It took a good two weeks to adjust to returning to Boston from Hawaii. Not because of the time change—that only took a few days. It was the shift in the color spectrum that threw me. In Hawaii, it was the vivid blue sky and the turquoise ocean, the yellow pineapples and the pink hotel, the white ginger leis and the red hula skirts. Here in New England, we’re eternally evergreen with gray blue skies and dark blue seas, we live in white houses and wear dark suits. New England is beautiful, yes, but in a much more somber, subdued way.
My wife, sixteen-year-old son, and I spent ten days in Hawaii—five days on Oahu and five on Hawaii—what locals call the big island. This afforded us the range of what Hawaii has to offer—from the romantic chi-chi of Waikiki, to the spectacular sight of an active volcano sending gleaming lava into the Pacific.
The first half of our vacation we spent on Oahu at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel also known as “the Pink Palace of the Pacific.” It is, as you might suspect, painted entirely in pink. The hotel employees wear pink. The bath towels are pink. Pink umbrellas float in orange Mai Thais. It’s a romantic kingdom rising out of the white sands and blue-green waters of Waikiki, where the ocean temperature was an inviting 80 degrees. Palm trees 100 hundred feet high cooled us like Persian satraps with their fronds waving in the wind. White pigeons greeted us in the morning when they perched on our balcony overlooking the beach where surfers rode four foot waves from 6 am till dusk. The long sloping beach was so different from the quick drop-offs of the New England shoreline, meaning a good surfer could ride a wave for more than 100 yards. At the end of the beach stood craggy Diamond Head, reminding us of the volcanic origins of all the Hawaiian Islands.
Flying to Hawaii from the continental United States, you gain six hours, so it doesn’t take much time to recover from the flight. We arrived late in the afternoon and, following a good night’s sleep, were ready to go. But, since this was just about the most beautiful beach the three of us had ever seen, we didn’t go far for the first couple of days. We wandered down to a sumptuous breakfast buffet with luscious pineapples and papayas, bacon and eggs, Kona coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice.
We body-surfed, swam and floated, and read beside the pool. At night, we had cheeseburgers, ahi and ono sandwiches and tropical drinks at the hotel’s casual outdoor bar and restaurant while we watched the sizzling sun take a well-deserved dip in the ocean. On the second day, my wife went shopping in the giant mall next to the hotel while my son and I took surfing lessons. With the help of a native Hawaiian surfer we were soon riding long boards on the smaller two-foot waves. When we’d conquered those, our instructor took us out to the bigger, three-or-four-foot swells. It was definitely fun, and all you needed was a surfboard. There were no ski pants, jackets, googles, helmets, boots, skis, snowboards, and no tickets.
On the third day, we hooked up with one of my wife’s college friends—a woman who was originally from Oahu and who had recently moved back to Hawaii from Cambridge, Massachusetts. She took us on a whirlwind island tour first to the top of Diamond Head and up the windward coast to the Pali Lookout, where Kamehameha, the original founder and ruler of Hawaii, drove thousands of his Hawaiian enemies off the cliffs in 1795 to unite the islands under his rule. Then we drove down to Kaneohe Bay, where another spectacular beach beckoned us to swim and snorkel.
On the fourth day, we visited the Iolani Palace and learned the history of Hawaii’s tumultuous relationship with the continental United States. We had forgotten that Hawaii wasn’t granted statehood until after World War Two.
During the nights, we trolled the streets of Waikiki. They were jammed with American and Japanese tourists; local wide-bodied Samoyans; beautiful dark-skinned, dark-eyed Hawaiians with long black hair; and skinny, long-haired refugees from the sixties that looked like hippies. It was a wild scene. By the fifth day we were ready to get away from the crowds.
We flew to the Big Island where we were to meet up with a group from an active tour company called Backroads, a U.S. based outfit that leads tours for families and adults all over the world. We had three guides leading four families—18 people total.
We began the tour at the Parker Ranch, one of the biggest cattle ranches in the United States, and then we took our bikes (provided by the tour company) and rode from along the tree covered Mamalahoa Highway and all the way out to Laupahoehoe Point State Park on the coast. There were highland prairies on one side with monkey paw trees, and on the other side dramatic cliffs dropping down to the sapphire blue ocean. Biking was and still is the best way to see a place.
From the coast, we loaded the bikes onto the vans and drove up to Volcano Park to spend two nights at the funky and somewhat musty Volcano House, a hotel located right next to the Kilauea Caldera, a crater that sits atop the most active volcano in the world. Kilauea is a shield volcano, which means that the crater is shaped like an inverted shield composed of a combination of smooth and crumbly lava called pahoehoe and a’a. This makes for a truly, otherworldly moonscape. Steam vents reminded us of the hot lava two miles beneath the surface of the earth. In the morning, we were given a tour of the Caldera by a volcanologist who led us from there into a lava tube—a tunnel formed by an eruption. After, we biked around the ten-mile loop that encircled the immense Caldera.
The next day we pedaled down from the volcano to the southernmost point in the United States and on up the west coast past the site of Captain Cook’s demise to Keauhou Kona where the famous coffee is grown. At the beach next to the hotel there was good snorkeling above coral just offshore where multicolored angelfish and blue tangs swam with giant sea turtles.
That night, after dinner, we drove south to Kau Loa Point where we walked out over the smooth and wrinkled black lava field from the 1950 eruption, to a site 300 yards beyond the point where, from cliffs overlooking the ocean, we could watch gleaming hot lava flow down from Kilauea and right out of the cliffs—what locals call the witch’s nose—into the ocean where the lava sizzled and crackled and hissed hot gas into the air until it was swallowed by the relentless waves. This is a sight best seen at night and a fierce reminder of what simmers at 2000 degrees two miles beneath the surface of the earth.
The next day we met with a local kayak tour guide who outfitted us in sea kayaks and led us two miles down the coast to a secluded point where we went cliff-diving. There were jumps of 10, 20, and 30 feet for the daring. The water is so clear that the rocks beneath the surface, although they are 15 to 290 feet down, are entirely visible, adding to the challenge of cliff-diving.
That afternoon we took the van northeast to continue around the island and spend the last two nights at the beautiful Fairmont Orchid resort on the Kohala coast. Here we found, amidst a lava field, perfectly manicured golf links and giant interconnecting swimming pools surrounded by palm trees. That night we swam in the pool and stared up at the stars through the swaying palms.
On the last day, we drove back north and hiked into the Waipio Valley. After two hours of hiking through bamboo groves, the trail emerges at the upper rim of the valley, where a 200 foot waterfall runs down to a stream on the valley floor. Continuing on the trail, we reached a point from which we could see the ocean 30 miles away between the mountains. We had lunch on a knoll, a short walk from where a landslide had wiped out the trail.
The next morning, we flew back to Oahu and from there we went on home to Boston, where the longing for the vivid Hawaiian hues was disheartening. Nonetheless, a rare experience in our age of hype, Hawaii lived up to, even exceeded our expectations.
Ed Meek is the author of Luck (short stories) and Spy Pond (poems). Follow him on Twitter @emeek.
The author meeting with Susan, head of a local NGO in South Sudan talking about microfinance programs
RETURNING TO THE GLOBAL HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: by Denis Dragovic
Early one evening in 2001 I watched an airplane as it cut through the African sky leaving its long and distinctive vapor trail. I stood still, taking a moment to wonder what the view looked like from above. Recalling my own thoughts when traveling—arrival, the days that lay ahead, a new movie on the in-flight entertainment, the ever-shrinking leg room—I realized that few would have reason to suspect the calamity that was unfolding below.
On the ground, the details were clearer. I was standing amongst a sea of plastic sheeting, mainly blue, some green, and a smattering of other colors. These bamboo structures, extending as far as the eye could see, housed over 20,000 people. Somewhere amongst this sea of people were some of my staff, who had fled along with the rest of the population from a town called Raga in the southwest of the then Sudan. On foot, weaving my way through the country’s newest settlement, I was struck by how resilient these people were. They had trekked for a month, thousands of women and children along with a few men, eating off the land, a diet of peanuts and wild mangoes, in addition to any other scraps they could find.
The thousands of faces from that day make the millions that comprise the global humanitarian crisis real to me.
Through a decade-long journey working with the poor and war-affected, the finer details of wars and humanitarian disasters are starkly apparent.
Through a decade-long journey working with the poor and war-affected, the finer details of wars and humanitarian disasters are starkly apparent. From Australia to Iraq via Africa and Asia, I saw the underbelly of our world, where slave raiders returned with their ill-gotten gains: a dozen women and children, destined to be unloaded in the capital. I once bought the life of a man who had accidentally killed a friend by paying off the remaining blood money: a dozen cows, weeks before he was to hang. The first female staff member I hired in Iraq, a mother of two, was shot at her home, a senseless honor killing perpetrated by the brothers-in-law to stifle rumors of infidelity.
But in equal parts, as if in some delicate balance of nature, the promise of humanity shines through. In Iraq, local staff risked their lives and even their families to help secure the release of a kidnapped Canadian colleague. In South Sudan, I wove my way around temporary shelters made of plastic sheets and invitations to join in an evening meal, a broth of leaves and grass flowed forth at every turn. And in East Timor, I was encouraged to practice my limited vocabulary of their oppressors’ language. As it wasn’t the Indonesian people, I was told, who had burned their homes, lay waste to their livelihoods, or killed their families. It was the military, and that distinction was important to them.
I sometimes wonder, what happened to these people whose paths crossed with mine. Even though many of the meetings were fleeting, the memories linger. One of my recurring thoughts, while sitting face to face with a mother or child, an Ayatollah or tribal chief, was not a glib wish for peace, but selfishly wanting to look into their minds. How did the recently displaced families, who invited me to share in their broth of grass, interpret my garbled response: as polite refusal or harsh disgust? What thoughts did the village chief harbor while hosting an elaborate mock wedding ceremony to showcase his people’s traditions: pride of his people’s culture or a cold calculation at what transactions could be secured? Did the child, lying in hospital with a fresh wound in his cheek complimentary of celebratory gunfire think that the white man would take away the pain or was he afraid of the “white ghost”?
I wanted to know, so I packed my bags and headed back to the places where I used to work to see what happened to the people and projects.
Traveling back to East Timor was a routine journey not dissimilar to visiting Sydney. South Sudan required a friend in an NGO to arrange for a visa, but Iraq was problematic. Without an official reason to be there, it was hard to get in.
A good friend of mine from when I had worked there had promised to arrange a seven-day pass from the passport office in Najaf, Iraq, though as I fronted the airline counter in Amman, Jordan, I admitted that I had no paperwork to prove it. A few phone calls, some kind smiles, and promises that everything was sorted on the other end led to me boarding the flight, but unsure of what the consequences were for illegally entering the country.
The nearly two-hour flight for my return to Najaf was uneventful. I laid low, avoiding any conversation with the hope that my southern European features and a perfectly trimmed, seven-day growth would detract attention. On the inside, though, my stomach was curdling.
The author with Ayatollah Sheikh Bashir Najafi who had accused him years earlier of being a CIA spy.
As we broke through the clouds to begin the final descent I caught a full panoramic view of the city and the largest graveyard in the world, the place where the final wishes of the Shia faithful—to be buried near Imam Ali—are fulfilled. Founded in the eighth century, Najaf traces its provenance to the whim of a camel carrying the dead body of Ali, the slain forebear of the Shia, and the namesake of the shrine built upon the ground at which the camel eventually came to rest. From the air it seems the camel had a good eye. I could see how centuries ago it would have been a wise place to establish a settlement—close to a water source and with one half of the approach to the city protected by the Sea of Najaf. Maybe the camel had been guided by God.
One of my recurring thoughts, while sitting face to face with a mother or child, an Ayatollah or tribal chief, was not a glib wish for peace, but selfishly wanting to look into their minds.
Divine intervention is a closely held belief amongst Muslims, most evidently expressed in the common remark in Arabic, insha’allah, meaning “God willing.” It’s used in various ways, including as an affirmative response, as in, “Can I please have a receipt for that?”
“Insha’allah,” is said as the receipt is handed over.
It’s also commonly used to pass off responsibility by speaking the word while responding with a smile and nod, even though knowing the truth to be otherwise.
Saddam’s soldier #1 shouted, “We will chase the infidels into the sea!”
Saddam’s soldier #2, smiling, may have responded, ‘Insha’allah.’
Rarely, I hear it used in its purest form: if God is willing then this highly unlikely outcome that we all hope and pray for could well come true.
Being the third most important destination on a devout Shia Muslim’s travel itinerary makes an airport crucial infrastructure. Amazingly, Najaf did not have an airport until mid-2008, when a Kuwaiti firm’s efforts at rehabilitating an old air force base opened the city for the first time to international travelers.
The airport, built in an old-fashioned hangar style, is secure, modern, clean, and very spacious, but none of that was on my mind as I walked to immigration. Instead, I began to look around for someone, anyone, who looked familiar. Where was my friend’s contact? Did he forget? Maybe his promise of a visa was all bluster, not believing that I would actually come. Then to my surprise, a very young woman appeared in front of me covered in the customary black abaya worn in religiously conservative areas. With a beaming smile framed by her hijab, she introduced herself as Zahra.
“Please follow me,” she said cheerfully.
Zahra, a former staff member of the NGO I led, thankfully had secured a job at immigration. She seemed to have that unique ability to perfectly balance the cultural reservedness expected of women while still being assertive and able to get her message across. Her nonchalance about the whole situation slowly began to put me at ease. While she was enthusiastic to help, it seemed that getting an entry visa upon arrival would not be such an easy thing.
I was shown a seat and asked to wait while Zahra argued the case. I watched as phone calls were made, hands cut through the air emphasizing a point, and voices rose. Then, it all seemed to be settled. A solution was found. I just needed to confirm that I was a pilgrim visiting the Shrine of Imam Ali.
I responded with a smile and answered, “Insha’allah.”
Denis Dragovic is an author of literary and scholarly works. Drawing from his experiences responding to major humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, Denis’ literary writing weaves together narratives of foreign cultures and adventure travel with an insider’s expert perspective on the humanitarian challenges of the twenty-first century. His latest book is No Dancing, No Dancing: Inside the Global Humanitarian Crisis (Odyssey Books, 2018). Find him at www.denisdragovic.com.
I left the chicken simmering on the stove and stepped out onto the balcony. I wasn’t sure if I had heard the front door buzzer or not, but there was a tall young man—my daughter’s apartment-mate was tall, she had said—standing outside the building, fiddling with his keys. Maybe he had gotten locked out. I propped open the apartment door with a mop and ran barefoot down the three flights of stairs. So many things to adjust to in New York City: locks, shoes.
By the time I made it to the front foyer, the young man had entered. “Are you Luke?” I asked, pretty sure that he was, now that I could see how extraordinarily tall and handsome he was.
“He’s a model,” my daughter had told me when she called to say she had signed the lease on a new apartment and would be sharing it with a friend she had met when she first moved to New York City.
“I’m Nina’s mom,” I said, sticking out my hand. “I thought you might be locked out.”
It wasn’t such a far-fetched worry. A week or so before, Nina had called me on a neighbor’s phone to ask if I would call Luke and her boyfriend to find out when Luke would be getting home from work that night and if her boyfriend could bring her a jacket and maybe some shoes—she had locked herself out with only a tank top and booty shorts on. Before either boyfriend or apartment-mate could come to the rescue, the neighbor kindly offered his lock-picking services. Crisis avoided.
“Get a deadbolt,” was all my husband had to say about it.
But Luke had not lost his keys. He had just been pausing outside. We chatted as we wound our way up the stairs, and once inside the apartment, he tossed his gear on his bed and half-closed his door while he changed. I went back to the stove, lifted the lid on the chicken to check it, and stirred the yellow lentils before tasting them—they needed more turmeric.
Nina texted me that she was leaving work just then and would be home in an hour or so. I took the colander of Brussels sprouts out of the sink and shaved them into thin slices.
The last time I visited my daughter, she had just gone through a bad breakup. I have become relatively adept at communicating various forms of love and comfort over the phone between Montana and New York City, but all of those murmurings had felt inadequate in the face of her desolation, so I’d gotten on a plane and arrived with a grocery list already forming in my mind. I spent two days cooking, all four burners and the oven going, and filled her refrigerator and freezer with chicken burritos, lentil salad, polenta, and roasted vegetables. I couldn’t mend her broken heart, but I could make sure she felt loved and cared for long after I had left to go back home.
This time there wasn’t heartbreak—well, there was—my husband’s aunt had died, so he and I had flown flew to New York for the funeral. After quick stops at Target and Shop Rite, my husband and his brother dropped me off at Nina’s apartment on their way back to the airport—me, along with ten bright yellow Shop Rite bags full of groceries and a long box containing the parts of a tall bookshelf from Target. Nina had a closet in her room and a bed but no other furniture. I figured the bookshelf would hold whatever she couldn’t hang.
“Do you want us to put it together for you?” my brother-in-law asked, after we had hauled everything up to the apartment.
“Yes, please,” I said, before beginning to slice onions on a cutting board.
The menu this time around: white bean and chicken chili, yellow split pea dal with spinach and rice, peasant bread, a Thai coleslaw and another salad made from kale, Brussels sprouts, walnuts, and parmesan. Oh, and a pot roast, if I could find a pot to cook it in.
I had originally planned on bringing my Dutch oven for the pot roast.
“That’s crazy,” my husband had said. “You can’t put that in your carry-on.”
“I once brought one in my carry-on,” a woman had told me…I had mentioned my upcoming trip to New York City, my desire to make a pot roast, and my need for a Dutch oven. “But I recommend packing it in a separate bag,” said the woman, “because the TSA will want to take it out to check it.”
“I once brought one in my carry-on,” a woman had told me, recently. She had been sitting across a table from me at a local Planned Parenthood Get Out the Vote calling session, and I had mentioned my upcoming trip to New York City, my desire to make a pot roast, and my need for a Dutch oven. “But I recommend packing it in a separate bag,” said the woman, “because the TSA will want to take it out to check it.”
I decided to leave my Dutch oven at home and make do with whatever pots and pans my daughter had. I had already committed myself by buying a roast at the Shop Rite, where there were no less than eight guys in the meat department, chopping and hacking.
It’s not that my daughter can’t cook for herself, but she works two jobs and, well, you know how it is. There is something reassuring about a mom puttering a kitchen. Luke, apparently, thought so, because after he changed, he sat down at the counter and told me that he had broken up with his girlfriend the night before and was feeling uncertain.
I grated parmesan cheese into a bowl and nodded.
It had been a long-distance relationship, he said, and he had met someone else.
We haven’t done anything yet, he said of the new woman. Just talked. And kissed.
I measured olive oil and whisked in a spoonful of mustard. And nodded.
His guy friends had told him to keep both relationships going, Luke continued. But, he reassured me, he wasn’t that kind of guy.
I opened the fridge and reached for a lemon.
“Thanks,” he said. “I feel much better.”
Then he left, and Nina arrived.
Nina was off the next day. While she was at the gym, I started the pot roast—I had to settle for a stovetop version. I helped her unpack, and then we set out on some errands. She had dry cleaning to drop off, and we needed to go to a hardware store to make a copy of the mailbox key, replace a faucet screen, and—if we went to the hardware store in her old neighborhood, Nina said, we could buy a few plants. Luke had brought three with him when he moved in. Two were unrecognizable black husks, and the third, an aloe, was more dead than alive.
“Which way?” I asked when we left her building.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know this neighborhood at all.”
