Wonderful in the Middle of Everything

October 2nd, 2016

United States

The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

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The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

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The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the perfect eponym: the Benny.
No matter what we call it, the thinking cabin offers a retreat from our retreat, a space for creation or merely escape, a meditation room, an extra bed with circular views looking east and west, another kind of Cabanon, scented by sage, attended by antelope.

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I was Gloomy in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

The food on my plate tasted the way my soul felt: grey and flavorless. “I’m going. I have to go. I cannot not go”, I told my boyfriend while my tears dropped into my pasta. I hadn’t eaten properly in days. As always, sadness goes straight to my stomach.

My usual spice got lost somewhere in between saying goodbye to yet another place I had come to love and call home, and arriving at our new destination. Maputo’s sunshine was gruesomely replaced by London’s grey clouds. The friendly faces and slow pace of life were exchanged for grumpy looks and hurried businessmen. Our close group of friends substituted for no-one at all. I didn’t have the energy to settle into a new place, make new friends, and develop new routines.

The more my boyfriend bought for our new apartment, the more trapped I felt. It had been easy to move around the world without owning anything. All this new stuff was like an anchor. My heart felt heavy.

I’d been living abroad for almost a decade, but not once did I feel I was missing out, nor did I have the intention of moving back to Holland. Over the years I stopped sharing the small things with old friends and, eventually, the big things too. When I visited, never often and always briefly, nothing had changed. But now it was different: babies were on their way. In nine months from now, it wouldn’t be the same again.

“I know”, he replied, “It’s ok.” I struggled to recognize the kindness in his voice. It didn’t matter what he said anyway. I wasn’t sure I still loved him.

So I went.

Back to Amsterdam, not knowing if I’d ever return. For the first time in a long time, I needed to be with old friends and, most of all, by myself.

I arrived in the midst of winter, the city was drowning in rain. The days were dark and cold, a suitable companion for my state of mind.

The conversations with old friends I had so longed for were deep, light, and everything in between. In the city’s cozy brown café’s, hidden in small cobblestoned alleys, wine was plentiful, though unnecessary to provoke both tears of laughter and those of sorrow. It was as though I had never left.

But the number of questions about me settling down increased with my age. They annoyed me. They implied my lifestyle was temporary, that it must end one day. I tried to picture myself living here again, in Amsterdam. Were my friends right all along, was suburban bliss all one ever needed? All I ever needed?

In between socializing I went for days without speaking. I walked in the city for hours and hours at a time, watching the calm rippling waters, willows weeping in silent sadness on banks of the canals. I strolled through parks, breathing in the freezing air. Thinking about nothing and everything all at once. I sat on a bench, soaking up the silence. I listened to the sounds of the city. The tram bells, bikes passing by. Students laughing, kids splashing in puddles of mud.

From my apartment I looked onto my old office. When I worked there as a student I could never have imagined the way life would turn out for me. I travelled abroad to lose myself, but became more myself instead. I met people so similar and so different from me. Adventures in unfamiliar places around the world taught me more about life than Amsterdam ever could. It opened my eyes. My heart. It made me feel alive.

I smiled, knowing now that sometimes life throws at you the things you didn’t know you needed. All you have to do is catch.

Months passed. My frequent, solitary city walks reminded me there’s is no place in the world that can get a smile on my face the way Amsterdam does. Its calming beauty seemed surreal. Every step I set, every spring raindrop landing on my winter coat made the clouds in my head slowly disappear. Made me feel more free from judgment, free from my own thoughts.

With time, trees started to become green. Rays of sunshine appeared more frequently. Like tulip bulbs tucked into the earth some moons ago, my friends’ bellies were about to burst.

A wise person once said that coming back is not the same as never leaving. But sometimes you have to come back only to realize you’ve moved on a long time ago. Sometimes you have to stand still to move forward. Step back to see the larger picture.

So I went.

Back to London. To the life I had chosen a long time ago. The life that’s exhilarating, exhausting, fulfilling, and frustrating. The life I love.

