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?

LaRecoleta1.jpg

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.

Vietnam in an eggshell

Before we ever left on this journey I said that Vietnam was the place I was most interested in seeing on this trip. That was partly because I haven't traveled much in Southeast Asia and partly because of our military history there. Fathers of my friends were there in unhappier times, and understandably, they have no desire to take a vacation in their former area of operations. Arriving in Vietnam, I felt lucky to be entering under peaceful circumstances, but of course war never really leaves a place, or its people. The Vietnamese call it "The American War" and there are plenty of scars that run deep for all involved, some of which are catalogued in the War Remnants Museum we visited in Ho Chi Minh City, or still Saigon to some. Simply put, it is the kind of place you leave in silence and might never want to go back to. 

The Virgin Mary and Jesus statue outside the Notre Dame Cathedral look alike in Ho Chi Minh City. It's beautiful but much smaller and less ornate than the Paris original.

War history dominates much of the talk about Vietnam and I've said enough about it for this post, but what does their story look like now? We began our trip in Hanoi, sticking to the Old Quarter since we only had a few days there. We found some of what we've seen before on this trip in other countries: sidewalks as parking lots, speeding motorbikes that may or may not be aiming to hit us, and many made-in-China knock-off souvenirs. But we also found genuine hospitality, intriguing pagoda architecture and charming French influence in Hanoi (and in Ho Chi Minh City, too). 

A typical day includes many street vendors selling fruit and many motorbikes crowding the streets. 

Our favorite experience in Hanoi was taking a cooking class through our hotel's restaurant (The Red Bean in the La Siesta Hotel). We've seen signs for cooking classes in nearly every country we've been to on this trip but decided to try the class in Vietnam specifically because our restaurant was so excellent, from the quality of the ingredients to the artful presentation. Our chef for the class, Tuan, had tons of energy and was clearly excited about showing us how to make some of his favorite dishes: pho bo, spring rolls and pork meatballs. Tuan took us to the wholesale food market where I can honestly say the only items I could take home and use without extensive recipe research were some of the spices - cinnamon and star anise. But these sticks of cinnamon were unlike those little twigs in America. They were practically logs of sweet spice, wide as a wine bottle and not nearly as expensive as we're used to. The other food items in the market weren't easily identifiable, but Tuan pointed them out as dried mushrooms, dried shark fin and fried river worm cakes, to name a few of the less than appetizing (to me anyway). Even some of the fruit was difficult to identify. Dragon fruit's less than pretty outer skin housed my favorite find on the market tour, with sweet, white flesh and a bright magenta inner skin. We saw a lot of another oddly-shaped (to our eyes) fruit that was only used as an offering for Buddha - it was not for any of us to eat. It was called Buddha's hand, should you need a reminder not to eat it. Tuan wound quickly through the maze of stalls and vendors, cutting open fruit for us to try and pointing out live snakes and turtles that would later become soup. 

Some of the street food available for a quick, easy and cheap meal. 

Back at the restaurant we began making spring rolls, figuring out which side of the delicate rice paper to set face down, then filling it with the veggies we had cut earlier. The trick, Tuan told us, is to fry them twice - the second time just before serving. He gave us many other tips, all with a passion and delight for his native cuisine that would put a celebrity chef to shame.

We found this same delight on a motorbike food tour in Ho Chi Minh City, recommended to us by the Olmsted scholars living there (who were also kind enough to put us up for several nights - thanks guys!). This tour paired each guest with a motorbike driver, zipping us around the city to five street food stops. It's daunting enough if you've never ridden on a motorbike or motorcycle before, but add in the seemingly chaotic traffic and a college kid as your driver, and the experience could be harrowing. But it wasn't. All of our drivers were confident and safe, and by the time we arrived at the first stop, I was able to actually look around and enjoy the view (and release my white-knuckle grip of the little handle on the back of the bike). Every stop was a small restaurant, with seating that spilled out onto the sidewalk and locals crammed together on tiny plastic stools. We tried all kinds of delicious local favorites - their version of pizza, lettuce wraps, spring rolls, and ice cream.

