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.
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!
On our last two weekend escapes from the hot and humid city, we’ve hiked some very small sections of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania.
It is a woodsy walk, overall a 70-mile traipse through more than 20,000 acres of dense trees, cold streams, ferns, wildflowers, and prodigious clumps of rhododendron. The LHHT starts in Ohiopyle State Park and ends near Johnstown; along the way, there are shelters every 8-10 miles and enough varied terrain to keep hikers happy for days. There are great views from the higher ridges, and the entire trail sits at about 2500’ of elevation, so even on a sweltering day like one we had this weekend, the air is cool and the path largely shaded.
But that’s an overview of this trail I want to thru-hike some day. Yesterday what I focused on were the details, those little features that make every walk in the woods a mini treasure hunt.
In a post on family travel a few months ago, I briefly introduced the other eight feet that wander the globe with me from time to time. While we’ve had many good vacation times overseas, the five of us have also spent some time volunteering abroad, a vastly different way to really learn about other lands and cultures.
We all agree that our first and longest work tour was the best – a nine-day building trip in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica. We had been to the country before and remembered technicolor sunsets over the Pacific, ziplining through the jungle canopy, and nature walks in the rainforest, but nothing prepared us for the level of poverty we would experience for a week and a half the second time. This trip was the polar opposite of our previous one and, as we soon found out, it was quite different from our life here at home, too.
We arrived in Santa Elena, deep in the Monteverde cloud forest, to heavy rains. The road into the town was unpaved, and even when wet, its firm ridges rattled our van and our brains for what seemed like an eternity. We dropped our bags in the spartan rooms we were assigned, let out tiny screams when we spied a gigantic spider in the shower and tiny sighs when we felt the thin, rock-hard beds, and then bolted out to walk into town to find food and an internet café.
Water rushed down the hill, swirling around our ankles and backing up into the kiosks set up along the well-traveled route. This was hint number one of the dirt to come. Staying positive, we loaded up on beverages and snacks and returned to our simple accommodations to start a routine that we would follow for the next nine evenings: taking turns showering off the day’s grit and then assembling for beers in a courtyard of plastic chairs.
Each morning we would ride for over an hour on rutted dirt roads into a tiny village in the hills. Here, our overall goals were to dig a hole and two trenches for a new septic system, finish the interior of a school lunch building, dig a culvert, and paint a community center. There were no power tools to use; we mixed concrete by hand and transported it by wheelbarrow, both backbreaking jobs.
We framed walls, tiled floors and countertops, built bookcases, cleared a landslide (and felt a powerful temblor one afternoon) and laid pipe in our new trenches. Yes, we were exhausted. And filthy.
We worked under a volunteer philosophy called servant learning in which we were asked to follow local instructions and leadership; we were there to provide manpower and friendship, not control. Oftentimes, the work did not progress in a way we ever-so-efficient Americans were accustomed to. We moved concrete blocks into a pile to make room to dig trenches, then had to move them again to build walls. We built walls that had to be deconstructed when room measurements were inaccurate.
We cemented a floor before someone mentioned we needed to run pipes under a counter. We had to chisel out spaces for electric sockets, hacking into 2x4s and drywall. With no levels available, we eyeballed our shelves for squareness; once propped on the uneven floors, that notion proved moot anyway.
And we found all sorts of interesting things in our new trenches!
Beyond the work, we forged a deep affection for the villagers. At first, they were shy, speaking in quiet voices with eyes lowered. They cooked us tiny tasty tortillas for lunch each day and worked alongside us before and after the meals. They were masters of their own domain, and even though we thought we knew better, most of the time their ways were the best ways to get things done. As the days passed and we worked together for hours on end, the formality began to crack and we laughed with our new friends, the adults sharing a smile over a wheelbarrow gone rogue and the kids rustling up impromptu soccer games when they got bored digging holes.
At the end of our work tour, the villagers arranged a dance party for our final night. With a boom box and tables laden with food, we celebrated our building accomplishments and cemented the brief but deep friendships we had formed. We wore our finest outfits; for all of us, Ticos and Americans alike, this meant a clean shirt and pair of jeans, a simple dress or skirt. Our final night together, we were partners of a different sort, dancing the night away in the simple community room that we and many former volunteers had helped build and raising our glasses together to the national slogan: Pura Vida!
“Pure Life” is not just a saying in Costa Rica; it’s a way of life, a lifestyle quite opposite to the one many of us live at home. It is a life of simplicity – and contentedness with that simplicity. Costa Ricans don’t stress out about things, they are grateful for what they have, they don’t worry or dwell on negatives, and they have a humble and relaxed way of looking at life. Pura Vida expresses a feeling of eternal optimism and, as opposed to what we might feel in their circumstances, they would say and really mean what Pura Vida expresses: “Life is good!”
I’ve been a vegetarian since 2009 and have rarely felt any need to eat meat since then. My reasons for choosing a meatless diet were many and varied, ranging from a waning interest in the taste of meat in general to the environmental and health concerns of raising and eating animals from huge, industrial farms. (Truth be told, my aversion started even earlier – after I read Alive, the book about airplane crash victims in the Andes who ate human flesh to survive. But I digress, unappealingly.)
I have not been a zealot about my stance, however, and many people outside of my family and closest friends are not aware I’m a vegetarian, even when I share meals with them. I’m reluctant to ask dinner hosts for special foods and have always quietly found plenty of things to fill my plate in almost every setting. When I’ve traveled, I’ve sustained myself perfectly well, even on arduous treks in locales where meat is prized, like Nepal, where I hiked for weeks in the high Himalayas, fueled mainly by carbs and eggs (and the occasional protein bar!).
So why am I even considering eating meat in Mongolia next month? For one, the traditional Mongolian nomadic diet is highly meat- and dairy-centric, with vegetables and fruits very hard to come by in the grasslands that cover much of the country I’ll be crossing. They are not easy to grow in the strong winds and harsh climates (both summer and winter) out on the steppe, and the nomadic population is on the move from season to season and could not tend them anyway.