My life.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Amazing Wolf Howl in Yellowstone

It had been more than 20 years since my husband and I had gone tent camping in the West. And while we hadn’t specifically planned to visit the world’s very first national park during this centennial-year celebration of the National Park Service, that delightful coincidence, and the fact that it was finally just the two of us on this grand adventure only added to the anticipation.

Yellowstone is an enormous reserve covering 2.2 million acres. Most of the park is in Wyoming, but it’s borders spill into Idaho and Montana. The place is huge and wild; the oversize, powerful scale of the landscape seems to epitomize everything potent about the American spirit. Anything seems possible, because clearly, nature has made everything possible. Clear rivers tumbling swiftly over rocks, waterfalls thundering into deep canyons, sloping meadows of yellow wildflowers frost mountainsides, and the steaming, stinky geysers of the active volcano that sits over the park like a prehistoric cake slowly rising in a hot baking pan, reminded me of the passing of time, not in human years, but in vast, geologic time.

As we explored, the experience of the park was not an emotional one, it was not sentimental; it was visceral. My eyes felt as though they couldn’t see enough of its beauty. And without my being consciously aware of it, I began to slowly and effortlessly expand into an altered state; one in tune with the earth.

One of the allures of Yellowstone is the wealth of wild animals, which I was aching to experience. Bison, elk, bears, wolves, birds, all sorts of waterfowl and many other critters live, and can be spotted, in the park. But mostly, I wanted to see a wolf. Before we’d even left Chicago, my goal was to see a wolf roaming free in the wilderness, although I had no real hope that was remotely possible.

We heard there were wolves in the Slough Creek area near the Lamar Valley. The morning we turned on the rough gravel road that led to Slough Creek Campground, we saw a long line of parked cars. Along a high berm, a line of scopes backed by a large crowd looked out across a valley to a tall, sage-dotted ridge beyond. We drove on, not wanting to join the crowds, unsure where the wolves were, or even what was going on.

We found a smaller pullout where an old, beat-up motorhome, a van, and a pickup were stationed, and soon met a motley crew who, within hours, became our new best friends, even offering to share a coveted campsite with us. We looked through their scopes at a black yearling sitting on the ridge, guarding a den that housed eight wolf pups. The wolf den was about a mile away and the scope afforded us a view the naked eye couldn’t.

Early the next morning we went to the big berm, braving the crowds. Cell phones were connected to the scopes, turning them into instant TV screens. As I scrunched down in the dirt staring at the small screen, I saw the wolf pups frolicking in a cope of trees. I saw adult members of the pack interacting, wagging their tails, carrying on with their family business. I was ecstatic.

“Shhhh!” Doug McLaughlin instructed the crowd. He is somewhat of a legend in these parts, photographing and tracking various wolf packs. “They’re howling.” Then we heard, in the silence of that cold, cold morning, a faint chorus of howls from across the valley. It was as though a blessing had been bestowed.

Looking for wildlife in Yellowstone is not just about slowing down. It’s about coming to a complete stop. And waiting. And then seeing what is really there, because you’re not going to see anything if you’re moving.

Watching the wolves through scopes and screens was somehow fitting. Were the wolves aware of their audience? I doubt it. They live their lives unaware of the machinations of the people who strive to protect or eradicate their existence. They play and hunt and sleep oblivious to anything but their world. They are free.

The animals of Yellowstone present themselves in ways sometimes easy and sometimes not, but they always appeared to remind me that nature is not ours to call on when we want it, it’s something that comes to us in its own time and place. We must adapt to its wild rhythms in order to truly experience it. The earth itself is ultimately separate from humans and yet it remains our human home. It is free.

Standing in camp on that final 36-degree morning, I watched the sun shoot through the tall lodgepole pines to ethereally illuminate a previously invisible mist that rose from the creek. I stood absolutely still, experiencing wholly this perfect moment. I was free.

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Gaining a New Perspective on Freedom in Bolivia

Despite the lung-emptying absence of air at 2,700m above sea level, a steep 20 minute climb and I was crowning the peak of the hill. From there, the views were panoramic: cloud-tipped mountains signalling the road to Sucre in the east and before me, the ring of mountains; protruding chaotically from the loose patchwork of agricultural land which lined the bottom of the basin.

