it even more challenging, but we were euphoric over a short ridge hike to start the day. We clambered a steep half mile up to the top and then completed a big loop with fantastic views. At the end we inched down through farmland that looked like it was built on the side of an Aztec temple or an Egyptian pyramid. The crops planted at 45-degree angles were a vision of geometric landscape art. We were happy girls this morning.

After a quick snack and water refill, we were back out for a hike down, down, down into a canyon and then up, up, up onto a plateau. We met the scariest snarling dog of the trip, baring his teeth and hungrily staring us down from a perch four feet above us. We waved our sticks and carried on, but we ultimately found the plateau hike boring, and the maps made so sense at all, so after a while we ate a snack and then did the reverse down, down, down and back up, up, up.

Undaunted, we decided to take one more short hike because we knew mid-to late afternoon would bring rain. We pushed it a little too far, racing back under black clouds and, at the very end, buckets of rain dumped all over us after we had finally dried out all our gear the night before. Sigh.

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Quilotoa morning dawned just like Cotopaxi day: completely socked in with dense fog. By some miracle granted by the gods of travel (or maybe Instagram), the clouds retreated just as we arrived at the rim after a thirty-minute drive to the crater.

We took full advantage, snapping away with our cameras before we took off on a three-hour trek across a portion of the rim and, as the clouds inevitably returned, down into the town of Guayama, getting sprinkled upon for much of the walk.

Here we needed to make a decision: continue walking the whole way back to Chugchilán, which was another three to four hours, or get a ride back with the driver who awaited us there.

We had plenty of energy, but the rains persisted lightly, and our guide’s description of the route was unnerving. We would descend for about two hours on a very narrow path that started out as a cat’s spine walk with steep precipices on both sides and then turned into an even thinner path that snaked down the face of the canyon to the river. After that, we would need to climb back out of the gorge and walk back to our little village. Having seen the washed out roads and mudslides that littered our route in the car that morning, we could hardly imagine what a rain-soaked trail would look like and what danger it would present to us if the showers were as torrential as they had been the previous two days.

Seeing both our worry and disappointment, the guide and driver conferred and decided to take us to an alternate route so we could at least hike the bottom of the gorge and make the climb out of the canyon. While certainly quicker, we soon saw that the rain-damaged road down was just as scary as the trek would have been, and we squeezed our eyes shut, then took fleeting peeks at the drop-offs that beckoned inches away from the car doors. We couldn’t wait to get out of the car and start walking again, no matter how steep or frightening!

Do I even need to say it started to rain on us as we staggered out of the steep canyon walls that afternoon and wound our way back to our muddy, tree-dripping, bone-chilling, bugs-in-the-shower, eco-lodge room? Or that a 300-pound pig began snorting and squealing and trying to nose its way into our room as we hung up our drenched clothing? We slugged back a glass of box wine and a huge local beer in the main lodge at dinner, struggled to make conversation with the motley crew of backpackers there for the evening, and crashed into our rock-hard beds for one last night.

Back to Quito and the Equator

Back in Quito after our stay in Chugchilán, we spent one final day thawing our bones under a few hours of high-altitude sun and turning our previous six days of rain, questionable lodging, and bizarre acquaintances into funny stories and the beginnings of good memories. We overpaid for a ride north to the equator sites (there are several, one of which was semi-interesting and, fortunately, the one recognized as the most accurate location).

We agreed that Ecuador is a physically beautiful country that was just not able to show itself properly during our time there, but that even in great weather it may not have delighted us the way many other destinations have. I couldn’t help but compare Quito to buoyant Bogotá or historic Cusco or rocking Mexico City – all high-altitude Latin American cities that have charmed me to death, and Quito just couldn’t stand in the ring with those places, at least this time. Rural beauty is there in spades, but the infrastructure and information were sadly lacking throughout our time away from the capital, and we didn’t connect as well with the local people as we would have liked either. Because our experience seems different from that of many other travelers, we’ll just have to give Ecuador the benefit of the doubt and try again someday when we go back to the Galapagos or the Amazon!