Their take on pizza, which was tasty but nothing like the Italian classic.

Jonathan enjoys a very light beer on the back of the motorbike, which is legal in Vietnam. Don't worry, drivers aren't afforded the same luxury. 

But two of the menu items were unforgettable for varied reasons. The first, raw oysters steeped in soy sauce and a gob or two of wasabi. Not terribly inventive if you think about it, but it definitely was something I'd never seen before. Our guides got a kick out of each of our reactions, faces turning red, eyes watering, and almost immediately reaching for the Vietnamese antidote - a raw green onion - which surprisingly helped. The second and least favorite item on the tour was duck egg, called balut. This was one of the things the guides called a "challenge" and I had to agree with them. The eggs seemed to be soft boiled, and we were instructed to gently crack open the top of the shell and create a small hole at the top. When I removed the shell, I saw why they said to be gentle. Inside were tiny feathers and a baby duck beginning to form, something that I never care to see again in my eggs. With much hesitation I tried what remained of the yolk and nothing else, preferring to leave the feathers to more adventurous diners. This challenge aside, I found Vietnam, its cuisine and its people more welcoming than I would have ever thought possible. But next time I'll leave the balut be.

Indian Summer

As a kid I loved Indian Summers. Somehow that warm weather lingering into the school year was exhilarating and almost liberating, like I wasn't really giving up my days of freedom to sit in a classroom. Summer in India, however, is quite different. Equally alluring - enchanting, in fact - but certainly not because of the weather. Unlike my youth, I wanted nothing more than India's pervasive heat to subside. But if you can get past the heat, India offers beauty in unexpected places. 

A woman at her home in a small village in Rajahstan. 

I say unexpected because my first introduction to India was stepping into a street so busy you wouldn't think it was ever suitable for a pedestrian, thanks to the intense and speeding traffic. Using the sidewalk was not an option - that area is reserved for scooter and motorcycle parking, welding, cooking, sleeping, concrete mixing, tea drinking, tourist hawking - all manner of things. Also, the country's waste disposal planing lacking, to say the least. And, any Westerner is always a target for hawkers trying to sell anything from a taxi ride to handicrafts that supposedly their children worked hours creating. These hawkers are relentless - one taxi literally followed us for blocks, shouting "I only want to help" until we made it to the metro station (if only New York cabs had such enthusiasm!). So, overwhelmed by what we perceived as madness, we began our journey into India. 

The Imperial Mosque in Delhi receives many visitors, both foreign and domestic.  

We were not disappointed. Our first day in Delhi we went to the National Museum (without the aid of a taxi) which has an impressive array of artifacts from across the ages, but one that offered immediate insight into Indian culture was the jewelry gallery. This section showed the practice of Alamkara, Sanskrit for adornment, provided a glimpse as to all those lovely women I would see in India, covered in their bindis, bangles and rings. Alamkara says that "a body devoid of adornment is imperfect. But once decorated with beautiful ornaments, the body assumes form, becomes visible, attractive and perfect." Perfect? Really? That was a bold claim - to say jewelry makes a body perfect. But the belief is there, as I would see throughout our India trek. Maharajahs and maharanis, sultans and courtesans, elephants and horses - all were adorned in their depictions. 

India's "Pink City" of Jaipur still holds a palace as one example of adornment and extravagance.  