This was the Maragua Crater, an almost other-worldly rock formation. Believed by the locals to be the work of a meteorite, it was more likely born from the same tectonic activity that created the nearby Andes. A wild, barely-habited environment, since a week previously, it had become my home.

The settlement of Maragua was cradled in the very centre. Hardly meriting the term ‘village’, it was built along the length of one dirt road; here, dusty tracks stretched out like brown capillaries to a jumble of adobe, thatched-roofed cottages, and cows grazed in poorly-fenced fields, accompanied only by bored, lounging dogs. The stone brick schoolhouse in which I was working as a volunteer looked luxurious when compared with the basic mud housing of the rest of the community.

My adventures that had led me there had started a long time before: seven months to be exact.

I had packed my rucksack, bade a tearless goodbye to friends and family, and boarded the plane that would land me in Bolivia. It had been a strange moment; one tinged with excitement and fear, but most powerfully, relief. It symbolised an escape from the monotony of a life that was 14 hour days slogging away as a teacher, and where hobbies and friends were only reserved for precious, stolen moments at weekends.

Back then it had taken me too long to realise that I was being slowly suffocated and led down a path that seemed bleak and inescapable. It was as if my future had become an out-of-control train; speeding towards a fixed destination, but one which I’d never really chosen in the first place.

Taking that plane to Bolivia was the equivalent of leaping through the open train window and hoping for a soft landing on the other side.

To begin with, it was anything but soft. From the very first day, it became evident that I was ill-prepared for my new life here. Arriving into the office in Sucre where I would be volunteering for the next seven months, I realised how measly my linguistic preparation of self-taught Spanish had been.

Feeling useful and acquiring that all important sense of belonging was going to take time, and, more importantly, a lot of patience. It wasn’t yet the triumphant, glorious moment of freedom I had been anticipating when I left home.

But the kindness of the many local people I met spurred me on. With the help of new friends, I learned Spanish doggedly, celebrating each milestone: from successfully buying vegetables in the local market, translating English to Spanish at a community meeting with my charity, to even being interviewed live on Bolivian television.

As the months passed and I learned more about the situations of new friends and colleagues, I grew to understand the relative simplicity of my own. As someone with the funds to live, volunteer, and travel at will, I now had few cares. Those from before had been abandoned; wilfully ignored and laid aside when carefully packing my rucksack.

Others, I had never had to encounter before. These were the ones that made me question what freedom I was even pursuing. Each day was a confrontation with entrenched poverty; the families on the streets of Sucre for whom life was a reoccurring struggle to eat. Often it would be their children paying heavily for the hand fate had dealt them: rather than attending school, they would be found pacing rings around the main square, selling bags of bird seed for meagre sums.

Leaving my job and life back home I had equated freedom with a holiday away from overbearing, life-dominating responsibilities. Instead, I realised that freedom is something that only the most privileged have. Those of us where life isn’t a daily fight to survive; those who can leave a well-paid job on a whim; those who can only learn this fact when they step away and gain a new perspective.

Seeing this, my freedom instead became a chance to invest back into society, and to stop thinking about my own complaints for a change. Rather than choosing to reject all responsibility, freedom taught me that I needed to embrace it even more.

So there I was in Maragua. The struggle to climb that hill had been worth it. Almost 10,000 km around the other side of the world, I had finally found my freedom.

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The Ecstatic Meaning of Malaysia Day

It struck me while squatting in a dank outhouse in Borneo’s rainforest, clenching my iPhone flashlight between my teeth while desperately avoiding large spiders below, that my father had been right—I should have bought diarrhea pills. “You may not need them,” he’d written me days earlier, “but trust me, when you do and you don’t have them, you may regret it.”

My father has scarcely lived a year without travelling somewhere in the world, and his experiences humbled me. While I resisted listening to my parents whenever possible during this trip (hell, let’s be honest: in life, generally), this round-the-world show of independence had, along with my intestines, begun to implode.

