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In Search of Quiet

by B.J. Stolbov


Deep in the barren Sonora Desert of Southwestern U.S, three days away from the last person I saw, I was hiking alone, in search of quiet. The desert has always been the one place that spiritual seekers, saints, and sinners have gone in search of quiet. 

Sonoran Desert, Prima, Arizona. Photo by Ken Bosma via Flickr CCLExcept that, in reality, the desert was not quiet. Its incessant winds whistled by my ears and rumbled up through my feet. Dead and dying grasses tumbled and rolled by.  Snakes slithered, lizards clicked, and hares scurried across the sand. The winds sang beneath the wings of hovering vultures and under the claws of lingering thoughts.

There, hiking alone through the desert, reveling in my own silence, late in the afternoon on a tranquil summer’s day, I suddenly came upon a rattlesnake, which startled me with its rattle, louder than any rock concert I had ever been to.  I stopped, the snake did not strike, we stared at each other, and then we both quietly went our separate ways. 

Sound and silence can come in unanticipated places and at unpredictable times. 

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Jules’s Very Dumb Day in Luxembourg 

by Jules Older


If you travel, you will have dumb days. That's a given. You’ll get on the Metro, but on the wrong train, and you’ll end up at the wrong end of Paris. You’ll order dinner in Tokyo, and with a flourish, the waiter will set what appear to be raw snails in front of you. You’ll book a hotel in Miami, and when you get there, discover that the elevator hasn't worked since the Nixon administration. These are dumb days. They will happen.

The trick is to avoid VDDs — very dumb days.

I just survived one. Barely.

Jules’s Very Dumb Day began in our hotel room in Luxembourg City. We’d been here a week, a week of nothing but sunshine and warmth. Okay, maybe I'd grown cocky about the weather. 

Now, we were heading north to Vianden, a town of winding, cobbled streets; an ancient mountaintop castle, lovingly restored; and such overwhelming charm that… well, in 1871, Victor Hugo found refuge here. 

Bet he brought his raincoat. Though I’d searched our hotel room from gurgle to zatch, I couldn't find mine. Not that it was raining — just in case. After seven straight days of Luxembourg sunshine, no worries.

We took the Hop-on Hop-off Bus to Vianden. We arrived at 11 a.m., and though he spoke no English, the driver assured us in the modern traveler’s Yiddish — FranglishDeutch — that he'd pick us up at exactly 2 p.m. on that self-same spot. And off he drove.

That was where we had to make our first decision. Walk up to the castle or down to the tourist chairlift, then hike from the top of the chair to the castle. Effin said.  “I felt a raindrop. Let’s walk up. It’s shorter.”

I said, “Nah, let’s take the lift. It’ll be an adventure.”


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The Plague Comes Back To Life


The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh's most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago. 

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery -- and misery. 

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The Children of Angkor

story and photos by Jolandi Steven


Unkempt little bodies jump from stone to stone. Lithe and agile. Darting now towards, then away from the never-ending stream of tourists flowing over the raised wooden causeways of Beng Mealea. They claim the messy jumble of unrestored stones of this temple, 40 kilometres east of Angkor, on the ancient royal way, as their playground. Nearly nine centuries of heat and humidity have played havoc with the precise placement of the blue sandstone blocks. Gone is the former wealth and glory of the mighty Khmer Empire. In its place poverty reigns. 

At each consecutive temple I visit they keep buzzing around me in swarms. Irritating little mosquitoes. Sometimes noisy and persistent, other times quiet and watchful. Even if I try, I cannot seem to avoid their persistent onslaught. “Lady! Lady!” Dirty little hands push tacky souvenirs I don’t want in my direction. I am determined not to make eye contact. I don’t want to see them. “Only one dolla!” I hasten my pace, and keep my face stern. I focus on the beauty and splendour of the temple in front of me. They give up, and turn their attention to their next victim.

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Samba: From Berkeley to Brazil

by Janet Schneider


I love Sunday mornings.  Often I wake to the smell of coffee and know that the New York Times awaits me on the dining room table, but these enticements don’t get me out of bed. I rise to dance the samba. For no matter what the weather is in Berkeley, California for one hour, I am transported to a warm Brazilian sandy beach, a Carnaval parade line moving in unison, or a spontaneous Latin street party.  

At 11:00 in the morning I take my place in Elisita’s Afro-Brazilian dance class at the downtown Berkeley YMCA.  I rush to get my spot in the dance studio — behind and slightly left of her so I can watch Elisita’s every move. It’s in the second row so that, thankfully, someone blocks my view of the mirror. I am not fond of mirrors in general, and even less so when I wear spandex and no makeup.

A smiling Elisita Castanon-Hill. Photo by Liza Dalby.

I take off my gym shoes. My bare feet, liberated, feel the hardwood floor give as I step from side-to-side. I stretch while waiting for the music to start. I dance to escape my daily concerns and leave my worries behind. I dance rather than remain at home writing. If I arrive at class stressed or frantic, I won’t feel that way when I leave. 

Elisita takes her place in front, presses the play button, and begins to move.  I hear the drums, flutes, and tambourines and feel the Samba beat —1-2-3. Da, da, da. Ba, ba, ba.  Elisita does not have a flat stomach, small chest, or firm butt. She is, instead, a big woman whose bulging stomach rolls over her spandex waistband. She has a large lumpy behind and full limbs. But when she dances her jiggling skin transforms into a taut figure of strength, grace, and beauty. And when she smiles her entire face radiates.

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Mama Arli’s Due Date

by Anna McDonnell


“Na! Na! Hurry; let’s go to the market! Ayo!” Mama Arli’s raspy voice bellows below my kitchen window. 

Mama Arli is my neighbor four houses down from mine, and she is always yelling at me. She’s pregnant with her third child, though hardly showing. Arli is the name of her firstborn son, and his name replaced her own once he was born. All mothers are called by their firstborn’s name without exception.  

Her house is sturdy, also on stilts, and she is fortunate to have a deep well located just a few feet from her kitchen ladder. It is November in Indonesia and this means its coffee-picking season for those in our Sumatran village. Mama Arli and her husband aren’t home much; instead they are occupied with the daily task of harvesting beans, and then drying the beans on tarps beside their home.  

Her eyes are close together, always furrowed but betrayed by her ever-constant grin. Her hair, when I first met her, was a strange bowl cut. Now her hair is long and always pulled back, framed by blunt bangs she likely cuts herself. She wears baggy clothes and occasionally borrows her eldest son’s shoes when she doesn’t feel like looking for her own. Maybe her son had worn hers by accident; she casually explained the one time she caught me looking at her toes spilling out of her young son’s plastic sandals.  

“Na! Ayo!” She is still waiting for me. The more she calls, the louder her voice rises. 

She doesn’t simply speak words; she spits them out loudly and playfully. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was mocking me, but instead I have learned this is the way women here talk. Most are loud, boisterous, and rarely whisper unless they absolutely must, in the company of men or when their gossip is extra juicy. 

I grab my wallet and my woven basket and rush down the staircase to the patch of grass where she is standing. We link arms and begin the walk to the market a few villages away. 

“Can we stop in the next village, Na? I need to see the midwives,” Mama Arli asks, though her tone of voice indicates it’s going to happen whether or not I agree. 

This is the first I’ve heard of someone visiting the underutilized midwife clinic in the area and so I am intrigued.  Women in this region give birth on the floor of their homes, most often with the help of a female family member.

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