Perhaps the best example of extravagant beauty we saw was the Taj Mahal. The tomb of an empress and her emperor, this place is literally the stuff of legends. We arrived very early at the Taj, just before sunrise in hopes of catching a view of its famous light changes. But it was a bleak morning. It rained hard enough when we got off the bus that we all ducked in a cafe that hadn't opened yet (the owners were still sleeping on their cots on the patio and never woke up before we left). When we made it to the gate, we were the first group there, as our guide had recommended, and we chose to visit the monument even with the spattering of rain. This turned out to be one of our best decisions on the trip because for about 20 minutes or so we had the place essentially to ourselves. Walking in to see this enormous monument in the still of the morning was breathtaking. The rain abated at just the right time for us to walk slowly (not run, as our guide said some people do) to the "Diana Bench" where Princess Diana famously posed. I cannot accurately convey the grandeur of this mausoleum. The amount of white marble used could probably fill a quarry, and the amount of semi-precious stones inlaid throughout would easy fill up Tiffany's three times over. Splendor. Grandeur. These words easily come to mind when facing the domes and minarets of Taj. The attention to detail, the geometrical symmetry, the meticulous upkeep - no wonder this is a Wonder of the World. 

The Taj as seen from behind and across the river, near sunset. 

So how did such a place come to be? The stories of old say it was made out of Shah Jahan I's love for his third and favorite wife, known as Empress Mumtal Mahal of the Mughal Dynasty. Her name means "beloved ornament of the palace" and it seems she embodied that title for her husband, too. Their marriage is described as intense in a deeply loving, romantic way. She was said to be his confidant and constant companion, traveling with him during many of her husband's early military campaign battles, even during her pregnancies. Childbirth would ultimately cause her death, and as their thirteenth child arrived she died, in 1631 AD. This was said to throw Shah Jahan I into an inconsolable state, so much so that he supposedly mourned his wife's death in seclusion for a year. When he reappeared, the toll of that loss was evident in his hair, which had become white and his body, which had become bent. He was also said to give up wearing perfume, richly colored clothes and - wait for it - jewelry, for two years. I would have to do more research to confirm this claim, but since adornment was such a huge part of the culture I imagine that forgoing it was a truly a sign of deep mourning. He made up for it by creating the Taj. Everything about the place is perfect, though it took 22 years to build, and of course, a fortune. It began in the year of her death, the building of marble stone upon stone. Specialty calligraphers, sculptors, stone cutters and architects were brought in from northern India, Syria, and present-day Iran to create the mausoleum. The buildings, the gardens, the layout - everything is in symmetry - with one exception. The graves. Inside the cavernous dome are two delicate marble graves: the empress rests in the center and her husband just to the left. It seemed an odd fit after seeing so much care taken to the rest of the symmetrical designs, but they are buried together, which is what they wanted. 

At the Taj in the early morning hours: overcast but lovely. 

Stranger still, there are no lights, no chairs, no furniture at all in the central dome area or any of the other rooms adjoining the tomb. It was like a palace finished but unfurnished, empty but for the love of two souls. 

Where North Means West

I am directionally challenged. If you asked me to face north on any given day I would likely point up, unless it is sunrise or sunset, and then I'd at least have a little help. So to be in Istanbul, where I was told the north part of town is the most "Western", the south part of town is Europe and across the water to the east is Asia, it is safe to say I wasn't sure which continent I was on during my time there. Whatever direction I faced, though, there was a epic amount of culture, thanks to the city's strategic location and storied past. 

The Blue Mosque of Istanbul. 

We saw many of the classic sites in Istanbul/Constantinople/Byzantium none of which disappointed and all of which shed light on just a few chapters of the city's history. To begin, we saw the awe-inspiring Blue Mosque. Or I should say that we heard it first as the call to prayer warbled into our hotel room early on our first morning (and the second morning and the third morning...). Minarets, the towers of a mosque, puncture the skyline throughout Istanbul but those of the Blue Mosque are unrivaled in the city. The mosque was built in the 17th century by Sultan Ahmet to rival the Hagia Sophia, and naturally, the creation was named after him (Sultanahmet Camii) but was given the name the Blue Mosque for the thousands of blue-hued tiles that decorate the interior. Since the mosque is still used as a place of worship today, all visitors must meet the standards in order to enter. That means long pants (or skirts), shoulders covered (down to the wrist for women) and head coverings were required for women. You also have to remove your shoes. I don't know how many visitors the mosque receives in a day, but it is certainly enough to make the air smell faintly like a locker room. Odor aside, the interior of the mosque is stunning. Gilded Arabic writing of holy verses, soaring ceilings, and of course, blue tiles make it a beautiful place to worship.