It had been a depressing Malaysia Day long weekend. V and I planned a daytrip to Lambir Hills National Park, a family-friendly bio-reserve in Malaysia’s Sarawak province, but I hadn’t been able to keep food down since painfully waking up at 3 a.m. She coddled me throughout the morning while I lay in our hotel bed, which, in hindsight, I should never have left; but visiting Borneo without trekking the jungle is like visiting Paris while skipping the Eiffel Tower. I chose to hike.

After thirty minutes’ walking through clouds of mosquitos and carpets of overgrown ants, we found Lambir’s prize waterfall, Latak, a tall and skimpy stream that falls into a deep, clear pool. Local kids played and laughed while their parents chatted under a nearby gazebo. I turned away from all this and scurried off to the outhouses.

From inside, I heard a pattering that quickly turned into a hard rain, so I joined V under a large wooden gazebo where we spent twenty minutes in bored captivity. Then I turned to the Malaysians’ gazebo and saw a middle-aged man in an orange cap waving to us, gesturing at the abundance of food on their table. I held my stomach and shook my head; he waved insistently.

“You should go,” I told V.

“I’m not just going to leave you here,” she replied.

We jogged over. “We have too much food,” the man said. He had the simple features of a fortysomething father: white glasses, firm eyes, tight smile. I said my stomach wasn’t well, but saw that V, too polite to jump on their offer, was secretly thrilled with the buffet: spiced tapioca leaves, homemade chilli sauce, fried chicken, fresh boar meat.

The man’s name was Mutang. Like most Malaysians supporting a family, he worked in the oil industry offshore. He was supposed to arrive on the mainland last night, but his wife, Amanda, said with a smirk, “You missed the bus.”

“I didn’t miss the bus, the bus missed me!” He claimed he waved it down—the only way to catch a bus—but the driver didn’t see. He mimicked waving his hands wildly, and everyone laughed.

After ten minutes of chitchat I began feeling better, so tried two bites of glutinous white rice. Immediate regret. A familiar tingling washed over me; my eyesight got blurry. I slung over the bannister and excused myself from the party.

“You’re not used to Malaysian food,” Mutang offered with a smile. “Here—drink some water.” I thanked him for the concern but dismissed him outright: I’d been to Malaysia before, loved the food and had already hydrated plenty. Misery may love company, but illness detests it.

Instead I lumbered back toward the outhouses, throwing my feet into muddy puddles, trying to make it those few dozen feet upright and by myself. I felt Mutang and Amanda eyeing me worriedly as I staggered away, swinging open the door and squatting over the same stained toilet for five, ten minutes, not even shitting anymore, just resting in peace and squalor. I’d exiled myself into this craphouse prison and suddenly felt like I belonged there. I inhaled the rancid air and regretted how prickly I’d been with V and Mutang—and for what? Even a guarded ego can’t defend against diarrhea.

The sun finally began shining through the drizzle, so I jogged back to the gazebo, assuring V that everything was fine. “It’s an Independence Day miracle,” I joked.

“Oh, it’s not Independence Day,” Amanda interjected. “It’s Malaysia Day.” Independence Day, she explained, celebrates independence from the British in 1957, but Malaysia Day is the opposite. It commemorates the day in 1963 when four federations—Malaya, Singapore and the Borneo states—agreed to become Malaysia. It has nothing to do independence; it is, in fact, an ode to connectedness.

Amanda began packing up some paper plates. “We are driving back to Miri now,” she said. “If you want a ride, we have space.” Mutang was photographing the waterfall, transformed by the rain from a wimpy stream into a magnificent torrent. I smiled at V, and thanked Amanda for the offer.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Independence 2016 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

The Wonder of an Optimistic Child in Peru

The smarty-pants Spanish majors were getting on my nerves.

I dawdled in the back of a ramshackle classroom in a girls’ orphanage in Cusco, Peru. After two weeks as a volunteer, I was a complete flop.

