Avoiding vampires

“daily positive affirmations” is generally not my thing, but today, it feels oh so right.

“Today I choose to dissociate from persons who suck out any positive energy from ordinary interactions and then replace it with their narcissistic toxic energy.”

It’s a war that cannot be won. Better to just avoid the battle.

Don’t Call Me the “B” Word

img_20180728_173558971885361.jpgDon’t call me the “B” word.

I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, and I don’t think I deserve it. Mostly from strangers, but also from old friends.  I guess they don’t really know me.

The “B” word. Often used in the exclamation, “You’re so Brave!”

Brave”. The first few times I heard it, I felt flattered and a little surprised. But after a half-dozen such adulations, I began to wonder if I was just foolish.

“You’re so brave!”

I heard it from friends in my hometown in Nevada. “You’re so brave!”

I heard it from the woman seated next to me on the flight to Barcelona, “You’re so brave!” On my first day in Seville, I heard if from the two American students at my Air BnB, and on my second night in Seville, I heard it from the Irish barrister on her honeymoon, “You’re so brave!”

Hmmm. What’s going on here? I don’t consider myself particularly brave. I’ve never rushed into a burning building. Skydiving? No thanks. I haven’t donated a kidney.

On the other hand, I have no problem with some things that terrify other folks, like hiking in the wilderness, alone and off the trail. When I see a snake, I don’t run away. I move towards it, and sometimes catch it with my bare hands. I can open a letter from the IRS without the slightest tremble. Sometimes, I even tell men that they’re wrong.

The notion of a middle-aged American woman traveling solo for a year in Europe seemed eccentric, or perhaps scary, to some people. And yet, there I was, with my one-way ticket, stuttering Spanish, red backpack and graying hair. Unaccompanied. *gasp!!*img_20180606_102954.jpg

But I quickly found my tribe, an informal, international sisterhood of women who take a leap, or a bold stride, or maybe just a baby-step, in the direction of “doing”. I stumbled upon the facebook group “Solo Women Travelers” when the nascent idea of a gap-year in Europe was just budding in my mind. I was emboldened by the facebook group “Expats Sevilla” where there was always a post from somebody new in town and looking for a friend. And look at this! The website for the American Women’s Club of Seville. This was a sign. I was not a lone pioneer. Others had passed this way before.

Perhaps I would have embraced the descriptor “brave” if I had boarded that plane twelve months earlier, on a whim. Because a year ago, I would have been uncertain, and unprepared, and frightened, and to proceed in the face of fear is either bravery or foolishness.

But during that year I worked hard to evolve myself from “brave/foolish” to “mostly confident”. I sought the counsel of Jane and Arthur and Anne, seasoned long-term travelers, who offered advice and encouragement. I learned the difference between Schengen-area countries and EU member nations, and the time limits on foreigner visits. I accepted Irena’s invitation to visit her friends in Russia, since I would be “in

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St. Petersburg “Hotel Deluxe”

the neighborhood”. I followed the helpful blog of the “Spain Immigration Guru” and learned about the intricate process of applying for a Spanish visa (although I needed Selena’s help to figure out how to Uber from SFO airport to the Spanish consulate). I made a tepid effort to learn Spanish, and I did download that helpful app “Read Russian in 4 Hours”. I ordered the credit card that has no foreign transaction fee and also gives collision damage coverage on foreign rental cars (except in Italy). I ordered Michelin Maps and euros and rubles.  I emailed with Boris in Moscow, and Skyped with Maria in Seville. So, in December, when I checked airfares and found a ridiculously cheap ticket to Barcelona, I hesitated for only a second before clicking the “buy now” button.

And upon arrival in Spain I quickly found solid footing on the nurturing soil of the American Women’s Club of Seville.  Here I met other brave” expat women who, alone or with husband and children, were making a life in Spain. Some had lived in Seville for decades, after arriving as a young co-ed or foreign worker, and then enamorarse and marrying a Sevillano. A few were newly retired and had chosen Spain as their new home, where they could live comfortably and with the stimulation of a historic and beautiful culture. Some were young women, in their twenties, who were in Seville by design or by accident, but appreciated the feeling of sisterhood in this multi-generational group. Other club members were women like me, broadening their horizons on an extended live-abroad experience, with plans to return home after a year.

Amongst these women, I was not a brave thrill-seeker. I was rather ordinary, and I found good company with other “brave” women. Like lovely, funny, strong Miriam in Seville – a Feminist with a capital “F”. She left her husband and is determined to

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hiking in Picos de Europa

teach her son that women can do everything that men do. I joined her on a river kayak trip – her first ever – and she repeatedly urged me to steer our boat into the biggest rapids. Don’t-Look-Back-Donna, who was recently widowed, sold her place in the US so she could retire to Seville….permanently. Patricia, from Arkansas, challenged herself to walk the grueling first stage of the Camino de Santiago, from France, over the Pyrenees, and down into Spain. Just to prove to herself that she could do it. Despite her lung deficiency. I am glad to be in the company of these independent women.

Now it seems that I am part of a hot trend! ”Solo travel” is currently the fastest growing segment in the travel industry. There are blogs, websites, books and conferences specially targeted to the solo traveler.  It doesn’t take much effort to find a cruise or tour that welcomes the independent adventurer. But being solo doesn’t mean being alone. There is a community of other “solas” out there who welcome companions to share their adventures. Here in Nevada, I joined the Reno Meetup group – the “Bold Betties”, who can be found snow-shoeing, rock climbing, or hiking around the Silver State on a Saturday.

