Saturday, December 31, 2011

Seb & Joce

Jocelyn answered the door, her deep-set eyes exuding the doe-eyed innocence of a girl. While she seemed quite motherly at times with Sebastien, there was also a vulnerability about her that I associated with someone much younger. Perhaps it was because she was shy. Seb, on the other hand, was gregarious and talkative, sometimes about uninteresting engineering stuff I knew nothing about and mostly about myriad ways to wine and dine his guests, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

As soon as I settled my luggage, Seb and Joce whisked me away to their favorite place, located in a nearby French village. Knowing my appreciation for Christian history, the restaurant faced an old Gothic cathedral and we watched the sun set behind the intricate carvings of the bell tower. I wanted to see the inside, but Sebastien insisted on drinking a glass of wine first. Three hours later, I still hadn’t moved and the cathedral was long closed.

Indulge me they did. We had langoustine in butter sauce with bits of bread slightly dipped in a tart crème. Then it was the most rare and tender boeuf topped with a generous portion of slightly sautéed froie gras. The consistency was amazing: a crisp outside while inside was firm and moist and savory. Tres bon! (Yes, I speak a very hindered French which I didn’t have to use, since Seb and Joce spoke excellent English).

The next day Seb suggested we go to Napolean’s chateau MalMaison outside of Paris, and I really wanted to see Fontainbleau. Indecision ruled; time was running out and then we compromised and went to a Reinaissance chateau neither of us really cared for. At every opportunity, he suggested we sit down at a picturesque café with a view or a restaurant, or any place scenic that offered wine and cheese. I realized that Sebastien was more interested in savoring life, tasty foods, and wines that lead to exotic forms of inebriation than he was in seeing any tourist site, even if he had never been there. On the way back, we stopped at a medieval monastery. While I was admiring the stonework and buttresses, he lay with his head in Jocelyn’s lap upon a park bench.

I wondered if Seb was exhausted from work, (he often mentioned his job with a grain of contempt) or if he needed the reassurance of being loved. Even though his language was rife with facts, logic, and practicality, Sebastien had soft eyes imbued with sentimentality, not unlike Jocelyn’s. Sometimes I caught a glimmer of deep emotion in them, but it never seemed appropriate to ask.

When we returned, I finally caught a glimpse of Aimeric. He had the face of a French movie star, a bit feminine with impossibly long lashes and sweet eyes. He promptly nodded at me and closed the door to his bedroom.

Later that night, Jocelyn showed me photos from an Indian wedding that she and Seb attended the prior spring. She sighed. She and Sebastien belonged to different age brackets and different life stages, of this she had no illusions. She knew he wanted a family of his own. She was ready to release him. Love meant being able to let go.

En Route to Chantilly

I was determined NOT to be impressed with Paris at first. Let me explain. By no means did I intend to turn a blind eye to the architectural beauty or the exquisite art that the glittering city offers. However, there is a difference between a universal consensus based on empirical experience and the acquiescence to a given assumption because enough people or seemingly “everyone” believed it. The power of the collective mass. Too often we give up our ability to decide in favor of what the collective mass or “everybody” thinks. What “everybody” thinks shapes reality and we unwittingly become followers even in our own lives, blind to our hearts and our intuition.

Yes, I could very well fall in love with Paris because it stirred something deep within me. Or because I was satisfied by the tantalizing layers of mille feulle, my favorite French pastry along with chou crème, a fancy word for cream puffs. But I did not want to be impressed by Paris before even getting there, merely because thousands of others sojourned there before me and “loved” it.

My friend Sebastien picked me up at the train station in his snazzy European car and picked up a traffic ticket on the way, which he endeavored to pay immediately since apparently the penalty doubles after a certain period of time. Sebastien was a pensive young corporate executive who always looked like an intellectual. I always imagined him with glasses, whether he actually sported spectacles or not. We met when he was working in upstate New York (Nyack, to be precise) through a mutual friend. He always seemed homesick for Paris. Now he was racing through avenues and winding through streets like there was no tomorrow.

We had lunch at in the Bastille area, a delectable plate of escargots and red wine, followed by a plateful of various fromages for dessert. The word cheese somehow seems derogatory when referring to the pasteurized French delicacies with the pungent smell and the thick, luscious textures that melt in the mouth. The food was amazing, but I was not in love yet. We chatted and Seb doesn’t think I am a real American since I love fromage, traveling, and food which maintained its integrity. I chose to think of that as a compliment.

Seb was living with his girlfriend Jocelyn and her son, Aimeric in Chantilly. At the mention of his partner’s son, my friend rolled his eyes emphatically. “He doesn’t go to school; he doesn’t work; he just hangs around the house.” He proceeded to explain that both Aimeric’s parents were prosperous and owned property in Paris. His father even owned planes. The boy just goes back and forth from one wealthy parent to another. Sebastien, a self-made man, had little regard for those whose fortunes were handed to them on a silver platter.

As we rolled into an elegant Spanish styled stucco home with large French doors, I was prepared to greet Jocelyn again. As well as her couch potato son.

Covent Garden

Monday, November 28, 2011

Back to Travel Stories

I have been digressing from my tales of divergent lands and idiosyncratic people, visitors who cross our path as we make our passage through that nebulous and meandering journey called life. My thought process has never been linear, and neither has my record of these adventures, my first somewhat "successful" attempt at keeping a journal or diary. I used to think that I had nothing to share, that a blank page by virtue of its blankness and therefore immense possibilities, was far more exciting than the monotony I called life. Now I realize that we all have something to share, that no matter how small, is vital to that thriving tapestry of life, that each of our voices, if we cared to speak, is woven in this continuum.

The travel stories will continue, as will my awe of the colors and varieties and idiosyncracies of the world, the world that at times will truly dazzle the heart.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Twin Dresses of Love

There is a divinity within the human spirit that allows us to reach and connect to one another. I have always called that divinity God. Yes, I believe in God. It is interesting to me how eager my contemporaries are to eradicate that term, or to use alternate terms, instead of merely expanding it. God resides within us, a perfect and immortal essence that is part of us, a universal and unconditional love that is embedded within the self. If only we could rediscover it…

Few are enlightened but most, like us, experience only flickers of this divinity, glimpses of the love that is buried deep within our consciousness. Recently, I was offered such a glimpse.

I was shopping at Ann Taylor, one of my favorite fashion haunts, and I tried on a rather tight dress. A young woman called from the dressing room, “That dress looks fabulous on you; you should get it.” However, it clung too tightly around the abdomen for comfort and I promptly placed it back on the rack.

As I was browsing, the same woman joined me and we engaged in casual conversation. She was beautiful, masses of flamboyant gold-spun hair framed a fine-boned face, large, inquisitive eyes and full lips. She looked like a mermaid. Yet her face was a bit pasty around her nose and redder around her cheeks. Her name was Lisa.

Lisa confided that she had just returned from the plastic surgeon and was currently on painkillers, as a result of a car accident. Then on the subject of weight (inevitable topic with women), she told me she was happy to gain weight since she lost twenty pounds earlier due to cancer.

My heart went out to her, this radiant creature who had endured so much. She was only thirty-five. I took her hand and led her in a corner, where we began to pray. I don’t remember what I said, except I asked for blessings, abundant blessings to fall upon her and the awareness of being loved.

Tears sprung to her eyes and she said, “You don’t realize what you have done today. You have shared love with me and it is a ripple effect as I pass it along to my son. It is nothing short of monumental. This is how the world changes.”

Of course, I only thought she needed a prayer. Then Lisa decided to do something for me. I assured her it wasn’t necessary, but she picked up the dress I had tried on (00P) and then another one identical to it when she found out I also had a very petite friend. Against my protests, she took them to the register and bought them for me.

Twin dresses of love.

The story doesn’t end here.

The same dress revived my friend Nethea’s spirits when she was depressed, when I shared with her how someone who doesn’t even know her loved her and gave her a wonderful gift. Unfortunately, the dress was a tad too tight for her (positively scandalous, she informed me) and she gave it to a teenage girl who was sorely in need of a new dress.

Last I heard, the teenager had worn it to church and a cotillion, looking absolutely stunning. “Like a million bucks.”

Sounds like she wore the love well.

Love. Lisa, me, Nethea, and the teenager whose name escapes me. That is the divinity in all of us.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Answer of Begijnhof (Amsterdam)

Recently, I was thinking of lifestyle options for women these days. There is always marriage, that centuries-old institution that ensures a woman a legal (if not emotional or sexual) partner. A more informal path is cohabitation, (i.e. living in sin), although by universal consensus the woman ends up doing most of the work anyhow, so why not get the seal of legitimacy? Then there is singlehood, with the presumption that single women are "in transition," and they are eventually looking for "someone" and the inevitability of at some point, when the timing is the right and the stars are aligned, consummating their life to completion with a mate. Or there is the convent, a place of belonging for the religiously inclined and celibate, content to commune with God and serve in community.

I must admit, none of these options satisfy me. I am not the best at "sharing," nor am I amenable to the restrictions placed on nuns, the most salient of which is their inferior status versus men, reinforced by archaic guidelines of the Catholic Church. Nor do I think my life is on hold until I met someone, because the reality might just be that there is no romantic mate for me. Look around us. Not everyone has someone and half the couplings are mismatched at any rate.

But there are examples of innovative living and inspirational communities throughout the world. The Begijnhof in Amsterdam is one such model, which I stumbled upon when visiting Holland. It actually refers to small inner court of tall historic buildings in the heart of the city, adjacent to the English Reformed Church. The buildings feature Gothic woodwork and elegant facades. There was a statue ensconced by green-gold leaves. There was an aura of serenity that pervaded the small block of gardens and homes. It was more than a sense of peace; it was the smell of self-acceptance.

The Begijnhof (Beguine's Court) was first mentioned in documented records in 1389. The Beguines were a group of single patrician women, women of status and property, who maintained their assets and lived in community performing altruistic works. One would compare them to nuns as they took vows of chastity, although they had considerably more autonomy and they were free to leave the community at anytime to get married. Best of all, they retained separate residences and didn't "share" their living with the entire community.