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Roughing It

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On our recent Texas road trip, we spent time both going and coming in Fredericksburg, an old German-influenced town in the Hill Country near the center of the state. Even before I moved to Texas, I had always loved the soft patina of Texas limestone, the predominant building material in this area. Paired with rough wood siding and beams, the pale yellow stone has a naturally weathered look that I’ll always identify with central Texas. Equally weather-worn is the split wood siding on a few historic log homes and even a few newer doors and walls.

Speaking of weathered …

Always seeking a quick hike wherever we are, here we decided to climb Enchanted Rock, a huge dome of pink granite that rises from the earth just outside Fredericksburg. A billion years ago, this rock was a pool of magma, parts of which pushed up through the earth’s surface, cooled and hardened, and turned into granite. Over time, the surface rock and soil wore away, forming the domes here today. We were fascinated to read that the domes are but a tiny part of a huge underground sea of granite. The entire batholith covers 62 square miles, but most of it is underground.

Enchanted Rock has numerous eroded layers, with pieces expanding and falling off even today on the curved surface. At the high point now, the main dome is 425 feet high, and the entire exposed rock spans 640 acres.

And that’s it for our three-day getaway a few weeks ago. I’m on my way to Ecuador now for some much higher climbs, so stay tuned!

Inscrutable Marfa

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A year-end drive, planned very last minute to stave off post-holiday gloom, took us to the Hill Country in the central part of the state, and then farther west to the empty expanses of West Texas. 

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Our ultimate target was Marfa, a small town that defies easy description. Other writers have used words like hipster, artsy, curated, minimalist, fake, expensive, cool, and overrated. Every one of these adjectives can apply, but Marfa is a place you have to feel, not just see or try to put into words, and it takes more than dropping in for an afternoon to do it. On the surface, Marfa could be small-town anywhere – in prairie Iowa or rural Cuba. Half-century old cars and faded pickup trucks sit in small patches of scorched grass, vintage Airstreams glint among the sepia tones of the vegetation, and low-slung houses with chipped-paint fences hide courtyards and more from clueless passersby. This is what you see, and are meant to see, before (or if) you have your cultural epiphany.

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But shimmering elusively in the plainspoken, down-home facades and pastoral landscapes are the half-hidden intellectualism, the artsy aesthetic, the foodie vibe, and (if you are the cynical type) the pretension that a visitor has heard is there but has to slowly discern. Inside some of those modest-looking dwellings live wealthy L.A. movers and shakers, up-and-coming or already famous artists, and well-heeled couples both young and old who seem to have been beamed in from Brooklyn or Seattle. There are infinity-edge pools hiding in there, and stainless steel kitchens, Eames chairs, and alpaca throws. We know this later, when we flip through books in the shops, but what we see are dusty streets with kitschy awnings and rusty screen doors.

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On our first pass through town, we do not recognize a single gallery space on the two main streets; the buildings are nondescript and any signage or advertisement nonexistent. When our hotel receptionist points to the map and tells us where things are, I keep shaking my head, thinking I must have the map upside down or am otherwise disoriented. We went down that street, I say, there was nothing there! I think J and I are both thinking we drove 600 miles for nothing.

Version 4But no, a second pass reveals discreet signs, and simple iron doors open to reveal rooms containing, for example, three huge Andy Warhol paintings, or tablesful of art glass, or a “September Eleven” installation. Even our hotel surprises us: this unadorned, rectangular carton right off the railroad tracks shelters a hopping, see-and-be-seen bar, highbrow local bookstore, and Architectural Digest-worthy room décor.

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Some of the trailers in town (and more than a few rentable teepees) are part of an ironic-chic camping complex. A plainly unattractive bluish-gray building contains just about the best pizza I’ve ever waited an hour and a half to get. Another old trailer dishes out “Marfalafel” and other Mediterranean goodies for visitors like Beyoncé, you, and me, and it takes us well over a day to even locate another popular restaurant that is tucked up against a random house with a teeny tiny sign.

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We walk through a field filled with a kilometer-long string of concrete … things. Apparently some visitors mistake these for unused highway barriers. The minimalist blocks are the work of the Marfa art scene’s founding father, Donald Judd. Like the town itself, the sculptural art at first inspires some eye-rolling and disappointment, but after a slow walk from one end to the other, with the morning sun catching the blunt gray edges and illuminating the surrounding prairie grasses, the piece begins to appeal. We pose with our senior dog in the openings; this would have made a much edgier Christmas card!

