Mementos, Boxes, and Some Advice


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

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

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

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

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

A Wild Ride on the Roof of the World


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


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

Tibet 2011 - Lex 192

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

Tibet & China June 2011 435

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

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

Tibet 2011 - Lex 232

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

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


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

More posts on our Tibetan adventures:

A Love Affair with Lhasa

Face of a Pilgrim

Not for the Squeamish

Tobacco Road


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


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


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


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


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

Version 2


A Graceful Turn to the Future


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


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


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


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


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


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


Photo credit: K. Klein

Havana Vieja and all its charming small streets and plazas,


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

View from our Havana Centro apartment

View from our Havana Centro apartment

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



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

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


Good from far but far from good

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

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



Lounging by the concrete pool


Our rooftop view

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

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


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



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




Confounded by Cuba


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


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


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


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



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



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




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


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


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



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



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

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


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


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

Happy New Year to all!

Out with the Old, In with the New!


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


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

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

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

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

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

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



The Magic Outside my Door


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

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

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

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


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


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


Autumnal tableaux of pumpkins and pergolas draped with withering vines.


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



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




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


Comfortable with (a little) Chaos


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

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


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

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


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


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

Happy Camper


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

Submitted as part of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Transmogrify

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

Guest Post from Ghana


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I have written a time or two about a short trip I took to Ghana almost a decade ago, but I am now seeing current-day Accra (the capital) through the eyes of my public health worker daughter, who is living there and working on a malaria project for several months. Her journal has captivated me, both for her cultural insights and the hilarity (from afar) of her daily life and the inevitable adjustments that she has had to make. Without further preamble, let me introduce K and a few amusing snippets from her writings: 

On Fabric and Food

Since I arrived in Accra in late August, I have been keeping a journal that is more-or-less a chronological account of my days and weeks here, interspersed with some commentary on the excitement, frustration, awe, and unfamiliarity associated with new people, places, and ways of life. In that respect, my journal entries are not a perfect match for my Mom’s blog – that is, a compilation of very organized entries, with anecdotes that are neatly tied together by a central theme that is never tired and never forced. I can’t promise any of those things, but since she graciously agreed to let my words coexist with hers, I will do my best to follow suit. Here, I have taken snippets from my journal about my two most frequently-described topics – fabric and food – to give you a taste for the stories that surround them and for how they make my heart and belly full, respectively.


9/1. So I heard about expats having cheese parties abroad. Exclusive cheese parties. Who wants to share their cheese with 30 random people when you could share it with 10? Well, at the A&C Mall, which I visited 3 times today, the cheese was plentiful! I should have known better. The feta cheese I bought has a very unfortunate taste. I would be thrilled to share it with as many people as would be willing to eat it … I also took the moment to ask if we could stop for a few groceries, and I again, ended up with the weirdest basket of foods, including feta cheese, none of which I ended up eating tonight because the healthy things all required washing and I am JUST NOT READY to sabotage my diarrhea-less day with diarrhea yet. I did get the water boiler hook-up from the nice lady who works at my apartment, so now at least I know I can boil enough water so that I can dump excessive amounts of it onto fruits and vegetables without feeling as guilty about wasting bottles of water.

9/3. Cindy, a friend from school, introduced me to a tailor she has been using named Eleanor, who has her own store in Osu where you can pick out your own fabrics and clothing design. She was hilarious, radiant, and beautifully adorned with her masterful work and many brightly-colored accessories.


9/4. I identified a beautiful fabric dress that I want. Fridays in the office are for traditional Ghanaian clothing rather than business attire, and I totally want to get into that! Missed the boat this week and wore a red and black dress (here, red and black together means you’re going to a funeral…).

9/6. At work, I wrote down some basic expressions in Twi and practiced them, and I successfully put in my first food order at work (jollof rice). According to Wikipedia, it’s “the progenitor of the Louisianan dish jambalaya,” and that’s a pretty good description. For 10 GH₵ ($2.50), it was my lunch, dinner, and I still have more in my fridge at home.