Animals, on the other hand, move along with nomadic families and provide a consistent source of meat and dairy products to their owners. I’ve read that I can’t even count on eggs here, as I have in other meat-oriented cultures; Mongolian herders do not keep chickens because they are considered dirty (not to mention difficult to herd!). Beyond logistics, Mongolians also believe that meat is critical for the spirit as well as the body; in fact, they are often disdainful of vegetables, considering them food fit only for animals.
This disapprobation would not be enough to persuade me, but one other factor might: the strong sense of hospitality that Mongolians dearly value. In the nomadic grasslands, travelers are always welcome in any ger, the round tents that herdsmen and their families live in. The custom is to walk into any tent, even a stranger’s, and there are many greeting rituals that include vodka, snuff boxes, tea, and food. Much of my upcoming trip will be spent in the grasslands, staying in ger camps and meeting the local people. I’ve been told to bring along some small gifts, and I know from previous travels that refusing what is offered to me may be considered rude or offensive.
Will I need to eat a few bites of meat to be polite? Will I find enough to eat during my days on the steppe without resorting to meat? I don’t think I have a philosophical problem with it; many of my objections to meat are moot in Mongolia, where animals are treasured and raised responsibly. The bigger question is whether it will be at all appealing, or even bearable, to eat some of the animal products I may be served?
Have you ever had to, wanted to, or refused to put aside your preferences or beliefs when traveling?
Day hikes are the appetizers and desserts of trekking aficionados. When I can’t get away for a week or more, the next best thing is a jaunt that still requires a backpack and provisions, a destination, and some great scenery. And the Cinque Terre, literally ‘Five Lands,’ is the perfect place to spend a day on foot and rack up some numbers, traversing the five small towns that form a colorful string along the rugged Ligurian coast of western Italy. We did just that to top off our Tour du Mont Blanc circuit hike one summer.
Uno: We based ourselves and started our walk in the busiest and northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns – Monterosso al Mare. Here there are many accommodations, restaurants, and even a beach, all set in irregular stone streets that surround the seashore and harbor. The town is famous for pesto, anchovies, and lemons, and we loaded up on pizza, pasta, and limoncello as a well-earned reward for our long Alpine hike and, in my case, the rigors of driving a little stick-shift car on the outrageously steep and twisted roads into the region.
Due: After a hearty breakfast the next day, we set off for town number two: Vernazza. This fishing village is the most picturesque of the group, and we were very lucky to get a beautiful approach shot before a morning rain shower swept us into the harbor and onto the main plaza. Fishing boats bobbed in the curved waterfront (and rested in the village streets), an old castle loomed in the background, pastel-colored buildings haphazardly climbed the hills, and villagers and tourists alike crammed under the few awnings and overhangs in the piazza for protection from the short-lived squall. With the passing of the mini-tempest, the old men went back to untangling their fishing lines, the adolescent boys to ogling the scantily-clad young female visitors, and we to our hike.
Tre: We climbed out of Vernazza on a series of winding stairs and terraces, feeling almost voyeuristic as we passed private patios and stereotypical lines of laundry dangling off skinny houses.
We were now on our way to Corniglia, the only one of the five towns not directly on the water. Perched high on a rocky hill and surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia was the quietest of the villages, and we decided to stop here for a relaxing lunch amid flowering bushes and old stone walls.
These two first sections were the toughest – close to 4 miles overall of steep hills up and down – and we hit the highest point of the day on the way into Corniglia.
Quattro: The smallest enclave, Manarola, was the fourth stop, following a relatively flat and easy route of just over a mile after lunch. Like its big sister, Vernazza, it is a jumble of vibrant facades that spill down the hill into the harbor. It is bright and busy, filled with shops and boats and locals, but has a smaller, more relaxed ambiance – the ideal time and place for an ice cream stop and whiling away some time just people-watching.
Cinque: By late afternoon, we had arrived in Riomaggiore on a cliff-side trail, dubbed Lovers Lane, that overlooked the brilliantly-blue sea.
Farthest to the south and east, Riomaggiore is the largest town of the five and feels more accessible to the outside world than the other villages. Here, those same painted buildings form a V around one final scenic harbor, and the railroad provides an easy return to Monterosso, just in time for more limoncello and pizza.
More Numbers: The Sentiero Azzurro, the Cinque Terre’s most popular walking trail, covers about 7 miles overall and can be walked in either direction. Most people walk south to north, starting flat and easy, but we did it backwards. In recent years, the path has been closed in some sections; heavy rains have washed out parts of the route and rock slides have blocked the path in and out of Corniglia. In addition, the Italian government is limiting the number of hikers to 1.5 million this season (a high of 2.5 million trekked the trail last year) to protect the area, so I’m glad we got there when we did!
Is there anything more restorative than a walk in the woods? This past week I was able to hike for a few days in the area around Aspen, Colorado, and I lapped up every minute of it.
From loading my backpack for the day (does anyone else find this an oddly satisfying task?) to spending hours at a time with no other human in sight, I allow time to fade from my consciousness. I’m in a zone I can only find on a woodsy trail, and a Rocky Mountain high is a real thing (even without legal-in-Colorado help). I hike by myself the first two days and feel the deep joy of being out in nature, alone with my thoughts and the sights and smells of the mountains.
The aspen trees sport feathery leaves at an elevation of 8000’ but at 10,000’ they are still naked soldiers lined up in ranks up and down the sides of the mountains. (The aspens intrigued me; please indulge me this gallery of trees!)
Some paths are still blocked with snow, while others are beginning to grow a spring carpet of colorful mosses and tiny wildflowers.
The trails are wonderfully diverse; I start on a shaded path alongside a stream, emerge into some prairie-like flats, then climb on exposed red rock one morning.
A hike at a higher elevation begins at lake’s edge, climbs gently through dense aspen thickets, then rises steeply over rough root systems and rocks until I am forced to stop when the route is fully snowed over.