Inside the Blue Mosque. It doesn't look very blue here but it's quite lovely! 

Literally across the way from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, which was built by Emperor Justinian in 523 AD and finished just five years later. Considered the Vatican of the East for nearly a millenium, it is still the Byzantine Empire's singular greatest architectural achievement. The Hagia Sophia - Aya Sofya, meaning Divine Wisdom in Turkish - exudes ancientness. Many guidebooks tell you to look up - the structure is so tall that Notre Dame would fit under its roof of golden mosaics and stark white marble, and the innovation of the dome's architecture is astonishing for the time period. There were some miscalculations, though, as the dome collapsed more than once and had to be rebuilt. The ground floor also holds its own secrets. I watched dozens of visitors breeze right past a placard of a roped off area to the side. The circular stones inside didn't seem special, but in fact it was the place where emperors were crowned. In 1453 the church was converted into an imperial mosque thanks to the Ottoman takeover by Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer, whose was impressed by its beauty, and it remained a crucial place of worship for about five centuries. 

My camera could never do the Hagia Sophia justice. Not many could.

You can still see some of the conversions of it from a church to a mosque. For example, the nave of the old church now has a mihrab that sits oddly off center in order to direct worshippers to Mecca. The faces of the seraphim frescos were also covered up to adhere with Islam's art culture which only allows for geometric shapes, calligraphy and florals - no human or animal forms are represented. Though much of the golden grandeur was lost, the place is well preserved enough to imagine that Emperor Justinian might have proclaimed "Solomon, I've surpassed you!" (so the legend says) upon opening its doors. Simply put, the Hagia Sophia is among the more astonishing places I've seen, and thanks to its conversion to a museum in the 1930s you don't even need to take your shoes off to enjoy it. 

"I've got a blank space, baby, and I'll write your name." Taylor Swift's hit song has nothing on Empress Zoe. This mosaic shows her husbands - I put it in the plural due to her multiple (monogamous) marriages. Instead of redoing the mosaic with the face of her new betrothed, the artist simply redid the name and title over the man's face - you can see how it the work looks a little sloppy above the man's head.

We have seen many ancient sites and evidence of old traditions on this trip, so I was grateful to be in Istanbul for the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. During this time Muslims fast from sunup to sundown in an effort to understand the struggles of their fellow (poorer) man. I've heard the first day of waiting for Iftar (the time of sundown when the fast can be broken) is the hardest. In Istanbul we saw many picnic tables, chairs, food and gift stands set up in the center of town, ready to celebrate the start of Ramadan. The tables and chairs were all empty during the day because of the fasting, but once the sun began to sink people poured in from everywhere to break the fast together. Restaurants around this main square, called the Hippodrome, were packed, and all of the tables showed families clustered together with their meals untouched on the tables.

Enjoying the city is an understatement! The Blue Mosque is in the background. 

At one end of the square there was a small continent of military personnel and a cannon set up, which went off at the precise time of the sun setting, and then the meal commenced. This event was was reminiscent of a festival, with camera crews covering it for local news and what I believed were local government and religious leaders giving a speech before the meal. After enjoying the festive air for a few moments, Jonathan and I had our own meal on a rooftop terrace with a view of the Blue Mosque, which I am proud to have learned faces east to Asia - and points to our next adventure. 

The courtyard in front of the Blue Mosque welcomes visitors.  

Into the Sahara

I watched from the rear of our camel procession as our guide Muhammed casually dropped the lead, walked twenty feet to our left and plunged his hands into the sand. What on earth is he doing? I thought, as he kept digging. A moment later, he lifted up his left hand, a small creature now squirming in his grasp. He had found a sand salamander burrowed in the desert with less effort than it takes me to find my car keys every morning.

The camel caravan into the desert. 