A champion at second-guessing herself, she said, “I don’t feel at home here.” And then, “I loved my old neighborhood.”
I slipped my arm through hers and said, “Give it time,” and hoped that was what she needed. There are times, still, after 24 years, when I question my ability to know what my daughter needs, let alone provide it.
We turned a corner, crossed the street, and stepped into a dry-cleaners whose hours were posted on the door in Polish. In that stuffed but orderly way of tailors and shoe repair shops, the front window was entirely taken up with plants. Each ceramic pot held a mixture of textures and shades of green.
“This window must face South,” I murmured to myself, thinking of that limp aloe. Getting my bearings was always challenging for me in New York. I grew up in Washington, D.C. and had mapped that city with my feet. Then I moved to Montana, where you navigate by mountain range. I love the raucous pace and vibrant mix of virtually everything in New York City, but I am easily lost there and overwhelmed after a few days.
An old woman set her needle aside and rose from her worktable behind the canopy of living green. Her hair had been dyed—a while ago—a burnt orange. Her smile revealed worn, yellowed teeth. While Nina unloaded her bag onto the counter, my eyes were dragged back to the window, to the burgeoning greenery.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked.
“Nina,” my daughter replied.
The woman nodded gravely and said, “A good name.”
I turned back to the counter. The woman, sorting the clothes, was still nodding. “I agree,” I said. “A good name.”
“There’s a stain on it,” my daughter said, indicating the lapel of a white jacket. A conversation ensued, the woman commenting on each piece of clothing.
“You have good taste,” she said to Nina. “This one,” she said, referring to a white-with-a-hint-of-peach designer dress. “This one is old silk. You don’t see that anymore.” Nina had bought the dress at a sample sale for $35, some $3450 less than the original price. The old woman nodded again, approving of Nina’s bargain-hunting abilities.
“Are you two related somehow?” the woman asked.
I looked at my daughter. She is tall—taller than me only recently, having grown while I shrank, a fact of aging that I am still adjusting to. Her skin is her father’s Irish peaches-and-cream. Her eyes are arrestingly blue. “A rosebud mouth,” the pediatrician said when she was born. She is, to me, one of the most beautiful beings on Earth. She also doesn’t look much like me. My son takes after me, and I explained this to the old woman, who froze, holding a pair of slacks midair, and looked over her glasses at me when I told her that I was Nina’s mother.
Later, it occurred to me that the woman might have thought I was too young to have a daughter Nina’s age. At the funeral, my husband’s cousins had, in their hilarious and loud-mouthed way, excoriated me for aging backwards. The funeral was, in many ways, a joyful occasion. My husband’s family is irrepressible in their fondness for each other. They felt their loss deeply, but applied equal measures of alcohol and good humor to their wounds.
The old woman’s hands were back to work but she still looked at us over her glasses. “I can see there are some similarities.”
“Can I ask you about your plants?” I said.
“There,” she said, pointing. “Smell that one there.”
We leaned our noses toward the one she indicated, a lacy plant sharing a pot with an aloe so robust it appeared to be lit from within. We inhaled a lemony scent.
“It’s good in tea,” she said.
“What’s it called?” I asked.
She licked her thumb before placing a paper marker on another stain and said, “I only know the name in French.”
“They are so happy,” I said, back at the counter but still looking at the plants.
“Everyone must have plants,” the woman said. “They bring to a living space…” And here she seemed to be at a loss for words, or, at least, for English words.
I nodded, knowing what she meant, and said, “Yes, my house is full of plants.”
“We’re on our way to the hardware store now,” Nina said. “To get plants.”
“You don’t live here?” asked the woman, looking at me.
“No, just visiting for a few days.”
As Nina and the woman settled on the day for pick-up, Nina told her about the funeral and about my staying for a few extra days to help her settle into her apartment. The woman handed Nina her receipt and said, “When you get your plants, bring them here. I’ll help you pot them.”
“Nina was just saying to me,” I said, “that she missed her old apartment and didn’t feel at home here yet.” I leaned onto the counter. “But I’m feeling much better about it.”
Yes, the woman nodded.
Thank you, I nodded, no English, Polish, or French necessary.
The racks of flowering plants on the sidewalk outside the hardware store had lost that first blush of youthful vigor. A little leggy, a little strung out, they had waited overlong to find their forever home, so I wasn’t sure about Nina’s insistence that this was the place to go for houseplants. But we had other things on our list, even if the plants were a bust. The man at the front register indicated the back counter when I showed him the faucet nozzle we needed to replace and the mailbox key we wanted to copy, so I headed there while Nina disappeared into the aisles.
The man behind the back counter was bald and had two wall-eyes. Unable to look directly at either, I focused on his smile and his eyebrows, which more than made up for whatever lack of mobility age had brought him. He held the faucet head that I handed to him up close to his face. “You want to replace it?”
No, I explained. I wanted to clean it but couldn’t see any way to get it open.
“Let’s see,” he said, and after applying two sizes of screwdriver and a whole modern ballet of eyebrow leaps and lunges, he snapped the faucet head apart and the little screen, which had a tiny black granule lodged in each hole, fell onto the counter. “You got a safety pin at home?” he asked.
He handed me the parts, and I held up the little mailbox key. “Can you make a copy of this?”
He nodded toward the other end of the counter, where the key-cutting machine was. “You’ll have to talk to the guy down there.” Which, I realized with a laugh, was him. He clearly enjoyed his joke as much as I did.
I was still smiling when we left the hardware store, two little envelopes—one containing the pieces of faucet and the other the two keys—in my pocket and a giant Shefflera plant balanced on my hip. When we had stepped into the greenery of the semi-covered porch at the back of the store, the Shefflera had called out to me. We picked out two smaller plants as well, and Nina carried those.
It takes a lot to gain notice on the streets of New York, but, apparently, it was out of the ordinary to process carrying large plants. One woman stopped us to ask where we had gotten the Shefflera. The plant was speaking to everyone that day.
Back at Nina’s apartment, we found dishes to put under the plants and watered them. Then we pulled some of the leftovers out of the fridge, and, while Nina sat at the counter and snacked on those, I started working on the next meal.
“Is there anything special you want to do while you’re here in the city?” she asked.
I looked up from the carrots I was peeling and said, “I’m doing it right now.”
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-spoiler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch, Krista Tippett’s On Being blog, and Hippocampus, among other places. She is also the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have. Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.
CAPTURING THE ESSENCE OF THE STRANGEST CITY IN THE EAST A Travel Essay on Portland, Maine by J.A. Salimbene
Never have I been in a city so quiet after midnight. Walking across an empty city in the rain while trying to find the hotel with my brother should’ve felt more eerie and threatening. Instead, it felt welcoming. We didn’t make haste when the rain started falling; we welcomed it just like the city had welcomed us. We also didn’t make haste when one of the many homeless people took notice to us, because there they just smile and bless you. They seemed to long more for good conversation than the change clinking in your pocket. By the week’s end, we even knew many of their names, and they almost never asked us for a dime, only how we were doing. The only regret I have is that I didn’t take the time to capture any of those moments with them, or other moments after sunset, but it’s a much different experience at night in Portland, Maine. For some reason, it feels more appropriate to use words over visuals to express a nighttime walk in the strangest city on the East Coast.
The daytime is meant for visuals. Walking around when the sun hangs high in Portland, your feet and eyes work in unison towards a mutual goal of creative and aesthetic discovery. Your eyes wander and look for opportunities to create and feel something. Your feet wander too, but they obey your eyes by following their intuitive guidance. Here, it’s all around you. In front of you is the pulsing strip of Congress Street, with all of its quirky family-owned businesses and the smell of wood-roasted espresso. Behind you is the Old Port, carrying some of the richest of New England history, and a breeze on your back smelling of salty Atlantic air. While you’re standing there, wondering where to start, there’s a constant flow of unfamiliar, but lovely faces, and they all look you in the eyes, smile, and blow their cigarette smoke above their heads.
With a such a blatant juxtaposition, it’s nearly impossible not to capture every inch and angle, but you shouldn’t. As much as you may want to, you shouldn’t. You need to look for those very few moments. Seek out those few frames that capture the essence of your destination, and the feeling it elicits from you. Being a photographer, I brought my professional setup thinking that I’d regret it if I didn’t. However, I didn’t use it once, and instead made each image using only what I had in my pocket.
They say that the best camera is the one that you have on you, and I didn’t realize how true that was until I spent an entire week walking around with just my phone and later editing in a cafe or hotel room with no laptop. When your mind is so eager to create something, and you’re in an environment that’s so strange and inspiring, you quickly realize that the limitations of what’s in your pocket are not so limiting after all. Portland has a weird way of bringing that out in you.
Universally, photography is not about the equipment at hand at all. It’s about the individual creating the image, and the voice that speaks from the work. Photography is a way of capturing a single instance and making it immortal; a way of telling an infinite number of stories that last an infinite amount of time. In Portland, these instances are around every corner, but it’s not always the right time to grant them that immortality, which is one of the many elements that make this city so bizarre and intriguing. I’ve seen compositions in certain times of day and known that I needed to go back to them at an earlier or later time the next day, because it wasn’t quite the right moment to do it. You’ll never run out of inspiration and find yourself constantly returning to spots you’ve already been just to see them in a new way.
Portland is where the nice go to be nice, where the humans go to be human, and where everyone goes to eat lobster. So yes, it’s a wonderful and liberating city to create in, but regardless of where you are or the tools at hand, it’s important to recognize that you can achieve that kind of creative liberation in all of your travels as a photographer or a tourist. A good photograph tells a story that allows the viewer to fill in the blanks or complete the story themselves. Keeping this in mind while you travel is vital to travel photography. Don’t just take snapshots, because you want people to be as stimulated as you were when you felt the moment needed to be captured. The images you make on your journey say something about yourself and the nature of your experience, so seek out the frames that will capture that essence and make them immortal.
J.A. Salimbene is an emerging writer, photographer, and filmmaker from New Jersey. He’s currently acquiring a BFA in filmmaking with a minor in creative writing, and is a contributing writer for Trill! Magazine. His poetry and photography have been published in Modern Poets Magazine and The Normal Review.
HOW TO DESCRIBE SAN FRANCISCO TO STRANGERS A Travel Essay by Katie Simpson
When people ask you about San Francisco, you always get stuck on the way you sense it. It starts with the smell. Wherever you lived before here, it didn’t smell quite like this. The pot is open, lingering around parks and sidewalks, not just your brother’s basement room. It’s hand rolled joints after work. It’s chocolate covered blueberries eaten at the movies. Pot in San Francisco is beer in Berlin: commonplace and open. If anything, pot knows this city better than anyone who lives here.
It’s not just what we consume that fills the air. You can’t forget what it means to be human. Pee runs down alleys. It sneaks up on you in odd places. Rushing to work, leaving a bar, even if it doesn’t faze you it surprises you every time. You try not to wonder if you’re breathing it in. You’re hoping it’s already dry and won’t seep into your shoes.
It’s not only pee that keeps you in closed toed shoes. Poop is less common but still too frequent on the streets. One man shat on Market Street during rush hour. When he saw you watching, he yelled, “I gotta go somewhere!” You weren’t angry at him; you couldn’t be.
It’s true: where can the homeless go? The stores won’t let them use their restrooms. There are public restrooms, but they aren’t always open. Are they any good? You haven’t had to use them. The sidewalks are always there, even when dignity falls apart.
So, you wear closed toe shoes. It doesn’t solve the homelessness or clean the streets. It just makes your commute a little easier. You feel guilty about that, the same guilt you feel when you give nothing to the women walking through BART trains. The problem is all around you, but you don’t know how to touch it without getting covered in someone else’s shit. You’re just trying to get to work.
It’s not just your nose dealing with new sensations here, but also your skin. You’re used to temperature ranges, but not a drop when you cross the street from sun into the shadow. It’s beautiful in the Mission, but at Golden Gate Park you struggle against the beach’s fog. Microclimates—the word reminds you of tapas, if each plate covered a different part of the city. Instead of holding onto the menu, you always bring a jacket, just in case. Your wardrobe shifts into layers that can rise and fall off your skin.
As far as cities go, it’s beautiful. First, there is so much sky once you leave SoMa. It seems impossibly blue and wide for thousands to walk under but it’s there when it’s not raining. Then, there’s the nostalgia of preserved Victorian row houses, and the cable cars on Market Street. Somehow, you also get miles and miles of city touching the sea.
It all seems priceless, but you see it in your rent and the $5 lattes. It’s a beautiful city, but you pay to play. You groan over the prices, but you pay anyways. The city is a casino with open doors. The stakes keep rising and some people just don’t have the chips.
You see the signs of exodus everywhere. There seem to be more dogs than children at every park. The white artists and activists move to Oakland and Berkeley. You watch Valencia Street become vintage boutiques and manic pixie cafes. Every city is constantly in rebirth; you just don’t know what is dying and what is reviving. You don’t know what to save and what to kill.
You see it in yourself: another white tech worker in the city, paid more money to afford more rent. You feel guilty for it but there’s no one to apologize to. There’s no crime you committed except for following the tide, which pulls people West as they have moved for centuries. They looked for gold, for salvation, for an unencumbered life. They didn’t see the endings they brought with them, upon other people.
You see the patterns. You just don’t know how to understand your part of it. But the echoes of the past don’t make it easy. Like the electrical lines against the sky, it breaks the story into a series of complicated pieces.
Close your eyes, though, and you hear the city’s heartbeat. Languages pile into the buses like the Tower of Babel, moving together toward various destinations. You enjoy it most of the time. You feel polite, unable to eavesdrop on every conversation.
English gets you everywhere but isn’t always home. It sits on top of the Spanish running down Mission. It filters around Chinese in the Richmond and Sunset. Its presence is loud and understood, but it doesn’t quite fit inside the taquerias or the family grocers. Then again, it never has. Somehow, you make this place home, the way the privileged have always made it home. Benevolent condescension of the masses, leaving your lips in a tight smile.
The collision makes its taste almost like a cliché of fusion. Sushi is remade as burritos. Korean reimagines soul food. Poke finds its way into diners. Speakeasies popping on Nob Hill, everything old is new again.
As goes food, so goes the body. You see love and lust reinterpreted here. Naked bodies walk easily outside in only a bit of foil. The casualness of open queer affection still feels radical. The multiracial families continually breaking barriers as they buy groceries. You’ve known so many who hide, you wish they could have this, or at least know it’s possible.
And despite everything, you love this the most. This place isn’t utopia; it’s full of old problems. But sometimes, it takes the vision off the canvas and lets you live and breathe inside it. And why shouldn’t it? It’s just a city doing what cities have always done: making something new old again.
Katie Simpson is a writer and photographer based in San Francisco. Her work has been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, The Hairpin, and Entropy Magazine, among others. When not writing, you can find her drinking chai lattes and befriending dogs. She’s on twitter @honest_creative.
WHILE I WAITED Traveling in Colombia and Ecuador by Sean James Mackenney
Rain hit hard, dirtying the white city of Popayán, Colombia. People took shelter underneath overlapping tin roofs, laughing as they ran in a rare display of urgency. Popayán is a sleepy city where people meander along quaint cobbled streets, acquaintances share an embrace in the main square, adults congregate in groups conversing with both ease and conviction, and children giggle and eat pineapple chunks and taffy from Styrofoam cups. I flashed a smile, looking at people for a reaction. I towered above them, yet still went unnoticed. I tried to involve myself in their joy but it wasn’t mine to share. I was a person of the outside, a dollar sign to some, completely irrelevant to most. I convinced myself of it.
I gave a knowing nod and headed back to the hostel, hoisting my head upright to the clouds above. Rain pinched my face, each drop a quick, cold sensation. I returned to my dormitory, peeled the t-shirt off my back, put it in a plastic bag, and slung it on top of the clothes in my backpack.
“Are you leaving already?” asked an older traveler I’d met the night before.
“Yes,” I replied, before turning to leave. “Limited time.”
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Ecuador.” I smiled out of courtesy.
“Oh! I’ve just come from there. Whereabouts you heading?” he asked.
“Otavalo. I actually have to run; I don’t want to miss my bus. Take care!” I said, leaving the dorm.
I arrived at the bus station an hour early. Time passed quicker waiting at the terminal rather than the town. Closer to returning home even though I was heading eight hours south to the border, along a road that wove around the green hills of the Andes, a route people were advised not to travel by night because of the bandits that lie in wait. I looked at the calendar on my phone and counted with my index finger the number of days left of my trip. Eleven. No, ten. I’d learned to not count the last day, since I’d be at the airport, excited to be home. When I booked the trip a month prior to leaving, I had the choice of only going for two weeks; instead I committed to a month. I remember thinking how short thirty days had sounded when I planned the trip, perhaps because less than a year earlier I had spent the entirety of spring traveling down the spine of Central America with a man I loved.
I set my backpack against a stool in a cafeteria. The menu featured much of the same food I had experienced between Cartagena in the north and here at Popayán in the south: grilled meat, rice, beans, and a piece of plantain. I ordered a half portion of roast chicken and nothing else. I was convinced any kind of carbohydrate was bad. All I needed was protein. Back home in New York I was a vegan, but with nobody around to reproach me, I cared less. I made excuses to myself. No seitan, no tempeh, no soy, I have no choice, it’s just a temporary fix. The chicken was wet and the meat near the bone was a light shade of purple. I ate the white parts and chewed the small bones, remembering the taste of marrow, the feel of flesh and guilt.
From my stool, I observed the terminal. A blur or noise and movement. I put my hands to my ears and could still hear the blend of people clucking. A man sat directly opposite me, chewing on a rib as he stared at me. Why is he looking at me like that? He scooped up a spoonful of rice, his eyes still fixed in my direction. I stared back, but his expression was blank. I turned around and saw a television screen fixed to the wall behind. The news flashed scenes of landslides that had killed dozens not too far from where I was.
The bus was scheduled to arrive in an hour. I pulled out Kafka on the Shore and read a scene about a man killing cats for their souls. I felt faint, unsure whether the words or undercooked chicken were to blame. A black tunnel started to form at the corners of my vision. I closed my eyes and swallowed air. Please don’t faint. Please don’t faint. Please don’t faint. The last time I fainted was at the vet when I discovered my cat had a malignant tumor. What would happen if I were to faint here? Would people scrum around me and take my money and passport? Would they help? Whom would they call? Whom would I want them to call? I pushed the plate away from me and slowly the feeling passed. I closed the book and went in search of fresh air. You’re fine. You’re fine.
A family of four indigenous women and children sat beside me as we waited for the bus. One woman wore a non-brand navy tracksuit and a cap positioned firmly on her head, with two pigtails poking out the back.
“¿Estas esperando el bus a la frontera?” I asked her, wondering if she too was waiting for the bus to the border.
She nodded and smiled, revealing a single gold tooth. The others looked on inquisitively as they shared a bag of plantain chips. Beside them rested eight worn suitcases with dried palm leaves wrapped tight on top of them. I imagined they had a long way to go. I sat next to them, wanting to talk but unsure of what to say. Instead I looked at pictures on my phone: white buildings, dark skies, and flocks of pigeons. One of the women tapped me on the shoulder, offering the bag of plantain chips, but I declined. Nope. No carbs for me.