It’s hard to tell if the locals want us there or not. It’s clear that the burgeoning art scene has kept the town alive; many other small settlements we pass through out here in the desert look one more economic dip away from extinction. But we feel the ambivalence of both the hip crowd and the locals. Many places are only open on the weekend, shops close when they feel like it even then, service is sluggish, and a shrug might be the best answer you get to any question.Version 2

It sounds a bit unlikable, doesn’t it, or at least difficult to fully appreciate? Why does anyone drive hours and hours (and you have to) to see this place whose most famous work of art, the fake Prada store, is another 36 miles outside of town? Whose other claim to fame is a set of mysterious lights that bob out on the desert at night? Whose essence can only be guessed at or seen in a book?

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I can tell you why we did it – because it’s there! – but I can’t fully explain why I loved it. I need to go back and spend more than a day and a half browsing the galleries around town, to get a second shot at the Marfa Lights which failed to show up for us, to take the full six-hour Chinati Foundation tour, to try the Marfalafel since the food truck guys decided to close right when I walked up, and to try to more fully grasp the unlikely appeal of this tumbledown town.

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I can tell you that after the first few hours, I thought Marfa was the dumbest destination ever, nothing but a sad little place, or maybe a joke on all of us. That after eight hours, a little of the mystery had gotten under my skin. That after a day, I was all in – hook, line, and sinker. I can also tell you my husband did not get past stage 1.5 of that thought evolution; he thought it was sort of interesting and enjoyed watching my gradual enthrallment, but I’m guessing my next trip will be solo!

Driving the Blues Away

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The year I got my groove back was almost at an end, and the kids had come home for a short time and, just as quickly, were gone. I was newly bereft.

My own annus horribilis, 2016, had segued into a very good year overall. I went to Cuba at just the right time this past January. We hit a sweet spot for American citizens; things were smooth-ish, somewhat figured out, and not yet confused by the current political climate, and Cuba was still its enigmatic self.

A few months later, I left a cold and corrupt state after twenty-six mostly amazing years; if that sounds like a contradiction, it’s because everything there was perfect until it just wasn’t anymore. Although I wept leaving my home and friends, it was time to uproot ourselves from a life of diminishing returns. I settled into a semi-tropical, warm, and green new city. In my fertile new environment, I re-bloomed, making new friends, finding some rewarding writing work, getting fit, and starting fresh in myriad ways.

What didn’t change in 2017 was that I drove all over the place, and that was a good thing. I punched out day trips into the Texas countryside, a near month-long land cruise across half the U.S., a multi-week swing through five countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and a year-end sadness-subduing ride out to West Texas in the final days of the year.

 

 

As we took down the tree a few days ago, re-made the beds, and put away ate all the leftover cookies, I realized I had to get out of here. Everything was making me cry (or fat). The home-made ornaments with the kids’ little faces on them, the snowman in the powder room, the lights and candles that had made the house glow for a few weeks, all the chips my sons overbought. So we packed up the car, the dog, and our bags, and we aimed the car west. Far west. Six hundred miles west. And I started to smile again.

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The farther we ventured into the heart and then the outermost reaches of Texas, the lighter the human touch and my heart became. There is no one out here, we marveled. Maybe it was a post-holiday lull, but beyond the Hill Country in the middle of the state, we saw perhaps one car every half hour or so. On a lonely stretch of US-90, through the Chihuahua Desert that runs along the Mexican border, we counted fewer than ten passenger cars all of New Year’s Eve day.

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What we did see were miles and miles of post oak trees and creosote bushes in a faded terrain also dotted with yucca, mesquite, agave and prickly pear cactus, all broken up by a series of small mountain ranges and occasional canyons.

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The route from Houston to Marfa, our destination, rises ever so slowly; when a low-grade headache and increasing thirst hit us after a day and a half, we realized we’d gone from barely above sea level to almost 5000 feet in elevation.

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Human and man-made activity was limited to long, lonesome trains and Border Patrol stations and vehicles, and as we passed through farms and tiny towns, we took in a scattering of simple windmills, taco stands, rural post offices, and a disconcerting number of taxidermy shops and deer processing facilities.

