Adventures

Turkey 2. Welcome to the Harem.

Several years back, I got hooked on The Lymond Chronicles, a series of historical novels by Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett.  The fourth novel in the series, Pawn in Frankincense (which I have now read about four times), brings our hero to ‘Stamboul’ in the year 1544.  The court of Suleiman the Magnificent, in particular his notorious wife the Sultana Roxelana, have a huge impact on the lives of the main characters, and some of the most dramatic events of the series take place in Topkapı Palace.

Suleiman the Magnificent

Suleiman the Magnificent

Sultana Roxelana

Sultana Roxelana

 

 

 

 





Romantic notions dialed up to eleven, I was absurdly excited to see the harem where Philippa and Kuzum spent months evading the clutches of the evil Gabriel, walk the Golden Road, and perhaps even find the audience chamber where Roxelana commanded Lymond to play a brutal game of live chess.

I know that the Topkapı of today looks very different from how it would have looked in 1544, but that didn’t stop me from trying to retrofit the reality to the fiction.

 

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The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The gates of Topkapı Palace.

The enormous doors at the palace entrance gave me a little chill; I couldn’t help but think of the many young women who passed through those gates, never to leave.

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In reality, I believe women were brought to the harem through another more lowly entrance, but I wasn’t about to let pesky historical details interfere with the fun of trying to fit scenes from the book to various locations in the palace.

The line to enter the harem was unusually short, so we started there. The decor was a strange hodgepodge of styles, from the famous Ottoman Iznik tiles to European-style murals of fruits and flowers.

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A fireplace hood.

A fireplace hood.

Small fountains were built into the walls of many rooms so the inhabitants could hear the constant soothing trickle of running water.

Wall fountain

Which brings me, in a rather awkward segue, to the topic of Turkish toilets.

I never know quite what to expect when going to a public toilet in a foreign land, and in spite of warnings about ‘bomb sites’ I was taken by surprise by my first squat toilet in Turkey, and the fact that I was expected to pay for the privilege of using it.

Yes, I took a picture. I couldn’t resist. I decided against inserting it here — that didn’t seem very classy. Instead, I’ve added it to the very end of this post, available for your edification should you be considering travel to Turkey.

Honestly, once you get used to them, the squat toilets aren’t so bad. Most ‘water closets’ (WCs) actually had both kinds (squat and bowl style), and by the end of the two weeks, I didn’t care nearly as much which style I encountered. I did send some psychic love to my Austrian friends, who helped me get comfortable with quick ‘pee stops’ behind random shrubbery while hiking the Jakobsweg, and to Norway for getting me used to pay toilets. If paying for them means they are cleaner and there are more of them, then sign me up! The cost was only 1 TL, or about 50 cents, so it was quite a bargain compared to paying $1.50 in the US for a pack of gum in order to use the ‘Restrooms for Customers Only.’

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There isn’t really a graceful way for me to transition back to the harem, except to say that with all that running water trickling in the wall fountains, I hope the WCs were plentiful.

I couldn’t help but notice the bars on all of the windows. I’m pretty sure these weren’t installed in 1544, but they fit with my image of the place as a well-decorated prison.

Window Bars

Although many women were brought to the harem as captured slaves, by most accounts it wasn’t too rough a life, especially once Suleiman married Roxelana and stopped availing himself of the young women in his harem. The worst danger from a life of endless manicures, hair braiding, and exfoliation is probably death from boredom, but I think I’d have chosen that over the fate of the young boys brought to the harem. Past a certain age, they were turned into eunuchs.

I’m not sure of the translation of this panel … rules of conduct, perhaps? Some verses of scripture?

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The Valide Sultan (mother of the Sultan), a very powerful woman in the palace hierarchy, had rooms within the harem.

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Her sitting room was painted in a dainty European style.

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The Golden Road was the walkway to the Sultan’s quarters, which I guess makes it one of the original ‘corridors of power.’  To be honest, it sounded a lot more impressive in print than it looked in real life.

The Golden Road.

The Golden Road.

In one of my favorite scenes in Pawn in Frankincense, Philippa runs to the highest point in the harem to look out a window, searching for Lymond’s ship as it sails up the Bosporous and enters the Golden Horn. The closest window I found that fit the description presented me with a comical modern version of the scene, complete with luridly painted cruise ship.