I had signed up to be an assistant to an English teacher in a school for girls. But when I arrived, all the schools were on holiday. To fill the gap, a team of Spanish majors on their semester abroad had descended on the girls’ orphanage. They organized an elaborate, substitute curriculum of English lessons, but they didn’t need an assistant. And my limited Spanish language skills were not up to the task of managing a whole classroom of young girls.

So I cleaned erasers. And I tidied bookshelves. And I wondered whether I should just go back home.

Suddenly, the chief Spanish major summoned me with a wave. “Can you do something with Sonia?” she asked. “She’s bothering the other students.”

Sonia was the littlest of all the girls in the orphanage. No one knew her age, exactly, but she was clearly two or three years younger than the rest of the girls. She could not yet read or write in Spanish, and she was predictably uninterested in structured English lessons.

Cast out from the group, Sonia wandered to the back of the classroom with me. How was I going to entertain her? We had no toys of any kind. How were we going to communicate? My Spanish was lousy, and she didn’t know any English. So we sat at a tiny table and stared at each other for a little while.

Then I remembered the crayons in my backpack. In the months before I left for Peru, my young niece and nephews had collected dozens of freebie restaurant crayons with their kids’ menus. They sent those crayons to Cusco with me, but I had forgotten about them since I’d been expelled by the Spanish majors.

I pilfered an academic notebook and presented it to Sonia with my whole zip-top sandwich bag full of miscellaneous crayons.

Her eyes widened. She poked at the crayons. She smiled and she giggled, but she didn’t start to color. Instead, she picked up the bag and held it to her cheek, squeezing it like a balloon. Then she tucked the bag into the folds of her sweater, as if she wanted to hide it. At first I thought that she just wanted to keep the crayons to herself, so she wouldn’t have to share with the other girls.

And then it hit me.

Sonia had never seen a zip-top plastic bag.

She wasn’t coloring with the crayons because she didn’t know how to open the bag. And she wasn’t even sure if she was supposed to open it. She looked up at me for guidance.

Carefully, I took the bag from her hands and showed her how to unzip the top. Then I encouraged her to zip and unzip it herself. She positively squealed with delight, and I blinked to hold back my tears.

For the next month, Sonia treated that single zip-top bag as her own personal treasure. Each day we sat together in the back of the classroom, coloring and communicating in our own special brand of Spanglish.

The crayons eventually got broken or lost, but the bag was never out of Sonia’s vigilant care. She filled it with tiny items like buttons and hair clips and bits of ribbon. We laid her trinkets on the table and created silly vocabulary lessons with them. I taught her English words, and she taught me Spanish words – plus so much more.

From Sonia I learned that I didn’t need to fit into the Spanish majors’ curriculum to be a good volunteer. I just needed to pay close attention to my opportunities, to be willing to work independently, and to appreciate the wonder of a child.

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Cycling on the D-day beaches of France

We were cycling in France and became obsessed with trivialities – the next puncture, whether the waiter had given us enough jam to go with our croissant or whether we’d get sand in our chains if we cycled over the beach. These were the important things, we thought.

And then we visited the D-day beaches. At the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer¸ in Normandy, we discovered that freedom was the only thing that mattered and we had been given it.

More than 9,000 white crosses patterned the grass of this beautiful stretch of land by the sea. Pink lilies floated on a pool of black water stretching out from a giant bronze statue symbolizing the spirit of American youth rising from the waves.

The white haired man stood in shorts and sandals, his face smudged with tears, his lips mouthing words as the American National anthem rung out across the cemetery. Tourists stopped, stood erect, some placed hand on heart. The stars and stripes of the American flag flew stiff like cardboard in the breeze.

‘Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord’ were the words on the memorial. We’d looked into the eyes of the soldiers, crammed together in the landing craft. They were there on film and in photographs in the museum. One survivor had written: “As the boat touched sand and the ramp went down, I became a visitor to hell.”

It has been a grey day in every sense of the word. We had cycled under heavy cloud down the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula towards the D-day beaches.

We’d stopped at the Pointe du Hoc, the highest point between the two American beaches, Utah and Omaha and we’d trudged the grey gravel path to the edge of the 100 foot cliffs and looked down at the grey flat sea, to the beach where the American Rangers had landed on 6th June.