Perhaps my aura of “bravery” comes from deep within – the visible luster of self-confidence. Or, maybe it comes from the superficial sheen of false bravado.  Sometimes you just have to bluff your way through a tense situation. If I’m feeling lost and panicky, I sometimes bluff myself into believing that I know what I’m doing. And it works!

Brave. Bold. Bluffing. None of these “B” words feel exactly right. Perhaps we need a new word that encompasses the many facets of living a life of deliberate wanderlust. But, for now, I will accept being called the “B” word. Because I definitely won’t tolerate being called the “C” word, a coward.

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Poet Mary Oliver

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

These words by American poet Mary Oliver helped motivate me to share my experiences through this website. Mary Oliver died this week, at age 83. Today I strolled through some of her poetry and re-discovered the beauty of her elegant writings. Here is one for you to enjoy.

Breakage

I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
Source: Poetry (Poetry Foundation, 2003)

Faking it in France

 

A fake!
A forgery.
A reproduction.
A masterpiece!

An opportunity to come face-to-face with some of the most beautiful and moving art created by man: “Lascaux IV”, the full-scale simulation of the famous prehistoric painted cave in the Dordogne region of France.


Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon The ironic name was reason enough for me to select this lodging. But it also had the advantage of location closest to the train station in the French town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. From the depot, I leapfrogged between Hotel Cro-Magnon exteriorthe pools of shade under the old sycamore trees lining the Avenue de la Prehistorie, and by the time I shed my backpack at the antique reception desk I wore a glimmer of sweat. Veronique, the hotel owner, greeted me in beautifully accented English, then directed me to the staircase leading to my room on the second floor.

Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon dates to the mid -20th century (younger than the Cro-Magnon era 😉 ) retaining much of its vintage charm, and the wooden stairs squealed loudly as I made my way up. In the library room Lascaux discovery 1940s at the second-floor landing, glass cases displayed stone-age artifacts: spear points, knife blades, bone fragments. Faded black and white photos on the wall showed crews of young men, dressed in work clothes, taking a break from their work in the excavations.

A turn into the second-floor hallway revealed a fun surprise. A smooth expanse of Hotel Cro-Magnon interior walllimestone serves as one wall of the corridor. It is the face of the limestone cliff against which the hotel building had been constructed. The outdoors was indoors! In my room across the hall, I would be sleeping under the shelter of the palisade, as the inhabitants of this valley have done for more than 20,000 years.

I hadn’t noticed the cliff, obscured by the sycamores, during my short walk from the train station. Later, an exploratory stroll through this one-street town revealed that Les Eyzies was gathered in a lovely river valley, lush with trees and hemmed in by lofty limestone cliffs. An alleyway splits off from the main street and ascends to a Abri Pataud, Les Eyzies de Tayac, France

ledge in the rock face big enough to park a car. Farther along, the gap opens wider and multi-story buildings are built into the cliff, including The National Museum of Prehistory. This was my reason for coming to Les Eyzies. The region is dotted with caves where ancient man painted and etched beautiful artistic images onto the stone canvas. Visiting these caves and experiencing the ancient art first hand has been at the #1 spot on my bucket list for more than thirty years. I hoped to be one of a handful of lucky visitors to gain entrance tomorrow morning.

Le Grotte Font-de-Gaume is the only polychromatic Paleolithic decorated cave in France that is open for public visits (there are also a few monochromatic and etched caves open for tours). Entry is limited to only 52 persons per day for 45 minutes to protect the paintings from the detrimental impact of carbon dioxide from human respiration. The ticket office opens at 9:30, but the travel blogs advise arriving before 7:30 if you hope to get one of the coveted spots. Veronique recommended a 7:00 a.m. arrival, so the next morning I tiptoed down the stairs (cringing when I was betrayed by the loudly-squeaking step), out the front door of Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon, and onto the street in the pre-dawn darkness. I estimated that it would take me 30 minutes, including a coffee stop, to walk the 2 kilometers to Font-de-Gaume.

Ten minutes walk beyond the far edge of town I arrived at a modest building fronted by a patio where a small crowd chatted quietly in the morning chill. A seven-year-old girl greeted me with “Congratulations!” Today was the second morning that her IMG_20180803_070902family had queued at Font-de-Gaume ticket office. Yesterday they had arrived too late to get spots on the English-language tour, so they returned even earlier this morning. At 7:05 I sat down on the wooden bench, IMG_20180803_093012parking myself on seat number 18. This was the very practical method of allotting the limited number of tour spots. If you are sitting on a numbered seat, that is your place in line when the ticket office opens. No saving seats. No buying multiple tickets. By 7:30 all 52 of the numbered seats were occupied, and we lucky seat-holders spent the next two hours swapping travel stories, while latecomers arrived and turned away in disappointment.

With ticket in hand, I wandered into town to find something to eat before my 11:30 tour. By the time I walked back to the ticket office, the August sun was beating down Font de gaume entranceand the temperature was rising. My tour group of 12 English-speakers gathered in front of the cave entrance, 500 yards up a shaded path, and waited quietly for our guide. We were surprisingly calm, considering we were about to embark on what would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of us. I zipped up my jacket and followed our guide into the darkness.