The last Beguine died in 1971. This beautiful community lasted over 600 years, which is longer than most Empires and older than America itself, and it was a sustainable lifestyle for 100-150 women at a time. Ironically, the Begijnhof predated the women's liberation movement and yet it offered women more freedoms than some have even today: manifest destiny, control over one's income and assets, a supportive network, a private dwelling, and the choice to leave at anytime.

So maybe the answer to this modern-day, successful and solitary woman conundrum is not marriage nor the blatant defense of a single life nor the nunnery.

My answer? Start a Begijnhof. Right here in America

Sunday, November 13, 2011

About the Suit that Didn't Fit

Miracles happen everyday. Often we are so distracted, so consumed with our daily cares, with our long-term goals and objectives, that we miss the most vibrant occurrences before our eyes. When your vision is focused on the elusive "somewhere," we forget what is here and now. We forget to listen to our inner voice.

This story began when I purchased a ravishing mint-green Tahari suit, discounted to quite a reasonable price at an outlet. Growing up in a financially strapped household, I had long learned to pick up varieties of apparel on sale and finding a use for them later on. This classically tailored, sartorial wonder had the workmanship worthy of a designer label and I was ecstatic at my purchase. Of course, it didn't hurt that I had an excellent seamstress whose hands were magical. Her creations were ash rose chiffon, lime green satin, and champagne silk, to name a few (none of which were for me.) She only did my alterations.

I called her and discovered that she had given up sewing for the past year. Disappointed, I asked why and the culprit was cataracts, which blurred her vision and she is now unable to thread a needle. As I hung up the phone, I said a silent prayer for her, a woman whose identity was defined her ability to stitch and sew. I wondered what she would do next.

Then I thought of my mother. My mother was under the care of one of the most renowned opthamologists in the state, and her appointment was in November. (It was currently March). I had a nagging feeling, an uncanny insistence that she needed to see the physician earlier, but since he was so esteemed, his earliest available appointment was nine months later. I had repeatedly tried to move her appointment up, to no avail. On a whim, I called his office again. Apparently, there was a cancellation a few minutes before and I scheduled an appointment for my mother the following week.

On her visit, she was diagnosed with close angle glaucoma and was in immediate danger of losing her vision. Apparently, the pressure build-up in her eyes had increased so dramatically and quickly in the past few months that there was no possibility for the eye surgeon to predict it. She had been experiencing blurry vision, headache, and nausea, but she just thought it was a bad winter healthwise. We had no idea it was caused by glaucoma.

She was promptly scheduled for emergency laser surgery in the next few days. My mother, being one of a relaxed nature, had wanted to know if the surgery could wait until after Easter. My surgeon's response was "Don't blame me if you go blind."

Post-surgery, she emerged bright-eyed and luminous. And I am forever thankful to that inner voice, that intuition, the guiding spirit which insisted on making that fateful phone call. For once, I am aware of what was averted.

That's the funny thing about intuition. It inevitably binds you to those you love, despite distance and time, awakening you to any potential danger they may face. And you find that you are never alone; they are always with you. Perhaps that is the true miracle, how human emotion spans any geographical length and all barriers of reason, to be united to the source and the recipient of love.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

On Leaving London

Call of Europe

During my retreat at Holy Cross Abbey, I had picked up a wonderful index of all of the monasteries and Catholic guesthouses throughout Europe, listed alphabetically. Since then I toyed with the idea of continuing my meditation on this old continent of wine, culture, and rich history. Of course, the deciding factor was resources and I was running out. Like a good market researcher, I hunted the airlines and websites until I found a roundtrip ticket to London for $550 (including tax)...

Now I have distant family in London, friends in Paris, and vague acquaintances in Switzerland and Germany. This was the time to turn on the charm and invite oneself into the warm households of those folks whose company would surely be delightful if I actually knew them. Undaunted, I propositioned them and got an invitation for respective visits in Surrey, Chantilly, Zurich, and Hamburg. Travel is the ultimate motivation and I have since learned that I appear far more likeable than I really am.

So I took the overnight flight from New York to London, and I emerged groggy and slightly bewildered as I set foot on British soil at 6pm. My aunt Thai, actually my mother's cousin, was situated in the suburb of Surrey outside of London so I took a bus and then the train to her home. Then I dragged the inordinately heavy duffel bag down the interminable four blocks from the train station to her flat. Yes, that's the fatigue talking. Surrey was a quaint town, with pubs, a barber shop, photography studio, and a store which sold refrigerators and ovens. Aunt Thai's place was two stories up, situated between a wine shop and a mom & pop grocery, the only entrance was up ladder-like stairs in the back.

I arrived at 10am. The door was answered by a congenial gentleman named Nigel, who informed me that Aunt Thai had to go to work. However, she had left guidebooks, maps and handwritten notes welcoming me in a graceful, girlish scrawl. Nigel showed me the spare bedroom and a neatly made bed, upon which I promptly collapsed.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Postscript: On Leaving India

Some countries you regret leaving; some nations you can't wait to leave, and others make it so complicated that you consider yourself extraordinarily fortunate to be able to depart. Such was India. It was not a function of airline procedure or security protocol or airport architecture. It was simply the way things were.

Take check-in for example. Our tour group arrived early and waited in line behind twelve people, eight foreigners and four indigenous Indian men. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. When the Indian folks reached the desk, they promptly plunked down approximately 15-20 passports each. In flurry, a crowd of families, sari-garbed women and children rushed to the front of the line. The reality was that each man represented a clan, all in all totaling to nearly 100 people who wedged their way to the front, irrespective of those they pushed on the way. When I asked the desk employee about this, she looked at me like I was crazy. Apparently, this was standard operating procedure.

Then there were security checks, which happened immediately after check-in and also right before the gate. When we tried to put our carry-on baggage through the second security check, half the passengers were sent back outside the first security checkpoint. Evidently, a sticker was supposed to be tacked on the luggage during that process and it was haphazardly neglected by half the staff. No matter what, you had to return to get the sticker or they adamantly would not allow boarding.

True, India was gorgeous and interesting and heartbreaking and squalid. But after being cut by 100 people and running back and forth across the airport like a flustered lunatic, next time it would be India the DVD.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Foray into the Amber Fort

Then a truly traumatic thing happened. My camera broke!

It happened at Fatehpur Sikri, the capital built by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1570. It was a vista of sandstone palaces, with the most adorned and luxurious quarters reserved for his Hindu wife. (For you movie buffs, this is the story of Jodhaa Akbar played by the incomparable Aishwarya Rai.) I remember that every pillar in every corner of the Hindu sanctuary was a work of art, exquisitely carved semblances of warrior gods and ripe goddesses. Moderate buildings with high, rounded ceilings were intended for his Muslim wife, all facing east towards Mecca. And for his Christian wife, structures so short and bare, it seemed almost a hovel by comparison and an anomaly in the midst of all this wealth. Guess old Akbar did not think much of Christians.

Maybe it was the karma of the place, the fact that it was abandoned for lack of water shortly after completion and has never housed a soul since. Maybe that is how all tragedies begin. I asked a lovely couple from Georgia, Doug and Cheryl, to take my picture. In passing the camera back and forth, it somehow wound up crashing on the red sandstone ground at the most inopportune angle so that the lens was permanently open and disabled. (And it was a new camera too).

I was in shock. Doug and Cheryl were so sweet and conscientious that they offered me the use of their camera throughout the trip, offered to take me camera shopping despite our limited time in India. We ended up becoming friends and the accident was forgotten, even though they mailed me a check to replace the camera after I returned home.

Onward to Jaipur, otherwise known as the Pink City, and India’s city of gems. We rode elephants (a blatant tourist trap, but what the heck) up the hilltop to the Amer Fort and Natasha complained that she was constantly molested by the mahout and rickshaw pullers as she got on and off various means of transportation. Of course, her bosom baring blouses were the culprit and the beautiful Russian shrugged, admitting she did not own any other clothes. Not even when she was asked to cover her flawless flesh to enter a Hindu temple.

Quite honestly, the Amber (Amer) Fort was the most astounding architecture I had ever seen. Home of the Rajput Maharajas, it was a dazzling amalgam of Hindu, Mughal, and even Arabic influences. Upon entering, it was a vision of pale rose sandstone. The interiors were an intricate complex of courtyards and halls. There were entry doors embossed with gold and silver leaves, marble and sandalwood colonnades. In the Sheesh Mahal, Hall of Mirrors, thousands of mirror mosaics reflect and refract light from a single glittering candle. Each hall and corner unveiled a new wonder, a fantasy of architecture that words could not convey. If there was ever place to mourn the loss of a camera, this would be it.

Except I didn’t. I felt oddly lightened. I enjoyed the sheer visible beauty in every moment and experienced it fully, instead of trying to find the perfect distance, angle, and lighting for a photograph. I didn’t realize how much of the moment I had missed and how much pressure I felt before in trying to document the moment. I was liberated from all that, and Doug & Cheryl kept on flashing their digital cameras so I wound up with a gorgeous collection of photos nonetheless.

Sometimes, the loss of an old habit is the beginning of a new freedom. I have never felt compelled to take photos since. The experience and the memory have satisfied me enough to forego the physical reminders.

Yet, the final flavors of India were in the colorful bazaars of Jaipur, known for its jewels and hand-woven carpets. The air was utterly unbreathable, dusty and reeking of cow dung. A young mother carrying an infant was begging by the entrance. She had lost some teeth, even though she could not be more than twenty. She reached out and her touch was light as a breeze even as she implored my charity. Then she touched her shoulder, showing diseased and ruined flesh.

Shame on me, but I shrank back in terror, wondering if the disease was contagious as I fled back to the tour bus. I was so terrified that I did not remember to give the poor girl any money, although Anh Quang (couple from DC) informed me that she probably belonged to some gang that would take all meager rupees she managed to get anyway. My heart broke as I thought about her dual paths to doom; the young mother would be beaten if she failed in begging, but getting those few pennies did not mean she and her baby would eat.