The bus arrived twenty minutes behind schedule. I followed the women on and claimed a seat beside the window. I reclined my seat all the way back and rested my chin on the windowsill. The bus edged out through the city, which was no longer white, but a collection of concrete and poorly assembled brick shacks. I was surprised by how long it took us to get out of the city. It had once seemed small and uneventful, but life stemmed from it, right until we got onto the narrow road that would take us south. The untamed landscape of the region came into scope. The road cut through undulating hills, the black tarmac striking against the wildness of the green around it. Well-fed cows grazed the grass on the extremities of the road and street vendors waited for business, they all sold the same fruits: pineapples, papayas and coconuts. The bus weaved between deep gorges and the hills towering above. A farmhouse sat atop a hill in the distance; I wondered what it felt like to live in constant isolation.
The clouds became thick and the rain heavy. The tires turning around sharp bends made a slushy sound, the body of the bus winding recklessly around the hills. Two hours into the journey, the bus curved past an overturned bus on the other side of the road, all the windows were broken, nobody inside, no police or ambulance either. Along with the other passengers, I craned over to see the crash. I wanted it to be more dramatic. Where’s the blood and flames? I decided that if this bus were to crash I’d be ready, agile and with nobody to worry about I’d crawl free from the wreckage. But what are the chances of two overturned buses?
I stared out at the patchwork of greens and browns. An unnerving grey looming above, hills rolling past in a haze, speckles of rain clinging on to the windowpane. Everything was in motion, functioning as it should, except for me. I didn’t want to be this person. My eyes were open and I could see beauty, but it wasn’t enough.What am I doing here?
The bus went as far as the border town of Ipiales. It was as grim as almost every other town on the cusp of another country, but even more so in the dark. I made my way to an overpriced hotel right beside the bus terminal and tried to negotiate a rate. The man at the desk wore a baseball cap low enough that it almost concealed his eyes. He muttered and looked uninterested. It made no difference to him whether I stayed or went. I agreed to the original price and he handed me a key attached to a huge plastic keychain with the room number 617 etched by hand, before giving me a roll of toilet paper. The hotel walls were a collage of faded out blues and grays. The once-white trim of the ceiling was cracked and the wallpaper pulled off at the edges. The buzz from a ceiling fan filled the room. I asked for the wifi code and checked if anybody had messaged me. Nobody had. He hadn’t.
I hadn’t eaten since the purple chicken. With only 12,000 pesos ($4) left, I had to be smart about where I ate. The diner next door charged 7,000 pesos for dinner, meaning, after my meal, I would only have enough money to get a taxi to immigration. Breakfast would have to wait until I could use my dollars on the other side.
I ordered a menu completo, which consisted of grilled chicken, rice, fried plantain, beans, salad, a cold arepa and watermelon juice. I wrapped up the plantain and arepa and saved it in case I got hungry in the morning, then devoured every bit of meat off the bone. I was still hungry so I ate the white rice. It collected in my stomach. I bent over and felt the grains turn the thin folds of skin on my stomach into fewer and fatter ones. I glanced over at the other people in the diner and tried to guess whether they were Ecuadorian or Colombian, why they were there, whether they could tell I was lonely.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like that. Loneliness overwhelmed me in the past but the triggers varied. In India it was because I was traveling alone for the first time and the drive from Delhi airport to the hostel proved too much: the people who slept in tuk tuks, the skinny dogs that pulled apart scraps from market trash; the 3 a.m. darkness of the alleyway I had to walk down; the window pane I had to bang on to wake up the hostel owner; the lock on the outside of the metal door to my room; the deathly silence as I lay in bed unable to sleep. In Costa Rica, it was the corner stoop where I sat watching the bus take him off to San Jose, away from me, traveling with him ending with a brief goodbye, the dust that was left and the people at the bus stop who watched me as I cried. This time it was the long, thin light bulbs that illuminated every flaw within the room, the impersonal service, the plastic plate the food was served on, and my lack of interest in doing anything but waiting for him to notice me again.
I carried my shoulder bag and suitcase up six flights of stairs to a corridor of more blue, faded wallpaper. Muffled sounds reverberated through the hallway. I couldn’t tell if people were laughing, crying or arguing; it had been hours since I’d last had a conversation that didn’t involve the cost of something. The wifi didn’t reach my floor so I had to contend with myself. Why am I here?Maybe I should fly back to New York? But I don’t want to quit. Is there anything in New York for me? Why doesn’t he like me anymore? What was it? I couldn’t listen to myself anymore so I put a jumper down on the tiled floor and did four sets of planks and crunches, before turning to the mirror to see if the rice from dinner had burned away. I got in bed, read a couple more pages of Murakami, got bored, closed my eyes, and gave up on the evening.
Before heading to the border, I had planned a slight detour to Las Lajas sanctuary. I crammed in the back of a taxi next to a family of four. I didn’t say hello nor did I say goodbye. I walked down the steps towards the sanctuary, where shopkeepers had set up stalls selling religious necklaces, books and ponchos. Dogs cantered alongside families, desperate for an owner. The steps became longer and steeper and the edge of the valley came into view. I walked a little further down until I was on the bridge that faces the sanctuary; people were piling in to catch a glimpse of the morning service. I poked my head in for a moment, but I felt little. I headed along a pathway that took in the whole site. Once I reached the other side of the valley, I looked for the best angle to take a photo. I tilted my phone upwards to cut off anybody else on the bridge, before briskly walking back to hail a taxi and adding filters to the picture I’d taken.
I packed my bags and headed straight back to the bus terminal to get a collectivo to the border. Otavalo is a market town famed for its colorful merchandise. I wasn’t interested in the goods, but I wanted a pit stop that would allow me to skip the capital city, Quito. I was afraid. I was jaded. I was fragile. I was sick of myself. It was as if all my yearning for him had pushed me to the very edge and my sense of wonder was the first to fall, and then my nerve.
The trip took almost four hours along the Pan-American Highway, and I spent most of it peering out the window. I couldn’t summon the desire to write; I was too far within myself, lost amongst pity. I clenched my fist, rested my head against it with my eyes closed tight. Snap out of this! You wanted this! GET OVER YOURSELF!
Sitting to my right on a fold down seat was a man and his daughter. He wore a tight white t-shirt and I admired the veins that popped out of his muscular arms. I imagined him to be a manual laborer. He cradled his daughter of about four years old. She hung on to her father with one hand, an ice cream cone in the other. The father looked over at me often. Despite our similar skin tone, I was most definitely out of place. Maybe he knew I didn’t want to be there.
An hour later he woke his daughter who had been hanging limply in his arms. I watched them walk off to a small town of maybe twenty buildings, their size overwhelmed by the hills that surrounded them.
Thirty minutes later and I was hurried off the bus. The driver was in a rush. I was the only person getting off at Otavalo. The bus started to accelerate at almost the same moment I grabbed my backpack from the hold. I walked toward the town with my hand out for a taxi. One slowed beside me, the window rolled down. When I started to walk towards it, the driver sped off. I decided to walk to the hostel. My sense of direction had yet to fail me.
A stout young man called Ramon greeted me at the hostel and showed me around the grounds. The owners, a British man and an Ecuadorian woman, had somehow recreated a quaint English village. On a hill overlooking farmland, nothing but green was visible. There was nobody staying there but Ramon and a pet llama. I decided this was the place to zone in, or zone out. I wasn’t quite sure which. I had to forget about him, but I couldn’t allow myself to do so, I couldn’t stop indulging the fantasy of him even after he was gone. It robbed me off what was happening around me.
Strangers held mugs of hot chocolate with both hands, their backs hunched and facing the fire. It seemed there should have been women congregating in the street, dressed in pleated skirts, thick shawls, fedoras, and knee-high socks, men fastening the buckles to their high-waisted slacks, children playing with a ragged football, birds whistling as the sun beat down on dried paths, but only grey was visible through the window. Fat droplets of rain streamed down the glass pane and the wind echoed through the emptiness of the roof. I had arrived in Sighos, a village near the summit of Quilotoa, the sulphuric lake I would hike three days to reach. My last stop before returning home.
In my hostel were eleven travelers: an Alaskan couple who worked on an exploration vessel in Antarctica, a German couple who kept to themselves, two backpackers from Lithuania (one was a sky diving instructor, the other an advocate for acid), an elderly French couple who didn’t speak English, a cheery English couple, and a Danish guy traveling solo. I wanted to befriend at least one of them because the hike was said to be poorly signposted and dangerous; I didn’t want to get lost or attacked by dogs all alone. I sat in the communal circle and eyed my options. The Germans were dull, the Lithuanians were going the opposite direction, the Alaskans talked way too much about boats and American football, and the French couple were driving. This left the couple from England and the Danish guy.
Niklas, the Danish guy, was attractive. He didn’t look very Scandinavian with his dark features, but he spoke English and had style like every other person I knew from that part of the world. The English couple, Chris and Precious, were from Manchester and had the typical twang to their words. (“Yur fram Lundun, ah yah?!”) They were teenage sweethearts: Precious had been in the electronics department of a supermarket where Chris worked and had asked for an opinion on a computer game she was going to buy for her younger brother. They had been together for twelve years, the last year of which had been spent traveling the world. By the end of the night, the four of us had decided to hike Quilotoa together.
Everybody had something to bring to the group: Precious was as sweet as her name suggested plus she had a functional satellite navigation system; Chris had great British banter and a DSLR camera; Niklas was prone to taking his top off at regular intervals; I was able to endear our group to locals with my fluent Spanish. The trail was famed for aggressive dogs that often terrorized hikers. In preparation, we collected tree branches for walking-and dog-beating sticks. It turned out we wouldn’t need the sticks. At some point a dog with a dirty white coat started following us. He didn’t bark or growl; he just wanted company and was prepared to prove his loyalty by chasing away other dogs. We fed him biscuits ensuring he accompanied us to the next village, Chucchilán.
At dinner, the dog wove between us, poking his head upright in search of food.
“I’ve decided his name is Dolphin,” I said. “He literally can’t close his mouth, and he has the fattest dog neck ever!”
The next day, Dolphin waited for us, along with three other dogs, one of which had a collar. We tried to shoo them away, but they persisted.
“Sabes de quién es estos perros?” I asked a local man dressed in a thick wool jumper, curious as to whom the dogs belonged.
“Nadie y todo el mundo!” He laughed, not in the slightest bit worried about the wandering dogs.
The black-and-ginger dog kept trying to hump the brown-haired dog with the collar. Niklas named the male Charlie and Precious chose Nala for the female. At first, none of us liked the fourth dog, the one who into fields to terrorize horses, cows, and sheep, but eventually we warmed to his idiocy. Chris named him Trouble.
The second day was far more taxing than the first. The trail was muddy and at a steep incline, but the view at the top eased the heaviness in our legs. We sat on a ledge and looked down the barrel of the valley; we could see for miles. It reminded me of the valley in the south of Colombia, only this time I marveled at what I saw, wondering whether the tectonic plates had once shifted right where we sat.
“Where would you recommend I visit in Colombia?” Niklas asked. He was heading there after the hike.
“I would skip past the south,” I said. “There’s not much there.”
“Really? We loved it! Didn’t we Chris?” Precious asked.
“Yeah, Cali is awesome, we danced salsa every night. We went to the Blacks and Whites carnival in Pasto,” Chris said.
“I mean, I didn’t have much time there. I only visited Popayán. I guess I should’ve visited those places,” I said, embarrassed by my judgmental mind-set.
“We straight up loved Popayán,” Chris said. “Everyone was so friendly.”
We were approaching the summit. Would my rediscovered energy fade after reaching the climax? Looking at each of my companions as we made our way up home stretch of the volcano, I doubted I’d see them again, but it didn’t matter. I was thankful to have met them. Through them I once again became the person who had sat in front of his laptop researching Ecuador, eager to make the most of his time there.
The crater of Quilotoa was before us, an eerie spectacle. The still water went from turquoise to algae green whenever a heavy cloud passed by the sun. We sat on a bench and shared our lunch of tuna and crackers with the dogs. The overwhelming presence below stunned us to silence.
After an hour, we ascended to a nearby village and drank cola from a vendor.
“Cuantos veces haces este viaje?” I asked the vendor.
“Todo los dias!” he replied.
I needed to adapt to my emotions the way he did the altitude and hills. A man with a thick mustache offered to drive us to the nearest town in his pickup truck. Dolphin and Trouble jumped in the back and refused to move.
“Don’t worry, the dogs can come! They do this route all the time. They’ll find their way back!” the driver told us.
Charlie and Nala chased behind the car. Precious cried. I felt it too.
“So this is it!” Niklas said as we sat on the highway waiting for the buses that would take us in different directions.
My bus rolled up. We group hugged before I boarded. I sat down by a window, my looking at everything around me. I was part of it: the friends I waved goodbye, the dogs I wanted to take home, the couple smooching in the seats alongside me, the kid peeking through the gap in the seat in front, the reggaeton rattling from the speakers, the smoke pouring out of Cotopaxi volcano, the haze of green as the bus sped by, the rain specks collecting on the window.
Sean James Mackenney is a British writer living in Brooklyn. He is working on his first book, a memoir. Follow him on Instagram @seany.boo
Living and Speaking Spanish in Seville, Spain
by John Julius Reel
1. Learn Spanish in Your Car
If you consider yourself capable of learning another language in less than two years, without immersing yourself in it twenty-four hours a day, either you live in dreamland or you’re a genius. I know how these quick-and-easy language learning programs advertise themselves, but they just want your money. After you spend forty hours, or whatever it is, or even six months in a course, perhaps on the Internet, and you earn a certificate qualifying you as “fluent,” you’re still just a beginner, taking baby steps. Even if you go the traditional route, spending 150 or 200 hours of quality class time in a legitimate language academy, don’t expect too much. You can learn a language in an academy just like you can learn to dance flamenco in an academy. It’s a mere introduction, so you can start to understand the difficultly of it.
I began to learn Spanish in July of 2005. I was still in New York, with six months left before my TEFL (Teach English as a Foreign Language) course began in Seville. I bought Learn Spanish in Your Car, a packet with three CDs and an accompanying booklet. I passed meticulously through the lessons one by one, never missing a day. I made cards with new vocabulary, hundreds and hundreds of words and phrases, and pulled them out of their boxes at random in my free time to bone up. Days before leaving for Seville, where I planned to stay a year, maybe two, to top off my studies, I had qualified as “advanced.” How proud I felt! As I got on the bus that would take me to the airport, I saw on the window next to my seat, “Salida de emergencia” (emergency exit), and I thought, No fear. You’ve done your homework.
Fifteen hours later, when I arrived at my destination, I remembered those now taunting words, and wished I’d bailed out when I still had the chance. The only words I heard in the avalanche of new sounds that assaulted my ears were “Venga” and “Vale,” which hadn’t been covered on my CDs, or at least not in the way that people were using them. I knew grammar, structure, and vocabulary, but what good did my knowledge do me if I couldn’t employ it when I attempted to understand or make myself understood?
Weeks passed and nothing changed. The situation actually got worse, because I’d lost my self-confidence. With language skills, with all skills, if you doubt yourself, you’re doomed. On my first day of work, I was greeted by the security guard of the industrial park where I’d be imparting an English class to a group of internationally-minded business folk.
“Buenos días,” (Good morning), he said.
I heard “podía” (could you).
“¿Podía qué?” (Could I what?) I asked.
“¿Cómo? (literally “How?” or “What?” in Spanish, when people don’t understand).
“¿Cómo podía qué?” (How could I do what?), I asked.
He looked at me like it was way too early for Abbot and Costello routines. “¿De qué me está hablando usted?” (What are you talking about?)
All I heard was “blando” (soft) and “usted” (you), and thought he was calling me soft in the head.
And that’s how I felt. I lived constantly on the defensive. I remember a guy stopping me once to ask directions for Santa Justa, Seville’s train station. When I told him I didn’t know, he shook his head and said, “¿Tú tampoco, eh?” (You neither, huh?)
What I understood was “tú eres tan poco,” (you are so small) for not being able to help him. Thank God I didn’t know enough Spanish to respond in kind to the imagined insult.
Meeting my future wife revolutionized my Spanish. From the very beginning, we spoke in her native tongue, reluctantly on her part, because she wanted to learn English as badly as I wanted to learn Spanish, or almost. I remember the conversation in which we decided that my Spanish took priority, or rather I decided it. “Look,” I said. “This is my moment, not yours. If we ever go live in the U.S., that’ll be your moment, okay?” Egotistical, yes, but I’d changed my life to come to Spain, and was damned if I was going to teach English on my personal time as well.
My wife is beautiful, has the patience to watch grass grow, and was head over heels in love with me, which are all ideal qualities in a teacher. Thanks to her, I reached the milestone of being able to understand the spoken language better than I could explain myself in it. That’s when I began to experience the biggest drag of learning a foreign language abroad, or least of learning Spanish in Seville: the natives began trying to finish my sentences. As I paused to correctly form what I wanted to say, they’d fall over themselves to try to guess it first. I suspect that they were trying to save me trouble, but I felt like the host of a game show trying to keep a bunch of overly-eager contestants from jumping the gun. I actually preferred when they used to gesticulate and shout in my face, as though I were hard of hearing.
Even after nearly a decade in Spain, the struggle to understand and explain myself in my new language is far from over. For example, my mother-in-law’s way of speaking continues to leave me perplexed. In defense of her grandson, when I scold him, she’ll say, “No relates al chiquillo” (Don’t recount to the kid), or “No hay que darle traquios” (You don’t have to give him booms). The first time she laid eyes on him, she said, “¡Qué bien despachao!” (How well dispatched!). When she’s hungry, she’s “esmayao,” which, if it had a “d” at the beginning and another between the “a” and the “o” at the end, would mean “faint.” When she’s tired, she’s “abriendo mucho la boca” (opening the mouth a lot), which apparently means to yawn. If her husband is in a foul mood, she says to him, “¡Anda que no tienes un fú!” (Walk that you don’t have a fury). And the most confusing of all, she calls me niño (boy) and my son padre (father)—lingo that, according to my wife, she picked up in the small town she was raised in.
My mother-in-law is to blame for the low point so far in my language-learning struggles. One day my wife and I were driving her to her hometown to pass the weekend. The whole ride, she spoke without cease from the back, at breathtaking speed and volume, with her head protruding between the two front seats. Finally, at the front door, before getting out of the car, she turned to my wife, and said something I managed to understand: “¿Cuándo va a poder hablar tu novio?” (When’s your boyfriend going to be able to speak?).
2. No Not Even Nothing As if the Sevillians’ way of swallowing and passing over consonants, combined with the speed at which they speak, weren’t enough to frustrate a foreigner when it’s time to communicate, there’s their very singular habit of saying the literal opposite of what they actually mean.
A neighbor, referring to a butcher’s shop in Nervión, once said to me: “¡Anda que no es cara!” (Walk that it’s not expensive).
Taking the commentary at face value, the next time I went to Nervión, I bought a pork tenderloin at said shop, paid almost double what I would have paid in the supermarket and thought, Why on earth does my neighbor want to misinform me?
Another day, on my way out of my building, the elevator doors opened, and a neighbor emerged, announcing, “¡Anda que no hace frío ni ná!” (It’s not cold out, not even nothing). Once again, interpreting the words literally, I removed various layers of clothes as the elevator carried me down. When I stepped out the front door and the first gust of stiff cold wind hit me in the face, I asked myself, How in God’s name is it possible that I’ve lived two years in Spain and still can’t understand the natives when they talk about the weather?
When the neighbors’ linguistic idiosyncrasies don’t confuse me, I confuse them with mine, linguistic or otherwise.
“¡Anda que el crío no va a gusto!” (Walk that the kid doesn’t go comfortable), exclaimed a neighbor, when she ran into me in the street one day, as I carried Heir I, still only months old, mounted on my chest in a sling.
