A Pilgrim Rests

I thought of her in that exact moment, when life itself went still. I had been running through a forest path and stopped at my favorite bridge, the one with stone lions guarding it on both sides. I took a moment to stretch and when I did, I saw a gorgeous, snow white egret frozen still in the water. Except he was upside down. Or rather, my view of him was. I was stretching down to reach my toes and saw the bird through the gap in my legs, my narrow field of vision filled with that lovely sight. I would have missed it otherwise, and gone along my run perhaps without this breath of stillness. She, the only pilgrim I really knew, reminded me to appreciate these simplicities. 

Susanne and Jonathan at Moçambique Beach in Florianópolis, Brazil, January 2016.

Susanne and Jonathan at Moçambique Beach in Florianópolis, Brazil, January 2016.

On the flight line in March 2010 at Langley Air Force Base. Photo by Paul Hassell

On the flight line in March 2010 at Langley Air Force Base. Photo by Paul Hassell

We said goodbye to her, my mother-in-law, Susanne, three months ago. That is hardly enough time to heal a broken heart. I don’t think the right amount of time even exists. So you do what you can. That often means remembering the good moments she gave us, even after she was gone. 

Susanne and Jonathan enjoying the view from the Palacio Cruz e Sousa in Florianópolis, Brazil, during her visit in January 2016.

Susanne and Jonathan enjoying the view from the Palacio Cruz e Sousa in Florianópolis, Brazil, during her visit in January 2016.

Here is another.

The year was just halfway gone and it had already been a long one, both sad and joyful. It was the year of Jonathan coming home from war, the year we welcomed our first nephew to the family, the year Susanne was diagnosed with something she didn’t ask for. It was also the year she bought a home. It was the place where she would grow many things. Flowers became the most visual sign of her work. Hibiscus flowers the size of plates in burgundy and soft pink. Sunflowers that grew taller every year. Mums, rich in orange and red and magenta. And, of course, the roses tucked along the back porch. 

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Yayas flowers
Yayas house.JPG
Yayas butterfly

She also grew the hearts and spirits of those who came to her home and her ministry, Holy Paths. This soul work bore fruit unseen but with great impact. I can’t imagine the number of prayers she led or the hearts she helped heal. But I could feel it when I came home for family holidays. That joyful warmth, welcoming at all times. The home’s location was also a blessing, situated on a horse farm with a view to the Smoky Mountains on a clear day. Susanne always kept food for the horses, and it was a great joy for me to have them close every day I stayed there.

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She kept a photo of her backyard view next to the refrigerator, pinned on a board with thank you cards and invitations and baby announcements. In the photo the horses are relaxed and grazing, the sky painted in slate-blue clouds. Despite the overcast weather, sunlight floods the trees, which have just begun to welcome fall. I always loved this photo. Looking at it now from my home in Brazil, I think about this mix of sunlight and shadow. Fall is upon her old home, a place she filled with love and light. I would really love to sit with her on the porch, steam rising from mugs of tea, while we watch the horses graze and the leaves turn. I imagine she can do that now, see the glory in that moment when a leaf’s green gives way to its new color. 

Fall
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The swing in her front yard.

The swing in her front yard.

A favorite view from her home.

A favorite view from her home.

Here is another moment she gave me.

I had never seen a swing so grand, at least not in person. I waited impatiently until the smaller, younger children were called away to other activities and I could have my adventure swinging from this decades-old giant. I grasped each side of the swing’s ropes, right hand, then left. Hold tight, I thought to myself. I backed up a few steps, then let my feet fly. The wooden plank seat held firm as I landed on it and felt that familiar freedom of the ground dropping from beneath me. After some extra pushes from Jonathan I was able to soar twice or thrice my height off the ground. This is where things could get scary. But they didn’t. The view was too stunning for that. With every crest of the swing, acres and acres of green and trees flooded my vision, broken only by the splash of pond to my right and the occasional dotting of the property’s white fencing. I found myself on this grand swing, in a Sunday-best-like dress, because of her. After my mother-in-law passed, some very kind, dear friends offered us a retreat to the stunning Blackberry Farms in Walland, Tennessee. This gift came from her deep friendships within her community, and at our moment of need they came together to give us a time of rest. Susanne was a great advocate for that, and I believe she is resting well now.

Thank you, Susanne, Mom, for this special parting gift. I am certain it won’t be the last.

A quiet afternoon at Blackberry Farms

A quiet afternoon at Blackberry Farms

Visiting one of the original fishing villages in Florianópolis.

Visiting one of the original fishing villages in Florianópolis.

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Jonathan and Susanne taking in the view of Diamond Head in Oahu, Hawaii, August 2013.

Jonathan and Susanne taking in the view of Diamond Head in Oahu, Hawaii, August 2013.

Waiting for the luau to begin in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Waiting for the luau to begin in Waikiki, Hawaii.

Gone in the Morning

“Where in this wide world can a person find nobility without pride, friendship without envy or beauty without vanity?” - Ronald Duncan

I waited as long as I could. But the tighter I held on, the more desperate he became. So when the time was right, when my choice was between crashing into a fence or letting go, I let go, and hoped the ground would be kind as it caught me. 

This was my first fall from a horse.

Bonito and I on my favorite beach.

This was a lesson in control and the so obvious loss of it. As anyone who has been riding horses for a while will tell you, falls are part of it. Mine came while riding a gelding, named Bonito bareback. Looking back, it was rather obvious that I wasn’t ready for this challenge. A few moments after mounting, Bonito realized he could be in control instead of me. He sped up and my efforts to calm him were ill executed to say the least. I had ridden him before but never without a saddle, never without the normal control mechanisms. After failing to calm him down, I knew I was going to fall. From a horse. And probably land on my back. It’s a stomach-dropping feeling when you have time to anticipate it, but I held on at best I could until we at least got to a grassy part of the farm to soften the blow. And then I simply let go. Bonito ran off and I knew my friend Eduardo would catch him for me. I dusted off my back, tried to dust off my pride and walked up to the barn.

The barn. I’ve spent many of recent hours in Brazil here, learning the loss of control and how to regain it. Learning how to get back up from very embarrassing falls. I have always wanted to spend more time horseback riding, and this is the place I've been able to do it. I’m sure my Christmas lists as a child had the unrealistic request of “pony” written at the top for many years (it still does). I was like many young girls and thought horses were a romantic and free-spirited creature. They certainly are, but there’s much more to them than just a pretty mane and tail. 

The person who has taught me this and so much is my Brazilian friend Eduardo. We met while he was a guide at another farm where I had decided to rent a horse for the first time. He was kind and patient with me, and his passion for taking the best care of the horses was so evident. When Eduardo switched jobs to work at a private family farm, he invited me to see his new home. 

I immediately fell in love. It is a simple place, but it is also simply beautiful. A wooden barn and a strip of land that stretches almost to the sea. Best of all there was a place for Eduardo’s own horse, Gaúcho. 

Gaúcho

Over the next months I was invited time after time to enjoy this space, which we call the sítio, or the farm. Eduardo taught me the very simplest of tasks, like leading a horse properly. I relished the opportunity to be outside, to help with the animals, to learn more about caring for something other than myself. The horses of course were the main attraction, but I also came to love all the creatures in our care, like the little bull we had. We called him Bobby and I’ll never forget the time he almost knocked me off my feet at feeding time. The cat, too, became part of the family. I named her Zoe and remember when Eduardo called to tell me she was birthing her litter of kittens, one of which I’ve taken home with me. The chickens, too, were a source of joy. One day Eduardo found a lost hen wandering in the field. She was blind in one eye but Eduardo took her home anyway. To say he has taught me a lot about kindness is an understatement. He has taught me we always have more to give.

I have given a lot of my time to the sítio but what I have gained in return is far more valuable. Eduardo let me ride his own horse, Gaúcho, more times than I can count. He let me treat him as my own, and I tried to do what little I could to return this favor. This often can in the form of carrots for Gaúcho and brownies for Eduardo. I saw how Gaúcho’s condition improved in his new home, where Eduardo could care for him better.

Our adventures often took us to the beach, where I would walk Gaúcho just a little into the water. He never spooked at the noise or the rush of the waves, and it was as if he was at peace on the beach just like me. His disposition as a horse was remarkable. He was patient, calm enough for kids but adventurous enough to give me my first ride bareback. On one of our last rides Eduardo braided his mane and tail. By coincidence, I had braided my hair that day, and these simple things made us both smile. I tucked flowers into his mane and Eduardo feigned his disapproval. The truth is that Gaúcho was Eduardo’s pride and joy, but he was generous enough to share him not just with me, but with anyone who cared to ride him.

One of the many rides on the beach with Gaúcho and Eduardo.

I’ve introduced another dear Brazilian friend, Mari, to horseback riding, and I remember her beautiful smile when Eduardo and I put her up on Gaúcho on the beach. Sharing Gaúcho with others was a selfless joy for Eduardo, something I admire greatly. 

It would be impossible to share all the memories of him, but I will always remember the lazy flopping of Gaúcho’s ears and the gorgeous reddish-brown color of his mane, and how it always reminded me of my sisters’ auburn locks. Gaúcho was willing to carry me in all kinds of weather, through both physical and emotional storms. He led me safely through the rain and thunder more than once, and carried me to see the sunrise on the beach. In short, he allowed me to see innumerable wonders, both around and within me.

We said goodbye to Gaúcho last month after he battled colic for some days and didn’t improve, despite lots of medicine and love. Eduardo called me in the dark hours of morning, saying he thought it would be time to say goodbye. He was right. Gaúcho made it just long enough to enjoy one more sunrise in a place that we both came to call home. 