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It felt good to leave the harem and wander the sunny courtyards of the palace.

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Minaret

Colorful

Palace balconies overlook the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphoros Strait. We ate lunch under the umbrellas in the restaurant attached to the palace.

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I blame this first lovely cup of Turkish Coffee for an addiction that lasted well after we got home.

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Leaving Topkapı to explore greater Istanbul, I had to admit that the palace had not quite lived up to my expectations. In spite of the tiles and the murals and daggers sporting egg-sized emeralds, it seemed small and mundane compared to the Topkapı of my imagination. Dorothy Dunnett was an impeccable historian, so I hope her shade will forgive me if I can’t quite bring myself to let go of my version.

That evening, we ate dinner at the local ‘fish house,’ and experienced first-hand two Istanbul specialties: fresh fish, and stray cats.

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I fed this lucky fellow the eyeball from my fish. After that, he considered me his personal territory and did not hesitate, small as he was, to fight with other cats that tried to woo me.

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You could definitely tell the cat lovers among the diners — the best efforts of the proprietors to shoo away the cats were undone by patrons ‘accidentally’ dropping bits of fish onto the sidewalk.

The following day, we visited friends both old and new.

WARNING: PHOTO OF A ‘CLASSIC’ TURKISH TOILET BELOW. SCROLL DOWN IF YOU DARE.






Turkish Toilet

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Adventures

Welcome to Istanbul. Please Watch Your Step.

After 5 years of dreaming, 7 months of planning, 5 days of packing, and 17 hours of travel, Sean and I finally arrived in Istanbul on Saturday, September 21.  The timing was unfortunate — protests in Taksim Square and the possibility of military action against Syria prompted several worried pre-trip phone calls from my mom — but we were undeterred.

We spent our first 5 nights in Turkey at the Hotel Seraglio in the Sultanahmet neighborhood of Istanbul.

The Hotel Seraglio, home away from home.

When we arrived, we were treated to what seems to be the traditional Turkish check-in process.  The details varied slightly with each hotel, but the scenario always included warm greetings, glasses of Turkish chai, and a relaxed sit-down chat with friendly hotel staff.

Checking in at the Hotel Seraglio

From the window of our room, just over the rooftops, we could see the dome and 3 of the 6 minarets of the Blue Mosque.

The view from room 201, Hotel Seraglio, Sultanahmet.

For perspective, here is a wide-angle shot photo of the Sultanahmet neighborhood, taken from the top of the Galata Tower across the Golden Horn.  The Blue Mosque is easy to spot because of the unusual number of minarets — 6 in all.  Our hotel was on the far side of the mosque.

Sultanahmet from Galata Tower.  Left to right is Topkapi Palace, the Ayasofia, and the Blue Mosque.

Our first evening in Istanbul, we wandered up the hill to the spot where the Ayasofia and the Blue Mosque face each other across a plaza.  The night lighting of the Ayasofia reminded me a little of Cinderella’s Castle, but that did not detract at all from the gut-punch of standing for the first time between two of the buildings that have defined the skyline of Istanbul for centuries.

The Blue Mosque, lit up in purple and pink.

Turn in place 180 degrees to see the Blue Mosque, with its slightly more sedate lighting.

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I loved our neighborhood in the Sultanahmet, especially at night.  Shops were open late, colorful wares spread out on the sidewalk.  Glass mosaic lamps were sold everywhere, and lent the streets an exotic air.

The ubiquitous glass mosaic lamps.

By our first evening in Istanbul, it was clear to me that I had not left nearly enough room in my bag for purchases.  Next time I will bring an entirely empty suitcase and a roll of bubble wrap.

What every backyard needs.

To begin our first full day in Istanbul, we headed back up the hill to explore the Ayasofia.  This massive building is one of those places that reminds me just how new are even our oldest American landmarks.  Wikipedia can do a much better job of filling in the historical details (search for Hagia Sofia, an alternate spelling).  Suffice it to say that the original building at the core of the current structure was completed in year 537 by Emperor Justinian, back when Istanbul was Constantinople and part of the Roman Empire. Even by year 537, the site had already been used for two older churches, both destroyed.