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As the West Texas wind whisked the dust off the roads, my mind was swept clean of the tumbleweeds of despair, of living far from my children, parents, and siblings. It didn’t make sense, but being out there in the vast emptiness took away my own feelings of hollowness. The spare vistas and pared-down life were palliative, and the resilience of the flora springing from rock and dry dirt was uplifting in its own strange way.

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As the new year dawned halfway back, in the Hill Country, we were ready to leave our last cozy lodging and drive home. Scrubbed of the nostalgia and wistfulness I’d loaded into the car when we departed, I returned ready to start again, to try to make sense of this modern American life that keeps us all on our own paths, fulfilling ourselves where we can until we’re able to be together again with those we love.

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After the Flood

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Buffalo Bayou Park was the first thing I fell for in Houston when we moved here in early spring. Less than a mile from my house, it was my walking, running, and biking track until the Gulf Coast summer humidity put an end to extended outdoor exercise. We still took visitors to the park for a stroll and a view of our shiny city rising up from the greenery, but I had taken a temporary break from the park a few months before Hurricane Harvey hit in late August.

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Now I’m hoping the current state of this beautiful riparian playground is just as fleeting. Harvey’s floodwaters, as well as the emergency release of upstream reservoir contents, wiped out the banks of our urban stream, uprooting trees, drowning plants, stripping away ground cover, and coating the lower paths in a thick layer of silt and sand that has yet to be fully shoveled away two months later.

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The dog park was annihilated, and the kayakers have disappeared. Plastic bags cling to dead tree branches, steep banks have collapsed into the water, and the always-murky waters have turned an even muddier brown.

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At the Shepherd Drive Bridge, pictured below, the water was nearly 40 feet (yes, FEET) deep inside the park and washed up to and over several of the pedestrian and vehicular bridges that cross the bayou.

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As in many places all over this resilient city, though, life is returning to Buffalo Bayou. Ducks and blue herons tentatively paddle and perch on those felled branches, ferns and mondo grass spring from ragged ground, new green growth pushes up insistently from the sand mounds, and people on foot and bicycle have re-emerged to take advantage of perfect fall days in the park.

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It’s great to be back in the park.

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The Little Sisters

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You’ve met the older, more famous siblings– Vienna, Budapest, and Prague – in a previous post, but let me introduce some of the little sisters of Central Europe. They may not have the same prestige, but they’re distinctive and appealing in their own right and are well worth a peek.

Bratislava, Slovakia (pop. ~ 425,000) – our first little city stop – has a bit of an unnecessary inferiority complex. Our Free Tour guide must have said five times that she figured we were all there because we’d been in Vienna, an hour away, anyway. Umm, not us. We had actually planned a longer stay in Slovakia than we did in Vienna, and we were pretty psyched about our cool but affordable hotel in Bratislava (with a brewery onsite) and spending more time here than the typical day trippers.

Like many Central and Eastern European cities that used to be under the Soviet thumb, Bratislava has an older, more colorful history that was partially bulldozed by the Communists’ dreary utilitarianism. That means the pastel-tinged Old Town and the red-roofed castle grounds are bluntly divided by a futuristic bridge and dull highway that wiped out an old synagogue and a huge chunk of the old city’s narrow, twisting streets. It also explains the hulking concrete apartment blocks across the Danube River and the overbearing monuments in other parts of the city.

The good news is that this with-it city is both bent on changing its image and taking the Soviet changes in stride. There is an unmistakable pride in the unique, modern bridge, and that helps offset the frustration of losing a cherished old part of the city. Those massive residential blocks are now painted in a rainbow of colors; our guide aptly called it Lego town, and it’s a great example of turning lemons into lemonade. There are trendy brew pubs and Mac-filled coffee shops in both the old and new parts of the town, and even the manholes have an quirky, artistic touch.

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As we drive from Hungary to western Austria, we pass through nearly the entire width of Slovenia, one of the most exquisite countries in Europe, in my opinion. Although I’ve already raved about the capital, Ljubljana, in a 2014 post, it fully deserves another song of praise.