Eduardo and I buried him later that day, on the trail that we take to get to the beach. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard digging the final resting place of a friend. It was the kind of work that exhausts your soul. But I was so grateful I could be the one to help in that difficult task after all he had given me. Eduardo let me put flowers in Gaúcho’s mane for the last time, and we thanked him for the adventures. In the end that’s all we can ever do, thank someone for sharing a little bit of their light with us. 

The Horse 

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
friendship without envy, or beauty without vanity?
Here where grace is laced with muscle and strength by gentleness confined.
___

He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent;
there is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
___

England’s past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs;
He is our inheritance.

by Ronald Duncan

A Dozen Months

A dozen months ago I promised myself that the storms of 2015 were behind me. I also said I would try to meet the storms of 2016 head on. 

And damn, that is harder than it sounds. Much harder than I thought. Have you faced into the wind of a storm lately? Have you felt its icy bite bring tears to your eyes and sear the edges of your earlobes? Where I am in Brazil our storms aren’t so cold, but they are equally vicious.

The wind howls just as loudly here and the rain can be just as relentless.

In some respects, this has been my stormiest year yet. It marked my first year living abroad in Brazil, which comes with plenty of adjustments. Some people call this “learning to navigate a new culture.” I disagree. I don’t think you can navigate a culture. There’s no Google Maps for people’s minds, their habits, their long-held beliefs.

I believe patient observation is your best chance of not going crazy.

Try to navigate a culture with a set of fixed directions and you’ll probably end up making a gross amount of wrong turns. I know I have. This year I’ve stumbled over more words than my two-year-old nephew and I’ve felt like having as many meltdowns as him trying to comprehend a different way of life. 

A Luta Continua...The Fight Continues

But it hasn’t all been tears (or tantrums, thankfully). It hasn’t all been howling winds and dark nights. I’ve learned to find peace in the present moment. Or least I’m getting better at this. I’ve had many opportunities to explore this year, both here in Brazil and in other countries. For me, new experiences (preferably ones in the open air) are the best thing to dull the pain of life's storms, to keep the bullshit from making you crazy. Here are some moments when I found peace and joy. Some were extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Others were waiting just out my front door. 

1. Finding this tree in a downtown park

The branches are so heavy they need metal supports to keep growing. There are always Brazilians gathered here taking a break from life. I could sit here all day. Hell, I could build a treehouse and live in it here.

2. Finding this ad in Austria for flights to my home state of New Jersey

I’ve had the luck to travel to many countries but I have never, ever seen an ad for New Jersey, anywhere outside of the US. Obviously New York has the greater tourist pull, but I’d choose the Garden State any day. Although, I can’t say I’d choose Newark...

3. This museum in Zagreb, Croatia

I’ve never seen a museum with rosy pink walls displaying fine art until we stumbled upon this one in Croatia. This place had a lovely collection and was a sweet refuge on a cold, rainy February day.

4. Repairing my boots in Orvieto, Italy

I sported my new favorite boots on our trip to Europe earlier this year, and they took a beating. I wandered around this cobblestoned street town to find a place to repair them, and stumbled into a charming story. An American woman working in the store who had come to Italy years ago to study ended up marrying an Italian shoemaker, and created her life in this centuries-old town. Their work was beautiful, true to the Italian form. You can see their creations here: Frederico Badia Shoes.

5. Ice cream

I don’t count calories, and life is too short to pass up dessert. Especially when that dessert is a made-to-order Magnum ice cream bar. I requested salted pretzels, peanuts and chili pepper flakes. It was divine. 

6. Bread and cheese in the highlands of Santa Catarina

I’ve already written about our trip to the Serra Gaúcha but I can’t forget the traditional Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, that I ate at this restaurant. I’ve since learned to make my own but the pão I ate here was incredible. 

7. This rainbow

Not pictured are the other gorgeous cascades we saw at Foz do Iguaçu, a truly magical place. I’ve always loved to stop and appreciate nature’s phenomenons, and I plan to do that more in 2017.

8. Taking care of these two gatinhos

Milo and Lucy are troublemakers. Do not let their adorable faces fool you. I kept these two cats for some friends while they traveled and it was a joy. I know many of you cherish your pets, and hopefully you can be continually reminded that they more than a just chore to clean up after.

9. A bike ride on the beach

Why don’t I do this more often? I often ask myself this question when I'm walking on the beach, running, or just getting outside. The answer is probably because I’m lazy. But hey, that’s what resolutions are for, right? To tell ourselves we will be less lazy in the year to come. I promise to try.

10. These American flags

I’ve found that Brazilians don’t have the same sense of patriotism. I tried explaining this to a Brazilian friend just the other day and it was obvious I had way more love of country that he ever would. That is something I’ll never be ashamed of. Seeing these flags in NYC just before Independence Day was inspiring, and I knew I was home.

11. Fireworks

The only thing more awesome than these super fun displays of explosions in the sky are the people you see them with. Not pictured: my family. But I can still see the way the fireworks lit up their faces.

12. A walk in the water

I loved exploring Fernando de Noronha, one of Brazil’s most enchanting islands. My favorite moment was on this beach just after sunrise when I took a dip without a soul in sight. Spend some time alone in nature next year. Your soul will thank you for it.

13. This storm

On the edge of the Amazon I was most captivated by this storm rolling in over a cornfield because it reminded me of home. There's a reason New Jersey is called the Garden State, and I was so glad to be reminded of that in Brazil.

14. Again, the flag

I can’t describe how amazing it was to be at the Rio Olympics, but I can say this was my favorite moment, watching Old Glory rise above the crowd at the women’s team gymnastics finals, where USA took home gold. If you ever, ever have the chance to go to the Olympics, just do it. I attended this final gymnastics event on a whim, and I will never regret it.

15. These flowers 

Every time I walk to our beach in the early morning, I am grateful. But yesterday this extra surprise of a field of wildflowers put me more at peace than I expected. What's outside your door today that can make you smile? (For my sisters who may be knee-deep in snow right now...sorry, that will probably not make you smile).

I hope we can take in all the beauty from this past year and realize that the storms have passed. Yes, there will be more to come, but we’ve made it this far. Let's keep going.

Bless the Rains

When I arrived at the Balule Nature Reserve in South Africa, the staff said it was the worst drought since the park was founded more than twenty years ago. It was the driest place I’d seen in a long time, and it seemed as if the strike of a single match could set the entire savannah on fire. Dry trees, dry earth, dry bones stretched as far as the eye could see. 

“We really need the rain,” they said.

That afternoon we piled into the open air truck for the game drive, the first of a few drives into the bush (or bushveld, if you want to get fancy). The goal was to experience the savannah and hopefully see some of South Africa's most famous animals, but it was unusually windy. This faceless force of nature slashed through the savannah that afternoon and into the evening, pushing the animals to take shelter. Our guide, a talented and dedicated man named Given, explained that strong winds make it difficult for the animals to smell, and with that sense reduced they often hide. But the drive wasn’t without its rewards. Given spotted a mother giraffe and her calf, and we quietly exited the truck to get a closer look. Our guide took care not to invade the space of the giraffes (or any animals we approached), always maintaining a distance comfortable for all. I don’t remember the first time I saw a giraffe in a zoo, but I will always recall the moment I saw this calf half hidden by the trees. Even at just a few months the giraffe was enormous, and undeniably graceful. Given pointed out the differences in the coloring and the spotting patterns, as well as the size of the horns to indicate sex. It was the first lesson of a thousand he gave during my stay in the savannah. 

A successful game drive is a combination of wildlife and environment knowledge, keen observation and luck.

There are no guarantees in the business. So often we saw signs of the animals’ presence but didn’t actually see the animal. For example, I asked our guide Given about was a tree whose bark had been erratically stripped and scored, exposing a reddish trunk smattered with mud. The culprit? Elephants. He said elephants not only eat the bark, but often knock over trees for the sheer enjoyment of it. The mud on this one had already hardened, and we didn’t see any elephants that day but just the idea of these majestic creatures roaming around knocking over trees was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Given also showed us the other, less playful side of nature — the remains of an elephant. A single bone nearly the length of my body brought me back to those dinosaur displays I saw in museums as a kid. Only this time it wasn’t a prehistoric piece strung up along with the rest of the skeleton. This set of bones was strewn about in a similar fashion to the way my nephews toss their toys throughout the living room. A femur bone by this tree, a few vertebrae by the bush over there, and a hip bone in the center of the destruction. Way off to the side, a portion of twisted elephant hide, so stiff you could use it for a chair. Welcome to the savannah’s living room.

Other surprises awaited once the light faded.

Even with the windy night, Given found four lions thanks to his sharp eyes and apt juggling of driving and spotlight duties. I found the beasts to be surprisingly relaxed as we watched them amble about, then finally pick a place to rest. They took no notice of the incessant camera clicks. In fact, our presence didn’t interest them at all, which was kind of a relief. 

The ride back to the lodge was invariably windy, and after a quiet meal we retired to our cabins after what turned out to be a tiring day. An early morning six-hour drive from Johannesburg just to get to the border of the preserve, another hour or so from the park gate to the cabins, and then several more hours in the truck for the game drive really shouldn’t have been so exhausting. After all, I was just sitting there. But something in the wind pulled me into a weariness that made me expect sleep would come easy. I settled in for the night just as the long-awaited rain made its debut. Perhaps rain is an understatement. The storm came in furious as the wind was earlier and raged well into the night. I am no stranger to thunderstorms, but this one howled so intensely even I couldn’t sleep through it.

Bless the rains, indeed.