The Ayasofia in daylight.

On May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II and his Ottoman Army conquered Constantinople, legend has it that the first place he went when he entered the city was the Ayasofia (then called St. Sofia) to claim it for the Ottoman Empire, kicking off its new incarnation as a mosque. Even half-filled with scaffolding, the interior is cavernous.

Inside the Ayasofia, from an upper balcony.

Inside the building, now a museum, gorgeous Islamic medallions and Arabic script live side by side with the remains of Byzantine mosaics of Mary, Jesus, and John.

Islamic medallions hang high in the Ayasofia.

There are several of the delicate golden mosaics, installed when the Ayasofa was still a cathedral, but this one is probably the most famous.

Remains of a mosaic installed when the Ayasofa was still a cathedral.

Despite heroic preservation efforts, the Ayasofia shows her age.

The Ayasofia is old.  Old old old old old.

The stones of the Ayasofia have seen their share of feet.

The stones of Ayasofia are polished smooth.

The Sultan and his family could watch services in the mosque from this private viewing pavilion.

The Sultan's box seat.

The Ayasofa, like all mosques, has a place for men to bathe their feet before entering to pray.

Foot bathing area outside the Ayasofia.

We spent hours in this beautiful space, and even at the end of our two weeks in Turkey, it remained one of the highlights of the trip.

After leaving the Ayasofia, we explored the Basilica Cisterns deep underneath the Sultanahmet. Also built by Justinian (or more accurately, by thousands of slaves), apparently these Cisterns were forgotten for centuries.  They were rediscovered by accident after many Istanbul residents living above found that they were catching fish in their well buckets.

The Basilica Cisterns once supplied water to the Sultans.

Many carp still live in the shallow water, unmolested by fish hooks.

Later on that day, we explored more of the Sultanahmet neighborhood.  Street vendors squeezed fresh pomegranate juice using a press attached to the cart.  No need for a 14-day juice cleanse when you can drink a cup of this stuff and realize the same benefits in about half an hour.  I’m convinced I’ve discovered the secret to Ottoman might: antioxidants!

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I’m not sure what the official story is, but I suspect pomegranate juice might have been the inspiration for the crimson color of the Turkish flag, which can be seen flying absolutely everywhere in the country. You are unlikely to forget which country you’re in. No hill or building or rampart goes unclaimed.

The beautiful Turkish flag can be seen everywhere.

Even on the most modern street corner, I could tell I wasn’t in Austin anymore.  City buses sported glossy ads for head scarves. Even this very traditional style leaves a lot of room for self-expression.

Many Turkish women wear head scarves.  Even this very traditional style leaves a lot of room for self-expression.

A woman weaves a carpet outside a souvenir shop.

A woman weaves a carpet.

One clear sign that I was in a foreign land was the perceptible absence of regulatory bubble-wrap.  The Turks obviously don’t worry about lawsuits the way Americans do.  Steps are inserted into sidewalks higgledy-piggledy wherever they are needed, with no regard for height or depth or symmetry of any kind.  The proprietors of at least one store had obviously tired of watching tourists face-plant in front of their shop (or maybe they were just tired of people bleeding all over their carpets).

In Istanbul, keep one eye trained on the sidewalk in front of you.

Exploring nearby Çemberlitaş, we stumbled (not literally) on another gorgeous mosque lit by the late afternoon sun. The light made me think of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

The 'Maxfield Parrish' mosque (not its real name).

Lured by the beauty of the light, we wandered past the mosque into the streets near the Covered Bazaar, which was closed.  We ventured down an unfamiliar street, possessed by the sudden urge to find our way to the Golden Horn.

The rooftops of old Istanbul.

A friendly banner bid us ‘Hoş Geldiniz’ (‘welcome’) into a neighborhood with very few tourists.  We worked our way down the hill towards the water.

A Turkish welcome.

We found the entrance to the famous Spice Market, and poked our heads in.

Let's hope nobody sneezes.

This was definitely not the place to let out one of my earth-shattering sneezes.

Caviar?

Finally, close to sunset, we found the Golden Horn, alive with golden evening light and ferryboats.  Across the water, the Galata Tower provided a view of the sunset to a group of lucky tourists.