This enchanting city is even smaller than Bratislava, with fewer than 300,000 residents. The core of the downtown is pedestrian only, which makes things very pleasant after you’ve found a place to drop a car. Both sides of the tree-shaded Ljubljanica River house vibrant shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, street markets, and a seemingly endless number of outdoor tables.

Bikes whiz by, performers sing on the corners, varnished wood boats glide along the river, and it appears that every single person in town is either eating ice cream or drinking a beer as the autumn sun warms the last hours of the afternoon.

Overlooking the maze of brick walkways and buildings is a medieval castle, a staple of so many of Europe’s old towns and one of the fortress triplets of today’s profiled cities. Even if you’ve seen enough castles to last the rest of your days, the towers of these hillside edifices are the very best way to get the lay of the land, and in Ljubljana’s case, that vista includes a succession of terracotta roofs, green fields and woods approaching the mountains, and the Julian Alps themselves off in the distance. Talk about a view!

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Our last city stop, the smallest but perhaps best known of the three, is Salzburg, Austria (pop. < 150,000). This visit really is just a peek. We’ve had so much fun trekking in Slovakia and Slovenia that we arrive rather late in Salzburg and have to press on to our next hiking base soon after.

Husband J remembers this town as a real charmer, and he is eager to show it to me for an afternoon and early evening. As we walk into the city along the river and view it from its castle above, it does not disappoint. Up close, too, it’s a handsome and cultured little metropolis; I’m infatuated early on with the soft stone walls and the wrought iron signs, the sparkle of the water and the impeccable wool fashions everyone is wearing. I’m obsessed with the ubiquitous stag motif and drool over the giant pretzels for sale in a few semi-busy squares.

Suddenly, though, we are in pressing crowds and discover that we are part of a St Rupert’s Day celebration, an event that looks and feels remarkably similar to Oktoberfest. Those couples I thought were so cute a few minutes ago are bothering me now that they’re listing into me; she looks silly with her bosom billowing out of a dirndl bodice, and his lederhosen appear ill-fitting and stained at close range. The pretzels now seem obscenely expensive (and dry – we discover after foolishly buying one), and the shops a bit ostentatious with their Bavarian designer hats and fancy accoutrements. We beat a hasty retreat up the hill to the castle to get away from the noise, disorder, and conspicuous consumption.

Upon our descent and escape back into the quieter streets, I do another 180 and decide maybe I do love the look of the boiled wool jackets and hats on the local families, and wish I could buy both of those items, plus a stag scarf, a couple of pins for my hat, and maybe some very pricey suede boots. (I desist.)

I admire the setting sun on the bridges, conjure up Mozart and Salieri as classical music wafts out of hidden courtyards, and drink another beer as J eats a giant weisswust dinner in a cozy biergarten. Just like that, Salzburg is back in my good graces, completing a trifecta of small town visits on our Central European road trip.

 

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This is likely my last post on our Central European road trip, which turned out to be a perfect combo of big cities, a series of excellent hiking stops and rural stays, and many smaller towns in between. For information or stories about the trip, see the following posts:

Road Trip: Central Europe

A Tale of Two Villages

High Tatras High

Dressed for Success

Ambling Around the Alps 

Ambling Around the Alps

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How delectable it is to wake up and have a whole day stretching before us with no set itinerary. We eat a leisurely breakfast, stand on our patio overlooking Wolfgansee (Lake Wolfgang) in western Austria, and rejigger the plan we made last night. The morning is misty and cool, so we decide to postpone a hike and instead drive to a nearby town.

Not just any nearby town. Hallstatt, Austria, is a place that has grown so famous and so congested that some experienced travelers refuse to go there, and we are very close to skipping it ourselves. Even our hosts in St Wolfgang have warned us away, saying that people the world over were so obsessed with Hallstatt that the Chinese decided to build an exact replica of the town so that couples could take their engagement photos, wedding pictures, anniversary and birthday snaps, and unimaginable numbers of everyday selfies there without leaving Asia. In spite of the negative reviews, we figure it’s early in the day and not particularly nice out yet, so we spurn the naysayers and jump in the car for the forty-minute drive.