9/8. Mary, the receptionist, is good about remembering what I have eaten and thinking of something new I can try, so we decided together that today was kenkey day. Kenkey is this huge sourdough dumpling made from ground corn. It is super dense, and it is served with hot pepper sauce and fried fish. This sounded okay to me, not great, but when the time came to eat, Lucy, the woman who buys the food, pulled out a whole fish, eyes included, and flopped it onto my plate. She then showed me how to peel the leaves covering the kenkey, and when I involved my left hand, she pushed it away and said, “No, use right hand.” Theresa was eating it across from me so she showed me how to take some of the kenkey off the ball and rub it between my fingers to get it to the right consistency, and then to dip it into the hot pepper. Again, everyone was amused by this. I asked if I ate the fish with my hands, too, and people laughed again like “Obviously!” The hot pepper was extremely hot, and it was too much to eat in large quantities. Another colleague, Theresa, said, “Get her some gravy; she can’t eat that,” while Mary was dumping less spicy sauce from someone else’s plate onto mine and marking the line I shouldn’t cross for spiciness sake. My boss, John, was piling my plate with his fried yams and sweet potatoes (like French fries!), and saying “Eat these, you won’t be able to eat much of this (the pepper) yet.” Another woman walked in, glanced at me, jaw dropped, and went, “Is this safe?” I felt like a little alien worthy of protection.

9/10. I actually ate vegetables!! Well, on top of noodles (this is the starchiest life), and had my first sip of alcohol in a while. They were out of wine, so I tried their Club beer, which kind of tasted skunked. (Little did I know that’s just how it tastes.) Elizabeth, my new Ghanaian friend, ordered a Smirnoff ice, which was so funny to me. I told her about the American custom of “icing” someone and she thought it was funny but also didn’t really understand, which totally makes sense.

9/11. I stopped in Woodin, the popular fabric store, and finally made myself buy something. I have been so indecisive about these fabrics, and I think I just need to try out the process and see how the first piece of clothing I have made turns out. The salesperson was extremely friendly, and I asked him a million really dumb questions about fabrics and made him help me choose which one to buy, and he happily obliged.

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9/12. Today, I ate white rice with red sauce and a hard-boiled egg. Mysteriously, this is the only food I’ve heard of without a local name. I was told, you are eating “plain rice.” Good to know. I also sampled someone’s waakye, which is rice and beans, with pieces of pasta, garri (crushed cassava), and Shito (black pepper). Everyone was packed in the lunch room at the same time today, eating with their hands, some standing up, and everyone sort of seemed to get a kick out of my confusion. I ask a lot of questions about the food because they seem to like explaining it, and it helps me, you know, bond.



9/15. On Wednesday, the three of us ladies went out to lunch and ate sandwiches. Bliss. My sandwich had four carrot flakes, two miniature tomato slices, and a sprinkle of lettuce. I’m starting to feel about vegetables here like Mom felt about paper products in Tibet – overdose on them whenever possible because you never know when they’ll appear next. I practically sing aloud when I see an onion in my jollof rice, plain rice, or fried rice. Rice, rice, rice, onion, rice, repeat.

9/18. We left for Makola market, the overwhelming but famous Saturday local market in Accra. It was hectic and hot and there was everything under the sun, including live snails, but we stuck to fabrics, and I came home with two more, which I can’t wait to (someday) convert to clothes.

9/19. On Saturday morning, I vowed to use the shared kitchen at my place. I carried my eggs and olive oil and plate across the compound and into the kitchen. Alas, I could not light the damn burner. Someone said I needed a match. Another person said I just needed to adjust the gas tank. Either way, I’m afraid I will blow myself up before I eat an egg safely.


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9/25. We all had non-instant coffee, a rare treat, and my friend Emily and I agree that is was the best and worst part of our day. It actually felt like a drug, rejuvenating me with every delicious sip, but hours later the two of us were seriously over-caffeinated just from the one cup and our arms and legs felt weak and twitchy the whole rest of the day.

9/29. First, they took us to my colleague Robert’s wife’s shop in a rather faraway location, and I had my measurements taken and handed over my beautiful fabric to have a dress made. I felt oddly sad giving it away, knowing it would not return to me in its perfect, unaltered state. Then Mary wanted to also stop at her friend’s shop, so we made another out-of-the-way stop, and I was lucky I had brought another fabric with me. This tailor measured me (in a much more intense, full-body way, including a nipple-to-nipple measurement that was in no way necessary for a skirt), and I handed over the other precious two yards I had unfolded, held up to my body, and refolded innumerable times. I exchanged phone numbers with both tailors and then texted them pictures of ladies I found on Google images whose clothing I wanted to imitate.

9/29. We stopped beforehand at Woodin so Emily could grab some last minute gifts, and the Osu location has way more fabrics, and I felt super addicted and emotionally unstable in response to this addiction that resulted in oohing and aweing and pining over fabrics that I can’t justify buying.