The wide-angle shot included earlier was taken from the top of this tower.

Galata Tower from across the Golden Horn.

Ferryboats in the Golden Horn.

Tourist barges in the Golden Horn.

We walked along the lower layer of the Galata Bridge, filled with people, commerce, restaurants, and smelly garbage.

Galata Bridge, lower level.

I have no idea how polluted the waters of Istanbul might be, but these locals did not seem worried.

Locals fish from the Galata Bridge.

Returning on the upper level of the bridge, we watched the sun set over Istanbul.

Sunset from Galata Bridge.

The New Mosque at sunset.

The New Mosque at sunset.

We weren’t quite brave enough to buy one of these fish wraps, but I was pretty sure the fish came straight from the hooks of the fishermen lining the rail.

Fish sandwich vendor on the upper level of Galata Bridge.

The lights of Galata Bridge.

We took one last look back before heading home to our hotel.  The plan for tomorrow: Topkapı Palace and the Harem!

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Adventures

Queens

In which I discover people living behind the Fairfield Inn on Astoria Boulevard.

About a year ago, I decided to travel to a client in New Jersey by way of LaGuardia Airport.  I got into my rental car at 11:45 PM with the intention of driving to Wayne, about an hour away, the same night.  Things did not go well.  I did eventually make it there, but only after describing various trapezoidal and pentagonal shapes with my rental car across the map of Queens as I tried with increasing desperation to locate the entrance to Grand Central Parkway.  I cite criminally poor signage and a lack of GPS in my defense, although in retrospect, once I knew what I was looking for, the highway was comically easy to find.

Needless to say, when I made a similar travel plan to get to New Jersey via Manhattan to celebrate my father’s 75th birthday this year, I contemplated the drive from LGA with dread.   This time I am sensible, and decide to stay the night at the Fairfield Inn on Astoria before braving the Parkway.  On approach over Manhattan Island, I decide that the sight of the Statue of Liberty and the new Freedom Tower, still under construction, is a good omen.   Daylight and Garmin work in my favor, and I am at the hotel and checked in within an hour.

I ask the woman behind the desk for recommendations of places to eat within walking distance.  She assures me that, despite first impressions, ‘this is a neighborhood, one where kids ride their bikes, and grandmothers used to sit out on their porches with their color TVs.’  The hotel, she tells me, used to be a furrier.  She grew up only blocks from here, and I wonder how many travelers she meets each year who arrive on the shuttle, stay for a night, and disappear just as fast as they can find their way out of Queens.

On her advice, I venture out into the neighborhood behind the hotel to find Stove, a restaurant on 28th Street between 45th and 46th.   I would be willing to bet that walking that first block on 45th from Astoria Boulevard to 25th, scares about 90% of travelers right back into their hotel rooms.  Tall chain link fences, copious trash, graffiti, uninhabited brick buildings, and an overpass make for a long, grim block in which I tell myself I’m not really that hungry and contemplate my chances of slinking back into the hotel unnoticed.  I cling to her breezy confidence (‘it’s a neighborhood!’) and walk on, relieved to cross 25th and find people walking tiny dogs, an Indian family returning home with grocery bags, and a taxi driver chatting with a passerby.

Stove turns out to have an unprepossessing store front and a comfortable interior.  I put on the brave face of the solo traveler and ask for my table for one.  I order wine, and the special salad with figs, gorgonzola, walnuts, and balsamic vinaigrette.  Shana the waitress trains the new girl (‘whenever you have spare time, fold napkins … that way, when we get busy, we won’t run out of napkins’).  I order Portobella Ravioli with sundried tomatoes and kalamata olives, and attempt a photo with my tablet camera.  An old man with discolored elbows shuffles past my table three times in 45 minutes, presumably on his way to the bathroom.

Meal at Stove

I finish my wine and listen as the cook and the hostess swap stories of their attempts to quit smoking.  He had two aunts who ended up with emphysema.  Both of them were on oxygen, but neither of them managed to quit.  He describes his strategy for visiting his family:  ‘smoke a cigarette, then take a shower … then you don’t smell so bad.’  She describes a dream she had last night in which she smoked a cigarette and felt guilty about it.  Dream guilt is the worst.  You didn’t even get to do the thing you’re feeling guilty about.