"Better not to watch"

Sleep or no sleep, every day at 5:30am the staff at Greenfire Game Lodge beat an enormous drum that hangs just outside the dining area for the wakeup call. After a quick coffee or tea, it’s into the trucks for the morning game drive. Not long into the bumpy, jerky, motion-sickness inducing ride, I knew I had a problem. Something hadn’t settled well with me the day before, and the moment Given stopped the truck along the way I asked if it was safe that I exit the vehicle. Six sets of eyes followed me as I hopped quickly down and walked behind the truck to revisit last night’s dinner. I could only think to offer this advice to my fellow safari-goers: “Better not to watch” and pointed to the front of the truck as if I could distract them from what was about to happen just a few steps behind their seats. Moments later Jonathan came to check on me, and managed to step in one of the three deposits I had made. Instead of thanking him for the paper towel he offered me, I only managed to quip “Watch where you’re stepping!” I knew that he was also having some stomach trouble but my symphony for him got lost in the shame I felt for subjecting the rest of our the group to the ever-disgusting experience of hearing someone else toss their cookies.

An Unlikely Pair

After that embarrassing episode had passed, we saw far more interesting sights, such as the unlikely pair of a zebra and giraffe. Given told us that these two species often graze together because the giraffe’s height allows it to see approaching predators, whereas the zebra can sense danger on the ground and below the tree level. At the first sign of danger, either the zebra or the giraffe will move out, which signals to the other that it’s time to go. 

Zebras are of course a well-known staple of the African savannah, but what I didn’t know is that you can replace the word “herd” with “dazzle.” And doesn’t a dazzle of zebras sound more fitting? No two stripe patterns are equal, and even more adorable, they often rest as a pair with their head placed on the other’s back to watch for danger in different directions. 

References to the Lion King are inevitable on a safari, but the diversity Disney presented only scratches the surface of the true glory of the animal kingdom. The birdlife alone is enough to fill a book. Our successful sightings included a black-backed jackal, an animal that mates for life and will share food with their partner if they’re not foraging together. I’ve found that sharing food is a basic concept of love (especially when it is chocolate), so I think this counts as romantic, even by Disney standards. We also saw genets, which look like a snub-nosed cat with rounded ears, and opt to carry their young on their back instead of by the mouth as other cat species do. The genet’s raccoon-like relative, the African civet, are also rarely seen, and tend to diet on things that kill most other animals, like toxic insects, toads and poisonous snakes. 

Our guide spotted this giant African land snail shell--another surprise along the safari. And apparently they make great pets.

Our most intimate encounter was with the short-tempered African buffalo as a herd of them grazed quietly and peacefully on either side of our safari vehicle. Both males and females have horns for defensive purposes, and evidently they’re not afraid to use them at the first inkling of a threat. 

A more common sight on the savannah is the greater kudu, a majestic antelope with corkscrew horns and an ability to jump eight-foot fences. Surprisingly, their twisted horns don’t pose a tangling hazard, as they simply tilt their chin up to avoid catching them in the brush. 

A smaller but more common antelope, the impala, is definitely the animal we saw the most of during the safari, to the point where we didn’t even touch our cameras when they were spotted. But seeing them so frequently had its benefits over the rarer sightings. We could observe the herds better without constantly worrying how the pictures turned out. 

The variety of antelope in South Africa alone is extensive, ranging from the greater kudu to the smaller varieties, each with their own coloring and graceful gait. Unfortunately, my photography skills weren’t good enough to capture them all. 

Earth’s largest land animal, the African savannah elephant, is surprisingly good at camouflaging itself, and I’m still in awe that such an enormous creature keeps a strict vegetarian diet. We were lucky enough to spot one older male which our guide guessed was close to 50 years old. The elephant easily ripped off a large branch whose thickness was enough for a small tree, partly to eat the bark, partly just to be destructive. We didn't get very close, but to be honest, we didn't need a closer view to realize this animal's power.

Though some measures exist to keep the animals safely on the reserve, it's good to be reminded of the wildness of the savannah and its creatures. On our way to the airport we saw a warthog on the side of the road. That’s right…a regular Pumba just looking for some grub. Instant delight filled our car. Even on our last leg nature provided us with a glimpse of something new. I couldn’t help but blurt out, “I want to see a baby warthog.” Because we can all agree that smaller, younger versions of animals are obviously cuter. Just then on the right side of the road we saw another clan of warthogs, this time with the smaller, younger and cuter version in their midst. Our safari was complete. The best part about the experience was feeling like I might never need to go to a zoo again. In fact, it makes you think twice about ever putting any animal in a cage.

Name one living thing on earth that wasn’t meant to be free. I dare you.

PS - If you're thinking, "Well, G, how about murderers and such? Should they be free? What about deadly viruses? Should they be free to wreak havoc on society?" You can take my challenge with a grain of salt and use your judgement. 

The Price of Secrets

I know a man who can identify a bird by the shape of its wings. In an instant of flight he analyzes its shape and size and coloring, then quickly flips through a thick field guide to show me a drawing of the bird I was too slow to catch on camera.

It’s easy to miss sighting a bird or a monkey or a caiman or a cobra in the jungle, despite their near omnipresence. They move seamlessly in and out of the shadows of this vast habitat. But catching a glimpse of wildlife, to see this intense array of biodiversity is what brings me and thousands of other voyagers to the Amazon every year. 

The intensity of the natural diversity is enough to make you feel like a stranger on this earth. And why wouldn’t it? The Amazon, or as Amazonas, as it is in Portuguese, is a wild, storied land. It would be foolish of me to try and capture its grandeur here, but to prepare for this trip I did read two accounts of men risking life and limb and sanity to experience this place. The first was The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon's Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace, a writer for National Geographic. He opts for a Amazonian voyage at what is perhaps the worst possible time—in the middle of a divorce, a new relationship, a stressful transition for his kids and his lack of physical preparedness. But then again, is there ever a good time to venture into one of the world’s harshest environments? I think not. His book details a trip with Sydney Possuelo, the once-leader of Brazil’s government agency to protect the indigenous people. Possuelo’s lifework was to implement a no-contact strategy for the agency, meaning they wouldn’t attempt to intentionally modernize any uncontacted indigenous community. Instead of trying to bring the tribes to a modernized way of life, he worked tirelessly to survey the outskirts of their communities and advocate for their independence. Basically, the idea was to leave them to continue living the way they have been for hundreds of years. Wallace’s book follows one of Posseulo’s trips to search for and survey what was believed to be one of the last uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, the Arrow People, or, the Flecheiros, who were given this name by outsiders for their habit of launching poison-tipped arrows at any intruder. This adventure weaves together the challenges of modern Brazil’s interaction with native populations and the classic jungle trek (with a few surprises, of course). The Unconquered is a fantastic look into the madness of the jungle and Brazil's culture, and it is one of the best pieces of journalism I've read to date. 

The other book I read was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann, which retraces the the tale of Royal Geographic Explorer Percy H. Fawcett and his 1926 disappearance in the Amazon. Fawcett, a well known and experienced explorer went on a mission with his son Jack, and his son’s friend Riley to search for the fabled El Dorado, or the Lost City of Z, which Fawcett believed was a highly sophisticated society deep in the jungle. He wasn’t alone in this theory, and after Fawcett and his party vanished, others went in to search for him and Z. Not all lived to tell their tales. Fawcett’s other exploration feats are as legendary as his disappearance, and this book was a great introduction in the old world days of exploration and how alluring the Amazon can be, despite its dangers. It was also a fascinating look at a talented and perhaps troubled man possessed by passion. You should read it before the movie comes out in October. Trust me, it's worth it to experience this adventure first in words, then in film.

But it should be remembered that the difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets.
— Percy H. Fawcett, lost in the jungle

My own voyage did not remotely resemble any of the treks I read about but it was no less thrilling. The density and diversity of the Amazon Basin is simply astonishing. I saw a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the jungle, but it was enough to feel like it was a world within itself. The starting point of our journey was in Tefé, a small city in the state of Amazonas that is about a hour long flight west of Manaus. From there we took a small boat for 40 minutes or so to the Uakari Floating Lodge in the Mamirauá Reserve. There are many outfitters that advertise Amazon jungle experiences, particularly outside of Manaus, but most of the ones I researched felt more like a gimmick instead of an actual look at nature. The Uaucari Lodge, however, not only employs its own biologists, but it is a model of sustainability. I was impressed by their organization and service, and most especially by the quality of their guides. Speaking Portuguese made our experience more enjoyable, of course, but the guides were all helpful, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. During one canoe trip I foolishly asked our guide, who grew up nearby, if he had to study the field guide much in order to work this job. “Of course not,” he said. “This is my backyard.” The brightly colored parrots were as familiar to him as pigeon was to me growing up. 

Every day in the reserve he proved it. He pointed out two sloths which otherwise would have gone unnoticed to my untrained eye. He also showed me that a coiled lump in a tree just above our heads was in fact a snake sleeping. It was in that moment I finally saw for myself a little of what I had read about the Amazon and its hidden dangers and its undeniably deadly qualities.

But deadly can be beautiful.

It was as if we were clawing our way through a huge, vaporous terrarium, an enormous laboratory where the process of evolution continued to unfold by the minute, spawning a mind-boggling array of deadly creatures and toxic plants, all locked in a terrifying contest of survival.
— Scott Wallace, The Unconquered

Piranha fishing is surprisingly easy. Here, the guide tells me not to let my arm so close to the fish's mouth...

You know, I had a lot of romantic notions about the jungle and this kind of finished that.
— James Lynch, Jr. as quoted in Lost City of Z discussing his capture by an Amazonian tribe
Have you ever heard the sound of a jungle? It’s not what you imagine. It’s not really loud or anything like that. But it’s always talking.
— James Lynch, as quoted in Lost City of Z
Civilization has a relatively precarious hold upon us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.
— Percy H. Fawcett

Third Degree to the South (And Straight On 'Til Morning)

Neverland isn’t as far as you think. That place where you never, never have to worry about grown-up things again sits just below the equator: third degree to the south and east until the stars fade. There you’ll find the island of Fernando de Noronha, where “dreams are born and time is never planned.” That’s how Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie described Neverland, but he could have just as easily been describing Brazil’s most famous island.