10/2. I got my dress back!! Robert delivered it to me by way of his wife, and as I held it up to myself, he expressed doubt that it would fit right. He was right. It was huge in the chest and totally gaping, but I still felt I had to model it for everyone, so I got to experience the joy of a group of colleagues tugging at the fabric over my chest, commenting on the flatness of my chest, and Robert taking up-close pictures of my chest to send to his wife so she could redo it. At one point, Robert was intently assessing the fit, and Mary slapped his hand away from me. He wasn’t making me uncomfortable, but it was cute to watch her stick up for me. I was sad to see the dress leave my possession again, but it came back, along with my skirt from the other tailor, and now they both fit, and I’m all set for African dress Fridays!


10/4. This weekend, I went to the obruni (white person) market (that’s what my friends call this market which draws mostly expats) on my own and bought some gifts and used the tailor I had met my first week, Eleanor, for my final fabric to be made into a shirt. The crafts are good there, but I find the obrunis consistently annoying, paler than ever, and loud. They fiend after the one and only bagel stand in Accra, and they shout at each other in jarring accents (I can’t even identify where such a voice would come from), which forces me to cringe politely into their round, burnt faces.

10/5. Since there is nothing else going on in my life this week, I will discuss the common expression used when you are eating and someone else enters the room – “You are invited.” This confused the heck out of me when I first got here. I would walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, and Mary would be eating unidentified meats for breakfast and she would say, “You are invited.” Huh? I smiled and nodded but then just walked away thinking I had probably done the rudest thing ever. Then, the next few times, I would walk in on someone eating, and they would say it without even raising their head or looking at me. Today, John was starting a late lunch as we joined a conference call together, and he said as we received the Skype call, “You are invited to my lunch.” Eventually, I realized (and got confirmation) that it’s just something people say out of courtesy but it doesn’t mean you have to join them, or watch them eat, or help them eat their unidentified meats.

10/9. Jack, one of the roommates and band members, arranged for a spit pig to be served through his local coworker’s family member, and we savagely sliced this pig apart for dinner, which we ate outside in the pouring rain.

10/17. When I got back, Donald and Samuel, who work at my apartment, were eating dinner in the bar and invited me to join. They were eating big hunks of pork, and I was full from dinner, but I tried to identify a small bite to be polite when they offered me some. Once I popped it in my mouth, I realized it was not going to be pretty. It was so tough, and they were asking me questions and I could not respond because my mouth was having to work hard on this very intense-tasting fresh pig with so much un-chewable fat. I told them, “Gimme five minutes,” which they thought was funny, but then five minutes later, when I was still “hiding” the huge un-chewable fat chunk in my cheek, I had to come clean and tell them I didn’t know what to do about it. Donald rolled his eyes and said to Samuel, “Get her a napkin,” and I tried to own the spitting out motion like I wasn’t the total obruni I am.

10/18. I started my day by picking up my shirt from Eleanor. She sells her stuff at the expat market each month, but otherwise you just go to her house. She is really successful – not just doing business in her neighborhood but totally catering to the expat community, too, and even starting to show her clothes internationally within West Africa. So I headed off on my own to meet this lady, and she lived in a little neighborhood so close to the beach you could smell and feel the water. She met me outside close to noon looking sleepy and of course wearing some African print shorts. When I walked into her house, fabric was draped over everything. It reminded me of what it would be like to go into an artist’s home and to find paintings and paint everywhere. She showed me to the showroom, and while she adjusted the shirt she had made for me, I shopped around. I don’t know why I’m such a fiend for these clothes – I literally ripped my own off in this stranger’s house and put as many dresses as I could find on myself.



I can now happily say I’m going African print strong, with five bright pieces of clothing lining my makeshift closet and two more fabrics lying dormant in my arsenal, awaiting their beautiful, affordable final form. While I may have beat indecision when it comes to fabric shopping and tailoring, I am still learning how to integrate fashion with food; understanding how to enjoy the dense, fried, caloric, starchy foods and still fitting comfortably into my never-even-slightly-stretchy prints has been a challenge I’ve yet to overcome. I still have a long way to go when it comes to adjusting to my life with one foot out the door, but I’m lucky I have a pretty solid role model who reminds me why I’m doing it.

Losing my Local


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I’m struggling to define “local” these days. Life has been so unstable for the last nine months that we seem to have no local anything anymore. We are missing a whole lot of local, in fact: a local bar, a local grocery store, a local group of friends, even a local collection of all of our possessions. I like feeling like a local; I like to belong, I like habit, and I like to have regular places that I frequent.