The only sound, a swishing of waves breaking on the shore; a hushed landscape, swarming with silent visitors, trailing over the dips and hollows, climbing into bunkers and gun emplacements, breathless with the magnitude of the task undertaken more than 70 years ago.

The climb looked impossible, sheer cliffs of yellow sandstone. But the rangers used ladders and ropes with grappling hooks and many used bayonets or knives, any means possible to fasten themselves to the vertical surface and enable them to climb; climb and at the same time dodge the gunfire of the enemy.

They scaled the cliffs; they seized the German artillery so hazardous to the landings on Omaha and Utah beaches and they held on against fierce attacks. And by seizing the land at the top of the cliffs, they were part of the force that took back Europe. After two days of fighting only 90 of the 250 Rangers were still standing.

This bleak inhospitable landscape is still scarred today, a moonscape of craters, now grass covered and with brown sheep grazing.

As I cycled on towards Gold beach, I hummed the tune of the American national anthem and the words came to me, the last two lines, the words the man had been struggling to sing at the cemetery.

O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Yes, the American flag was still flying at the cemetery and from hundreds of houses along the way. They were free. We were free.

Those men had fought and died for our freedom but I’m ashamed to say we had lost sight of it.

 

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The Sounds of Inspiring Silence in Slovakia

Do you ever wonder which one of your senses you would miss most and would destroy the independent pleasure of travel – take away that freedom? Well I guess most people would say sight, but I disagree. Freedom lies within the sounds which have made my travels in the past and now, for different reasons, still do so. But I would accept the odours of distant lands have a case too.

I am sitting on the terrace of my house – Stupava, 20 k’s north of Bratislava, Slovakia. Sometimes the walnut tree, where my daughter’s swing hangs and is such a part of all of our lives, planted the day this house was finished seventy years ago, and its attendant pines, fill with birds and they get this crazy call and answer conversation going. When the rush hour hum of the motorway two k’s away (only during the week) isn’t there, it is magical. And then there are the speakers in the streets in towns and villages all over Slovakia. Hangers-on on since communist times, these are used to announce town events, deaths, marriages and the like. But when not even a mouse stirs elsewhere in the house, and it is evening, you get this curious echoing effect from the speakers in streets all around the town. Goodness knows what they are saying. They start with a sort of jolly country accordion jingle and then the echoing call and answer tidings mingle into a jumbled mess of announcements. They are from streets all around, some hundreds of metres away. Is this country really independent now? Big Brother is calling and you can’t avoid it. Are these sounds taking away independence here and now? I am still independent in my travels and it is sounds that do this for me. They give the texture of travels and maintain independence in a different way from sights, despite the all-encompassing announcements from all around tonight. And on this balmy evening my thoughts take me back to one post-poker night echoing in the early morning streets of Amman six or so years ago.

Swaying homeward, floating on exhaustion and Amstel beers, the Mosque call begins all around. The streets were so empty in the first glimmers of sunlight that morning, silhouetting some of the mosques against the rising golden dawn, that the apartment blocks are acting as sound deflectors. So the timeless chant that somehow always managed to give an “everything is ok” feel to life there, the reminder to come to pray, starts to envelop me from every side, a three dimensional, melancholy colliding of calls. Some of the Imams are shrill, some passionate, and some deep. Here they all combine, and it is beautiful.

But we are still on my terrace this evening contemplating the sounds of travel over a cigarette. And now the thought train travels to Africa. Who can forget the sound of the African bush when camping at night? Or hippo grunts uncomfortably near the tent, the distant hum of the Smoke That Thunders (Mosi oa Tunya – otherwise and more ridiculously known as Victoria Falls)? And talking of Zimbabwe, what about the clashing crash of metal panels over potholes, raucous conversations in the guttural, clicking languages of the country, goat bleatings intermingling with the glorious static ridden Zimbo-pop radio stations that together make up the signature tune of sub-Saharan African buses? Or maybe even waves on the beach in Bali backed with hotel voicings? Bring on the Aussie twang! Or Carnival in Trinidad? Oh the music! And we haven’t even started on Indian train journeys (“Chai, chai, chai,” so deep that it has a demonic quality to it at 5am). I think that sounds have all the colour of sights.

