We make promises to our children. Sometimes big promises we have no idea how we’re going to keep. Yet we make them—because we believe so strongly in something or we know we would give anything to make those things happen.
The promise I made to my children is that we would travel. Far and wide. Domestic and abroad. We would witness the wonders and we would shake off the mediocrity of daily life with new sights and sounds and moments that remind us that the world is a much bigger place. And that while our own back yard is quite wonderful, there’s nothing like experiencing oneself on new and uncertain turf. To discover new paths and roads and pit stops. To summit the terrain and get a new view, a new perspective, another chance to look at life in wonderment.
The ‘educational nature’ of the trip
Some years ago I told my oldest son, Cooper, who was then about eight years old, that I would take him “some day” to Utah, to visit my company’s headquarters in Provo and see those glorious Wasatch Mountains as you fly into Salt Lake City, dusted with snow in the winter months yet gleaming and golden like they’re on fire when the sun goes down. A visit in September meant taking him out of school for a few days with an emphasis on the “educational nature” of our trip. I wrote something to the effect of, “Visiting science lab of a multibillion dollar life sciences company and attending entrepreneurial business training with global business leaders.” Followed by, “A trip to the Utah desert to observe the arches and canyons worn away by the oceans 150 million years ago.” We also bought a guidebook for reference and I let him pick out his own travel journal—required for recording thoughts, feelings, experiences and observations in a new land.
During two days of business training, including personal stories of achievement and defeat, champion moments and leadership, I got my mojo back and my son—though plagued with “boredom”—heard so much about accountability and commitment, he was whispering in my ear about goal setting and being in the game. Later, when we were driving in the desert, I acknowledged him for sitting through nine hours of business training with no electronics, no books, nothing. He said sheepishly, “I looked around at all the babies that were there and I thought, if they can do it, I can do it.” Maybe that’s why he sat up a little straighter on the second day!
Looking for the golden arches in Arches National Park
We rise before the sun and drive from our home base, a desert motel called Robbers Roost in the town of Green River, Utah, which happens to have the most divine little coffee spot (Green River Coffee Co.)—a rarity in caffeine-free Mormon country. Robbers Roost recollects the daring days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who robbed and plundered, then hid out in these Utah desert caves and canyons.
As we roll into Arches, the sun peeks over the canyon skyline, bursting orange over the entire scene: the towering red rocks, the desert sand and shrubs, the fins and arches and plateaus far off in the distance as far as the eye can see.
Delicate Arch is our first destination, ideal in the early-morning hours before the heat and throngs of people arrive. It will be our most demanding hike, a mere three miles round-trip but requires navigating sandy terrain and a lot of ups and downs, then a steady climb at a 45-degree incline up a massive smooth rock to an additional climb along a narrow ledge (not as daunting as it sounded in the guidebook but certainly something to pay attention to). We secure our footing and watch where we step, soon rounding a bend to the magnificent Delicate Arch. The golden sun casts rays perfectly against the red rock and every picture we take more beautiful than the one before it.
We stay awhile. Watching people make their way down to the arch itself to take photos and seeing if there were any “arch hogs” per the guidebook. I remind Cooper to be present to the air, the warmth, the beauty, the magnitude. “You might never come here again in your entire life,” I tell him, “drink it up and remember this moment for the rest of your life.”
Stepping out from the airport terminal in Fort Lauderdale, an unexpected wave of heat hits my face and reminds me I’m no longer in the North where this morning it was cold as winter. Unexpected because I’m a child of five, maybe seven-years-old, and it’s unimaginable to me that the temperature in one place is so different from another. I can see the gleaming white car sitting curbside waiting for me. Grandfather ushers me to the door and I climb in the backseat, feeling the instant icy cool of air conditioning and a smell I never knew before: leather seats. It is clean and bold and wonderful and I feel like a princess arriving in a foreign land. And off we go in Grandfather’s Cadillac.
That trip, maybe another, it’s four in the morning. I’m at the wheel of the Caddy driving in my grandfather’s lap to some place where we will get on a boat with some friends and go fishing. Half-asleep, but I’m excited to be driving. What kid wouldn’t be? People did things like that in those days. I’m glad they did.
Later years, I realize why all those Cadillacs. He was a salesman, a really good one, and he’d never drive another car. He told others in the family who thought of buying a Toyota, “You’ll be standing in the unemployment line in Japan.” I still have to think about what that means, couldn’t quite wrap my head around it then or now, but I reckon it’s something to do with buying American.
I arrive at the house and he hands me the keys. “You get to drive the Cadillac,” he says, and I get that it’s something of an honor. I start the engine and put it in gear, backing out slowly, proceeding down the street like I’ve got something fragile in the cargo. 2005 Cadillac Deville. It is smooth, I have to admit, and quiet, but like a boat compared to what I’m used to driving. Smells like leather, too, but old and used, not as luxurious as my early memory. Still, I drive in pride. It’s the Cadillac after all, and I know how much he loves it, the whole idea of it. So I love it, too.