Given my love for travel and always being on the move, this state of affairs should not have thrown me as it has. But having one foot out the door implies that the other one is planted somewhere, and it’s that solid base I’m missing. For 25 years, local has meant my home in a small village near Chicago, a place filled with independent stores where the shopkeepers knew my name and stocked things I asked for, an errand always turned into a chat, and everything I owned was in one place.

We are now bouncing from DC city apartment to Pennsylvania mountain getaway, minus the hiking shoes I left in the Midwest on the last trip “home.” I feel scattered, but (I swear) I’m trying hard to make my new location my idea of local.


My Local Metro

Missing Mongolia


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Fall is upon us in the eastern U.S. and no matter how much I wished for these cooling breezes and drops in temperature and humidity over the past three months, I am already feeling nostalgic for summer. More than the weather, however, I am missing the yawning span of free and easy vacation days that are one of the perks of being a university professor.


More specifically, I am reminiscing about the weeks I just spent in Mongolia, a place that in itself brought back poignant memories for me: my days of horseback riding as a young child and teenager, sleeping under the stars on a totally black night, county fairs, rock-hopping in mountain streams – all thousands of miles and decades away. As I ride a last wave of nostalgia with my final post on Mongolia, I revisit a summery landscape that caught me by surprise.


I’ve said it before: I’m not a desert lover. One of my new travel mates in Mongolia couldn’t wait to get to the Gobi. I, on the other hand, would have been quite happy to park myself in a ger out on the steppe and never leave, riding my horse off into the soft, green hills. I’ve never been drawn to arid landscapes and don’t naturally like places that are dry, brown, or barren. But just as I did at Zion National Park in the U.S., Wadi Rum in Jordan, and other famous desert destinations, I put aside my distaste for desiccation in order to see one of the world’s famous deserts.


I traded a shiny-coated horse for a mangy camel, elevation for endless flatness, and verdant hills for rust-colored cliffs, but the Gobi’s sere, simple beauty grabbed me after all and seems to have stubbornly parked itself in my memories.


Sunset happens precipitously here; one minute there is searing heat and glare and the next, the sun has sunk below the horizon in the blink of a squinting eye. Mornings are equally hasty in arriving, with the deep blackness of desert night quickly shattered by sunlight that has no natural barriers. I am missing that unimpeded view of the sun each morning and night here in my city home.



The Gobi has a few salmon-colored, ridged sand dunes, but on the whole it is a land of reddish dirt patterned with olive-green scrub grass. Four of the usual Mongolian suspects ply the paths; that is, the sheep and the goats, the horses and the camels, always in those pairs.



Vehicles are few and far between, and with no marked roads, routes, or landmarks, I have no idea how they find their way around. There were long periods of time on our drives when we saw no other vehicles and when faced with a choice of three identical dirt paths at just slightly different angles, our driver always seemed to know exactly which one to take. (I normally have a very good sense of direction, and I occasionally had the feeling that we were doubling back after making a wrong turn, but that was just a hunch. We did always end up where we wanted to go!)

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One exception to the stubbly green topography was the Flaming Cliffs, a series of sandstone formations that are most famous as the site of Roy Chapman Andrew’s expeditions in the early 1920s that led to the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs, as well as thousands of dinosaur bones, all of which were packaged up and carted away on the backs of camels to their new home in the American Museum of Natural History. After a hike of only several hours on the parched cliffs, I found the notion of mounting such an extensive expedition in this harsh and remote environment – nearly a century ago, no less – to be truly staggering.


A final stop in the Gobi provided a brief respite from the heat and sun as we hiked deep into Yolyn Am, a narrow canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan mountains that is home to an ice field that often lingers the whole way through the summer months. We stream-hopped back and forth until we could go no farther into the gorge, but try as we might, we did not glimpse any lammergeiers, the large birds after which the canyon is named.



The Gobi was the last stop on a wide-ranging trip around Mongolia, chronicled in the posts below, and the final travel spree of my summer break. Soon it will be time to stop looking back in longing and start contemplating the next memory-making escape.


Want more Mongolia?

Danshig Naadam:

Framing a House Mongolian Style:

A Steppe Out of Time:

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises:

Nothing Narrow Here:

On the Edge in Seoul


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Bracketing my glorious time in Mongolia last month were two short stays in Seoul, Korea. Knowing that flights into and out of Ulaanbaatar could be iffy due to windy conditions, I was happy to arrange a day south of the Han River on the way there and two days on the north side coming home. After my husband’s trip to Korea in the 90s that was full of unfortunate stereotypes (mostly dog and smog), I knew I would not be accompanied there anytime soon, so I had to make this happen on my own. Luckily, I fared much better!