Shana asks me if I would like a homemade dessert, and I decline.  (‘Always ask them if they want a homemade dessert,’ she instructs her pupil as they go for my check.)  I retrace my route to the hotel in the dark, more annoyed now than afraid of that last ugly block — 46th is no improvement over 45th, and I wonder what a neighborhood cleanup might do for business in this friendly pocket of Queens.  But who knows — maybe they prefer it this way.  Perhaps the residents of this neighborhood like a bit of a buffer between their daily lives and the one-night travelers just passing through on their way to New Jersey and beyond.  I can’t say I blame them.  That first block may be intimidating, but the neighborhood is worth it.

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Norway in a Nutshell, Part 1

Let’s face it, travel can be expensive.  I realized years ago that I could increase my opportunities to see the world simply by responding “I’ll come!” when invited to visit friends and family in exotic locations.  That strategy sent me to Maui, Santa Barbara, Tuscany, and Manchester, England, to name a few.

In October of 2005 I responded to a casual “you should come visit me!” from my friend Carolyn by traveling to Oslo, where she was completing a sabbatical.   I flew with her to Norway via Reykjavik, Iceland as she returned from a visit home.  In the late afternoon of the day we arrived, we walked around Oslo Harbor.

Clock tower in Oslo Harbor

Clock tower in Oslo Harbor

The air felt fresh and thin, sailboats chimed at their moorings, and Norway appeared to my eyes to be colored in a thousand shades of blue and grey.  I loved it instantly.  Frisked by the icy wind, we explored the Akershus Fortress that overlooks the harbor.

Akershus Fortress overlooks Oslo Harbor

Akershus Fortress

Norwegian Teens

Norwegian Teens sit on a hill overlooking Oslo Harbor

While Carolyn worked, I explored Frognerparken, home to hundreds of bronze and granite statues by the beloved Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland.  Wikipedia describes the sculpture garden as celebrating man’s journey from the cradle to the grave, and mentions the many statues of ‘children at play.’  I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this strange collection, but as far as I could discern, the story went something like this:

At some point during their journey from cradle to grave, Norwegians apparently were attacked by a swarm of babies.

A Plague of Babies

The adults fought valiantly, but eventually they were overcome.

So many babies …

The babies took control.

Norway's version of "Children at Play"

They eventually grew into some very creepy looking children.

Sinister children

I wasn’t clear on all the details, but the story didn’t seem to end well.

A pile of bodies

The statues depicted nude people in every possible human combination.  Perhaps it was the chill in the wind, but to my eyes the statues appeared either sinister or sad.

Man and mother

Some of the most mystifying relationships were also the most intriguing.

Old women and man

Frognerparken seemed to me to be an odd place to relax and read a paper, but this Norwegian man tucked himself right in amidst all of the angst to enjoy the sun. The stone girl behind him seemed to be reading over his shoulder.

Man reading

At Frognerparken, I also discovered the secret to recent Norwegian prosperity.  They may claim that it is due to the vast reserves of oil discovered in the Norwegian Sea, but I believe I’ve stumbled on the real source of that influx of cash.

Pay Toilets!

Pay Toilets!

One of my favorite things to do in a foreign country is visit a local grocery store. I like to see what the people who live there eat at home, how they prepare it, and how much it costs. 

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As it turns out, my French was not entirely useless in Norway —  ‘kreme Sjampinjong-o’ when read aloud sounds quite a bit like ‘creme champignon,’ also known as our American classic, Cream of Mushroom soup.

Cream of Mushroom Soup

Cream of Mushroom Soup

What is Lychee, anyway?

What is Lychee, anyway?

Scandinavian countries may have a reputation for being less than welcoming, but I felt right at home.  Maybe it was my Swedish genes, but something about Norway just felt right to me.  Having said that, I may never go back.  It remains the most expensive country I have ever visited.  Our 7-minute cab ride from the train station to the apartment cost about $25, and it was hard to go out to lunch for less than $30 per person.  Carolyn and I were not about to let sticker shock keep us from an adventure, and after a few days in Oslo, we booked ourselves on a whirlwind tour of western Norway, called ‘Norway in a Nutshell.’

