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The Road to Haridwar

I didn’t see the Red Fort or Humayun’s Tomb or the Lotus Temple (which looks cool but was built in 1986, so it;s like the Delhi version of Blue Lagoon – marketing made it the must do).  I didn’t do any of those things, because I spent the day driving away from the pollution and towards the Himalayas – the mountains always end up calling me.

There seem to be no clear traffic rules in India, but no one seems to get hurt.  I worried for the women on the back of motorbikes, their long saris or scarves coming dangerously close to the wheels.  Cows wandered into oncoming cars and bright buses, which just wove around them.  Children played under the highway and the sides of the road were littered with tents of people selling fruits and veggies and coke.   We were only a couple hundred kilometers from our final destination, Haridwar, but the old car couldn’t move much faster then the tiny motorbikes (not that it would make a difference given the non-stop traffic).  It didn’t matter there was a lot to see along the way.

As we moved out of Delhi, the sides of the road we chock-a-block with large event spaces all decked out with shimmering red, orange, fuscia and purple draping and twinkling lights.  “Its wedding season,”  shared my guide.   Wedding season in India! How lucky can one girl get!  “The wedding day is the happiest day of a man’s life,” my guide went on “he is sad every single day, but happy, happy on his wedding day.  The woman is happy, happy on every day of her life, but the saddest is her wedding day.” He looked at me through the rearview mirror. “You understand me?”  “Indeed I do.” I smiled.

We stopped along the way for saag paneer and coffee and I spied on the event team of the restaurant as they prepared for a wedding.  As we neared my hotel my guide (who’s name I don’t know and should) shared with me that he would be taking a ritual plunge in the Ganga (the Ganges) tomorrow morning.  I started to ask if I could as well, when he told me it was a holy ritual and I realized there are some traditions I should respect.

I had a loved biryani and some homemade lime soda, am watching a little bollywood and headed for bed.  Tomorrow, tourism really starts.


Delhi in a day

Whenever I tell people about my travels they always ask if I’ve been to India.  I think it seems like i take spiritual” trips and nothing is more spiritual than India.

In september, frustrated by unemployment, I started Googling trips and India emerged as an affordable one.  In less than an hour from when I first had the idea, I booked a ten day tour of India’s greatest hits – Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Mumbai (where I’ll celebrate my birthday).  Then I got a job.

After 20 hours of planes and airports (including some nuns playing saxophones), I arrived In Delhi.  Thee pollution problem is heard so much about was evident the moment I left the airport and was hit with an oppressive chemical smoke.  Deep breaths hurt.  The sun glowed through the haze.  I had been toying w going north to the Himalayas and the pollution sealed the deal for me.  I cant imagine walking around all day in this.

i checked into my Delhi hotel and feasted on dosa and curries, then napped – the vivid malaria pill dreams already kicking in after only one dose.

At noon my driver arrived and we’re heading north – me with a bandana covering my nose and mouth and he smiling at how light the pollution is today.

As we drove out of the city, he pointed out sights, asked me about Trump, told me of his affection for Obama (I told him of mine), and dodged traffic.  Cars often go both ways in one lane.  Motorbikes dodge in and out, and cows wonder everywhere.

At one point he explained to me that old Delhi is very dirty and New Delhi is clean. “So we’re in Old Delhi” I surmised. “No, this is New Delhi!”  So I’ve done my ugly American thing for the day.

Now to nap my way to Haridwar.

A total eclipse of our hearts

I hate the phrase “once in a lifetime.” I reject the whole idea.  If something is wonderful, why limit the experience.  I haven’t been back to Nepal yet, but I know I’ll get there.  And there have been many adventures since.

Since it was 1979 the last time there was a total solar eclipse and it didn’t make it to Maine anyway, it occurred to me late last week that this eclipse might actually be once in a lifetime and I should get to it.

I convinced my friend Lynn to bring her two daughters (11 and 7) and join me. Convincing involved mostly saying “hey, let’s do this.” and Lynn saying “okay!”