A common theme of the two stopovers was an old/new mash-up – historic structures and streets pushed up against the edges of the very modern parts of the city. Both sides benefitted from the contrast: temple bricks and wood with the patina of time added texture and depth to the glint of skyscrapers in the Gangnam area,


while the blocky, mirrored facades of distant towers made a contemporary backdrop for the monochromatic old hanok houses and their curly-edged rooflines in the more northern, traditional part of the city.


In Gangnam, my hotel was sleek and cool, but at the push of a button, the curtain panel drew back to expose a giant Buddha standing amid lanterns and upturned eaves in the Bongeunsa temple complex.



In Insadong a few weeks later, the tables were turned; my lodging was small and backward, but my view was into the future. There, a morning stroll along the edge of ancient Changdeokgung Palace led me uphill to Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old urban area from Joseon Dynasty days, which looked out over an array of new high-rises shimmering in the summer haze.


Seoul is a huge city, but its most captivating sights always seemed to be at the edges of my vision: a quiet man on the edge of the urban Cheonggyecheon stream,


artwork on the edges of buildings in Insadong,


the boundaries between fanciful old design and the angular solidity of new architecture,


a glassy line-up on the river’s edge, or a tiny restaurant wedged into a zigzag alley.


Seoul teeters on the edge between ancient temple cuisine and trendy coffeehouses; dank, lukewarm showers and fancy, self-heating toilet seats; gritty fish shops and Samsung’s funky HQ; old men in drab clothing and young girls in full-blown Hello Kitty. I barely dented the surface of Seoul, but in three short days I walked these borders of past and present, ageless and innovative, to find a city looking both forward and back in a most agreeable way.


(Huge shout-out to Shelley, a Seoul resident and blogger at Travel-Stained, who really gave me the biggest edge of all with her priceless advice on where to go and what to see in my short time there.)

Danshig Naadam


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Eight centuries ago, Genghis Khan and his armies rampaged across the steppe in central Asia, conquering lands and peoples to create a Mongol kingdom whose reach exceeded that of any other empire before or since. History gives us a view of the Mongols as vicious and unkempt heathens, but we know from books such as the 13th century The Secret History of the Mongols that cultural life on the steppe was alive and well, ritualized in both athletic and spiritual realms.


Mongolia’s most famous festival, Naadam, has its origins in the steppe celebrations and competitions that began in Genghis Khan’s day, perhaps in concert with weddings and other spiritual assemblies. Then and now, sporting competitions took place in three areas: horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Starting in 1639, these “Three Manly Sports” were integrated into an event called Danshig Naadam, a yearly gathering of nomads, nobles, and monks from across the country to participate in both sports and spiritual activities.


Nowadays, Mongolia aficionados may know that Naadam is held on July 11-13, and in fact, it remains a national holiday on those dates. But that festival – still the most popular time to visit Mongolia – is actually the secular celebration of this ancient gathering. After the 1921 People’s Revolution, the government recast the event as a sporting event only, eliminating the religious and spiritual aspects.


With the end of Communism in 1990 came a return of Buddhism, and the monks and monasteries began to flourish once again. Finally, in 2015, the city of Ulaanbaatar and the monasteries came together to reestablish the original Danshig Naadam festival, held August 6-7, adding back the religious competitions and cultural performances, such as the Buddhist tsam dance, to the Three Manly Sports.


We spent two days enjoying the carnival atmosphere of Danshig Naadam. Like a state fair, the festival is filled with animals, game booths, crafts, picnics, cotton candy, and happy crowds under the beating summer sun.

About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, at Hui Doloon Hudag, the main stadium and the other sporting venues became my substitute for the Olympic Games this summer. In marked contrast to that modern extravaganza, however, here the opening ceremony featured bleating Buddhist horns and clanging cymbals, chanting monks, and colorful parades of horses and flags.


Also unlike modern sporting events, the competitors here wear traditional clothing and follow ancient customs as part of their sports. In wrestling, male participants don an unusual outfit of briefs, a skimpy open-chested, sleeved top and leather boots with upturned toes, and they perform an ancient eagle dance before and after they clash. Top-ranked wrestlers choose their opponents, so early matches are uneven and quick, while later ones can be long stand-offs. Matches are not timed, and competitors lose if they touch the ground at any time with a body part other than hands or feet.