Fernando de Noronha's Praia da Conceição, with Morro do Pico in the background. 

I half-expected to see mermaids rise up from the azure waters. After all, there were dolphins playing along the boat’s bow as it glided up to Praia do Sancho, voted one of the most beautiful beaches in Brazil. This gorgeous crescent of sand is surrounded by imposing cliffs, and the only access is via the sea or the mountain trail. If you enter via the cliffs, the trail begins with a steep ladder that literally drops between a rock and a hard place. Or if you have fairy dust on hand, you can fly in Peter Pan-style. Being short on fairy dust I took the boat, but it was no less magical. There was plenty of time to snorkel and spy on a silvery school of fish before soaking up sun alongside lizards. It is easy to never grow up when your only worry is your next adventure. 

And adventure is easy to find in Neverland. It’s best discovered outside, among the trees or the beach or the stars, or all three if you can find it. Fernando de Noronha is well known throughout Brazil for its incredible natural beauty and diversity, and is the only inhabited land of the 21 islands in the volcanic archipelago. It is also home to various marine research projects such as Projeto Tamar, which rehabilitates sea turtles. The diving and surfing are world class—enough to draw thousands of tourists each year trying to catch the perfect wave. Unfortunately I’m not a surfer or a diver, but I did explore some fantastic trails, both in the woods and on the beaches. Though I didn’t see any pirates (they fled long ago) or giant crocodiles, I found some Lost Boys on the Praia da Conceição, where every day at sundown they play beach volleyball. With their feet. This unique sport, called footvolley, or futevolêi in Portuguese, is another indication of the Brazilian passion for all things football (soccer) related. Why play beach volleyball with your hands when your feet are just as capable? So every evening I watched them jeer and cheer each other in the game as the last light fell upon the water. And yes, it was magical.

Lost Boys (and Girls) on Praia da Conceição at sunset. 

The resident Lost Boys (and Girls) on the island total about 3,000, and each one I encountered said they were more than happy to call Neverland home, despite the high cost of living, the limited fresh water supply and the lack of a hospital. Although the island is a paradise of sun and sand, it is not a paradise of modern infrastructure. There is one paved road on the entire island that runs about seven kilometers (just under four and half miles) and the rest are dirt roads that turn to slick muddy paths during the rainy season. We stayed at the end of one of those unpaved roads just steps from Praia da Conceição, which turned out to be a perfect location for us: just far enough from the main village and very close to the beach. 

Our home for the week wasn't a hotel (there aren't any really on the island). It was a simple, small guest house rented out by the owners of a local beach bar. 

But since our place was at the end of a hilly, rocky path outside the main village, taxi drivers weren’t keen on taking us and any activities that included transportation had to be picked up in the main village at the top of the hill. But who can complain about a little uphill walk when it has stunning ocean views? The minor inconvenience of not being in a car door-to-door turned out to be an adventure on its own. We ran into a herd of cows on one walk and got nearly caught in a downpour during another, until Paulinho (Little Paul), the owner of a nearby pousada, gave us a ride to dinner. Adventure can be found anywhere if you are willing to open your eyes to it.

We can probably thank Amerigo Vespucci for the discovery of Fernando de Noronha, as he is believed to be the first European to find the archipelago during a voyage sponsored by Portugal in 1503. The largest island (and the only one that became inhabited) was awarded to a Portuguese nobleman who financed the discovery voyage, but he likely never set foot in paradise. The nobleman, Fernão de Loronha, was a prominent Lisbon merchant and eventually the island would bear a derivative of his name, Fernando de Noronha. Over the next two hundred-plus years, Portugal, England, France and Holland would wrestle for control of this tiny paradise before it finally returned to Portuguese rule. 

Just as in the fairy tale, Fernando de Noronha harbored more than just Lost Boys. The island was also home to pirates and prisoners, not all of whom made it out alive. It wasn’t until the 1770’s that paradise became a prison. Fernando de Noronha became a penal colony and nearly the entire island’s forest was cut down for construction. Getting rid of all the trees also served two other purposes: it removed hiding places for prisoners and destroyed their chances of building a raft. As you can imagine, the consequences of ravaging a delicate ecosystem in the the ocean were severe, however, these days Brazil takes the restoration and preservation of the island quite seriously. Only a fixed number of visitors are allowed each day, all of whom have to pay a daily tax just to be on Noronha, and an additional fee to access the protected park areas, which is half the island. So, conserving nature doesn’t come cheap, but I’d rather limit the traffic now to ensure the island’s future sustainment.

What first intrigued me about Fernando de Noronha wasn’t its ecosystem or beaches. It was the more recent history of this small island. In World War II it served as a place for prisoners, political and otherwise, but it also served as a base for American troops. Indeed, the first land we touched on the island—the runway—was constructed decades ago by my fellow veterans. In exchange for basing military personnel on Noronha, President Roosevelt agreed to finance Brazil’s national steel-making company. Although I knew that Brazil was the only nation from South America to send troops to fight in World War II, I was surprised to learn that we also used their land to base our own personnel. The United States Navy held control of the airport in Fernando de Noronha from 1944 until the war’s end, but it was also used as a tracking station for guided missiles from 1957-1962.

These days the pirates, prisoners and soldiers are all gone, leaving tourists like me to explore this enchanting island with only curiosity to guide me.

On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf.
— J.M. Barrie

"People see the defect in everything, except for themselves." Less trash, more love, more Noronha. 

Signs like these were hung all over the island, talking about preserving nature or ruminating on life in general.

"Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead." -Charles Bukowski

Linda Olinda

It has been over a month since my three-week trip around Brazil began, but the cool ocean breezes are ever present in my mind. The journey began in Olinda, a small colonial coastal town in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil’s northeast. Once a stronghold of the sugarcane industry and the state’s capital, Olinda has seen its glory days come and go, but the charm remains in brightly colored buildings and churches reborn after a ruthless looting by the Dutch. 

As perhaps is to be expected in a Roman Catholic country, there are churches around just about even bend in Olinda, including 20 Baroque styles chapels mostly dating from the 18th century. The historic center of this quaint hilly town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, one of just 13 cultural sites across the entire country. I loved wandering into a few of these houses of worship with their beautiful, delicately painted blue tiles. The chapels were scattered among the broken cobblestone streets where I caught glimpses of the ocean shimmering just beyond the palm trees.

The view from our Airbnb was envious, especially at sunrise.

Perhaps even better than these picturesque views was an accidental encounter with several dance troupes of caboclinhos who perform the traditional indigenous dance that portrays three key aspects of that culture: hunts, harvests and battles. Caboclinho means “little caboclo” which is entirely unhelpful unless you understand the origin of caboclo. This was the Portuguese term given to the offspring of natives and blacks in Brazil. It is worth nothing that the Portuguese and Brazilians historically had a different view of racial intermixing than the United States. The intermixing was in some ways encouraged here in Brazil centuries ago, and though I can’t pretend to understand all of the nuances on the subject, I can say that this term caboclinho is not meant to be a racial slur. These days it refers to the dancers themselves who perform this traditional display, which includes the characters of a chief and the tribal mother (or female chief), shamans and their warriors. The instruments are nothing like what you would find in a high school band. Instead of clarinets and french horns, these kids learn to play bamboo pipes and maracas shaped like war clubs to decidedly un-Western tunes. And then they dance. I don’t mean awkward prom school dances or even the ballet numbers I tried to do as a kid. I mean whole body movement faster than you can blink. Feet shuffle and arms wave in a maniacally beautiful fashion. Add to this the sparkles and feathers and headdresses the size of a mattress and you have a festival. In fact, you have the northeast's answer to Rio's Carnaval. Needless to say, Brazil continues to surprise and delight.

Mother of Cities

She is a city where explorers once said farewell to familiarity and headed into the vast unknown. She is a city that marked the end of a tamed world and the beginning of the wild, the entrance into the “Great Province of the Indies,” as this area was called.

Imagine it: you are called to be a settler and explorer here in the time when maps are literally blank and survival of the fittest isn’t a cliche. The last place of civilization you may ever see is the “Mother of Cities,” know today as Asunción, Paraguay.

This spirit of exploration and adventure is hidden deep within Asunción. It’s so hidden, in fact, that I didn’t believe the importance of this place while I was there. But this tiny capital of a poor nation is one of the oldest cities in South America and was once a critical hold for Spain. The “Mother of Cities” was famous for all the souls who departed from her in search of a new start, but the full name of this capital city is perhaps just as noteworthy: Nuestra Señora Santa María de la Asunción.

But these days she doesn’t quite live up to the grandeur of her names. Once the center of a large Spanish colonial province that included parts of Brazil and Argentina, Asunción and the nation of Paraguay suffered what has befallen other countries of the continent: rebellion, war, political turmoil, foreign occupation, military dictatorship and a continued struggle with poverty. 

Even still, she is not without her charms.

Leafy parks dot the capital and the traces of colonial buildings beckon from many corners (you will have to look past some graffiti to see it). Sunsets along the Bay of Asunción are well worth the stroll, and the restaurant scene is growing. But my favorite stop was at Mercado 4, the city’s market that, like many others I have seen, offers a smattering of goods from trendy shoes to unidentifiable meat, where ancient herbs are as valued as modern electronics. In Mercado 4 the butchered fish draws prowling cats and their hungry (and very creepy) stares, while baby chicks, ducks and mice await their fate in cages perched on piles of books and crates. These kinds of markets are often the best look into a culture and here was no different. Though the "Mother of Cities" may not have the same commanding presence as she once did in South America, you can still find her spirit of adventure tucked in somewhere between the fake iPhones and the yerba mate.

 

If you go, consider these restaurants:

Taberna Española - My favorite place we ate! This was a paella-lover’s heaven, and the sangria was excellent.