The way that you interpret your senses is what lies at the heart of independence in travels. And travelling is the ultimate freedom. And here in Slovakia, post communist, let us not forget that Freedom and Independence are still very precious commodities.

Yes, sounds play their part in independence in the freedom of travel. It is a terrible thing to start to lose your sight, you think that your independence has gone, your freedom, but if this should ever happen to you then go and sit on a “quiet” terrace and think about the sounds of silence. Let them wash over your thoughts and draw you in. Contemplate it long and hard. And then you realise: no-one can take away your freedom – ever.

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Freedom in an Italian Blood Orange

I balanced a blood orange in the crook of my arm as I fumbled noisily with the lock. So much for trying not to wake my friend, Emma. I slipped out the door, and made my way to…well, I wasn’t really sure where I was headed.

Except that I was going up.

An increase in elevation has always invigorated me. Whether scrambling up the hill in my grandmother’s backyard as a child, or trekking the Andes as an adult, there has always been something about climbing. Perhaps it is the nearly impalpable skip of my heartbeat, the shortness of my breath, or the burning of my muscles as I put one foot in front of the other.

Keep in mind, at this point in my life I had only ever really climbed my grandmother’s hill, so I took the winding, paved road that appeared to be going up. Everyone has to start somewhere.

While walking, I passed some blood orange trees, and I smiled as I remembered what happened on the train to Rome just days ago.

* * *

I rifled through my bag to retrieve what I thought was an ordinary orange and buried my too-short-nails into its skin. When I finally got a good grip and peeled it back, the flesh appeared purplish.

“Emma. Something is wrong with my orange. Maybe it’s rotten?”

She examined the orange, tossed it back with a giggle, and said, “It’s a blood orange, Mia.”

I’d only ever seen blood orange yogurt. A real blood orange. I took a bite. “Mmmmmm! So much better than ordinary oranges,” I said, and I wiped a dribble of juice off my chin. I’m a messy eater, okay?

As the train zoomed on, I was silently astounded by my lack of awareness about the world. Blood oranges were a real thing, and they were far superior to the oranges I previously knew and loved.

* * *

My aforementioned friend, Emma, was living in Milan and coordinated most of our trip. She referred to it as “Mia’s Taste of Italy”. Delicious, in my opinion. The trains, and our legs, carried us through Milan, Rome, Florence, Pisa (yes, I took “the picture”), and Cinque Terre. On this day, I found myself in Riomaggiore, a lovely little fishing village. Unbeknownst to me, this “Taste of Italy” would ignite a deeper passion to learn more about the cultures, histories, and lifestyles of the world.

Lost in my thoughts, I continued up the winding road in Riomaggiore, contemplating all I had experienced in just a few days. When my mind found its way back to the present, I stopped to gaze at the sea. And there I stood, for longer than I should have, but not for as long as I would have liked, taking in the brightly colored homes, and the vibrant, local citrus trees. I breathed in the crisp, salty ocean air and shuddered as the breeze came and went.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the view from the top. Going up also makes me hungry; luckily I always pack snacks. Always.

I dug in into my blood orange, this time admiring the beauty of that purple flesh as I extracted a wedge.

Suddenly, I got that tightness in my throat that signals I’m going to cry. So, I cried. I cried because I realized my job controlled every aspect of my life. Sundays were for food prep, Mondays for grading, Tuesdays for lesson planning, Wednesdays for meetings, and no days for living. I cried because what I thought was safe and good was actually holding me back. I cried because my life was a life only halfway lived. Then, I cried as I thanked God for revealing what true freedom and happiness looks like, for showing me the beauty in a blood orange on the bluffs of Riomaggiore.

Maybe the invigorating thing about going up is the way it helps me gain perspective about what I thought I knew. Maybe the air really is different “up there”.

