With so many styles of writing, such variety of subject matter and entrants from all around the globe we decided to publish a long list of those articles that caught our eye. Congratulations to all these writers – 21 writers for 2021. Happy reading!
All the articles are published below this list:
Astrid Aoko Okello
Ann Mary Sebastian
Daphne Amarachi Chilaka
Astrid Aoko Okello
IN MY CULTURE
“Afurika! Afurika!” Two young boys shout, pointing to my direction as they enter the train. They are accompanied by their parents. They giggle as they jump onto the priority seat. Their mother tries to calm them down, while their father turns to me and slightly bows, I guess as a way of apologizing. Afurika is the Japanese pronunciation of Africa.
Before the train stopped at this subway station, almost everyone minded their business. The young people were glued on their phones, while old people were busy reading those Manga comic books. Now, these children have shifted everyone’s attention. All eyes are on me, making me uncomfortable. So, I get out my phone and scroll through Facebook notifications. Soon, the doors close and the train starts moving.
Deep inside, I am thinking of the amazing experiences that I have had in this city. I am still amazed by how the system here works so perfectly for the citizens and how clean, green and orderly the city is, despite being the largest in the world. I have been learning a few words and sentences here to blend more into the culture. Indeed, I have learnt a lot, even though I keep forgetting to add the word “san” to names of people, and still have the habit of referring to restaurants as hotels, and convenience stores as supermarkets.
It is around 5 pm. I am going to see professor Sara-San for a discussion on her library project in Kenya. She is a famous professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at Tokyo University. She also serves as the director of the International Students Association at the University. She has written several books, two about African culture and has been to Kenya several times. She is Scottish, married to her Japanese husband. She speaks Japanese like a native and has blended well into the culture. She has also recently received her Japanese citizenship.
I first met Sara- San about 20 years ago in Kenya when she donated fairy tale books to my primary school in Kenya. I remember being selected to read some few pages of Cinderella at her appreciation ceremony. I was about seven. I was surprised to see her at the African conference at Tokyo University. I immediately recognized her bob-cat hairstyle and the wide gap between her front upper teeth. Twenty years down the line, she had not changed that much. She did not recognize me at first but was in tears when I reminded her of her visit to my school. When she learned that l was the young girl who had read the story, she hugged me tightly as she sobbed.
She shared her undying love for the Swahili language, and how she had constantly practiced it on her occasional visits to Kenya. She could’nt keep calm as she dropped Swahili words, explaining their meanings. It was hard to convince her that ‘Waambaje’ is a traditional salutation which we never use, at least in Nairobi. She was offended when I reverted to English, and reminded me to embrace my African culture.
Two months into my arrival here, my African origin has fascinated many. I have received lots of attention. I came here for a writing fellowship at Tokyo University after winning a creative writing contest. Whenever I introduce myself as a Kenyan girl with a degree in Sociology, and with a great passion for writing and environmental matters, my introduction seems incomplete. This is as long as it is not spiced with some African aspects, something like I have two lion pets.
On the other side, I have used this phrase “In my culture” for giving excuses, like those of why I cannot consume raw meat, or why I cannot drink “kohi” (coffee) without sugar.
After about forty-five minutes, I arrive at Harajuku, where Sara-San lives. I get on Google maps to locate her house, which she says is about ten minutes walk from the station, that is if I get out through the right exit from the station. It is a cold autumn; winter is fast approaching. It is now 6 o’clock and completely dark, something I have not processed as much as the fact that the sun could be up, shining brightly, yet still cold, very cold.
So far, I have been to Harajuku not once, not twice. Harajuku is my favourite spot in Tokyo. I love the vibe it gives and its sense of fashion. Unlike European streets, lined with famous cathedrals, Harajuku has beautiful shrines, beautiful parks and cornered restaurants. I cannot forget to mention its pop culture!
The sky is clear and the air is filled with anime tunes and people constantly saying the thank you word, “Arigatou.” As I walk down the crowded narrow alley, the aroma of Ramen from the cafés fill my empty stomach. I love Ramen, more than the famous Sushi. As I brush shoulders with people, I can hear them whispering “Afurika.” Everything is beautiful from the flower arrangements at the front of the houses to the beautifully decorated manholes.
I finally arrive at Sara’s house. She lives with her husband and her sister-in-law is visiting for the weekend from Okinawa, where she lives and works. I love how Sara-San has blended the living room with both Japanese and Scottish style, with a touch of Africa, represented by carvings of different wild animals on top of the cabinet.
On the left wall is a big picture of a small thin girl, shyly holding a microphone on one hand and a book on the other. She is standing in front of a large crowd. Among the crowd is Sara-san. I know it’s her, even though she has black shades on. I recognize myself as the young girl and for seconds, I get glued on the picture as memories of my tormenting childhood fill my head. The house smells of of Ramen, and I feel hunger burning in my stomach.
Sara-San introduces me to her family, then asks her sister-in-law to lead me upstairs to the study room to see the books she had collected for her library project in Kenya while she sets the table for dinner. The study is a small irregular room. There is an old desktop lying on one corner, at the centre is a small table with an office chair tucked underneath. Each side of the wall has a bookshelf, with books piled up to the ceiling. Among the book piles, I spot several familiar books including Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi and The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiongo.
Sara’s sister-in-law reaches the top shelf and lifts out a book. She blows off the dust on the cover and hands it over to me saying, “Afurika.” I take the book and flip a few pages before I read the summary on it’s back. It’s the story of the legendary Yasuke, the African Samurai who is believed to have been the first African to arrive in Japan in the 16th century. Now I know why she thought I would love it.
After dinner, Kiyosaki-San, Sara’s husband takes the lead and explains details of their planned library project in Kenya. He then shifts to other stories, including how he has been recovering from a minor stroke, which has seen him stop his teaching career for over two years. He has a PhD in music and brags of his mastery of foreign genres. He tells us stories of his first visit to Kenya and his love for the Kenyan coast. He narrates a near-death experience when he was attacked and robbed in Malindi town.
He goes ahead and mentions his dying love for “Zilizopendwa,” a famous Swahili music genre, so he pulls out an old guitar from the side of his chair and plays “Stella Wangu,” a famous Swahili love Song as he sings along with a ridiculous tune in his Japanese accent. He nods as he strikes the last note and we bow and clap simultaneously, then he turns to me and says, Afurika!
Ann Mary Sebastian
From counting Corona Tolls to counting captivating treks
My mood was soggy just like the land which was dampened by the continuous rain for the last two days. The ongoing pandemic had made me sit inside the home with nothing much interesting to tend to, from March onwards. Sitting in one corner of God’s own country counting the rainy days and the corona toll, I never thought a call from my husband serving in the Indian Army would change the course of my life from a day onwards. I got two days to decide and pack. To decide to travel to the second coldest inhabited place on earth with a toddler wasn’t an easy one. Not only the destination was tough, but also the travel part in the times of Corona. Come what may, I decided to go after having two sleepless nights. Once decided, many phone calls were made to beg and borrow woollens to survive the cold of Dras.
Dras, never heard of that name until my man in olive green got a posting there. Once he was there, I keep hearing and seeing the beauty of this picturesque place. But never in my wildest of dreams thought I would land up there with my kids in this eventful year 2020. After an eight hours journey from Leh airport, the icy wind of Dras welcomed us. Reached there in the evening overwhelmed by the re-union of the family and tired after a long but scenic journey.
The view of clear blue skies and brown mountains took our breath away (literally). After a week of acclimatizing, I along with a fellow army wife ventured out to explore the nearby mountains. After the first day, we realised, our cute sneakers and pretty sweaters won’t protect us from the strong winds up in the mountains. We hadn’t brought any trekking gears (since there was no plan of trekking). We borrowed our husband’s jungle boots and wind shields the next day. We always go breathless as we climb and blame the chole bhature or butter – laden paranthas we had had for lunch and rest near a boulder. For us,the adrenaline rush was enough to move on. We were told by the officers to be extra cautious about spotting mines left from the 1999 Kargil war. That made our small treks more adventurous. Though to avoid any such risk, we planned to stick to trek routes that were visible and discovered many different routes to climb the same mountain. We sometimes had to sit and drag ourselves down while climbing down. Every evening, up sitting on the mountain top, we plan the next day route.
The majestic mountains made us feel very small. It is liberating as well as scary to be on top of a mountain. One day we decided to have our evening tea over the mountain. Carried along with us a flask full of piping hot tea and some paper cups. Found a perfect place beside a hill which blocks the high winds, we perched ourselves on the rocky ground and enjoyed a cup of happiness watching and soaking in the beauty around us.
Knowing we would be here only for a few days, we decided to make the most of it by catching sunset on top of a mountain to having tea sitting next to a boulder. 2020 is not a crappy year after all, it made me wanting more of mountains uncovering a different part in me.
Sarajevo in colors
Eyes closed, a deep breath, your eyelids slowly reopening. Then a time lapse rolls frantically into your eyes. Over three decades compressed in few seconds, almost to constitute a univocal and firm image. This is the pleasant sensation experienced in front of the Sarajevo bobsleigh run. Apparently a macabre scenario, an harsh reality instead. Built on Mount Trebevic before the 1984 Winter Olympics, then abandoned after a few years. Only a sequence of slow and sleepy gondola manages to lead visitors up that irreverent mountain, beating the rhythm of expectations fed meter by meter.
Soon it materializes before the eyes a long snake, the fruit of man’s hand, forcefully channeled between steep valleys, expanses of pine trees and isolated huts. An immobile and deeply silent place, at the same time ghostly. It doesn’t lack of charm. The sense of speed is still perceived, exactly as it happened thirty years earlier. No more warm spectators, loudspeakers, colorful flags and billboards. Only a little imaginative effort can recreate them in the mind. Now the silence is the only one to reign, disturbed from time to time by the rustle of the wind and the whistling of some shy bird.
The pure white of the smooth ice, where athletes once whizzed on their sleds, has dissolved and the bare concrete overwhelmingly re-emerges. Between one pouring and another, tufts of grass and tiny shrubs peek out between the inlets to reaffirm the unstoppable continuation of life. The most beautiful testimonies, however, are revealed in an alternation of lines and colors. Just a look down longer is enough to get lost in the long carpet of graffiti that covers the surface of the track. They are the protagonists. Their sophisticated artificiality blends perfectly with the pristine surrounding environment. A romantic phrase, a party slogan, an ideal portrait, an imaginary landscape, an obscene drawing, your signature, the name of your hometown or that of your loved one. The messages conveyed between one banking and another are not even counted. Each has a deep, intimate meaning to be understood with detail and sensitivity. To label these brush strokes as “street art” would be an understatement. These are real masterpieces to be jealously guarded. Behind every splash of color there is a gaze, a thought, an emotion. Above there is a person. The anger and joy of a people who have lived a history they would have preferred not to live. The suffering of a nation that has paid for sins that do not belong to it.
Surrender is not one of the options contemplated by the people of Sarajevo. The city is alive, it shines with its own light. Life will continue to flow faster and faster, proudly holding high the head, in color. There is no more room for bullets on the walls, blood stains on the asphalt. No more noise from bombs, just the rhythmic metallic stirring of spray cans. The old graffiti on the bob track will slowly fade and others will take their place, renewing that communicative flow that mirrors the existence of its people. Each time it will be different.
The Rainy Bridge
We made our way to Prague, hangovers and all. The beauty about a trip to Europe- is that you do not know what will end up being your favourite city. This was mine. I was giddy for the culture and the buildings, daily, like a giddy teenager who cannot believe his crush is right in front of him and wants him to stay. An interesting fact about the Czech Republic- it’s the most atheistic country in Europe with 60% of the population being non-believers. It also has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world. I was home.
As I ambled through Prague’s surroundings, I hoisted my head up to the many different statues of St John, recognizable by the halo with 5 stars on his head. St John had his tongue cut off in 1393 and was thrown off the Charles Bridge for refusing to divulge the secrets of the Queen. It’s one of the many dark tales of Europe’s dark history. People were burnt to death in those days for airing their thoughts. I also passed 17th street, where 9 Czech students were executed by the Nazis for their demonstrations against their oppressors.
I also passed the Franz Kafka museum and the ‘Powder Tower’- an art nouveau building that stored gunpowder during the middle ages. One other thing to mention- the South African Rand is stronger than the Czech kronor. So live like a king, whilst you can. The Euro will be waiting for you in other countries…
One evening in Prague, the rain pelted down. It had even been hailing earlier. We’d become spoilt over the last week with the sun only setting after 8pm. But this particular evening, the heavens threw a tantrum. I thought about the blanket and the fluffy pillow in my hotel room. We’d been touring the whole day. Nothing made more sense than that bed. But this city at night- my oh my, was it something else. It glistened and called out to those that passed by.