In tight single-file we silently trod the smooth concrete path on the cave floor, illuminated by softly glowing lights. It seemed we walked a long time in twilight and silence without stopping, and I shivered a little from both the anticipation and the chilly air. And then the person in front of me stopped. “Come closer.” Our guide directed us to bunch up even tighter before he turned his lamp to the cave wall just font de gaume mamoth picture_fichier_fr_mnhn_54_1908next to us. It was hard to see at first, but his laser pointer helped us to recognize the faded painting on the cave wall. The hump. The shaggy hair. The curved tusks. A mammoth?! I was having a hard time processing this: I’m deep inside a cold dark cave in a lovely pastoral valley in France on a blistering August day in 2018, and inches in front of me is a painting, made 20,000 years ago, by some caveman, of a mammoth?! And it was a darn good likeness! No doubt about the subject. In fact, the composition included several mammoth and horses and deer, superimposed over each other.

We could not linger, so we moved quickly but carefully farther along the passage. This part of the cave was narrow, and touching the walls, even accidentally brushing against them, was a grave transgression. Again we stopped and bunched up tightly font-de-gaume-cave-art-bison-frieze-font-de-gaume-cave-paintingsin a double row. We did not need the laser pointer to make out the five beautiful bison painted in red and black on the cave wall just a half-meter in front of our noses. Four bison in a single-file line, with the center two facing each other, were each roughly one foot tall and wide. The colors were rich and the art was subtly shaded to give each creature dimension and life. Although the art of Font de Gaume cave was first recognized in 1901, this panel wasn’t discovered until 1966, by scientists who were cleaning calcite accumulations off the cave walls. The colors here, on this ‘cleaned’ panel, were more vivid than in the other art we had seen, and that somehow made me feel more closely connected to the artist who painted this scene many thousand years ago.

In the remainder of our 45 minutes inside the cave we continued to explore the main passage and a side gallery. The census of painted and etched animals included reindeer, horse, wolf, cat, and rhinoceros. We retraced our steps and too soon found ourselves back in the sunshine of the 21st century. I had seen so much during our short journey that the details swam together in a blur in my memory. Standing inside the cave had been incredible, but I also appreciated that the cave entrance and nearby landscape were the places where the prehistoric inhabitants spent most of their time. The entire valley was a prehistoric “site”. And I planned to see more. I didn’t have a lot of time to savor my Font-de-Gaume experience – I had a ticket for the Les Combarelles Cave tour at 2 pm, and it would take me almost an hour to walk there.

I ditched this morning’s jacket back at the hotel, and packed two water bottles in my day pack in anticipation of the mid-afternoon walk to Les Combarelles Cave. I IMG_20180803_141257arrived, hot and sweaty, at the unremarkable gravel parking lot and humble guard house about ten minutes before the tour start time. Only five tourists were gathered in front of the large, shady cave entrance at the base of the cliff, and I completed our group of six, the maximum capacity on this tour. Our guide fetched a jacket for me to borrow, and then unlocked the gate at the cave entrance.

Les Combarelles Cave is important for its large assemblage of etched images of prehistoric fauna, but there are only a few pigmented images here. The art is estimated to be roughly 12,000 years old, and this cave was important in archaeology for its role in confirming the antiquity of the sites in this region. Horses, auroch, bear, and a lion are among the animals represented on the cave walls. But portable objects, like an engraved bone spatula and engraved tools were also found inside the cave.

This cave is a long, narrow, twisting tunnel and the air inside was damp and cold. During our journey through the cave, our guide switched the lights on and off as we passed through each chamber and everything ahead and behind was darkness. It was mind-boggling to think about the ancient artists who penetrated deep into this cave led by the flickering flames of tallow lamps. Did the artist deliberately exploit  this pulsing light to animate his subjects? An engraved lion has multiple iterations of its legs carved into the cave wall. Our guide wags her flashlight beam across it quickly, and the light catches in each groove in sequence, like in a flipbook. The legs appear to be moving. The first GIF animation. How magical this must been to these ancient people. I can feel the energy in this place.

It took longer than I expected to retrace our steps back to the cave entrance, and claustrophobia began to nibble at my mind. But as we approached the literal “light at the end of the tunnel”, I started to think ahead to my next move, my ultimate goal: Lascaux.

There is no train or bus from Les Eyzies to Lascaux. A taxi would be $40 each way, so I had opened myself to the possibility of bumming a ride. After spending an hour in very close proximity with 5 English-speaking strangers, I felt that we had developed a hint of intimacy. So I addressed our small group, “I am looking for a ride to Lascaux”.

And that is how a new friendship was born. Patricia, a solo traveler from Arkansas, was my ride and companion for the next four days, and she is now my friend. We went online and booked tickets for tomorrow’s tour at Lascaux IV, and agreed on a time for her to pick me up at Le Hotel de Cro-Magnon.

The next morning, I worried that I would feel cheated at having to settle for a visit to the simulation of the 19,000-year-old artwork at Lascaux, instead of seeing the “real” cave. But, as our guide, Christian, led us through the dimly lit entrance, I gasped in amazement. red and black horseDirectly ahead, the painted image of a tawny horse with a shaggy black mane stretched across the cave wall. A few steps to the right, the rump of another horse bulged on the uneven surface. On the craggy ceiling above my head, the elegantly outlined bulls, with horns curving to deadly points, felt both massive and weightless at the same time. A herd of horses ran in the foreground, their coats shaded in red and black. And there, behind a bull, a red lion slinked.

We followed Christian into the winding narrow passage of the cave, through the spaces named “the Nave”, “the Chamber of Felines”, and beyond. The painted subjects included bear, rhinoceros, deer with crazily-branched antlers, and other animals of the Paleolithic world.