The old women in my building are generally traditionalist to a fault, believing that a man alone with a baby is an accident waiting to happen. This added to my miscomprehension, because I was expecting disapproval. My wife says I “ando” (walk) among these women “con la escopeta siempre cargá” (with the shotgun always loaded). Well, at this woman, I fired. She had only wanted to make a passing comment, but I stopped square in front of her, with Heir I strapped to me like a bullet-proof vest. I shook my head in emphatic disagreement, saying that she was absolutely mistaken, that my son could not be more comfortable, irrespective of what she might think, that his head was extremely well supported, that German engineers designed these contraptions, and that pediatricians have shown, and personal experience has confirmed, that being carried around in an upright position does wonders for gas expulsion.
She looked at me as if I were, well, exactly what I was: a poor, lost foreigner.
Only once in my life have I managed to speak Spanish Sevillian style, that is, to communicate the exact opposite of the literal significance of the words that emerged from my mouth. I did it by accident, of course. When I speak my adoptive tongue, the words sometimes get caught in my throat, resulting in an “Ankh!” sound. Experience has shown that “Ankh” sounds like “¡Anda que…!” (Walk that), which in case you hadn’t noticed is the language marker to indicate that the Sevillians are about to pull the old switcharoo. One day a woman in the street managed to get a smile out of Heir I, and I wanted to explain to her that this was by no means a common occurrence.
“Ankh, he doesn’t smile a lot in the street,” I said.
The woman bent down, putting her beaming ancient face over my son’s beaming brand new one.
“¿Sííí?” (Ooo yeeeah?), she said. “¿Eres tú muy simpático, verdad?” (You’re a vewwy happy baby, arwwe yew?)
“Ankh, no,” I said.
“¡A que chi!” (Yes, yew arwwe!), she said, tickling his chin. “¡Papá dice que chi!” (Daddy says you arwwe!) I wanted the woman to understand that I was paying her a compliment.
“Ankh… common… you.” I managed to say, before my mind went blank and my throat became too dry and taut to even ankh again.
Back home, I turned to my wife, looking for compassion.
“Do you think I get overly nervous when I have to speak Spanish to strangers?” I asked her.
“No ni ná” (No not even nothing), she said.
Misunderstanding her, I felt reassured.
They say that one doesn’t understand one’s own culture until after living abroad. Walk that that’s not true! I hadn’t been back home in two years, and suddenly I realized that my mother also sometimes said the opposite of what she really meant. And what was even more bizarre, my wife, more Sevillian than the Giralda, failed to understand her.
“Look,” I said. “When my mother says that the grapes are a little bitter or that the cake is a little dry, what she really wants to say is that the grapes are succulent and that the cake is baked just right.”
“Well, when she talks like that I don’t feel like trying them,” my wife replied.
“How is that possible?” I said. “One of your fellow Sevillians would say, ‘The grapes aren’t in their point, not nothing’ or ‘Walk that the cake isn’t of sucking the fingers!’ Apply the same semantic logic that’s applied in your city of origin and you’ll understand my mother perfectly.”
Unlike American sarcasm, “Oh, that was a smooth move,” or “Fantastic restaurant you picked, genius,” also meaning the opposite of the words’ literal meaning, but which has always seemed to me like a dullard’s attempt at wit, Sevillians’ linguistic ironies are so ingrained and widespread that I can’t use them to draw conclusions about the personalities of those who employ them, because everybody employs them. I can only use them to draw conclusions about myself—that I’m still a baby in this language, and should be carried around in a sling. It would do wonders for my gas expulsion. Maybe then people would finally understand me.
3. En Paz I’ve never had a Spanish teacher, at least not one in an academy, except during three frustrating weeks when a woman tried to undertake the task with a textbook. A good language teacher is like a tennis pro giving classes—never playing at full capacity, but rather working so that the pupil is always playing at full capacity. It turns out that Seville has been my teacher. When we’re hitting the ball back and forth, I feel like an amateur playing with professionals who don’t seem to realize my disadvantage.
Because I’m almost always straining and flailing, or at least a beat behind, when I come upon someone in Seville wearing a t-shirt that sports a phrase in English, I don’t care if it conveys foolishness, clichés, improprieties, or insults, it feels like a chance encounter with an old friend. They’re also a subtle form of settling the score or at least of temporarily turning the tables. For example, one day I saw a neighborhood kid wearing a t-shirt that said Over My Head, and I couldn’t help but feel a pang of smug satisfaction that, among the things over this kid’s head, were probably the words written across his chest.
As this essay manifests, I’ve never needed a t-shirt to call attention to my ridiculousness. At least not in Spain. I’ve only had to speak and fail to understand. But once, taking a stroll in the center of Seville with my wife, I bumped into a t-shirt worn by a young man who, to steal a Spanish expression, tenía más pluma que un aveztruz (had more feathers than an ostrich). His t-shirt said, “Are you sure?” about being straight, I suppose he wanted the world to extrapolate. In this case, because the wearer probably did know the meaning of the words across his chest, a phrase occurred to me that I could put and wear on a t-shirt that would serve me quite well, not only as a response to the t-shirt-wearer in question, but to any and all Sevillians who want to direct a question to me in their native tongue: “Pregúntale a mi mujer” (Ask my wife).
Walk that she hasn’t got me out of jams. Like the other day, when we were waiting in line at the local fruit seller’s. The woman in front of us put down her overflowing shopping bags to pay, and I said, wanting to prove helpful, “Señora, se han caido tus peras” (Ma’am, your pears have fallen). I didn’t realize that by saying “your” instead of “the,” I was referring to her boobs, not her pears. My Sevillian savior, ever at the ready, added, “Las mías también. Los años no perdonan” (Mine too. The years take their toll), and that way everybody could have a good laugh, not—or not completely—at the foreigner’s expense.
The solution, of course, is to live in peace with the imprecision of everything I think I understand, or will be able to communicate to others. After all, stumbling over foreign words and expressions, misusing and misinterpreting them, is just an extreme case of what happens in my mother tongue. The problem isn’t so much the language, it’s you and me; it’s the abyss that yawns between us.
Take the day I took my kids down to the park in front of our building, and said to a woman who had a months-old baby in her arms, “Very cheerful, no?”
“No,” said the mother. “He doesn’t have teeth.”
“But he’s very cheerful (sonriente), right?” I said, trying to articulate to the best of my ability, which somehow always makes matters worse.
She shook her head and looked at the mouth of her child, just to make sure.
“No,” she repeated. “He doesn’t have teeth” (dientes).
Out of politeness, I tried not to show the huff our failure of communication was putting me in, but, as my wife says, I’m too transparent, and, sensing my rage, the woman moved nervously away, probably asking herself, “Why is this foreigner so furious that my son has no teeth?”
I retreated to the refuge of my children, with whom I speak English. When they don’t understand me, at least I can console myself that it’s their fault. When I described the incident to my wife, she said that if I’d used the word “risueño” instead of “sonriente,” the woman would have understood me. I doubt it. “Risueño” sounds a lot like “sueño” (sleep).
People understand what they want or need to. Once the words leave our mouths, or are left on the page, the meaning is up for grabs—a smorgasbord of interpretations, no matter the nutritive benefits.
Although perhaps, on rare occasions, the problem, and therefore the solution, resides in the language itself. “Adiós,” for instance, doesn’t mean goodbye, but rather “To God,” which is profoundly different, although they say that the origin of the English phrase is the same (“God be with ye”). Or take the phrases “in peace” and “at peace.” I can be at peace with my surroundings, or in peace with them, but I prefer the second. At peace means I’ve only just arrived; the peace might change at any moment. In peace means I’ve already entered, am inside what I’ve spent my life yearning for. In Spanish, “en paz” is the only option. In peace with my surroundings, with the people I love, and with others that I have to live with, and of course with the language I communicate and miscommunicate in. So yes, in some cases, certain languages get it more right than others. My hope is that, because they impose a perspective on us, they can also impose a fate. En paz.
Originally from Staten Island, New York, John Julius Reel has lived the last eleven years in Seville, Spain. ¿Qué pinto yo aquí?, a book he wrote in his second language, was published in Spain in 2014. He has collaborated as both writer and editor in El derbi final, a book about the Seville soccer derby. He has also written over one hundred articles in Spanish newspapers. His piece, “My Darlings: An Autobiographical Essay,” was recognized in the “Notable Essays and Literary Non-fiction” section of Best American Essays 2015.
Artwork Credit: Daniel Rosell Author Image Credit: Virginia Fuentes Valencia
A BRIEF GLOSSARY OF IRELAND for the American Tourist Trying to Cram Thousands of Years of History into a Ten Day Tour by Sarah Ann Winn
Carvings: Everywhere there were stones, vines, and leaves twined together, along with knots and crosses, where animals often played in the hewn greenery, or people’s faces peered up at the top of columns. In some places, they’d been knocked away, in others they were restored from drawings, and in still others, most amazingly, the originals retained their details. A monkey sat at the foot of a monk. Saint Catherine held her book with the cover cross intact. At Maynooth University, the College Chapel featured fantastical creatures and plants in rare wood and marble, which never repeat after that first appearance. Between the gold leaf, the hand painted ceiling, the chorister which seats four hundred and fifty people, the pipe organ with three thousand pipes and bells and spinning stars, and an ornate marble alter piece surrounded by five small chapels, equally extravagant, the effect is exactly what each craftsman and designer over the two hundred years of construction intended — provoking marvel and wonder.
Castles: A fairly fluid architectural definition, dependent on: how continually they were occupied (Birr Castle felt more Downton Abbey in its grounds and “family only” use); how much a part of the town the castle walls comprised (Kilkenny’s castle seemed to fill the town, and had been restored match to its Victorian period furnishings); how much the castle helped the town’s income (Trim Castle, where most of Braveheart was filmed, was not fully restored, but had a modern framework inside of it where the tourists ambled up an actual winding staircase, to a small chapel said to be haunted by a priest, seen only on Sundays); how much an investor wanted to spend (fire-damaged Powerscourt had been turned into an upscale mall, with artisan shops occupying the inside of the castle and the intact formal gardens were packed with roses, a pond, a Japanese themed garden, and a “folly,” a miniature tower built just for looks); how far visitors were willing to drive to prove its existence (Blarney Castle was theoretical for us, as it was more than three hours from our hotel, so I vowed to hang upside down and kiss something closer to home, and probably closer to the earth at a later date).
Graze: The most efficient form of eating, an opportunity to affix a moment in your mind. The grocer near our hotel had wonderfully cheap cheeses and chocolates, as well as peppered salami, which reminded me that I could never be a vegetarian. We packed sandwiches and had picnics in places more scenic than I could have imagined. I appreciated the moments when I paused to snack and soak in the towns we visited more than the specific mealtimes, which were often nice, quiet moments for me and my husband, but not much different than the dates we had at home. I’ll remember the scones with clotted cream at Willoughby’s, a coffee shop overlooking Kilkenny’s busy town square, longer than I’ll remember a fancy restaurant’s take on corned beef and cabbage. There was no shortage of fresh produce, and on our last day, we ate as well as we did the entire trip at a farmer’s market, where we sat at on rickety folding chairs eating German sausages and fresh Spanish olives, with peanut butter shortbread cookies and a decadent, bite-sized cupcake a piece.
Green: Beginning with our flight’s descent, I discovered shades of green I hadn’t known existed. There were segments of land in all the shades of emerald available to a painter, parceled off by darker green, almost black hedges. In our rental car, an automatic which did not actually have the “park” function aside from the brake, we careened along the countryside, through narrow roads which were gorgeous, shady, and terrifying. Local drivers are polite, but love their accelerators and their plentiful roundabouts. In many places, I felt I could have put my hand just outside the window and tapped the greenery covered wall we were flying past. Excursions off the highway often included only one tone of green until our destination: hedge colored. The high hedges abated once we got further from the cities, and the cow filled fields, the endless quilt of green, dotted with sheep and castles passed in a literal blur. My husband is mission oriented, so on some jaunts I barely had time to gasp: Oh, there goes another ruin! Oh another princess tower! Oh another flower-basket-lined street! Another town as scored with old walls as an ogham stone is with lines!
Heritage Pass: Although many of the castles we visited had no entry cost (especially the less restored ones), we used this money-saving bundle constantly, since it seemed to encourage the tour guides at each castle to advise beyond their location. At each castle on the pass, there was a tour guide who specialized in the history of that castle, but seemed to know a good bit about many other castles in the area, and was willing to direct us onwards in our quest. We made it our goal to visit one heritage site per day, and then planned small stops around the location we’d picked.
Itinerary: Something planned and executed, or planned and then abandoned. Example: “We followed our itinerary, and made all of our flights” or “We slept more than we planned, and had to discard one day’s itinerary in favor of visiting castles closer to our hotel.
Noise Canceling Headphones: Not strictly Irish, but for our trip, an essential. Do not bother to use these in cities, but consider bringing them along in the rental car. The roads are narrow and have no shoulders. In these headphones, your husband can’t hear you yelp in panic each time a car approaches from the opposite direction. On the other hand, with headphones you can’t overhear discussions at a nearby table in a pub, when an older brother told his little sister: “You got the chicken? That’s flat gross. You know they take them from the yard and kill them straight out?” and this one, overheard at the Hill of Tara, where all the ancient kings of Ireland were crowned, and where you can get a nice cup of tea and listen to local families laughing at the next table over. Their kids’ squabbles were even enjoyable: “Ma, he smacked my arse!” as were the weary replies: “Oh me sweethearts, please don’t ruin the day on all these innocent people.”
Plan: An evolving list. Something made with the idea of flexibility and impossibility of completion. Ideas can come from anywhere, from detailed travel guidebooks to the country, from well-intended tour guides to your husband, who plays a Viking game on his phone. You can mentally add “Vikings” to your list of things you’d like to investigate. Mental lists overflow. You add it to the real and running list you’re keeping on your phone, which already contains: Celts, cliffs, castles, Book of Kells, Irish money and the word SCONES bolded and italicized. The only plan you can follow with reliability is to drive in any direction, take in the countryside, explore a castle, climb around a ruin, eat delicious non-chain food, return to a hotel bed with a comforter made of actual clouds, sleep, and repeat. (see also: itinerary)
Pub: Easy to locate. A warm environment not strictly centered around food. A poetry reading there included live music, and hot tea. A woman sliding in next to me in our booth (a “snug,” padded three quarter booth seat around a table) exclaimed to nobody in particular: “I’m knackered!” This is a place where people can recover from being knackered. When pints of Guinness arrive, someone says: “At last! Real food!” and someone else replies: “Give us this day our flowing bread.” We were part of a lock in, where after hours you pay your tab ahead of time, and although the bar is strictly closed, the socializing continues. After the reading, the host said “And now, the Noble Call, a trade off, as you might do at your gran’s.” We were then treated to recitations, jokes, more music, and audience members who sang traditional songs as sweetly as any recording artist. Even the bartender performed.
Ruin: Castles which are not yet restored often have only a sign featuring a person dangling mid-fall beside a castle wall. The small print is a little less direct, but only slightly so, making sure you know you are entering these places, which have been falling down for years, at your own risk. Sometimes, a curving staircase to nowhere invites you upwards, sometimes someone has put a gate up to block climbing or entry into a dangerous place. More than once we saw notes that people had been seriously injured because they failed to obey warnings/were more interested in getting a selfie than in safety. I was reminded of Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy at the ruin of Cair Paravel when they return to Narnia in Prince Caspian. When I was a child I couldn’t understand how they didn’t know where they were. Wasn’t the view the same? Weren’t the bones of the castle still intact? And if not, how would the armory still exist? I understand much better now.
Signs: Advertising, road rules, and open to interpretation. Some were inscrutable to me, either in Gaelic, or sporting odd wordless clip art. (One resembled a horse’s head, another a car diving into what was almost definitely water). Some are sweet, for example, a chain of daycares was called “Cheeky Monkey Nursery School.” Sprite’s ads told us “You look shattered and soaked” and “You look deadly in your profiler.” We are not sure these are compliments.
Tea: The endless and truly bolstering “cuppa,” best sipped slowly, while reading over your new-found treasures from used bookstores, or while eavesdropping (see noise canceling). A sampling of some wonderful places where I had tea: on the wall of a castle overlooking a river, beside a wide window looking down at a busy car-filled intersection overflowing with flower baskets and brave bicyclists, in a garden nestled inside a seat shaped like a teardrop where a passing gnome would have blended in. A way to relish the day, to take note of your regret in having to leave any place so storybook, so welcoming, something grown modern but no less beautiful, its history set in stone, something you dreamed and try to grasp as you wake, to never forget.
Tourists: At the airport, while waiting to leave for Dublin, you overhear two twenty-somethings in suits exchange the following words: “You brought a kilt? I brought a kilt!” “Dude!” You are fairly sure that Norsemen on the cusp of invading the Emerald Island could have exchanged these words and bumped grimy fists in a toast on the eve of battle. You feel superior to the dude-bros until you hear yourself whining about your need for a cup of actual coffee in your hotel room. It’s true, you have touched the stone in the farm field with the maze carved somewhere around 3000 BC, you have tried not to step on the worn carving of the knight in relief on the church’s floor, not even roped off. You have gone into the graveyard whose gates stand open, after asking a nearby groundskeeper if you can take a peek. Sometimes you have crossed a line, sometimes you’ve held yourself back. You don’t want to be a tourist, you want to be a traveler, you want to stay, to be asked to stay, to be invited to return (you are, you will). Everywhere, people chatted with us, advised us where to go next, told us stories of local life, recommended their favorite places. When a tour guide marveled that I knew that Saint Jude was the patron saint of lost causes, she said “It’s a sign you’ve got Irish blood!” which pleased me down to my toes, but I admit, it’s probably more of a sign that I am a lost cause. Still, the urge to return is blood level, breath level. I didn’t get my fill of this country. I don’t know if it’s possible to reach my fill of such a place.
View: Shifting, easy to find vistas. Daunting, as when we drove into the mountains of Wicklow. Mysterious, as from the Hill of Tara, where locals probably are even more inspired when they visit, knowing better exactly which tower spears the sky in the distance. My favorite, the one that felt transformative, was at the megalithic cairns of Loughcrew, where we climbed through steep and grassy farmland, and when we reached the peak where the cairns were, a thick mist below us obscured towns, and quiet descended. I imagine that this is what inspires stories of time travel. We could have been transported after touching the ancient glyphs. I could have been there for years, or moments. I could have stayed there in the place that resists time, and which retains story, become a part of the myths.
Sarah Ann Winn’s writing has appeared in Five Points, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Massachusetts Review, Passages North, and Quarterly West, among others. Her chapbooks include Field Guide to Alma Avenue and Frew Drive (Essay Press, 2016), Haunting the Last House on Holland Island, Fallen into the Bay (Porkbelly Press, 2016) and Portage (Sundress Publications, 2015). Her first book, Alma Almanac, was the winner of the 2016 Barrow Street Book Prize, and is forthcoming from Barrow Street in 2017. She lives in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, two sweet beagle/lab mixed dogs, and one bad cat. You can visit her at http://bluebirdwords.com or follow her on twitter @blueaisling. .
WHO ARE WE, WHEN WE TRAVEL IN BURMA? by Judy T. Oldfield
I reached up, scratched the side of my nose, and out popped my brand-new nose ring, falling down to the tile floor of Yangon’s Bogyoke market. Squatting down, my husband, Jason, and I searched for the tiny starter stud, bent into an L shape. We retrieved it from where it had rolled a few feet away on the dirty ground.