We had mounted up on our camels about an hour earlier in the evening - a hilarious process where you get on the camel while it's still sitting and hold on for dear life as it pops its hind legs up first, pitching you forward, then straightens its front legs, hopefully with you still on its back. Jonathan and I joined one other American, a Canadian and three Belgian ladies for a one-night stay among the sands. It was a pleasant enough crowd, but we were all strangely silent as our camels plodded along what was a well-worn path in the desert (the droppings gave that away). With each hill we crested, the town of Merzouga and our base for this adventure slid away, leaving only the waves of orange. 

A sand salamander found by our guide. 

It wasn't long until we arrived at our "camp" for the evening - a well-established group of nomad-style tents, bathroom (no shower) and a solar panel to power the few lamps. We dropped our few items in the tent, and headed for the closest dune to get a better view. The weather that evening was spectacular - clear but not too hot, with no wind to disturb the sand. The sand, by the way, was the softest I've ever felt. It almost melted between your toes, and made the flip flops I had brought utterly unnecessary. It also made climbing dunes tricky work, each step becoming a puddle of grains in an instant. But the view was well worth the climb. Just mountains and mountains made of the finest sand, all shaped by the wind, stretching endlessly into the distance. 

Our camels finally get a break. 

We hung around on the dunes until sundown, taking our turns at sand boarding and resisting the temptation to roll the 100 meters or so down to the bottom. Our guide and his two young sons prepared a tajine for dinner, which is a clay pot to mix vegetables and meat and cooks in a oven. It is a very common meal in Morocco - almost their version of cooking with a crockpot. After a cup of tea or two, our party scattered to their respective tents. Jonathan and I hiked up the dune one more time to get a better look at the stars since it was such a beautifully clear night. The desert had been silent all evening, and come nightfall it was one of the most peaceful times I've ever experienced. Sleep came easy.

Playing on the sand dunes at dusk. 

The previous days in Morocco I had been woken up by the local mosque's call to prayer early in the morning. In the desert, it was the wind. The heavy tent flaps and walls shook and sand whipped into our little camp. By morning, the carpets that had been laid down in the camp were covered with piles of the tiny granules, and all our footprints from the night before had been erased. 

Morning arrives at the camp. 

We climbed the dune one last time to watch the sunrise. We saw the sands change from a deep, cool brown color to a warm amber hue - one of the more dramatic transformations I've seen in a sunrise. Soon after we mounted back up on our camels and our procession began again. We left the desert as silently as we came, our footprints again fading with the wind, and it was as if we had never been there at all. 


On the way home. 

Trying not to fall as my camel stops with the caravan  

Fez.

Such a simple name for a complex city. As Morocco's cultural and spiritual center, Fez was a must-see on our list, particularly because of the medina (an old walled part of the city - common in many north African towns). The Fez medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the closest I've come to stepping back in time.

Donkeys, mules and handcarts are the main means of transportation in the medina. 

For starters, there are no cars in the medina. They simply wouldn't fit in the narrow, winding alleys. If you're thinking of tiny European cobbled streets, cut them in thirds, and that's about the average width of the alleys in the medina (or so it felt to me). What it lacks in roadways, it makes up for in traffic. The "streets" (if you want to call them that) are typically congested with shopkeepers, errand boys, donkeys, cats and, of course, tourists. There is a constant din of haggling during the day as shoppers bargain for their treasure. Here's a incomplete list of what you can buy in the medina:

clothes (traditional and modern), shoes (new and the ones straight off a seller's feet), wedding  decor and dresses, trinkets, headscarves, jewelry, tea, coffee, spices, produce, meat (up to and including camel meat from one specialty butcher), leather goods, metal goods, pots, pans, all manner of cooking utensils, copper sinks (for the kitchen and otherwise), books, electronics, furniture, antiques (real and not). 

The only camel butcher in the medina, as far as I know. 

The size of these stores range from smaller than your master bedroom closet to surprisingly spacious. There are also food stands, restaurants and tea houses in the same range of sizes. And remember, all of this business is done without a cargo loading area. I stepped aside in the alley for more donkeys to pass than I did for elderly people. 