I put my earphones on and pulled my hoody over my head. I walked. And walked. And walked. I passed over the Charles Bridge, as Tiesto’s In The Dark began to play. The lights illuminated the town on either side. The rain hit me hard. I had been aching in my search for meaning and fulfilment over the last few weeks of my life and I had not found much. Then, in that glorious, soaking solitude, I felt a sense of purpose on my pilgrimage through this historic city. I knew the rain would eventually leave, but the memory would not.
Over the course of the next few days, I experienced a bittersweet eruption within my heart. Copenhagen came and went. Budapest came and went. When you are trying to see it all, in the limited time offered to you on travel, you will always visit places without having truly been there. I am saddened that I never got to visit Tivoli Gardens or view the bronze sculpture of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen. I am disheartened that I never got to dip my feet in the Gellért Baths or enjoy an evening at the State Opera House in Budapest. But the want for those places paled in comparison for the desire to return to that rainy bridge. But I’m glad I never returned. Sometimes, you only need to have something once. And then it stays with you for the rest of your life.
With every Indian cloud, there is a silver…
Sticky air hangs over the city like an iron curtain. Immersed in their daily juggle amidst the world of bedlam and racket, in a silent rush, passers-by push through packed backstreets shrouded in clouds of exhaust gases that buses, cars and tuk-tuks mercilessly breathe. Their lungs are short of breath, mouths are full of dust, and nostrils instantly absorb all-encompassing aromas, fragrances, notes of incense and intrusive stench. The stench of an Indian toilet or an Indian river. The smell of the main bazaar or everything else at once. A rich country of poor people, in which bluntness and magic intertwine, ordinary becomes fascinating, and your attention is heightened by the infinity of diffused impressions.
The bewildering, untamed nature of this bizarre country needs to be soaked up with all your senses.
– How would you best describe India? – asked Kasia Zagorska, a journalist from the broadcast station Around the World.
– Too much – I replied.
– Too much of what?
– Too much of everything. Too many homeless people, beggars and cripples. Tuk-tuks, fumes, dust and noise. Too much rubbish, dirt, bacteria and information. Too many brothers, friends, touts and talking heads. Colors, smells, cows, goats, dogs, rats and inevitably – too many flies.
I was surrounded by wild masses. My attention was drawn to the live-in-the-box homeless, rickshaw drivers, grimy children and their begging mothers as well as street vendors selling fruits, chips and peanuts, whose heaped mounds filled rusted, metal carts. An old man with a foot covered in blood crossed my way, and dogs stealthily scurried away, lost amidst the human commotion. A stench reached my nostrils. A peculiar mixture of urine, the essence of incense and spices for the extraordinary bouquet of smells present on Indian streets makes a composition from a bewitched garden.
I squinted my eyes and noticed heavy, silver tools spilling out of some joint, and right next to them – in a kind of unique, Indian disarray – black, rubber tubes were piled up. Across the street, precious valuables, essential oils and perfumes filled the boutique, while in the adjacent artisan shop, a craftsman dabbled in making wood-hewn sculptures. I turned my head and spotted a small corner studio with marble figures of Hindu deities of various sizes as well as a stack of flowers which were soon to embellish the interior of many a temple. Next door – a bike rental and a bakery.
– Watches! Stickers! Cotton candy! – I heard from the left side of the Main Bazaar.
– Glasses! Stamps! Chestnuts! – came calls from the right.
The street cacophony unnerved me. My head was spinning – the result of either fatigue or the inflow of the local exoticism. Maneuvering between the porters, beggars and dogs, I scrambled through the whole mess. I was trying to overtake a man in rubber flip-flops waddling sluggishly through the narrow alley. On his shoulder, he was balancing an enormous, wicker basket brimful of vegetables and other greens
. My eyes were tracing the poor man’s footsteps, and I wondered what he would lose first – his cabbage or his shoes – when all of a sudden, from the opposite direction, with the speed of a race car, a black and yellow tuk-tuk came right at me. At the last moment, with my heart in my mouth, I managed to hide behind the basket. Phew!
And where was that noise coming from? The sound of a whirring engine and long, thick stalks meant only one thing – sugar cane juice! After a thirteen-hour flight and a good dose of Indianness, I was exhausted. I sat down on a little, metal bench next to the juice vendor, and in one gulp, I guzzled my ice-chilled, deep-green cocktail. Finally, a moment of respite. Really?
– Rupee! Chocolate! Pen! – a small, skinny, barefoot girl popped up out of nowhere, pulling my T-shirt.
She was grimy, disheveled and – just like me – covered in dust and sweat. She had a mop od messy hair and a dress full of holes. The child’s request for a pen seemed to me quite strange, but no more than anything else around. I had neither a chocolate nor a pen, so I gave her a coin.
And what is that? An enormous camel with a cart full of beets strapped around its long, giraffe-like neck, strode proudly through the city hub. Unbelievable! And just for the very reason that one Indian square meter contains a thousand western ones, mesmerizing unpredictability of what awaits you in the next moment, makes traveling through India an electrifying experience – after all, if it is not a camel, it is a disabled person. The man had no legs, and only a wooden plank with four little wheels attached to it served him as a wheelchair. Lying on his stomach, with his hands slid into rubber flip-flops, he pushed himself off the ground…
Time for a riddle. Should a man’s intrusion into the ladies’ room in India be shunned with indignation or welcomed with gratitude? If you reckon that the question is absurd and the answer unequivocal, come with me…
I entered some food joint. An attentive waiter showed me the way to the back room. which looked no better than the bazaar. Fine. I tried to close the door, but the lock was broken. So be it. It was too late when I realized that in the cabin there was no… toilet paper. How could I have forgotten! Oh, silly me! In a mad panic, I started searching my hand luggage which I still kept on my back – the floor was in the most appalling state that my eyes had ever seen. In fact, the room was boiling hot, cramped, stinky and smeared with a smorgasbord of unknown “delights.” Covered in sweat, I dived inside my little bag when suddenly the door opened. Through the gap, the waiter’s hand slipped in and along with it, a bundle of something white.
– Here you are, madame. Toilet paper for you.
– Thanks a lot! – I replied with great relief.
Welcome to India! Not-so-odd-any-more land – where with every cloud, there is a silver… toilet paper.
NEW MEXICO IN MY DREAMS.
When an unexpected event occurs in one’s life and particularly if it is associated with something you like, love, enjoy, understand, you sit up and take notice. Travel has played a major role in who I have become. It has educated me, it has opened my mind and heart, it has shown me the most beautiful places and people, and most of all, it has taught me gratitude. Having a deep interest also in Spirituality, Mindfulness, Alternative Medicine and Healing, I took myself off to a London Mind Body Spirit Show, an environment that feels familiar having attended many similar events over the years. My story really begins when I am drawn to a stand where the glint of silver and turquoise jewellery speaks to me. Who on earth could have created such beauty using these elements I ask myself? I had never seen anything like it. Upon conversation with the woman selling this source of wonder to me, I ask her where in the world it came from. Taos she says, Taos, New Mexico. Being a well-travelled individual, I was thinking how and why I had missed what was sounding like an interesting and incredible part of the world. New Mexico, The Southwestern Desert State situated between Arizona and Texas. I was also told that the jewellery was made by The Native American Red Willow Tribe of Taos Pueblo. I could hear her words, but my mind was already taking me to this place of the unknown, where wild sage covered the desert landscape and howl of the Coyote could be heard under the dark star filled sky. My journey has started from where I was standing.
Dreams have always fascinated me; I have kept dream journals throughout my life and was continually thrilled when I could associate something happening in my life with a dream or dreams that I had experienced. In the weeks leading up to the introduction to Taos, I had been having very vivid dreams about Buffalo, Eagles, Native American Indians, huge cloudless blue sky, wide open desert landscape. At the time, I felt no deep connection to any of this although there was a sense of power associated with these dreams. New Mexico was already settling into my psyche before I knew of its existence. Without question, I made plans to go and see this mystical place that had stolen my heart from a distance.
Upon landing in Albuquerque, the dreams of wide-open blue sky became a reality, and my senses came alive in a vastly different way to arrival at any other part of the world I had been to. A knowingness that my life was changing before I even got to Taos was evident from my emotions and feelings that this was right. The unknown was leading to me where I was meant to be going. The journey from Albuquerque is about 100 miles going North through Taos Canyon. It was reflective and exciting. I saw the sage covered landscape I had been dreaming about, I almost expected to see Native American Indians on ridges of the hillsides, just like the movies of years gone by, I remember vividly as a young child always wanting The Indians to beat the Cowboys!!!!!! I would be 7,500 feet above sea level when I got to Taos.
Long known to be one of America’s foremost, bona fide Art Colonies, Taos is also home to a world-class ski resort (Taos Ski Valley), a World Heritage Site (Taos Pueblo), one of the most photographed and iconic churches (St. Francisco de Asis), and a majestic landscape encompassing the Rocky Mountains and the Rio Grande Gorge (and its eponymous bridge). Drawn by clean air and mythical light, visitors come to New Mexico’s Soul of the Southwest to experience rich spiritual traditions, fine art, distinctive cuisine, a thriving music scene and of course, the raw, natural beauty of the landscape. In my communications with the wonderful and interesting locals I met, they were convinced that some people come to Taos to “find” themselves. A hippy philosophy perhaps but considering I was talking to long time hippy residents of Taos; I could not find a reason not to believe them. There is an almost unexplainable energy in this place that I wanted to explore more. These were the obvious reasons why I was there. The less obvious and unexpected reasons were about to unfold. I was longing to visit the source of the silver and turquoise jewellery, Taos Pueblo. Home of The Red Willow Tribe, the word Taos translates to Place of Red Willows. Just two miles North of the city of Taos, stands the centuries old Taos Pueblo, one of the longest continually inhabited communities in The United States. Archeologists have found evidence that the Taos Valley has been inhabited as far back as 3,000 BC and prehistoric ruins dating from 900 AD can be seen throughout the area. The Pueblo is thought to have been built between 1000 1450 AD and appears as much today as it did a millennium ago with adobe dwellings, kiva ovens, and The Blue River which is still a source of water for Tribal Members. There are many talented Painters, Potters, Weavers, Metal Workers, Silversmiths, Wood Workers, and Musicians living on The Pueblo and visitors come from all over the world to learn about the history and witness the way of life of these amazing people. I do not doubt that there will be many homes around the globe with something beautiful, including the incredible silver and turquoise jewellery that I learned the Tribe is renowned for making, keeping the memories of a visit to Taos Pueblo alive.
My memories are more of a personal story. In communications with Tribal Members about who was I? where did I come from? How did I see the world that we live in? Would I ever visit Taos again? life changing exchanges were happening. There was interest in my job as a Mental Health Support Worker back in London. I was asked outright if there was a possibility that I could return and help The Tribe. Feeling honored that I had been asked this momentous question, I politely responded that I did not think it would be possible. Even saying these words at the time, I knew I was not leaving Taos New Mexico never to return. I believe that with an open mind and heart, just about anything is possible. I returned to London knowing that yes, I was going to go back and work for The Tribe and live in the town and land that had made me so welcome. Two years later I was living in Taos and working at The Pueblo. There is a whole other story to be told about the 12 years I lived in this magical, soul enriching place. A book ready to be written. The message I would like to convey is this, do not allow fear to stop you from following your heart and doing what might seem to be the impossible. Whatever your travel dream is, allow it, let it become part of you, and live it.
I wanted a taste.
I shut my swollen, sunburnt eyes and basked in the aroma of the sweet, frangipani flowers as the strong rays of the afternoon sun beat down on my knotted blonde mane. It was my third day in paradise, or Fiji as some people called it. I’d spent my last two nights island hopping and, since spotting a spider the size of my palm in the showers the first night, my hair had been getting the ocean treatment, as I’d come to call it.
“When’s the last time you went?” the instructor startled me out of my haze.
“Uhhhh, last week,” I hesitantly replied, as I made internal eye contact with my panic-induced self confronting my last instructor by grasping his arm beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean miming “I. CAN’T. BREATHE.”
“Should be fine,” he nodded to the island boy who somehow earned the title of Captain.
I began wrestling with my wetsuit to dissolve its wishes of staying free of my body as Captain plopped a hefty air tank behind me. After hours of lounging on the beach, I figured it was time to get my adrenaline pumping.
“Arms in. Arms up. Now, stand. Okay, you’re good,” he notified me.
“Up here,” my instructor tapped the edge of the dinghy we’d ventured into the open waters with.
Mustering up the strength I’d incurred from all those years of missing the bus, I heaved my body along with the steel tank of death attached to my back toward the edge of the boat.
“On three, we do backflip.”
“I’m sorry, wh-“
With a swirl of blues, I was suddenly drenched in saltwater.
