A visit to Arches National Park inspires this reflective essay on the powers that shape, pare, trim, and mold this unique region of the American Southwest and the relationship to how time molds our eroding bodies and identies.
To travel solo for days in a kayak is to be not on or in but of the water. It loves you, rocks you like your mother did, speaks to you with many voices, supports your meandering, bathes you, feeds you, tells you when to travel and when to stay still on the island of the moment. On every trip there is a time of storm, of being wind-bound when the judicious kayaker stays put, writes, rests, wanders, constructs stone sculptures and listens for the still, small voice.
Being naked in public, for a North American, is the stuff of nightmares. Why? Is it because our bodies are so embarrassing? Perhaps it’s just a social convention; we are expected to hide our bodies, and so we feel awkward in public spaces when we must expose them. Maybe this is why many tourists avoid bathhouses. After all, they have a perfectly nice, private bathtub in their hotel room. And back home, they can wear a bathing suite as they sink into the hot tub at the community pool.
They may have avoided exposure, but they have no idea what they are missing.
What would you do if you were asked to voluntarily give up your cell phone, computer, TV, and sex for a month? When I revisited my Peace Corps assignment after forty-two years away, the people of my village in Fiji, indeed the residents of the whole province, were doing just that, in a manner of speaking. They were giving up tobacco, yaqona (kava), their ceremonial drink, and sex for a month. Why would they do such a thing?
One hundred and forty years ago, the people of a nearby village, Nabutautau, killed and ate the Methodist Reverend Thomas Baker. When I visited in July, 2011 they were conducting a ceremony of reconciliation, begging the Methodist Church to forgive them for their ancestors' actions.
As far back as I can remember, my life’s goal has been to travel around the world. Now, as I sit in row twenty-two of our Boeing 777, chasing the moon over the Pacific somewhere between Tokyo and the International Date Line, I can feel the book closing on this chapter, on the whole epic adventure. And the same question keeps resonating in the back of my mind.
I was born with Fernweh, an ache to explore faraway places. It’s in my DNA; both of my parents had it. It was my dad, however, who taught us to pack adventure into our explorations.
Like my mother, I’d bask in the preparations for travel. I’d research, map out itineraries, and pack well in advance. For Daddy, however, the best part of travel was the adventure—the experiences you couldn’t plan for.
It was a gorgeous day for a hike--sunny, blue skies, comfortable temperature-perfect hiking weather. F suggested we hike up to the summit of the 12,000’ peak, taking our time, enjoying the profusion of wildflowers that had suddenly emerged after the night’s rain. She was used to hiking at lower altitudes, so we stopped whenever she needed to catch her breath or eat a snack. We climbed in companionable silence, finding the meandering path up to the top with no trouble.
Almost as soon as we started eating, it began to rain. We put on our rain gear, packed up our food, and started hiking down the mountain. The temperature dropped. Balls of hail mixed with the rain. Rivulets of water poured down what we thought was the trail.
Suddenly she screamed at me. “I’m not doing this anymore. Why do you always have to hike? Why can’t we ride bikes? This is dangerous!”
I was in the back of a truck bouncing through Port-Au-Prince with six strangers. We sat in complete silence as we drove past groups of children, their pleas for money blending into a steady drone of unintelligible noise as we passed. The only thing separating me from the Haiti I had heard so much about was a thin metal grate. Barely enough to keep the children from climbing in when we stopped, it only mildly interfered with my view of the city.
I expected to feel bad. I knew Haiti was the poorest country in the western hemisphere. I knew they had severe problems with deforestation and clean water. I thought when I arrived I would empathize or feel sad for them. Instead, I watched silently as we made our way through the streets, feeling only wonderment.
Little did I know that in a few days I would have the most shameful experience of my life.
The phone rang, a welcome break from correcting student essays. “Want to take a road trip to New Mexico?" asked my son. “I’ve got five days off and I haven’t seen you in a while.”
My son. The southwest. Five days of fun. "Of course," I replied.
We spent four days of our visit driving around northern New Mexico, enjoying chile-infused food, appreciating the vast expanse of sky and the changing colors of rock formations sculpted by the wind. The fifth and last day began innocently enough. My son sells houses so our host suggested he visit some properties with a real estate agent. “Want to come?” he asked me.
"Of course," I said. I had no idea of what was to come.
The first house the realtor showed us was old, ugly, and expensive—mouse droppings everywhere. “Good thing I’m not planning to move to Santa Fe,” I thought. The second house looked so forlorn it needed anti-depressants as much as it needed paint. A third house had mirrors everywhere—even on the ceiling in the kitchen. Who would want to live in a place that looked like a brothel?
As we drove away, the realtor said, “There’s a house that just came on the market two days ago. If the owners agree, would you like to take a look at the house?" My son nodded yes. The realtor looked at me. I shrugged. What did I care? Just one more house to look at.
I am sure you’ve heard that Spanish food is incredible, that it’s unlike anything you’ve ever tasted, that it’s innovative and bright and well, you know – all that hype. Here’s the thing. It’s totally true. Unfortunately, it took me a good two years of living in Spain to realize it.
Let me back up a bit. I moved to Spain on the premise of staying for nine months – just enough time to explore Europe and sink my teeth into Spain before heading back home. My first day in Spain, I was all alone. I hadn’t made friends yet, but that clearly had no effect on my hunger, and I walked into a little bar to order a sandwich. Now a sandwich in the United States is a hefty sort of thing, layered with ingredients and toppings and sauces. And as I was fairly hungry when I ordered this “sandwich,” I was more than disappointed when two flimsy toasted pieces of sandwich bread came my way with a little lettuce, tomato and a fried egg stuffed between them.
Okay, so my first experience wasn’t great, but over time I did learn to enjoy Spanish food. I liked it. I really liked it. But I never reached the point of loving it. I continued ordering the same things again and again at restaurants and bars, and never felt it was special. In my head, American food was superior to the simple and often bland food of Spain.
About a year and a half after I moved to Spain, I met my Spanish boyfriend, and I decided to tell him my opinion about all of this. He was shocked. I thought he was too proud to admit I was right, but I realize now I was horribly mistaken. As we continued dating, I started tasting foods I had never even heard of before, and I had to come to terms with the fact that after eighteen months of eating three meals a day, I actually knew nothing about Spanish food. Actually, my realization was an epiphany.