Lo de Osvaldo - A football-themed, sophisticated pub with a fun outdoor eating area and great cuts of meat. 

Talleyrand (Centro location) - Good for a quiet, delicious meal and a decent bottle of wine. We were the only ones in the place, but the service was nice and the steak divine.

Bar San Roque - This restaurant has a good ranking on Trip Advisor but for me it fell a little short of the romantic atmosphere expectations (probably because of the awful Jackie Chan movie dubbed in Spanish that was playing in the corner). But it would still be a good stop for an afternoon treat or coffee.

Medialunas Calentitas  - Friends introduced to this chain (with only three locations!) and we thoroughly enjoyed their sweets and coffee.

904 - A wood fired oven pizza place across from the InterContinental Hotel with a pleasant outdoor courtyard. Good for after-dinner drinks, too.

To Serve, To Strive and Not to Yield

O que é um berne?  “What is a worm?”

I turned to a man named Bruno with very blue eyes and asked this question without a hint of sarcasm. An early, necessary sidenote: for those of you who don’t know, sarcasm is my natural state. Bruno turned to me with a surprisingly equal lack of sarcasm and answered, “É quando você tem…

This was not my first mundane vocabulary question, or my last, during a four-day weekend in what’s known as the Switzerland of Brazil, Campos do Jordão, in the state of São Paulo. Apparently it is also Brazil’s highest city, meaning that during the winter it might get a dusting of snow, maybe, but probably not. It’s not yet officially winter here, but that hasn’t stopped Brazilians from reciting the Game of Thrones chant “Winter is Coming” and donning scarves and gloves. I don’t have the heart to tell them that no, it’s not coming. At least not with heaps of snow. Because this isn’t really Switzerland. It’s only fake Switzerland in Brazil, which means two things: 1. Winter sports are never going to be your thing 2. Everything is decidedly less organized.

But I didn’t go to Campos do Jordão for the nonexistent snow or even the quaint, Swiss-chalet-like architecture. I went on a wild, curious and abrupt turn of the mind. I went on a whim. I went to spend a few days expanding my comfort zone with Outward Bound Brasil. I’ve wanted to do an Outward Bound course in America for a few years, particularly because they offer free programming for eligible veterans. I haven’t made it to a course in the States yet, so when I happened upon this course in Brazil that was open to anyone, including a gringa like me, I decided to go. Not because of careful planning or a great desire to sound like the dumbest person in the room, but simply because I could. (Fact: I did sound like the dumbest person in the room, but I got over it).

As my family members and fellow military friends know, there are many choices you cannot make while serving in the military or being a part of a military family. You usually cannot choose where you live, or when your family will be together. You cannot choose your rank or your commander or your uniform. You often cannot chose if and when you go to war. You certainly cannot choose whether you come back. You simply serve, knowing that you will have to make a million other, often more difficult choices along the way. And though my season of military service is over, I try to be mindful of the ability to choose during this unparalleled season of freedom I am in right now.

So I chose to go into the woods with ten Brazilian strangers and ask them about worms. Our four-day weekend was spent largely at a cabin learning how to do things that seem totally useless in most of our everyday lives: tying knots and using a compass, finding an azimuth and navigating to a point (sans GPS, if you can believe it). These were all things I had done before but long forgotten, however for others it was an entirely new experience. The joy in seeing someone learn a new skill, not because they needed it for a job or a promotion, but just because they wanted to do something different, was joyful. We played a few of the classic team building games, and one such exercise is the trust fall, where you willingly fall backwards off of a platform and hope the strangers you met yesterday don’t drop you. 

In the military I had done countless of these exercises that are meant to help you trust yourself and the others in your new team. But now I was seeing it from the civilian side, from people who chose to spend their long holiday weekend doing something different. They weren’t attending because their ROTC program required it or because their military education demanded it. They weren’t trying to impress the commander or the first sergeant. They certainly weren’t wearing uniforms. But as a group and individually they were more dedicated to trying, to taking a risk, to falling and failing than I had seen in a long time. And they reminded me that once you get past that moment of panic, you can start learning. In the end that’s what Outward Bound is trying to teach you, to keep striving and not to yield to your panic. 

This is easy to say in the more-or-less controlled learning environment I was in. The harder task is taking this idea home and then applying it when your when language skills fall short. Like when you’re the foreigner who can’t explain herself after her debit card was literally eaten by the ATM and the bank workers are blaming you for their dysfunctional machine. Not that it has ever happened to me, of course. 

Which reminds me of another phrase I learned that weekend: Nunca se renda. Never surrender. This doesn’t have to be a William Wallace-type war cry (but that's fine, too). It can be a quiet reminder in the days when you feel like you don’t have a choice or a chance. It’s a reminder to me when my Portuguese fails me and I’m caught in another awkward situation, likely of my own doing, that I can’t talk my way out of. I used to be good at that. It used to be my job, actually. Talking in and out of situations, in and out of media interviews, in and out of the spaces between rocks and hard places. I liked the work, too. I liked telling stories, even the difficult ones. But you can’t be a storyteller if you don’t know the language. So I’m relearning…everything. That primarily means learning to embrace the discomfort zone and not being a berne about it. So, nunca se renda. And don’t be a worm.

Waterfalls: The Opus

It was still dark when I woke and silently made my way through the soft pink halls of the hotel to watch the sunrise. From a perch in the hotel’s tower I could see nothing, but I knew what lay around me: tangles of trees cut through by the hotel lawns and the pool out back, the only still body of water around for miles.

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I was surrounded by that deep morning stillness you can only find when even the birds are still at rest.

In many places that stillness is accompanied by absolute quiet, but here at Iguaçu Falls, there would never be a silent night. A low rumble, perhaps akin to thunder or maybe an unending tremolo of double basses, drifted over the trees and through the darkness to interrupt my solitude. Slowly, others added to this symphony. The birds awoke, each with their tune or trill. The whir of all manner of bugs came with them. And in the forest, the snorts of coati and padded steps of jaguars blended with the monkey’s howl. Below the trees and in the waters, the occasional snap of a caiman made its debut. And around me on the hotel grounds, my fellow man also came to life with the creak of a wooden door, a flutter of conversation, or the rattle of a breakfast tray.

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And those were just the sounds. What I had originally woken up so earlier for was the view from the tower. I had gotten up too early, though, and there was still a long wait before the sun came. But in the waiting I was able to listen as the edges of night receded to reveal a clear new morning.

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Later I took the path that winds through the edge of the woods and reveals glimpses of the falls along the way. But the more spectacular experience is at the end of the path where there’s a walkway constructed over the water, and you can peer into the abyss created by these forces of nature. Iguaçu Falls (also written as Iguazú or Iguassu) is unlike any other body of water I’d ever seen. The enormous volume of water that spills over cliffs 80 meters high is noteworthy alone, but so is the span of this natural phenomenon: the cataracts spread the width of nearly three kilometers. But the beautiful part to me is the variety of cascades all around—the lightest trickle of water to the all-consuming rage of the river, which serves as a border between Argentina and Brazil. I found the better example of nature’s power on the Argentine side where metal walkways lead you over the river to the Devil’s Throat. That is a place where you can easily imagine being swallowed by nature without even time to cry for help, so fierce are the falls.

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Back in Brazil though, I wasn’t thinking of the Devil’s Throat or the number of gallons slipping past me each second. I was listening again to the morning symphony as I stood at the edge of the water for a long while. Long enough for the sun to drip in from the east and turn the grasses scattered among the falls from dark green to a glossy lime color. Long enough to see a flock of birds emerge from these grasses, soar for a moment, and then seamlessly blend back in. Long enough to be soaked by the mist swirling around me before I turned and headed home.

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Waterfalls: A Prelude

It's hard to believe our summer season is over and autumn has been in swing for a month here. The weather has been uncommonly warm, which gives us plenty of reasons to stick to our island and our favorite beaches. But despite this southern hemisphere Indian summer, we've been wanting to get out into our state's countryside, or serra, as it's called in Portuguese.

Jonathan makes himself at home at a roadside apple orchard in the Serra Catarinese (mountain region of Santa Catarina)

One place on our list was Urubiçi (pronounced oo-roo-BE-see) which is home to a smattering of waterfalls, a national park and a giant rock with a hole in it (which looks cooler than it sounds). About a three hour drive from Floripa, this was an easy weekend trip. We stayed in a home-turned-hostel in town run by a sweet young couple and their cat named Gandalf. Although we enjoyed meeting this couple and their hospitality was great, the town of Urubiçi itself wasn't much to see. Thankfully we planned to spend most of our time out in the mountains and trails. There's tons of farmland, woodland and mountains surrounding the town, and our first drive was up to Morro da Igreja, or Church Hill, the highest point in southern Brazil (at just under 6,000 feet, it's not that high, but we'll take it!) From this vantage point you can see Pedra Furada, that giant rock with a hole in it that I mentioned earlier. It was a winding and sometimes unpaved road to get to the top, but it was so worth the view. The valley was covered in a gorgeous blanket of clouds that stretched as far as I could see. 

After this stunning view we headed back down the mountain to see our first cachoeira (kah-sho-AIY-rah), or waterfall, of the trip called the Bride's Veil (Véu de Noiva). This waterfall, like many of them nearby, was located on private property, so we paid a small fee to use the trail to access it. Often these private properties also have cabins or a cafe, which make them pleasant stops. This particular waterfall was just a short walk down a path filled with hydrangeas and moss-covered tress. 

Our next stop was probably my favorite of the trip. We went for lunch at Il Rifugio, a tiny mountaintop restaurant with incredible views and even better food. The Refuge, as it's called in English, is a self-described "slow food" restaurant. I kind of thought all Brazilian restaurants were "slow food" (or at least slow service) since they move at a rather relaxed pace.