Pulling into a parking lot he tells me to swing out to the left. I’m wondering if he doesn’t see the oncoming cars coming towards us on the left. I creep forward still in the right lane. “Turn it left, turn it left!” he gets short with me, and finally I realize he’s instructing me to go wide so I can angle myself into a parking spot on the right. By this time I’ve missed the spot and we have to go around again. “I told you to listen to me,” he’s still frustrated. I shoot back, politely explaining that he didn’t tell me what he was thinking so I couldn’t make sense of what he was asking. “I just need you to do what I tell you to do,” he says. And so, we come around again, and I do it just as he says. Turns out you do have to swing out wide to get this thing parked.
“I want you to have the car,” he calls me on the phone, tells me to come down to Florida and drive the car back home. “Okay,” I say. A million thoughts in my head about how I’m gonna do this, and what I’m going to do with the car, and though I don’t need a car—especially a 2005 Cadillac—I’ve somehow got to honor his request and just do it, because it’ll make him happy. “I’ll be down,” I say.
I book my flight. It’s good timing, I’m between jobs and I want to go see him anyway. It’s hard to talk on the phone. He can’t hear very well and sometimes his speech is jumbled. In person, we can be with each other and I can look him in the eye and know what he wants to say. My caller ID shows Grandfather is calling. “I’ve changed my mind,” he says. “Even though I can’t drive it anymore, I gave up my license, I just want to have it here so others can drive me places if I need it.” Between the lines, I understand it’s a psychological thing. At 92 years old, with little means of getting out and about, the car is this one vestige of his autonomy and ability to direct his own life. “Okay,” I say, “I’m coming down anyway.”
While I’m there he shares sweet memories of me coming to visit him as a child. I can see the softness in his face when he remembers things we did together. I wish I could remember everything he remembers about us. For now I’m happy to just be together after so many years in between visits. Now is our time—again. “When I’m gone, you take the car,” he says, as though I’ve forgotten about what I’m to do with the Cadillac. I’ve given up asking questions about transfer of ownership or anything I might need to plan for ahead of time. He is strong-willed, insistent. Just let it be, I tell myself. It’ll all play out eventually.
I’ve got the keys to the car now but the battery is dead and all the car is able to do is serve as a repository for my grandfather’s life. Three boxes of clothing in the backseat. A television. More boxes in the trunk filled with old shoes, papers galore, a couple of photo albums of people I don’t know, and thankfully, the little notebook of names of his brothers and sisters, his mother, father, grandparents, so I can continue to research the family.
I am momentarily sad thinking about how one’s life gets summed up in a bunch of boxes and a couple of paragraphs in the newspaper. So I write this, to add a few more lines to his legacy.
As for the Cadillac, I’ve left it behind. It’s not the same without him in it anyway.
From Kathmandu my mother and I board a plane that holds about 15 people headed for the village of Lukla, the starting point for all treks in the Solokhumbu (Mount Everest) region of Nepal. We get good seats on the left side of the plane and perfect views of Everest as we fly seemingly into the side of a mountain, touching down on the tiny Lukla airstrip.
In Lukla our guide Moti Bhattarai, whom we’ve hired by word-of-mouth and Lonely Planet recommendations, hires a porter (commonly referred to as "sherpa") named Arki. He hoists a giant bundle containing our weighty duffel bag and other trekking supplies up with a rope and strap that he wears across his forehead, his head bearing much of the weight of our heavy bag hanging off his back. Within minutes he’s far ahead of us. Moti hangs back to make sure we’re doing okay on the first leg of this 10-day trek to Thyangboche where the view of Everest are exquisite and the 13,000-foot altitude is just enough for the uninitiated.
Today we’re headed to Phakding (pronounced pock-ding).
Everest viewed from the flight to Lukla By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World - Himalayas: Mt. Everest, CC BY 2.0
Leaving Lukla, loogies and all
We leave Lukla via rocky trails along the mountain's edge, while down below to the left we pass farms and spiraling, intersecting, criss-crossing fences made of stone. Towering above the mountains are even greater mountains, snow-capped Himalayan peaks. On the trail, we pass porters like our own, carrying monstrous baskets, filled with everything from fuel to food to camping supplies, for trekkers and shops and villagers. The higher up in elevation you get, the more expensive the luxury items: beer, sodas, candy bars. They’ve all been brought by foot over miles and days of trails. Many of the porters are young boys, teenagers and early-20s, barely straining it seems under the weight of their loads.
“Namaste," the standard greeting in Nepal, works for any time of day so we offer it up every time we pass others on the trail. Then we learn we shouldn't say it to the porters as they need to save their breath, but feel obligated to answer back if we greet them. Sounds effects on the trails include lots of hacking and hocking, from Kathmandu to here. Everyone eats a lot of dust and there are no qualms about rolling up big loud loogies and spitting them out right in front of you. The "poor man's hankie" is another common sight: holding the bridge of the nose and blowing it all out onto the street.