“All right, ready?” the instructor said as he grasped my hand and plunged beneath the choppy waters.
Left, right, left, right. My flippers were the only stability I had left at this point as my instr- as my bodyguard and I descended to the distant ocean floor and crouched behind an old coral reef wall. Now, eyes wider than the gap between my kindergarten teeth, I spotted something. No, I spotted a lot of somethings. Despite having that tank of fresh air I’d so graciously lugged around for myself, I held my breath as 30 bull sharks circled my so-called hiding spot. Ranking in the top three of unprovoked attacks on humans, these guys were not to be messed with.
I was completely, utterly, vulnerable. This reef wall, this bodyguard, this boat—nothing mattered. No one could have stopped these sharks, much less 30 of them should they decide I would make a better lunch than their fellow marine friends. This was a whole new world. A world where money, status and connections couldn’t get you out of trouble. Above water, we all had our own stories, but down here, we were all one of the same: Speechless.
As another diver from our group opened the chest of bloody fish heads he’d boldly brought with him, I began to hope the sharks wouldn’t be considering these offerings as the hors d’oeuvres. I watched intently as the diver stabbed a mangled piece of meat and offered it to the crowd. A few members went in for a bite, however, the bull sharks weren’t about to be crowned king so easily. A stealthy red snapper snagged the snack and sped off, being chased by some upset brunch guests.
Despite the commotion, I began to settle into my skin. After all, if this ended up being my last few moments of life, the little me watching me take my last breath from above would be extremely disappointed that I didn’t end it on a good note.
However, it was odd. I was 9,687 miles away from home, underwater, with a man I’d met five minutes beforehand, surrounded by millions of unknown creatures that all had the potential to end me, and yet I found peace. I found peace in the idea that I could be vulnerable and trust that those around me would do the same. As our tanks began to deplete their last supplies of fresh air, I took one last inhale and filled my lungs with the taste of freedom.
Infrequently do we think about the roofs atop of our buildings.
When purchasing a property, we may have their roofs inspected for leaks and other potential problems . We curse them for their wear and tear–and the rotten expense of replacing them periodically. Some of us mutter under our breath when we must climb a ladder to adorn them with timely ornamentation.
Roofs can make for great metaphors. But what about their sheer grit and beauty, the plumage of their composition?
In Portugal, like Spain, you can’t help but notice the rooftops. Everywhere, they’re as distinctive and colorful as a patchwork quilt sewn by the souls of seamstresses.
Unlike the pasty composite shingle, formidable slate, enduring metal, and flexible rubber roofs covering up most American properties, the multi-color brick and terracotta tiles atop homes of every stripe and size here in Iberia are characteristically appealing.
Indeed, they’re integral to the landscape.
Perched on the steep, stepped grade of the countryside, we look down and across at the rooftops here from our vantage points on the balconies and terraces that are part and parcel of inter-connected buildings.
Roofs are their own crowning glory, telling tales out of school about the wear-and-tear they’ve experienced over the years. By the climate. Invading armies. And their genealogies.
Especially in areas dating back to Moorish times, these colorful wrappers can be windows into the souls of the people and their places. So, we feel for the feeble roofs remaining as vestiges of neighborhood “ruinas,” reminding us of better times … while waiting for these distressed properties to be purchased and reconstructed (top-down).
I’m reminded of what some refer to as “mountaintop experiences,” those times and places when we feel truly connected to the universal, the integral, the almighty and eternal.
Have you ever climbed to the top of a mountain – or taken an elevator to the top floor of a skyscraper – and then looked down at the view below? Each offers an experience similar to peering at rooftops: Whether you are at the top a mountain or up on the roof, the world beyond looks very different.
Most of the time, life looms pretty large before me … filling my personal screen of attention.
But from the perspective of a roof here in a Portuguese town or a Spanish village, life seems smaller—not inconsequential–but smaller, simply part of what’s going on in the world around us.
That’s rather humbling, all things considered.
“Cuantos!?” hollered the cheery gap-toothed head-scarved Senora at the buzzing food stand next to the bus station. “Dos!” I yelled back, rubbing my belly. I certainly was hungry after stepping off the bus from San Carlos where I had been whale-watching. Two tacos would be welcomed and typically delicious.
The smell of bubbling corn tortillas on the fiery skillet dancing with sounds of sizzled melting cheese being drizzled with jalapeno salsa sauce produced a heady gastronomic perfume which would be washed down my dry throat with the chilled local beer.
I hadn’t reserved a room for this evening. Being January mid-week, it was predominately out of season in tepid Baja California Sur, and there was always plenty of last minute budget choices. I was en route to San Ignacio to kayak on the river and decided to stop over in Loreto one night. I had not heard of it before so this would be another new place to visit.
After my revitalising stop, I hauled on my backpack and trekked downtown to find a room at the low-priced hostals. From one place to the next I asked the price, but each time, I was told “Completo.” Full. For a small town of 20,000 in winter, this was strange. After the sixth attempt my happiness was dripping into despair.
Despair, myself and my backpack trudged across the main road. I slouched past an estate agent’s just as a woman came out through the shiny door, locking it behind her. She was a bespectacled lustrously raven-haired lady, mid-40’s, slim, elegant. Catching her eye, I murmured “Hola” and asked why all rooms were full.
She told me, in English, that today begins the 28th Annual Convention on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation… that Loreto is home to five out of seven of the world’s marine turtles. “This week Loreto turns into Turtle Town!” she exclaimed. I couldn’t have cared less at that point.
“So, no rooms” she added. “I must go, I have closed office.”
“I need a room tonight” I blubbered. Her eyes scoured me; trustingly she took pity on me. Ushering me into the office, she disappeared into the cleaning closet, emerging with a mattress, then a pillow and blanket. “You sleep here tonight” she announced, pointing at the office floor. My utter surprise and relief was evident : I thanked her profusely.
She didn’t want payment but I insisted she accept something. With my $5 offering, she’d buy pastries juice and coffee to leave in the staff kitchen for me. I was to leave before office opening at 8.30am. She wished me a good night and left.
I slept badly, not used to ever having overnighted in a Mexican office during a Turtle Convention but I was safe, comfortable and rested. I dozily wandered the town next day, ingested the joyous atmosphere, witnessed caring humans in turtle costumes…. and yes, bought the T-shirt!
I still wear it, 14 years later. A memory to the kindness of Maria and Turtle Town.
WAITING FOR GODDARD
“Good morning, welcome to Malaga airport! I’m Sharon – your Tour Manager. I’ll be looking after you for the whole tour. What’s your name please? “
“You weren’t where you were supposed to be. “
“Erm, Good morning. Pardon?”
“You WEREN’T where you were SUPPOSED to be.”
“Oh really, where were you expecting me to be? Name please.”
“Over there. “ (Irate passenger points to ‘over there’ …somewhere)
“There? Where? Could I have your name please. Where exactly did you expect me to be?”
“There! (Points vaguely towards exit door A and exit door B located inside the arrivals hall).
“I am not sure which location you are pointing towards Sir. It says on your arrivals documentation to meet the Tour Manager ‘behind the glass barrier opposite exit doors A and B’. This is where we are now. Can I have your name please, other passengers are coming through and it’s getting busy… “
(Four more passengers come through. Into the correct meeting point as prescribed in their tour document.)
“Welcome to Malaga, I am Sharon your Tour Manager, name please..? Thank you Mr and Mrs Bobbity, please do wait over there with the rest of group, in front of the red fire hose. We should be ready soon to meet the coach. If you need the bathroom, it’s located at the back of the arrivals hall.” (Mr and Mrs Bobbity don’t require the bathroom but thank Sharon for asking, who has now returned to her characterful guest).
“Mr ? …can I pleeeasse have your name? “
“You weren’t where you were supposed to be and I am already fed up of being on this tour. “
“Now listen I AM where I am supposed to be as per the information contained in your travel documentation. Have you read it? Can I show you the paragraph subtitled ‘Meeting Your Tour Manager’? The place I am supposed to wait for you is highlighted in bold. Which is where I am and where we are now. Did you not also see the TWO signs I am holding up? Here they are. Look NAME?”
“I didn’t see the signs. You weren’t holding them up. “
“Yes I was and I am now and will continue to do so until all passengers have appeared. NAME? I have to know your name so that I know I have got everyone. You ARE on my tour aren’t you? Andalucian Dreams ? by Sunny Sights Travel?” (Tour Manager points to the signs she is holding which bear SUNNY SIGHTS TRAVEL in large red letters complete with corporate logo.)
“So right, great, what is your name please.”
“Professor Goddard. Now I want to get on the coach.”
(Tour Manager sees from the passenger manifest under Date Of Birth that this man is 82 years old. Maybe he is confused easily. Be gentle with him. Tour Manager maintains her smile despite it rapidly reversing shape. Remember he is 82. He is alone, aww. Be gentle. Maybe he would just like to sit down instead.)
“Would you like to sit down, Mister Godd… erm, ooh I see! …Professor Goddard? There are chairs over there where the group is waiting. The bathroom is located to the back of the arrivals, if you need it”
“No I don’t and I don’t want to sit down here. I want to sit on the coach.”
(The Tour Manager re-checks her manifest…Ah no wait, he is NOT alone, he is travelling with someone. A lady. And she’s only 33. Another Professor according to the list. Ooh… daughter, carer, colleague, surely not his wife, no, different surname, but then again….but where on earth is she, wonders the tour manager.)
“Professor Goddard.. is Professor Witchowski with you? She is down on my list as travelling with you.”
“I don’t know where she is. Probably because you weren’t where you were supposed to be. Haven’t you seen her? You don’t do your job very well”
“I don’t know what she looks like, Professor, but you do though. Do you not? Can you not call her?”
“I don’t have a phone”
“I don’t know her number. I want to get on the coach. I am not waiting with everyone else!”
“Right well Professor Goddard, we’ll all get on the coach together once everyone has arrived, which will be very soon “
“No. I want to get on the coach now. I am tired and you weren’t where you were supposed to be.”
“I’m not going over that again. Look, I’ve been picking up passengers from this airport for the past 5 years, from exactly the same place which is here, and never has anyone told me I was in the wrong place. And if they did (which they haven’t) they hadn’t read the information in bold about where to meet your tour manager. You should have read your pre-tour arrivals document before tour departure”
“I didn’t get any such document. I want to get on the coach NOW”
“Well sorry but you don’t know where the coach is or what it looks like or what colour it is and I do. I’m keeping us all together until we are all here. Wouldn’t want to lose you already now WOULD I?”
“Then I want to go for a cigarette.”
“OK then, there is a smoking bay just through that main entrance door.” Be quick though, and please return to this exact same spot immediately. I don’t want to lose you!”
“I don’t want to go outside. I want to smoke here.”
Well you can’t. It’s against the law.”
“Anyway I thought you wanted to get on the coach. You can’t smoke on the coach anyway.”
“Can I get on the coach then?” …………………..
(The conversation is interrupted by another voice.)
“Hello are you Sunny Sights Travel?”
(2 wide-eyed men stand expectantly at the exit barrier with their suitcases : another passenger arrival has been successfully executed into the correct place (as per their pre-tour travel document) although the Tour Manager was a nanosecond late in spotting them first because she was busy engaging in escalating ‘banter’ with the Professor and although she had still been holding up her sign at the correct position, she herself was standing sideways during banter and thus not ‘full frontal’. So she didn’t notice them. Very unprofessional that.) Tour Manager grimaces.
“…….Hellooo welcome to Malaga airport, ah yes, I was just helping out one of our new guests with an ISSUE – all sorted now! sorry I didn’t see you immediately.. yes, Sunny Sights Travel, I’m Sharon your tour manager, names please… thank you Mr Jenkins and Mr Rogers, do hope you’ve had a lovely flight over, please do wait over there by the red fire hose, we should be on our way very soon.!
(The Tour Manager replies to Professor Goddard’s last request.)
…………..“NO you can’t!”
“Get on the coach”.
“You are very rude”
“I am not rude Professor Goddard, it’s very busy here, I am just trying to do my job and I find you very rude “(smile cell count drops dramatically then increases due to guilt of tour manager for losing her infamous great customer service skills).
“I want to smoke”
“You can’t smoke inside. Its against the law. I told you.”
“Then I’ll smoke outside. Where you said”
“Yes but NOW there is no time to go outside for a FAG Professor Goddard because we nearly have everyone and I don’t want to LOSE YOU now do I?. I am waiting for just one couple, erm, and ACTUALLY we still need to find Professor Witchowski. Imagine I find her and then I lose you? Does she smoke? Maybe she is outside smoking? Could you possibly check for me please. I can’t leave my post.”
“No. She won’t be outside”.
“Really? How do you know?