With this less-than-auspicious introduction, we are hesitant, but we arrive and park before the hordes descend, and to our delight, we have the shores of the lake to ourselves, except for a few swans, as we approach the village. Like overrun tourist attractions everywhere, there is a good reason for the throngs. Our first lakeside views take in a diaphanous scene of mirror-smooth gray-blue water, a mini-castle on the far shore, and the spit of the town itself, an impossibly perfect little concoction of spires, rooflines, docks, summer flowers, and wooden boats, all perched on the limpid lake. A ribbon of morning mist threads in and out of an inlet, adding an ethereal touch to the panorama.

By the time the streets start to fill up with the first of the day’s visitors, we are climbing high above the town. Small, tasteful signs ask walkers to refrain from photographing the private homes along the route, and we whisper softly as we pass doorways and gardens. A little later, we come back down and scoot out of town just as the sun begins to peek out from the fog and the multitudes start to arrive.

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Back in St. Wolfgang, the day has blossomed into a cool and sunny brilliance. We grab our backpacks and set off for Schwarzensee, a lake high up in the mountains above our little resort town. The trail is alternately steep and flattish, with views of the vaporous Lake Wolfgang off to the right though portholes of evergreens and deciduous trees.

It’s a woodsy walk, with birch and evergreen trunks rising high above the needled brown paths. I trudge behind J, who is always the pace keeper, and get lost in my own thoughts for long stretches. We are nearly alone; on rare occasions, we pass a couple or two, and on the way down, we smile at a rowdy little family of parents and young kids cavorting up the hill.

Schwarzensee appears before we know it. After our long and difficult climb in the High Tatras of Slovakia a week earlier, today’s ascent goes fast. We are now starving; it’s after 2 pm and we’ve been gone since early morning. Lucky for us, these mountain trails often have some sort of refuge up high, always with beer and better food in the middle of nowhere than even a busy roadside stop in the U.S. We order a couple of dark brews, salads, and bread, and spend some time sitting in the sun at a picnic table, batting away bees and appreciating our mid-hike good fortune. We bounce with a slight buzz back down the trail and arrive at our lodging in record speed, sated and tired in a most satisfying way, ready for our next Alpine adventure.

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The Julian Alps stretch along the border of northwestern Slovenia and Austria. They are an impressive but accessible range, and on the Slovenian side, they provide the snowcapped backdrop for the fairytale setting of Lake Bled and its island church. Here, on another quiet morning, we walk briskly around the 4-mile lake trail, viewing that idyllic little clump of land from every vantage point. You can pay to paddle out there on a tour boat, but I’ve eschewed that outing twice, preferring to see the water- and tree-ringed bell tower with its mountainous backdrop.

This time, we also forgo the medieval castle looming above the lake, instead making a number of stops on the stroll, perusing the Olympic rowing facilities, checking out one of Tito’s many summer villas, and stopping at the Park Hotel on the way back to the car for a slice of their famous cream cake.

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There are higher summits, rougher peaks, scarier climbs, and more exotic mountain cultures around the world, but for my money, the Alps are the torch carrier for highland hiking day in and day out, the winner of the prize for “Most Well-Rounded” of mountain ranges, if you will. The countries that are caretakers of this range, and the people who make these slopes and meadows their home, have created a system of paths and services that are hard to beat. From our post-college backpacking days, to our first serious experience hiking the Mont Blanc circuit a decade ago, to the day hikes we sprinkle into our European trips, we have returned time and again to these green hills full of cows, streams, trees, and fields. It’s always a good day for an amble in the Alps.

Dressed for Success

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My packing list for most trekking trips, whether they’re going to be day hikes or multi-day marathons, is pretty simple: hiking shoes or boots, a few layered tops, athletic tights or maybe a thicker hiking pant, some cold and/or rainy weather gear, a trusty baseball cap that has seen better days, and … that’s about it. Most of those layers are more than a decade old, but I know they all work, and I can pack all the right stuff while half asleep.

On one of my earliest outings with strangers years ago, I met my first Haute Hikers. These upscale, stylish ladies had more than one nanopuff jacket buried in their overstuffed duffel bags, the better to coordinate with multiple pairs of figure-enhancing pants. They had decorative scarves and neck gaiters that matched their expensive little tank tops, jaunty caps (one had a feather), fancy watches (with altitude readings, naturally), and snazzy boots that were so new they got blisters the first day. I did covet some of their stuff, I have to admit, but I was pretty happy to avoid those ridiculously heavy duffels and backpacks. Being underdressed had benefits I appreciated, both logistical and psychic.