Like most of you, I’ve been a bit heartsick about the state of our country.  Between the events in Charlottesville, the president’s appalling response and the reality that there seem to really be two Americas, I was a little hesitant to head south.   Lynn is African-American, her daughters are mixed race.  We decided laugh at the many possible responses we might encounter heading to that part of the world with our New York license plates.

What we encountered were a lot of confederate flags, a lot of signs reminding us that “Jesus Saves” and quoting various Bible versus, banners on the hotels proudly stating they were “American Owned,” and a lot of really nice people.  It was confusing.

Our first stop was Lancaster, PA, where we hoped to lunch with the Amish.  We popped into a Home Depot to see if we could find something with which to watch the eclipse.  Dave, the eclipse enthusiast greeter, told us far more than we needed to know about the science behind what we were to witness, and sent us in search of welding glasses.  They were all sold out.  We thanked Dave as we left and he say, why don’t you come back at 2.  It was 12:30, but we headed to Walmart for a picnic blanket and then camped out at a Ruby Tuesday til the appointed time.  The Amish would have to be rescheduled.  When we got back, Dave handed us three eclipse glasses, apologizing that he didn’t have a fourth.

Back on the road, we stopped for gas at the West Virginia boarder.  My companions popped inside while I got us fueled up.  And locked the keys in the car.  It is a unique sinking feeling when you know you’ve done something you can’t undo.  This was that.

But inside the service station two women with rainbow hair, lots of makeup, and big smiles handed me a phone and said – “happens all the time.  Don’t worry.”  We bought some playing cards, found a slightly shaded patch of grass behind the pumps and waited for help.  Help arrived quickly in the form of a tow truck driver with a blood pressure guage that he used to open the window enough to reach in and unlock it.  He asked us where we were from and going,  laughed as we came very close to locking the door a second time as he was getting in his truck to leave, and followed us to make sure we closed all the doors properly.  I’m certain there was a cape hiding beneath his overalls.

A sleepover on the road, weirdly good Mexican food in Lancaster, VA, and another few hours on the road, we arrived in Pigeon Forge, TN.  The town, whatever it may have been, is now dominated by what is essentially a carnival midway with go-karts, rides, and tacky t-shirt stores.  Most also have bible verses on the walls.  The Old Mill, now a restaurant, was booked so we ate at its sister spot, the Pottery House, were all our dishware was locally made.  As readers of this blog know, I love a hiking store and Hikey Mikey’s looked right up my alley, but alas it was closed.  We went to the distillery instead, where I indulged in the moonshine tasting (and bought some for home) and headed back to the Go-Karts.  I learned the following:  I am a chicken in a Go-Kart.

A bit more wondering and it was off to sleep.

Worried about traffic, we rose early to head to Cades Cove in the Smokies.  The drive took us winding up the mountain with no other cars in sight.  Know for its wildlife, we were thrilled to spot a wild turkey, deer, and very friendly raccoon along the way.

We found the traffic in our last six miles.  Along the way, there were beautiful fields that seduced many travelers into pulling off and setting up camp there.  We hung in (despite a lot of wingeing – all on my part) and made it to a large park.  Rangers directed us where to park and we joined a growing crowd setting up chairs and blankets.  Rangers and volunteers were on hand to answer questions and hand out eclipse glasses (we have so many now.  If anyone needs them for 2024, I’m your girl!)

Penelope, 11 or 12 (I should know) and I took a long walk to an old mill, still in use, where I bought some corn meal (cornbread at my place!), waded into the mill stream (something her mother would kill me for if she knew) and indulged in the many activities set up for kids – chalk drawings of the eclipse, bracelet making, etc.  Jess and Jenn, two high school volunteers talked us through the stages of the eclipse – partial, solar flairs, diamond ring, total.  We went back refreshed and excited.

There were likely a thousand or more people waiting in the vast field.  We’d come from all over America and we represented America.  Everyone, young and old, black and white and in between, were in great spirits.  People chatted, shared food and travel tips (you really need to go to the Dolly Parton Jamboree, we heard more than once).  The conviviality felt so helpful.  Lynn chatted for a long time with a leather faced man from Georgia who teased hear about the “War of Northern Aggression,” but delighted in sharing his experiences in New York.