And then I started making plans.
The very first thing I needed was some sort of rubbing alcohol. Yangon is a marvelous city, whose pulse manages to straddle languorous and fast paced, where you can buy a pot of tea for $0.30 and a bowl of noodles for $0.50, where people smile at you in the park, and where hundred year-old trees loom over sputtering cars. But it is not what I would call a clean city, and there was no way I was going to stick that piece of metal back through my nostril without first dousing it with some serious germ killers.
Nearby I’d seen a beauty-supply store. Unfortunately, it carried all Japanese products. The young Burmese ladies spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese or Japanese. The products were all labeled in small Japanese characters, but I muddled through and bought some hand sanitizer.
The check-out counter’s sides were mirror plated and I crouched down to try to put the stud back in. I penetrated the first layer of skin, but I couldn’t get it through to the second. I felt myself panic, and after several minutes of feeling very foolish, retreated to a nearby bench, stud still in hand. I kept trying; the shop ladies talked amongst themselves and watched me, concerned. One brought me a tissue, a tiny gesture of kindness. What must they have thought, this sweaty, tearful, white lady, who didn’t know how to work her own nose ring?
It was time for Plan B. I remembered a nice-looking hotel a few blocks away. I had learned early on in my sixteen months of around-the-world travel that if I needed help to go to the concierge at a nice hotel. I carefully explained my situation to a cluster of petite Burmese women behind the desk, their blouses crisp, their hair pulled back, not a strand out of place. They did their best, they really did, but they couldn’t help holding their hands up to their lips to hide their giggles, and one had to rush out of the room, laughing.
It may be that as a non-paying guest, I put them in an awkward position, but I realize that it may also be that I seemed ridiculous to them.
The calmest, most deliberate of them drew me a map to a hair salon and suggested I inquire in there.
A digression. The names Burma and Yangon. Burma is the old name, and might again be the new name. After the unrest of 1988, in which thousands of protestors were killed or jailed in horrendous conditions, the State Law and Order Restoration Council declared martial law and in 1989, changed the English name of the country from Socialist Republic of Burma to Union of Myanmar. They did so through a council, and without a vote, a trend in their government. Aung San Suu Kyi, the most well-known dissident, who lived under house arrest for decades, is opposed to the name Myanmar, and continues to say Burma, as do many other Burmese refugees. The government believes that Myanmar is more inclusive of the country’s many different ethnicities other than the Burmese. Myanmar in the Burmese language is, however, merely a more elegant way of saying Burma.
I used the word Myanmar before and while in the country, and in all written correspondence. Similarly, I used Yangon, instead of Rangoon, which has gone through a name dispute in its own right. But one of the first things I did when I crossed the border back into Mae Sot, Thailand, was to go to a museum run by Burmese refugees about the atrocities of SLORC. And that’s when I started saying Burma.
So, I say Burma, and I say Burmese, as sort of a catch-all, because I often don’t know the particulars of someone’s ethnicity. But I still say Yangon. As an amateur linguist, this shift is interesting to me. Partially, it may be because in speaking or writing about my travel, I have more cause to say the country’s name rather than a particular city, and so the latter transition never took effect. But it may also be the uneasiness of a traveler needing to affirm a side. To be sure, I am with Aung San Suu Kyi, and all of her party. But everyone I met in Burma said Myanmar, and they said Yangon, even those who had pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi in their homes. So I ask myself, why am I saying one thing when they themselves say another?
And it may also be that I like the word Burma better than Myanmar and I like the word Yangon better than Rangoon, and as someone who only spent three weeks there, I have the luxury of choice.
In all of my travels, I have never encountered people quite like the Burmese. They were, without a doubt, the coolest, most stylish people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to walk among. When I stepped into the salon, the young man who greeted me was the epitome of modern Burmese chic. His hair was bleached to that orange-blond hue achieved when one starts with black, and carefully styled in a perfect, messy shag. He wore a fitted, long-sleeved button-down shirt, Western style, that highlighted his thin frame and a blue-green longyi, the traditional bottom garment in Burma. It looks like a skirt to most Westerners, but folds in one way for men and another for women. He looked awesome, this amalgamation of punk and traditional style. He also looked like every other young Burmese guy I’d seen in Yangon.
The man didn’t speak much English, though he did speak some. A female customer of South Asian descent (there are many people of Indian and Nepali ancestry in Burma; in fact, my plan C was to go to Little India in Yangon and wander around until I found help) spoke a bit more than he did, and together we all stumbled through my problem, and then to a solution.
I sat down in a chair and leaned back. The man took out a pair of small silver flower stud earrings from a plastic box on a shelf and with a great deal of patience and tender maneuvering, stuck it through the still-healing hole in my nostril. He added the backing to the post and spoke to the woman, who translated, “Don’t take it out for two weeks.” (I didn’t. I wore an earring in my nose until I crossed back over into Thailand, where I bought a hoop to replace it.)
I thanked him profusely, in a mixture of thank yous and kyeizu tin ba des, which I’m sure came out as nonsense. And I took out my wallet.
“No, no,” the man said.
Besides the concierge trick, more broadly speaking, I had learned through my travels that people are generally good, or at least, that there are more good people than bad people, and the kindness of strangers was pleasing, soul-rewarding even, but not surprising.
But refusing payment was shocking.
Earlier in the day, I’d bought a pair of dangly jade earrings (possibly faux, who can know?) at Bogyoke for 1,500 Kyat ($1.50). So I pulled out a 5,000 Kyat note to give to my nose-ring fixer. For the earrings, for the services rendered, for the time it took when he could’ve been cutting the hair of a paying customer, I figured the amount was at least sufficient.
But he wouldn’t hear of it.
Jason and I went back to the salon the next day and each ordered a foot massage, to at least give them a little business. After an hour of poking and prodding, stimulating muscle tissues I didn’t know I had, and seemingly shrinking my feet at least half a shoe size, the ladies told us the total for the two massages was 10,000 Kyat. We gave them 11,000—an extra $0.50 each as a tip. There was a lot of confusion, “No, no,” they said. “Too much.”
“For you,” I said.
They took the extra money, but they didn’t seem happy about it.
The author, hot and sweaty with a stud earring in her nose, wearing a local hat and thanaka, an extremely popular Burmese cosmetic and sun protector made from wood pulp.
The issue of tipping is a tricky one, made all the more complicated in a country that has only just opened its doors to tourists in the last few years.
As an American abroad, it’s hard to shake the habit, especially when confronted with the reality that in many places that little extra can go a long way.
On the other hand, there’s the very real problem of ramifications.
If a noodle shop in Yangon receives tips from tourists, how might they change their business to attract more tourists and thus more money? Perhaps they will use less fish sauce or chili, and when the crowd of travelers come in, might they also raise their prices? Prices that local Burmese customers can’t afford?
The local noodle shop is now not the same part of Burmese culture. It is effectively gone. Gentrification writ large on a global scale.
A sign at the beginning of the three-day trek from Kalaw to Inlay Lake.
Still, I tip. Before our guides departed after three days and fifty kilometers of leading us through the Hill Country of Burma and cooking for us, we tipped a few dollars—and pressured the European travelers in our crew to do the same.
It seemed only fair. I ran the math in my head. This three-day trek cost $36.00 per person. There were six tourists in our group. How much went to the guides and how much to the families who opened their homes to us? How much for the fruits and vegetables they prepared for us? And how much for the agency that organized it all?
During Oktoberfest, at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, the Bavarian waiter handed my friends and me the bill and said in perfect English, “This is without tip.”
Ask ten Germans about tipping in Germany and you’ll get ten different responses. But all will agree that a waiter asking for a tip is rude.
Can you blame the waiter, though? What did he have to put up with that night? Customers unused to German beer and overdrinking. Customers stealing mugs as souvenirs despite the fact that the Hofbräuhaus sells them. Customers who demand perfection while on vacation. Customers who are loud. Customers who vomit.
Twice in Hpa An, a small town popular with backpackers due to its proximity to an overland border crossing with Thailand, Jason and I found ourselves lost, looking for caves full of natural formations and Buddhas carved into their walls.
We’d rented a motorbike for the day, and were armed with a small, hand-drawn map. Twice we stopped at a gas stand, where gas was sold out of reused glass liter bottles on the side of the dusty, read-earthed road. Twice someone hopped on his motorbike, drove ten minutes out of his way to get us to our destination. Twice, before we could retrieve our wallets to at least give them a dollar for gas money, they smiled, waved, and sped off.
The same argument about tipping can be applied to paying the local price or not. Overcharging of tourists is common worldwide. In some places one can pay two, three, even four times the price. There’s a very real consideration about what that does to a location.
The argument against it is that if you can afford to pay more than locals, and no matter your budget, you probably can, then who cares? Don’t take advantage of someone else’s comparative poverty just to save a bit of cash.
But what does that create? Stores, restaurants, and excursions that are solely for tourists and not locals. A class division between those who visit the country and those who live there. A dissolution of certain neighborhoods.
We were in Bagan, land of a thousand temples, in May, the hottest time of the year. It was so hot that we had to retreat back into the air conditioning of the guest house we were staying at between 11 AM and 4 PM.
On our second day, just as we headed back, our “ebike,” or electric motorbike, that we’d rented, broke down. Along came two young men on a motorbike, who let us use their cell phone and waited with us in the thin shade of a reedy tree for half an hour before help arrived. In small clips and phrases of English they told us that they were University students, one studying chemistry, the other business. Mostly though, we just sat together, waiting. As the minutes ticked by with no immediate rescue, they moved their bike into a scrap of shade, to keep the black leather seat from scalding them when they sat on it again.
A year before I went to Burma, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s show on the country. He warned that Burma will change. The bad things (everything from children leaving school in order to sell postcards to sex tourism and with it increased rates of HIV) that come with travel will surely come there. Most hadn’t yet, when I was there in May of 2014. But who can say what the atmosphere is like there now, when you read this, at your desk, dreaming of exotic locales in far off places?
Bourdain’s episode was a timely one. In theory, tourists have been allowed in Burma since the early ‘90s, but in practice it has only been the last few years. But since the military began relenting its control over the country little by little in 2011, tourism has increased. Some areas are still off limits to tourists, particularly where there is unrest by ethnic minorities.
It is perhaps because of the newness of tourists that the Burmese are so pleased to see us. We are a curiosity, whereas in Thailand, in Germany, in New York City, we are a dime a dozen. In Burma, we have yet to become a nuisance.
This is the part of the essay where I admit that I got my nose pierced on Khao San road in Bangkok, Thailand. Khao San Road is commonly called the “Backpacker Ghetto” of Bangkok, which tells you as much about the place itself as the people who crash there after a night of partying on its street until 4 A.M. It’s a nonstop bar, a year-round Mardi Gras, a made-to-order garment factory, a block-long travel agency, a döner kabob/falafel/English breakfast restaurant. Back in 2001, Susan Orlean called it the place to “get lost.” But it seems to me more like the place to act like a jackass. A mattress on the floor of one of the guest houses costs $4/night, less than half the cost of a dorm bed at a hostel elsewhere in the city.
This is the place you come to if you are young, traveling, and care more about drinking than just about anything else. Every cheap drink you could want. All of the young drunk Westerners you could want to hook up with. It is hot, and sweaty, and the male backpackers wear tank tops with “Chang Beer” on them, the cheapest of the local beers, over baggy elephant-print temple pants, and the girls wear their hair up on their heads in messy buns and tank tops and elephant pants. This is the Southeast Asia backpacker uniform and there’s a competition to see who can spend the least amount of money and get the most wasted. It is one of the party islands of Thailand, transported to the city.
I did not stay on Khao San Road, just as I chose more tranquil islands over those with Full Moon parties. The first time I came through Bangkok, I stayed at a hostel nearby the Myanmar Embassy. The second time, I stayed at another hostel, in the Southern part of central Bangkok. But I did go to Khao San to get my nose pierced.
Walking through the busy street, Jason remarked that sometimes it feels like Southeast Asia is just babysitting the affluent nineteen-year-olds of the Western World.
The Burmese seemed to take a genuine interest and joy in the new tourists that popped up amidst them. Clutching Jason around the waist and smiling, I waved to everyone on the road around Hpa An as we sped by.
At a tea shop, we stopped in for a breakfast of fried doughy strips and Burmese tea over-sugared with too much sweetened condensed milk, the same color as the earthen floor of the shop. A middle-aged Burmese man on the stool next to us asked my husband, “Where you from?”
“America,” Jason said.
The man said to me, “Very good. You marry an American.”
“I am American too,” I said, laughing.
“No, Americans are very high. You are small like Burmese lady,” he said, indicating my 5’2” stature.
I laughed, “No, but Burmese ladies are like this,” and spaced my hands eight inches apart to approximate their waistlines.
I wondered again if I was a disappointment to the Burmese: my short height, my stringy hair I hadn’t cut in a year, plastered to my sweaty neck, my shirt with the hole in it, my silly nose ring problem, my lack of make-up, my bad pronunciation, my dusty backpack, my tendency to wilt in the 110-degree sun.
And I hoped that my smile, my enthusiasm for being there, my willingness to try any food, talk to any person, and at least attempt a few phrases made up for it.
So, who are we, as tourists? And even if you call yourself a traveler, not a tourist, which I do, in the end, it comes down to the same question. We are not saviors, though sometimes some of us may think of ourselves as such. But sometimes we are villains.
We live in a global society. Burma will change. Their decades-old oppressive government is incrementally easing up. As of the election in November of 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, The National League for Democracy, holds a majority of seats in Parliament. That can only be a good thing.
I met a punkish Burmese guy wearing a Rancid shirt. “That’s my favorite band,” I told him. “I’ve seen them play.”
In an Internet café in the small town of Hsipaw, a group of elementary-aged boys with shaved heads and monks’ robes were playing Counterstrike, digital bullets flying, flying, flying at one another. The government-run Internet was down, but the LAN worked fine.
There are forces beyond our control at work. And this is not to say that we should preserve Burma as some sort of Shangri-La. Quite the opposite. Jason’s biggest regret is that he didn’t sit down and play Counterstrike with those kids.
As tourists, we can leave the worst of ourselves at home. We can see people as people and not commodities. We can be polite. We can try to pay the local price and when we are overcharged we can not get upset when we can’t get it. We can understand that our financial differences don’t make us any better or worse, any more or less pure or human than others. And we can act accordingly.
We can not see Asia or any other part of the world as a playground in which to lose ourselves to a good time. We can act as we would in our own neighborhoods.
I still tip, though.
Judy T. Oldfield’s work has appeared in The Portland Review, JMWW, So to Speak, Gravel, Vine Leaves, and many others. She grew up in the Metro Detroit area and attended Western Michigan University, where she earned her B.A. in English and Comparative Religion. An adventurous eater, Judy has dined on rotten shark in Iceland and tarantula in Cambodia. She lives in Seattle but you can find her on Twitter at @J_T_Oldfield.
Images of Burma credit: Jason Wilson
Cover image: A cave filled with Buddhas outside of Hpa An.
My girlfriend Jackie and I came across the memorial in a cemetery near our house in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a slanted stone slab low to the ground with two plaques on it. The smaller described a 1956 midair collision over the Grand Canyon between a TWA Constellation and a United Airlines DC-7 that killed 128 people. The larger listed the names of the sixty-six who were buried there: three Maags, four Kites, two Crewses, and so on. My eye found the groups of matching surnames, and my mind turned them into stories.
It seemed odd that this sunny patch of grass, tucked away in the aspens, looking more appropriate for lawn chairs and bocce, would be a memorial to decompression and falling and terror.
Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash on 3 February 1959. The sole Valenzuela to die in the crash, his trio is rounded out by Buddy Holly and J. P. Richardson. Valens was seventeen. For my generation, he was revived in the 1987 movie La Bamba.
I turned seven in 1987. The low-budget movie Dirty Dancing became an unexpected hit on its August release, turning little-known actor Patrick Swayze into a star. Michael Jackson cemented his status as the biggest phenomenon in the universe and the idol of Crocker Farm Elementary School with the release of Bad, the first album ever to send five singles to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Some afternoons, before the busses arrived to take us home, Mrs. Kidd turned on the TV, and we watched music videos of Jackson hopping turnstiles in his leather and buckles.
The present is infallible when you’re seven. Michael Jackson and Patrick Swayze are as eternal as the sun and moon. The 1970s are as insubstantial as Atlantis.
I saw La Bamba on VHS in Kyle Stanek’s basement. The movie had swears in it, which made me nervous because Mom didn’t let me watch movies with swears. Kyle’s mom lingered in the basement, glancing at the TV as the actors volleyed the F-word back and forth. I feared she’d halt our entertainment, as my mom would have, but she didn’t.
Patrick Swayze died on Bells Beach, Australia, in 1991. This was as the outlaw hero Bhodi in Point Break. A fifty-year storm, he called it: wind and lashing rain, and waves as tall as houses. This is where his friend and surfing protégé, undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah, finally tracked him down.
“Just let me catch one wave,” Swayze pleaded.
Utah un-cuffed him, and he paddled out into the awesome surf. Utah’s team thought they’d get him when he came back in, but Utah knew better.
The monstrous wave Swayze was riding crashed shut on him, and he was gone.
This ending was right. Swayze was too awesome to go out any other way.
I spent the summer of 2005 in Friendsville, Maryland. It was during that summer that I first began to discover gray hairs in my beard. Also during that summer, Michael Jackson was found not guilty after being accused for a second time of child molestation. Concerts and monuments continued to memorialize Ritchie Valens, now dead forty-seven years. My friend Nate would come over to my house, and we’d watch Point Break. Neither of us surfed, but he was the best kayaker I knew—Bhodi, to my Johnny Utah. He once told me he wanted me to die in my kayak. He meant it in a good way. He wanted to die in his kayak.
“He died doing what he loved,” Nate would whisper at the movie’s finale, as though it were the ultimate expression of some principle.
One summer, while working in Zion National Park, Jackie tried to hike to an old airplane crash site. After an hour of climbing up the sand and scree, she found her path blocked by a rock wall. Tiny bits of metal from the wreckage above littered the ground. Jackie took two of the larger pieces, about the size of DVD cases, home with her.
Jackie doesn’t like flying in airplanes. She imagines the time it would take to plummet to the ground, knowing what will happen yet unable to do anything about it.
In the Grand Canyon tragedy, the DC-7’s left wing and propeller struck the Constellation’s fuselage. The DC-7 was damaged beyond its ability to stay airborne, and it spiraled to the ground below. The Constellation’s tail section separated from the rest of the airplane, decompressing the interior and blasting debris into the open sky. The collision was at an altitude of 21,000 feet—about four miles. A person sucked from the Constellation would have taken about two minutes to fall to the ground, varying based on body position.
Terminal velocity in a spread-eagle position is about 120 mph. It’s faster in a streamlined position. In the movies, this is how Johnny Utah is able to catch up with Patrick Swayze in midair after jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. In real life, it’s how casualties of the Grand Canyon collision might have chosen to end the terror faster, or to prolong being alive.
Whether rushed or prolonged, there was still the inescapable sensation of falling, and the certainty of lethal impact.
Patrick Swayze died of pancreatic cancer on 14 September 2009. I’d shaved off my beard by then. It was an easy way to forget the gray hairs. I stubbornly believed I’d be with Jackie forever. I’d soon see the memorial with her, and hear the story of how she found her airplane part. It felt improbable that we wouldn’t be together forever.