Sherpa carrying load in Nepal By Rüdiger Wenzel - Archiv Dr. Rüdiger Wenzel, Parchim, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Yakkety-yak don't talk back
Every once in awhile we hear the hollow clang of the yak bells, signaling that a herd of the long-haired cow cousins are approaching, either oncoming or from the rear. Soon enough they appear, laden down with supplies, rounding the bend, guided along by the switch of the herder. We hug the hillside to make way for them as we’ve heard they can be ornery. We learn later that what we’re seeing in the lower elevations are crossbreeds between yaks and cows; yaks can only survive and thrive at the higher elevations. There are different terms for all the different types of yaks and crossbreeds, and for your further trivial information, female yaks, which you don't see on the trails but are milked to make cheese and butter, are called “naks.”
Yak trains on the trails of Nepal By Krish Dulal - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Prayer flags, prayer stones and right shoulder to Buddha
Now and then we pass mani stones, sometimes massive rocks, sometimes just piles of carved stones with Sanskrit prayer inscriptions: Om mani padme hung, the well-known Buddhist mantra that translates as "a compassion-jewel in wisdom-lotus, amen." You're always supposed to pass the stones on the left (your right shoulder to the "Buddha"), so Moti leads us off on a little trail to the left that loops back up to the main trail. Lots of blue, red, yellow, white and green prayer flags waving on poles all along the hillsides and strung as banners over rooftops. We take lots of short breaks and a longer one for lunch. Amazingly, my mother’s ankles hold out, despite walking for hours on loose rocks, but around 2:30 p.m. she’s running low. Instead of pushing it to Phakding, Moti has us stop for the evening in Ghat, a village just before Phakding.
Mani stones you must pass on the left with your right shoulder to the stones By DARIO SEVERI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Lodging and lentil soup
We're staying in a wooden lodge, called teahouses in Nepal, in the middle of a tiny village, surrounded by mountains. Sitting around the little black woodstove in the early evening, eating dinner of dahl bat—rice with vegetables and lentil soup you pour over the rice. Funnily enough, it looks just like the curry vegetable dish the Australians at the next table have ordered. They joke that the menus always say what the teahouses would like to serve you, but it's not usually what they have or can prepare. The porters eat “mash,” which looks like a large pile of yak turds piled on the plate. It’s some kind of dark millet bread they dip in vegetable soup.
It gets dark and cold early in the Himalaya as the sun goes down behind the towering peaks and there is no electricity in most villages. Before hunkering down into our sleeping bags for the night, we each make a trip to the charpi (outhouse), a squat toilet with porcelain basin that’s surprisingly good compared to the wooden ones where you can see evidence of all who came before you through the hole between your feet. In the middle of the night, the soft, tinkling sound of bells lends mystery to the quiet stillness.
Teahouses in view on approaching the village of Ghat By John Pavelka - Flickr: Village of Ghat, CC BY 2.0,
Down the West Coast of New Zealand along the Tasman Sea we arrive in the village of Franz Josef, the starting point for glacier walks on the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers.
The Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers are also located at a spot greatly affected by the shifting of the Indo-Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, so these glaciers generally shift anywhere from one to five meters per day. The way the Southern Alps and mountains are formed in this area, coupled with forceful winds coming off the nearby Tasman Sea, also contribute to the formation of the glaciers, which, oddly enough, are within walking distance of lush, rainforest vegetation.
Get ready, get set, get up on that glacier
Professional guides lead the glacier walks. At the Franz Josef Glacier Guides check-in, you get a little drawstring knapsack, a raincoat, a pair of thick, woolly socks, and a pair of glacier boots (with ice grips) in your size. A group of 35 or so gets split up into three smaller groups at the base of the glacier: slow, slower and slowest. We each pull up a rock and switch into our woolly socks and glacier boots. The rain starts again so we don our generic blue raincoats with the big FJGG letters on the back.
A bus takes us within a few kilometers of the base of the Franz Josef Glacier. From there we begin our hike over glacial debris (lots of rocks) to get to the base. A glacier is basically formed when heavy snowfall occurs and the snowfall exceeds the summer melting. The snow turns into ice, and as more snow falls and builds up again the ice shifts down (advancing glacier), and more and more layers build up, ultimately forming thick blue ice.
Now when they say glacier “walks” I have this picture in mind of just getting up there on that glacier and walking around. WRONG. When we finally do reach the base, I look up at this monstrous mass of ice and snow and realize we’re gonna be climbing. I opt into the “slow” group, feeling reasonably fit and thinking, how hard could it be? Our guide soon takes off, hacking away at the ice steps, which have to be maintained every day with an ice axe. Each step requires a steep haul, starting with your boot (always stepping on the ball, not on the heel of your foot) about the height of your knee, so every step involves pushing from your butt and quads all the way down to your toes.
The going gets tough—and we’re just getting started
Some minutes later we are already looking far down below and behind us yet I realize we’ve barely started. The so-called walk is about three hours long. We pass little freezing pools of water and icy caves that we tunnel through. Soon we round a bend to see the entourage in front preparing to climb a ladder straight up a wall of ice from a ledge bordering a scary ravine.
“Don’t stand there mesmerized by what the person in front of you is doing,” says the guide. “As soon as one person goes, the next one goes.” He didn’t mention that it’s probably a very bad idea to look down as you’re placing each clunky boot on each metal rung, hands gripping tightly, eyes focused on the boots above you, wondering how you could’ve misinterpreted the word “walk.”