SMILE, you are always welcome here!
CONTEMPLATE, nature at 1,420 meters is unique!
BREATHE, the healing mountain air!
SAVOR, our food is made with much love!

But Il Rifugio was clearly labeled slow food for a good reason. We took refuge in the charming environment, gorgeous views, and of course their delicious food and wine. My favorite part of the meal was the typical Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, which I've read is a bit similar to French gougères. This treat can be divine when it's hot and fresh, and Il Rifugio had the best I've tasted since arriving in Brazil. I was also pleasantly surprised with the local wine by Villagio Bassetti, a high altitude winery nearby. You may have noticed that both the restaurant and the winery have Italian names, and much to my delight many areas of southern Brazil were settled by Italian immigrants. In the late 1800s, the Brazilian government promised cheap, farm-ready land for these immigrants in attempt to provide a new labor force after the slave trade to Brazil ended in 1850. "Farm-ready" was an exaggeration, though, as the land was still thick, uncleared forest. To the credit of the Italian immigrants, they developed some amazing wineries and agriculture in the area, and there are plenty of places in the southern states here with Italian names and traditions, and there are even some who learned Italian as their first language. 

Our next stop was to another private farm with a dramatic waterfall that dropped 100 meters into the valley. The only thing better than seeing a waterfall is seeing it with a bird's eye view, which is exactly what we did. The farm (which was really more like an adventure outfitter) had a zip line that ran just over the canyon and the waterfall, so I put on a helmet and harness and walked off the tree-house-like platform into the air. It was a slow, easy glide through the edge of the forest, over the canyon and above that powerful cascade of water. My only regret was not doing it twice (or three times!). 

The Avencal waterfall

The Avencal waterfall

The next morning we headed to another private property with...more waterfalls! This was a theme for the trip, I suppose. This farm, called Sitio Sete Quedas (Seven Breaks Site), has a trail that leads through seven waterfalls. I would say "trail" is an exaggeration on their part, since much of the time you're actually walking through the riverbed and rock hopping. We only made it to three of the falls before we had to get on the road home, but I'd say five waterfalls in 48 hours is a pretty good prelude to one of the "new" seven wonders of nature: Iguazu Falls, which I'll write about next!

A Wild Realm, A War-Ridden Crown

 

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Last month I reentered winter, escaping the summer crowds in South America for a few quieter weeks in Europe. What I could not escape was the 50-degree temperature difference. I may have grown up in northern New Jersey, but my blood has recently acclimated to Brazil’s delightfully tropical temperatures. The personal cold spell I felt, however, quickly melted away with a mug of mulled wine at our first stop: Budapest, Hungary.

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Though the warmed, spiced wine was delicious on a sunny winter afternoon, Hungary has seen some very cold and very dark times. The country has known few true glory days and is generally accustomed to fighting and losing wars on its own soil. Of course geography has played a significant role in Hungary’s war woes, as author Charlotte Yonge wrote in 1864: “For it was a wild realm, bordered on all sides by foes.”

 

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Throughout its history, Hungary has known an invasion by the Mongols, a nearly 150-year occupation courtesy of the Turks, was dragged into the Habsburg Monarchy, and failed to win their independence through a revolution in the 1840s. The country eventually gained some footing with the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, which decreed that the two lands would have each have their own parliament and capital, but they would be ruled by a common monarchy and share foreign and military policies. This would cause problems for Hungary early in the next century. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand forced Hungary to follow through on those shared military policies, and the Maygar people—four million of them—were once again called to war.

The country was fractured so badly after World War I that it would never again feel whole. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918 and then the Treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, left Hungary with a country smaller than the size of New York state and with about half the people. World War II didn’t do them any favors, either. The prime minister at the time, Pál Teleki, was so distraught over being caught between German belligerence and promised peace to Yugoslavia that he committed suicide and left a note that perhaps said what many Hungarians were feeling: “The nation senses that we have cast away its honor.” Hungary, once allied with Germany, was then made a target of the Nazi nation after the Germans discovered the Hungarian plan to pull out of the war and make peace with the Allied powers. Hungary was invaded by Germany in 1944 and suffered what I would think would be a nightmare situation for any country: its ally turned enemy and enemy turned ally battling it out in the capital city. The Battle of Budapest lasted 110 days, a desperate siege that transferred Hungary from one evil occupation to another. But behind the scenes of this troubling time was a plan to bring Hungary's most important symbol into safekeeping and out of the capital city that was again surrounded by foes. 

A city once torn, Budapest today draws plenty of visitors eager to see its history played out in architecture. One of its most famous buildings is Parliament, situated on the River Danube. This magnificent structure is among Europe’s oldest legislative buildings and was constructed primarily in the Gothic Revival style, though there are significant touches of Renaissance and Baroque styles as well.

Fighting the rain outside Parliament  

Fighting the rain outside Parliament  

We visited Parliament on a rainy February day and discovered that famous Hungarian national symbol which was almost lost to history. The room was so dark I couldn’t make out the height of the roof at first. Once my eyes adjusted I saw a ceiling that soared over Hungary’s most important relic, the one safeguarded in a time when all else seemed uncertain: the Holy Hungarian Crown. Photos were not permitted and neither was getting too close, lest you provoke the angry-looking gentlemen with the swords standing nearby. Perhaps their caution is warranted, as the holy relic is believed to that of Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen and was given by Pope Sylvester II in the year 1000 AD. In the past millennium, the crown has caused its share of turmoil. It was moved around from court to court, stolen and pawned, lost and regained, even buried and dug up over the years. World War II was no exception. The crown, the holy symbol of the Hungarian people, was moved from Budapest into US Army custody in 1945 to keep it out of German and Soviet hands.

Photo by Bogdan Ioan Stanciu

Photo by Bogdan Ioan Stanciu

Some accounts say it was “spirited away” while others claim it was “seized,” but regardless of the language the crown ended up in Fort Knox, Kentucky and remained there for more than 30 years. President Jimmy Carter returned the crown in 1978 because he believed it belonged to the Hungarian people, though his decision was problematic since many asserted that turning the crown over to a communist government sent the wrong message. As we all know the Iron Curtain eventually fell, but the tearing down of those walls did nothing to change Hungary’s troubled borders, as we see in today’s migrant crisis

Despite Hungary’s shadowed history and current challenges, its capital city now boasts a blending of new and old world charms. A revitalized Jewish quarter is home to a slew of restaurants and bars, my favorite of which is wine bar Doblo (website currently under construction) where we created our own wine flights solely from nationally produced wine, which is sadly underrated on the world stage. We also discovered a gorgeous library thanks to a friend’s blog post, and I was once again convinced that European libraries and the cities that hold them will always enchant me with their captivating tales of battles won and lost, nations on the brink, and the underdog country just trying to keep hold of its crown.

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Inside the Metropolitan Library

Inside the Metropolitan Library

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A study hall inside the Metropolitan Library  

A study hall inside the Metropolitan Library  

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A Very Carioca Carnaval

I have never been to a party like this. Gods and queens, saints and demons, priests and pagans were all there swaying to a samba beat. At first I was motionless, staring with a dropped jaw at the explosion of colors, sequins and costumes before me. It didn't take long, though, before I joined in the dance as the first parade of Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval swept by me.

One of the samba school floats featured Zeus - complete with lightning-like fingertips. 

One of the samba school floats featured Zeus - complete with lightning-like fingertips. 

Every year before Lent revelers around the world continue the celebration known by many names: Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday, and of course, Carnival. I learned long ago in a Latin class that Carnival (spelled Carnaval in Portuguese) is derived from carne vale meaning "goodbye to the meat," and has roots in the Roman Catholic holiday of having a feast before the season of Lent.

I hardly believe how Rio celebrates is what Rome had in mind. 

Enter the dragon. 

Enter the dragon. 

Brazil has the largest population of Catholics in the world, but their Carnaval celebrations are a blend of the country's unique history and the evolving tastes in music. During the early 1800s the festivities were about the aristocrats parading around in luxurious clothing and dancing to music. Masquerade balls became popular during this century, but in the 1850s the focus of the celebrations began to change with street parades, military bands and horse-drawn floats marking the occasion. Towards the end of the century Carnaval became more of a working class holiday when locals wore costumes and joined in the musical parades. I saw evidence of this tradition, albeit in a more hedonistic fashion, at the block parties which I'll get to later in this post. 

As the end of the 1800s gave way to a more working class Carnaval celebration, so too came the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888. The link between this historic moment for Brazil and today's Carnaval traditions is shown through the pulsating beat of samba. This genre of music is at the heart of it all, with schools dedicated solely to samba. These samba schools work on their music, dancing, parade costumes and floats all year for a chance to compete in various Carnaval samba competitions throughout Brazil. Rio is among the most popular to attend and the samba competition is held in the aptly named Sambódromo. This stadium has bleacher-style seating but instead of overlooking a round or oval field, it looks like a one-way street with the seats facing each other. This creates the area where Brazilians dance, sing and shake their samba parade to a hopeful victory (and serious bragging rights for the year). To say these parades are elaborate is an understatement. Every costume rivals the best you would see on Broadway, and they run the gamut from Biblical figures to the wildly fantastic. We were fortunate enough to have tickets for one of the big samba nights, and when the first samba school appeared my jaw literally dropped in amazement at the splendor of it all. Disney parades pale in comparison (sorry Disney lovers, it's true). The samba school dancers and singers spend about an hour shimmying down the lane to the judges' stand at the end of the Sambódromo. Twelve samba schools are in the top category for the competition, with six schools competing a night over two evenings. The competition usually begins at 9 or 10pm and can go well into the morning (think: nearly sunrise). We lasted for about four of the six samba schools set to compete that night, which was plenty of parading for me. 

A classic Rio scene of Cristo o Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) was captured in this float. 

A classic Rio scene of Cristo o Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) was captured in this float. 