Great Black Bull

We spoke in hushed voices as we took turns stepping close to see the outline of a horse, etched into the friable rock wall. The multiple strokes and retracings hinted at the horse’s movement. A bull watched us warily, his eye seemingly animated by the natural hole in the rock on which it was painted.

So, what did I think of my “fake” experience? It was fantastic! Lascaux IV is situated in the same wooded countryside as the original cave, near the village of Montignac, France. Our trip back in time began when Christian guided us through the modern landscape of the visitor center and out to the tree-covered hillside above. In this setting, four teenage boys discovered the cave entrance in 1940. From our elevated vantage point, we looked out over the pastoral Vezere valley, and easily imagined the landscape of 19,000 year ago, where aurochs, deer, and bison once roamed.

We left the blazing August sunshine and descended to the lower level, gathering in the shadow of the building. Back inside, our eyes gradually adapted to the semi-darkness. We followed Christian to an unmarked door, where he stopped and turned to us. Then, in a hoarse whisper he asked “are you ready?” and slowly opened the door.

My brain easily slid into the fantasy. I was standing in a cave. The air was cool, and slightly humid. To my left, and up high, some light filtered through a rough hole, the small entrance that the French teens had squeezed through in 1940. As my eyes adapted to the dim light, the image of a horse’s head materialized on the coarse wall in front of me.

Of course I knew that I wasn’t in a real cave. I could see the smoothly paved floor beneath my feet. Hidden lights gently illuminated The Passagewaythe walkway and highlighted the art. I could see the other tour groups thirty yards ahead and behind us. But I chose to ignore those facts and fully embrace the illusion. Touring the simulation had some advantages over visiting the original cave. I could focus on the art, and admire the workmanship and the composition. I didn’t need to think about unseen hazards or worry about accidentally brushing against the paintings. The art was lighted in a way that allowed us to see entire panels, rather than the spot of a flashlight beam. And, the art was clean, and possibly brighter than the art in the real cave which had been obscured by mineral deposits (and invasive mold since the influx of a half million tourists in the 20th century). In the reproduction cave, I felt relaxed and it was easy to focus on the art, and daydream a little bit about its makers.

I thought about the artist who created these paintings. He was observant, patient, talented. He understood the muscles, movements, and habits of the animals thatswimming stags inhabited his world. Did he hear the labored breath of the deer that swam across the river, with just their heads above the surface? Did he conceal himself as he watched the lion stalking its prey? Did he feel a chill of fear as the cave bear, with curving claws, came to life in his painting? Did he know the red cow who birthed her calf this summer?

Standing in the Hall of the Bulls sent a shiver through me. What was it about this art that is so moving? I’ve visited prestigious art galleries and I’ve viewed countless expertly-depicted wildlife dramas. I live in Seville, a city filled with sacred art in cathedrals and churches, and dripping with Lascaux IV The Hall of the Bullssilver and gold. But, none of those experiences elicited the visceral twinge provoked by coming face-to-face with these masterful artistic compositions deep in a shadowy cave. The artist stood here, on the same hillside where I am standing now, and with careful dabs and puffs of breath, brought the cold stone surface to life. He was intelligent. He created tools and processed pigment: oil lamps, blow pipes from animal bone, minerals powdered and mixed with water. He appreciated beauty and planned his compositions. He had a purpose. My feeling of awe multiplied when I considered that these images were created by human hands 19,000 years ago!

It took us about an hour to travel 19,000 years back in time. As we rounded a turn in the passageway our tour came to an end. We found ourselves in a large auditorium, where exhibits of selected cave details gave us a second chance to admire the art and take photos.lascaux-iv-snohetta-casson-mann-france-architecture-cultural-_dezeen_2364_col_34-1024x683 The “cave” we had just exited is part of the new Lascaux International Center for Parietal (Cave) Art, popularly known as “Lascaux IV”. It was created using the newest technologies and techniques to give the look and feel of being inside the actual cave. (There are dozens of websites that do an excellent job detailing the history, science, and art of Lascaux Cave. So follow any of the links at the end of this post to read and see more about Lascaux and Lascaux IV.)

I explored the exhibits in the auditorium and snapped a couple of selfies (no photography is allowed inside the reproduction cave). The Center has a theater and

 

other interactive exhibits, but our schedule demanded that we hit the road, so I will save those for my next visit.

Visiting Lascaux cave had been at the top of my bucket list for decades, largely because I wanted to experience being in the presence of this 19,000-year-old art. My visit to Lascaux IV did not disappoint. People sometimes ask me, “What was the best thing about your trip?” It’s a ridiculous question, of course, but when pressed I name my visit to Lascaux IV.

“Bucket lists” and rosters of “best things”. They should be used in moderation, lest they become the ends, instead of the means. My three days in the Dordogne region was a rich tapestry of experiences: authentic caves, warm French pastries, and a new friend; astounding art, the warmth of the sun after the chill of underground, the coolness of the shade after a long hot trek, and a squeaky stair. The whole was more than the sum of the parts.

My duty as a traveler, as instructed by poet Mary Oliver: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I’ve paid attention. I’ve been astonished. This blog is my telling about it. Thanks for listening.

Continue reading “Faking it in France”

If I Had a Bell

The rocky trail of the “optional detour” rose steeply up the hillside, and I silently questioned Becky’s choice as I trudged behind her. Under the midday sun, the short climb induced a sweat, and the shaded portico of the church beckoned at the top of the hill in Zabaldika, Spain.