Mongolia has a horse-based history and culture; children learn to ride early and are seemingly as comfortable on horses as we are in chairs. The main horse race at Danshig Naadam is a 30-km cross-country event with children aged 5-13 as jockeys. By the end of that age range, many children are already too heavy, so the races are usually won by tiny youngsters. We stationed ourselves near the finish line and, true to form, this year’s winner looked like a 6 or 7-year-old boy, galloping in a cloud of dust as he whipped his mount to victory. Boys and girls compete together in this race, and many of the top finishers we saw were female.


Men and women both compete, but do so separately, in the archery tournaments. The handmade bows and elegant costumes captivated me so much I don’t even know who won these events! Men shoot from 75 meters and women from 65 meters; both are so accurate that officials stand right near the targets to repair the walls after a hit.




Danshig Naadam was a great way to experience Mongolian culture, ancient and current. Families rode in from near and far, on horses or in pick-ups, and set up tents for the festivities. Competitors and spectators alike were dressed in colorful fashions, and there was a sense of holiday merriment in the air.


I felt very lucky to be part of the real Danshig Naadam festival in only its second year back in existence after its Communist-triggered hiatus. If you have a chance to visit Mongolia in summer, aim for mid-July or early August to take advantage of these fabulous opportunities to mingle with Mongolians at their most famous festivals.



Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Framing a House Mongolian Style:

A Steppe Out of Time:

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises:

Nothing Narrow Here:



Framing a House (Mongolian-Style)


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When we build a house in most of the world, we start with a permanent foundation and frame the structure from there on up, and we hope and expect that our home will exist in that spot for years to come. In much of rural Mongolia, there is some beautiful house framing going on, but the resulting structure – a ger (often known as a yurt in other languages) – is a fully collapsible and movable one that has been used for thousands of years.


I’ve spent a good amount of time in tents the world over, and I expected a fairly similar abode when I went to Mongolia last month. I was in for a striking surprise in several respects. For one, gers are quite large and sturdy. Gers are sized in terms of the number of expandable panels, and a typical ger for a family might be a 6-panel affair. Each panel is an accordion-like grid of lightweight wood strips that folds up into a bundle that can be loaded onto a camel (or these days, sometimes a pick-up truck) for transport to the next season’s pastureland.



Between each lattice-work panel is a post, and the panels and posts are lashed together with leather or rope ties. Between the front two panels is a wood doorframe and heavy wood door.


In a ger of this size, there are usually at least three couches or beds that serve in those capacities, respectively, during daytime and night. One side of the ger is used for food preparation, and other sections have traditionally been designated for men, women, children, and guests. In the center of the ger is a wood-burning stove whose chimney rises through a hole in the tent’s ceiling.



My second surprise was how complex and stunning those ceiling designs were, in both the gers for tourists and those of the nomadic families.  An open circle, or crown, at the top of the tent has a series of radiating poles – a gorgeous geometric array of orange or red painted rafters – that settle onto the side panels. This roof is often self-supporting, but in larger gers, it may sit on the support posts between the side panels. The crown is partially open for the stovepipe and for air circulation, but it can be covered with a canvas tarp that usually lies over the roof for extra protection.




The entire structure is covered with felt, usually made from sheep or goat wool from the family’s animals. This material insulates the ger in both hot and cold weather and is often wrapped again in a canvas covering that is more water- and sunproof. The entire tent is held together by long ropes tied horizontally around the dwelling.


(As a fun aside, we visited the Mongolian version of Costco one day to gather supplies outside Ulaanbaatar, and what should we find in the back of the store but a generic ger! Like most things in a big box store, this one was plain and characterless.)


Gers are round in order to redirect the fierce winds on the open steppe. Their circular shape helps them resist gusts from any direction, which is critical in a place with no natural windbreaks like trees or tall grasses and shrubs, and their rounded tops protect the roof from being ripped off.


A nomadic family can disassemble and reassemble a ger in an hour or two, and most family-sized gers can be transported on two or three camels. We were lucky to see one camel loaded up with long poles as the summer grazing season was coming to an end during our trip.

We were even luckier to spend half of our nights in Mongolia in these aesthetically pleasing and comfortable tents. I loved tucking my modern belongings into the lattice-work walls that have characterized these gers for centuries. I slept like a baby with my crown view of the stars and my door open to the sweeping grasslands (in spite of a hungry visitor one night – a vole? – who ate my snacks right out of my backpack, and a toad that hopped in one night after it was too dark to find him to scoot him out). We visited a number of families on the steppe and in the Gobi Desert, sitting around their stoves and enjoying their unmatched hospitality in their cheerful gers.