“Because she’s over there”
“There”. (Points to where the rest of the group are waiting.)
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You were too busy talking to people”
“I was taking their names as they arrived! It’s my job! The airport is extremely busy too. It’s Saturday morning too!” (Both turn their heads to watch yet another group of hens and stags arriving with a mixture of penis-shaped deely-boppers and pink tutus, randomly poking out from various parts of both parties)
(Tour Manager scurries over to the group standing patiently by the red fire hose, yelling out the name “Professor Witchowski!!”. A young blond haired slender woman answers promptly in an Eastern European accent )
“Yes I am Professor Witchowski”
“Great! Your travelling companion is already HERE!” (Points to where he still stands, by the exit barrier, about to light a cigarette.)
“Yes I know. He is my husband”
“I didn’t see you come through, Professor Witchowski”
“No my husband said you weren’t where you were supposed to be so we went outside then I lost him and then I came back in through main entrance hall and saw some people with Sunny Sights Travel luggage labels. I am here now”.
“Yes I know you are here NOW, so why didn’t you come to meet me as indicated in your tour docum…. ….oh never mind we are nearly ALL here now. Just waiting for one couple”
(Tour Manager rushes back to exit barrier where she is supposed to be, hoping she hasn’t missed the last couple, please God, NO. The Drabbles are only names not crossed off. A couple with Sunny Sights Travel luggage labels approach.)
…….. aaah!!” (eyes light up, smile cells increase, heart rate decreases) …… “would you possibly be….. Mr and Mrs Drabble? Ah, excellent, sooo happy to see you..!! welcome to Malaga, I’m Sharon your Tour Manager, great we have everyone now, please accompany me to where the group is, yes just here…. ooh, do you need the loo, no, great,… yes do come with me so I can collect everyone and we can go and FINALLY meet our coach.” (Tour manager notices Professor Goddard’s sudden absence from the exit barriers as she walks over to the group. She doesn’t care anymore.)
“Is anyone missing anybody? Any wives, husbands, partners, friends in the loo? No? Ha! Marvellous! If you haven’t already been, don’t worry, its only 20 minutes transfer to the hotel. Right! let’s go.. follow me to the coach and we shall soon be on our way to the hotel for a nice rest. I am holding up 2 big signs so just follow them…and me of course, ha!”
As the group start to follow the Tour manager out of arrivals hall, a slender young blonde lady with an Eastern European accent pipes up “Wait! My husband is in toilet.”……
Turns out the Professor (of Psychiatry) was quite a nice fellow really – this was just his character; at 82 he wasn’t going to change for anyone. He was cantankerous, rude, very direct, rigidly assumptive and never wrong. I never heard a peep out of him all week. His young attractive Polish wife, also a Professor of Psychiatry, would regularly roll her eyes whenever he moved / spoke or interacted with him and myself with intermittently exhausted overtones. They didn’t spend much time together but they seemed to enjoy themselves. I wondered if he’d tip me at the end of tour. I doubted it but at least he seemed happy (an experienced Tour Manager never assumes happiness is a measure of how big your tip will be).
By the way, Professor Goddard did eventually return from the Malaga airport toilet on arrivals day. We did all successfully leave together a few minutes later.
And no, the Professor didn’t tip.
Ghosts, Memories and Lobster Rolls: A Visit to Block Island and the Past.
We drove about three hours north from New York City, fighting traffic the whole way. It was a humid, cloud-choked morning in mid-July and we sat with slipping patience as endless lines of cars stuttered their way up 95 North like hesitant toddlers just learning how to walk.
My wife, Emily, and I were on our way to Block Island: a place I’d been many times and one that was quickly becoming a favorite of hers, an Indiana girl used to lakes and rivers still marveling at the very idea of an island surrounded by water in every direction.
As professional actors and musicians, both of us had been stymied creatively for over a year due to the pandemic, forced to cocoon ourselves in our cozily claustrophobic Upper West Side apartment and pursue whatever shreds of creativity Zoom screens and play readings could offer.
Newly married and fried from months of planning a wedding during a plague, we both needed a break. Choking the steering wheel of my car as we inched our way northward, I got the sense I needed something more than a respite; I needed a reset, a reclamation, a homecoming.
We hopped a ferry at Point Judith and headed for the small island shaped like a cartoon teardrop drifting just south off the coast of Rhode Island and just east of Montauk’s outstretched fingertips. The ferry bobbed gently in the green waters of the Atlantic as it curved around the northern tip of the island, revealing about 10 square miles of pale yellow shoreline, green, dappled hills and homes wrapped in gray clapboard.
We glided slowly into Old Harbor and the massive boat spat us out onto Water Street, the island’s main drag lined with souvenir shops and aged hotels whose bones were wearing the passage of time quite nicely, thank you very much.
We headed right on the sun-bleached asphalt and made for one of those hotels: the Block Island Beach House, formerly known as the Surf Hotel until it was sold, revived and renamed a few years past. The Surf’s gray facade still remained, salt-worn and absorbing the sun’s heat.
We bellied up to the bar tucked in the back of the hotel’s wraparound porch. I ordered a lobster roll and a beer and stared out at Crescent Beach, named for the way the eastern shoreline curves its way from Old Harbor to the bluffs on the northeastern edge of the island.
The sun was out now, finally freed from a blanket of early-morning fog, and the water in front of us burned blue. Gentle white caps formed and crashed onto the beach, foam hissing around the ankles of squealing children playing in the surf.
I felt comfortable. I felt familiar. I felt home. I started thinking about all the ways that memory and nostalgia color and distort our connection to place and time. Was it possible, after so many summer days spent here, to be objective about this place? To see it clearly?
For that matter, is it possible for any of us to be dispassionate or even honest about the family lake house or that annual trip into the mountains; those places that seem to be waiting for us before we even arrive, that bend time into wistful loops and make us remember things we thought we’d forgotten?
Turns out, for me at least, nostalgia tastes like salt water in the air, smells like sunscreen and fried fish, and sounds like an endless chorus of waves licking the sand, retreating backward into themselves, then repeating the cycle over and over again.
Settled by a small group of European families in 1661—and by the Niantic people thousands of years before that—Block Island is a laid back, New England gem; a green, beach-rimmed pear resting above the cold waters of the Atlantic; a possibly haunted, purposefully rustic piece of Yankee-fied Americana Summer offering white sands, panoramic views, hot lobster rolls and cold Narragansetts.
The island was a popular summer holiday destination for families across New England for most of the 19th and early-20th centuries before tourism exploded over the back half of the last century, coinciding with the local, year-round community’s commitment to conserving both the island’s natural beauty and historic charm.
Nearly half the island is under the protection of the Block Island Conservancy and Land Trust, and the environmental nonprofit The Nature Conservancy declared Block Island one of the “Last Great Places on Earth” back in the 90’s, one of only 12 such places in the Western hemisphere.
That spirit of conservation and protection extends beyond the island’s natural wonders. The smallest town in the smallest state in the country has remained admirably obstinate to modernization throughout the years, setting it apart from Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and other popular New England summer destinations and their strip-malled, seersucker sameness.
If you’re looking for coffee in the morning, you won’t find a Starbucks or even—horror of all New England horrors—a Dunkin’ anywhere on the island. There is, however, Persephone’s Kitchen; a hip little shack of a coffee shop just up the road from the Block Island Beach House.
The morning after we arrived, Emily and I began our day on the lawn outside the shop, sipping rich and earthy cold brew coffees and splitting a grilled cheese sandwich called “The Moon,” a tangy combination of melted cheddar cheese and kimchi on fresh sourdough bread.
After that, it was beachtime. We headed to Baby Beach, a thin strip of sand and dunes wedged between the much more crowded Surf Beach and Town Beach about a ten minute walk from Persephone’s. The water was clear and the refreshing kind of cold, the sun’s heat dulled by a gentle breeze sweeping across the warm sand.
After a few hours on the beach, we headed back to town to peruse the shops along Water Street. We snagged a pair of Del’s Frozen Lemonades and strolled the bustling street, navigating our way around scores of sunburnt beach-goers flip-flopping their way in and out of stores. We popped into the Glass Onion so Emily could buy a straw beach hat and into Star Department Store so I could buy my annual hat emblazoned with the island’s distinctive shape.
We passed through the Empire Theatre, a century-old roller rink-turned-movie theatre on the western edge of Water currently hosting a rotating collection of art, clothing and collectibles from local artisans and craftworkers. Crossing the street, I nodded reverently to the Statue of Rebecca standing proudly on her plinth in the middle of a traffic circle, her white marble skin glowing in the early-evening sun.
From town, we walked up the hill on High Street for pre-dinner cocktails at the Atlantic Inn, an impossibly charming Victorian-era dollhouse of a hotel come to life with a crisp, white facade and blue shutters draping its many windows.
We grabbed seats in a pair of white lawn chairs out front, ordered glasses of rosé and the cheese plate and enjoyed the best view on the island; a panorama spanning the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Old Harbor straight ahead, and a brilliant sky to the west, the sun slowly diving for the horizon and lighting gentle fires of purple and orange on its way down.
This is one of the many places on the island where time seems to stop, or at least slow down. These places—found at the ends of dirt roads, on the uneven cliffs of the Mohegan Bluffs, under the awning at the National Hotel—invite you to be totally present, or in my case allow the past and present to overlap.
All the previous summer evenings I’d spent on these lawn chairs on this very spot on this very island seemed to connect in that moment like puzzle pieces creating one picture telling many stories. All at once, I was a carefree kid running barefoot across the grass, a sullen teen drinking a flat soda and fidgeting in my chair, a (mostly) confident and comfortable adult, newly married and contemplating the passage of time between sips of pale pink wine.
After a few drinks, we ambled back down the hill into town for dinner at Eli’s, a cozy little six-table restaurant offering a short, seafood-centric menu tucked back against the bustle of town on Chapel Street. After dinner, we followed the sound of tuning electric guitars and booze-fueled laughter to Captain Nick’s, a charming, appropriately-grimy dive featuring live music most nights, especially on the weekends, and a pleasant mixture of island-goers.
It’s here where we ran into the girl with the septum ring who brought us our coffees at Persephone’s, and that wealthy, Wasp-y couple we chatted with during Cocktail Hour on the manicured lawn outside the Atlantic Inn. It’s here where all the disparate strands of type, experience, status and style that gravitate to the island seemed to converge at once to sip on overpriced Corona Lights and listen to a better-than-expected cover band cycle through songs by the Steve Miller Band and Sublime and the Talking Heads.
A few hours later, we stumbled (carefully) out of Nick’s and headed back to our hotel by way of the beach. The fog had crept back in under cover of darkness and I stared at the white lights of the cupola above the National Hotel burning mutedly in the distance.
We stood with our feet in the water and looked out at the dark ocean in front of us.
I took a moment to contemplate my luck, that three decades ago my grandparents had the good sense to say “yes” when some friends of theirs offered them two weeks in their new vacation house on this strange and sweet little island. That they loved it so much they decided to make it an annual trip, that my family fell equally in love with the place and carried the tradition forward after my grandparents got too old to keep it going themselves.
I thought about my family and about time, about the fact that erosion is steadily chipping away at the island, one grain of sand at a time. I thought about how one day—decades or centuries or hours from now—the waters surrounding Block Island will eventually swallow it whole, and it will be as if its beaches, its salt-weathered hotels, the sunken grave stones in the old cemetery, and every footstep buried in the sand had never even existed at all.
Emily’s hand slipping gently into mine woke me from my reverie. We pulled our feet out of the water and headed back toward our hotel and toward sleep.
Some people believe Block Island is one of the most haunted places in America. Many of those people happen to be tour guides for Block Island Ghost Tours, leading hour-long expeditions around Old Harbor’s most cursed locations three times a night.
The island was indeed a terror for ships throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and the waters around the island are littered with the bones of dozens of wrecks. One such wreck involved a ship called The Palatine, a British passenger vessel that got caught in a brutal winter storm just off the coast of the island in 1738.
There are several versions of the story, but the darkest one details how islanders lured the passengers ashore, murdered them, set fire to the ship and then set it adrift to sink into the frigid waters of the Atlantic. Locals still say that, on dark winter evenings, the ghost of the ship appears in the distance—a pale fire burning along the horizon known as “The Palatine Light.”
For me, the ghosts of Block Island are less spectral and more perceptual. Every corner of the place holds layers of memory, the whole island seemingly soaked in sun and sepia tones.
Before I even step off the ferry, I see my grandfather standing on the dock in his trademark yellow windbreaker and ancient bucket hat, cheerfully waving his grandchildren into the harbor with that familiar, toothy grin on his face.
Walking into Star Department Store, I see a younger version of myself—sunburnt and hormonal—trying on every hat in the place, searching for the exact right one.