From time to time, the guide stops to allow everyone to catch up, encouraging us to stick close together and not get too far behind. The reason being, if you miss seeing where the person ahead placed their feet, you don’t know where to step for sure footing.
Somewhere along the way we pass a wooden box of ice poles (walking sticks with metal spikes on the bottom). We each grab one and keep going up. We are fully on the glacier now, and it is BIG, I mean massive, and we’re still going up, hopping across deep crevasses that drop down into nowhere, taking timid steps on ice shelves which barely fit my boot, shuffling left to right in a passage formed by two big ice walls, up and up and up, and all I can think about is the fact I’m gonna have to go down again.
By TedPNYC at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Sreejithk2000 using CommonsHelper., Public Domain
What goes up the glacier must come down
We’re all wearing shorts, by the way, recommended for less restrictive movement, and it’s not alarmingly cold, though with the rain and the disappearance of any afternoon sun, my skin begins to turn red and raw as cold droplets of rain drip down my legs. The climb takes us a tiny fraction of the way up the glacier, but looking down the glacier at the tiny figures making their way up from below, it’s unfathomable that there are still huge ridges further up. The glacier actually widens above and beyond our own view from here. On this trek, we’re only going as high as the first ridge and we soon catch up to the guide and rest of the group, just in time to take a quick look around before being led back down a parallel route.
If you’ve ever been on a horse, tripping and stumbling downhill, you know that feeling of powerlessness when any sudden lurch makes you feel as though you’re going to go tumbling down over his head. Only on the glacier, there’s no horse, just you and your equilibrium and a stick. More than a few times I lost track of the person’s steps in front of me and found myself standing helplessly, staring down at a maze of icy bumps and impressions. One set slants downward toward a crevasse. On the other side of it across from where I stand, the muddy tracks of the other hikers seem to come up out of nowhere. The girl in front of me is standing at a higher elevation and points out where she has just stepped. The man behind suggests another good option from the side where we are standing.
And down I go, having to deal with all those nasty steep steps again. Most every time my foot sets down I take a leap of faith, as it never feels quite like I’ve got my footing and balance. In the middle of one steep descent, I have just taken two big steps and am about to take the third, most daunting one, but my pole keeps sinking through soft snow and into air. As I make the step, I slip and fall rear first right down to the bottom, providing a fine example of another, less desirable way of getting down.
After a few more tricky descents, all I can think of is getting off the damn glacier, the end of which looks tauntingly near. If we were walking on a flat surface it’d take less than five minutes. But we’ve still got to ditch the poles in the box and climb backwards down that ladder on the edge next to the ravine.
Eventually, our drawstring knapsacks with our own shoes and dry socks are in sight at the bottom. Hopping down the last few steps, my feet hit solid ground again and I am thankful for the woodstove and hot shower waiting for me back at our chalet. At the finale of our glacier walk, we each receive a certificate of achievement. Though it’s just a piece of paper, it feels justly earned and well deserved--a reminder of a not-so-small victory.
I awake at 4 in the morning to the rhythmic chanting of the devoted being called to mosque for the first prayers of the day. It’s Christmas Day in this predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia and I’m preparing to leave Cibodas, a mountain village some distance from Jakarta. After a cold shower and breakfast, I get a ride down to the main road. There is no direct bus to Bandung because it’s Christmas Day (yet nobody I've met so far is actually celebrating it), so I get on a bus for Cianjur (pronounced Chianjur), where I hop another bus for Bandung. Finally I’m on my way to Pangandaran, a beach town situated on the South Java Sea.
Prize awaits at Pangandaran
We wind for hours and miles through tropical mountain ranges and deep, green gorges followed by lush green valleys of banana and palm trees—vast expanses of totally unspoiled, undeveloped land, touched only by the people who farm it. We ride through a mid-afternoon downpour but the sun comes out again as we get closer and closer to the coast. When we finally ride into town, I haul my heavy pack off the bus and hire a becak (trishaw) to take me to my guesthouse. (Mind you, this is in the days before searching online and booking ahead. I’m going purely off my Lonely Planet Indonesia guidebook and the author’s recommendation of a place called Delta Gecko run by an “eco-groovy Aussie” named Kristina.)
Gateway to Pangandaran Wikipedia/Michiel1972 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
After pedaling a short while, my driver starts to realize how far I’m asking to go. "It's seven kilometers!" he protests, and tries to persuade me to go to another place for the same price per night. "I'm meeting a friend there," I lie, realizing I should’ve just taken a motorcycle taxi from the bus station. He keeps pedaling, and when we got within two kilometers or so I tell him I'll walk the rest of the way.
Where the trishaw comes to a stop, we’ve just turned right down a long dirt road that hugs the South Java Sea/Indian Ocean. The wind is whipping through the palms and the waves crash on the beach as the sun begins to set. I’m struck by the drama of the scene and inwardly grateful to have to walk the rest of the way, just taking it all in. Up the road a way, I see a sign over the entrance of Delta Gecko Village. I duck under a bamboo archway and ivy-covered trellis, soon entering an enchanted world of two-story bamboo and thatch-roof huts built on stilts in an enclave of trees and gardens. I find my way to the office and am met by Kristina with a lit Djarum dangling from her lips and a hearty welcome. "You're just in time for Christmas dinner!" In that moment, all my weariness, tinged with a touch of self-pity and loneliness, dissolves. I feel as though I’ve been chosen to arrive at this special place.