That was the very essence of India; it shocked you. The sheer beauty of its architecture and ingenuity of its people overwhelmed your senses that such creation could exist. Yet, the sloth, the suffering, and the callousness of the natives also shook your very core, as the elites did not bother to look twice at those rotting in filth and disease.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

India: Heaven and Hell: Part II

India is like a jungle: raw, wild, and dangerous, particularly if you are a woman. My friend Shrubhra, who grew up in Delhi, said that her hometown had the highest rate of crimes against women in the country and that India had the highest number of offenses against females in world. Yet, there were unexpected bursts of sweetness, like papaya and mango, seeds of love and longing.

Enter the Taj Mahal, signature of India, and memorial of love by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan for his much mourned third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died after the birth of their fourteenth child. An exquisite wonder of white marble, it combines Persian, Turkish, and Indian architectural elements into a mausoleum of undeniable of Muslim origin.

I watched the face of the tomb soften with the dawning of the day; blue undertones predominated in the early rising, and the beckoning warmth of red and yellow highlights as the sun climbed higher in the sky. Marble is mobile, fluid, and expressive. The Taj unfolded its own symphony of light. Despite her death, Mumtaz Mahal left her legacy.

Beside me stood my mother, and another couple from our tour, watching, fascinated by this fantastic structure even though the guide talked endlessly without releasing us to much desired free time. Renegade that I was, my wanderlust kicked in and I stalked off, exploring the angles of the mausoleum in the allotted hour. The others followed and the couple was close behind me. The woman was Filipina, smooth as wood and luminous as water. The man was tall and pale, a handsome German with a hardy stride who only had eyes for his wife.

On the ride back to the hotel, the wife introduced herself as Andrea and proceeded to tell me their story (upon my shameless prompting, of course). She was actually nine years older than he, she said a bit cautiously, and they had met nearly two decades ago in the Philippines when she was going to school and he was backpacking. They rode on the same bus, and he never noticed her. Fast forward fifteen years later, and they met again at a wedding in Canada and retraced their adventures to the first time they crossed paths. They became friends and at first she could not believe that he would be romantically interested in her due to the age difference. But he was. So much so that he moved from Munich, Germany to the other side of the world to join her.

So it was love, she admitted, and she had not thought such love was possible for her. Her eyes mirrored her husband’s with the same sentiment that drove Shah Jahan to create an epitaph for his beloved.

It had been a long time since I thought of love. Sometimes I don’t allow myself to imagine it, because not all love stories end happily. But when it does, it is like finding heaven in another person, and you follow it until you are lip-locked with the divine.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

India: Heaven and Hell: Part I

My first exposure to India was Suneeta, an eloquent fourteen-year-old high school sophomore who became my best friend. I admired her velvety voice, voluptuous curves she couldn't hide even back then, and skin of cinnamon, strangely immune to break-outs. Her home smelled of curry and strange spices and tumeric, and she told me that she worshipped innumerable gods. There was a god of learning and fireplaces, of nourishment and rain. She even told me the essence of Hinduism: man was part animal and part divinity; when we die, the divine essence that is us joins Nirvana (God), while the animal aspect perishes with the body.

Fast forward fifteen years and I was sojourning to India with my mother, a tour group, and dozens of enthusiastic Slumdog Millionaire fans. Seated beside me on the plane was Natasha, a Russian beauty in the Old World European style of Isabella Rossellini and Nastassia Kinski. She had eyes of Egyptian jade and she was so breathtaking that many mistook her for a supermodel. Refined as she was, she was the very antithesis to my first glimpse of India.

At first glance, the land of India was squalid. My luggage arrived covered with dust merely from riding along the baggage claim. We befriended another Vietnamese couple because our red suitcases were similarly soiled and we were brushing them off with identical expressions of disgust.

Aside from the highways, many roads were comprised of dirt and cows roamed as regal creatures from sacred lore. Men urinated freely in the streets and dirty, ragged children chased each other among piles of rubbish, their laughter conveying a far happier existence than a nation plagued with depression and anxiety. Women sauntered in the flamboyant hues of magenta and cobalt, saris that were brilliantly beaded, covered the squalor like curtains before a stage.

Then I saw small, dilapidated huts within a block of majestic mansions, and cow dung littering the sidewalk. India was a shock to my system, as I realized that the affluent passed the starving everyday without taking a second glance. The caste system teaches that the untouchables belonged in their pitiful situation, that they deserved their unceasing poverty and the brahmin were conditioned to ignore them, since they had no role in the alleviation of the suffering. This was all due to karma, the untouchables had committed evil in prior lives and were relegated to this doom, while the higher castes had elevated themselves through good and moral deeds.

There was no sense of social responsibility, except for the altruistic foreign organizations and folks like the Albanian Mother Theresa to help the poorest of the poor.

I thought this was a semblance of Hell, a world where the poor lament their fate as inevitable and the wealthy did not care. Perhaps this is closer to America than I realized.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meeting Lan Cao

If someone were to ask me about the person I most wanted to meet, living or dead, my answer would be unequivocally the same: Lan Cao. Unknown to American pop culture compared to the Bachelorette or the Kardashians, my heroine is somewhat of a celebrity in Asian-American literary circles.

She wrote the first novel about the immigrant experience from the Vietnamese perspective, weaving folk legends and war-torn memories of a divided nation with a young girl's coming of age in America. Monkey Bridge. I first became acquainted with her work back in 1999 and was immediately enthralled with her lucid prose and the transcendence of her words: bridging gaps between generations and realities, in essence telling a universal story for all of us hyphenated Vietnamese-Americans.

Daughter of the venerable South Vietnamese general Cao Van Vien, Lan is a woman of many talents. By day, she is an accomplished attorney who is currently teaching international and business law at the College of William and Mary. By night, er…early mornings preceding the dawn, she writes.

As fate would have it, we were acquainted. Her late father worked intimately with my grandfather back in the days of the Republic of Vietnam, and my mother actually remembered Lan in the French-run convent schools proper young girls attended back then. So we were both daughters of a fallen dynasty.

After a long email correspondence, I stopped by her home in Williamsburg. A beautiful woman opened the door and introduced herself. She resembled Vera Wang in her sheer elegance and simplicity. An equally exquisite little girl of eight or nine stood and stared at me unabashedly, as if she had no conception of fear. Lan kissed her, and introduced her daughter Harlan.

I was a bit tongue-tied and quite awed, but Lan chatted as if we had known each other for years and in many ways, perhaps we had. Recently returned from a trip to Vietnam where she and Harlan assimilated back into the native heritage, she spoke of letting go of the anger for the political regime in order to embrace your roots. It boiled her blood to see the Communists desecrate old monuments and symbols of Southern Democracy. Yet, she couldn't hate the land or the people, and the motherland continued to call to her in a mysterious way.

There was a liberation in Lan that I hadn't realized. In fact, Harlan's surname is Van Cao, an amalgam of her parent's surnames as surely as she is a melding of their flesh. She encouraged me to follow my heart, my writing, and to never be satisfied with the conventions of others. She also gave me the most useful advice about men and romance. How well a man treats a woman when he is courting her is not important; all men look deceptively charming and considerate. How he treats the woman that he leaves is profoundly more telling about his empathy, compassion, and true capacity to love you.

Harlan took to me, and guided me throughout the house, as it consisted of many rooms and I feared getting lost on the concise journey from the dining room to the bathroom. Dinner with them was lovely and her husband was a prestigious law professor, so prestigious that he seemed a pillar of contemporary legal and intellectual thought. I was intimidated, but he was so human and down to earth that I understood why Lan had fallen in love with him.

Then I returned to the Marriott, to the parking lot where I was camping out in my rental car, since I ran out of hotel points. I was poor and unemployed, remember? Well, Lan and her husband wouldn't have it. She called me and Harlan left me a message imploring me to come back to spend the night.

And I did. I spent the night in their spacious home, with the entire west wing all to myself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ghosts of Colonial Williamsburg

I stopped at Colonial Williamsburg to taste a piece of good old American history. Now, I never liked the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia since it was a glorified poster hall and everything (besides that cracked old bell) seemed one-dimensional. Williamsburg promised to be a living portrait of history, with the entire town operating the way it had three hundred years ago.

So it was. Complete with horse-drawn carriages and guides in colonial clothing, it was a step into the past. The apothecary was open, with lavender for fragrance, vinegar for flavorings, and iodine to prevent infections. Wigmakers demonstrated the onerous craft of creating a wig, the many months it took to perfect curls made of corn stalks and powdered to a dignified white for special occasions. There were concerts on the piano and harp, as well as grand balls held at the opulent Governor’s mansion in which glorious ladies and cavalier men danced the night away. This was where I fell in love with English country dancing, the elegant dance steps a la Jane Austen.

Near the Capitol building and the public gaol, there was a flurry of revolutionary activities like tar and feathering, as well as various patriotic proclamations that led to the Revolutionary War. There were simulated cases at the courthouse, including the very popular witch trial, and tours of the cannons, rifles, and bullets of the magazine.

Most interesting though, was that this quaint town was rumored to be haunted. Approximately half the staff who worked there believed that they had personally seen or heard a ghost. A blacksmith told me of someone turning on the faucets in an otherwise empty house and he found no one present when he searched the house. Another barmaid confessed that in King’s Arm Tavern, she witnessed the dartboard flying off the wall and hitting the head of one obnoxious guest who criticized the original décor of the place.

No one would be caught in the village at night and there were specific places to avoid. One was the Peyton Randolph house, one of the oldest buildings on the property. Apparently, a young soldier had died of illness on the premises and many claimed to see an apparition or heard heavy footsteps climbing the stairs. Another was the Wyeth house, where a certain Ann Skipwith had allegedly taken her life in the bedroom and locals believe her spirit never left.

Minions of the infamous pirate Blackbeard were known to haunt the streets through the sounds of old wooden carts. Nonetheless, I was assured, they were friendly ghosts. Small-time entrepreneurs even managed to make a profit from these supernatural happenings; numerous ghost tours inundated the average tourist.