Becky knelt in a pew and bowed her head for a moment. I made my own prayer in the form of a smile of gratitude.

We lingered a bit longer to appreciate the simple, yet beautiful interior and the colorful carved statues of selected saints– the hometown heroes and local favorites of this country church. We browsed the pamphlets telling the history of the church and its bells that, in ages past, served as an audible beacon to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The docent gestured to a narrow doorway next to the exit, pointed upward, and said “tocar”. img_20180909_123208Becky followed me through the opening and an immediate right turn put my foot on the first tread of a narrow spiral staircase. The cramped way up was the only way forward. We were two leaves caught in a swirl of wind, lifted up and up and up, spun in the stonework eddy, until we spilled out into the belfry.

Two bells hung motionless in the spacious aerie. “Tocar.” I had learned that word in my Spanish class. The literal English translation is “to touch”, but in Spanish it means to play an instrument, like touching guitar strings or piano keys or, in this case, ringing a bell.

We could ring the bell? Cool! The closest bell had a sign taped to it, which read in Spanish, English, and French: “Broken Bell. Do not ring.” That made me wonder. How does a bell become broken? And what happens if you ring a broken bell? The second bell had a stout rope hanging from its clapper. A sign posted next to this bell read: “Please, ring the bell once or twice, and LISTEN…”

I hesitated, savoring the moment for my one strike. I grasped the rope firmly and img_20180909_123523gave a hearty heave, and….”dooonnngg”. Actually, it was more like a wimpy “clannggg”. Hmm. That was disappointing. But as I listened to the fading note, I imagined that I could see the soundwave rippling out across the countryside, reaching the townsfolk and pilgrims on the Camino. All over this land.

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As we continued our walk on the Camino de Santiago, the song playing in my head turned into humming and ultimately found voice as I sang aloud.

(play music)

If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning.
I’d hammer in the evening, all over this land.
I’d hammer out danger. I’d hammer out warning.
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning.
I’d ring it in the evening, all over this land.
I’d ring out danger. I’d ring out warning.
I’d ring out love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

If I had a song, I’d sing it in the morning.
I’d sing it in the evening, all over this land.
I’d sing out danger. I’d sing out warning.
I’d sing about love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

Now I’ve got a hammer, and I’ve got a bell.
And I’ve got a song to sing, all over this land.
It’s the hammer of Justice. It’s the bell of Freedom.
It’s the song about Love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.

The Ogre, the Monk, and the Virgin

“The Ogre, the Monk, and the Virgin”. That’s the popular English translation of the “Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau”, the names of three mountains in the Swiss Alps. (Did you think I was talking about the people in the photo? Nooo.)

Dennis & Becky joined me in Switzerland for three days that coincided with my birthday in the middle of summer and it was wonderful to spend time with them in this spectacular place. We lodged in the picturesque ski village of Murren, perched halfway up the side of the mountain in the Jungfrau region.

From our hotel deck, we looked across the deep, narrow Lauterbrunnen valley to the three mountains, looming so large that it seemed an illusion.

We lost count of the waterfalls that plunge from the mountainsides to the valley below, and we watched the brightly colored parasails float gently down and then rise up on the mountain drafts. The beauty is beyond description, so I will let some photos do the talking.img_20180728_200836-820689997.jpg

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The legend of the ogre, the monk, and the virgin is likely the product of modern-day tourism. “Jungfrau” does in fact translate to “young girl” or “virgin”, and the name probably originates from the valley below the mountain where there were cattle pastures, which were commonly referred to as “Jungfrauenberge”, after the nearby convents that had dairy pastures. But the legend that an ogre tried to reach the virgin, and a monk interceded between to protect the virgin is far more colorful than the true name origins. “Monch” is probably a shortened “munchenberg”, which is the meadow below the mountain where the gelding horses (munche) were pastured. “Ogre”, as a cruel & hideous creature, is the child of a lazy translation from German to English. “Eiger” comes from middle high German, meaning “high peak”, and the Swiss vernacular “hoger”.

But the true stories of danger and rescue on these mountains are spellbinding. All three peaks were alluring to climbers during the infancy of the sport of mountaineering. In the early 20th century, there was an atmosphere of competition to bag “first ascents” and the north face of the Eiger, thought to be unclimbable, had a siren call to mountaineeers. While we sipped coffee from the comfort of a cafe facing the mist-shrouded Eiger, Dennis recounted the tragic true story of a 1936 expedition on the infamous North Face of the Eiger. I’ve paraphrased the story as told in “The White Spider” by Heinrich Harrer, below:

A team of four experienced climbers, 2 Austrians and 2 Bavarians, was one of the parties that had eyes on a first ascent in the summer of 1936. Twenty-three year old Toni Kurz was a member of this team that began their attempt in mid-July. Public interest in this dare-devil sport was high, and in the villages below news reporters and spectators monitored the progress through binoculars and telescopes.

The team’s rapid progress on the the first day was hailed by the watchers in the valley. But when the team made a stop, and then two of the men trailed behind at a slower rate, the observers speculated that one of the men had become injured. On the second day, the team continued to forge a route up the mountain with the injured man moving more slowly than the others. But on day three the group reversed course and the spectators watched from afar as the climbers began their descent.

The Eiger was not a pristine mountain. In 1896, man violated nature by commencing to blast a railway tunnel through the mountain. In 1912, the railway to the “Top of Europe”, terminating on the Jungfrau saddle, was completed. This tourist attraction took passengers on a cog-wheel train that travels through 7 kilometers of tunnels inside the Eiger mountain. At 2 locations inside the tunnel, stations were established and large panoramic “windows” were cut out of the mountain and opened to the sky on the vertical wall of the North Face.