Every shop, beach and pebbled road on the island holds some remembrance for me, making it hard—if not impossible—to be objective about the place. Is Block Island really as special as I believe it to be, or is it just so burdened by the weight of my own nostalgia that the sun can’t help but shine brighter, the food taste better and the breeze smell sweeter?
The answer is probably both, but I’d like to think that—whether it’s your first visit or your thirtieth—this island will charm the hell out of you if you let it. And if it doesn’t, then a version of this place exists somewhere for all of us, memory-laden and perfect.
Early on our last morning on the island—a gray and muted day—I rented a bike from Aldo’s in town and made my way up Corn Neck Road, the aptly-named, skinny stretch of road that connects the wide, southern half of the island with its diamond-shaped northern half.
I pedaled all the way to the very end of the road, where the chapped pavement becomes a thin curve of rocky beach. I walked along the sand, past the North Lighthouse to the very tip of the island, a knife’s edge of sand where the waters of the Block Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean converge, their waves pushing and shoving at each other like hungry giants.
Straight ahead, I saw the coast of Rhode island. Off to the west somewhere lay Long Island and the rest of the country. East was nothing but gray ocean and blue sky for miles and miles.
I kicked off my shoes and put my feet in the water, feeling the waves swallowing my ankles from both directions. I considered the island, the beaches and the shipwrecks, thought of the ghosts, the lobster rolls and the Statue of Rebecca standing serene on her altar on the edge of town.
Is this island haunted? Is it the greatest place in the world? If I want it to be, then it is.
Ghana’s Secret Garden
Through the unsuspecting fishing village of Dodowa, behind the dense African timber trees, and beneath Ghana’s blazing sun there is a shaded oasis blooming with life with water that flows from Heaven. I went through hell to reach it.
The summer had started as a dream that slowly unfolded into a nightmare. It started the fall before, when I had been contacted by an organization that wanted to move its headquarters from Thailand in Southeast Asia to Ghana, Africa. This was no small task. My first role was to locate a building within budget that had access to everything the organization needed. My second role was getting to know the culture of Ghana in order to lead the first outreach group that would be coming at the end of the summer. Traveling to help organizations like this had been a dream of mine since I was young, so I responded with the determination of a woman embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
My sweet husband Gershom and I got married and three weeks later took off for Ghana. Our family and friends thought we were crazy, but cheered us on nonetheless. Looking back, I wonder if they always knew we were about to learn more about the world than we realized possible.
When we stepped off the plane, we immediately felt the sun of the African summer beating down and smelled the dust billowing up from the side streets, warning us that only those with grit can survive in the city of Accra. A representative with a kind smile and inviting eyes drove us along the winding, bumpy roads. As I peered out the window, I could see the scenery change with every curve of the street. I saw the shining, gleaming city of Accra with its malls, restaurants, and crowds quickly change into the winding outskirts of Konongo with its local fruit stands, elderly women cooking jollof rice in their doorways, and children running freely along the brush. As the moon crept across the skies we pulled into our new home- our first apartment together – in Kumasi.
The space was one room with beds as hard as a table and unreliable running water but it was on a hill, and when the windows were open in the afternoon the most peaceful wind would dance through the space, bringing a calm that only a summer breeze can bring. We made that place our first home, and I spent those early mornings walking to the fruit stand across the street to buy the best avocados from a sweet young mother named Martha.
In Kumasi, the people live outside the confines of time. They work hard throughout the day and evening, but they also spend countless hours just sitting outside their doorways with their families. If you take a drive through Kumasi, I guarantee you will see the women carrying babies on their backs, holding massive baskets of food and goods for sale on their heads. They run quickly along the cars, making sure of their steps. They wear their baskets like crowns upon their heads, keeping their posture upright and straight. Their eyes hold joy they have found in the midst of grueling hardship, their arms the softness of holding their young with the muscle of providing for a family. The people of Kumasi are beautiful people with a grit that comes with years of overcoming trials.
Gershom and I tried to replicate this work ethic in all that we did. We traveled for hours on the tro-tro (Ghana’s public transportation vehicles), packed into the musty vehicle like sardines, in order to meet with different representatives and office spaces. We learned to barter fairly in order to get groceries. We made food on our little hot pad. We showered using buckets when the water stopped working. We went for days without speaking with family and friends when the power went out. As we learned and grew, we developed an even greater respect for the Ghanaians, learning that living here meant working hard and staying positive during the longest days.
As our summer unfolded, my dream was shattered. The organization that had sent us went through a dramatic scandal. The founders were dishonest people who had been charged with embezzlement, leaving the organization at a startling halt. This meant that our mission had ended in the middle of our work. When I thought back to the dream I had and where it had landed me and my sweet husband, I was devastated. I spent the night lying awake, crying tears that I thought would never end.
As the sun peered through our open windows the next morning, I felt hopeless and queasy. Was this all for nothing? Did I come this far just to be sent home? Would Gershom lose respect for me and my dreams? He and I slowly walked down the dirt road as my questions swirled around my mind like crowded fish in a bowl.
It was then that we met Rastafar. Rastafar worked at the shop next door. His dreads were thick and long, and his beanie screamed Bob Marley. He saw our forlorn faces and asked the simple question that everyone should be asked more often- “Want to go on an adventure?”
Moments later, we were on a tro-tro heading East into Dodowa. “Fishing town,” Rastafar explained but that had already been made evident by the smell of it. The town was much different from Kumasi. It was surrounded by trees that were a deep shade of green I’d only seen in pictures. When we got off the tro tro, Rastafar bought some pineapple slices from the first fruit stand he saw and handed them to us with a wink. We followed him toward signs leading to the Dodowa Forest. We made a sharp left into the thick trees. Rastafar looked back at us, smiled, and pushed back the leaves to reveal the most breathtaking sight I have ever seen.
In front of us were the most dazzling rainforest colors. Greens and reds and oranges as vibrant as the sunset. The sun peeked through the canopy and painted specks of light along the tropical leaves. We could see mangos in the trees and hear flowing water in the distance. In the middle of it all was a man that looked shockingly like Rastafar sitting in a stick hut slicing little tomatoes.
“My brother!” He shouted warmly. He reached toward Rastafar and the two hugged, smiling. They beckoned us in and pulled up wooden benches for us to sit. I watched as the two of them talked in Twi and chopped up peppers. In the distance, I could see mangoes falling to the ground as another brother shook them from the tops of the trees. How he made it to the top I will never understand.
The brothers passed around the bowl of sauce called shito (I promise it is better than it sounds!) and laughed at our reaction to the alarmingly spicy sauce. Then they lead us to the source of the flowing water sound. We climbed over logs and branches until we saw it- Chenku falls. The waterfall poured down from the rocks into a glassy clear pool below.
Rastafar pulled off his Jamaican shirt and jumped into the pool. “Water from heaven,” Rastafar said. Gershom and I jumped in after him. The water was smooth and clean. I stepped under the waterfall and drank the water in. It washed over me, cleaning away the tears from the night before. Gershom took my hand and smiled at me as I breathed in the fresh air of the Dodowa forest.
It was then that I realized that we are not put into the box of one dream. Sometimes, what we thought was our end-goal was really just a stepping stone in the right direction. A failed attempt is not the end- it is a lesson we take with us into the next step. Although our summer in Ghana looked much different than I had expected, I know that it was exactly where I needed to be. So the next time I have the opportunity to fly to Accra, take a tro-tro to Dodowa, and walk to the Chenku falls- I will respond with the determination of a woman embarking on the adventure of a lifetime.
‘Kindness befriends you, for a long time’
Shh! Shhh! The repetition displayed his urgency. In the middle of our animated conversation, Joseph delivered a shush on the table instead of my grilled sea bass. Directed by his gaze to the watering hole, a few feet below our dining platform, a majestic sight beheld us. A male lion,his slender neck dipped inside the pond ,tongued lapping sounds. Quenched, he looked up sensing his performance status and bid us adieu by swishing his tail. He sauntered back into the darkness of the forest ,as silently as he had arrived helping us exhale that long held breath.
Oblivious to the elephants and zebras, which had returned to drink, our eyes were yet transfixed to the same spot .Approaching us, a smiling Joseph got engulfed by the surge of our questions.“Do they visit often?Is he from around here? Will he be back?” Joseph burst out laughing and we joined in!Soon, minutely garnished entrees and burgundy pours of wines made us drift back to dinner.
Post dinner,my family of three headed to play a game of Monopoly at the lobby bar.The ghostly white of the Baobab tree shone in the moonlight ,as if marking its presence as the centrepiece of the lobby. We slipped into one of its cove seatings,immersing ourselves in the competitive real estate world of London.Satisfied with the amount of bickering during play,I decided we must call it a night.I peeked at the time and thought to myself it was a bit late. We headed to the front desk to request for an escort to walk us back.
Lemauni,a resident Masai,clad in tribal patterns trotted towards us.His companion,the towering spear made him at 6 feet seem average.We followed him single file, over the well practiced route. It was our last night in Tarangire, before heading into the plains of the Serengeti.Just around the corner, from the first treetop tents, he abruptly froze and motioned us to huddle.We knew what this meant but my 7 year old let out a mild cry of fear.And then we saw him!He was tall and gigantic.His tuskers were shiny and milky.His eyes were boring on to us, only a few yards away in the bushes.
Instead of locking eyes with the tusker, we observed Lemauni. He motioned us to move backwards.The tusker made a huff halting us in our tracks.After what seemed like a few
minutes ,the mammoth decided to turn and continued downwards.Assured he was gone,we made our way back to the main building. Lemauni informed the others and we were soon consoled by warm cocoa and refreshing towels.
Armed with the receptionist, Lemauni came towards my son.She translated his Swahili “You were very brave, your cry was not loud”. He gave him a childish grin and hugged him warmly.Drenched with my own shock, I never realised my son’s need for reassurance.I was stumped with his empathetic gesture.With foggy eyes,I followed his lead to embrace my son.Lemauni smiled knowingly,that he had connected our hearts.
After returning back to Mumbai, my son writes to Lemauni every week.Kindness befriends you, for a long time indeed.
DAPHNE AMARACHI CHILAKA
Chivalry in a Plateau
The thought of going to this state had actually never crossed my mind.
Apart from the fact that I have almost used up my available leave dates from work, it was just never a consideration to be frank.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me introduce myself.
My name is Victory Song, sounds a bit like a statement right, well, that’s my name. I’m the almost last child of my parents and have been in many remote situationships.
You’re probably wondering what a remote situationship is. Everyone knows that a situationship is; ‘a thing’ that can’t really pass as a friendship or a relationship. While remote… I think you get the idea of what remote means.
So yeah, I have been in many of those. A LOT. My friends constantly wonder how my heart is still plodding on after those many heart tears. I wonder too sometimes.
About a month or two ago, an old friend sent me an invitation to his wedding. I was elated, and if I’m being honest, a bit puzzled, because I had never considered him to be the marrying kind. But of course, I dutifully read the invite to get information on the date, venue and time of the event.
Listed under traditional wedding, was the city I currently live in and I knew I would definitely be going for that. My eyes drifted lower and after reading where the white wedding will take place, I just glanced away, without ever assuming I would go to that state.
On the day of the traditional wedding, I was filled with a bit of trepidation because I knew that of the wedding guests, one of the recipients of my remote situationships will be there.
Well, he was. But I made it absolutely clear that I was completely over whatever had been by being my most outrageously outgoing self to all and sundry.
At the wedding, I came across a kindred soul.
Finding a kindred soul is one of the most beautiful things that can happen in your lifetime and I think this is one of the reasons I was so open to taking a leap into unknown paths. It was casually mentioned during the event that we should all travel for the white wedding and my mind being as receptive as it was at that point in time, clung unflinchingly to that idea.
5 days after the traditional wedding, I found myself embarking on a journey that the most important people in my life were strongly opposed to.
I took a 5 hours road trip through some of the most dangerous areas of my country, all in a bid to attend the white wedding of an old friend.
I would like to say that I felt inexplicable peace during this trip, but that will be an utter lie. I was scared shitless.
Every second I spent on the road was filled with quiet panic at the thought of what could go wrong.
The hilarity of this situation was that I was traveling with 5 of the most faith-filled people I know on earth, so I had to put on a brave front.
After some time, I finally focused my unblinking stare on the view outside my window seat and I was filled with awe. Peaceful plains and plateaus swept by, with scattered palm trees dotting these plains. At some point on this journey, I spotted an exquisite sight of the heavens kissing the earth and had to break off into quiet singing. Cheesy I know.
On our arrival into this state that I had heard such fearful stories about, the bride, one of her bridesmaids and I, decided to go to her parents’ house, before going ahead to the hotel where the wedding guests will be lodged. We took a three-legged vehicle, known as a ‘keke’ to her family house, as the route there was a bit rough. On getting to the house, we all disembarked, paid the driver and headed to the gate. She unlocked the gate and we entered the compound.
