A Little More Bhutan

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

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

Are we gonna scrape?!

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

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

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


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

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

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The Weather and I: Bhutan Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on Bhutan’s many charms in upcoming posts.

 

Aloha, Unknown Beauty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Snowy Beach Day on the Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 for a mule. By departure day, with its usual last-minute frenzy and edginess, even I am writing a thriller in my head about what happens to the naive American woman who gets thrown into a grim prison cell in Addis Ababa or Antananarivo and finds her blogging friend to be a carefully-constructed online personality designed to lure her into a life of smuggling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lisa, lemurs, Lexie

0 for 2

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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.

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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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