Ghosts. Hauntings. Spirits of the past trapped in the present. I began thinking of the hauntings of our past, things that we had done and said that were regrettable and ultimately unforgettable. Such incidents spur guilt, an insidious beast which eats away at our authentic selves, until we become a shell of porous holes, unable to contain any exuberance or passion.

I remembered Roxanne, a big-boned bully who had “beat me up” in junior high. I ran into her at pharmacy four years ago, where she apologized profusely for the pain she’d caused me. She said that now she understood; she’d suffered from anxiety and depression and could not leave the house for a period of time. While I was picking up allergy medication, she was there for something more potent, a remedy to make her life stop hurting. I told her she needn’t be so hard on herself as I had forgiven her a long time ago. She responded in gratitude and relief, accompanied by tears of joy. She confided that she was incessantly haunted by the way she had treated me.

I realized that Roxanne was her own victim, far more than I ever was. So I was a bit shaken up, broken glasses, torn books, and endured a bit of social ostracism. I had moved on far more quickly than my perpetrator did.

Ghosts are more than the dead. Ghosts are the mistakes of the living, the reminders of what could or should have been, the bittersweet consequences of a decision gone awry. Ghosts are our greatest fears about ourselves and the most devastating truths which we are unable to face.

Ghosts are the scars of the soul. We all have them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dining and Dating Etiquette

It’s amazing what you can find out about a man from the way he eats. Being a foodie myself (yes, even when I am poor), I occasionally splurge on fine dining when my taste buds beckon and the savory smells of gourmet cuisine tease my olfactory senses.

So I was seeing this Christian scientist attorney who was really quite good company, and a politician to top it off. We had dinner probably monthly for a year, and he appeared to be well-versed in Asian cultures, particularly the custom of communal eating since his campaign partner was Chinese. We had whole fried fish in sweet tamarind sauce and jasmine rice in this rocking Thai joint. Since we had not ordered anything else, I assumed we would share it. Share it we did. I told him that the fish head was particularly tasty. Well, he promptly took the entire fish except the head, and plopped it on his plate. I was left with only the bony groupier head while he feasted on that succulent fish, never offering me a bite. (It was good as a delicacy, not quite as satisfactory as a meal). I never knew quite how to approach him again.

Another recent dining fiasco occurred with another lawyer, one who prided himself as head of the legal department at some local corporation. I recommended some hole-in-the-wall places with really good, inexpensive food, and he always refused to go. Instead, he had this habit of taking me to posh, happening restaurants and only ordering a teeny-tiny appetizer. He’d appraise my food meticulously and raise his eyebrow ever so slightly whenever I ordered more than he did. Now, I am a hearty eater and I can’t abide being with a man where I was not free to eat what I liked. It struck me that this guy was all about appearances. He wanted to be seen in a gorgeous, well-decorated restaurant with over-priced food, but he didn’t really want to eat there. And he wanted to limit my choices. Good riddance.

Then there was my uncle’s Tai-chi student, who pursued me through email after seeing my photo. Let’s say his name was Johnny. Well, Johnny said that I was not qualified to call him Johnny, since only those older than him could call him Johnny. I had to call him John. (Hello, I was actually older!) Being Chinese-Vietnamese, he apparently believed that my views were too liberal and outlandish. He even came to the conclusion that my opinions had no grounding and it was up to him to set me straight. (Uh, I may be mistaken here, but you are trying to get me to like you, right?) Needless to say, this guy never made it to the face-to-face stage.

I have also noticed that there is the mature man and immature man in dating. The mature man realizes that if the attraction is not mutual and chemistry is one-sided, it is time to move on. Nothing personal. The immature man lingers, thinking, “If she knew me better, she’d like me.” Or better yet, “I’ll make her want me.” This kind of dogged persistency is very dehumanizing, and yes, this is a bitter lesson we all had to learn, male or female.

Now I know what you are thinking: this is kind of harsh. Perhaps it is, but such is the fiber upon which first impressions are built. And we don’t get to impress anyone a second time.

P.S. I am still learning the intricacies of these social rules myself. One I had to learn the hard way.

Offer to pay for your dinner even when you don’t intend to. Now, I am an old-fashioned girl who believes that if a man asks her out on a date, it is the gentleman’s prerogative to foot the bill. What I’ve heard is that even the gentlemen appreciate someone’s offer to go dutch. I absolutely despise splitting the bill and would never do it unless I had no intention of seeing him again, so why do I have to pretend? Apparently, men like subterfuge.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Not Thinking in Words

For those who are bilingual, there is usually one language that predominates over the other. For the majority of my immigrant friends born in another country and educated in America, they would say “I think in English.” Their thoughts would be confined to one particular tongue, with all its connotations, implications, cultural influences, and related philosophies.

This concept never made sense to me. When they asked me, I never seemed to have a satisfactory reply because I never qualified my thinking that way. I didn’t know what “language” my thinking was in because my thoughts were often abstract that I struggled to express them in either medium (English or Vietnamese). Admittedly, I used to stutter because my thoughts would get caught in translation and often choke there.

After Bobbie left, I was resigned to the silence once again. Far from being resistant, I relished it. I noticed things. Fog settled along the path to the chapel in early morning, accentuating the monastery with an almost gothic appeal. Think the moors of England. Cows grazed in varying locations every day. I found bird’s nests and cocoons, shells that harbored tiny lives that would someday grace the sky with soft wings. Dawn and dusk were symphonies of shade and light. The suddenness of entirety, the way the final stroke of color completed the sunrise, never ceased to amaze me, more luminous than any painter’s palette.

Each day was different. Despite the monotony of activities (hiking, praying, walking), I was never struck by the sameness and it honestly never felt “the same.” The river told a distinct tale every afternoon and as the currents washed along the rocks, I heard music. The bamboo rustled and the horticulturalist’s pond boasted a variety of dragonflies and grasshoppers that no longer repulsed me.

Then it struck me. Without words, I had forgotten pronouns: I, you, us, they, it. Divisions that existed in words were no longer part of my consciousness, we were all one and I was part of everything. I was as connected to a dragonfly as I was to the trees and mountains as I was connected to my family, to the human race. My thoughts had surpassed, i.e. erased the concept of “me.” There was no need for the containment of an identity in a separate package of “me.” Identity was in relationship, in unity, in harmony with all creatures and inanimate surroundings, this thriving, living breath that touches all things.

Thinking comes from the mind and loving comes from the heart, and understanding is a melding of the two when we act with one mind and one heart that is not entirely our own. Theologically, I have always believed. Experientially, I felt something greater out there, a presence that yearns to connect with us in a peace and serenity that far exceeds mortal happiness. I have always named it God.

Now I know beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Another interesting discovery is the obliteration of words removes judgment. You accept the fact for what it is and nothing more. No preconceptions, no notions, no suppositions. For example, “It is raining.” Before the silence, my logical conclusions from the rain would be “oh no, that means a lot of traffic and potential flooding,” or “thank God, it’s been hot enough,” or “hope I brought an umbrella.” Now the rain just is.

I was surprised how much I unintentionally judged people before by the same principle, by interpreting the facts when the reality is that I just don’t know. I have learned that people are. Motivation may be an intellectually stimulating exercise, but it is not my place and certainly not the truth. Acknowledge their actions and move on. People just are.

I have become much happier not trying to figure everything out.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Tribute to Bobbie


She's the first passenger.
Now is her time of waiting.
Rickety kombi* that's seen better days,
a misshapen headlight resembling
a wink. No one can leave until all have arrived.
Like God, the kombi leaves no one behind.

An hour passes.
A man slithers to the depot, clutching
a cane gnarled as his face. Indifferent wood
supports him. Skin matches the kombi's rust,
coppery staple of being overworked.

Another fifteen minutes.
A woman arrives, her garb a parade of
parrots. She's swelling from within,
spewing juices of a double-person,
a double shadow. Each step is a hardship.
South Africa's lush vegetation heaped on her head,
sprouting in her womb.

Meanwhile, the girl is learning to knit,
to knead disparate strands of herself
into a life. Overhead, cranes are shrieking,
wheeling themselves towards a destination.
She is overwhelmed with going,
the necessity of somewhere.
She's more content in being

It may be hours until departure.
In this country, they know how to wait.

*Kombi is a generic nickname for vans and minibuses in South Africa and Swaziland, often used as a means of public transportation.

**First published in US1 Worksheets, 2010


Too much silence can be exhausting...

Apparently, the only way to take a hiatus from the stillness was to volunteer in the bakery. The bakery was the monastery's primary means of income, producing delectable goods such as fruitcake, chocolate-covered fruit cake slices called fraters (I bought 4 boxes of these), and creamed honey in the savory varieties of rum and cinnamon.

After 3 days of silence, I entered the bakery amid the whirling and swirling of machines, loud instructions of the volunteer manager, and laughter of the volunteers. They joked, sang, shared confidences, and emerged changed somehow, knowing that they made a difference in someone else's life. I took my place on the assembly line.

That was where I met Bobbie. I had seen her during our meals together (we had communal meals), and felt a kinship for her since she was the only other female who seemed to belong to the laity. The other participants of the retreat were priests, one of whom I was acquainted with, a certain Fr. Frank who was a charming, motorcycle-wielding mechanic before joining the clergy.

Bobbie was a beautiful African-American woman in her early thirties from the DC area. She was sensuous, not in the commercial sense, but she positively glowed with a vibrancy that came from embracing life. She told me about the Peace Corp, how she spent several years serving in a remote village in South Africa. She learned how to celebrate from them, from those devastatingly poor folks who extracted every gem of happiness from their arduous lives. They celebrated for days. In a nation where time was a commodity, they always took their time. They did things deliberately.

There was an inter-village bus called a Kombi, which never had a departure time. They would merely wait until the bus was full, and then proceed on the journey. If you were lucky, you were the last one everyone was waiting for. If not, it may be 5 hours before the bus engine was turned on.

Hailing from the fast-paced city of Chicago, Bobbie learned the lesson of patience from South Africa. "What else did you learn?" I inquired.