Before I continue, picture our bedraggled appearance, after a 5 hours journey, yep, you get it.
She immediately ran forward to hug her parents, while the bridesmaid stepped forward to hug a stranger that bore similar facial features with the bride. I stood a bit away from all the emotional expression happening around me, because I never really grew up around such an expressive display.
A moment passed, then I heard a voice say to me, “Can I hug you?”, I looked up to see the stranger who had earlier been hugging the bridesmaid, open his arms towards me while asking for permission.
Well, I was quite obviously swept off my feet by this kindness shown to me and willingly allowed myself to be hugged by this chivalrous stranger.
A Deep Freeze in the Carpathians
No. It couldn’t be him.
I looked through the window at the hunched, shifty-looking character in jeans and a tatty black jacket, his greasy hair slicked back and a cap tilted over his eyes. He was chain-smoking next to a battered blue Citroen which had seen better days— around thirty years ago in my estimation. Its paint was flaking, a deep rusting gash ran along its side, and its fractured wing mirror was held together by tape and some nasty-looking foam that had hardened in the cracks. As nine o’clock came and went, I became uneasy about the beat-up car and its driver whose eye I now seemed to be catching as I waited for ours to arrive.
We were leaving Braşov for the baroque elegance of Sibiu, 60 kilometres to the west, following the line of the Făgăraş Mountains, the highest of the Southern Carpathian range. We’d planned the trip before experiencing Romanian driving, and the texting, speeding and overtaking on blind bends that represented a national disregard for road safety. In our naivety, we’d arranged a detour along the Transfăgărăşan Highway, Ceauşescu’s spectacular Carpathian crossing, built in the 1970s. We were bound for its highest point, the glacial Lake Bâlea, 2000m up, and I’d spent the past two nights sleepless at the thought of the jagged, cliff-hugging bends.
The man took a final drag on his cigarette, ground the butt with his foot, and entered the lobby. It dawned on me that he was in fact our driver, and this was the vehicle in which we would be tackling one of the world’s most thrilling yet treacherous roads.
‘I’m Ovid’, he introduced himself. ‘We’re going to have a great day together’. I had my doubts. As we settled into the grubby seats he turned to find me struggling to locate the seatbelt.
‘It’s OK, you’re in the back, it’s not necessary’.
In my desire to see the day out I insisted, and he proceeded to dismantle the back seats, muttering that they were in there somewhere.
‘Ah-ha.’ He was triumphant, finally locating the fasteners amongst the dust and general gunge. ‘Look how stuck down they are’. He laughed heartily. I tried to smile to show what a good sport I was, but he didn’t look terribly convinced.
Still, he was a cheerful chap, we were finally on our way, and the day was bright. Two days earlier, a brief storm had blown through, taking with it the Transylvanian summer and leaving behind a deep golden chill. Almost overnight the trees had turned to amber, and as we wound out of Braşov, their leaves spiralled and danced in the wind. My spirits lifted a little.
The Făgăraş Mountains loomed to our left but soon after we turned to begin our ascent, something splattered on the windscreen. Out of absolutely nowhere it had started to snow; sleet at first then fat, heavy flakes which dusted the pines and clung to the road. By the time we reached the waterfalls, halfway up, we were in the midst of a blizzard. Ovid had taken to describing the landscape in lieu of the real experience and I clung to the filthy seat as I listened to enthusiastic descriptions of ravines, gullies, and steep drops.
‘It’s a good job you can’t see anything really’, he chuckled.
As we climbed, Ovid fell unusually quiet and I suspected that he was no longer finding it very amusing either. We slithered the rest of the way to the top in silence and parked up. It was a complete white-out, and impossible to see further than a metre or two. The wooden cabins— the sort we’d seen selling Dracula keyrings and Vlad-the-Impaler paperweights—were bolted shut except for one, its light beaming through the blizzard and its rafters strung elaborately, and somewhat optimistically, with Romanian sausage and cheese.
‘The lake is over there somewhere’. Ovid gestured vaguely with his hand before lighting a cigarette and shambling off, but we only lasted moments in the freezing air before trudging back to the car. I was relieved to begin our descent. All of a sudden on the way back down, a crack of blue split the sky and the sun shafted through; only for a moment but long enough to glimpse the road snaking through the mountains, threading its way through the sweep of pines to the glow of autumn deep below. The sky closed in again and we continued on our way.
‘What an adventure. Wait until I tell my wife.’ Ovid pulled out his phone.
‘It’s a shame you missed the views’, he bellowed as he picked up speed and the car began to slide. ‘You’ll just have to come back’.
Tempting……. but I’d probably give it a miss.
Swimming Beneath the Midnight Sun
We’re sitting on the Arctic Circle, on the Swedish bank of the Torne River, listening to Lena tell stories of her childhood. It’s just past midsummer, and darkness hasn’t fallen for weeks. Just north of here is the village of Juoksengi, where well-kept wooden houses painted shades of red and pale vanilla sit amongst the wildflowers of a Lapland summer. Ivory clouds of goatsbeard swell amidst silky grasses and clusters of pink fireweed, and the slender shimmering forms of the silver birch cast shadows longer than any I’ve seen. This is the landscape of Lena’s childhood, where life pulses to the rhythm of the seasons.
‘You’re staying in my old school’ she tells us. And so we are; the rooms that were once classrooms now converted into large, bright dormitories for those who venture this far north.
On this endless Nordic summer night it’s hard to imagine this place in winter but Lena, who left to study overseas, remembers it well. She talks of the season of the Polar Night, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. She tells of the brief twilight that appeared late in the mornings as she sat in her lessons. How did she cope with the endless darkness I wonder?
‘You grow up with it’, she shrugs, ‘you don’t know any different’, and she recalls the warm fires and the winter celebrations. She tells us that at time of year, the frozen Torne can be crossed by foot, linking Juoksengi to its Finnish counterpart Juoksenki, one time-zone away on the opposite bank. They were once a single village but were separated when the country border was drawn down the centre of the river in 1809. Every New Year, the villagers of the river valley celebrate twice: first in Juoksenki, then an hour later across the ice on the Swedish bank.
Now, in the season of the Midnight Sun, we’re about to swim this same river, and a bus arrives to take us across to Finland where a small party is in full swing in celebration of the annual Arctic Circle swim. Stalls sell local crafts, candles flicker in the refreshment tent, and the swimmers take part in riverside games. A cheer goes up as the Swedes heave a team of Finns to the ground in a good-natured tug-o-war.
Midnight approaches and we enter the water. The summer has been hot and it’s like slipping into a lukewarm bath. Only three months before the ice groaned and creaked as it melted, sending huge blocks hurtling downstream on the fast tide. Tonight it is calm as we swim the three kilometres back to Sweden, catching the orange glow of the briefly setting sun as we turn to breathe. We cross the national border, the Arctic Circle and the time zone, arriving back just before we departed. Just as at New Year, we arrive back in Sweden to see the hands of the clock of the riverbank cross midnight for the second time.
Only this time it won’t get dark at all.
Max was asleep in the pram and Poppy snuggled in perfectly into her sling giving me both hands to rummage through our storage cupboard for fins and wetsuits that hadn’t been used for 2 years. Geez, I hope they fit, a lot changes when you have babies, even your feet! For the 15th time that morning I asked myself if I was actually insane? At what point does fun become crazy fun and then tip into just plain crazy? Quickly, I was filling our suitcase and dive bags, 29 floors up in our temporary accommodation, having recently relocated to Singapore for Robbie’s job.
In typical ‘me’ style, infamous amongst friends and family for ‘never doing anything by halves’ I had committed us to a free diving trip to Tonga to dive with whales. To be accurate it was a sleep-deprived blur of a decision, made 6 months prior when we were living in Queensland, Australia. We naively assumed life would be a lot easier when the twins were one, maybe even enjoying unbroken sleep…all of it mistaken. “Is it a family-friendly trip” Robbie had asked? “Ummm, well, the couple organizing it are super cool and said we could bring our babies and they would be friendly to them…so yeah?!” I was working hard to convince my better-half this was a good idea. We looked at each other, “We said we would still do some of the things we loved once we had kids” I pleaded, I wanted a sliver of my old life back and I wanted to share a different version of me with our beautiful miracle babies.
In a who-knew kind of way Robbie got offered a job in Singapore two months after we committed to our Tonga trip, an extra 10 000 kilometers now. Oops, these opportunities of a lifetime are happening all at once and we seemed to be living the “Say Yes Year”, never underestimate the importance of sleep.
We were checking in at Singapore Airport each juggling a coffee, a baby and a carry bag. I loved having Rob around in the weekends to help, being able to have some one-on-one time with the babies was very special. Rob was not feeling quite so cheery. “How can you drink your coffee with a baby and a bag?” he asked genuinely confused as I put my empty cup down, his still full. I laughed, wondering if he wanted me to answer. Rob stared at the itinerary “4 flights with 2 babies that still don’t sleep. What are we doing?”. I didn’t tell him about the land-based transfers and local boats to get to the final destination. I hope we see some whales, I nervously giggled.
In a 2-day blur of connections and overnights in very small hotel rooms we survived and arrived to meet the group, checking into our grass huts, in paradise. Untouched Tongan bliss! White sand beaches, coconut trees and beautiful happy people welcoming us and helping us with our bags. The others in our group, mostly male spearfishermen and free divers saluted as they saw the babies. ”You guys brought two babies?! That’s mad…I only have 1 kid and I left him at home” one guy laughed. “Well, I’m breast-feeding, we are an inseparable unit” I joked. “Wow!! solid effort, you are a good wife to come and support your husband, not many ladies like freediving”. “That’s only because they haven’t tried it’, I grinned.
I started to feel a little out of place, like we should be at play group or baby gym. It’s rare to see a middle-aged couple in a remote location, with 2 babies. Rob and I looked at each other, I knew I wasn’t going to be choosing the next family holiday.
My insecurities arose, were they so surprised because I didn’t look like a freediver? Carrying twins hadn’t been easy and under doctors’ orders I’d had to do a lot of bed rest to keep all 3 of us safe, I had lost a lot of fitness and condition. I still had a few extra kilos, and suddenly I regretted putting myself in the position of wearing togs and tight wetsuits again. My wonderful loving husband replied “she’s not your average bear, wait til you see her in the water”. I looked at him with a little appreciation and a lot of embarrassment “it’s been a long time, maybe I won’t be able to dive anymore, maybe everything has changed”.
We had the most amazing dinner, a giant crayfish on a plate each, for everyone. The biggest I have ever seen and freshly caught that day. It was luxurious and very surreal. I felt like we were in another world. Somehow, we had travelled back 50 years and I think I wanted to stay. As the sun went down, reality hit, no electricity on the island. What have we done? I thought again and again as we walked the track by torch, taking the kids to the hut with no fans to try and settle them in for the night. We were up at 1am with Max for an extra feed, then 2am to spray the hut with more mosquito spray, 3am to feed Poppy, and at 4am I was still reading by torch because over the years I had grown so used to being woken that it was just easier not to sleep. At 5am we were all up and ready for an early start.
We sat at a large table and dug into breakfast, all on different time zones and all having been on enough dive trips to know you need to load up on a good breakfast. We heard stories from others who had been out the day before and had some amazing interactions, lots of whale sightings and whale song.
I couldn’t wait! I hadn’t really allowed myself to get too excited about whale sightings, mostly I just wanted to be in the water again. Tonga is very respectful of the whales and has strict regulations in place to protect them, especially their young, only 4 people in the water at a time. Rob and I planned to tag-team so that we would both get a turn diving with the group and care for our little mammals.
The water was the clearest bluest water I have ever seen and we saw, heard, swam and interacted with so many whales it was dream-like. The days ran into each other in a big watery, blissful blur. I didn’t want to miss a thing, so I didn’t even raise my GoPro. I just drank it in, all of it. The sounds, the whole body feeling that you get when huge 10m plus humpback whales swim up to you, at depth. I will never forget the magical moment, 15m under when a Mum and her calf swam right up, close enough to touch. She looked me in the eye and time just stood still. I wish I could have shown her my babies, but they were napping, and no one wakes my babies! Marine life are always so curious about freedivers because we don’t have bubbles, like scuba divers and we are not on the surface, like snorkelers. Freedivers are fishlike.
“It’s even better than I ever imagined, I mean it’s a little bit survivor-island with the kids, but it’s just so beautiful. It’s like our reward, for the past few years” I gushed. Robbie nodded. Life had been tough; infertility, IVF, high-risk pregnancy, emergency caesarean, premature twins, special care nursery and not enough sleep. Our heads were still spinning but never once did we forget how lucky we were to experience the magic of parenting.