I felt hopeful for the first time since I saw video of a car driving into protestors in Charlottesville.  Either that or we were like the people inIndependence Day who rushed to welcome the aliens, and ended up… well, you know.


Then it happened.  It was incredible.  As the moon slowly moved in front of the sun, we looked up, noted that it was cool, and kept talking.  About 45 minutes later, the totality began, the tiny sliver of sun disappeared as red solar flares danced around the sun.  A cheer went up in our field and sunset colors dotted the horizon.  Crickets started singing and a bat whooshed by,  And then the diamond ring appeared and the sun began to peek back through.


It was amazing!

High on nature we returned to Pigeon Forge for catfish and sweet tea and more Go-Kart racing.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the surprisingly well done Titanic Museum where an actual Titanic deck chair got me a little teary.  We were all given the identity of an actual passenger and followed their journey to see if they survived or not (we all did – I suspect most people do).

Our drive home was a sad one.  While I definitely don’t think the south is for me long-term, I loved the moment when we all united as a country to awe at the power of nature. We are all small specks, very similar to one another with more in common than not.  I hope we don’t have to wait til 2024 for another reminder of that.

Turning the Page

I love New Years.  Not the pressure to be at the best party, though the champagne is certainly a draw, but the renewal of it.  I really believe, every year, that by turning the page on the calendar, I’m starting fresh and can continue the good, but am somehow cleansed of the bad of the past year and that possibilities abound.

I set out early on New Year’s eve toward the New Orleans classic Cafe Du Monde.  The French Quarter was empty at in the minutes before 9am and walking past the boarded houses painted in pastels and the brick manors with wrought iron balconies it was easy to imaging it being 1916 or 1816 (but with better sanitation).  The spell was broken as I turned on to Bourbon Street and a half naked 20-something, his beer belly covered in orange paint and beads covering his bare chest came stumbling towards me.  By the time I got to Jackson Sq, the city was waking, musicians were setting up on corners with beat up brass instruments and tourists were easing out of hotel rooms.

The line at Cafe Du Monde wound down the street, but moved quickly.  I got a seat just as my friend Allison arrived.  Pregnant with twins, Allison was simultaneously glowing and exhausted.  We drank cafe au laits (decaf for her) and ate beignets and caught up on several months of not seeing each other.  Allison felt guilty for her amazing  2016 (a new fiance, home, and twins to come), but not really.  We compared notes on previous big easy trips and shares our excitement about changes to come.  Then we walked.  And walked. Through the French Quarter and out the other side.  In the French Market we paused to watch music and for me to have some oysters.

A couple hours later we stopped a Cochon, a restaurant that had just opened on my last visit to New Orleans and one that my food world friends had recommended then.  We ate enough pork to feed Allison, her twins, me, and a small army.  I brought some ribs in a to go bag, kissed Allison goodbye, and headed back towards Siobhan’s, through the Quarter, already buzzing for the party that night.  A quick change of cloths and a dinner of leftovers, I met another friend in a nearby bar for sanctuary from the rain as we waited for midnight.   Celebrants paraded up and down the streets, oblivious to the deluge.  At midnight we could see a corner of the fireworks above the houses, had a midnight kiss and headed home.

I woke early on New Year’s day for my 10 am cemetery tour.  You can only go to cemeteries in New Orleans now if you are on a tour or related to one of the interred.  Centuries of vandals have put the monuments at risk.  Among those vandals were Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who cut the hand and head off statues of the virgin whilst filming Easy Rider.  Meeting my group at the Reverand Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, our ragtag group was going by our guide Daphne.  Daphne, in a long black skirt and Haunted Tours t-shirt was quick to inform us that she was not a tour guide, she was a storyteller.  My enthusiasm for the trip diminished significantly, but as we walked towards the cemetery and she acted out bis of the history of the city, my affection for her grew.  In the cemetery, we learned about the internment process in the early day of the city (it was gross) and the system of packing bodies in monuments.  We visited the grave of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, which was marked with xs.  In the 1920s a tradition arose of marking the grave and making a wish.  It is now illegal to do so, but I touched someone’s x and secretly made my own wish for the year.  There are only about 7 plots left for purchase in Saint Louis Number One, but one recent purchaser was Nicholas Cage, who’s pyramid mausoleum is a sore, but humorous thumb in the middle of the decaying tombs.