I think a good quarter of my photos are of gers gers at sunrise, gers in the distance, gers on a glowing evening, and gers with their charming owners – and I’m sure one of those remembrances will end up in a frame of its own on my wall one of these days!

Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Danshig Naadam:

A Steppe Out of Time:

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises:

Nothing Narrow Here:

A Steppe Out of Time


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I’ve always had a fascination with the word “steppe,” a term I’d read in various books to describe the land over which impossibly exotic characters ranged – legions of Russian soldiers, swarms of Genghis Khan’s archers on horseback, camel trains of nomads traversing a vast, empty plain. I pictured the steppe as a massive shelf, an unbounded plateau taking a giant stride down from Russia and Siberia into Central Eurasia. I might even go so far as to say that I went to Mongolia solely to see the steppe, with its grasslands and treeless plains that spread out for miles and miles under massive blue skies. I saw the foray into this land as a rare opportunity to step off the grid and into the pages of history right up to this day.


In my last post, I noted my surprise at the newness and modernity of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. While I took pleasure in getting to know that city, my real joy in Mongolia was heading out to the steppe land west of UB. With one of the lowest population densities on earth, Mongolia is literally wide open, and I wanted to get out there and breathe in the vastness and, maybe, see a little of the life that takes place there, a life that feels far removed from that in the city.


The Mongolian grassland plateau is part of the biggest steppe region in the world, one that stretches from Eastern Europe (Ukraine) through Central Asia – a number of the ‘Stans (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), Russia, and others. While there are now paved roads connecting most of the country’s provinces, the majority of roads on the steppe are bouncy dirt paths, often with no discernible lanes or traffic patterns.

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The verdant plains of summer spread out like ruched fabric, rising and dipping, folding and wrinkling like thick, crumpled velvet. Often, the greenish-yellow moors are framed by brown and purple mountains, unfolding in layers for miles on end. The vistas are like watercolor paintings, gradations of color and light stacked from foreground to background until they melt into the heavens.



Little white gers off in the distance dot the landscape, and herds of animals roam freely, the sheep with the goats, the horses alongside the camels.

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Unlike the leap into the 21st century that UB has taken in recent years, much of life on the steppe takes place just as it has for centuries, with people living in harmony with the land. Nomadic families move with the seasons, packing up their gers and their animals at least four times a year to find new pasturelands. In summer, access to water is critical, while winter brings a need for grasslands with minimal snow cover. In spring, the herders look for early flora to nourish the animals before birthing time arrives, and in fall, they seek out later-growth foliage to fatten up before winter comes around again.


Both the livelihood and sustenance of these nomads depend on their animals – primarily horses, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. The Mongolian diet is heavily based on meat and dairy products, and days revolve around animal care and putting up food for future seasons. On a visit to a wonderfully engaging nomadic family, we helped milk the mares and the cows, then cut huge blocks of soft cheese into smaller pieces that were dried on the roof for winter consumption.


We drank airag, a fermented mare’s milk, nibbled on mutton dumplings, and savored a creamy rice pudding made with the cow’s milk we had helped procure minutes earlier. Animal fur, hair, and skins can be sold for use in the city as rugs, the famous Mongolian cashmere, and other products as a way to earn money to buy agricultural staples the nomads cannot grow (rice and flour among them), animals to breed (the most expensive, a camel, costs about $750), or supplies, like the gers themselves ($1000 or so).


Traditional herding life is likely to change and fade out in coming years as pressures to join the global economy increase and as younger generations develop ambitions beyond a life in the country. The families who still make their home on the steppe may live simply and freely, but they take small bites of the world beyond. They use solar panels for energy in their gers, their children go to school (which is compulsory), and, of course, they own cellphones, which are almost as attached to their ears as they are anywhere else! The darling girls I bonded with one evening knew their way around an iPhone – insisting we take selfies together and then taking (many, many) videos of me riding their horses.


I didn’t get enough time on the steppe. I understand the difficulty of taking people out into such unpopulated, unsupported areas and I get that most people can only take the ger camps for so many nights before craving a real shower and some wifi! But I could have stayed much longer, waking at dawn to see horses wandering through camp, bouncing down the dirt roads into the green suede hills, stopping to photograph a shimmering, lemon-lime wheat field or a posse of Bactrian camels, meeting the industrious and endearing local people, and reclining outside my tent at midnight to see the entire Milky Way clouding up a night sky unpolluted by other light sources.




The steppe was a rare treat, a dream come true, a step out of time and place, a pause button in the universe that I needed to see and experience for myself. If history holds, I will crave a return someday soon, and I will add Mongolia to the list of places I’ve felt compelled to revisit.





Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises


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The first stop on my two-week sojourn in Mongolia was the exotic-sounding capital, Ulaanbaatar. I had pictured a frontier kind of town, a high-altitude patchwork of nomadic ger tents and hulking concrete apartment blocs, jumbled together in a hazy valley. Part of that vision was accurate, but I also found sparkling glass skyscrapers, quaint Buddhist temples, an old Soviet department store, and upscale malls in this city trying very hard to be the next swanky Asian destination.


Founded in 1639 as the headquarters of the leader of Mongolian Buddhism, Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”) became a permanent city in its current location on the Tuul River in 1778. The city lies in an east-west valley surrounded by four sacred mountains and is still home to hillsides full of gers, the traditional Mongolian round tents, on the edges of town.

In 1990, when Mongolia emerged from Russian communist rule, the population was only 500,000, but UB now has 1.4 million residents, almost 50% of the country’s total population. (The escape from Soviet grasp also marked the change of the city’s spelling from a Russian-based transcription to the current one, for those who have known this capital as Ulan Bator.)


As a result, the capital city of this young democracy is growing by leaps and bounds, creating marked contrasts between old and new. The Choijin Lama Temple sits in the shadow of the glimmering Blue Sky Hotel and other glassy towers.


The posh Shangri-La Mall, opened just 6 days before my arrival and the site of the country’s first IMAX theater, rises up from a weedy field.


On the other side of that scrubby grass and trees is another anomaly: a colorful amusement park in the middle of the city.


Huge construction cranes teeter over a battered log cabin.

Humble venders sit in shabby kiosks less than a block away from a Louis Vuitton store, and the Gandan Buddhist monastery peers down upon a sea of those boxy Soviet buildings as well as the shiny new high-rises.



I loved the city. I expected to tolerate it in between forays out into the countryside, but I found myself looking forward to our sporadic returns, and not just because it was a respite from sleeping in a tent with no running water or electricity! It would be a tough place to live permanently – it’s blazing hot in the summer and the coldest capital on earth in the winter – but I enjoyed every minute we spent in this curious mix of the traditional and modern laid out under a huge canopy of blue sky.


Stay tuned for the “real” Mongolia: the steppe landscapes and the nomadic families that live there, a glimpse of the Danshig Naadam cultural and sports festival, and the Gobi Desert – all coming up in future posts!

Morning in the Gobi


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Dawn and dusk have offered some of the most beautiful scenes here in Mongolia. I’ve spent the last few days in the Gobi Desert on the southern border of the country and was able to capture the sun rising over the pale green scrub that stretches for miles, as well as the soft, blue-tinged white of the gers as camp awakes each morning. It is a setting of great peace and quiet; I am sorry to leave it.



Nothing Narrow Here


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Could there be a worse Weekly Photo Challenge prompt for me this week? The only narrow thing I’ve seen in the last few days was my airplane seat in the economy section of a U.S. carrier that should be charged with inhumane treatment. And that was not a pretty picture, literally (I did take one) or figuratively, so I’ll spare you.

No, these next few weeks are not going to be “narrow.” I’ve just landed in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to begin a trip through this vast, wide-open country. A land of unfurling skies, rolling grasslands, and big new ambitions, Mongolia and its most famous leader, Genghis Khan, have nothing narrow about them.


Genghis Khan cut a huge swath through the world in the 13th century, leading relatively small, nimble armies of highly-skilled horsemen with insane archery skills against robust militaries from Korea to Vienna, Russia to Viet Nam, and all over Central Asia. In 25 years, this man (who was also known to be physically large) conquered more territory than the Roman Army did in centuries.

Those with a narrow knowledge of Genghis Khan know him solely as a rapist and pillager, and those things he apparently was, according to most sources. But he was a complex character to many historians; some see his numerous accomplishments as “worth” the multitudes of deaths he ordered, while others can’t see past the killing, even as it led to a whole new world order. In the fullness of time, men and events can lose their distastefulness when seen in the context of later developments, and revisionist history has a way of softening the personality traits and actions that “great men” used to change the world. When we narrow our eyes and look closely at Genghis Khan, what do we see as his legacy?

In coming days, I hope to learn more about this multifaceted man and his role in Mongolia’s history, and I will venture out into the land of the nomads who still populate much of rural Mongolia. There will be few shots of small things or narrow spaces; my eyes, camera, and mind will be prepped for panoramas, wide angles, and the very big picture. Stay tuned!