"Before I came to South Africa, I only knew my own faith. Jesus. It was very clearly delineated in my mind who was right and who was wrong. Those who were saved and those who were destined for Hell. In the context of a foreign country and alien beliefs, I learned that love knows no bounds and God is not limited to one name. Light exists in many souls, in many forms, and inspires the most heavenly actions in human beings. Intrinsically, we are all the same and we respond to the same light, no matter what we call it."

She was leaving her non-profit job this month, intending to continue her spiritual journey via graduate school to study counseling and to help relieve the plight of abused women.

I was amazed by her courage, her ability to follow her heart, to relinquish the stability of a good job, and to follow her calling. I admired the freedom of her soul. She told me that she was in the learning and transforming phases of her spirit, and there will come a time when she will be called to teach.

"Transformation is never easy," she comforted me. "It is painful, intense, and consumes energy. Don't ever be discouraged. Even if you don't always see it or feel it, your heart is
always moving."

Bobbie is an old soul, a kindred spirit. Even though we haven't spoken for months, I believe we will always be connected. Here is the quote at the bottom of all of her emails.

Changing the world is not impossible. We have but to love ourselves, each
other and the Divine who made us. In this way, we will each find change in
ourselves, thereby changing the world one life at time, beginning with our

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Lesson from the Cows

All things seem manageable in the daytime.

As I learned from my travels in Alaska, the best way to handle silence is to go hiking. The monastery was situated in mountainous terrain (by my humble standards) or at the very least, rolling plateaus. The grounds were lovely and well-kept, particularly since one of the monks was a renowned horticulturist and planted thin stalks of bamboo surrounding small ponds. I counted at least six different species of butterflies and admired the circular wonders of spider webs, rivulets of water clinging like diamonds. Cows grazed every which way; the monks rented out their land to several nearby livestock farmers.

The very best, by far, was the Shenadoah River. It was some distance from the retreat house, where the paved roads ended and a narrow path led past an abandoned barn and a windmill-like structure to the riverbank. There was an abundance of trees and the area was wonderfully shaded, since mid-Virginia in mid-July is hot and stifling. Armed with a backpack, water bottle, plenty of sunscreen, paperback Bible, and my ubiquitous fedora hat, I explored the grounds with relish. At particularly scenic stretches of the river, I would pull out my Bible and read aloud.

It was pure harmony: my voice, streaming water, and rustling winds. The sun sought me in every angle, bathing me in golden light despite my determination to avoid sunburn. As a seeker, I found my faith here. As a writer, I found my inspiration here. As a lost soul, I found my authentic self here.

And the cows found me.

From afar, I regarded them with fascination. Some were lying lazily in the ponds or at work chewing in a green patch of meadow. They were constantly chewing, and I remembered someone telling me cows have four stomachs, and that they swallow grass whole, regurgitate it, and ingest it again until it passes through the multiplicity of stomachs. Yes, I happened upon the word cud somewhere in the Bible and triggered this very interesting stream of consciousness.

So I was happily hiking and daydreaming along the riverside, when I chanced upon a long trail of cow dung. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one seeking shade. I looked up and sure enough, at least fifteen cows were arrayed several yards away, blocking the only route back to the path. I came closer slowly, not making any sudden movements as they began to look at me suspiciously. A mother cow was nursing her two calves, and she paused to stare at me, a territorial glint in her eyes. I remembered how ferocious animals could be when their young were threatened. She snorted and moved her hoof, ready to charge.

I ran. In my haste, I splattered mud on myself from the marshy, moist soil touching the water. I jumped for dear salvation, right into the middle of brambles and burly weeds. I suffered all varieties of insect bites that night. Later, I discovered that cows aren’t all that bright. Brother Barnabas told me they had a greater chance of falling and being trapped on their side than chasing me.

So what was the lesson? (Besides the fact that I must be incredibly bright to be running from not-too-bright creatures). You project your fears and insecurities onto others, including harmless cows. Because I was afraid, I assumed they were going to charge at me. I acted out of panic. Fear and anxiety had been my primary motivations throughout life. I had reacted to the “belligerent” environment.

And I have the thorns, bristles, and scars to prove it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Entering Monastic Life (Sort of)

Brother Barnabas asked me why I was here. I answered that I was searching for my direction and my vocation, where I belonged and where I was being called. The vague notion of becoming a nun entered my imagination, it always did whenever I was in the presence of a priest. No matter where I was in life, my fascination for living in community with likeminded sisters who were devoted to a noble cause, namely the service of God, never waned.

Brother Barnabas was surprisingly frank about his life. Evidently, he had hurt those closest to him so that now his children no longer speak to him. He became a monk in the spirit of redemption. What is about strangers that allow us to confide in them our deepest failings and our most regrettable mistakes? I wondered if my own father seeks out innocent youngsters to tell his lamentable story.

By the time I arrived at the monastery, dinner was over so I served myself. Believe it or not, priests eat extraordinarily well. Every meal I enjoyed at the monastery was exceedingly well-catered, from tender chickens to pot roasts to succulent lamb to savory tilapia. The luscious rum-laced fruitcake, specialty of the bakery, was served at every other meal and I must have gained a few pounds from that mouthwatering cake alone.

There was a volunteer, Michael, who spoke so speedily and covered such a multitude of words in a single breath that I wondered what he was doing at a silent retreat house. He told me how the Trappist monks had prayers and sang psalms around the clock. Such was the typical schedule:


3:15 am Vigils
5:45 am Lauds
6:15 am Eucharist
7:30 am Terce
12:15 pm Sext
2:15 pm None
5:30pm Vespers
7:00pm Rosary
7:30pm Compline

I dragged myself through the darkness once to attend Vigils and saw the sun rise before Lauds another time. The aura of holiness, the flickering candlelight, and the chanting, an anomaly how the baritones of old men could utter sounds so beautifully. Even if I was not inclined to prayer, it was impossible to keep from praying here. It was effortless, as if the entire congregation was already praying for you and you just happened to join in. Your voice melds with one collectively exquisite voice as if you were part of that universe, such an intimate universe in that enigmatic and sacred hour.

Back to that first night. I entered my room with cinderblock walls and proceeded to continue reading the third installment of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, an amalgam of modern-day New York teenage wry humor and ancient Greek deities who spawned offspring with humans as a recreational activity, thus creating many demigods. It was in the vein of the Harry Potter series: creative, addictive, but uniquely American.

I was prepared to deal with the silence with quite a bit of amusement, albeit of a bookish kind. Of course, cell phone reception here was abysmal.

Despite the books, I had a long, painful, and sleepless night. I cried a lot. I encountered my demons. I was stubborn. I was inflexible. I was judgmental. And I was not entirely blameless in my past troubles. In the silence is the beginning of learning to truly see yourself as you are, not as you would like to be. And when you begin to hold that mirror up to yourself, there are some very visible flaws, peculiar ugliness that you would rather not be aware of.

Is this the dark night of the soul?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Into the Silence

All soul-searching inevitably leads to a search for God in some way, shape, or form. For some it is the spiritual entity in the context of organized religion; for others it is a philosophy or school of thought through which lens worldly experiences become meaningful. For still others, it is the discovery of the self, the truth of the self, its desires and passions, and the infinite source that is life-giving to the self.

My search for God led me to a remote Trappist monastery in the heart of the Shenadoah Valley, Virginia. It was old Civil War territory, acres of farmland along the famed river which gave the valley its name, populated by cows and myriad butterflies. There was an empty creamed honey and fruitcake factory, which was the main source of income for the contemplative monks. I was not there for the cake (although it was sinfully delicious) and I did not intend to volunteer (although I did end up contributing free labor).

I was there for a silent retreat.

In all honesty, my journey there was quite ambiguous. I knew I needed the silence; silence was rejuvenating to introverts like myself. Yet, back in New Jersey, I found that I could not confront the silence. Whether it was hanging out with as many friends as possible or constant window-shopping or insipid phone conversations or the asinine noise and visions coming out of the cathode tube known as a television, I avoided the silence because I wanted to avoid myself. I did not want to think.

The ironic thing was in the midst of the hustle and bustle of activity, I still felt it was inadequate. I found myself longing for silence when the noise and chatter and talk in my life were imposed by me.

So I made my way to the Holy Cross Abbey. Silence for seven days.

It was at the end of July and painfully hot. To get there, I traversed four buses and trains: bus from NJ to NY Port Authority, subway from Port Authority to Chinatown, Chinatown bus from NYC to Washington DC (lovely things, those $15-$20 bus rides available every hour on 3 different carriers), local bus from DC to Berryville, VA. It would have taken 5-6 hours had I driven. Of course, being unemployed and carless, the affordable route took 8-9 hours.

There I sat, at a shopping mall in the middle of nowhere, waiting for someone from the monastery to pick me up. I worried if they would remember, since arrival time for the retreat was 3pm and I was fashionably late at after 6:30pm. It was rush hour, although in this isolated town no one ever seemed to rush. It was an eternity before a navy blue station wagon pulling into the parking lot hesitantly…stopped as if the driver was peering around…and continued to roll through the parking lot, halt and watch, and keep rolling.

It was my cue.

I saw a pleasant-looking man of about seventy with fluffy white hair, a baseball cap, and faded polo shirt.

He opened the door and introduced himself as Brother Barnabas.

I knew we would be friends.

Copyright © 2011 Paladian Queen

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Exit Glacier: The Alpine Path not Climbed

We arrived at the Kenai National Park. Exit Glacier sprawled from the bottom of the mountain to the top in a curvaceous configuration, so that it was visible at multiple angles. From the bottom, it was a crust of diamond overlaying the desolate rock and loose earth of the lower lands. Blue undertones, the vivid color of transformation, that state of being locked between ice and water, ran along the glacier like veins. Yet it was far from pristine, grains of soil were embedded on the periphery, tainted by the footprint of man.

Then we began the climb. The landscape began to change as the elevation increased. Shady paths and stately trees appeared; everything was so overwhelmingly green. Countless tiny waterfalls spilled silver water and made music as they flowed from ledge to ledge. Sunlight filtered through the swaying leaves, and I remembered a verse from my youth, a verse that inspired me in my most impressionable years:

“Then whisper, blossom, in thy sleep
How I would upward climb
The alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.
How I may reach that far-off goal
Of true and honored fame
And write upon its shining scroll
A woman’s humble name.”