I learned of Swayze’s illness while standing in lines at the City Market in Buena Vista, Colorado. As I’d wait with my snow peas and mushrooms and bok choy, the tabloid covers would show me what Bhodi and Johnny Castle looked like dying of cancer.
Swayze’s death was interrupted by Michael Jackson’s. One day, instead of Swayze, there was Michael Jackson on all the covers. He wasn’t waxy, as he had been for the previous decade. He was the awesome image I remembered from 1987. A few months later, Swayze finished dying, and he too was returned to his 1987 glory.
Newspaper headlines and lists of names on monuments are similar in that they invite us to believe we know the unknowable.
In some cases, there’s irrefutable evidence that a crime was committed. There’s a dead body, or the money’s missing. In other cases, the only evidence is a verbal disagreement about what happened in the past. But what do we know?
We know that Michael Jackson had sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know that we consider it inappropriate for men in their thirties to have sleepovers with pubescent boys, and we know why. We also know that Jordan Chandler, Jackson’s 1993 accuser, accused Jackson only after being browbeaten and fed hallucinogenic drugs by his father, and we know that Chandler inaccurately described Jackson’s penis as circumcised. We know that when a guy’s been accused of something twice we ought to take the allegation seriously, but we also know that the precedent of a $20 million settlement will invite more allegations whether they’re true or not.
We can arrange these details to make our own stories. I like the arrangement that does as much as possible to preserve the 1987 Michael Jackson. But nobody will ever know what happened behind closed doors. Possibly not even Jordan Chandler.
The thoughts of the 128 people who boarded two airplanes at Los Angeles International Airport shortly after 9 in the morning on 30 June 1956 are also lost. All that remains is a placid blue sky, and a block of cut stone by some grass in a cemetery in Flagstaff. We’ll never know what they thought as the DC-7’s wing split the Constellation open like a can of soup, and as they all fell to the ground at varying speeds.
A memorial is a reflection, not a portal. Here are some names, it says. You fill in the rest. Whether I memorialize outlaw heroes, FBI agents, molested children, or would-have-been Kings of Pop is up to your whim.
In the early morning of 16 August 1960, as part of an Air Force experiment, Captain Joseph Kittinger departed from Tularosa, New Mexico, by helium balloon, wearing a pressurized suit. An hour and forty-three minutes later, from an altitude of 102,800 feet, the upper stratosphere, he jumped out.
Where the air is thinner, terminal velocity is faster. Kittinger reached a freefell speed of 614 mph before deploying his parachute. His descent took 13 minutes and 45 seconds. For more than fifty years, it was the record for the highest, longest, and fastest jump.
Jackie discarded one of the airplane pieces when she left Zion. She took the other back to her parents’ house and put it in a cabinet in her bedroom that displayed trinkets she liked. But somewhere along the way, maybe when her parents remodeled their house, the airplane part was thrown away, or it was put in a box somewhere, never to be seen again.
I asked her why she’d kept it in the first place. She said she wanted a memento of a time and a place and an experience, and the feelings that went with it. She wanted to anchor those memories to something physical and enduring.
Joseph Kittinger is now eighty-seven years old. Ritchie Valens would be seventy-four, Michael Jackson fifty-seven, and Patrick Swayze sixty-three. Jordan Chandler and I are both thirty-five. Bit by bit, the past is falling out from underneath us. Kittinger’s record has been broken. Another album has matched Bad’s five number-one singles. I haven’t spoken to Jackie in years.
I wonder if Jordan finds gray hairs in his beard. I wonder what he thinks when he thinks of Michael Jackson. I wonder whether he wishes he could buy back his anonymity. I wonder, if he could have a single moment from his life to keep forever, which one he’d pick.
There’s a picture of Michael Jackson and Jordan Chandler together, prior to Chandler’s allegations. Chandler is in the foreground, looking directly at the camera. He’s a beautiful kid. His expression is hard to read. It might be awed, smug, even bored. He’s wearing an orange button-up shirt with a stylish brown jacket over it, and a hat that looks straight out of the “Smooth Criminal” video. Jackson is slightly left of center, behind Chandler’s right shoulder. He already looks a bit ghoulish. I hadn’t remembered him looking that way until years later. In his arms, only partly in the photo, is a young girl. He’s wearing sunglasses and a black button-up shirt, and smiling just a little.
This picture lets us look back at a moment when Jackson and Chandler were only the King of Pop and an excited fan. The moment is still there. We can still see it. But with each passing year its significance evaporates more from our collective memory. The generations that experienced it are being replaced by ones that didn’t. We have the technology to record words, images, sounds—we can preserve all of these things indefinitely. But their meaning is constantly being lost.
Peter Tiernan has an MFA in fiction from Boise State University and an MA in creative nonfiction from Northern Arizona University. He was born in Maine and now lives in Idaho, where he works outdoors and spends his free time “writing, floating down rivers, and pondering the meaning of it all.”
It had been ten years since I’d been to Belgrade and the first things I noticed were the billboards. The blasted-out skeletons of iron had been rebuilt, painted, and were skinned in colorful faces smiling down on the grey skyline. They seemed so oddly out of place, as if they had landed straight out from the sky.
I’d spent my childhood in the city, but I’d gone abroad and hadn’t been back since just after the war. The airport hadn’t reopened, so I had flown into Frankfurt, rented a car, then driven 120 mph in the slow lane of the Autobahn through the deep tunnels of the Viennese Alps. The highway linking Belgrade to Zagreb was empty, and the deep impressions of tank treads were still visible on the shoulder.
On that trip I had been shown the ruins of Avala, the tower on the hill overlooking the city where I had gone as a child to see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was just a wet tangle of cables and rubble all along the slope of the hill, as if someone had pushed it too hard and it had fallen, exhausted, on its side.
But now, ten years later, it had been rebuilt, more beautiful than before, and everywhere that had once been rubble was now so new that I couldn’t recognize the turn-off to my aunt’s house, and I almost missed it.
I was meeting my sestra there, who had agreed to take me through the city and show me what had changed. As we drove back across the Danube she pointed out a hotel down by the water. It was yellow and gold, framed by old oaks in the traditional style of old Europe. Do you know what that is? I looked at the exit that led down to it and marveled at the change. That’s where that old decrepit factory used to be.
That’s it, she replied, and I didn’t understand. It’s the same building – they renovated it and converted it into a hotel. We had already zipped past it, but I looked over my shoulder and kept repeating the same thing. It was the same building? That’s what it looked like? It was the same building?
We drove straight down Bulevar despota Stefana toward the National Theater, and Maja leaned forward and pointed out the new buildings through the front of the windshield, on the left, on the right, until we pulled off the main street and found a side street to park on. Downtown had always been beautiful, the nineteenth-century buildings covered in carved balustrades and winking cherubs over windows, but now the cracked plaster had been filled in, the soot removed, and inside the glass fronts of the newly pastel buildings were clothes and purses from European brands, and it all felt new, as if the long haze of socialist concrete had never been there at all.
I stopped often, taking photos of this place I half-recognized, when I saw something I had never seen in Belgrade: a man with a map. It was a tourist. I asked him in English if he needed directions, showed him where we were on his map and where he needed to go, and he smiled and thanked me so I couldn’t tell if he was more surprised to find me there or I him.
He wanted to go see the oldest part of the city, Dorćol, where we were headed. This had been the heart of the city during Turkish occupation and had all of the oldest buildings, but I only remembered it from late nights at cafes, drinking in bars that spilled out onto the streets and then eating palacinke from street vendors on the way home.
As we walked through Studentski park and between the university buildings, the city that I recognized from my childhood began to reappear along the small streets. Concrete apartment buildings, gray and stained with water runoff, sat above shuttered shop windows scrawled over with spray-painted nationalist graffiti. Old trees burst through the sidewalk, trash collecting in their roots, and everywhere little babas with black kerchiefs wrapped around their heads hurried along, carrying groceries from the market.
We stopped at Čukur česma, the fountain commemorating the start of Belgrade’s revolt of Turkish occupation. In 1862, Turkish soldiers killed a young Serbian boy at that spot, and the outrage led to outbreaks of violence culminating in the complete withdrawal of Turks from Serbia.
But Serbian Muslims were expelled too, and where there had once been over 200 mosques in Belgrade, there was only one left. I had asked Maja to take me to see it. All those years and I had never even known it was there, a remnant of some other Belgrade that was just as foreign to me as the sand-blasted downtown that I had just walked through.
The white minaret wasn’t immediately visible, and if my sestra hadn’t been there to point it out I would have missed it entirely. The mosque sat at an angle to the street, hidden between the folds of the other buildings, still following the layout of some long-forgotten neighborhood.
During the war, the mosque had been burned in anti-Muslim violence in retaliation for attacks on Serbs in Kosovo. But as I gazed up at the building there was no trace of this left, only the subtle gradations of the yellow stone broken by the pointed arches of the low windows.
There’s been a mosque in that place since 1575, destroyed and rebuilt again over hundreds of years. My ten years away had been just a moment, only a heartbeat, in the life of the city.
Sara Alaica is a citizen of the world and a nomad. She grew up in Canada and in the Balkans and has lived in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Between traveling the seven continents, she earned her BA in literature from Carleton University and an MA in literature from the University of Toronto. She currently works at Columbia University in New York City. She blogs at www.alittleroad.com
Image credit: “Dorcal, Belgrade” by Chris JL on Flickr
It was less about ego surfing than curiosity is what my fingers self-consciously whispered into the keys spelling my name in the box. If you did this, you would find, even before finished, that Travis is a former city councilman of Fullerton County, CA. Click one of those links your search produces and you would read critical blogs with critical comments written about him. You would read the headline, “12 Year Old Takes Fullerton’s Travis Kiger to School on Bullying.” You would learn that he is a progressive politician by finding a video posted of his rant purporting DUI checkpoints as unconstitutional and are a union scam. Scroll down—he plays soccer for Lee University. Scroll down—he coaches debate. But mostly, thanks to busy bee search engine optimizers, you would see that he is a former city councilman. Each Travis Kiger with a different face. Each with a different occupation.
Our names are arbitrarily shared, which isn’t surprising as they were given to us. Gifts. Mine was born of conflict resolution. My parents were traveling to New Orleans from Thibodaux in their royal blue Chevrolet station wagon. They were arguing, my mom pregnant, my dad belligerent, about what they would name me. My dad wanted to name me Cory. My mom wanted to name me, “Not Cory.” In the heat of the battle for my identity, the Chevrolet headlights shined upon a glimmering green rectangle of a road marking—TRAVIS DRIVE. My dad saw the sign and in frustration indignantly pitched, “Let’s just call him Travis.” My mom said, “I like Travis.” My dad said in defeat, “Well, I do too.” You will not find this out on the Internet. You would have heard this in the same blue station wagon on the way to New Orleans from Thibodaux as my mother explained to me every time—“TRAVIS DRIVE. Dat’s where ya got ya name.”
The way my dad tells it: “Ya motha was in labor fo eighteen hours, and we were cryin and she’d worked so hard, so I looked at her an said, ‘Ya name him whatever ya want.’ And she said, ‘I still like Travis.’ And I wasn’t gonna argue wit her.”
Felix and the big fish, c. 1952.
In Grand Isle, LA, however, I am Travel. What Felix, my grandfather, called me. When you asked him why, his cracked face would spit out an explanation like he would his stale tobacco after a long chew—as if the question required no modicum of dignity in response, “Cuz dats da boy’s name.” He very well could have called me this because it was easier to say than Travis, but my dad also admits that my grandfather forgot things. Even years after the divorce cap-stoning eight years of marriage, the old man called my mother Susan (her name was not Susan)—the name of my father’s ex. I think he called me this most because it bugged my mom, who subscribes to the strict sentiment that you name people what they are to be called, and then you call them that thing that you have named them. But perhaps the rationale behind Travel was not so sinister.
Felix Kiger lived a habit of calling articles by other names. My dad ruminates in attempt to discern whether Felix called things by what he wanted or by what he understood. Felix called me Travel. My dad’s best friend Bennie Gatz—Biddy Gat. Those variations were understandable. But he also evaporated Up Da Bayou fo’ da’ hurricane. And he called Tommy Casanova—LSU football great—Castrano and sometimes Snowball. He cooked for Casanova’s family when they visited their camp on the island, and so Felix dragged my dad down to the sideline of Tiger Stadium during a game. He yelled over the crowd noise to the security guard, “Where’s Snowball?! I know dat’ boy!” The bewildered guard held my grandfather off, as there was no Snowball on the team. Casanova, injured at the moment, saw my fat little grandfather in his polyester leisure pants—that had been taken up considerably on account of his short legs—causing a commotion on the sideline and crutched over to greet him, clearing the air.
“Mr. Kiger, thanks for coming out.”
“Hey boy, how come you not in da’ game?”
Casanova held up his crutches and shrugged. He extended his mammoth footballing hand and covered my grandfather’s stubby fisherman’s mitt. My grandfather then narrowed his eyes and looked to the security guard. “I tol’ ya I knew dat boy!”
Maybe names simply did not mean much to my grandfather, either. Recently, I was researching his census history the best way I knew how—on the Internet. I found that Kiger was sometimes spelled Keiger. I also found Felix represented as Fidelis. Fidelis Kiger. Felix Keiger. Fidelis Keiger. Travis Kiger. Travis Keiger. Travel Kiger. Travel Keiger.
Names didn’t hold any amount of sacred significance to me growing up. My youth league baseball jersey was forever wrong. Kieger. Keiger. Koger. Kyger. I don’t know why copying Kiger from an order form should be any more difficult than copying Smith, but nonetheless, I was never bothered by it. When teammates called me T, T-Dawg, Trav, Trever or Larry, I didn’t mind. I intuitively felt cool that someone thought enough about me to make up their own name for me. Then I started teaching.
In the classroom, calling your students by nicknames can help develop rapport. I do this every year. I call out these nicknames like I am a game show announcer and they are characters on American Gladiators. My classrooms are as diverse as the colorful gladiators, and the practice works to keep the students engaged—on the edge of their seats to hear who will be branded next. Mike-n-Ike? Tommy Gun? Gio? They really get into it and typically wear this nickname as an insignia of pride. “I was in Kiger’s class and he called me Little John or A-train or Jack Attack or Weapon X or Slice or W-2 or Ray Ray or Madison Square Garden.” However, last year, a ninth grader with hair as blonde as her ambition responded to her nickname with indignation. I’d called her Goldilocks.
“Please do not call me that. That is not my name.”
I callously apologized, and continued with my lesson for the day. But, even if my mouth and eyes were discussing the theme of pride acting as a great motivating factor of men in The Old Man and the Sea, my thoughts were consumed by, “How dare she interrupt my mojo by assuming power of what I was to call her? What was wrong with this person?”
Then, in preparing an introduction to a unit on spoken word poetry, I chanced upon a video of a young poet who brands herself Ethiopian Girl. Her poem began, “I’m tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them. They want me to bury it in English so that they can understand.” And then she continued, “No, you can’t give me a nickname to replace this gift of five letters.” I paused the video. Her name was Hiwot.
And then came that moment when teachers realize that they should accept their students every day in the present. That even though there is much repetition in content and technique, that each session is an evolving organic thing. That judging the present according to the past is a mistake. I’d forgotten that sometimes I acted like an asshole. I’d forgotten that my age and education did not forge an armor insulating me from learning lessons from my students. I realized that names meant something, and that someone gave my indignant student her name with no small amount of thought and deliberation. She was certainly more complex than my ill-inspired story time allusion and her blonde hair. Maybe her parents argued about her name for months. Maybe her name was a trophy earned by her mother’s labor. Or maybe it was a legacy conveyed by her heritage. I hit play on my screen. Hiwot described her name as, “The only line I have to a place I’ve never been—a vessel carrying me to the earth I’ve never felt.” I watched the video three times. And then I wrote a not-so-callous apology to my student. And then I typed Travis Kiger into my search engine.
Travel became the Kiger stamp on my sense of self. It has become what I’m called on my dad’s side of the family. This is more so since the death of my grandfather fifteen years ago. It seems that every interaction with me births an imagined interaction, as if calling me Travel can raise the dead and conjure a conversation with a ghost. This badge of his legacy is quite unexpected. My godfather, Bennie, breathes sustenance into this badge every time he hears Travis by emphatically demanding, “His name is Travel!” Very recently, not a week after a pilgrimage to Grand Isle to visit Felix’s only surviving sister, Aunt Moe, I called her to check in.
She answered, “Who’s dis?”
“Can I speak to Margarie Bradburry, please?”
“Who da fuck is dis?”
“Aunt Moe, it’s TRAVIS. TRAVIS KIGER.”
“Oh, Travel, hunny, why didn’t ya say so? I was about ta cuss you out. I don’t know no fuckin’ Travis. Next time, just tell me it’s Travel. What do you want, boo?”
Travel was sacred text. This ritual of my renaming seemed mysterious and whimsical to me until my encounter with my indignant student. Until my run-in with Ethiopian Girl. I then understood Travel as a gift of six letters. The name as a lifeline to someone that has given up gone some time ago. The name as a vessel carrying my family into memory and affection for the fat little man that called things by whatever he wanted.
The author’s parents with his grandfather, Felix Kiger, c. 1979.
When I typed Felix Kiger into my search engine, I was bombarded with ancestry and genealogy sites fishing for a registration fee to learn more about my past. I also saw information about his gravesite and the gravesite of a Felix Kiger before him—a farmer in Fairfield County, OH, whose grandfather was Henry Kiger, an early pioneer to Ohio who fought in the War of 1812 and lived to be more than 100 years old. And then I saw a Louisiana sportsman blog and this passage by e-man, motorboat describing a shrimping occurrence called a jubilee:
A very old gentleman in Grand Isle, Felix Kiger (now passed away) would always talk about the ten-fifteen baskets (champagnes) of shrimp he would catch on those rare occasions. I was fortunate enough to see one with him in early 80s and yes we could have caught as much shrimp and crabs as we wanted. In his vast amount of Cajun wisdom, he swore that the jubilee was caused by the exact alignment of the moon with some of the planets. I have no idea of the cause, but viewing [it] was probably the greatest outdoor event I ever saw.
After reading this, I smiled considering my Pa Pa, The Cajun Astronomer. The man who could not say my name correctly. Then I typed Travel Kiger into my search engine. I did not see any thumbnail images reflecting my handsome mug. I did, however, find a great deal on travel to Kiger Island, OR. I saved the link in my browser. Kiger Island sounds like a nice place to visit.
Travis Kiger was born in Thibodaux, LA, and grew up in a lot of places. He earned his MFA at the University of Tampa, and he teaches Rhetoric and Persuasion at Illinois State University. He has previously written for The Rostrum, Bull Men’s Fiction, and Bridge Eight Magazine. He is a husband, father, dog owner, and beer drinker.
An inch or two of new snow has fallen since morning, flocking the graves at Novodevichy in feathery white. Black marble obelisks and basalt monoliths create a vertical as well as horizontal tombscape, a way to organize death into the narrow alleys and lanes of a space-cramped necropolis.
Shostakovich, Chekhov, Yeltsin, Kruschev—they lie here. Mayakovsky, Bulgakov, Gogol, Tretyakov—tons of granite guard their rest.
Moscow is never more silent than under a mantle of soft mounded snow and winter never more Russian than on a somber day whose gray sky is woolly with constantly sifting flakes.
An occasional bouquet of faded flowers brings a splash of color to this cemetery. Even the grave of a mathematician from the nineteenth century is graced with a spray of scarlet gladioli, proof of memory’s persistence. Roses lie crushed at the feet of alabaster statues, their petals made pale by the lacework of snow, forgotten bouquets in a forgotten season left to commemorate the lives of legends.