On the afternoon of the fourth day of the climb, the rail station guard speculated that the climbers were somewhere above his window on the face of the mountain. Not expecting a reply, he called up into the misty void above the window. When four cheery voices floated down from above with the report that “all is well” and they would be down soon, he was surprised and pleased.

Two hours passed and the climbers had not arrived. When the station guard called up from his window again, the world shifted. A desperate lone voice replied. “Help! I am the only one alive! The other three are dead!”

Toni Kurz was hanging on the rope in a sling, unable to descend any further. Rescuers rushed to the mountain and climbed as close as they could, but were still 300 yards below the lone survivor. A storm was moving in and as night fell the rescuers were forced to retreat, haunted by the sound of Toni’s desperate pleas.

Toni survived the night, but his left hand and arm had become frozen and unusable. In the morning the rescuers attempted every approach, but still they could not reach him. With ingenuity and unimaginable grit, Toni and the rescuers managed to get him another 120 feet down the face. But now, a knot in the rope jammed in a snap-link as his rope passed over a jutting ledge, and he dangled in mid-air, exhausted and just beyond the reach of his rescuers.

Words of encouragement were the only thing that could reach across the small gap between Toni and safety. But they could not sustain him. The rescuers heard Toni’s mumbled final words, and watched impotently as life faded, and then was gone, from the body that swung in mid-air over the abyss.

Dennis himself answered the mountains’ siren call on this trip by climbing a traverse of the Via Ferrata. It was advertised as a daring, yet technically safe, adventure walking across a skinny suspension bridge strung over a deep Alpine canyon. Becky and I volunteered to watch from terra firma above the cliff face. With a helmet and hardware rented from a local mountaineering shop, he assured us that he did not require a guide. He had climbed many mountains in his youth, including the vertical walls of Yosemite valley. The shopkeeper told Becky and me to expect his return in about three hours, and a few minutes later we said ‘goodbye’ as we watched him agily clamber down the cable at the start of the route.

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Two and a half hours later Becky received a text message. Dennis had finished the route and would meet us back in the village! When we saw him, he was sweaty and his palms were blistered, but he smiled and in his understated manner said “that was cool!” He moved slowly. His legs, arms, and hands were exhausted from climbing and gripping. The route included climbing vertically down a series of steel rungs anchored into the cliff face. I was pleased with my decision to stand watch at the cafe while he climbed.

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A trip to the Swiss Alps is not for wimps. You’ve got to really want it. You must have stamina and agility. And I’m not talking about scaling the impossibly steep mountains that stretch to the heavens. I’m talking about logistics. I needed two buses, a plane, five trains, and a cable-car to go from Seville, Spain to the hotel in Murren, Switzerland. (Dennis & Becky had the additional complication of standby flights from Denver and JFK.) This bore no resemblance to my typical U.S. travels: get in the car and drive until you get there. Like I said, it takes stamina and agility.

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I am glad that it is not easy or inexpensive to visit the Alps. The obstacles help ensure that a trip to Jungfrau is rare and special, not commonplace or routine. I feel that my visit to this spectacular landscape, just a few steps from heaven’s door, is a privilege, and I am grateful.

And I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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As they say in France, “be Zen”

– philosophy – the magic underwear box – locked in & locked out –

I thought I needed to translate Vincente’s French “be zen”. But then it clicked. “Be Zen” was his gentle advice for embarking on our walk up the mountain. In thickly accented English he said, “Just be Zen”. As in Zen Buddhism.

Vincente is the kind soul who hosts travelers at his small farm/hostel in the village of St. Jean Pied du Port in the French Pyrenees. His curly black hair is laced with gray but his slim frame resembles a teenager’s more than an old man’s. He sits with one knee crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette lightly held between two fingers. I can easily imagine Vincente as a young French poet. He leans forward to speak directly, personally, and his large black eyes say “this is a beautiful life”.

“Don’t stress.”

“Be Zen.”

Dianne, Vincente, Patricia in St. Jean Pied du Port, France

Patricia and I were about to start our walk on the Camino Frances, one of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles away on the west coast of Spain. We will walk for only 2 days, about 13 miles, but nonetheless we need to carry the right attitude.

The ancient tradition of walking a pilgrimage has resurged during the past two decades. Every year, tens of thousands of Pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago for a few days or a few months on their personal journeys. The various routes, or “Caminos”, wind for hundreds of miles through countrysides and cities in Spain, Portugal, and France, and travelers can start and stop wherever they choose. Anyone can be a Pilgrim. Several of my Spanish friends have walked stages of the Spanish or Portuguese routes. In Geneva, I met a young woman who had walked the Swiss route from Zurich. On the mountain in France I met a young man from Japan. My friend Cheryl from Carson City will make her third Camino in Spain later this year.

The individual reasons for walking the Camino range from religious growth and personal discovery to physical challenge and sightseeing. But no matter the reason, “Be Zen” is fitting wisdom. Walking the Camino is about the journey.

Patricia is from Arkansas and she is finishing up her annual summer stay in Paris. We met in Les Eyzies, France when I was begging a ride to Lascaux and she offered me a seat in her rented car. After an amicable morning together, she invited me to continue south with her to the France-Spain border where she would attempt the first, and most challenging, stage of Camino Frances. That fit easily into my very vague plans to “head south slowly”. And, I had previously decided to attempt a Camino sometime before winter. In fact, I had been training for Camino by walking ten kilometers every day in Seville, and then hiking in Picos de Europa. Not to mention my many ascents of The Devils Ladder and other hikes in Carson Valley at 6000′ elevation.