Leaving the cemetery and the group, I went to the nearby church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, to light a candle commemorating the 10th anniversary of my dad’s death, January 1, 2007. I’d forgotten that it was Sunday and Mass was underway.  I sat in on the remainder of the mass, which was unlike any catholic mass of my childhood, with raucous jazz and a swinging choir.  During the passing of the peace, I teared up as worshipers hugged me and chatted rather than quickly shaking hands and turning away.  The sanctuary was filled with joyous singing and it energized me.

My next stop was the New Orleans School of Cooking, where I learned how to make crab and corn soup, chicken etouffee and pralines (which are too sweet for me).  Pat, our charismatic instructor led off with her own history of New Orleans which was sometimes in conflict with Daphne’s but was no less entertaining.

Siobhan arrived home with whiskey and feather fascinators and we compared holidays and went out to Seaworthy, said to be the best restaurant of the moment in NOLA.  The food was amazing, the service less so, but the drinks flamed and the oysters went down easy.

This morning we spent hours talking about the past and the future and planned a project.  We’re motivating for lunch and an afternoon indulging the city.

I like 2017!

Burning sage in the Big Easy

2016 was a complicated year for everyone, me included.

There was a lot of good.  Absolutely.  Also, there was the election, the less said about that the better; so many of our icons left us (they all hurt, but I’m particularly saddened by Carrie Fisher – more on that in a minute – Prince, and the great George Michael, who’s Wake Me Up Before you Go Go really is my most favorite song.  Don’t judge); and for me, 2016 marked the end of a relationship that was dying from the moment it was born.  I thought it died in 2015, but it still wielded a bit of magic and wooed me back. Now, sadly,  but also freeingly, it has breathed it’s last.

New Orleans did it.  That’s where, in 2008, we met.  He wasn’t where he was supposed to be and it was never quite clear why or who exactly he was.  But New Orleans worked her particular brand of magic and voodoo and I was hooked.  For a while I could ignore the voices inside me madly pointing out the red flags along our path, and allow the magic to course through, but eventually the voices won out and I had to admit they were right.  Even knowing that, assuring the voices in my head and of my friends who had joined the chorus urging me to cut ties, I hung on tight, hoping that some magic remained. It didn’t.

I arrived back in New Orleans for the first time since 2008 this morning and I am walking the streets which brought me to him.  I am remembering with gratitude, but I’m also reclaiming them.  Tomorrow, I join with friends to celebrate the coming year and all the hope that it brings, but today I am marking what’s past.

New Orleans pays tribute to that and those past like none other with their second line parades.  And I arrived in time to join the Chewbacchus organization as they paid tribute to Carrie Fisher by staging a second line parade for her most famous alter ego – Princess Leia.

About two miles from where I’m staying is the Bywater neighborhood of NOLA.  Bywater was hit hard by Katrina and many of the houses still bear the spay painted codes indicating if there are dead in the home.  Before I got to the second line gathering park, I made my way through Bywater, admiring the many ways its residents decorated for the holiday and despairing at the reminders of the hurricane.  I happened into a warehouse space filled with graphic and graffiti art commemorating that time.  The art – a street style rendering of hopeful reality – brought out the tears hiding just under my skin.

A cathartic cry out of the way, I found a park full of side bunned women in white, caped men with light sabers, and the occasional wookie and I knew I was in the right place.  Waiting for the parade to begin (an hour and a half past schedule), I was befriended by Leonides and Autumn, a couple with matching nose rings.  He wore a gray three piece suit, she a flowing black gown to match her Leia braids.  In heavy creole accents they asked about me and gave me tips about their favorite places for music and oysters.  I could have chatted all day with them, but the parade began  with the local roller derby team dressed as vintage Leia and dancing to Whitney Houston and I knew I had to follow.  I joined R2 units and Siths dancing in the streets and felt 2016 fall away.  I danced for about four blocks with two young Jedis and a storm trooper and I’m pretty sure I bought a beer from Lando Calrissian.