The beach at Pangandaran By Kondephy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
My bamboo hut: Bed, bath and beyond
I settle into a dorm-style hut with one bed up and two down, our own mandi (a toilet hole in the floor and a well of clean water in the corner to pour over yourself and down the hole). There’s no electricity but all the huts and gardens are lit by the soft glow of kerosene lamps in the evening. My roommate is Milly, a dynamic 29-year-old Australian girl. When I ask her how long she's been on the road she replies matter-of-factly, "Five years." She's done Africa and South America, and has just returned from five months in India. I inundate her with questions about traveling alone as a female and she says she wouldn't have had it any other way. People look out for you and always want to help you if you're traveling alone. I realize I've already experienced some of that on my way there.
Christmas dinner includes traditional Sundanese dancing and martial arts. Gathered around three large dining tables are about 30 people—foreign travelers and Indonesian friends and neighbors—being served a huge buffet of Indonesian food, under a bright full moon on Christmas Day. Kristina tells us the next full moon on Christmas wouldn't be for another 100 years. I allow the profundity of the moment, this time and place and my being in it, to sink in.
Feasting on Javanese and Sundanese culture
She goes on to explain the first act of the evening, a traditional Sundanese dance. Pangandaran officially marks a divide between Sundanese and Javanese, two entirely separate ethnic groups with different languages and related, but distinctly unique cultures. With apologies to the Dutch in the audience she talks about the Dutch occupation of Java and how the Sundanese had been the main victims of oppression. During a period of several hundred years, the Sundanese were not allowed to practice their traditional martial arts so they disguised it as a dance (similar to slaves in Brazil who developed kapoera to disguise fighting techniques, so they could continue their martial art tradition). A young Indonesian girl performs a beautiful dance followed by demonstrations of the martial art itself, called pencak silat, fluid and rhythmical movements accompanied by beating drums and flute music.
After dinner we’re invited out to the beach for a bonfire. Milly performs a flame-throwing demo and the Indonesian guys sit around strumming their guitars, singing Bob Marley. “Don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing, gonna be alright.”
Indeed it is.
Standing at La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas—an evolutionary intersection where Aztec ruins sit alongside a 17th-century church and 21st-century modernity—what you’ll first notice is that the church and the plaza are leaning. And that is because Mexico City is sinking. Yup, the entire city, in fact, is one big swamp, built in this location because here was spotted an eagle with a serpent in its talons, perched on a cactus—a prophetic sign for the Aztecs to build a city after wandering nomadically for several centuries.
For modern-day Mexico, that means that all over the city, there are leaning, sinking buildings as well as ruins that are retreating into the earth.
Aztec ruins in the foreground with La Basilica (the old one) leaning in background
By Deror_avi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
La Basilica de Guadalupe, a modern structure (hideously out of architectural sync with the adjacent churches) that holds 10,000 parishioners, faces a plaza where you can also see the old Basilica (sinking), La Colegiata (sinking), and high on the hill behind, El Templo de Cerrito.
The story behind La Virgen de Guadalupe, which has produced a kind of cult following in Mexico, as well as becoming central to Catholicism in this part of the world, goes something like this:
In 1531 an Indian named Juan Diego was walking over the hill on his way home from church (the Indians walked for miles to attend services in the city) when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. Over a short period of time, she appeared to him several more times, each time telling him to send a message to the bishop to build a church on a nearby spot.
When the Indian approached the bishop, he wouldn't believe that the message actually came from the Virgin) and he asked for proof. When the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego again, he told her that no one believed him because he was an Indian, and they wanted proof. She gave him a bundle of red roses and told him to fold them in his jacket, take them back to the bishop, not showing anyone until he got there.
When he returned to the bishop he opened his jacket and the roses fell out. Imprinted on his frock was a perfect image of the Virgin. The bishop believed, and had the church built (the old Basilica).
The faithful make the pilgrimage to La Basilica de Guadalupe
By Karolja - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
The entire square is considered a holy place, a mecca for millions of people who make the pilgrimage to visit the site. Even poor people come from the outer regions of Mexico and camp out in tents on the plaza for several days. On the periphery are hundreds of vendors selling rosaries and images of the Virgin. The most pious crawl on their knees across the plaza, approaching the Basilica in prayer position.
While church services are going on, visitors can enter a passage behind the church altar and shuffle by the huge 24K gold framed frock of the young Indian and you can clearly see the colorful image of the Virgin peacefully looking down. The guides joke that instead of being called "catolicos," Mexicans are often called "Guadalupanos"—for such fervor around La Virgen de Guadalupe.
Regardless of your religious leanings, it’s well worth seeing the churches and holy spots of Mexico City—before they sink into the earth.
Our guide, Castor, is serious when he tells us, "No camera. No flashlight. No cigarette." It's 10 o'clock at night, and we've been stumbling along behind him and his wife, Maria, on the beach in complete darkness for half an hour, hoping that every shadowy form is a giant green sea turtle that has emerged from the Caribbean to lay her eggs on Tortuguero Beach.