Vincente’s words had been directed to Patricia who was anxious on the morning of our start. But on the third morning, I was inching towards panic. I wanted to continue walking Camino for a few more days after Patricia headed home. But it was starting to rain, and my phone wasn’t working, and I had missed the cutoff for the luggage transport, and by 9:45 a.m. I was the only Pilgrim who hadn’t departed for the day’s journey.

Vincente’s words came back to me. “Be Zen”. I exhaled slowly and the solution came to me. I dropped off my heavy bag for pickup the following morning and with a destination 2 nights ahead in Pamplona. I could easily carry one night’s needs in my day pack.

After breakfast, I said farewell to Patricia and donned my purple rain poncho for Day 3 of my Camino. I knew that I could make better-than-average time, and my goal was to reach the village of Ziburi before the thunderstorm predicted at 5 p.m. Alone and with a light pack, I traveled easily, almost jauntily, along the woodland trail. A peaceful feeling filled me. The old Southern spiritual song “I am a Pilgrim”, by Bill Monroe played in my head in tempo with my steps.

Camino trail near Ronscevalles

After an hour of walking I saw a familiar form ahead on the trail. It was Sabine, stopping to photograph the sheep in the meadow. Sabine and I had shared a dorm room on the first night of Camino. That had been a grueling day, and all of us walkers bonded with our fellow Pilgrims. Patricia and I had first seen Sabine sitting on a bench near the bottom of the first day’s steep 4-mile climb. We waved and she returned a weary smile and limp wave. We pushed on, up and up, hugging the slivers of shade next to the roadside hedgerows. But the temperature also climbed up and up. The day was predicted to be the hottest day of the summer; 97 Fahrenheit.

Soon the Camino route branched off the pavement and onto a dirt road that zigzagged steeply up the mountain through scrub and nettles. No shade for a mile. I was fit and made steady progress, but Patricia struggled. Our route map included an elevation chart and today’s ascent profile was frightening. Patricia had arranged to split this stage into two days, and we had beds reserved at the hostel in Orisson, France, 5 miles and 1700 feet higher than our starting point.

The afternoon sun shone hotly where the track rejoined the paved road, going ever up and up through pastures and farmsteads. We made slow progress and paused briefly under the shade of the occasional roadside trees. From my pack, I pulled out the green travel umbrella that I had tossed in at the last minute. It was not a stylish Spanish parasol, but it provided welcome shelter from the relentless sun.

By 1 p.m. we felt that surely the hostel must be close, but all we saw was the ribbon of pavement winding up and over green pastured hillsides. Our spirits lifted momentarily when we reached a curve and the road tilted slightly downhill before making a blind corner and continuing over the summit. Maybe another hour to go.

But the slight downhill slope renewed our spirits and we quickened our pace. And it looked like there were some shade trees at the blind curve 200 yards ahead. And there…? “What’s that by the trees?” Each step forward revealed more of the blind curve’s secret. “It’s a building tucked into the curve! And there are people sitting at tables outside! We’ve arrived!!”

Under the shade of the trees, we laid down on the cool green grass, rested our feet, and welcomed arriving Pilgrims. Around 4 p.m. a solo walker slowly approached. I watched as she stopped in the middle of the road and lifted her camera to capture a photo of the inn…she had made it! As she walked past me I saw tears of joy track down her cheeks and she gave me a tired smile. I recognized her as the woman sitting on the bench who we passed early this morning. You go girl! Later we made introductions over cold beers. Her name was Sabine, from Kiel, Germany. She was walking her second Camino and planned to go just a few miles each day.

That night at the hostel all of the Pilgrims, around 30 of us, dined together at a family style meal. My friends in Gardnerville would recognize the resemblance in menu and atmosphere to the JT Bar, though the wine was better and nobody mentioned picon.

In the morning we rose before dawn in order to start Day 2 of Camino in the cooler hours. Today’s trek would take us over the highest point on the Camino route, 4757 feet elevation in the Pyrenees. We would walk on the pavement for 4 miles and then branch off onto the dirt track at the Cross monument. Sabine had arranged for a ride as far as the paved road goes, about a mile before the summit.

Today’s weather was the complete opposite of the first day’s. Low clouds hugged the mountains, and created a cool and slightly mysterious atmosphere. Cars with their headlights turned on crept slowly along the road and the drivers peered ahead intently to discern the hiker or cow or sharp curve that was hidden in the dense mist ahead. A red van passed slowly and l caught a glimpse of Sabine smiling and waving at us from the passenger seat.

Mountain clouds cloak the Camino in the Pyrenees.

A break in the clouds created a patch of sunshine on the mountain, and at this propitious location a food truck offered drinks, snacks, and information. A small ever-changing crowd of Pilgrims snacked, rested, and then set off again. I chatted with a German man who was walking alone. A hand-sketched map taped to the side of the truck showed the route ahead: at the Cross monument turn right onto the dirt track, then one kilometer uphill, 4 kilometers level, and finally 4 kilometers downhill to Roncesvalles. Patricia and l loitered at the food truck as long as we dared and as we set out again the mist had thickened.