My obsession for the four days I am there is to get a great shot of the Maroon Bells, (supposedly) the most photographed mountains in North America. I go after breakfast one day, but the three-peaked mass is partially shrouded in cloud cover. They are visible – and impressive – but the color palate is drab and cold, with water, trees, stone, and sky all a similar dark gray-blue-green. I am not completely disappointed (and get in a fantastic hike on the almost-empty Crater Lake Trail), but I do have that familiar feeling of seeing my target mountain in less-than-perfect conditions.
I return that afternoon to find even thicker clouds, but the peaks and the swoop are in slightly sharper relief. I snap away, hoping the wind will die down enough to allow the iconic reflection of the massif in the lake. It is not meant to be, and I leave the White River National Forest feeling better about the clarity of my new photos but still not very satisfied.
Unlike my usual self, I decide I simply must have a better photo and set my alarm for 4:15 am to try to catch the sun rising on the face of the Bells. The next morning, four of us bundle up and head to the lake once more. Hopeful and shivering cold, we walk the shore of the lake, pacing up and down the beginnings of several trails, then set up with a few other hardy souls for the spectacle to come. The sky is clear and slowly turning orange behind us and pinkish blue in front.
Ten minutes after official sunrise, the crests ignite! We are all clicking away as the rosy light gradually lights up the whole face. Suddenly … jubilation! The lake grows still and flat, and the fire on the mountain is mirrored in the water. It is this amateur photographer’s dream come true, and I snap away with both Nikon and iPhone until my batteries fail. (I did say amateur.)
If you search for images of the Maroon Bells, you will find photos that blow your mind. Mine are no match for those, but I am happy with them, and happier still that I made the effort to capture to the best of my ability a place I may never get to see again. I was indeed jubilant as the rising sun hit those peaks, but the whole time I spent in the mountains was a source of deep joy that will sustain me until I can escape the flatlands again!
Although I was tempted to submit many of the dozens of portraits I have taken around the world in a giant mosaic for this week’s photo challenge, I chose to post just this very special one.
This beatific woman allowed me to take her photo alongside the wall of prayer wheels surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. She is one of the pilgrims who have traveled to Lhasa to pay their respects at the home of the Dalai Lamas of the past, as well as the temples and shrines in this most holy of Tibetan Buddhist cities.
What I don’t know about her is how she got here, or from where. Many pilgrims arrive in Lhasa after journeys of several months from faraway rural areas, and the most pious of them do it by prostrating themselves the entire way. They sink to their knees, push their arms and hands ahead of themselves to lie down flat on the ground, then slide their arms and legs together again to stand, only to repeat the supplicating motion over and over again for days, weeks, and even months. (And I think yoga-barre-Pilates is hard!)
Other pilgrims arrive in this city at the top of the world by car, bus, horse, farm vehicle, or on foot. It is a humbling vision to see them in our midst; we are there to try to absorb this mysterious country’s culture for a short time while they have waited a lifetime to get the chance to come to Lhasa. They are everywhere, twirling their hand-held prayer wheels, prostrating outside the temples, and walking circle after circle around the Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace, and other sacred sites.
This dear woman was but one of these gentle, devout people that make up the Tibetan population, but her sweet, weather-worn face is a poignant memory of all of them.
Earth, capital ‘E’: I immediately picture the planet, that beautiful watery ball floating through space, green and yellow and brown patches dotting the blue, all under a wispy swirl of high-atmosphere clouds. I have no photos of my own (yet!) that depict the Earth, the whole Earth.
Small ‘e’ earth, I am intimately familiar with. My feet know its ground: squishy sand, hard-packed dirt, spongy tufts of mud-grass, stern granite slabs.
My eyes follow its paths, up and down mountains, around trees, alongside streams.
My nose breathes in its fertile scent – decomposed leaves, fresh shoots, the oxygenated freshness right after a rain.
My hands sift sand, move rotted logs, dig deep in boggy peat.
Big Earth is made small for me through the earth it has in common. The rhododendrons I adored as a child in Pennsylvania spring from similar soil in the Himalayan valleys of Nepal. The sand in Delaware buckles into ridges just like those on the Tasman Sea shore.
The grasslands in South Dakota rustle like the savannah in Tanzania, and the scree on a pass in Patagonia slips and slides under my boots just as it did on high slopes in Tibet and the Alps.
I like the abstract idea of Earth, and in my mind’s eye, I see myself, a tiny dot, crisscrossing it with a mission, but what I really love is earth, that organic foundation of it all, the part I get to actually touch, see, and smell as I ramble the globe.
Inspired by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Earth.
I was dragged to Utah a few summers ago. Not quite kicking and screaming, but definitely taken against my will to hike in Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, which, from all pre-trip appearances, were a collection of arid, rust-colored landscapes that made me thirsty just looking at them. The two parks and Utah in general, however, had long been at the top of my husband’s wish list for a hiking trip, and since all of our travels for years and years had been my choices, I gave in. (Nice of me, I know.)
I’m always looking to escape from the U.S. at least a few times a year, often, admittedly, to see things that are quite similar to the places I eschew here at home. (I was desperate to see dusty red Jordan, for example, but snorted at the idea of dusty red Utah.) But I knew I needed an attitude adjustment because my own country contains a vast assortment of destinations, and I finally succumbed to my husband’s pleas to see more of our homegrown scenery, particularly the national parks.
I am a big fan of state and national parks. My parents stuffed our family of six in the car for innumerable trips to these treasures in the eastern and southeastern U.S., and I’d adored them. I loved road trips, first of all, and even as a child, I relished being in the untrammeled outdoors, sinking my boots into pine needles in the Appalachians and breathing in the earthy smell of the dark, loamy soil in the Great Smoky Mountains. We clambered over rocky balds in the Shenandoah Valley, swished through dune grasses from Cape Cod to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and explored spooky Mammoth Cave and other caverns and hollows in Kentucky and Tennessee.
But what all those parks had in common was greenery and/or moisture. I loved the mossy clumps along woodsy paths, the smell of mildew in an old cabin, the dripping of leaves on my rain jacket in a forest, even the clamminess of a bathing suit at the shore. The desert had none of that; it was dry and dusty, odorless and often colorless. It made my eyes and nostrils itch, and I hated the grit it deposited on my skin. In short, it left me cold.