Now that I have tasted a different sort of freedom, I am preparing for it. Preparing my heart so I can receive my next assignment. Organizing my finances so I can leave my current job. Preparing my mind for a shift in priorities and the ability to discern what truly matters. This is quite a leap for a woman who always thought freedom was tied to finances, success, and security.

I have spent my life eating ordinary oranges while the blood oranges were just waiting to be discovered, waiting for me to consider their splendor. This is the year I start eating blood oranges. This is the year I choose true freedom.

I don’t really know where I’m headed, but I know I will be going up.

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The Peaceful Thinking Cabin in the USA

My beloved calls it “The thinking cabin,” or sometimes, the “writing shack.” I had meant to name it “Le Cabanon,” after my professor’s private space in the South of France. Behind his home in the hills, he directed me down a path through the lavender to a little outbuilding, maybe 15 x 30 square feet. Inside, I felt like I had entered a sacred space: very simple, sparse, holy. A desk and chair, some book shelves, a narrow cot on which to take a nap. One summer, I took that trip to visit my University of Denver creative writing teacher, William Wiser, perhaps 25 years ago. His wife was French, and while in Colorado, he lived in a tiny studio in South Denver, where he invited students to share a meal, a glass of wine. He was humble and quiet, a respected through not famous writer of literary fiction.

When he and Michelline picked me up in their “Deux Chevaux” at the train station in Cannes, I had no particular expectations of their home. Some place unassuming, I thought, unpretentious. Bill didn’t drive, and Michelline sped through the hill town of Grasse and out into the country, tearing up the dirt, as there was no pavement, not unlike the roads to my mountain home outside of Westcliffe. But there was no Westcliffe in my life then; I was a graduate student in Denver, preparing for life as a professor of English, a writer of books, a dweller of cities.
He kept telling her to slow down as the tiny tin-like car-contraption made surprising speed, and the passageways were more like paths, only one car-width wide. Michelline seemed to make no allowance for the fact that some other crazy French driver might be coming up the hill toward us.
Nevertheless, we arrived with our lives intact, and there I ran out of superlatives. Their home was spacious without being large, their furnishings tasteful, quiet, tall windows overlooking the pastoral vista we managed to survive during our hair-raising trip from town. But it was “Le Cabanon” I coveted. His space, a writer’s home away from home, though close enough to return for lunch, a cup of tea.
More truthfully, I coveted the life: a home in the country, not to mention the French countryside, a good job teaching reasonably intelligent graduate students during a short academic year – an Edenic life for a person who just wanted to write. Still in my twenties, I did not envision such a future for me, but I gladly took the offered model for my dreams.
In life, as in art, the end of the story doesn’t usually match the intentions of its creator.
Dutifully, I taught my students in the city of Portland, and drove for days every summer to reach my haven in the Sangres – a rented adobe in the Huérfano one summer, a custom cabin in Bear Basin for another. I parked my manual typewriter on various surfaces: a splintery picnic table, a rickety dock overlooking a cow pond, a kitchen counter with a view of hungry chipmunks devouring birdfeed around a fire ring.
Time passed.
In 2004, on my second sabbatical, my then four-year-old son and I moved into our renovated one-room cabin at 9,100 feet in the Wet Mountain Valley, ostensibly for a year. Le Cabanon did not yet exist, not even as an idea. The year became two, as I labored on an historical novel I could not stop writing. The sabbatical became an unpaid leave, and then I quit my job, so we could stay in the mountains. I sold my home in Portland; real estate in a desired urban location being what it was, I made enough to invest in yearly plumbing upgrades on the cabin, slowly replacing a system one plumber kindly called “Mickey Mouse” at best. If the water keeps running through the winter of 2011, it will be a first!
The wooden demonstration model for sale at Greenleaf Forest Products in Westcliffe had a label reading “The Chapel” on its front door. It had a loft and several tall vertical windows that opened, in addition to two elevated round ones that didn’t, and a charming front porch just big enough for a rocking chair.
My son didn’t like the froufrou French name, and when his cousin Benjamin came to visit just after the Chapel was delivered, my nephew the stand-up comedian proposed the