Twins: twice the love and half the sleep. Max and Poppy are the lights of our lives and I loved introducing them to my beautiful sport, the sport that had taught me to be so strong and to never give up. “I know it’s crazy and we are so bone-tired but right here, right now in these beautiful waters playing as a little family of four to the deeply touching tune of whale song. It’s just so special. Thankyou Robbie for knowing how badly I needed this trip, I needed to have my loves in the same place at the same time. Malo Tonga”
WATCHING IN SLOW MOTION
Despite the number of people along the viewing walkway, the only sound is the rustle of coats and clicking of cameras. Perito Moreno Glacier, a river of ice snaking down from the Southern Patagonian Icefield, is the star in the scene playing out before me. Clouds drift across the background of the Andes Mountains. Forested hills hug the wings.
Flying from Buenos Aires over the vast pampas stretching out with rivers meandering towards the Atlantic Ocean, my heart skips a beat as the plane changes direction towards the Andes Mountains, my dream fascination.
The destination for this leg of my travels is the Los Glaciares National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Landing at El Calafate airport alongside Lago Argentino, I see my first ever floating iceberg. Eight glaciers arising in the Andes expire into this impressive lake, the largest in Argentina.
We drive along the shores of the lake to the entrance of the park. The countryside of sheep estancias, vigilant birds of prey on fences, and a lone gaucho on horseback, changes to forests of lenga dominated valleys and slopes with graceful guanacos grazing peacefully beside the road. A condor rides the thermals overhead.
As the bus rounds a corner, we have our first sighting of Perito Moreno Glacier in the distance. Animated exclamations erupt in various languages.
At the pier, the catamaran “Victoria Argentina” waits for us to embark. The closer we navigate to the face of the glacier the more we are dwarfed by this towering giant rising seventy metres above the water and reaching 170 metres below. Braving the icy wind, I stand on the deck to gaze in wonder at this creaking, groaning, mountain of jagged blue and white ice. A moment in time when my breath is taken away. As I watch, there is a resounding thunderous crack. The glacier calves, and an immense chunk of ice breaks away, like the leaning Tower of Pisa toppling over. The resulting waves radiating outwards cause the boat to rock.
After a while of sailing along the five-kilometre snout of the glacier and between the floes, it is time to head back to shore and a walk in the forest. But soon I am drawn back to the star attraction.
I join the folk on the elevated walkway. Dark clouds draw a curtain across the background mountains and icefield. This highlights the clear view framed before me. The mesmeric glacier in all its glorious fifty shades of blue.
This is one of the few glaciers in the world not retreating. Every few years this rare advancing glacier reaches the land, which gives rise to differing levels in the lake. Water pressure builds and causes a massive arch to form and, if your timing is right, you will see the dramatic collapse of the arch and ensuing waves.
After a day spent soaking in nature’s wonder where Perito Moreno glacier has sculpted mountains and carved valleys, I turn in at my hotel with the apt name – Michelangelo.
Facing your fears
It was July 2012, when flying from the UK to the US was easy and conscience free in a way which seems unimaginable today. I flew to San Francisco and then drove to Yosemite National Park. I had permits to climb Half Dome and Mount Whitney and was looking forward to two weeks of hiking. My first “training” effort was to climb to the top of Yosemite Falls. The weather was sunny, so an early start was essential to avoid being cooked on the trail. Just after sunrise I turned out of my accommodation at Yosemite Lodge. It was a beautiful morning, with dew and patches of mist still visible on the meadows near the river. I started on the four mile long Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, which climbs 3000 feet from the valley floor to the lip of the Yosemite Falls. My ultimate objective was Yosemite Point, which lies another mile or so further on from the top of the falls along the valley rim.
In the cool morning air, the climbing was steady and pleasant. It was dead quiet. A solitary female athlete ran past me, so I wasn’t the first to the top that day, but I was probably the second. Eventually I reached the overlook at the top of the falls. I was completely alone in the brilliant sunshine and the views over the Yosemite Valley were breath-taking. I took a drink from my water bottle and had a look at my map to orient myself for the journey on to Yosemite point. The trail stretched whitely before me through low scrub and dwarf fir trees. At that point a mountain lion emerged from the scrub on the right about 30 feet ahead. It was hunting a squirrel or some similar small critter and was crawling forward on its belly. It was a tawney grey colour and seemed about the size of a large Labrador dog but with massively powerful forelimbs and huge paws. It shuffled across the trail and disappeared into the scrub on the left.
I was stunned and, let’s face it, absolutely petrified. In Wales (where I come from) there are no wild carnivorous mammals much larger than a fox. The notion that I was very privileged to have seen a rare and secretive creature most certainly did occur to me, but somehow it didn’t provide a great deal of comfort. Bear-spray was illegal in Yosemite and my only means of defence was a light aluminium walking pole. I screwed the pole together and waited several minutes to see if the mountain lion would reappear. When it did not, I lobbed a few rocks into the scrub where it had entered and continued on my way, stepping queasily over the cat’s shuffling tracks. I walked on to Yosemite point without seeing anything bigger than a chipmunk but took very little pleasure in it. There was still no one else around and the trail seemed unnaturally quiet. Several times I felt like I was being watched. All just nerves, obviously, that mountain lion must be miles away by now.
Eventually I returned to the Falls overlook and by this time the place was busy. I got talking to a couple from Los Angeles who were visiting Yosemite for the first time, and they took my photograph. I mentioned the mountain lion. The woman was sceptical, “you sure it wasn’t a bobcat?”. But an Australian guy produced his camera. “It was a mountain lion” he said, “I got his picture”. There on the camera screen was a very clear image of the cat I had seen earlier – and it did not look happy! “How did you manage that?” I asked, “it must have gone like hell when it saw you”. “No” he said, “it just gave me that dirty look and carried on down the trail towards Yosemite Point”. “Really!” I said – in a strangely high-pitched voice.
Like Nothing I had Ever Heard Before
We shuffled along the unforgiving wood of the flat pew at the back of the church as more people arrived. And still they came. My arms were pinned firmly to my sides. I couldn’t move, even if I had wanted to. The scent of incense still floated around from the evening service, mingled with that musty smell that is unique to old churches. People talked in hushed, reverent tones, quite unlike the usual Corsican hubbub during their evening passeggiata. Even so, the sense of anticipation was intense and infectious.
“What typically Corsican entertainment can you suggest?” I had asked the manager of our Corte hotel earlier.
He regarded me for a moment, stroking his chin. “Well, there is a concert of traditional Corsican singing by a group called Meridianu. It’s in the church at nine o’clock.” He paused. “But it’s an acquired taste for foreigners. Perhaps you’d prefer something lighter?”
I shook my head. “That sounds perfect. Do you have to book?”
“No, just turn up. But make sure you get there early. It’s bound to be packed.”
Packed was an understatement.
From our table on the balcony of U Museu, my husband and I saw knots of people already making for the church across the Place Gaffori. We wolfed down our cheese pasties and wild boar stew with myrtle berries. No time for dessert or coffee.
We got there twenty minutes before the advertised time. Even so, we were relegated to the back.
The appointed hour arrived. Then five minutes past. At ten past, six men appeared before the ornate altar and stood in a tight circle. With their beards and deep-tanned faces, they looked as if they had just stepped off the mountainside after tending the sheep.
The hush was now complete.
Each man cupped a hand over one ear. They all closed their eyes. Concentrated. Focused. One man, a segonda, began to sing, a plaintive minor key melody that grew in intensity and volume. One by one, the others joined in. The grave, resonant voice of u bassu, the base, reached up into the echoing vault of the nave, while the lighter tenor voice of a terza elaborated on the melody.
Their swirling and sometimes dissonant song condensed the essence of Corsica. They sang with a passion rooted in the Corsican soil deep beneath our feet. I didn’t follow the Corsican lyrics (the songs were also in Sardinian, Greek and Latin). I didn’t need to. The depth of feeling that poured from the melodies transcended the words.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I’d had the same reaction earlier that week when I looked into the stern, granite faces of prehistoric megaliths at Filitosa. I felt a connection across the millennia with the unknown sculptors of those standing stones. The same elemental energy charged the music.
I learned afterwards that male-voice groups originated as lay brotherhoods, which sang at religious festivals and on saints’ days. The music was mostly sacred, like plainsong, but its distinctive quality surely reaches back to influences well before Christianity.
However, the songs Meridianu performed weren’t exclusively religious. They included paghjella, laments about love, loss and death, subjects close to Corsicans’ hearts.
The concert ended with a stirring performance of the Corsican “national anthem”, ‘Dio vi Salvi Regina’.
Someone called out, “Tous, debout!” (“Stand up, everyone!”), and the audience stood in reverential silence to hear the spiralling, soaring melody. A few joined in the chorus in muted tones. Corte has always been the heartland of Corsican independence. Few today would fight for liberation from France, but Corsicans are deeply attached to their island’s traditions and culture.
The audience started to applaud before the song had even finished. Forgotten was the silence that had greeted the singers’ arrival. Now, people clapped, whistled and stamped their feet in noisy appreciation, jostling us unintentionally in their enthusiasm.
We spilled out into the Place Gaffori, where evening diners still sat at café tables. The stone reflected the warmth of the late summer sun. The aromatic scent of rosemary, thyme and myrtle wafted from the hillsides.
The sound of the music continued to ring in my ears as if it had set off some kind of chain reaction in my brain. For a short time, we had experienced part of the culture that sets Corsica totally apart from the rest of France and stretches back over thousands of years.
The next morning, an anxious look on his face, the hotel manager said, “Well, did you go? What did you think?”
“It was like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”
Full Bore with a Chance of Arrival
Every fibre of my being implored me to not look. And although I knew beyond doubt, that looking was a terrible idea, I did it anyway. The essence of that sentence sums up the narrative of my life. My children will probably have it carved on my head stone in large gothic letters ‘SHE KNEW SHE SHOULDN’T BUT SHE DID’. I had hoped that it wouldn’t be quite so soon though.
Looking over my right shoulder I watched in horror, as the inch or so of grass that separated us from an almost sheer drop, sped past. Like a rabbit in the headlights it was difficult to tear my eyes away, but finally, I forced my face forward and tried to relax. The vintage Lambretta beneath me, and Nick, the rider with my fate in his hands, would surely get us out of trouble.
Over the past two years, I had been gradually introduced to the marvellous mayhem of scooter rallies at many British seaside towns. Thousands of devotees ride their beloved vintage scooters to weekend rallies all over the UK. The weekend events tend to follow a similar script: meet up with friends, admire each other’s scooters, buy spare parts, and watch some fantastic bands. Ska, Northern Soul and Brit Pop are the tunes of choice, and dancing into the early hours is the norm. It is great fun, and I love it!
Now though, I was riding pillion in a group of 21 scooters to the 16th European Lambretta Jamboree, to be held this year in Leutasch Austria. We had docked at Zeebrugge three days ago and had left Saarbrucken this morning, making our way through the Black Forrest towards Villingen. For me, the trip was a revelation. The scooter suited my pace for travel and sense of adventure. I could feel the nooks and crannies of the towns and villages we travelled through. The experience of being off the tourist maps, of not knowing where we would end up each night, would fill the hearts of some of my friends with terror, but this uncertainty was perversely thrilling for me. The sense of achievement when we arrived was my reward. This was my first such trip, and it certainly wouldn’t be my last – if we could just get back on the road before the rough track slid down the mountain taking us with it.
Looking down to the left I could see that our way back to the tarmac, only inches away, was blocked by a kerb snaking its way along the side of the road. Seemingly, put there to avert vehicles from going over the precipice, it now prevented us from getting back to safety. The ground beneath us was diminishing rapidly and we were running out of options. This is it, I thought, this is how I die. After all the madness my life has attracted (not always my fault but shit happens), I’m going to end up as a collection of body parts, scattered across a beautiful patch of wooded mountain in Germany. What a stupid way to die. The wheels started to wobble which made the scooter jiggle and my teeth hurt, as Nick tried to keep us as close to the road as possible. A glance down to the right, confirmed my worst fear. The ground had disappeared. Any second now, we would be sliding and bouncing down to annihilation. There were many tall trees embedded defiantly in the mountainside and my only hope rested on catching one on the way down to interrupt my fall. Closing my eyes, I struggled to force my mind to its happy place, away from the incomprehensible truth.
I felt a bump and, thinking I’d have slightly more chance of survival if I didn’t get dragged along by the Lambretta, I released my grip on the back rest. Ready to jump I opened my eyes and was astonished to find we were back on the tarmac. The wheels had stopped wobbling and were now gaily spinning round, gripping the road with confident vigour, as though the last few moments (felt like hours) were already a remote memory.