But I went. Our first stop, Zion National Park, had more varied terrain than I’d expected, and I started the trip on a surprising high note. We had an invigorating wade through the Narrows (water!),
numerous hikes through treed paths and ravines (green!), and some good steep climbs to various outlooks, including Angel’s Landing.
The scenery was truly majestic, and I ate my negative words about Utah many times in those first few days of hiking.
I adored the little town of Springdale where we based ourselves, and I looked forward to walking into Zion every day for a new and different adventure, even gaining an affection for the (dry, dusty, red) slot canyons.
Bryce Canyon was our next stop. For years, I’d heard people rave about Bryce Canyon and, really, how could I not find the surreal assemblage of hoodoos fascinating? I’m glad I saw them. They made for some great photos.
But we trudged for hours and hours through this baking forest of pale, parched towers and, dare I say, it was pretty boring and exhausting after the first oohs and aahs.
It did redeem itself at sunset, when the shadows and cooler air sharpened my sense of the place, replacing the desiccated blandness at high noon with a pleasing line-up of variegated figures in the evening.
In the end, Zion and Bryce and the land in between were a nice sampler in our quest to see more of our national wonders. I left impressed and grudgingly appreciative of both parks, although Zion was the hands-down winner in my book. The trip served a second purpose – getting us on a mission to see more of the national parks – and we followed it up with a trip the next summer to Glacier National Park, much more my kind of place!
This year is the U.S. National Park Service’s 100th birthday – get out and see one of these national gems soon!
I am traveling this week between my old and new homes, so I will be lazy and recycle a story of a dinner I will never forget for this week’s photo challenge.
My first real connection with the wider world started with a little goat, a katsikaki, as it was called in the tiny arid villages of central Greece. I was a teenager at the time, on my first trip out of the United States. I had just spent a few weeks at a Greek Orthodox camp on the western shores of the country, and now I was traveling into the heart of the Peloponnese with my yiayia and papou to spend a week at Papou’s childhood home.
A distant relative was driving, and as we crawled along the rutted and twisted roads of Arcadia, my grandmother told me stories and taught me Greek in the back seat while the men sat up front, smoking silently as we rode. The road dipped and curled, backtracking endlessly upon itself as we climbed and descended the mountains and valleys. Although the windows were down, it felt as though we were looking through dirty glass as the dust swirled around us and the brown scrubgrass, muted green olive trees, and hazy summer sky melted together in a miasma of July heat. The car seemed to float across the landscape, its progress slow but steady in the oppressive warmth and constant thrum of cicadas and other chirping insects.
When she was young, Yiayia said, she had been rich and pretty and courted by many wealthy Greek suitors. She talked of trips on the Orient Express and her engagement to a young shipping magnate who had given her a silver ring encrusted with diamonds to herald the connection between the two aristocratic families. But that union was not meant to be, as my headstrong grandmother threw over the young scion for a dashing and hardworking immigrant new to America – my Papou.
It was his village we were riding to – a remote enclave of some 100 people, isolated and poor, deep in the heart of the mainland. Even the name conjured up images of ancient, black-garbed peasants, gnarled olive trees, mangy scrounging dogs, and mule paths that were now used as roads. Thoughts of the Orient Express, or even Athens, lay irretrievably far away as we pulled into the town square, a tiny area in front of the church. Old women emerged from the tiny stucco houses to wrap themselves around Papou’s neck – the long-lost son of the village. The widows keened over my grandfather’s arrival, but the children and young adults turned their attention to me – a blonde, green-eyed teenager in a jean skirt.
The week passed in slow motion, with morning trips up the hill to fresh water wells and afternoon gatherings in the tiny square for coffee and too-sweet pastries. Knots of old men and widows clustered in the streets, and farm animals emerged from under the houses to roam the village by day. The goats were the ring leaders, the billies bullying and the ewes taking up camp where they wished. Their babies, the katsikakia, were still innocent and irresistibly darling. The little one that lived under our house was my favorite, with its narrow head and silky ears. It scampered on the slender legs of a fawn and craved affection like a puppy as it moved its soft body into my legs. I spent hours with the tiny kid, hiding in the cool stone pen under the house, traipsing along with him to the well, and feeding him extra morsels of food away from the watchful eyes of Aunt S and Uncle T, my elderly hosts.
Finally, it was time to leave the village and return to Athens. Our bags were packed, the car was checked for the return drive, and goodbyes were said throughout the village. Sweet little Aunt S set the table with her finest belongings and spent the afternoon cooking a farewell feast for my grandparents and me. The house was festive; delicious aromas filled the air and the adults were cheerful as they sipped their retsina and smoked companionably on the grapevine-draped porch.
We took our seats at the table and were touched at the time and expense our poor relatives had invested in this meal. It might be years before American visitors came again, and S threw everything into making our last night special. The wine continued to flow, the small plates were passed, and S left to bring in the main course. She walked through the blue-painted door with a huge platter in her hands and a look of pure pride and happiness on her face. She came straight toward me. Puzzled, I glanced at my yiayia; the adults were always served first here. Aunt S beamed; “To katsikaki sou! …your little goat!” Stunned, horrified, nearly hysterical, I looked back at my grandmother. “Smile,” she hissed. “Say thank you … and eat it.”
I grew up that day, choking down this token of my relatives’ love and respect for me and my grandparents. They had given to me what I loved most in that tiny village and, as wrong as it all seemed to me at the time, it remains a hauntingly strong memory of that first trip away from home.
I am obsessed with mountains. Many of my travels are fueled by a desire to trek or just lay my eyes on a specific mountain, and our first trip to Patagonia was no exception. My goal was simple – to get as close as I could to Mount Fitz Roy in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina. I have no technical climbing skills, and it’s too late to start, but my fascination with the world’s most difficult ascents can be satisfied with circuit treks, base camp visits, and partial climbs. I am willing to hike for weeks on end, up and down, through heat and cold, to glimpse the heights that stir men’s souls.