Under it all though, was true love for Carrie Fisher and sadness for her loss.  It was a really beautiful tribute.  She drowned in moonlight, strangled by her bra! 

A po boy, another beer, and early to bed for me.  Tomorrow is a new day, then it’s a new year!



Giving thanks!

It’s been a whirlwind two days ending and it’s been great!

I left early yesterday onto train to Antwerp, a city I never expected to visit.  Gene came in from Paris and we met at the most beautiful train station I’ve ever seen. We quickly checked into the hotel, and headed out for a quick walkabout, heading first to the main sq with City Hall on one side and a large cathedral on the other.  In the center of a square was a wacky statue that we later learned depicted the giant who lived in the river near the city and would cut off the hands of his enemies.  A young peasant finally conquered the giant and threw his hand in the river.  Hands are everywhere.  A large stone hand was a popular photo stop (I did a selfie) and chocolate hands were for sale in every cafe.

We met a director of DeSingel, a preforming arts venue in the city and he took us for a long lunch of moules frites and beer.  It was perfect.  I left he and Gene to work and walked the city.  I made my way to the home of painter Peter Paul Rubens (to whom I owe a great debt).  He lived well with a beautful garden courtyard in a big house which I couldn’t see since I’d arrived too late in the day. The city is small and easy to walk.  It is a mix of old and a bit cold cobblestone charm and hip boutiques.  They are very proud of being the home of designer Dries Van Noten.

I rejoined Gene at DeSingel for dinner with a few members of the staff at the hall’s beautiful restaurant.  It was laughter filled and delicious.  Then we saw a staggeringly great dance performance.  When the show was over, Pierre offered us a tour of the facility.   First stop was a performance space next to the theater we were in, where the pianist Richard Goode was in concert.  The stage manager brought us to Mr. Goode’s dressing room, where he and his wife welcomed us with open arms and we talked of mutual friends and the music world.

Our building tour continued and thought the space was concrete and a bit cold, the multiple venues and discipline gave it great energy.  Students were everywhere and there was graffiti and art on display.  In a courtyard, little garden plots bloomed.  These were each manned by a member of the communty who rented the space for 20 euro a year.  (Hey Lincoln Center…do this!).

A beer and chocolate mousse later, we headed back to the hotel with plans for an early train back home.  At 10:30, when I finally rolled out of bed, we gulped down coffee and ran to the station.  In Amsterdam at 2, we headed out for another day of walking the city.  First stop was Rembrandt’s home in the Jewish District.  Turns our Rembrandt was a bit of dick.  The tour talked about his mistresses and disinterest in paying his debts.  But there were wonderful displays and art and the studio where he worked had light pouring in.  It was easy to imaging him creating his masterpieces.

From there we wandered through stores (I got a necklace and some shoes at Camper for half what I’d pay in the US).

We made our way to an Indonesian restaurant for reistafel – a banquet of flavors.  We had dozens of dishes and I can’t think of a better way to spend thanksgiving if I couldn’t be with my family.





Her would-haves are our possibilities

I’d been warned.  One must buy a ticket for the Anne Frank Huis well in advance or subject one’s self to a several hour wait in line.  My ticket was for 10:30 Tuesday morning.  I knew it wasn’t far from the hotel, but I left with plenty of time, following the street signs towards the large church which Anne wrote about and where Rembrandt is buried in an unmarked grave.  The vendors outside were opening up the kiosks selling tulip bulbs and herring.  The Gay Memorial is there, and there were several Gay in A’Dam tourist info booths.

