Tuesday, September 27, 2016

To Impart Nuance

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being." 

~ Philip Roth, I Married a Communist, 1998

Monday, September 26, 2016

Where to Next?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Since we came back from our trip to Vietnam, D and I have started dreaming of our next vacation. We thought of going back to the places we loved: fly to Nepal to hike the Annapurna Circuit; go back for another month to South America to explore Chile and Bolivia; return to Morocco and idle the days away in our favorite auberge in the mountains. Or why not go somewhere we’ve never been before? Maybe Japan, or the Basque Country in Spain, or even if it’s a long shot, the Greek Islands or the Amalfi Coast.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Ritual That It Takes to Write

Sunday, September 25, 2016

…the ritual that it takes to write. It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom—not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make a sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every moment, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding—never enough. You can find out more about what’s missing in you than you really want to know. All of you an enclosure to keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed. (Philip Roth, The Anatomy Lesson, 1983)

Friday, September 23, 2016

Measured Steps and Rhythmic Breaths

Friday, September 23, 2016

The alarm shrieks. It’s 4:30 am. My mind, resisting and not yet fully awake, tells me, “You need to run.” It is not easy to wake up that early in the morning just to be able to squeeze in an hour of exercise before going to work, but, somehow, I manage to convince myself each time.   I run not only to stay fit but also for the joy it brings: the cool morning breeze against my face and the stillness of the neighborhood when I go out to run; the solitude and ruminative rhythm of measured steps and breaths; and that feeling of having accomplished a huge feat whenever I finish a run.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Dumb Hope

Monday, April 25, 2016


"Dumb hope is what it hurts most to write, occupying the foolish schemes we pursued for decades, the blind alleys, the cliffs we stepped off. If you find yourself blocked for a period, maybe goad yourself in the direction of how you hoped at the time. Ask yourself if you aren’t strapping yourself across the past to hide the real story."

~ Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir, 2015

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Week in Quito, Ecuador

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Travel is at its most rewarding when it ceases to be about reaching a destination and becomes indistinguishable from living your life."  
 - Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

During our last week in Ecuador we remained in the capital city of Quito. We could have gone to Otavalo, to Baños, or to any of those magnificent sites the country is known for but we didn’t. Weary of three weeks of long bus rides, delayed flights, and bags constantly packed, unpacked, and repacked, we opted to while away the remaining week of our vacation doing nothing.  In those days there were no extraordinary experiences, no awe-inspiring places. There were simply small but meaningful moments that I told myself to remember.

Quito, Ecuador
No Te Metas Con Zohan

What could be more surreal than watching You Don’t Mess with the Zohan dubbed in Spanish while eating chaulafan (fried rice) in a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Quito? With my rudimentary Spanish, I could hardly grasp the dialogue in the movie, yet I had the most wonderful time. We stayed in the restaurant, our eyes glued to the small television hanging on the wall, until they had to throw us out.  

Running After a Guayasamin

There's this guy walking around the Mariscal District with an armload of Oswaldo Guayasamin prints that he is peddling for five dollars apiece. The first time I saw him he was holding up a copy of Guayasamin's El Grito III. That’s beautiful, I thought to myself then walked passed him. After a couple of minutes, I realized that I have to buy that print because it's too magnificent to pass up. But when I turned around, he was nowhere in sight. I looked all around for him but he’s simply gone.  As luck would have it, I saw him again after a few days and that time around I made sure to grab that Guayasamin that almost got away.

Christmas Day

I consider that Christmas morning one of the best moments of our trip: the muted hum of the city as it slowly came to life; the radiant sunshine glinting cheerily as we strolled around Parque La Carolina; the faint whiff of grass and dried leaves, the contrasting textures and harmonious flavors of the cevichochos we bought from one of the food stalls in the park; the gladness palpable in the faces of the people around us. Seated on a bench with the man I love beside me, I closed my eyes momentarily and felt unbounded joy and contentment, as though I had traveled for weeks be there, at that very moment.

Cevichochos is a vegetarian ceviche of Ecuadorian chocho beans, tomatoes, onions, and coriander mixed with, aji pepper, mustard, salt, lime, and hot sauce 
and topped with roasted corn and plantain chips.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Their towering dignity

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Poverty does not necessarily lead to extremism,’ I said. In my head, images of the proud Imams defending their traditions against the murderous corruptions; of the determined youth leader Tawane, risking his life to provide services for the refugees when the aid agencies withdrew for fear of being kidnapped; of Kheyro, working to educate the children of the camp for a pittance; of Professor White Eyes broadcasting his reports on the camp radio. How could I convey their towering dignity, their courage and independence of spirit when they only featured in the official mind as potential terrorists?"