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Gone Trekkin’

Or, How I Threw My Easy Bake Oven and My Polkadotted Tent into a Blue Van and Went Camping Alone

In October 1997, I threw caution and salary to the winds, took five weeks leave of absence from my job, and headed West, driving a large loop from Ann Arbor, Michigan through Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, before heading back again.  I seldom write holiday letters, but that December, I felt that I had something interesting to say, and so wrote about this solo trek, one I had been planning since I was a child.

Although it feels a bit like cheating, I borrowed heavily from that letter for this post. Written almost 15 years ago, I consider it my first foray into travel writing.  If nothing else, it is a bridge to a more excitable, more flexible younger self … my inner Took, if you will.

I left Ann Arbor on October 6th, and spent my first three nights on the road at the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago.  This involved getting up at 6 am for morning practice which included meditation, prostrations, and chanting.  I ate meals and ice cream with the Venerable Samu Sunim (the Buddhist Monk who runs the temple), and cleaned the kitchen with the Dharma students who lived in the Temple.  I also did all manner of work practice, including spending hours unpacking several bales of kapok, a creamy, fluffy cotton used to stuff meditation cushions.  After three days, the rhythm of life and work at the Temple began to feel natural and familiar, and I thought to myself, “I love this life.  I could totally live here.”  On day four, I moved on.

From the Temple, I drove to Boulder, Colorado.  I ate at the Boulder Salad Company, watched two cat puppets tango on Pearl Street, and hiked solo in the Flatirons.  I talked with people from Germany, London, Australia, and Virginia while making dinner in the kitchen of the Boulder International Hostel.  I gave my leftover spaghetti to the tall, sunburned guy from Australia, who was in the last six weeks of a year-long trek through Europe, Mexico, and the States, on a budget of 15 dollars a day, carrying nothing but the pack on his back.  I left Boulder, thinking “I can’t possibly find any place as beautiful as this.   I should just spend the next four weeks here,” and crossed the Rockies into Southern Utah.

I spent the next 3 nights camping at Arches National Park, north of Moab, in a campground called Devil’s Garden.  Temperatures at night hovered around freezing, and I could hear coyote yipping in the distance in the early mornings.  The park is surreal, full of fiery red rock formations, tall rock “fins,” and natural arches.  It seemed the closest I would ever come to walking on another planet.  I spent one evening curled in my sleeping bag in the natural amphitheatre at the foot of the Delicate Arch, waiting for the full moon to rise.  I hiked down in the moonlight with an Irish boy named Phelim, whose face I could barely see.  He claimed that in Ireland, the Big Dipper was called The Plow, and I gleefully began to point out other Irish constellations (The Leprechaun. The Potato.)  When I left Moab, I thought to myself “now this is definitely the most beautiful place I have ever seen — I should spend the next three and a half weeks here,” and drove on to Bryce Canyon.  Bryce was lovely, and completely different from Arches with its neon pink and orange walls and delicate, eroded spires called “fairy castles.”  The hostel in Bryce felt grim and unfriendly, and I was glad to leave it.

From Bryce, I drove over the Escalante Plateau down to Scottsdale, Arizona to meet my dad and brother Mark at the Scottsdale Hyatt.  I felt like Jeremiah Johnson when I pulled up in my filthy Explorer full of camping gear, and stepped out in front of the glass-block fountain in my hiking boots, well-worn clothes, and unwashed hair.  I suppressed an urge to growl when a well-trained valet in a white shirt, straw cowboy hat, and bolo tie ran to my truck and asked me “Can I take your keys, ma’am?”  I’m surprised they didn’t insist on flea-dipping me before letting me into the hotel.  Dinner that evening included a gondola ride in a small man-made lake (complete with a gondolier who sang Santa Lucia in Italian —  call me a sucker but I was impressed).  The next morning, the three of us headed north to the Grand Canyon. My father, a veteran organizer of incentives travel for his company, had been to the Canyon several times.  He had the name of an experienced Park Ranger whose brains we decided to pick to see if my brother and I could get a last-minute permit to ‘hike the Hole.’