I wondered if I still sought fame. What I seek becomes more simple as the years go by. As a teenager, it was prestige and success and wealth. Then in my twenties, it became a search for love. Now, in my thirties, it was a quest for serenity within my own heart.

My reverie was broken by the tinkling bell Marie wore to ward off bears. Of course, Marie’s year of hiking also made it impossible for me to keep up with her. I watched her limber physique and red coca cola t-shirt disappearing up the mountain.

I entered a clearing with a gorgeous view of the glacier, like a frozen waterfall, ice ridges blinking. Around me was a grassy meadow, dotted with wild bluebells. Such a splash of scintillating color, it reminded me of a Monet painting and those vagrant poppies that seemed lush enough to pick.

I grew tired. My legs trembled as if I was a marionette that lost control of the strings. I continued towards the snow-covered path which led to the top and slid inconveniently back down on my butt. Sweat broke in beads on my forehead. On my abdomen, my scar began to burn. I felt my body betray me. And I accepted my limitations.

Once upon a time, I was too determined to give up. Once upon a time, when I set a course of action, it was inevitable that I reach the destination. I never changed course; I never weakened; I never allowed failure. To do so was a devastating blow to my psyche.

I watched as people passed me, doing what I am unable to do.

In that instant, I gave myself permission to stop. To stop trying, stop struggling, stop thinking. In this moment, I am enough. Wherever I am in life. In whatever I am doing. I am enough.

When you have nothing, you realize that your very essence is far from nothing. I am not defined by what I have. I am not defined by my career or association with others. I am not defined by youth or beauty or health. If I lose any of those external things, then I would become lost again.

I found in myself, the raw divinity of the self. It is the part of me that touches God, the part that is connected to everyone and everything, the part that understands the immortality of love, the part that is too vital to die.

That is who I am, who I will always be.

A daughter of God.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the Road to Exit Glacier

There was a strange man in my room. Not in my bed; I was sharing a room with three other girls in the Moby Dick Hostel. Lola was one of them. I was awakened from my slumber by the pungent odor of a guy who apparently hadn't showered for a long while. He was conveniently lying across Lola's breast, snoring.

As I headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth, I was yanked to the side by Bianca, one of my other roommates.

"Oh my God, there is a guy in there! What if he rapes me?"

Now Bianca was an extremely attractive girl with deep sapphire eyes and an uncanny resemblance to Kate Middleton. She seemed genuinely frightened by the idea, even though she had staunch allies in the two girlfriends she traveled with. I was amused to see someone even more perplexed than me, down to her expensive Louis Vuitton luggage set. Oddly enough, I felt safe. With dazzling Bianca around, who would think to attack me?

Not to worry, Lola and her boy toy left after breakfast. Bianca resumed her beauty sleep; her two companions apparently hadn't stirred throughout the morning. I headed to Exit Glacier, the only glacier accessible by land in the Kenai Peninsula. My ride was a fearless French nurse, Marie, who had been backpacking continuously for a year. She visited New Zealand in the winter, Asia in the spring, now Alaska in the summer. Along the drive, I asked what she learned about herself in this eventful year.

Marie told me that she discovered the virtue of rest in the midst of her worldly sojourn. Ironic, but it is precisely when going became the norm that the freedom to do nothing became a cherished opportunity. She learned to live in these exotic places she visited, not merely passing through as a tourist.

"Most of all, I don't worry anymore. Before I was really uptight, and I needed to plan everything." Involuntarily, I leaned forward and she elaborated. "When I was in Christchurch, I got into a car accident. It was my fault; I just paid damages to the girl and moved on. I've learned to let things go. When you travel, nothing is perfect and nothing happens like you expect."

Uh oh. Car accident? Goosebumps popped onto my forearm. I tightened my seatbelt, wondering if I should have taken the bus instead. Nonetheless, it was a free ride and I was running out of cash...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fourth of July: By Night

So I left the boat with a phone number and a rendezvous the following week in Anchorage. At the Moby Dick hostel, I ran into Matthias, whose big toe had turned green from frostbite (no one leaves McKinley completely unscathed). Latecomer to the party was the Scottish guy from the Denali, who brought me an endearing letter from Rick.

By now, even I was wondering what all the fuss was about. Mind you, I looked like a skinny, androgynous boy from afar. No make-up, loose clothing, and striped fedora hat that covered half my face and all of my hair. My philosophy was to be as inconspicuous as possible when traveling. If you're too pretty, you're a target. If you look rich, you get mugged. The idea was to fly under the radar.

My wise cousin Paul likened life to the theory of inertia. "Everything will keep happening the way it always has until you do something or something happens to dramatically change course."

Up until now, my story has been fairly consistent: a profound sense of inadequacy prevented me from becoming the best version of myself. While I always had good jobs, dated good-looking guys with money, and stayed trim myself, something was always missing. I always felt inhibited. I attracted folks who were controlling, egocentric, and materialistic. I was hurt by their behaviors. I was always a victim.

Alaska was a fundamental break with my lifestyle and up to that point, my mode of thinking. It was risky, spontaneous, and absolutely impractical, spurred by some vague yearning of the heart. Here I met a completely different type of man, free-spirited and outdoorsy and unconstrained by expectations. They all affirmed me. Granted, the ratio of men to women was 2 to 1 in this state, so it was by no means completely a function of my feminine charms. For you single gals out there, Alaska is a fantastic place to meet someone.

Back to the Fourth of July. Matthias and I took a walk through the streets of Seward, narrow and dusty and very small-town despite seasonal activities. There was a street fair; children were climbing into small-scale, carnival-like contraptions that spun them around or revolving globes that made them feel weightless. Between bites of hot dogs and funnel cakes, I was impressed by how brilliant Matthias was. Logical and scientific, his approach to life was purely deductive. Then he confided in me about his family, how his parents pinned all their hopes on him because his sister had special mental needs.

Half German, half Swiss, Matthias lived in Zurich, where he was studying for his PHD in economics. I was most curious about Switzerland, as my well-traveled friend Jenny described it as the most beautiful country in Europe. He mentioned that I ever visited, to give him a call.

I'd love to hang out, I replied.

No, he corrected, to stay. We have a couch for visitors.


Apparently, this is a common phenomenon with backpackers, a sort of bohemian hospitality among transient soul-searchers. Not one to refuse free lodging, I nodded.

Lola was waiting for him when we returned to the hostel. Evidently, she had invited Mattias among several others to party that night, and he reluctantly followed her (Swiss Germans are iron-bound by their word). I wasn't invited.

Not to worry, I soon procured an invitation by a girl I peripherally knew from Denali, a biologist who presented her thesis (or was it dissertation?) in Fairbanks. Now, Seward was not exactly hopping with bars; there were precisely two joints occupying the same space, separate by a half wall that allowed glimpses into the opposite side.

So I wound up on one side of the bar and spotted Matthias on the other. Lola was dancing extremely close to him, her arms all over him, and he seemed markedly uncomfortable. Hoping to relieve him from his misery, I sauntered over only to find that he had disappeared.

News coverage of Michael Jackson's memorial service flickered; no sound was audible as clips of the famous videos Beat It, Thriller, and Billie Jean flashed across TV screens. I stifled a cry and willed back tear; it was the end of an era, the break dancing, the moonwalk, and that omnipresent glittering glove.

I bumped into Matthias teary-eyed and all; he had come looking for me. I glanced back at Lola, now seducing another guy.

We talked, we danced, we drank mediocre Alaskan beer, and I found Swiss men absolutely divine.

Despite the fact that Matthias and I didn't have a thing in common.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fourth of July: By Day

Remember the old Brothers Grimm fairytales where the remote hero traveled to the edge of the world to accomplish some extraordinary and impossible task to win the hand of the fair princess? Back in the days when the earth was believed to be flat?

I imagined that the edge of the world would have looked like Seward, the meeting place between mountains and seas, where everything was silver at twilight, the ridges, the ripples, and even the stones on the shore. Darkness came a bit earlier, since Seward was farther south than Denali, but there was always a lingering reflection of light somewhere.

Mount Marathon was the highest peak in the city, and renowned for the races held on Independence Day. Only 900 people were allowed to run (first-come, first-serve basis), and all of Alaska turned out to cheer their brethren. It was a distance of approxiamtely 3.1 miles and it seemed that both Matthias and Lola had signed up to run.

Since Mt Marathon was the most happening place to be during the Fourth of July, where did I go? Naturally, I had booked a day cruise to view the Kenai Fjords and wildlife, virtue of my lovely habit of procrastination and there was little availability on the other days. This suited me fine, since I was never the life-of-the-party, center-of-everything kind of gal.

The boat was divided in little tables and I wound up sitting among a lady with a bleeding lip, a father-and-son pair from Montana or Wyoming on a bonding excursion. The lady looked a bit disheveled, and she related how walkable Mt. Kilimanjaro was. "It's a very long distance, but you just walk it. Porters carry your stuff for you."

On to wildlife viewing. I confess that I saw seals and eagles and a whale or two, but quite honestly the recollection was blurry. What I did remember distinctly were the ice formations floating on the sea's surface and breathtaking glaciers that glowed blue and white. Chunks of ice continually dribbled from the glacier onto the sea, creating a lacelike swirl. Chris, son from my table, offered to take my picture.

I don't think I've ever met anyone so balanced. Chris was a geologist on temporary assignment in Anchorage, and his father was visiting for a few days. Even his appearance was earthy, hair the color of cinnamon.

I was nodding; the boat was tumbling and waves of sea sickness hit me all at once. Wondering how I could appear attractive while pulling the Bonine tablets (that Matthias had given me yesterday) out of my overstuffed backpack, I confessed that I was feeling a bit queasy and ran to get some hot water.