One of the wider alleys inside the medina. 

Personal affairs are also conducted differently there. For example, the best source of neighborhood information comes from an unexpected place: the baker. Every neighborhood baker becomes this source and confidant because every family kneads their dough at home and brings it to the bakery to cook. So, it becomes the one place everybody visits daily, and subsequently, gossips daily. If a family is looking into a potential marriage for their child, the baker is often still the person they ask about the other family to see if it is a good match. 

Aside from gossip, the medina is also home to a gorgeous mosque I was only allowed glimpses of (non-Muslims are not permitted to enter) as well as many former schools, or medersas.  Other hidden gems included our accommodations. We stayed in Fez for a few nights in a beautifully restored guest house, or dar. These guest houses operate much like a bed and breakfast, only you wouldn't see a charming farmhouse or an elegant Victorian home on the outside. In the medina, there's no room for that. Instead, you're more likely to roll right past it because their entrances look just like the rest - guarded by a heavy, creaky wooden door. But stepping inside felt like walking into an oasis among the madness of the old city. The guesthouse, Dar Serrafine, had a beautiful inner courtyard that opened up to the sky and a rooftop terrace to view the medina. In the midst of donkeys, hand carts and people shouting, the dar was somehow insulated from it all, a place where it was just quiet enough to hear the birds. 

 

An old medersa, now a small museum. 

Buying linens in an artisan shop was a much better experience than being haggled on the crowded streets.

Leather goods are still made in the traditional fashion at this tannery in Fez. 

Inside the courtyard of a a large guest house and restaurant.

This is madness. This is the medina.  

Turn 180 degrees around from the view of the medina and this is just on the other side of the hill.

A Tale of Two Cities in Ruins

The first time I saw Roman ruins was in...well, Rome. I had the wide-eyed gaze of a study abroad student, the kind of look that says everything is fascinating and new. This is ancient, I remember thinking, cruising through the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and at nearly every turn in that glorious city. The thought of those crumbling structures still intrigues me now, nearly a decade later. I have crossed the Atlantic several times since then and seen many other lands, but there's nothing quite like the remnants of a great civilization to move you through time.

One of our first days in Morocco brought again the same awe I felt in Rome, only this time I was in Rabat. We visited the Roman city of Sala Colonia and the old necropolis called Chellah, two historic sites in one. It's hard to adequately capture the beauty of any ancient place, but it's easy to picture life long ago if you use your imagination to reconstruct the ruins. That was no challenge here, with names like Jupiter Temple and Pool of the Nymph to guide you. 

Jonathan enjoying the exploring. 

At the Chellah, as it is locally known, you can walk among the old rooms and wander almost anywhere in the grounds, unlike many sites in Europe. Perhaps most intriguing about this place is its history. The Romans took over the area in 40 AD and remained for centuries. The place was later abandoned until the Merenid sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali built his necropolis there, thus the mix of Roman and Islamic architecture in one ancient place. We saw what was left of Roman baths as well as the tomb of sultan Abou al-Hassan Ali and his bride. Walking through the place, I often had the feeling I was being watched. And the culprits? Just a flock of storks, whose presence is considered a blessing if they nest on top of mosques. A sultan might be buried in the Chellah, but it was clear that the storks owned the place. The oddest site was a shallow man-made pool, home to an unknown number of eels lurking in the dark. Many still believe the pool holds the power to bring fertility and a easy childbirth if the woman feeds boiled eggs to the eels.

Storks nest in many places in the Chellah. 

This cat and many others roam the grounds. Behind, the eel pool offers believers a hope for fertility.

An unexpected and lush garden welcomes visitors. 

The other ancient city we visited, Volubilis, is about an hour and a half's drive from Rabat, but it offered as much to see as the Chellah. Named as the best preserved archaeological site in Morocco, Volubilis is also a Unesco World Heritage site. It was first settled in 3rd century BC by Carthaginian traders, and later became a remote Roman Empire outpost. As Romans tended to do, they abandoned Volubilis at around 280 AD thanks to the Berber (read: barbaric) tribes offering their show of force in the area.