Following the advice of the Park Ranger, Mark and I took a number at the Backcountry Office, and successfully applied for a 3-night permit to hike in the next day.  We rented packs and gear at a Park shop,  and staggered around the hotel room under our fully-loaded packs, blissfully ignorant of high-tech fabrics, lightweight gear, and proper pack loading strategies.  I still remember the look of dismay on my dad’s face when I fell backwards onto my pack, laughing hysterically, trapped on my back like a beetle.

What can I say about the Grand Canyon that hasn’t already been said?  One poet called it “the grave of the world,” which was quite a cheery thought to keep in mind as we said goodbye to my anxious father early Tuesday morning October 21st, and hiked the 11-mile South Kaibab trail to the Colorado River in about six hours, setting up camp for two nights at the Bright Angel campground.  It is surprisingly civilized down there, especially for those who can fork over the dough to ride down on a mule.  Those people get to stay at Phantom Ranch, which has a canteen (with beer!), tiny cabins with showers, and gourmet pre-prepared meals.  I was a bit sad to discover a payphone attached to the ranch — the long arm of Ma Bell reaches everywhere.

The third night we hiked halfway up the Bright Angel Trail to the Indian Gardens Campground.  That evening, we hiked out to Plateau Point, a flat spot in the middle of the Canyon, where we watched the sun set on Zoroaster Temple, saw Jupiter and Saturn cross the sky, and spied for satellites.  The next morning we hiked back out to the Point to watch the sun rise, and Chef Mark cooked onions and sausage with garlic and honey on the camp stove.

It was funny — on the way down we were talking about how great it would be to hike the Canyon for a week — no, two weeks — no, a month!  By the time we slogged up the last thousand feet to the South Rim four days later, all we could talk about was how we couldn’t wait to have showers, sleep on real mattresses, see a movie, and eat popcorn!   The perfect life, I suspect, lies somewhere in between.

After the Canyon, the time seemed to fly.  I dropped Mark at the airport in Phoenix and continued south to Tucson in search of warmer weather.  I had just missed a huge snowstorm in Colorado, and it was getting cold.  I was so captivated by the murals found all over Tucson that my time there turned into a photo safari as I hunted down and photographed every mural I could find.  I hardly remember anything else about the city.  I did visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and saw two mountain lions sleeping just behind a thick pane of glass.  They are huge, much bigger than the pictures on the warning posters at the Grand Canyon Ranger Stations.  They say that if you are attacked by a mountain lion you should fight back.  I got a closer look at one and thought “yeah, right.”

From Tucson I drove to the hostel in Silver City, New Mexico, where I was “discovered.”   The day before my arrival, a young woman named Camille had come to stay at the hostel.  She was driving up to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and rolled her car down a 30-foot embankment.  While she was waiting for AAA to send her plane tickets, I invited her to come with me to see the dwellings the next day.  We compared trekking stories; she was filming an independent documentary on women doing cool things, and had traveled from Seattle through Detroit, New York City, and New Orleans, filming interviews.  She was on her way to Tucson for her last interview when she rolled her car.  I told her about my trip, and she asked if she could interview me for her documentary.  She followed me around with her hand-held camera for the rest of the day, asking me questions: “What has been the scariest part of this trip for you?” (almost dropping my car keys into a Port-o-Potty); “What advice would you have for someone considering a trip like this?”  (Go!)  The documentary is tentatively entitled “Fiesty” — look for it in future Oscar nominations.

From Silver City, I headed north to Hostel Santa Fe, where I cheated at Scrabble with Mark the hostel host (“Io” is one of the moons of Jupiter, but it’s also a proper noun, which I neglected to mention when playing it for the win).  I spent Halloween at the hostel carving two pumpkins and dancing at a gay bar with a group of gorgeously-dressed drag queens.

My next and last stop before heading home was Durango, Colorado, and Mesa Verde National Park.  Mesa Verde is home to the largest group of cliff dwellings in North America.  Our guide told us the story of the Anasazi, forced to abandon their dwellings almost as soon as they were built because they had depleted the area’s natural resources.  He made us close our eyes, and quoted from an old Indian saying:  “Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it.  That which he does to the web, he does also to himself.”  Looking through the dark windows of the dwellings was like seeing into the future, not the past.  That was one spooked tour group that climbed out of that canyon.