Fitz Roy drew me because it is so extreme. Not the highest of mountains – the Himalayan peaks have double the elevation – Fitz Roy is still considered one of the world’s toughest climbs. The sheer verticality turns away most comers; in some years, more people summit Everest than even attempt Fitz Roy. Fitz Roy also attracted me because it is so fearsome-looking. Its stony gray face looms threateningly over a remote and barren landscape, raising goose bumps on my skin even from a distance – even from a photo! Often sheathed in cloud cover, the pillar pushes dramatically upward, a knife piercing the usually leaden skies above. The mere thought of clinging to its wind- and rain-lashed face brings shivers.
As we approach the small town of El Chaltén for the first time, our driver pulls over and suggests a photo of the spike and its neighbors from afar. In a hurry to get to our lodging and dinner after a long day of travel, I demur at first, saying that we are hiking to a better vantage point the next day. He pulls over anyway, looking at me pityingly, obviously more aware than I that this may be my one and only shot of the unobstructed peak.
We meet briefly with the guide we have hired for the next day and he lays out three hiking options. The longest (estimated at 8-10 hours round trip) is a trek to Laguna de los Tres, a high-altitude glacial lake with the most spectacular view of Fitz Roy. We will not be dissuaded from taking this route, even when he warns us that tomorrow’s weather will be atrocious. We fortify ourselves with the coziest dinner ever – thick local stew and dark home-brewed beer at La Cervecería, a warm cocoon of rustic wood benches and tables crammed together in one snug little room.
Our trek day dawns gray and foggy, as predicted, and we pile on warm and waterproof layers for the hike.
My spirits are already sinking, but we try to stay upbeat and optimistic as we walk, first through gently rising lenga forests, then past ice-cold streams and glacier tongues, and on up to the barren flanks that house two base camps for real climbers.
The closer we get to the lagoon, the denser the fog becomes and the more heavily the rain falls. We are now fully draped in rain ponchos, our hoods and hats and headbands underneath deadening the senses. Our pants are drenched; there is no sheltered place to stop and eat, and our legs and lungs are burning as we near the apex of our climb.
We stumble over slick rocks, seeing nothing but our own boots and the back of our guide. He suddenly halts and points ahead. We are on the shores of the lagoon, a murky pool of dull liquid, topped with a gloomy mist so thick it hovers mere inches from the surface. Behind the lagoon and the damnable vapor lies the best view of Fitz Roy in the world, but it is not for us to see today.
I am not a good sport about this. I have tears in my eyes and sulky words for my family and the guide, who is cranky himself at our insistence on completing the hike. We yank our lunches from our backpacks, eat soggy sandwiches in disagreeable silence, straining for a tiny gap in the murk that never appears, before turning helplessly downhill for the five-hour trek back to El Chaltén. It is the most disappointing day of my travel life, and even my strapping son collapses in exhaustion and frustration at the end of the day.
Like many disappointments, however, the day allows us to focus on smaller scenes of beauty, like the delicate calafate berry below, and serves as motivation to go back to this enigmatic mountain and charming frontier town at the bottom of the world someday.
A spur-of-the-moment decision landed me this very morning in a landscape unlike any other I’ve visited. Fresh off a long-distance move and caring for a sick mother and dog, I had no travel plans in sight, but my one itchy foot just would not be scratched and, last-minute, I booked a trip to a place out of time – literally and figuratively.
Like Nepal, Onfoonapfoda has a 45-minute time zone, but instead of being 5:45 ahead of GMT, it is 3:45 behind, making my destination in the lower mid-Atlantic Ocean a mere 15 minutes ahead of my departure city in the eastern U.S. Once I figured out my connecting flight times (no mean feat!), I was here, feeling fresh and ready to explore.
My first stop was the capital city, also called Onfoonapfoda, but shortened by natives to Onfoona. Like Reykjavik, this tiny town is a colorful collection of small buildings, but here they are an eclectic mix of Nordic, French, and Portuguese influences, the result of a patchwork colonial past. Imagine boxy, metal-roofed structures, brightly painted, in small squares reminiscent of the Place des Vosges, all nestled up against the sea.
Close to the equator, Onfoonapfoda’s flora also makes for a jarring juxtaposition with the cold middle-of-the-Atlantic air and the surprising elevation. Snow-capped peaks rise up from fields of rice and palms; meanwhile, the sun shines brightly even as winds from the Antarctic continent buffet the low-slung buildings and dune grasses on the shore.
Mere miles away, volcanic fumaroles steam amid waving grasses and rolling hills (see initial panoramic photo above), and lenga forests, typically endemic only to the southern hemisphere, flourish here, along with the beautiful calafate berry.
Small tropical birds flit above buffalo crossing the perennially-foggy main island road, and ostriches (presumably brought by sea from the western tip of South Africa) herky-jerk through deep canyons, stopping only when they reach the sun-warmed hoodoos inland.
Meanwhile, offshore, there are giant floating icebergs of a supernatural blue hue, which I will not have time to view by boat.
I have much more wandering to do and little time to take in the magnificent array of landscapes here. My flight leaves just after midnight tonight (0:15 am to be exact), so I’ll be off now to do it justice. Hope your *first day of April* is as exhilarating as mine!
*Adding a little notation here on April 2 to draw your attention to the day I took this “trip.” Happy April Fools’ Day! A few of you guessed, but many wanted to go to this magical little island! Photos are from Iceland, Argentina, Nicaragua, France, the American West and Southwest, Mount Everest, Uruguay, and South Africa.
Surely the date function on my camera had malfunctioned. Last week I read about the collapse of a famous ice arch at the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina, a place we had visited back in … I thought 2014, but apparently 2012! A review of my travel documents convinced me that yes, it has been over three years since our wide-ranging trip to Argentina and Uruguay and, to date, I have written very little about that journey.