Let’s switch channels to European day hikes in the mountains, specifically the ones I took on our recent Central Europe swing. I am equipped just about as I described above. I’m in the same clothes I’ve worn in other parts of the world, and I’ve got a light daypack with water for the day, a snack or two, a rain jacket, and a hat. But now I am clearly overdressed, too sporty for the trails, and way too amply supplied in general.

You see, in the mountainous parts of Europe, hiking is such a part of life that it requires no special apparel or gear. In the High Tatras of northern Slovakia, on a trail that chewed me up at times, cute young women in capris and sandals – several with heels – sauntered past me, stepping up and over the jagged rocks as if they were power shopping on Fifth Avenue. The men wore basic pants and t-shirts and kept up a blistering pace that allowed them to stop for a smoke and still pass me again fifteen minutes later. Did anyone even have a backpack? I don’t think so. Six hours for them must be a morning constitutional – no snacks or extra water necessary.

In the Austrian Alps, we trundled down from a high mountain lake one afternoon to see a family with toddlers, all seemingly dressed for the playground, scampering up the steep path toward us, as carefree as could be. Dogs joined their owners on many a trail – not big tough dogs, but little fashion dogs, white yippy things that bounded over tree roots and mossy stones with their 4-inch legs while I heaved my taller, stronger (I thought) body over the same obstacles.

There were actually a few European hiking beasts who carried more than I did. But their bulky loads were their children, from infants on up strapped onto their backs, with the little ones’ legs and arms dangling and swinging wildly as their parents maneuvered down rock piles and mud chutes. Look, no hands! the adults might as well have proclaimed as they careened by my pokey self crawling like a baby down some scree. I couldn’t decide if I admired these risk-takers or found them mildly (or wildly) irresponsible …

Even if I scale up my gear program and buy some newer, more attractive apparel, I’m never going to be a mountaintop model; I value comfort and carry-on convenience way too much. At the downscale end of the spectrum, I can’t quite see myself tackling serious climbs in clothes I last wore to a casual picnic either. I think I’ll just stick with my dependable old middle-of-the-road hiking attire and save the other two ends of the scale for a blog post.

High Tatras High

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There was nothing pedestrian about the hike and the landscape we encountered in northern Slovakia last month, except that the only way to see it was on foot, of course.

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I first heard of Slovakia’s High Tatras mountains in July of 2015, when a fellow blogger penned a compelling personal account of a hike to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. Her descriptions of both the physical trek and the restorative power of nature resonated with me. It was my introduction to both her and this relatively unknown trekking area, and I resolved then and there to do this very hike someday. In a way, our driving trip around central Europe 26 months later was planned around hiking this one little trail.IMG_8205

We arrived at Strbske Pleso, close to the mountainous border with Poland, after a few days in western and central Slovakia. We had already begun to absorb some of the wild roughness of this country’s natural beauty. Its smaller roads cut through dark forests of evergreens, but a drive up multiple switchbacks to our hotel and a late afternoon stroll around Strbske Pleso itself (pleso means tarn, or mountain lake, for those who don’t do crossword puzzles!) brought home the towering and glowering nature of the area. It was raining more than it wasn’t and when it did cease at times, there was a low-hanging mist and a deep chill in the air. We gazed out the front of our lodging to a valley far below, but at this point we had no idea what jagged heights lay behind the hotel.

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Completely unaware that there are high peaks behind all those clouds

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The morning of the hike, we rose to a miraculously sunny day – quite cold and crystal clear – but I had a new obstacle to overcome. Stomach trouble the night before had left me depleted, and I was plagued with a sharp headache and weakened limbs from the sickness and lack of sleep. But there was simply no way I was giving up the chance to take this hike on the only sunny day the area had seen or was likely to see in well over a week. I forced down a piece of toast, filched a roll and some cheese from the breakfast table for later, and donned every layer of hiking-appropriate clothing I could find in my suitcase.