I arrived home on November 6th, having driven just over 6,000 miles.  It was hard getting used to working again, but eventually, I returned to familiar rhythms, re-established routines, and told myself that I needed the job, if only to finance my next adventure.  It took another three years before I let myself admit that the job no longer satisfied, my relationship wasn’t working, and after 10 years there, Michigan was still not my home.  This time, I packed my stuff into a Budget panel truck, and moved myself and my cats into my sister’s house in Maryland in search of a new adventure.

Not one to pass up a chance to go trekking, my trip from Michigan to Maryland did include a slight detour through Italy and England, during which I invented Laura’s Italian Train Test, learned a lesson about guidebooks the hard way, and realized that travel, among other things, is a great way to stress-test a relationship.

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Adventures

Itchy Feet

Or, How I Dreamed of Running Away Before Finally Doing It

When I was a little girl, I begged my parents for an Easy Bake Oven.  I’m pretty sure they interpreted this as a normal girl’s desire to make cakes and cookies just like mommy.  What I’m certain they didn’t realize was that the oven was a critical piece of my secret plan to run away.  In my fantasy, I would step through the sliding glass doors of our house in Atlanta, stride boldly across the backyard, and enter the woods, where I would live by my wits, independent and free.  Being young, and somewhat unclear on the concept of electricity, I reasoned that my Easy Bake Oven would allow me to cook for myself in the wild.

I like to think Thoreau would have been proud (or at least mildly amused).

I’m sure I had other childish dreams, but this is the one that stuck.  Decades later, I can still recapture that longing with ease.  In a moment, I am once again sitting at the table in our darkened kitchen, pale sunlight hitting my face through the sliding glass doors, consumed with a single desire.  I want to pack up my Easy Bake Oven and go.

This urge to light out for the Territories turned out to be a recurring desire as I was growing up.   A few years ago, my Dad gave me a piece of my childhood in a bronze frame:  a drawing I had done in crayon of a campsite, complete with apple trees, a grey square helpfully labeled “water tub,” and a bucket of berries.  The drawing includes a creative assortment of camping equipment, and is accompanied by a story.

The Day I Met Smokey Bear in the Woods

The Day I Met Smokey Bear in the Woods

One day I went camping.  It was fun.  I set up my red & yellow spotted tent and layed out my brite pink sleeping bag.  I’m camping alowne tonight!

I’m going to pick Blue Berrys and Black Berrys all colors of berrys.  I saw something strange.  It was brown.  I went and looked at it.  It was Smokey Bear.  I was very happy!  The End.

My teacher, clearly not up to date on recommended procedures for bear encounters, marked my efforts “Excellent!”   The dream was still alive.

Later, as a teenager in the suburbs of Long Island, the plan took a more practical turn, and acquired a destination.  In this version of the dream, I would throw all of my stuff into a blue van, and drive around out West.  Why blue?  Why West?  I could not have said.  The details evolved but the essentials had not changed.  I was going, and I was going alone.

It took me another twenty years, including eleven months of planning, before I finally turned my steering wheel in the direction of the Zen Buddhist Temple in Chicago, the first stop on a rough circular route that would take me from my home in Ann Arbor through the four corners states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico over the period of five weeks.  The blue van turned out to be a 2-door Ford Explorer, my tent was green, and the Easy Bake Oven did not make the gear list.

To this day, I’m not sure why I felt such a need to go, and go alone.  Road trip, adventure?  Of course.  Wanderlust, itchy feet?   I confess to both.  Independence, self reliance?  Definitely.   It was the first adventure I planned and executed myself, without parental advice or consent, and it gave me a taste of a type of freedom it is difficult to experience as a responsible, employed adult with bills to pay and a 401k to fund.

If I’m honest, the stories are the reason why I go.  I love being a part of them, and I love telling them.   One of my favorite parts of any trip is the time spent re-living it with my traveling companions, talking over and around each other as each contributes a scrap of memory to the tale.  “… and then you … no, no, what I said was … I couldn’t believe it when he … the best part was when …  ”

Were you to ask me about myself, it is one of the first stories I would tell.

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