Why not begin with the glacier in the news and our trek there? Almost two weeks ago, on March 10, an ice bridge on the glacier collapsed for the first time in four years. Enormous chunks of ice fell into Lake Argentino, producing huge waves and a thunderous blast. The passage forms and collapses every three to four years, with the most recent rupture before this being in March, 2012, which must explain the shallowness of the arch when we saw it in December of that year. By the time it collapsed this time, the ice bridge was 250 meters wide and 70 meters tall.
Our excursion to the glacier was an active one. First, we traveled by boat across the lake, from which the massive front wall of the Perito Moreno glacier is visible. From afar, it looks like most other glaciers (ho hum),
but up close the scale is mind-boggling. The face is riddled with deep fissures, jagged points stretch up like veiny fingers, and the entire mass groans and creaks as if it’s alive. In fact, it is alive; scientists believe Perito Moreno is one of only a few Patagonian glaciers that are growing, and nearly all glaciers are constantly moving.
We were lucky to see and hear several large chunks calving from the face while we were there; I can only imagine the boom when the bridge finally ruptured.
Once on shore near the edge of the glacier, we walked a short distance to the ice itself, where we donned our crampons for a hike on the frozen surface.
For several hours, we trekked this otherworldly landscape – white, as expected, but also every shade of blue, gray and even black. We jumped over thin rivulets of water and avoided plunging into larger lagoons in the ice.
Gullies and crevasses crisscrossed the route, and the going was more up and down than I had expected. Ascending was exhilarating – it felt like mountain climbing in miniature – but descending was a little scary until we got the hang of the crampons.
In addition to the trek, there are also large viewing platforms and walkways for those who don’t want to see the glacier from atop. This structure affords the best view of the ice dam and bridge and provides another perspective on the size and shape of this massive and impressive glacier.
Until this outing, I never saw the appeal of glaciers; they were dirty and boring, I thought, but Perito Moreno was both a marvel and an adventure – a highlight of our time in Los Glaciares National Park in Argentinian Patagonia.
In the last 60 days, I’ve traveled a lot, passing through nearly every state from the Midwest to the Southeast to the mid-Atlantic U.S. and back. I flew nearly 5000 miles, drove over 2000, and walked hundreds. It is not the kind of voyage you would be interested in reading about, however. I will simply tell you that it involved a sudden resignation from my job, a frantic apartment search, a sick mother and hospitals and surgery and doctors galore, a snowstorm and canceled flights, 1 ½ days to pack up my life as I know it, and a chronically bleeding dog. Oh, and the crappiest birthday I’ve ever had was in there somewhere (the day the dog decided to pile on, in fact). But let’s not dwell on my two months from hell – let’s go back in the past, to New Zealand, instead!
On the South Island of New Zealand, the Dart River twists and turns, snaking out of Lake Wakatipu and through Mount Aspiring National Park, a collection of massive snow-covered peaks tumbling down into milky blue glacial waters. We leave the small town of Glenorchy aboard a powerful jet boat and fly across the water, mouths agape at the peaks, valleys, and pounding waterfalls surrounding us.
The boat skims the shallow water, bouncing high and eliciting screams of both fear and delight; our stomachs leap and then thud as our driver spins and cuts into his own wake to give us one of the thrills New Zealand is known for. We’ve skipped the bungee jumping and parasailing, so today’s outing is but a taste of Kiwi adventure mania.
An hour or two later, we disembark on the shores of a primeval beech forest and walk single file along a narrow trail into the woods. Our guide recounts the Maori history of the ancient and unspoiled surroundings; the adults listen eagerly while the kids jostle for space on the thin path, raising my heart rate more than the one-man suspended bridge over a 250-foot deep ravine does.
The return trip is no less thrilling. For the four adults and six kids on that ride some fifteen years ago, this was the highlight of our time in the Queenstown area. Mount Aspiring National Park and the Dart River have a brooding, mystical quality (one of the reasons parts of The Lord of the Rings and some Mount Everest movies were filmed here), and the jet boats are a pure high, an adrenaline rush of speed through cloud-muted sunshine and aquamarine waters – the memory a great antidote to my recent low times.
* Good news! Things are looking up. I’ve moved into a new place in Washington, DC, just in time for the advent of spring weather. I’m happily adjusting to urban living, my mom is doing better, and the dog has stopped seeping (don’t ask)!
Spring is around the corner, but my life has taken a nosedive; instead of feeling the impending euphoria of a climb out of winter, I’ve seen my days get metaphorically shorter and darker in a fall-like plunge. I’ve been in the same two winter outfits for a week even though I am now on a balmy island off the coast of Georgia. I have no idea when I will get back home, wherever that is right now.
A week and a half ago, I left the Chicago area on a frigid day and flew to Washington, D.C. for an apartment-hunting trip, just in time for a winter storm with sub-zero temperatures and snow, sleet and ice, then rapidly rising temperatures, heavy rain, and all the not-so-pretty melted snow, slush, and road salt.
The surroundings matched my mood – a smudge of worry, then a storm of panic and uncertainty. After making a very hasty decision on a place to live for the next year, I suddenly needed to change my plans. I was not going home to my dog or to help pack up for our move across the country. I was flying to Georgia, to a hospital complex, to try to figure out what was wrong with my mother – a bright and active woman who had led book discussions, played competitive bridge, and socialized non-stop a few short months ago.
I am happily in the full summer of life in general. A month ago, I had a job that let me travel widely several times a year, a well-loved house in a charming little village, a comfortable and stable lifestyle, and healthy kids and parents. I did know change was in the wind; my husband had been pursuing a position in Washington, D.C. for some time, but our idea was to ease into the move. I planned to keep my job, staying on in the house with our older dog, traveling on weekends (and longer when the school year ended) to be with my husband. It sounded like such an exciting adventure – a small apartment to test out urban living, and proximity to the eastern seaboard and friends and family.
More sobering than the temporary darkening of my own days is the realization that my parents truly are in the winter of their lives. I just wrote recently about the invincible summer I am lucky to have inside me, so right now my hope is that my optimism and (usually!) good cheer will cast a ray of sunlight into my parents’ lives for a bit. I just wish I could do it in something other than my waterproof snow boots!