~ Ben Rawlence, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, 2016

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Hiking in the Amazon Rainforest

Thursday, March 17, 2016

As we trudged ankle deep into the jungle, through a dense labyrinth of branches, brambles, creepers, and vines, the rain receded and shafts of sunlight spilled into the forest, streaming past the leafy crowns of trees overhead. We heard nothing else but the sound of the wild--the synchronous whine of a hundred cicadas punctuated by the trill of birds and the chatter of monkeys scattering into the treetops. Surrounded by the magnificence of the Amazon, I knew right then that I was doing exactly what I should be doing in life at that moment.

Amazon Rainforest, Ecuador

Friday, February 26, 2016

Street Party in Getsemani

Friday, February 26, 2016

Imagine this: In front of a magnificently lit 11th century church where a mass is being held, a throng of people --tourists of all ages and nationalities, locals, vendors, couples, entire families—are dancing cumbia and eating arepas, chatting with each other and wandering around.  On the very steps of the church sits a group of people drinking Aguila beer who look as though they do the same thing every single night.  Kids are running around holding onto the strings of vividly colored balloons floating behind them.  Spread out on the ground beside some benches is an assortment of handmade accessories being sold by young people wearing dreadlocks and bohemian clothes.  Surrounding the area are food stalls selling meat and vegetable platters, grilled chorizos, burgers, hotdogs, and beverages. 

It was by chance that we discovered this astonishing street party a couple of blocks from our hostel on a warm Tuesday night. The church is called Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad located at Plaza de La Trinidad in Getsemani, a neighborhood within the walls of the historic center of Cartagena.  During daytime, the square was a pretty quiet place where we enjoyed eating mangoes while figuring out how to use the free public wifi. We didn’t know that that sleepy plaza comes alive every night and transforms into something that feels festive, open, and free-spirited—the very same atmosphere that permeates the entire city.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Thinning of the Substance

Monday, February 22, 2016

…there are more and more people in the world who have had to leave, been driven from, a country, the valley, the city they call home, because of war, plague, earthquake, famine. At last they return, but these places may not be there, they have been destroyed or eroded; for if at first glance, like a child’s recognition of its mother’s face when she has been absent too long, everything is as it was, then slowly it has to be seen that things are not the same, there are gaps and holes or a thinning of the substance, as if a light that suffused the loved street or valley has drained away. Quite soon the people who have known one valley or town all their lives will be the rare ones, and there are even those who speculate how humanity will have to leave the planet with plans to return after an interval to allow it to regenerate itself, like a sick or poisoned organism…

~ Doris Lessing, African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, 1992

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Going Off Grid in Santa Marta, Colombia

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The midmorning heat at the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Santa Marta was almost unbearable. Pico, the guy who was supposed to pick us up from the airport, arrived in his beat up Toyota an hour late. With a big, lazy grin on his face, he was holding up a crumpled paper with my name on it. That set the tone for our entire trip to South America: Being late is the norm and being laid-back is the way of life.

We then drove an hour and a half to our ecolodge along Colombia’s Caribbean coast.  Upon arrival we were told by the manager that there won’t be any electricity from 5 am to 5 pm for the length of our stay due to some “technical issues” in the solar panels they’re using. I knew that the lodge doesn’t have wifi, but the lack of electricity is something I did not expect.  


At first we balked at the idea of spending several days in a Thoreauvian fashion, but we got used to it and later on even embraced it. In Santa Marta, we were stripped to the bare essentials: no phones, no television, no hot showers, no Internet connection, no air conditioning, and no room service. All we had—and all we needed—was the placidity and stillness of that palm tree covered beach away from the ceaseless tumult of city life and each other. Except for that day hike to the marvelous Tayrona National Park, our days were wrapped in uneventful simplicity. Lying on those plastic lounge chairs facing the shore, we slept the afternoons away. We talked, read books, played cards, and walked along the beach. 