Acrobatics on top of a parade float? Why not.  

Acrobatics on top of a parade float? Why not.  

Roman and Egyptian-themed float... 

Roman and Egyptian-themed float... 

...with a winged lion (a nod to Saint Mark and Venice).

...with a winged lion (a nod to Saint Mark and Venice).

Before we left the Sambódromo we passed by the parade participants waiting ahead of the start line. They were all quite still until their samba song began and then they couldn't help but move to the beat even though the audience couldn't see them yet. 

Before we left the Sambódromo we passed by the parade participants waiting ahead of the start line. They were all quite still until their samba song began and then they couldn't help but move to the beat even though the audience couldn't see them yet. 

Another part of our Carnaval experience were the blocos, or street parties. These parties have a vague link to the working class celebrations I mentioned earlier. There's a band playing samba music and the general idea is to walk behind the music truck or float (carrying the band and singers). It's not exactly a parade. In fact, it's much more chaotic, but the way Rio pulls off such parties was astonishing.

Parties for days. Literally. 

Parties for days. Literally. 

There are at least a few bloco parties per day in different parts of the city. They have a loose time schedule and they often overlap, which leads to the continuous party cycle that leaves many people exhausted by Ash Wednesday. The blocos sometimes have themes, including a Beatles-themed bash that's pretty popular. And by pretty popular, I mean huge. That party, along with the other blocos, can draw up to 200,000 people. Most aren't that large, but still, any party that numbers in the thousands is impressive enough for me. We went to a few blocos and saw tons of revelers dressed in costume (Brazilian men are particularly fond of wearing dresses during Carnaval). The beer also flowed steadily, as the city grants extra permits to street vendors, who in turn make sure the party keeps going...and going...and going. During Carnaval people party before the party, and after the party, and after the after party. Despite this, the city does a pretty great job at cleaning up the mess on the streets, with extra sanitary teams essentially following right behind the parades. The almost organized chaos of it all is impressive, to say the least. One night, after a particularly raucous scene I said that Rio parties like the world is ending. It wouldn't be a bad way to go.

Beauty in the Tombs

Convinced of our mortality
by so many confirmations of final dust,
we drop our voices, our steps grow slow
between the slow rows of family crypts,
whose rhetoric of shadow and stone
promises or prefigures the coveted
dignity of being dead.
There is beauty in the tombs,
the spare Latin and link of fatal dates,
the conjunction of marble and flowers,
the broad intersections, as cool as patios,
and all our yesterdays of a history
now stilled and unique.
We mistake this peace for death,
believing we yearn for our end
when we yearn for sleep and oblivion.
Vibrant in swords and in passion,
asleep in ivy,
only life is real.
Space and time are its shapes,
the mind’s magical modes,
and when life burns out,
space, time, and death go out with it,
as when light fails
the image in the mirror fails,
already grown dim in the dusk.
Kindly shade of the trees,
breeze rich with birds rocking the branches,
my soul losing itself in other souls—
only a wonder could undo their existence,
a wonder not to be understood,
however much its imagined recurrence
taints our days with dread.
These thoughts came to me in the Recoleta,
in the place where my ashes will He.
— Jorge Luis Borges, La Recoleta (translated from Spanish by Norman Thomas di Giovanni)

At each turn a pane of broken glass, a twist of rusted iron or the dust of crumbled stone greets me. The patterns of their demise are unique and yet each of their stories ends here, in La Recoleta. The universal tale of this cemetery, like all others, is loss. Resting here, however, are the rich, the powerful, the famous, the mysterious, and of course, the forgotten. I am not the first to be captivated by the rows of sepulchers and maze of mausoleums here. In fact, La Recoleta is one of Buenos Aires’ top attractions for visitors, and our afternoon walk there was not a solitary one. Still, how was it that a place filled with so much death brings in so much life?

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For me, La Recoleta was simply unlike anything I’ve ever seen—that alone will draw me back again. From above the cemetery looks like a city itself, though miniature in stature. Each resting place juts up to its neighbor, leaving space only for the occasional tree and a few small open areas. Some of the paths between the tombs are wide enough for a car, others are mere alleyways. The mausoleums of this particular neighborhood are as varied as their inhabitants. Some are marble homes adorned with columns and statutes, eerily reminiscent of palatial splendor and immaculately kept. Others are forged of iron and glass and plain stone, showing the familiar markings that time and weather and neglect bestow. I stopped at many of these crumbling sepulchers, sometimes simply because the glass was broken and I had a window into their life and death. Inside these tombs were the normal tokens of faith and remembrance - a cross or a bouquet of flowers, a bible or a family photo. In many of them you can see the caskets themselves, stacked up to the ceiling in neat rows. But naturally on the subject of death we look down too, and in La Recoleta I often found an opening in the floor and a staircase into the dark, where more family members found their resting place. The mausoleums that gave me greatest pause, though, were those whose ceiling had fallen through. Places that were never meant to see light from above were suddenly exposed to the elements, their place of everlasting peace now strewn with broken stone. It was clear no one was coming to tend to their home. But sometimes the crumbled ceiling let in the right amount of sun and rain, and instead of a floor covered in pieces of a tomb, there were plants - what most of us call weeds, really - but it was life. Life that not even death could stop.


Shaken, then Stirred

Our first foray across our new continent was finally shaping up. I was cradling a cappuccino in my hands, having settled into an almost-dilapidated armchair twenty minutes earlier in a small storefront that beckoned me in with two of my favorite things: coffee and cut flowers. What can I say, I’m easily sold. This cafe could have been plopped down into France or Italy or even our former home of Carmel, California, thanks to its charmingly mismatched furniture and strong espresso. Which is to say I felt comfortable here. One painting on the wall had caught my eye: a brilliant azure sky cut with tangle of red and orange curtains. It was elegant, simple, saturated with color - and it was shaking. As was I and everyone else in the room. A low tremble and light tremor shook the chairs beneath us. The air remained sucked in our lungs. We did not hear the sound of crashing glass or the wail of a siren. We did hear ourselves give a moment of silence when the shaking stopped, and then we all got back to drinking coffee.

When Jonathan and I arrived in Santiago, Chile a few days earlier it had been on equally inauspicious terms. Our journey to this sliver of a country was first complicated when the airport workers raised a strike the same day as our flight, causing a 24-hour delay to our departure. This is common in South America, so we thought nothing of it and were thankful that it didn’t truly disrupt any travel plans. Since Chile couldn’t shake us off with a strike, it would do it with a earthquake instead, which first struck as we stood in line at immigration. This earthquake did cause problems in nearby coastal city of Valparaíso, however, Santiago was left whole. We shuffled through immigration and just as I picked up my backpack from the customs scanner I realized I had left my iPad on the plane. It was then one in the morning. It was also day one of Chile’s three-day independence holiday that essentially equated to an airport shutdown. Helping an American find her iPad in the back seat pocket of a grimy airplane seat was solely on my agenda and certainly not on anyone working the graveyard shift. After at least three sets of shoulders shrugged at me, we took a cab to our hotel where I tried not to replay the incident in my head. I failed, and in the process added sleep to the things I lost that night.

I do not consider myself a loser, much less loser of things. Particularly in regard to important (read: expensive) things. My last losing incident occurred when I was 13; a gold cross my aunt had gifted me for my first communion slipped off its chain and dropped into the waters of the lake behind my childhood home. I had a Gollum-like reaction then and the same ugly, incredulous wailing came back to me in Chile. I had literally just traveled around the world six weeks earlier and not lost a thing. All of my blogging had been done on my iPad for that trip, and now I had unsuspectedly donated it to the netherworld of airline lost and (never) found items. 

The good news was that we were meeting friends in Santiago and would be heading to the ill-fated Easter Island with them, so we determined to turn the misfortune into just a memory. We slept off the jet lag and ambled around the city on what turned out to be a lovely sunny day. Even though the holidays closed all of the museums, we took a cab to Santiago’s Museo de Belles Artes to enjoy the park adjacent to it. We watched as a mourning father, Daedalus, kneeled beside his fallen son, Icarus, in a sculpture depicting that old Greek legend. It is a magnificent and melancholy work, one that I failed to fully admire because I was mourning the recent loss of my iPad, my sleep, and now, my credit cards. Three rectangular pieces of plastic with my name on them and my money tied to them had fallen out of my wallet in the cab ride over. I had lost more valuable items in the last 12 hours than I had in my entire life. I wondered, what traveler had taken over my body and committed such blatant acts of idiocy? I tried not to spend the rest of the day sulking and promised myself and my husband a fresh start the next day. After all, our friends would be arriving and soon we’d be off to the part of the trip I was really looking forward to: a lonesome island with a mysterious past. 

But when my husband woke me the next morning saying he’d like to go to the hospital, please, I had a feeling that Easter Island was father than ever. 

And it was. We spent the next 24 hours wrangling our intermediate Portuguese into barely passable Spanish, and thanked the heavens the one doctor we really needed to speak to was trained in the U.S. It was on his recommendation that we forgo the trip to one of the world’s most remote islands to view a bunch of block heads scattered over a landscape because there were tests that needed to be done. The following day, while our friends had continued their journey over the sea, we continued ours in the hospital. All of those tests came up negative or inconclusive, and my husband’s frustrating headaches were suddenly nothing to cause immediate alarm. We told ourselves, “Better safe than sorry” and we knew it was true. But those four words were little consolation on an already unpleasant and disappointing journey. 

We rode in silence home from the hospital, a plastic bag with the hospital’s logo sitting between us as the world’s worst souvenir. At the hotel we regrouped as best we could and decided to head west to Valparaíso the next day. The change of scenery helped. Instead of the Andes towering behind us, we now had the sea to welcome us, along with a maze of bohemian neighborhoods set on cobbled hills. We wandered through them, hand in hand, grateful that everything we had lost on this trip could be replaced. 