[With my own changing of seasons, my posts may be few and far between for a while, but please know that I am slowly reading and enjoying many of yours even if I merely hit the “Like” button!]
I’d had my fill of imperial palaces, warriors, pagodas, jade, and even pandas after a few weeks in China. Although I had been very pleasantly surprised by much of the Middle Kingdom and had relished the opportunity to see many big cities like Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, and Shanghai, the hectic pace and smothering crowds had me ready for more of the countryside as I headed south to Guilin, the Li River, and the small city of Yangshuo.
The Guangxi region looked and felt very different from much of the China I had seen in the preceding weeks. I felt like I’d stepped out of the craziness of big-city smog, traffic, and crowds, and into a time-forgotten traditional Chinese landscape painting.
The Li River area had a misty, ethereal air about it – indistinct mountains off in the distance, a light haze rising off the river, and quiet country folk going about their daily business in the foreground. Time seemed suspended.
The Li River flows languidly amid towering limestone karst formations. Water buffalo plod along the shore and wallow in the shallow water, and fishermen in long graceful boats ply the waters.
Occasionally, a phalanx of boats clusters together on the riverbanks and small markets spring up.
After about four or five hours, the riverboats dock in Yangshuo, a lively town. But rather than bumping shoulders with the many tourists on West Street who have come to souvenir shop, eat, and drink, we almost immediately head off into the countryside for a look at the rice fields and small country homes of area farmers.
Our heads bob sleepily, and our breath slows markedly as we bump along in bicycle-powered buggies and quickly become transfixed by the rhythmic swaying of the rice plants.
Farmers walk unhurriedly behind their buffalo and plows, knee-deep in water. Their deliberate pace is calming to us, and the scenery appealingly soft and green, belying what is surely a chore for them, trudging behind their animals under the hot sun.
We cycle through small villages, seemingly from another era, where we pass quaint stone houses adorned with fresh and dried flowers and plant life.
It is a dreamy day back in time down by the river, a calming escape from the mega-cities, and one of my favorite memories of China.
Prompted by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Time
The wind is howling like a squall at the beach, battering my walls and patio. The palm tree outside my room is slapping up against my window, and the door, loose in its jamb, is rattling back and forth with every blast of wind. Small animals seem to be clambering on my tile roof; I hear scrabbling footsteps, little squeals, and the occasional thump. Surreal cloud formations have gathered over Volcano Mombacho, and the sunset is casting an eerie orange glow on the cone and its mushroom-cloud top. Children are screaming in the alley beside my room – in fun, I hope and assume – and all the lazy dogs I saw scrounging around in the streets today are now snarling and barking at each other in a most violent way. A car alarm has just gone off, so I decide to take a quick shower since the cacophony is seriously affecting my concentration. The water is lukewarm … no, now it’s cold. Welcome to Nicaragua!
Nicaragua is awesome. Really. It’s not what I expected in the first few hours, but that is my fault. I’ve been to Central America; I should know what the streets look and sound like. A check on the weather beyond daily temperatures would have told me about the windy winter months here; the white-knuckled guy next to me on the plane coming in says he comes here monthly and still hates landing in the January gusts in this gap between the Caribbean and the Pacific. Dozens of Tripadvisor reviews talk about the lack of hot water at many hotels. I didn’t even know I had to pay $10 to enter the country; luckily I had some cash (rare) and sailed right through immigration. My planning has gotten slipshod, I’m afraid, but I kind of like my new travel self: show up and figure it out!
On the heels of a family trip to Colombia between Christmas and the New Year, I have traveled solo to Granada, Nicaragua, to spend most of my last week before I go back to work. I picked this place because I could base myself in a charming colonial town within easy striking distance of the airport in Managua and have loads of activities nearby. Plus it’s warm here. Very warm – 94 every day and wonderfully sunny – and I am basking in it like the happiest of iguanas.
Morning brings clear skies, and a light breeze wafts into my balcony room with a view over the city and Mombacho. The “hotel,” really just five rooms arranged around a series of patios, is a little spot of heaven – all open to the outdoors and filled with hammocks and native plants against a backdrop of white stucco and black and white tiles. The coffee is rich and strong; life is good.
It’s a self-indulgent time in general. My time is my own, my activities are selected only by me, and the entire bathroom counter is mine, all mine! I read as late as I want, and when I wake up I lie there for an hour, looking at Mombacho, checking email, reading some more.
I swim laps in the afternoon, enjoy a massage before showering for dinner. Vegetarian restaurants abound, and I linger over meals of cool gazpacho and La Porteña beer, veggie paninis and fresh salads, as I people-watch from my streetside tables.
I hike Mombacho one morning and even my weather luck is good. The clouds on the summit scuttle away just as we start to circumnavigate the crater, affording a panoramic view of Lake Nicaragua and its 365 little islands, the city of Granada on its shores, and coffee plantations and other volcanoes beyond.
Another morning I set off into the lake to explore those isletas by boat. I float past lily pads, the sun warming my arms and face, and I breathe in the heat and radiance I’ll need to store up for the cold months ahead.
I join a trip to Masaya National Park, where I gaze into the smoky, unsettled Nindirí crater that has had volcanologists jittery the past few days. It huffs and puffs, and if we listen carefully we can hear rocks pinging when they hit the fire far below, out of our sight.
Nicaragua is not all blossoms and sunshine. The countryside is devastatingly poor, and even my little street has a litter-strewn empty lot, pockmarked walls, tired and dusty rooms filled with plastic chairs spied through worn curtains.
Young children and elderly people relentlessly hawk small goods, and the truly disadvantaged beg for food and coins. The country has still not recovered from either the 1972 earthquake that rocked Managua or the years of civil war that spanned the time before and after that natural disaster.
I have some hilariously bad experiences, like an endless day trip in a van with three highly malodorous men, two of whom speak ten words of English and no Spanish. I use my best ESL voice and miming skills to communicate with them, and I tolerate numerous stops in local markets and a pottery factory so they can shop for a shocking array of trinkets. I eat a Snickers bar for lunch one day when my only other option comes from a gigantic burbling pot of fatty mystery meats and vegetables waiting to be stuffed into a cornhusk.