The statues themselves are arresting. Human figures seem to stride out of polished rock slabs but stop just short of stepping free, something in the granite leashing them to eternity. The opera singers, ballerinas and artists stare across the black and white austerity, honored guests at a quite exclusive cocktail party, VIPs on the A-list forever. Sculpted larger than life, the carvings illustrate the way death has forced upon those who rest here super-human proportions. Their stone faces reveal the dignity of luminaries who know strangers will gaze upon them for centuries.
Basically everyone is having a good hair day in the Novodevichy Cemetery, except the living whose fur-trimmed hoods and fleece caps guarantee a flat-on-one-side helmeted look once the hoods come down later in a café and the caps come off over steaming mugs of tea. I point my camera at the lavishly chiseled equations on the broad “chalkboard” of a physicist’s polished tombstone, and my friend Elena eases her way between the graves, walking like an Egyptian occasionally so as to sidle on through, the spaces are so tight. She takes a shortcut to Gerasimov’s elaborate sculpture, her right elbow bumping Stanislavski’s chunk of limestone, her left knee knocking against Eisenstein’s slab. I tag along, my Yak-Traks scraping down through the snow layer to bare rock. We are rasping our way through this geometry of stone.
When she turned fifty-five, mandatory retirement age in Russia, Elena put her translation skills to good use and became a guide. She could walk Novodevichy backwards in the dark and find every grave, she has brought so many people through. Sometimes she talks religion with a visitor, sometimes architecture or the atomic age. With me, she talks Totalitarianism, which is tantamount to walking backwards in the dark through history. On Stalin: “The horrors our citizens endured under his regime show what happens when a mentally unstable person comes to power.” On Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD during the purge: “He was a rapist. Women knew not to walk past his Moscow villa, because he snatched victims off the street.” On the way the West does not understand Russia: “We don’t understand either! It’s madness!” She jabs her forehead with the tip of her index finger, as if to punctuate the craziness. “What we don’t understand could fill a whole library.”
This is mid-January, 2015. The ruble has cratered; oil prices have plummeted. Economic sanctions are taking a bite. President Putin’s approval rating hovers at 85 percent, however.
Knitted hat pulled low to her eyebrows, Elena uses her gloved hand to sweep fluffy snow from the pedestal of painter Alexander Gerasimov’s statue. The bare-chested portraitist reclines as if sunbathing, arms stretched behind his head, a lounging, unconcerned pose better suited to a sandy beach. Today, he has a lap full of snow. Elena stands back while I frame the shot. Bristly tufts of iron gray hair poke out from under her cap, the gray mixed now and then with coarse black curls. She gazes down at the dates that encompass Gerasimov’s time here on earth, and it’s obvious that her mood is matching this somber place.
“The last two months have been very hard,” she says. Her husband’s health—diabetes and fibromyalgia. Her twenty-six-year-old son still at home and with few employment prospects. She brightens when speaking of her granddaughter, however, a nine-year-old in primary school here in Moscow—and the fortunes of her daughter and son-in-law, both educators, bring her cheer. “They bought a new car,” she tells me. “Right before dealers suspended sales. Not everybody could act so quickly.”
When the ruble fell to half its valuation, people made a run on luxury goods—IKEA furniture, Jaguar sedans, Swarovski crystal. Dealerships shuttered their doors until they could adjust to the swooning currency. Meanwhile, the salmon blini that last summer went for 650 rubles on a restaurant’s menu was still 650 rubles—but it cost twice as much. Bearing up under this hardship meant fewer meals out. “Not a big deal,” Elena said a while ago, “because, like you, I enjoy cooking. Cooking is relaxing. Cooking is what I would do almost above anything. But I love avocados. Do you know a that single avocado costs $7 U.S.?”
I glance over at Elena now. She has shoved her glasses up, propping them on the brim of her knitted cap, and she is ransacking her iPhone for examples of Gerasimov’s paintings so she can show me his style. Her family has been in Moscow for more generations than one can sensibly count. She’s Jewish, which in Russia brings a hardship saga all its own. She has talked a lot about her grandmother, an inspirational figure through Elena’s girlhood, a formidable and resourceful woman whose ninety years encompassed Revolution, a civil war between the Bolshevik Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik Whites, purges, unremitting anti-Semitism, Nazi assault, Communism, the Cold War.
Elena and I are both Baby Boomers—she circa 1955, I circa 1957. The boom was less boomy on the Soviet side, however, because the Great Patriotic War took an estimated twenty million men from the gene pool.
Prosperity didn’t happen here. A spend-happy middle class never formed. Capitalism was as odious on these shores as Communism on our own. People lived with material deprivation. The sophisticated consumption that marked a rising class in the West never came about. Stagnant economics accentuated some of the most Russian of qualities, however: endurance, sacrifice, persistence, stoicism, and the ability to suffer through hard times. Taken together, these qualities had long fortified the people of this country, even during the Imperial Era, a Russianness forged in one’s DNA. Displayed against a backdrop rich with the music of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsokov and the literature of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, these qualities bespoke a time-tested hardiness, something Elena’s grandmother knew well.
It’s easy to walk the streets of contemporary Moscow, see the accoutrement of modern consumerism—the smartphones, the iPads, the new cars—and think that Russia is just like us. Subway restaurants, Starbucks cafes, KFCs, and Burger Kings. The place looks reassuringly familiar. Moscow feels as comfortable as a Saturday afternoon spent in the Food Court at Mall of America. We almost start looking for Olive Garden, Cinnabon, and P.F. Chang’s, the place is so run of the mill. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to believe that the Bill of Rights which protects us in the U.S.—and the freedoms the Bill guarantees—protects the people here, too. It’s alluring moreover to assert that the people want a Bill of Rights like ours and a style of government like ours. That they yearn for a full-on U.S.-style democracy. That a full-on U.S.-style democracy would make sense here. This is typical American hubris.
Russia is not like us.
Elena hands me her iPhone. “Scroll left,” she says. “Alexander Gerasimov pioneered Heroic Realism in the Socialist style. Posh, pompous, and fawning.”
I see red canvases, glittering Soviet pageantry on an industrial scale, a cast of thousands, many paintings headlined by Stalin or Lenin, sometimes both.
“That one,” Elena says. She has shoved her glasses up again and is peering closely over my shoulder.
I pause at Hymn to October, 1942.
“Massive,” Elena says. “Grand. Maybe 800 centimeters wide.”
I do the quick calculation: 12 feet. I imagine the painting engulfing me. In it, Stalin addresses Party Big Wigs on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Revolution. Onstage behind him, dominating the scene, is a bust of Lenin, perhaps ten times life-size. Stalin’s pose at the podium, mid-speech, is characteristic. Lenin’s visage is classic and representative, as if stamped on. Both are static, frozen. I am standing in a cemetery gazing upon a painting that is its own cemetery of Major Players—Stalin, Lenin, other dignitaries—all of them buried by Time.
Elena pockets her phone and gazes across Novodevichy. “A whole library, Barbara? Is that what I said?” She shakes her head. “A whole library is not big enough to hold the things we don’t understand.”
Sifting flakes melt against my cheeks, a vanishing moisture. Low clouds reflect down on the graves the dark opaque dullness of well-handled pewter. It’s as if we’re on a game board of immovable pieces, everything welded by Death into place—whether history or vanity or Truth. It’s no longer possible to move anything or change the order of play. The permanence is profound and epic. Impenetrable.
In a country like this, one might reasonably ask, How long before the bad times end? When I hang out with Elena, however, that’s the last thing on my mind. Her grandmother bequeathed to her a legacy of resilience, a thing one cannot commodify. It occurs to me that our inability to see this place through Western eyes, to acknowledge it as a separate and valid entity, stems from the fact that when we look at Russia we don’t really even actually see Russia. We see ourselves. A co-opting gaze, that. Russia is a mirror to reflect back the image we prefer, which is our own.
Snow scatters down on these musings, so suited to a place like Novodevichy, a stark white container where death and winter can clasp hands all season long. Elena has walked on ahead and now beckons to me from the cosmonaut’s tomb. “Sputnik Generation,” she says when I’ve stood in admiring silence an appropriate interval. She locks her gaze with mine and smiles impishly. “That’s me.”
Some of the best things about Russia do not export.
Later, she will see me back to my hotel where we’ll stand on the snowy sidewalk saying goodbye, sharing a hug like friends who will get together again next week. It’ll be kind of an abrupt farewell—no time to luxuriate over a cup of tea—because she’s got to dash off. This evening her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter are coming over for dinner, and she’s going to do her signature dish, the eggplant one with walnuts. She’ll set the bread on the table near the salt cellar as they’re brushing the snow from their coats and hanging their scarves up in the hall. When Elena moves about her kitchen, wreathed in the fragrance of baking, I like to believe that she finds enough here, plenty here, more than enough of what she does in fact understand to outweigh the things she does not.
Barbara Haas’s work has appeared in The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Western Humanities Review, and Quarterly West. She is a repeat contributor to The North American Review, Hudson Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Prose, and her MFA is from UC-Irvine.
Image credits: “Novodevichy Cemetery” by Barbara Haas
I never realized how impoverished the soil is, how exhaustive the journey, for vineyard grapevines—how much they are forced to withstand to simply sustain themselves. Bob, our vineyard tour guide, explained in a hushed, deferential tone how large pieces of shale and rock are intentionally buried right underneath the roots of the grapevine so that they have no choice but to strain and stretch to painful lengths in order to reach the meager sources of water deep underground. The soil itself is as nutritionless as gravel.
“This is what must occur so that the grapes remain small and tight. If they were to be fed in abundance, watered with the generosity given to other crops, they would swell and dilute in flavor, intensity, and depth.” Bob wagged his finger, “If you want to make great wine, the grapes must suffer.” He presented these facts with the utmost respect.
My brother and I had traveled to Northern California for a week-long holiday. We planned for a few nights in the Mission District of San Francisco before driving up to Napa Valley. We were able to stay at a close family friend’s house while in the city. Our friend’s mom was an on-call nurse who was about to start a twelve-hour shift at midnight that very evening, and although we arrived around ten o’clock with very little notice, an enormous Vietnamese feast of jasmine rice, stir-fried pork, steamed bok choy, and tofu awaited us.
Somehow the topic of her degenerative joint disease came up—something I had never known about during the fifteen-year-long friendship I had with her younger daughter. The disease had progressed at a rapid pace. Her hands were noticeably swollen at the joints when she held them up to the light, fingers spread, palms facing her. Daily, habitual gestures like opening jars, standing inside the bus, going up and down the stairs, and gardening shot keen branches of acid-fire throughout her body. On top of this, as a nurse she ran around lifting, twisting, bending, and carrying equipment and patients. When people accidentally knocked into her, the pain could be nearly unbearable. With gaze straight ahead, she detailed all the chiropractors, physical therapists, and medications she went through year after year that had failed her.
In Napa Valley, my brother and I decided to take a tour at one of the more popular vineyards off Route 29. Shielding our eyes from the sun, we surveyed the endless rows of grapevines that lined the hills of the property. Before the tour, I squatted down next to a grapevine and studied its complexion. The vine looked like a biblical-era vestige, with thick, jagged lines that snaked across the surface as though something sinister had taken its time clawing at it. The bark of this gnarled and somber gargoyle matched the hue of weeks-old roadkill. Only after completing the tour did I understand why the grapevines indeed looked so tortured. The grapes were tightly fisted creatures, wincing in their clusters, barely holding on to life. So this is what is required to make great wine, I thought.
I recalled that the night of our arrival at her home, while we were eating, my friend’s mom took it upon herself to cut up a toddler-sized jackfruit for us to enjoy. We offered to help, but she refused. As she began slicing the unwieldy and gargantuan fruit, she continued to describe her destructive disease, the way in which the pain penetrated ever deeper, year after year, into her being with such insidious, insatiable intent. All of her siblings had inherited the disease. At the end of her life, her mother was wheelchair-bound with her hands curled tight and rigid from osteoarthritis. Throughout these accounts, my brother and I could look at nothing else but her slow, sure hand working the massive fruit with the small, sharp blade. She was so resolute in its execution. The disease would not rob her of her willful movement, her ability to work and cook and slice fruit for her daughter’s closest friends. The vine that constituted her body was going down a path of anguish similar to the grapevine, and yet, just like Bob our tour guide had stressed, that desolation led to such richness. Would my friend’s mom be as beautifully willful and enduring if her soil had not contained that inherited, joint-destroying poison?
It may sound like a terrible question that somehow twists the malice and randomness of such illnesses into justified foundations of good character, but every mother I know is embedded in the same graveled soil; their roots parallel each other in their arduous histories. It seems the mother’s will is fortified because of the strength it takes to sustain a living, not only for herself, but for all the others (husband, children, in-laws), and also because of what it takes to perform all the associated work (housekeeping, cooking, laundering, childrearing). A mother’s weathered skin and knobby hands, her eyes of tempered glass and furrowed brow, all evidence this. Next to the mothers I know, I feel soft as pudding.
On my mother’s fiftieth birthday, she refused to get out of bed. My father couldn’t pry a response out of her. He called and asked me if I would come over and speak to her. I arrived and went up to the bedroom, glancing back at my father looking worried and helpless at the kitchen table. Upstairs, my mom turned her face away from me and pulled the blanket tighter around her neck.
“Are you hungry? I can make you something.”
“No, no Mom. Don’t worry about me. How are you? What’s wrong? Do you feel sick?”
“No, no I’m fine. Be careful, there are scissors there, right next to your hand. I was
sewing last night. I forgot to put them away, so be careful. Are you sure you’re not hungry?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Why aren’t you getting out of bed? Dad’s worried.”
“Oh, no, I’m okay. Don’t worry. Go on now. Don’t stay up here. I’ll be down in a minute.”
This conversation continued to loop like this; she did not address herself once. Just like my father, I was at a loss. This woman who birthed me, whose wrists and forearms hurt so much from years of cleaning, washing, laundering, and caretaking that she had to wear a brace to continue cleaning, washing, laundering, and caretaking, refused to let us know how and what had conquered her agency that morning. Something had finally torn through her root. Something I prayed was not irreparable.
“Mom, I love you. Please get up.”
“I love you too. Don’t forget to go to service today.”
She spoke no more. I went downstairs and didn’t know what to say to my dad. I just told him to check on her periodically.
To this day I don’t know why she was so unresponsive. I speculate that a small, dusty window cracked open and the regret (or waning sense of fulfillment or youth) she had buried like wreckage from another time sent up a high keening through that opening and back into her consciousness. She always wanted to be a doctor after immigrating to the U.S. (she became a federal government worker instead). She also wanted for her father (who died when I was a year old) to see my brother and me all grown up. Maybe she had reflected back on her wifehood, and all the ways the horizon, glittering with passions and ambitions now long forgotten in specificity, remained just as far after all these years. And one day she woke up and found herself fifty. Or maybe it was something else entirely. At times her gaze will stay fixed at a point in the space past our heads during dinner and you know that she has flown off to some other place—somewhere we will never be privy to. I imagine many mothers (and fathers) looking past their family’s heads during dinner, experiencing the same out-of-body flight.
Maybe my mom’s birthday morning paralysis and temporary departures are part and parcel of adulthood. One must choose a road and stick to it, and dig both heels in whenever the wind blows harder against the walk—being aware that at times the gale will inevitably bowl the body over. A rooted sensibility becomes necessary, especially if you decide to have a family, in order to keep you from flitting from tree to tree until the life you built, the one committed to, is lost.
I worry through the night about the root which constitutes me; I hear it groaning in the wind. My mom and my friend’s mom, whose roots were cast hard as iron in their scant environments, still falter and bend and crack from the decisions they had to make and the cards that were dealt them. When facing hardship, will my roots hold steadfast or will I snap in half, unable to come together again? Will I wake up paralyzed at fifty… or earlier?
I’m still here, so something essential in my constitution is maintaining itself. I am afraid of exploring what that might be in full clarity and consciousness (if it could even be identified and named). Why would anyone want to dig to the root in order to inspect it? You can’t kill what you don’t discover. Imagining the grimacing bunches of grapes and barren soil, the underground shale and the deformed and lacerated trunk, is enough. The imagining is enough. The root is holding itself together; whatever is enabling its persevering nature is working, and the less detail I know of its makeup, the better.
Helen Park received a B.A. in English from Wesleyan University and is currently working on several pieces about family and gender and a memoir about her father’s journey from North to South Korea. Her creative nonfiction appears in BlazeVOX, Sleet Magazine, and Inertia Magazine. She has also published a poem in the Asian-American female anthology, Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves (Deep Bowl Press, 2008).
On an island bigger than Manhattan rests the burned-out remains of the Carnegie mansion, Dungeness. The Gilded Age gilded the Carnegie family, so much so they could buy up pieces of the world to gold-plate. Cumberland Island is one of those pieces. The Carnegies may have bought the island but they filched the name of their fifty-nine–room, turreted Scottish castle from James Oglethorpe, first to build there in 1736.
The word feels good in my mouth, Dungeness; even though the first part of the word is dungeon, the ness at the end somehow beautifies it. Beyond the Carnegie castle, forty other buildings were scattered over the island to house a two-hundred-person staff. But alas, the sequestered estate may not have been all it was imagined to be, because the Carnegies abandoned Dungeness in 1925. The mansion was destroyed by fire in 1959; most of it, that is. Dungeness burned for three days but the tall, tall chimneys and sturdy stone walls would not go down. Those walls would not go down and now they are home to rattlesnakes and overgrown ivy. The Dungeness Ruins will never leave you once you visit them. Photographs are not needed. I have dreamed Dungeness and Cumberland Island a thousand times. More than a thousand times, I have dreamed the horses.
Only accessible by boat, Cumberland Island is now protected as a national seashore by the state of Georgia. Guests must ferry over from St. Mary’s Island. And so I did this, along with my husband and two small children. Over to the island we hauled camping equipment, enough food for the four of us for several days, a few changes of clothing, hiking shoes, a first aid kit, camera, and bug spray (as recommended).
Unblemished wilderness awaits—9,800 congressionally designated acres and fifty miles of hiking trails to discover. Instead of people, Cumberland Island has feral horses. They roam the longest stretch of beach in the country. No one knows how the horses got there. Some believe they are descendants of those that came with the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, while others say they descended from the English settlers’ horses of the eighteenth century. And still, the most pragmatic believe the horses have descended from strong swimmers that were shipwrecked long ago, because who would abandon perfectly good horses on an island?
I waited all week for the horses. I waited until I forgot I was waiting for the horses and went about exploring the island in search of shark’s teeth and seashells. It rained every day.
I hiked a few miles to the beach with my family the morning that the sun finally broke through cotton-candy clouds. We lazed about the seashore beachcombing and marinating ourselves in salt and sun. We could not see the end of the beach in either direction. There was no one on the beach with us, no buildings in sight, just mile upon mile of white sand, ocean, and the maritime forest behind us. We were Carnegies. The only sounds were that of the ocean and my children playing. My husband sat beside me reading Jimmy Buffet’s “A Salty Piece of Land” to further perpetuate the island experience. I felt the horses before I heard them. There was a rumble inside me, benign at first, but growing more urgent as the horses pressed in on us.
“Do you feel that?”
“My God. Look. The horses.”