My husband and I have traveled from the central highlands of Costa Rica - three buses, a taxi, and a five-hour boat ride - to the western Caribbean coast, just miles from Nicaragua, hoping to witness this event in late October at the end of the nesting season. Thunder rumbles behind us offshore. A crack of lightning crosses the moonless sky. Ominous raindrops threaten to end the whole expedition, and I wonder how the baby turtles ever find their way to the sparkle of the sea on a night such as this.
We traipse behind Castor and Maria in dutiful silence, contemplating the impact we could have on a turtle's nesting decision. Although they can't hear well, green sea turtles have a powerful sense of smell. Strong odors and lights can disturb them, and if the female feels threatened, she'll likely return to the sea to abort all 100 to 120 of her eggs - a huge sacrifice for an endangered creature.
The threat is real: Hatchlings rarely make it
Earlier that day we had read up on threats to the turtles - toxic waste, plastic bags, and fishing hooks among other things - at the Caribbean Conservation Corporation (now the Sea Turtle Conservancy) information center in the village of Tortuguero. These threats apply, however, only if the baby turtles even make it to the sea in the first place.
Behind Tortuguero beach is a thick jungle and a national park that are inhabited by 57 species of amphibians, 111 species of reptiles, 60 species of mammals, and more than 300 species of birds. While the Caribbean Conservation Corporation has helped curb the human appetite for turtle meat and eggs - Tortuguero means "turtle catcher" in Spanish - natural predators remain hungry. Hundreds of broken eggs and shells litter the beach, commingling with debris such as dead coconuts, driftwood logs, even garbage.
Yet this vast area also produces most of the green sea turtles of the Caribbean.
I had imagined groups of tourists prowling around the beach, all of us hovering in a huge, gawking circle over a nesting turtle, but, surprisingly, we're the only ones. Castor explains that some guides take people out at 8 p.m., but we're less likely to see anything at that hour.
Approaching the birthing ‘chamber’ - quiet reverence in the darknes
We stumble farther, past the end of Tortuguero village. Night sounds kick in, mysterious calls of unknown birds and insects, followed by profound silence. Then Castor stops suddenly, our small group coming to a clumsy halt behind him. With his low-beam flashlight, he draws our eyes down to the sand, churned as though a miniature tractor had driven up onto the beach and headed straight inland.
Castor slips away, follows the trail, and returns. "She is there," he reports, "making her nest now. We'll wait for her to finish and then we will see her lay the eggs."
Castor lowers his voice, stoops over with his hands on his knees, and explains what the female turtle is doing: She's using her body like a giant power drill, turning herself around and around in a circle until the top of her shell is nearly even with the sand. Using her powerful, leathery flippers she scoops sand out around her, burrowing deeper. Employing her back flippers, she then reaches beneath herself to dig a neat, deep hole for the hundred or more eggs she'll lay this evening. In two weeks, she'll come back to this beach and lay some more.
In hushed tones we shower Castor with questions. How long do the eggs need to hatch? Sixty days. How long do green sea turtles live? A hundred years or more. How much do they weigh? They average 300 pounds. Why this beach? The conditions are just right, and the turtles nest on the same beach on which they were born.
From Tortuguero, the hatchlings may travel the Caribbean Sea for decades. Once the females mature at 20 to 30 years old, they'll return here to lay their eggs every few years.
Then Castor is off again. We sit silently on a big piece of driftwood, waiting patiently like family members outside the birthing room. Some minutes later, we get the message we've been waiting for: "It's time, she is ready." In the dark we move up the beach, wondering where she is exactly, hesitantly stepping as though we might trip over her.
Summoned to witness laying of eggs
"Come, come close, have a look," Castor says, and we gravitate toward the soft red glow of his flashlight. His right hand holds the massive turtle's left rear flipper aside so that the light shines directly into the hole, which is already filling with eggs. The turtle's droopy pointed tail heaves as a soft, slippery egg slides through and plops into the hole, followed by another and another, sometimes two and three in one push, followed by a watery substance.
Watching her tail so intently feels invasive and I wonder out loud if holding her flipper back is among the things guides shouldn't do, but do anyway for the tourists' sake.
"She's in a trance right now," Castor assures me. "She doesn't know we're here."
I gasp in awe as dozens of eggs drop into the earth, recalling that only a sturdy few will survive, and that only 1 to 3 percent of the females who hatch from these eggs will make it back to this beach to lay their own eggs.
The turtle's tail swells one last time, then relaxes, producing nothing. Within minutes her tail flippers begin scraping sand from the walls around her, dragging it over the top of the eggs to build a mound underneath her. Gradually the eggs disappear from sight, and the scraping sound of her flippers subsides.
A new brood scrambles for the sea
Castor has slipped away again. He signals us to another spot some distance away. Unbelievably, another nest is hatching at this very moment, dozens of baby turtles desperately flailing their way to the surface, trying to drag themselves up out of the hole and to the sea.