 

The ruins of Volubilis. 

As a former student of Latin, I was happily surprised to learn that the mix of people there - Berber, Jew, Greek and Syrian - all spoke Latin until Islam came to the region hundreds of years later. Volubilis stood for centuries longer, though never regained its former Roman glory, and in 1755 the earthquake that rocked Lisbon and many other areas did its damage to Volubilis, too. Despite the years of destruction from man and nature alike, archaeologists uncovered some astonishingly well-preserved mosaics, the likes of which rival those in Pompeii. 

A well-preserved mosaic of Orpheus (center figure) and animals.

Reconstructed Roman arches show the marvel of their architectural skills.

The goddess Diana turns a man into a stag for watching her bathe. 

Down in Africa

It's been a long time since I was in a predominately Muslim country, but coming to Morocco was an easy choice. For starters, Jonathan and I have never traveled to Africa, and as a bonus, we have friends here who have been gracious hosts and guides for our first few days. Morocco is a fascinating place and a true crossroad of cultures, and in just a few days we have seen its rich history. We spent part of a day in Casablanca seeing one of the world's largest mosques and certainly one of the most impressive, too. Ornate and imposing, this mosque juts out over the ocean and dominates the landscape. Thousands of hands conspired to make this structure a reality, and the result is astounding. Marbled surfaces abound, along with intricate tilework.   

Hassan II Mosque in Casablana, Morocco.  

But the mosque is anything but ancient. The groundbreaking began in July of 1986 and the entire structure was completed just six years later. Its minaret became the tallest in the world at 689 feet and it includes some delightfully modern features - heated floors and the largest retractable sunroof I have ever seen (also the most beautiful, putting our football stadiums to shame). The capacity for worshippers is also noteworthy: 25,000 can worship inside the mosque, with room for 80,000 more on the grounds. As Ramadan approaches next week, I can only imagine the crowds coming in and covering the place in prayer. 

This was my first time inside any mosque, and although the flourishes and fancy marble floors were stunning, what was most interesting to me was seeing a worship hall completely devoid of chairs, tables, or any furniture. Of course this is the way of Islamic worship, but seeing that grand hall without a single pew or pulpit was intriguing. Imagine the largest, grandest church you've ever seen. Now take out all of those wooden, creaking pews. The result, for me anyway, is viewing the place of worship in a different way, one in which we all kneel side-by-side rather than cling to the aisles. And that isn't what travel is all about - seeing your world in a new light?

The terrace just outside these doors looks out over the ocean. 

This is the main interior area of the mosque and the worship hall. The roof is decorative as well as functional - it retracts to help with air circulation for the 25,000 worshippers expected to arrive for Ramadan next week. 

PS - The title of this post, "Down in Africa" is for my sister who always used to like that song by Toto, "Africa." I can't get it out of my head.

We're flying around the world.

But first, let me tell you where (and why) we've been of late. Last October, Jonathan and I began learning Portuguese for our upcoming move to Brazil. He is part of the Olmsted Scholar Program, which is allowing us to embark on an exciting journey of learning a new culture by spending a few years in South America. So, last fall we began an intensive language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. We spent countless hours together learning Portuguese, but we also enjoyed the beauty of the area. We settled in a sweet little cottage in the ever-charming city of Carmel and explored the California coast whenever we could. After months of work (and a decent amount of play) we graduated from the language school and said farewell to California in May. Since then we've spent some quality time with family and friends and are just days away from embarking on our most ambitious travel yet: circling the globe. Jonathan and I have always been passionate about traveling and experiencing life in other lands, so to begin our new life in Brazil, we figured we'd see as much of the world as we can!  We started in Los Angeles in May and headed to the East Coast of the US, but the real fun begins next week when we touch down in Morocco. From there, we will keep working east to eventually touch back down in Los Angeles. I plan to continue writing here as we experience new sights and hope you'll join me for the road ahead!