Divested of modern luxuries, we saw beauty in the mundane. The things that we usually take for granted beckoned our prolonged attention:  The smell of fresh coffee wafting through the window screen early in the morning; the sight of damp swimsuits left to dry over the back of a chair looking as if they haven’t recovered from the fun they had the past day; the sound of conversations in Spanish, half of which I did not understand; the taste of freshly cooked patacones (twice fried plantain slices) served with ever meal; the texture of sand and crushed shells under my feet and the coolness of the waves washing over my legs.  We were content simply to be in that place at that time.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sense of Discovery

Monday, February 15, 2016

There was a time when I wanted to see only wild places, and was reluctant to go to a place that had been written about extensively. But then—it is so funny about travel—I would go to a place that everyone had been written about and it was as though I was seeing something entirely new…. It made the going good because I was unprepared for what I saw. That was always the best part of travel, the sense of discovery. When there was none and it was all predictable I wanted to go home.

~ Paul Theroux, The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, 1995

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

At La Candelaria, Bogota

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

That first night in Bogota, I was terrified to step out of the hostel.  Who wouldn’t be if a poker-faced hostel staff gives you instructions like “Please do not carry your passport or debit/credit cards on you. Carry a copy of your passport with Colombia visa! Please do not receive food or drinks from strangers. Do not leave your drink unattended! Please do not carry jewelry, expensive cameras, electronic devices, etc. with you! Carry only as much cash as you need. Please do not use your phone or any other expensive objects on public streets or public buses! Inform yourself about the security; to know where you’re going, ask at the Reception or the Police! Only visit Monserrate on peak hours and come back before 3 pm! In emergency cases, you will hear a whistle. You must follow the instructions of the hostel’s staff.”? The many stay-away-this-place-is-dangerous horror stories I read from travel websites and guide books about La Candelaria in Bogota didn’t frighten me but the sheer number of exclamation points in those directions did.

Propelled by an excitement stronger than fear, we did go out that first night, yet nothing untoward disrupted our walk.  The faint streetlamps illuminating the pavements below where people nonchalantly sauntered past made us feel anything but unsafe. And it was the nippy December air, not muggers, which assaulted us, leaving us shivering with exhilaration. We walked on several blocks away from the hostel until we found a small cafe, which later became a favorite of ours. In that tiny piece of heaven, I can't help but wonder, "are we, indeed, in one of the “world’s most dangerous cities?"

Along Carrera 7 in La Candelaria Centro
We continued to explore the area on foot: southwest from the hostel toward the Botero Museum that houses Fernando Botero’s paintings and sculptures; then northwest to the library and art gallery in the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez and straight to the magnificent Plaza de Bolivar; then northeast to the supermarket Exito along the pedestrian zone Carrera 7 lined with shops, offices, restaurants, and street performers; onward to the university district teeming with students and  cafes;  then back to the hostel, passing 300-year old homes and buildings along narrow cobblestoned streets.  Like devotees going on a pilgrimage, we followed the same route several times each day for the next several days.

La Candelaria, Bogotá's historic center, became our base as we traveled across the country. It was the place we called home in Colombia.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Favorite Experiences in Ecuador

Thursday, January 21, 2016

After spending two weeks in Ecuador, I must agree that there is truth to the country’s slogan All You Need is Ecuador.  With its vibrant colonial centers, indigenous villages, awe-inspiring peaks, tropical rainforests, and diverse wildlife, the country, indeed, has it all.  We spent time in Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage site that sits in the foothills of the Andes, in the verdant Amazon rainforest, and along the majestic Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Here are my favorite experiences:


Hiking to Volcan Quilotoa


Rafting in the Amazon




Straddling the northern and southern hemispheres 
at La Mitad del Mundo




Riding a tandem bike with my travel partner at Parque El Ejido in Quito

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Some people hate happy endings

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Some people—and I am one of them—hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically. Had I been reading about this mild old man, instead of writing about him, I would have preferred him to discover, upon his arrival to Cremona, that his lecture was not this Friday but the next. Actually, however, he not only arrived safely but was in time for dinner - a fruit cocktail, to begin with, mint jelly with the anonymous meat course, chocolate syrup with the vanilla ice cream.

~ Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin, 1957

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Favorite Experiences in Colombia

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Before the memories fade and the reality of the mundane wholly supplants the enchantment of the foreign, I should recount the lovely time I had traveling in Colombia. I’ll start with a list of my favorite experiences.

Tasting my first bandeja paisa


Seeing a 10-storey tall image of Gabriel Garcia Marquez painted on a building in Bogota


Hiking to Valle del Cocora and seeing those famous palm trees up close




Listening to street musicians in Salento


 
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