But there's a problem. A huge driftwood log lies embedded in the sand parallel to the sea, obstructing their passage down the beach. As the little turtles scatter from the nest, dazed and looking for the light of the sea, Castor shines his beam toward the water and Maria scoops the newborns up by the handful and places them on the other side of the log.
If we weren't here at this moment, most of them would have wandered aimlessly toward the jungle and death. Hordes of them scramble from the hole. It's a process that's gone on for 2 million years. I root for every tiny one of them.
Afterward, as we stroll back to the village of Tortuguero, I recall my mixed feelings about the human impact on this environment. Now I'm going home joyous that my presence here helped an entire nest of baby turtles survive the first challenge of their lives.
The most obvious way to have a unique and authentic experience that’s not being had by a dozen other people at the same time is to separate from the pack. If you’re traveling with a group, this means going off on your own for a bit. Traveling with a friend or spouse? Excuse yourself for some “alone” time and head off on your own adventure, even if it’s just for an afternoon or an hour or two.
What you’re looking for is opportunities to interact with the local culture in ways that are impossible when you’re traveling with others. When you’re alone, you open yourself up to experiences differently than if you were comparing notes and conversation with a travel companion. Simply put—more things happen when you’re solo, and you’ll be more willing to make things happen that you might not otherwise, had you been with another traveler.
Once you’re by yourself here are some ways to have your very own unforgettable experiences, made just for you:
1. Think like a storyteller (writer).
If you had to come back from your little solo venture with a good story to tell, you’d start thinking like a writer and looking for the “angle” of the story. Whom can you meet to start a conversation with? What can you get yourself involved in—an event, an activity, a local scene—that would give you an inside track on what’s happening where you are? Where would you wander that’s not on the list of highlights provided by the hotel or tour company or guidebook? What questions could you ask of someone on the street or in a café about local lore, or a historical subject, or perhaps something a bit controversial? What questions and thoughts do you have in your head that you’re a little bit afraid to ask?
Not that every destination is going to be so seductive, but you get the idea. Write your own story. Create your own plot and develop your own characters. With you, starring in the middle, narrating the whole thing.
2. Take (measured) risks.
Here’s what I mean: You’ve been told you have to go to the Bayon (Angkor Wat) temples at sunrise. It’s the best time to go as the first rays of light are cast through the shadowy statues and monuments. The photography is amazing. The serenity and solitude is available to all—if you get there early. You could go with the driver and small tour leaving at 5 a.m. but instead you negotiate a ride on the back of a motorbike for $5 and leave at 4:30.
Sometimes you’ll have a good enough sense of a place to know that certain “adventures” are okay, that you’ll be reasonably safe and taken care of. I’m not saying to hop on some stranger’s motorbike and hope for the best (though frankly, those have been some of my best travel memories!), but I am saying, be willing to push beyond your own comfort level sometimes. Recognize those moments when you’re hesitating because it’s just not what you’re used to or what you’ve heard is the way things are supposed to be. Be bold. Get out there. It’s your own internal world where the risk usually takes place.
3. Keep it to yourself.
When you travel with others, there’s a natural tendency to share your thoughts, opinions, feelings, even off-handed remarks about things from “back home.” Sometimes it’s fun to share in the excitement of the new place, to learn from one another and laugh and grow together. But if you want to have experiences no one else is having (see number 1 and number 2), you also need to keep some of those experiences to yourself. As soon as you start talking about your travel moments with others, it is likely that others will chime in and add to (or take away from) your very personal travel experience.
Not everything needs to be shared. In fact, keeping some of those travel treasures to yourself will sustain you for years to come. Maybe you’ll share them, maybe you won’t. They’re yours to keep for the rest of your life. You just have to get out there and have them.
Have some interesting examples or ideas of how to have travel experiences no one else is having? Would love to read your comments!
While you’re admiring the cherry blossoms, digging the serenity of the local temples, and watching the young fashion trendsetters in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you might also be on the lookout for a distinctly “sukebe” (perverse) aspect of Japanese culture.
I share this with you as an American woman who lived in Japan for three years and as someone who has a deep affinity for the country, the culture and its people. Still—as any Westerner can attest, there’s some weird shit about Japan. One such perversion is chikan, the gropers on trains.
In the United States, women learn to hold onto their pocketbooks out of concern for pickpocketing. In Japan, I learned instead to watch my ass—literally. This is because of a groping tendency some Japanese men have. These men are just ordinary guys dressed in suits, on their way to or from a long day at the office, squeezed into a train car so full it requires station attendants to lean with all their might into the throng of passengers in order to get the train doors to shut (much like sitting on your suitcase to close the zipper). Once you’re squeezed in, there’s nowhere to go. Movement is impossible. Arms are trapped at sides. Your face is inches away from another person’s nostrils. Twisting or moving slightly only produces a tightening effect, wedging you further into the contours of another human being.
All of which provides fertile ground for the groper who may, for example, be pretending to read a newspaper, but underneath the paper his hand reaches out to grab your boob. Or the one who stands stoically gazing at the advertisements hanging from the train ceiling while his clenched fist presses on, intentionally, against your crotch.