The line had begun long before I got to the Huis, and my time stamped internet print out allowed me to wiz past it into the museum.  While I read her diary when I was a young teenager and her story is so familiar, being there was unexpectedly moving.  The building was the former office of a jam manufacturer where her father worked.  A line of visitors wound through the rooms with displays and archival photos.  Quotes from Anne’s diary were printed on the walls.  On the ground floor we saw were the factory workers toiled, unaware of the families living upstairs.  Upstairs were the offices including what was once Otto Frank’s.  The line of visitors slowed and as I rounded a corner we saw a very steep narrow staircase.  There, one by one, we entered the first of two attic floors where Anne, her parents and sisters, another family of three and a single man all lived for two years in total darkness.  My first reaction was “wow, it’s a lot bigger than I pictured” but the space became claustrophobic quickly.  I was only there for 15 minutes and I found myself pulling at the blackout curtains trying toe let light in.   Otto had asked that the rooms remain bare with no furnishings, but there were tender reminders of the lives there.  Light pencil marks on the wall, marked Anne and Margot’s growth and Anne’s room was covered with newspaper photos of movie stars glued to the walls.  One of the quotes in the kitchen space (which doubled as the bedroom of the other family) was about Anne’s disdain for kale.

As we passed out of the rooms and back into the museum area, there were photos and video of the concentration camps.  There were Auschwitz identity cards for Anne and the other attic inhabitants and a thick book listing the names of the thousands of Dutch citizens who perished in the camps.  Video showed Anne’s childhood friend talking about  the mixed blessing of seeing her again at Auschwitz after having been separated for so long (she was thrilled to have her friend with her, but despaired that she too would suffer life in the camp).

As you leave there is a book to sign.  This is the infamous book in which Justin Beiber wondered if Anne would be a fan of his work.  Person after person, from around the world, had added NEVER AGAIN next to their signatures.  As I picked up the pen and shakily signed, I found myself tearing up over the global situation and my fear that never again is a more urgent refrain than it used to be.  It used to feel impossible that it would happen again.  It doesn’t feel impossible now.

In the gift shop I learned that her diary was once the most purchased book, but had been over taken by 50 shades of gray.  Since I once downloaded 50 Shades, it felt like my duty to buy two copies of Anne’s writing to counter that.

There is a video as one exits the Huis of celebrities talking about Anne Frank.  The video ends with Emma Thompson saying “her would-haves are our possibilities.  Our opportunities.”   Who Anne might have been, what she might have accomplished, we’ll never know, but Emma is right, she was bubbling with potential.

On the street, and in the light, I walked and walked.   I’m in the midst of a very aggressive fit bit step challenge and I considered heading back to the hotel to get my fitbit, left forgotten in the charger as I ran out, but instead just lingered in around the canals.  The Amsterdam Tulip Museum drew me into its tiny rooms with over blown photos of tulip varietals and cardboard  shadow boxes.

After retrieving the fitbit, I headed to the museum district by way of the flower market- rows of stalls jammed with hot-house tulips alongside wooden shoe key chains and all sorts of marijuana themed nicknack.  A doorway off a narrow alley way had a sign reading “Amsterdam’s Number 1 popup restaurant” with instructions to walk the dark corridor to an elevator around a corner and head to the top where one would be surprised and pleased.  The hallway was covered in graffiti and littered with building materials, the elevator wall was covered by a face vaguely resembling Andy Warhol with a lobster leg in his teeth. But when the elevator opened, there was a shiny hip restaurant where I got a ceviche that rivaled those from South America!

Refueled I wandered through the Rijksmuseum (briefly embarrassing myself when I asked where I could find The Girl with the Pearl Earring and the guard replied “The Hague”).  The Van Gogh Museum next door was a treat and between the two, I have added a dozen or more of my favorite works of art to the “I saw it  with my own eyes and not in a book” list.

Back at the hotel, I opted for a dinner of traditional Dutch food – a casserole of mashed potato, sauerkraut, and sausages, and beer.  Now I’ve done that.  I don’t have to do it again. Then I joined the luminous director of Joe’s Violin, Kahane, at her hotel for a nightcap, some cheese and a long midnight walk along the canals.

We marveled at how far this project had come since we’d met more than two years ago.  We talked about being in Europe at such a confusing time for America.  We talked about our mutual connection, though for different reasons, to Anne Frank.

I hugged her goodbye and walked back to my hotel feeling grateful for so much and hearing Emma Thompson’s words in my head.  Emma had it a bit wrong though, I think.  I don’t know that Anne’s would-haves are our possibilities, I think they are our responsibility.  We owe it to her, to everyone who has come before and soldiered through adversity that we don’t have to face, to be what Anne dreamed of being.