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We set off with husband J’s idea that I might only make it to Popradské Pleso, the first mountain lake on the route and about an hour and a half up the trail. Truth be told, even before I felt so debilitated, the map of the hiking trails had intimidated me; our ultimate goal lay near the highest peaks of the range, and there was a disconcerting amount of snow on steep-looking ridges on every drawing I consulted.

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As we got underway, I had moments of doubt that I’d even make it to Popradské Lake, but as I have on so many treks in the past, I put one foot in front of the other until I fell into a rhythm and pushed my discomfort and worries into the background.

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Somehow, even with my slowed pace and frequent camera stops, we made it to the trail junction in less than the posted time. Motivated to keep going by that surprising discovery and a deep drink of water, I insisted that we press on, passing a sign that said we had just a few more hours to Veľké Hincovo Pleso. No problem, I thought, even though I knew that the next phase would involve steeper slopes, fast-flowing streams to cross, and a jumble of rocks to climb. Two hours was nothing to me; I’d taken difficult treks that chewed up ten-hour days, and I repeated them day after day for weeks at a time in some pretty precipitous parts of the world.

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Well, I was about to be humbled. Shortly after the turn, we were clambering over muddy tree roots and then a rock-strewn path, both of which felt nearly vertical to my wasted body. I begged J to go on ahead; he hikes fast and usually has no qualms about ditching me. But today he refused, saying there was no way he was leaving me alone when I felt weak and dizzy. I’m not much of a trail talker to begin with, but now I was dead silent, summoning all my energy stores for the next steps, steps that quickly became higher, sharper, and more irregular.IMG_8166

We began to cross several small streams, two with wood bridges and one an easy hop, skip, and jump on the rocks. I was relieved; the fording with a rope over a fast torrent that Julie had written about was no longer here! So what was that sound? That sound of churning water ahead and above, that sound of voices and shouts. My heart sank as we rounded a bend and saw it: a rough and tumble gush of water over half-submerged, jagged rocks – and no rope. People were tottering across, many plunging at least one boot into the rapids.

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I was done, I thought. I have great balance and I love a good rock hop, but I was exhausted and suddenly paralyzed. I stood on the near bank, staring and shaking my head. The longer this goes on, I scolded myself, the more wobbly I was going to be. The key to rock hopping is an agile quickness; the more you waver, the shakier you get. J stopped halfway on the biggest, flattest rock and held out his hand. I have to admit it; I am a hiking hard-ass, and I wanted none of that wussiness. I made a few perfunctory, dismissive motions, but I finally hopped in, grabbing his hand, and we scampered the rest of the way across.

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J said again Do you need to turn around? There’s still a long way to go, and then we have to get down.  

NO, I snapped. I’m not quitting. Spit out as if it were the most terrible word and idea in the world.

How did you end up like this? He laughed and shook his head.

Like what? Competitive? You know I’ve always been this way.

I was thinking stubborn and hard-headed …

That I was. Am. I was getting to that lake today.

Let’s give it until noon, I bargained. That’s the 2:10 we saw plus some extra time for all my stopping and slow going.
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The next 75 minutes were arduous, and we walked in silence, J surging ahead and then checking behind him, me talking to myself in the sternest terms and ducking my head every time he looked back. The toil was relieved by the most astounding vistas – sweeping panoramas of the Mengusovská Dolina (Valley) behind us and neck-craning views of the crests on the border ahead.

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At ten minutes before noon, a descending hiker said 5 minutes! and all of a sudden the trail leveled out and we were walking into the bowl that holds the largest and deepest tarn in the Tatras.

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Not yet!

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The goal – Veľké Hincovo Pleso

It was uniquely exhilarating, in some ways the most satisfying “summit” I’ve ever reached. I pumped my fist, J slapped me five, and a rush of energy propelled me out to the glacier-carved pool to fully absorb the arc of sharp peaks standing guard. We had the place nearly to ourselves for a few moments. I sat down alone on a boulder, finished my sandwich, ate a small square of chocolate, gulped as much water as I dared, and stood up.

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And then we went down. It was an ordeal, and it took even longer, including a stupid mistake that cost us 45 knee-destroying minutes at the end. But I prefer to end this story at the high place, on a high note, in the High Tatras, by far the highlight of my two-week trip.

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