Life at Sea Level

For many years now, I have had no trouble with silence and stillness. I appreciate a silent place to work or read, a quiet walk alone, a savasana at the end of a yoga class with no instructor babbling about leading me down an imaginary garden path. There is comfort for me in the quiet but lately I have had trouble explaining my slow days to a busy world - and even to myself.

This morning I read a piece in The Atlantic that described quite well how a solitary person may spend their days. The writer tells about renting a cabin in Alaska outside of Denali National Park and the challenge of filling of 24 hours with the modern expectation of productivity. Although our circumstances are different - she lived alone, whereas I live with my husband; she did not have electricity, whereas we rely on wifi - some of the feelings are similar. She describes a restlessness and a yearning of not wanting to fall back into a life dulled by instant access to everything and days of endless, empty busyness. But then, what exactly do you do with your time? I have already posed this question to myself more times than you. I hope I am getting more comfortable with the answer. 

Some days, I wake up late, knowing by the light on the trees outside that it’s 8 o’clock - well past the time an adult my age is supposed to start her weekdays. Some days, my phone beckons me with an artificial marimba beat, bidding me to stir. On those days I get up, slip on a pair of havaianas and walk to the beach, where I attempt to run. It usually doesn’t go well, mostly because I haven’t been a regular runner since my days in the military. But also because the stretch of sand I run on, called Praia Mole, is literally named “Mushy Beach”. My feet sink with every step and some days that’s precisely how I feel about my purpose here in Brazil: a sinking and/or insubstantial feeling, particularly when asked “So what do you do with your days?”

I’m told I have the luxury of time here. And I do. Except when I think about updating my resume or my next career move. Then the luxury of time seems like a curse. Am I just waiting to get back to a life where every morning I put on heels instead of flip flops? Most days, I am caught between savoring being present in paradise and pining for my next job title on a business card I haven’t ordered myself. Most days, my days might be described as forgettable. I mean that literally. I forgot what day it is today. I had to look at my phone to tell me. 

As The Atlantic article helped me discover, my days are not always filled with the verbs we often measure success by: studying, cleaning, working, earning, improving. My days are defined by smaller, stiller moments. This morning I figured out the color of the butterflies dancing on the pink hibiscus flowers outside our home. I believe they’re marigold, or the color of sunlight when it’s just warming up the earth again each morning. I watched their seemingly erratic, delicate flight path just long enough to be filled anew with wonder. 

A Birthday in Brazil

Drops of wet sand splattered across my face as I gripped the reins tighter. I might actually fall off this time, I thought. My horse, whose name I can't pronounce, was itching to be the leader in a race across the beach. A race that never actually started, except in my horse’s head. This left me using all six hours of actual equestrian training I received 19 years ago to try to maintain control of a beast that really, really wanted to win this race. He lost, of course, thanks to our guide who spurred her steed to keep ahead of mine. We eventually slowed our horses to a less frightening pace, and I took another look around. We’re actually in paradise, I thought. Or at least Brazil’s version of it, which is quite extraordinary. For the next few years we’ll be living on the island of Santa Catarina in southern Brazil, a place whose nickname is “The Island of Magic.” Not too shabby a location to start a new decade of your life. 

My husband’s birthday gift to me was a trail ride through a pine forest and a 14-kilometer stretch of sand, called Praia Moçambique. There are many beaches on the island here (42 to be exact) but Moçambique is surely one of the finest, thanks to the forest that protects it from urban development. As someone who has always loved the beach, I know I am lucky to make my temporary home here. We’d arrived in Brazil a few weeks earlier, armed with a decent foundation of Portuguese language training and the expectation that we would have many failures in communication. This is especially hard for me, as words have been my livelihood for a while. Not being able to find the right words is like not being able to tie my shoes. I often feel knocked back to being a kid here: intimidated and misunderstood. Which is why a birthday spent on horseback was so refreshing. Despite the rush of hooves beneath me and the general fear I might fall off and break my neck, horses are easy for me to understand. They all speak the same language, and mine was telling me to just keep moving forward. And to hold on, very tightly.

After a few minutes' rest our guide twisted around in her saddle to look at me, “Um poucinho mais?” A little more? 

I studied the sweat already dripping from my horse's mane and my hands clenching the reins. Running further wasn’t going to be easy for either of us. But then I looked up at the clear stretch of smooth sand ahead. Perfect for a race, I thought.

Sim. Vamos lá, I answered. Yes. Let’s go.

Last Stop: Hong Kong

I thought by the time we arrived at the last stop on our trip around the world, I would be ready for the end. Ready for a decent closet of clothes. Ready for a familiar bed. Ready for a day without language barriers. But arriving in Hong Kong brought none of that. Instead, I was marveled to be in the first place that looked like it could be home (as far as cities go). The city was a whirl of people, neon lights, and rain. Sloshing, humidity-intensifying rain. We did a fair share of puddle-jumping/sight-seeing before we decided to head for the southern coast of Hong Kong Island to a small town called Stanley. We took a purple double-decker bus to get there, a drive that both awed me with beautiful views and made me fear for my life as our driver whacked into any tree branches in the way. 

Our first seaside find was these painted paddles. My favorite? "Beware of Dragon." Of course.

We didn’t pick a great day to go to the beach if you use an overcast sky and a 70 percent chance of precipitation to judge, but the place was charming in that sleepy-seaside-town sort of way. We wandered through the market stalls where locals, tourists and many ex-pats are rumored to shop for knock-off brand clothing, but the weather seemed to slow things down in what I imagined was normally a busy market. 

We found a beach empty save for a smattering of rainbow-colored kayaks.

Boats painted with fish scales...why not?

After seeing the rush of the city, Stanley was like a welcome nap in our tour. We had no agenda and no particular place to go, which has become my favorite way to travel after all these miles. Taking a look around, the green hills surrounding the beach almost reminded me of our future home in Brazil (though definitely more developed in Hong Kong!). We found a German-style brew pub, no doubt created for tourists, but we relished the chance for a good pint and a view of the sea. After a lunch that mainly consisted of Bavarian pretzels, I took a lone walk down to a temple by the sea. This little spot was surrounded by some big boulders - big enough to scramble over to get to the next beach, which was even emptier than the first we saw. My only company was a questionably-placed camping tent (permanent resident?) and a questionable amount of sea glass. I love finding the occasional piece tumbled to imperfection, but the amount I found on this beach was startling, as if the sea was the only recycling bin available. 

I rejoined Jonathan at a quiet bar on the beach where he was kind enough to have a drink waiting for me. We watched a few windsurfers battle the seas and a mom chase her kid down the sand. It almost felt like a normal afternoon, but the next day we would fly back to Los Angeles and officially finish our trip around the world. I wasn’t ready for it be over. I didn’t need a closet of clothes or a familiar bed or even a place where I spoke the language. I just needed to keep seeing the world in a new light, and I have a feeling Brazil will help me do just that.

The Temple of Tanah Lot

Bali was a much-anticipated stop on our tour. Friendly people, gorgeous beaches, room to relax - these were all worth looking forward to. But like many of our stops, I didn’t anticipate the intriguing role religion would play during our time there. I confess that I did not do much research on Bali or Indonesia in general before we departed. For example, I didn’t know that Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims on the planet. Bali, however, did not appear to be an island of Islam. Hinduism is the primarily religion there, and once we arrived it was impossible not to notice the temples that dotted the land - and the sea.

Pura Tanah Lot, a revered and popular sea temple on Bali's coast.

Balinese Hindu shrines were everywhere, too: at the entrance to restaurants, in front of homes, around the corner of your next turn. There are probably more shrines in Bali than churches in Rome. But even more ubiquitous are the offerings: small squares of woven palm leaves holding mainly flowers but also food, candy, coins and incense. Balinese people line the streets with these offerings, with one (or a pile of them) in front of every doorstep and shrine. The offerings are a part of daily Balinese life and for five days they were also a part of ours - every morning a fresh packet of flowers and incense was placed outside our door. 

An offering from Galugan Day that was left on the beach.

Balinese Hinduism and the island’s natural beauty came together in a striking way at the only temple we visited during our stay: Pura Tanah Lot. This is Bali’s most famous and photographed temple, and rightfully so. A towering rock just twenty meters offshore, the temple is only accessible by foot at low tide, and even then the surf pounds the rocks nearby. Though much of the temple built there isn’t carved from the natural rock, it’s still an impressive architectural feat, and remains one of the most important sea temples for the Balinese.

Worshippers proceed up the stones steps to the temple, reserved only for Balinese.

We visited this temple on one of the most important holidays for Balinese Hindus, called Galugan Day, when they take time to honor their creator and ancestral spirits. This is also a day when they believe the ancestral spirits return to Earth and so offerings must be prepared for them. We saw many Balinese dressed in the traditional garb that day, carrying boxes and baskets of offerings across the small channel to the temple, but non-Balinese Hindus weren’t permitted inside. I settled for a blessing from their priest, which consisted of a sprinkling of water, white rice pressed to my forehead, and a small yellow flower tucked over my left ear. We hung around for a bit, watching the waves and people mingle on the coast until we saw a sign for a "Holy Snake" nailed into the rock onshore. This brought me back to the Roman ruins in Rabat, where snakes were also thought to be holy and healing. The snake in Bali, though, was thought to protect the temple from evil spirits (and could be seen by tourists for a price). As far as I could see, evil couldn’t exist in such a beautiful place - gorgeous seaside cliffs have that effect. A raging surf probably doesn’t hurt either.

Tourists and pilgrims alike enjoyed blessings on the beach for Galugan Day.

Holy Snakes and a rough surf keep the Tanah Lot Temple free of evil spirits.

Offerings are prepared nearby while others receive blessings.

Young and old worshippers came to the temple for the holiday.