Between outings, though, I happily stroll the streets of Granada, winding up the stairs of one ancient church to see the yellow spires of another set off against the brilliant blue of the lake beyond.
From here I can really see the famous patios of the city. From street level, uninspired doors hide these inner courtyards, but now I see clearly what I’ve only gotten peeks at: terracotta tiles and fountains and a profusion of flowers. Back down in the town, I sit in the shaded central park, walk to the shores of the lake, eat gelato that melts all over my hands within seconds, munch on yucca chips, wave at my human neighbors, and pat my animal ones.
It is a lovely January interlude in the sun, and I leave quite fond of this small friendly town and country.
When I was a teenager, I was so cranky in the wintertime that my mother gave me a little framed quotation by Albert Camus. (On a normal day, she was more likely to give me an earful for my griping and whining, but I think she secretly sympathized.)
In the years since, I have gazed upon that little frame so many times, willing a little shoot of green joy to poke up through the dirt of midwinter. Of course, Camus was talking about much more than two seasons, and it is that daily rush of renewed hope and optimism – that invincible summer within – that I hang onto for dear life.
I was born in February, the darkest, meanest month of all – a month of short days, low sun, and a paucity of plant life. By then, we have descended at least three months into winter, and there are many more weeks to go before we can climb up and out, until life and warmth return to my part of the earth. Glistening snow has turned to filthy mush, and the cozy glow and attraction of hot tea and cozy throws and fires is on its last flicker.
In a literal way, I escape winter by physically seeking summer – flying south as far as necessary to chase down some heat and sun. In recent years, I’ve made it to Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and, just last week, Nicaragua, in the dead of our winter and have thawed my bones enough to get me into spring.
But I don’t think that’s what Camus had in mind, and the kind of summer I keep inside me is a different and truer source of warmth. Although you will frequently find me bitching about the weather, the summer sun burns inside me in other ways. We live in a mess of a world, but I stubbornly see more lightness than darkness, more good than bad, especially in my travels.
In the midst of dire poverty, I have seen incredible generosity – the poor helping the poor and even offering the rich the little they have. After the worst days of clouds and rain, I have witnessed the best sunsets. And trite but true, the happiest people I have met have the fewest material goods.
Even at home, my invincible summer dawns every day. It starts with coffee, and builds through little things like a bit of fresh air, a job well done, a smile from a stranger, a new book suggestion, the dawn of comprehension in a student. On the darkest days, in the depths of winter, that tiny flame somehow stays lit, and I am grateful for it.
Prompted by the Weekly Photo Challenge: Optimistic
A cross between New Orleans and the Caribbean, decreed my daughter. What I imagine Cuba would be like, noted my son. Streets and doors like San Miguel de Allende, opined my husband, but maybe more like San Juan. As for me, I was thinking sort of like Dubrovnik with Afro-Latino overtones.
These were our shallow observations in our first few hours in Cartagena, Colombia. I always find it kind of obnoxious when people (including us) blather on about what a place reminds them of, as if they (we) are so well traveled that they have to compare and contrast each new place with somewhere they’ve already been rather than just appreciating it for what it is itself. Yet we all found ourselves exclaiming time and again how Cartagena reminded us of so many other places, and perhaps this makes sense at first glance.
Cartagena de Indias was founded on the Amerindian north coast of what is now Colombia by Spanish conquistadors in the early 1500s. With its well-protected location on a Caribbean bay, Cartagena became a critical port for all the riches the Spanish were carting out of South America; ships from Peru and Ecuador stopped here to receive additional goods from Colombia, then continued on to Cuba and Puerto Rico before sailing to Spain with all their seized treasure. These ships full of gold and silver and the prosperous young city attracted a long string of pirate attacks, leading to the building of one of the largest fortifications and walled cities in the Americas.
Cartagena’s development was aided greatly by the dubious honor of becoming one of the busiest slave ports in Central and South America. The slave trade further enriched the Spanish conquerors, and stately mansions with deeply colorful stucco and stone walls, tall windows and doors, and flowery balconies sprang up in a series of cobblestone streets and small parks in the Old City.
Cartagena eventually became one of the first sanctuaries for freed African slaves, who lived alongside the indigenous residents and European conquerors, creating a delicious stew of ethnicities and cultures. Indians, Hispanics, and Africans mix here in a steamy Caribbean setting, and the buildings, food, music, and culture in general reflect centuries of cross pollination.
Today, dozens of indigenous ethnic groups remain, along with several million Afro-Colombians and some 30 million mestizo (European-Amerindian) inhabitants. Getsemaní, the city’s oldest area, where we stayed, was the original home of Africans brought as slaves and later the home of a large Cuban population. The colonial Old City looks more European, but is also home to a fusion of people, homes, and businesses.
In the end, we appreciated this walled city of cobblestone streets, artfully crumbling colonial architecture, and masses of trailing bougainvillea for its own charms. It is simultaneously seedy and enchanting, suffocating and breezy, old world and trendy.
Typical Caribbean foods – coconut milk, lime, rice, plantains, and fish – are served alongside Colombia’s signature dish, arepas – little cornmeal patties stuffed with cheese, eggs, and other fillings. Street corner cumbia music mixes with Latin salsas, and a gleaming row of high-rise hotels and condos lines the beachy Bocagrande strip, Miami style, within sight of the 16th century Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a dominating fortress built by the Spanish.
Is it any wonder we all likened the city to so many different kinds of places? Cartagena does look and feel like other Latin American colonial cities like San Miguel de Allende and San Juan, and it has the balconies, decadence, and Afro-European fusion of New Orleans. Its Cuban population adds both Latino and island flavor, and the city walls certainly evoke other fortified cities like Dubrovnik. By the end of our time there, however, we concluded that all the comparisons were unnecessary and unfair; Cartagena is a unique little place of its own and well worth a visit.