The sight of them running to us so disturbed me that I could not react, even to protect my children. My husband rushed to our son and daughter and hurried them out of the path of the galloping herd. My family stood behind me in the soft sand of the beach. The horses ran near the water’s edge. I could not move or speak; my breath ran through me in ragged gasps. The horses raced wildly toward us in a loose knot, I can’t say how many. It took a few moments for them to reach us. When I first saw them, they were far away, the size of seagulls in the distance. They came upon us like so much thunder, their shapes growing larger and spreading out. It was as if they had emerged through a wrinkle in the earth. It was easy to believe when they finished running furiously along our Carnegie beach, they would go right back through the wrinkle to where they had been.
My children shouted their excitement, words I barely heard over the cannon-sounds of those exploding hooves. The horses threw wet sand in clumps behind them. With the storm of horses came the wrinkle in the earth. I am sure of it. When the horses roared down the beach in front of us, I felt their world close in around me. The horses and the wrinkle pulled the earth’s air from my lungs. My children continued to shout but I could no longer hear them, the ground under me vibrated, the sea grew quiet, our world bent to the herd. One of the red ones with a black mane and tail and stocky black legs turned his head as he ran past. We locked eyes. The moment hung still in the air between us, the air that had been vacuumed out of me. In that stillness was whispered the question,
Why are you waiting?
I was taken by the herd then. I felt myself leave my world. I was pulled through the wrinkle into the horses. The vibrating sand was underneath me. I am sure I did not move and yet I was momentarily absorbed into the herd. I was one of them. The horses thundered through me, and I through them. As they moved past, I was nudged, pushed back through the wrinkle, and settled into my own world again. The rumble fell quieter and quieter, the horses became smaller and smaller in the vastness of the island.
They winked out of this world at the other end of the seashore.
Cheryl Smart, a retired fitness instructor, is a second year M.F.A. candidate at the University of Memphis, where she studies creative nonfiction and poetry and is the nonfiction editor of its literary journal, The Pinch. During her undergraduate years, Cheryl divided her studies between philosophy and poetry. She has works appearing or forthcoming in The Little Patuxent Review, Appalachian Heritage, Word Riot,Crack the Spine, and others.
The temperature outside was 107, but it was hotter where I was that day in 1989, bouncing around with three friends in a dilapidated bus bound for Chihuahua, Mexico. Air-conditioning on this journey was simple: wrench the cockeyed windows up as far as they would go and pray to God the airflow wouldn’t be blocked by someone else’s sweaty body. My t-shirt was plastered to me, unable to breathe against the synthetic backrest. The years had sculpted a deep depression in the seat that had encircled my butt for the last two hours. It felt like longer.
We sped through desert unblemished by buildings, the sky and horizon merging in a cloud of dirty beige. Then we stopped at a flat structure with the sterile angles of a little green Monopoly house. Except it wasn’t that vibrant grass-green but a faded minty color, coated by a dusting of brown desert powder.
Everyone stood to exit the bus, so I unfolded my stiff limbs and shuffled up the aisle with the rest of my overheated companions. I peeled my shirt from my back, longing for a breeze that would cool me with my own sweat as we streamed across the parking lot toward this desert oasis.
It was dim inside, and as my eyes adjusted I saw that I was in a convenience store. Instantly I was of single-minded purpose: to acquire liquid. In 1989 bottled water was unavailable, and my Lonely Planet, Mexico book had forbidden me to drink from a fountain. I spied a refrigerator case of beverages and yanked open the door, eager for the blast of cold against my face. But refrigeration was only a mirage; the inside of the case was no cooler than the stifling air of the store. Still, I plunked a few pesos onto the counter and headed back to the sauna-bus holding three cans emblazoned with the word manzana.
The apple drink was thick and sweet like nectar, not the cool refreshing beverage I’d craved. But it was wet, and I guzzled two cans before pulling myself back up into the sweltering vehicle. We lumbered off, back on the road toward Chihuahua.
The round Mexican man with the short-sleeved button-down shirt smiled at me from across the aisle, and the two of us resumed our chat. Julie, Meg, Ray and I had met friendly Jorge around noon back in El Paso, before we’d walked across the border into Ciudad Juarez and caught a taxi to the bus station. Jorge had pegged us as the gringos we were and had made it his personal mission to ensure that we arrived safely in Chihuahua, his destination as well. He helped us secure the taxi in Juarez and find the right bus at the station. And now, though we had another three hours of bus ride still ahead, Jorge started in on his hotel-safety lecture.
I was the one who knew the most Spanish, so Jorge spoke to me, tailoring his vocabulary to a fledgling speaker. Though my mental translation was literal and awkward, I grasped his main points.
“The city not is very safe. Is important that you should go to the place that not is bad.”
My Lonely Planet book had said the same thing, but I wasn’t sure how to find the places that not were bad.
“How know I? That the hotel is safe and also has water that not is very bad?”
“To you I say—when it makes much heat in Chihuahua, maybe not there is water. The water stops in all the city.”
This was terrible news. We had to have water at the end of this blistering day, and Lonely Planet had trained us to view non-purified water as death juice. Now it seemed we’d be lucky to find a place with any water at all, much less water that was safe. With each mile, I became more parched and more anxious.
When we finally shuddered to a stop in Chihuahua at 9:30 pm, Jorge informed us of his decision. Before heading to his home, he would personally escort us to a hotel that met his standard of safety for the four of us naïve California twenty-somethings. His kindness was boundless, and I was grateful.
Growing up in my family of six, we never once stayed in a hotel. Hotels were fancy, with their multiple floors, elevators, and interior carpeted hallways. My family stayed in motels, in single rooms with two double beds and two roll-aways, in family-run establishments where my dad would try to bargain the owner down to $21 for the six of us. Sometimes we stopped at five different places before Dad negotiated an acceptable price.
The lodgings we saw that night in Chihuahua did not live up to my childhood imaginings of hotel elegance. Dragging ourselves through the dark streets, the air heavy and still, we followed Jorge in and out of small lobbies, watching sweat drip down the foreheads of the respective hotel managers. I listened for the words “Agua purificada? Sí!” but I never heard them.
Jorge pushed open another smeared glass door and the five of us squeezed into the wood-paneled office, where I spied a huge upside-down jug of water nestled into a ceramic dispenser. I could almost hear the water glug-glug as I filled the tall glass in my imagination, its chilled contents pulling droplets of condensation from the stagnant air.
After a brief exchange with the clerk, Jorge turned to us, not exactly jubilant but with an air of finality. “Already we arrive. Here you stay.”
“Is water purified?” I pointed toward the jug that was tinted blue, adding to the illusion of cool.
Jorge pressed his lips together, stuck out his hands palm-up, and shrugged. “Yes, says he.”
“Says he” would have to do. We shouldered our packs, and trudged up the dark, uneven staircase.
At the top, the hallway angled left, illuminated by one naked bulb suspended from the ceiling twenty feet ahead. We spoke in whispers, respecting the hotel’s other weary travelers. But we needn’t have bothered; we soon realized there were no other occupants. The doors on either side of the paneled hallway hung open in eerie testament to something we could feel more than observe. I peered in as we passed and was dismayed to see no beds, desk chairs, or other hotel-room furniture. These rooms were barren.
We’d now reached the hanging light bulb, and I peeked into the nearest room. This one was filled with a dozen or more bathroom sinks, haphazardly scattered about the floor. A solitary toilet stood upright in the center of the room, as if the centerpiece of an altar. We continued on in silence.
Past the porcelain room, the bulb cast enough light for me to see that the paneling had separated from the wall in places, as if someone had tried yanking it off piece by piece before abandoning the building. Just as I noticed that the paneling had darkened in irregular blotches, I detected the smell of burnt wood, swirled together with the pungent aroma of musty carpet and our perspiration.
There had been a fire here. A big one. Recently.
At the end of the long straightaway, the hallway jogged left again, and a splotch of red on the wall caught my eye as we turned. I stared at the hard plastic blob, perplexed, until I recognized it as a telephone that had melted into the wall. Melted.
We finally reached the one closed door at the very end of the hallway. Home. Ray leaned his backpack against the fire-scorched wall, and Jorge jammed the dull gold key into the doorknob. He twisted it, shook it, and jabbed at it. Nothing. One of us would have to go downstairs—back past the melted phone—and the bathroom graveyard and the burned paneling, and beg the manager to let us into this room.
Jorge headed down, while Julie, Meg, Ray, and I looked at the walls and each other.
I spoke first. “Do you think the water is really okay to drink?”
“The water? I’m just hoping we don’t burn up while we sleep!” Ray moved toward me and sat on his pack, so I scooted a few steps back. The powerful heat had not been kind to us; we reeked.
Meg headed back up the hallway with her camera and started snapping pictures of the phone.
“Should we keep looking for another place?” Julie voiced the obvious question, but if anyone suggested we continue the hunt, I knew I’d burst into tears.
Then Jorge was back, and grasped the doorknob with renewed vigor. With a rattle and a click, the lock turned and the fire-blackened door swung open on squeaky hinges.
We surveyed the room without entering. Threadbare mismatched spreads were draped over the two double beds, each with one pillow. A large oval-shaped stain darkened the worn carpet, and the lone chair had stuffing popping out of the ripped armrest and was missing a front leg. The bathroom door had no knob and hung halfway open as if in silent shame, exposing the badly mildewed tub with its curtain rod resting on the floor. Something little and dark scuttled across the floor and under the bed.
Jorge broke the silence, his tone flat. “Que feo.”
How ugly. Que feo.
And that’s what did it. I collapsed in surrender to a stomach-clutching fit of laughter. The understatement of Jorge’s observation, spoken as a simple matter of fact, was as hilarious to me as anything I’d ever heard. The heat, the phone, the toilet-altar, the fire, every aspect of the room itself… Que feo. We squealed, “Que feo! Que feo!” losing ourselves in giggles each time.
My friends and I brought in our packs, hugged Jorge goodbye, and then fell into bed. Ray was like a brother, so rather than share a bed with him, I took the floor, placing my head alongside the door. I figured I could sniff any smoke that might slip in underneath. That night in the dark, I felt a creature of some heft scuttle across my arm. Barely stifling my scream, I leaped up with the thought of whipping on the light and exposing the intruder. But then what? We were stuck for the rest of the night in that room with all its inhabitants. It was probably better not to know who else was keeping us company. I decided just to shake out my sleeping bag, wrap it tightly around myself, and let the darkness keep its secrets.
We saw breathtaking views on that trip: dizzying canyons, a valley blanketed in lava that stretched for miles, and sparkling turquoise waters. The spectacular beauty is shiny in my memory.
But the bus ride to Chihuahua and the night we spent in the hotel—those memories rest more warmly inside me than do the beautiful ones, maybe because the stumbles and ugliness have become all tangled up with longing. Remembering, I feel an ache for youth, when it was so automatic for me to trust strangers, to feel pure excitement at the unknown. When “fiasco” mostly meant “adventure.” When time and future felt endless.
I love old fences made of stone, the way weeds grow over the rounded rocks that have toppled out of line. I am captivated by abandoned barns, how they lean and slant and drop their flat boards one by one and yet still stand. I am drawn to ruins, to things that crumble. They make me wistful for the loveliness of what was. Brokenness, ugliness—they burrow into a deeper place than sheer, perfect beauty can.
I still seek out lovely places when I travel, and am filled with wonder when I find them. But the ugly parts—que feo. Those are the ones that stay with me long after I’ve left them behind.
Sue Granzella teaches third grade in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning work appears or is forthcoming in Hippocampus, Lowestoft Chronicle, Prick of the Spindle, Rusty Nail, MemoirsInk, Switchback, and Crunchable, among others. She loves baseball, stand-up comedy, hiking, road trips, and reading the writing of 8- and 9-year-olds.
Once a year I backpack my ischemic-stroked brain and body into the Grand Canyon. To test. Observe. See what lost physical move I can do again. Metamorphosize. Twelfth trip: like the Earth, I have the partial wisdom of ongoing trial and error. Experience. First morning. Booted, poised at the rim’s crumbling edge. Plant hiking poles. Step down forward. Start reverse.
Vertical fault line: twelve years ago I twisted my neck, dissected the right vertebral artery running through my brainstem. My neurologist: Another millimeter or two and we would not be having this discussion. The artery clotted. Three days later two clots released. Lodged in my cerebellum: center of balance, muscle control, proprioception. Vision stroked into nystagmus. Movement stroked into stillness. Isostasy. Ahead: layers, conglomerate rubble. Layers. Rubble. Primordial Earth. Mighty Colorado River flowing all away.
Re-learn to see. Balance. Walk. My path did not follow that order.
Order went like this: stand, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand. Wobble. Catch. Step. Stop. Rest. Step. Step a minute. Rest. Step, stepped, steeped. Sediments: layers laid down. Layers. More oceans. More sediments. Layered. Then faulted: skewed strata, offset layers. Step down through millennia of tectonics. Rest. Always rest. I began to see the terrain. The work of compression. The work of sudden release. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an earthquake? How do we navigate fracture and rubble?
Plant hiking pole. Step. Plant. Step over, around rocks of the dry tawny Toroweap. Right eye continually beats. Switchback. Vertigo through the layers, rockslides, leaning spires. Cliffed out. Oh yes, the world makes its paces. Switchback. Toroweap thick in the western Canyon: deep seas. Fatiguing. Last switchback. Grateful feet on the Esplanade. Vertigo on the wavey flats. Such is the way I see.
Such is the way I move: joyful stride, glide, sashay through what Spanish and other taking men called wasteland. Good-for-nothing land. Good-for-many-things land. Good: the Hualapai and Havasupai knew better: here rock pictographs look out: mirrors of the vast space. Good: Clarence Dutton saw better: his thoughts akin to I will re-imagine how man sees the Earth. Now I know this Earth through his eyes. Good: Now I re-imagine myself. Here, too, are told tales of hiking guides falling off cliffs.
Rain moves in. Weeping, I traverse eroded, scarped, cliffed, rolling wet Esplanade. Tinaja: rain pooled in the sepia rock. Sandstone overhangs. Salty sea bones. Here will be first night camp. Memory falls. Recalls. ICU days. Blood pressure spike. Spike. Spike. Spike. Sweet taste of nasal oxygen. Sweet, sweet Canyon air.
Rain moves out. Beam of sunlight pours through a split in the clouds. Torches a distant mesa down Canyon. After sunset, wind moves in. Roars across the Esplanade. Rocks trees. Tents. Moves one. Consuelo in it. Rain moves in: more tinaja for return hike out: up to this morning’s rim. Six inches of snow on this morning’s rim (we hear five days later). By definition: creeks and River will be silt laden.
Second morning. Rehab: how do I explain twisted neck-dissected artery-ischemic stroke to knee replacement? How do I explain Inner Canyon? I point a finger. Say I know something about layers. Form warping form. Scarping: the River undermines soft layers. Trickling power of springs. Powerfully, dried blood trickles, too. Years later we hike changed landscapes.
Re-definition: in rehab I felt my way into what I could do. Stiff. Unbalanced. Wobbly. Uncertain: never lost. Felt. Feeling. Worked stone legs into tools. At camp, Will finds a piece of worked stone. Working tool. Rock wheat among rock chaff. Working tools: hips, legs, feet.
Hit the trail ahead. Clattered clatter wobbly walls splitting. Rockslide. We who hike through a fault in the ocean-silted Redwall limestone see different. We who hike past faulted-tumbled blocks of Redwall know the underlying rock is gray. Know the aircraft carrier-sized blocks in Surprise Valley avalanched down. Down. Avalanche: re-routed the Colorado River. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an avalanche? How do calculate blood’s clot and cascade melt? Blood: eighty-three percent water. Strolling, we easily move southeast across the valley. Hottest place in the Canyon. The trail a faint scar across an immensity. Surprise: King Rattlesnake rattles his warning. Slithers and slips through a pass between limestone boulders: No-man’s land.
Vista (one of the infinite): Thunder Springs pours from fracture joints in Muav limestone. Falls, falls, falls. Oasis lined falls and tumbling river: watercress, cottonwoods. Away, away, away from oasis margins: Mormon tea, sage, prickly pear, barrel cacti. Limestone ledge. Below: thundered Thunder River flows into brown Tapeats Creek. Strange confluence: river into creek. Strange the names given things. Beautiful the strange ways we test ourselves.
Down river to creek: cottonwood canyon. Old, old roots. Knarled roots absorbing river waters. Overhead: crumbing rock: boulder-slabbed creek: cold, cold pools to wade: refresh in. Here will be two-night camp: let me offer alms: sprig of grass, drops of sweat, blue heron feather. At night: scorpion. UV blue in headlamp light. Scorpion-eating pallid bat. Cottonwood rustle; this an autumn wind. Rehab continues: summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer.
I do not do foot races. Forced marches. You go with me, we do down days. Third day: rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Let the working muscles and veins remove lactic acid. Let bloody pricks of desert bricklebrush and proffered prickly pear heal. Let memory heal: IV scars in my wrists continue the long, slow fade. : Rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Observe, write. Observe, write.
Night: shadowed side canyon walls open to black sky. Milky Way stretched through Sagittarius. Jupiter bright in the east. Silent satellite in circumpolar orbit blinking. Blinking. In a blink it disappears. Lost among the stars. Absent moon: pack rat scurry through leaf litter. Scurry. Rustle. Scurry. Rustle. Lift my head for no known reason: headlamp beam grazes silent flying great-horned owl.
Fourth morning: hit the trail ahead. Behind: camp robber raven flap flap flap. Swift Tapeats Creek cleared during the night. We cross. Guide rope for safety. Cold water. Pack’s perched high on the shoulders. Noor last—carries the rope with him. Go deep. Deep into the Inner Canyon. Tapeats drops. Drops. Deeper. Down we move through, over slick Hakatai shale. Through the Great Unconformity: a quarter of Earth’s history missing. Missing. Five days in ICU: what did I miss? What memories have I concocted? I know this: ahead, confluence of creek and River. Debris fan rapid.
We follow a contour line. Cliff edge. Every step, focused. Step. Stepped. Steep: a kicked pebble freefalls. Focus: two hundred feet below, cottonwood bole wedged between rock walls twenty feet above creek bottom. Flash flood. Freefall: pay attention to the rubble-covered trail below boots. Freefall: pay attention to what is now. Freefall: pay attention to what comes next:
Angostura: two-definition word: aromatic bitter bark used as flavoring, as a tonic and to reduce fever; a narrow way, tight squeeze, narrowest of ravines, tight stretch of water. My neurologist: your artery has this kink, this constriction. Constriction-finding-a-path: Tapeats Creek digs itself deeper into Earth. Down through the sedimentary layers. Down we flow towards the Colorado River. The River! The River! The River! By definition: flowing things find a path to the vastness.
Switchback. The path is switchbacked. Rock-strewn, gravel-crunch slippery switchback. We descend into primordial Earth. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole. What once was. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Remnants of the clash of continents: oceanic Wyomingland subducting, crashing into and under volcanic Yavapai Arc. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole: forty pounds on the back. Step. Stepped. Steep. Last switchback. Lean, lean, lean on the hiking poles. Rock rising, rock descending. Old, old Earth. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Long before Rodina, Pangea.. They rest far above a splitting forever lodged in thought: River-severed buried two-billion-year old schist and granite grace our handholds. River level: Primordial Earth released. Released. To movement. To flow. To another becoming.
Michael G. Smith is an early-retired chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, the Kerf, Nimrod, the New Mexico Poetry Review, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Superstition Review. He has had writing residencies at Jentel (Banner, WY) and with the Spring Creek Project (Oregon State University) at Shotpouch Cabin and the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. His website is michaelgsmithpoetry.com.