I dragged my thoughts back from the brink of oblivion. The joy and relief threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to fight just to breath. Suddenly I was unequivocally grateful for everything in life. As well as the big important family/nature things, I was grateful for the stiffness in my knees after being sat on the scooter for hours, for the nosey neighbour who always popped round when I had visitors. I was even grateful to the person who had reversed into my car in the supermarket car park and sped off before I could hold him to account. Life was joyous. Every scrap of it. Eagerly, I looked at some of the other riders, trying to share my joy through eye contact with fellow compatriots. I had expected to see a reflection of the relief that I felt, something at least to hint at the drama we had just lived through but there was nothing. Settling back into my seat, a thought struck me. Had I overdramatised the situation? Were we never actually in danger at all? Perhaps we weren’t as close to the edge as I had perceived. Being the only female in the group, I certainly didn’t want to be the one pushing the panic button. I resolved not to mention it. A nonchalant and casual manner was called for.
We swung into a car park in the shelter of the mountain and came to a halt. Nick put his feet on the ground and pressed forward to give me space to get off, then he pulled the scooter backwards onto the stand as I began taking off my helmet and gloves. It was then that I saw, as Nick lifted his helmet, the fear in his eyes.
“Are you OK?” he took my hand as the rest of our group pulled up and were gathering beside us.
“I’m fine,” I said, attempting a detached shrug “it was a little tense but ….”
“I’m so sorry,” Nick cut in “I couldn’t get back onto the road because of the kerb. I’d swung in too close to the edge just before the kerb began and then we were trapped.” He was babbling, and a small rivulet of sweat was wending its way from his temple, down into the neck of his jacket. The rest of the group now joined in the commentary. I heard snippets of accounts: “thought you were toast”, “don’t know how you managed to keep her steady”; “was sure you were over the edge”, as I wandered towards a patch of grass and sat down with my thoughts. We had at least 3 days of riding before we would reach our destination. I wasn’t sure that I could carry off a nonchalant casual manner in the face of any more jeopardy. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this type of impatient, unpredictable, and hazardous travel. I had just begun to mull over the feasibility of using a train for the rest of the trip when I looked up to see helmets and gloves being pulled back on, over damp hair and sweaty hands – the short de-brief was over. Re-joining the group, I swung my leg over the seat of Nicks GP200 and adjusted my seat pad (actually it was my granddaughters ‘bubble bum’ which I’d whipped out of the car before we left home). We pulled out of the car park and continued along the forest road, each rider instinctively checking the one behind. As the fresh breeze flicked my cheeks, and the buzz of 21 scooters bounced through the mountain air, a frisson of excitement tickled my bones and, in the words of Winnie the Pooh when he first met Piglet, I knew an adventure was going to happen. I decided to give the Lambretta another chance. After all, even when I knew I shouldn’t, I tended to do it anyway.
A well-earned cup tea
Rest. What is it really? The fabulous book ‘The Art of Rest’ by Claudia Hammond starts by suggesting that lying in a hammock swaying gently in the tropical breeze is a vision a lot of people have of what rest looks like but actually questions whether that truly is restful when you factor in things like the getting in and out of the hammock, plus the sustained effort of staying in it and not spinning around and being thrown to the floor like something from a Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Is that rest? It’s better than working, but possibly isn’t entirely restful and this conflict between what sounds, in theory, like one thing but in reality is the opposite, is something I consider when thinking about what constitutes a breathtaking travel moment. It need not always be swimming with dolphins or catching the perfect wave, both of which require patience and no small amount of good luck. Sometimes the breathtaking moments aren’t those that occur when your expectations are primed to the point where they could only be disappointed or, at best, met but they are the ones that sneak up on you. The moments where we haven’t followed the guidebook’s rehearsed itinerary and found the best case scenario view or experience, but stumbled on it ourselves. The moment where contentment floods through your body relaxing you and making you suddenly at peace with everything. These moments are capable of drawing you outside that world of bills, and to-dos, and responsibilities, and just for a few moments nothing else matters.
The last 18 months have been difficult for everyone. Cooped up in our own four walls working, or straining under the pressure to use the time to learn a new language or cook the perfect banana bread we have all missed the ability to travel. For my wife & I to get to Scotland for a break was wonderful and it was whilst in this rugged, yet welcoming country that I experienced a feeling of peace in the most unlikely place.
Everyone knows that Scotland is a spectacular place with vistas dominating a landscape made up of hills, burns and glens of all sizes which are themselves broken up by varying degrees of lake or river. Taking advantage of the unseasonably good weather we grabbed our walking boots and headed for a walk in Newport-on-Tay. Our guidebook of choice had parked us in Bay road in Wormit, right next to the River Tay with its views across the glistening water towards Dundee and beyond. There was no time for stopping though as the book swiftly dispatched us onto the coastal path towards Balmerino and first up was a small, dense woodland where the thick wild ivy bushes full of bees draining the flowers of their last dregs of pollen before last orders are called.
Having left the cover of the trees we found time to appreciate the pocket of sun-filled blue sky before it was replaced again with the canopy of more old trees just starting to lose their Summer foliage. Moving on we skirted the edge of farmer’s fields seemingly left fallow of crop or animals but taken over by thick swathes of wild flowers all reaching for the skies. Red poppies and blue cornflowers were interspersed with yellow flowers of varying sorts, and together they all swayed in the gentle breeze; just waiting for the bees when they are finished with the ivy.
Balmarino is a place that sounds like a Costa del Sol resort English retirees go to for sun and fry ups in the Spanish sun but the reality is a long way from that. The coastal path spits us out of woodland and down onto the shores of the river where the the path into Balmerino passes between white-washed cottages and the water’s edge. As we did the water was just a few feet to our right, but the same distance to our left was a cottage that we surmised only a painter of those beautiful landscapes one sees in local gift shops can live.
Getting our breath back we stood on the shore for a moment – in silence – just looking out across the river and beyond. Birds dipped and bobbed on the surface looking far too small to be on such a wide expanse, like the single bee in the huge flower meadows we had already passed. They dipped under the surface in search of fish before re-appearing with a splash that made us both draw breath in hope it was one of the seals we were promised in our guidebook. It never was.
A search of the village took us to a ruined abbey. Dating back well over 600 years the large grey stones remain as a permanent tribute to the building skills of the monks and a reminder of the asset stripping skills of Henry VIII.
Nobody likes too prescriptive a guidebook and it always feels more relaxed to have the licence to do as you wish but as we started our return journey through more woodland we found the instruction of ‘keep walking and you will find it’ a little too laissez-faire. Before long we were navigating the inside edge of a farmer’s field that we probably weren’t supposed to be in. Actually, it was whilst trying to work out later where we actually did go wrong (including recalling the hoot of the owl we heard near the farm) that the breathtaking moment hit me. The moment of pure pleasure.
Having made it back to our car we were sat on the shore wall; our tingling, de-booted feet dangling over the wall with the shale a few feet below and everything seeming so peaceful. To the casual observer (i.e. the man who was walking past bemoaning the fact that the birds out on the river should actually be far out to sea by now), we probably looked fairly innocuous with our metallic mug of tea and homemade cheese and ham roll. I was entirely lost in thought as to how these things taste so much better when you’ve earned them but then I looked up and properly took in my surroundings again. The lapping water sprawled out in front of me with Dundee airport 2.75 miles across the other side. Close enough to make out the small airplanes landing at the airport but not close enough for the engine noise to overpower the sound of the birds chattering on the water.
The water lapped onto the stones beneath me with a gentle rushing sound that some people sat on the tube in London will be trying to visualise through a mindfulness app on their phone; I was experiencing it for real and as the water come in and out I found my breathing politely mirrored its rhythm.
Taking in the landscape it looked like the sort of scene that would be the first task on programme 1 of a TV series, the Great British Paint Off. Each contestant each being given the vista and told they have only grey and white paint to use; the clouds, water, shore and sky all being varying shades of those two colours and yet still retaining a beauty and peace that stops you dead in that moment.
Overall, there was just a serene stillness to the whole scene where everything seemed to be in slow motion and from the train on the Tay bridge, to the birds on the water it all contributed to the sedate nature of the moment in that little bit of that beautiful country. Despite the birds and the paddle boarder (who claimed he had seen a seal on his travels) the peace remained. Even in the knowledge that nature is having to adapt to the changing planet around it we relished the fact that just for a moment we didn’t. No social media. No emails. No virtual demands at all. Not even a photo. Just a chance to stop and live that moment through our eyes and not a lens. To stop and reflect and rest. And no..being in a hammock would not have made it any more relaxing.
AN EXCURSION TO BANGALORE
“Bangalore, a city of pleasant weather, beautiful parks and the many lakes have evolved gradually from being the Garden city to the Silicon Valley of India”. This was an explanation given by someone about the pride of Karnataka. Bangalore, the Silicon Valley of India was a dream place for many including me. I was given the opportunity to acquire my bachelor’s degree in 2021 in a reputed college of Bangalore. The first step I took was to take my family to Bangalore. From Kerala, the train journey took place. Seeing the Pensioner’s Paradise was a surprise after the 12-hour trip. A nine million inhabitants city that’s known for its multi-cultural population, technology hub, and fashion scene. The weather was cool but not chilly. It was so nice to meet the people of Bangalore who were friendly and welcoming.
Our cousins picked us from there. It was the colour combination of auto rickshaws in Bangalore that caught my attention at first. My first reaction to seeing that yellow and green colour combination was odd, until I learned why. People could easily spot the taxis using the yellow color while the green color gives us a sense of caring for the environment. Their attention to detail, even for the tiniest things, is fantastic.
Our pre-planned excursion led us to Lalbagh Botanical Garden, a world-renowned landmark. A person who is illiterate can still write a poem, that was my impression while I was there. It was spread over 240 acres with 1800 varieties of flora, added to that the lake was surrounded by birds, bees, butterflies, etc. We spent over an hour there to relax, walk, and enjoy nature.
Our next stop was Bannerghatta National Park. There was a huge rush and there was a good chance that tickets would have sold. What makes Bannerghatta Zoo unique is their Safari. As the gate closes by 5 pm, we quickly toured the zoo. Besides a variety of animals, the butterfly park has an additional attraction with a variety of butterflies and an extra 20-minute film about butterflies, that we missed due to our rushing to get to the bus area during safari time. The buses were prepared for the safari and the windows were closed with grills with a small slot to take photos through. As the bus started, the excitement grew. Along the way, we have seen a lot of deers romping. Moving forward a number of gates opened for us, where families of bears, lions, tigers, white tigers, etc rode all around. Actually, from that point on, I felt like I was watching a live broadcast of the discovery channel. Our one hour journey inside the forest concluded once we came outside the forest. We then went outside the forest to take a short walk.
Outside the forest, we saw a lot of small shops like snack shops, sweater stores, etc. From there, we completed the day’s adventure.
As per usual, the next day we made our way to our next destination. We had the official opportunity to visit the Border Security Force Camp of Bangalore. It was magical to see the upcoming soldiers, their lifestyles, their training, etc. It might look like a small area from the outside, but inside it was another city. The buildings were surrounded by different offices, playgrounds, schools, shops, and even cottages for their family members. We stopped our car in front of Frontier headquarters. We were welcomed at the headquarters with drinks, snacks, and starters. They then asked us to sit at the dining table, where they served us a luxury lunch. As curiosity took over, I took some snaps from there and felt so proud to see the people who provide shelter to us.
Shivaji Nagar was next on the agenda, where we were able to explore the by lanes of street shopping. Nearby was the famous St Mary’s Basilica , where a lot of people offered biscuits, foods, etc. for their petitions. The statue of St Mary was overspread with beautiful fabrics and many people offered Sarees, fruits, and so on. After spending some peaceful time inside the church, we went to Shivaji Street that was lined with tea shops, street food stands, cloth shops, and so on. In order to get the cheapest clothes, chapels, etc, we had to move quickly because the crowds were growing by then. From there we moved to stunning Vidhana Soudha, home to the state legislature and Karnataka’s secretariat. At morning it is just a grand old building, however, in the evening it looks like something out of a fairy tale. It is the largest legislative building in India with 150 feet tall and an exquisite neo-Dravidian style. That was a truly magnificent sight. It is also known as the Taj Mahal of South India. We ended our 3-day trip in Bangalore from there. Despite the fact that the tour appears simple, what we experienced was unparalleled. Then I understood why Bangalore seems like a dream city to so many people. The train had only just pulled into the station when I wondered why Bangalore was listed as one of the suicidal cities in India. Maybe if they had seen the real Bangalore they would have been more satisfied with their lives. I now concur that “Bangalore will always welcome us with dreamy weather, Carnatic fusion melodies, masala dosa with filter coffee, and with notorious traffic!“.