Miraculous solution: hot water and lemon and honey. Cures all kinds of indigestion. I came upon the remedy accidentally, by vomiting in Capri after I had stayed up all night to watch the sun rise over Sicily. Needless to say, I am one of those creatures whose sleep is vital to functioning.

So I must have been gone for about twenty-five minutes searching for my remedy. I wondered if Chris was still there. In my part of the world, that fast New York bar hopping scene, you disappear for five minutes and the promising prospect you were talking to has already found another proposition.

I peeked before going above the cabin, to the deck.

Yep, he was still there.

And he still wanted to take me out.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Onward to Seward

Seward was the place to be for the Fourth of July. Famous for its fishing, glaciers, and wildlife off the coast of the Kenai Peninsula, the city is the namesake of the politician who negotiated the territory's purchase from Russia. Remember Seward's Icebox?

I got there on the afternoon of July 3rd. The bus stop was approximately one mile from the Moby Dick hostel and my duffel bag seemed to have grown inexorably heavy. Hence began my own stint at hitchhiking. Being the skeptical New Yorker that I am, I wasn't about to hitch a ride with just any old car. I was extremely selective.

Here was my strategy: Aim for the minivans and the moms. Reason #1: With women, there was significantly lower probability of being sexually assaulted or raped, although the risk still existed in the case of lesbians. Reason #2: No mother would attempt to murder me in front of the cherished offspring she had labored so long and hard to bring into this world. Reason # 3: A minivan almost guaranteed that it was a mother and a child who was more or less completely dependent on maternal care, so the kid would be a welcome distraction should I need to escape. Nonetheless, I made sure that I saw a car-seat and some adorable, cherubic little darling bouncing from the back before I got in.

I picked 'em better than expected. A shapely young mother drove me to the hostel, pushing blond bangs out of her watery blue eyes as she told me about her husband, a pilot who flew tourists over the scenic glaciers. It was $200 a trip, but would be $50 per person if I could find 3 other passengers to go with me and split the cost. So I spent the next hour searching for flight companions. I was not particularly successful, since the typical hardy hostel-frequenting adventurer preferred to climb Exit Glacier for free. Yep, Princess still had a lot to learn.

Moby Dick hostel was owned by a German couple, a male psychiatric nurse and his corporate wife, who decided to retreat from stresses of the rat race here in Alaska. They run the hostel during summer months and then hibernate in their cabins in the winter season, home-schooling the kids.

Culturally, Alaska is a different country compared to the Lower 48. They don't understand materialism, this concept of having stuff, or the competitive nature of acquiring things (although recent transplants are changing that in Anchorage). Their values are much simpler and down to earth. They are only interested in climbing or fishing or hiking or hunting, and everything else is a distraction. Jobs are meant to pass the time until they can get outdoors and the warmth startles nature back to life.

The owners then showed me the patio, where a group of travelers were enjoying the hours before dusk with beers and books. There was a loud, boisterous blond girl named Lola who would not stop talking about herself. Next to her was a charming Swiss economist who was making his rounds around the state after summiting McKinley.

His name was Matthias.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Denali: Day Three...Part Deux

Edith Wharton said that one of the most unknown traits of 1920's New Yorkers is that they like to get away from amusement faster than they liked to get there. Same is true of Denali tourists. After hiking along the mountains and around the picturesque valleys of the Eielson Visitor Center, Kari and Howie and I were ready to go back. No such luck.

It was around 5pm. Apparently, fatigue struck at universal times, as every tour bus that passed through was already packed with exhausted adventurers from the previous stop. We waited for nearly two hours before Aramark sent an additional bus out to pick us up. I realized that it was far better to be at the first or at the very last stop; those in the middle were merely neglected. Interesting commentary; this was also the plight of the American middle class.

Sweaty and tired, I slumped down on the bench, waiting for the hostel's shuttle. It was a humid day, and the air was teeming with mosquitoes. To protect my fair complexion, I wore the headnet, which covered my face entirely. The fibrous material was so opaque that I could barely see through. I grew hot after a while and endeavored to take it off.

Uh oh. It was stuck. It was essentially a netted bag over the head, with a drawstring at the neck and the string was knotted fast. There I sat, struggling to get the net off and failing miserably. Worse yet, I could not see where I was going. Let's not even get into how ridiculous I felt. Thank God no one else was there.

Then Joan sat beside me, uncharacteristically silent. I never thought I would be glad to see her.

"How was your day?"

"Great and exhausting. I went all the way out to Kantishna." Kantishna was an old gold mining town, located at the very end of the route at mile 92 and surrounded by private property.

"Umm...can you help me with something? Could you help me take this off?"

I cringed in anticipation. I braced myself for the giggles, the snickers, at the very least a joke or two about the foolishness of finding myself stuck with a mosquito net over my head.

Joan did not react the way I expected. She simply looked at me, said sure, and promptly untied the mosquito net.

I was humbled. Here was a woman whose gauche disposition and inappropriately young mannerisms had caused me to avoid her. Yet despite her idiosyncracies, she was far more generous-hearted than me. She did not judge.

I came to see her differently. Sure, she was still annoying, but she possessed a childlike wonder, appreciating everything. A pureness of joy that most people would find disorienting because she was so insistent on sharing.

And I needed her.

I thanked her heartily.

When I returned to the hostel, everyone was having dinner together, sort of a spontaneous farewell ritual. Since it was the end of a weekend, everyone would set off to a different city tomorrow. I sat down with a group of Australians (those ubiquitous Australians!), conversing freely and without inhibition. It was only here in Alaska that people were willing to accept who I am at the moment, who I am evolving into, and who I would ultimately become. Back at home, I was stifled by expectations of who I was. Trapped into stagnancy.

I related what the mountains taught me, that my true identity was being the daughter of this great interconnected world, this divine spirit that binds us all.

They nodded in agreement. Then I noticed Rick looking at me shyly and moving slowly to sit next to me. We ended up talking all night, long after the others had left the common room.

He had joined the navy after finishing college, and found it difficult to obey the orders of superiors who were not educated. He was on active duty, but unhappily so. He elaborated on the cramped quarters of the ship, the few precious weeks of leave, and his fears about Afghanistan. He didn't want to go home to Virginia because his wife left him months before and being a good Catholic Filipino boy, his parents would not accept a divorce.

I listened. Then he told me he noticed me that first day, and singled me out each time our buses crossed paths, but I seemed so presumptuous that he didn't want to talk to me.

So why talk to me now?

"Now I think I know you better."

The sky finally darkened, and he gave me a massage, his fingers lingering along my shoulder as if was the most delicate porcelain. He was a gentleman and I was glad, as I did not want to cheapen a human connection by turning it into a one night stand. He asked if he could hold me, to bring the memory of a warm woman with him back to the ship. He held me until the sun rose.

I stumbled into my (shared) room at daybreak, but I didn't sleep the hour and a half before my scheduled departure. I kept turning the idea over and over in my head, but I couldn't definitely decide what to do. When it was time, I packed my bags and ran out to the shuttle.

On impulse, I ran back and banged the door of Rick's cabin. I woke him up as well as his baffled neighbors, and kissed him. It was a long, passionate kiss, with morning breath and all. Then I went on my way.

You see, we all need each other.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Denali: Day Three...Part 1

It must have been the alcohol that kept me warm. Squirming in my sleep, I became aware of the frost in sunless hours of the night, which was between 3 to 5am. I watched the sun rise from my tent, a permanent structure that was quite sturdy and roomy and somewhat drafty. The Denali Mountain Morning Hostel was situated on the edge of the woods, and I was sure I was going to get eaten by bears before morning.

The first person I encountered was Joan, a fifty-something woman with a bulbous nose, unflinching eyes, and a bob hairstyle that seemed too young for her face. She proceeded to tell me she had stopped at Talkeetna (quaint tourist town in Alaska) and she loudly enunciated the KEET part of it. I thought of her as a parakeet, KEET, chirpy and over-eager. I made a mental note stay away from her.

Rick was on the shuttle at the same time, but he didn't say a word to me. Not even "hi" or "good morning." Instead I talked to the shuttle driver, a redheaded girl with dreadlocks, who was actually from Minnesota and came to work here for the summer. Actually, a lot of strapping young folks take summer jobs in Alaska for the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors in their downtime.

Joan, Rick,and I got off the shuttle and waited for our buses in the Denali Visitor Center. Depending on your destination and the distance from the entrance, there were a plethora of different buses on different schedules. I was headed to Wonder Lake at mile 85, a gorgeous reflective surface where the majesty of McKinley would be doubled. Mosquitoes were also abundant in that moist wetland, so I came prepared with a mosquito net.

I took the 7:55 am bus, accounting for the 11 hours roundtrip. Now these buses also provided a rare glimpse into this untamed land and all associated wildlife. Every time an animal was spotted, we were to yell "Stop!" and the bus would halt for a closer look. I saw a fox, caribou, coyote, and an eagle. But mostly, I saw rocks. My companions on the bus were a bunch of over-excited, happy-to-be-there Asians, and they yelled "Stop!" at everything. Usually, it was a rock or a lone ranger walking along the road. I began to worry that I would arrive at Wonder Lake too late to see McKinley, since clouds of condensation typically formed at the peak at around 11am. Worse, the 8:25 am bus passed us, even though it was scheduled to run 30 minutes later. Joan saw me from the window of the other bus and waved voraciously. I turned in the other direction.

After a 4 hour ride, the bus took a lengthened stop at the Eielson Visitor Center, 19miles from my destination. Disheartened, I took out my lunch and sat at the picnic tables, which coincidentally offered lovely views of McKinley. I began to dread going back to the bus. Out of the corner of my eye, someone was waving at me. I hoped it wasn't Joan.

It turned out to be Kari. She was waiting for Howie and jumped up to talk to me.

"I was hoping we'd see you." We forgot to exchange phone numbers the day before.

She pointed to a small, surmountable mountain, or so it seemed to me.

"There's a ranger hike up that mountain at one o'clock. You have to reserve your spot and it's all filled up now."

I must have looked crestfallen.

"Don't worry, we got you in. Howie put your name on the list, just in case."