At first, there is overwhelming shock. Did that guy just reach out from under his newspaper and grab my breast? No, wait, that’s not possible. What? Seriously? Is that what just happened? It’s too much to fathom, the mind can’t even comprehend that it’s real. Then it happens again, the fist, the pressure, the shifting in the crotch area. Good Lord, seriously?
So I consult with Japanese friends and they lament I’ve had such an experience—this aspect of their culture is embarrassing for them. Yet it’s also validating to know that yes, in fact, I was groped, and it’s this “thing” about Japanese culture I was completely oblivious to until it happened. (If you’re still in disbelief look up “chikan train Japanese porn videos” and you’ll see just how real this phenomenon is.) Interestingly, I learned from an American guy friend of mine that he was also groped on the train. Far from being a homosexual overture, it was more of a curiosity grope, to see how big the package was. Even more shocking, when it happened a second time, it was a middle-aged Japanese woman doing the groping!
After being taken by surprise a few times, I finally got wise to train travel and came up with strategic ways to get on and off the train and also position myself once inside the car. Here are three quick tips to avoid being groped on trains in Japan:
1. Always hug the bars.
While waiting for a train door to open so you can get on, be sure to stand to the very left or right of the doors. This will allow you to grab onto one of the metal bars immediately to the left or right when you step onto the train. Grab one of those bars, hoist yourself through the door, and hold on for dear life as all the other people getting on squeeze past you and get a good shove from the station attendant. You will have to fight to hold this position vs. being shoved through the crowd, but once they are all squeezed in and the doors finally close, you’ll be able to rotate your body such that your rear is facing the bars (behind which is a train seat). This means you’ve got 50 percent of your body protected. The other 50 percent, the front, is the only thing you have to worry about, but being in this position allows you to hold your pocketbook in front of your chest and crotch. You won’t need to hold onto anything for balance because you will be surrounded on all sides by half a dozen people whose bodies wedge yours in place.
2. Prepare to be vocal.
I mean get ready to use your finest string of English expletives to humiliate any would-be groper. This, in fact, may be your best defense of all, but of course you can’t use it until after you’ve been groped. Japanese do not like attention, and they particularly don’t want negative attention. There have been fantastic stories about women who aggressively turned on their gropers by stomping on their feet or yelling “sukebe!” over and over again, right in the middle of the crowded train, much to the mortification of the unwitting chikan. In another instance, a woman waited until the train stopped, then as she and the groper were oozing out of the train with the hoards of passengers, she grabbed his hand and raised it in the air, yelling “Chikan! Chikan! Chikan!” for all to see and hear.
photo courtesy of Yoshi
3. Take the women-only passenger car.
These might not be available on every route, but it’s certainly worth asking about even if you don’t speak Japanese. Just ask one of the station attendants for the “women only” train and they will give you a universal nod (or indicate not available). The women-only trains are just that: free of men and the nuisance of groping. There is no extra fee or reservation needed. It is simply a convenience for women to feel more comfortable on their train commute.
Now—you may feel inclined to judge and criticize. I certainly experienced some disgust and outrage when it happened to me. Which is why I write this, in hopes that you are now armed with some good information to help you avoid getting groped in Japan. Unless of course you like that sort of thing.
Soon after you’ve had your first cup of rich dark hot chocolate in the city of Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka), you’ll be making plans for Mitla, one of the most important archaeological sites in Oaxaca (the name of the state/region, as well as the city).
Built around 800 BC by the Zapotecs (and the Mixtecs), an Indian race that followed the Mayans, the ruins of Mitla have remained remarkably well-preserved. The huge complex is laid out around a central, cross-like structure, with each facade of the "cross" featuring nine panels of mosaics--elaborate stone puzzle pieces perfectly fitted to one another.
Zapotec innovation in pre-Colombian times
When the Spaniards arrived in 1521, they assumed that because of the cross-shape of the structure, and the small cross-like designs in the mosaics, that earlier Europeans must’ve arrived before them and influenced the Zapotecs with Christianity. But of course there was no relation, as there had been no earlier arrivals, and the four directions of the cross have been seen universally in many cultures to represent the four sacred elements—fire, air, water, and wind—as well as the four directions.
Within the site’s walls and tunnels, the same wondrous feat of geometric patterns gracing the walls of a large, dark passageway (complete with a creepy little bat flying around), in which the symmetric patterns on one side directly correspond to the patterns opposite, as if you were holding up a mirror—an amazing feat of geometry and mathematics that took modern scientists and graphic designers eight months to duplicate with a computer.
Further excavations have revealed cylindrical quartz bars, perfectly rounded and carved, and inside: phosphorus. Do you know what that makes? LIGHT. Nearly 3000-year-old light bulbs, developed by ancient Mesoamericans!
Mitla is also unique because it’s one of the sites not overtaken and altered by the Aztecs. As such it is a unique monument to the ingenuity of the Zapotec and their harmonious successors, the Mixtecs. Mitla was never buried under earth or ash, which means you can still see signs of the original colors painted on some of the walls, preserved for years because of a combination of calcium and lemon/lime juices.
Mitla--every bit as memorable as that cup of dark hot chocolate you'll be sipping in nearby Oaxaca City.