I don't remember when the bus left, but I wasn't on it. Kari, Howie, and I shared our life stories. We explored the Eielson Center together, a de facto museum with historical artifacts, complete with the skulls of mammals. On display outside, there were two skulls of mountain goats, interlocked by their white horns. Apparently, they had gotten tangled and perished, unable to pry themselves from the other.

Time for the hike. We climbed up the mountain along the rocky path, and it was strewn with flowers, weeds, and green vegetation. Strolling behind me was an eight year old boy who somehow wound up in front of me. Nonetheless, I wasn't as tired as yesterday. As I climbed higher and higher, I marveled at the beauty before me. McKinley loomed over us like a great creator, an immortal pillar before us puny humans. Its ridges were the deepest cobalt and the snow was a crowning glory of unadulterated white.

I realized I had been blind. Since yesterday, I had been so busy surviving, catching my breath, that I didn't see the awe-striking wonders of this place, even though it was right before my eyes. We are so busy, so consumed with ourselves, trying to live. We are so concerned with moving and going somewhere. And our blindness is self-inflicted. When we stop struggling, the simplest truths reveal themselves. The earth is beautiful. Life is exquisite. We are.

Then I reached the summit. It was a familiar feeling. That sense of exultation, of victory, of overcoming not only external obstacles, but overcoming myself. My own fears and doubts. My own demons. Liberation. To be freed from the self. How funny that sounds, to be free we must forget ourselves. To understand that there is something so immense, so much greater than ourselves. To know that we matter so little in ourselves, but it is in the connectedness, the unity of man and nature that keeps us eternal, because we were here and we were part of this. This was where I found God again.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Denali: Day Two

So began my trek into the wilderness. I got up early for my appointed hike with a Denali ranger, since it is recommended for single stragglers and no, I did not buy the suggested bell to stave off bears. Later I learned that the sound of human voices was just as repulsive to them.

Sitting on the hostel's shuttle, I spoke to a charming Scottish guy who kept talking about the black bears of Kodiak Island, the southernmost tip of Alaska. He also asked me where I was the night before. Asleep, I admitted. Apparently, all the young'uns of the hostel went to a bar last night and there was one particular Navy guy who was quite amusing when utterly intoxicated.

"Maybe you should meet him." Hmm...

As I waited for the ranger, I surveyed the hardy types who had signed up for the hike and realized I was a fish out of water. They were lean, well-muscled gals and guys who stretched for the ordeal, and handled their raingear, backpacks, and other paraphernalia with such ease that it seemed almost second nature to them. Only one other woman was of my petite stature, but she dressed like a professional climber.

The bus took us to Mile 47. Now Denali National Park is such a vast expanse of land, over 9,400 square miles or 6 million acres, that each stop was denoted by the number of miles from the front entrance. The major scenic stops were at least 50 miles inland, and that distance alone was approximately 6 hours roundtrip. On clear days, there is an imposing view of the grandiose Mt. McKinley, snowcapped and silver-blue in all its glory.

So, introductions. One couple was in the army, inadvertently flaunting bulging biceps and mentioned their three kids at home. Another group of friends identified themselves as adventurers and seasoned campers. There was a very attractive, older couple who lived in Colorado Springs and expressed their love for skiing, hiking, and climbing. They came complete with hiking sticks.

Oh boy. "Uhh...I grew up in New York City and I'm an indoors kind of girl."

Perplexing stares.

"I'm here because I find nature very beautiful and I need to be shocked out of my comfort zone." Literally. A sympathetic smile or two in reply, but most rolled their eyes dramatically, what is she doing here? Interesting, I was wondering that myself.

We hadn't gone very far before I was at least five yards behind the pack. It seemed like overcoming a mountain (truthfully, a tall hill) and an eternity before I could reach them. Out of politeness or perhaps pity or even liability concerns, they stopped every 15 minutes for me to catch up.

Then we had to cross a stream. Rushing water is a sound I associate with Alaska, as the mountains boasted myriad tributaries of thriving, gushing H2O. Water is the life force of the land, pulsing through bitter rock and harsh tundra. I was reminded of the water transportation system of the ancient Incas, how a path was carved through a network of filters. The purest rainwater would travel from the summit of Macchu Picchu to the very bottom of villages. Straight from a pagan god.

Back to reality. Remember the slightly too large hiking boots I purchased because of the colors? Well, the living, breathing waters of the stream conveniently spirited my left boot away as I was navigating across. I wound up chasing it downstream with the other boot wobbling at my ankle.

I jumped over logs, tripped over moss, and scrambled along prickly brambles after my shoe. I ended up on my derriere quite a few times. The dainty gold bracelet I always wore? Muddied beyond recognition. No doubt, I made an extraordinary spectacle of myself to the casual observer. Let's not even get into what the meticulous observer would see.

When I finally retrieved it, rather fished it out with a crooked branch, my pants and feet were soaked. Of course I did not bring a change of socks. Thankfully, Kari, the pretty climber from Colorado, gave me a fresh pair of socks. I befriended Kari and her husband Howie; they gave me excellent hiking tips and even loaned me their sticks. So now I was only two yards behind everyone else.

"Look! Bear!" Wildlife sighting? I had no clue. Everyone was tangibly excited, binoculars, cameras, photos with video. I didn't have the wherewithall to even see what they were talking about. When my eyes finally adjusted to the barely visible furry creature dashing across land, it was gone. But then, it wasn't all that impressive to begin with. The only time I will be close enough to admire a bear, it would probably eat me. Did I mention I was nearsighted?

Kari and Howie drove me back to the hostel and treated me to a lovely dinner of pizza. It was particularly lovely because I had not carried adequate food for lunch. (I just didn't think I'd be that hungry.)

Afterwards, I joined the Scottish guy and the others for a beer. Rick, a cute Hispanic newcomer, mentioned that he just got off his ship (Navy) and would be deploying to Afghanistan upon his return. Buzzed, I asked him if he recovered from last night's good time and received a dirty look in reply. He stalked off without any further conversation. Slightly inebriated, I didn't notice it was becoming icy cold.

As I walked into my room, I was notified that the bed was no longer mine.

"Don't you remember? Because you booked late, there are no beds available tonight. You'll have to sleep outside in Tent # 2."

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Denali: Day One

Midnight. Alaska. My plane landed at approximately 4am EST; I was groggy and sleep-deprived, thanks to perpetually screaming babies on two arduous three-hour flights, punctuated by a four hour layover in Seattle. Now I had not seen Aunt Mary since the mid-1990s, and I prayed she would recognize me. Not to worry, I had just pulled my duffel bag off the conveyor belt and stepped outside when a young, energetic woman embraced me.

We were up until 5am (Alaska time) sharing gossip, discovering our mutual independence, and confiding the familial pressures to conform. All the while, she was stuffing my backpack with forgotten necessities (insect repellant, extra-warm set of fleece, electric blanket in case it gets cold at night, etc).

Mary was somewhat of a renegade: bold, beautiful, and unabashedly single. She was married once, divorced, and doesn't bother to go steady. When I asked why, she shrugged and replied flippantly, "You get upset if they don't call. You get upset if they do call a few days later. You get upset if they do call and don't do what you expect. Why bother being upset?"

Good point. Sometimes the truth needs to be crystallized in simple terms.

"Besides," she added, grinning, "there are more men than women here."

Then we prepared to catch my train at 7 am. Why so early, you ask? Rule #1: In Alaska, public transportation is extremely and incomparably limited. How limited? Most buses have only two departures a day: one in the morning and one in the evening. Shuttles are even worse; there is only one departure per day. Which explains why the preferred method of traveling in the state is hitchhiking. In fact, you could get fined several hundred dollars for refusing to pick up a hitchhiker during the winter. Here is the rationale: it gets so bitterly and devastatingly cold during those dark months that the hitchhiker could freeze to death before the next car comes along.

Since it took nearly 8 hours to travel from Anchorage to Denali, it was wise to take the early train. The sky was cloudless and austerely bright. The rail route wove through a gorgeous inlet called Turnagain Arm, offering dramatic views of mountains and scenery, with prolific eagles and whales. Not having an eye for watching wildlife, I saw stunning peaks that struck me mute with awe and silver waters that reflected each peak like a spiral that reached towards both heaven and earth. This stretch of land is legendary for its beauty, placed in the same league as Italy's Amalfi coast.

Then I sought a nap (I was up 36 hours at this point), but was plagued by the same curse: crying infants on the train.

In the afternoon, I finally stumbled into the Visitor Center at Denali National Park, operated on monopoly by the ubiquitous Aramark. I tried to buy a latte and was promptly charged $33.06. No, there was no alcohol, there was nothing special about the latte and I did read the board before buying (it was supposed to be $3.36). Just an incompetent clerk. Given the economic problems of this country, why are people like that still employed?

Plopping myself on a bench and feeling very heavy with fatigue, I waited for the shuttle from the Denali Mountain Morning Hostel to pick me up. The inevitable question: why on earth did "Princess" book a hostel?

Rule # 2: Denali National Park is a paradox and offers two extremities. There is luxurious lodging for $300 plus a night, or hostel lodging for $30 a night (or you can camp inside the park for free, although there are bears and the Park authorities will not be held legally accountable). There is no in-between. For the truly rustic, affluent adventurer, you can opt for an extraordinary log cabin with sumptuous room service, a spacious hot tub, and included personal laundry services. Or you can share a room with four other poor students.

Being jobless without any substantial possession to my name, I prudently chose the hostel. However, I had no idea what to expect, since I always frequented the Marriott or Hilton whenever I traveled for work.

To my pleasant surprise, the hostel was a well-organized lodge with clean amenities, a lovely kitchen, and surrounded by a host of smaller cabins. There was also plenty of young travelers from all over the world to converse with.

On that first night, however, I was a zombie. Once I saw that my bed and sheets were clean (I had six roommates), I collapsed in exhaustion.

At 2 am, someone opened the window and rays of resplendent sunshine fell onto my face. Apparently, the sun had not yet set. During the summer, Alaska boasts nearly 22hours of daylight.

A never-ending day.