The official Camino routes are well-marked and well-mapped. 15345955847648783136200161973868.jpgThe official waymarkers are a logo of a yellow scallop shell on a blue background, and they are placed at important junctions. But some helpful Camino veterans have added spray-painted yellow arrows all along the route at virtually every fork in the road or place a walker could make a wrong turn. I had already trained my eyes to notice these marks that were painted discreetly on curbs or power poles or rocks. It’s the same spidey-sense I use to discern a petroglyph from a random scratch or find an arrowhead in a scatter of gravel.

 

Just 50 steps past the food truck, I saw yellow arrows painted on the pavement. It was a flock of arrows and they pointed at a slant from left to right across the road. To me, this was a neon sign: “Go Right”. But the mist was thick and I couldn’t see anything to the right. I heard the happy voices of two Pilgrims ahead of me, so I followed the sound straight ahead, slowly. Then a dark shape loomed ahead in the mist, but it wasn’t until I stood just ten feet away that I recognized that it was a sign. At 3 feet distance I could read that it was a map indicating the turnoff for the Camino. I penetrated a bit further into the mist and saw the Cross monument. By now, the voices I followed had faded away down the road. Ahh, too bad for them… Oho! New voices were passing to the left and I called out to them, “The trail is over here!” Three people emerged from the mist and gratefully thanked me. A half-minute later I recognized the German Pilgrim heading down the wrong road, and I called out “Allemange!” He was surprised, but grateful.

We were now a small knot of people and the mist thinned slightly, so when Patricia caught up she turned right and we continued on the Camino path. Here, ghost sheep grazed on the hillsides and the forests were made spooky by the floating veils of mist. I listened for the hoofbeats of Ringwraiths and shivered in the thickening clouds.

Somewhere on the top of the mountains we crossed from France into Spain. We walked on and eventually descended to Roncesvalles where the monastery has been welcoming Pilgrims since the 12th century. That night at dinner we connected with Pilgrim friends from the past 2 days and learned that Sabine had made it to the monastery.

Dianne & Patricia arrive at the monastery in Ronscevalles

As I set off on the morning of day 3, I wondered if I would see her on the trail, so it was not a shock when I found her photographing the sheep. She planned to go only as far as the next village, but I intended to do an additional 15 kilometers before the end of the day. We said our farewells and I struck out for Ziburi. I crossed the old bridge into the village and found a hotel room, where I  listened to the thunderstorm in the night.

On the morning of day 4, the innkeeper saved me from disaster by telling me that I must cross back over the bridge to continue on the Camino. I had been ready to step out the door and continue down the town road….in the wrong direction. The route followed country roads and past a manganese mill and went up and down with the terrain. At the point where it crossed a main road, a food truck had set up a little café. A group of good natured Portuguese Pilgrims were on their second beers when I arrived. In addition to beer and snacks, Pilgrims could also find romance. The Magic Underwear Box invited Pilgrims to leave their underwear in order to secure good luck in finding a husband or wife on the Camino. It’s been known to happen!

I ended that day by walking through the ancient gateway of the city of Pamplona, and this is where my Camino journey ended. For me, the experience had been tranquil, yet full of surprises. “Being Zen” had helped me to be more aware, more astounded.

I enjoyed two days in lively Pamplona before riding a bus to a hostel in a little village in the mountains. And then I learned that there was no bus to take me back to Pamplona. Two days later l bummed a ride with some Australian tourists, and in Pamplona I gave them a brief walking tour of the old city. As we crossed the main plaza, I saw a familiar face. “Sabine!” She had left the Camino and come to Pamplona by taxi and would spend 2 nights there. In the plaza, we said our farewells again and I headed to the bus depot to find a way home to Seville.

I ended up with a ticket on the 1 a.m. bus to Madrid, where I would change to the Seville bus. I stashed my backpack in the depot luggage locker and ventured out for a stroll in the beautiful city parks. The depot had a big passenger lobby where I planned to spend my last hours in Pamplona. But now I called Sabine and she happily agreed to meet for dinner.

Dianne & Sabine in Pamplona

After dinner, we said our goodbyes one more time and I left her at her hotel room, a few blocks from the bus depot. It was now dark and a few people with suitcases were standing outside the depot’s street-level entrance. I rode the escalator down to the subterranean lobby, then went into the restroom to freshen up. When I came out, there were no people around and all the lobby lights were dimmed. I went back to the escalators and they were turned off. I climbed up the idle escalator to the front doors and discovered that I was locked inside the depot. Crap.

Well, I guess I’m safe here for the next three hours. Although the security guard will not be happy to discover me here. So, I walked back down the escalator to the lobby where the startled security guard quickly escorted me to an elevator. I told him that I had a 1 a.m. bus and he explained that I needed to leave now and come back at 12:45. At that time I should take a different elevator down 2 levels to get to my bus.

Up on the streets of Pamplona a cool breeze was rising and the late night diners were heading home. I walked the 5 blocks back to the plaza restaurant where Sabine and I had dined and the waitress seemed to recognize me. I ordered a glass of wine and sipped it very slowly until, finally, it was 12:30 and I headed back to the bus depot. At the “other” elevator passengers with luggage were getting out of taxis and going down, and I followed along to a separate part of the depot. I found the uniformed attendant and told him that I needed to get my luggage from the locker in the main depot.

“No. The luggage room will be open at six a.m.”

I pleaded with him, but after 5 minutes of arguing he just walked away to attend to other duties. CRAP!

In a daze, I rode the elevator back up to street level. I knew one person in Pamplona and I called her number. But Sabine did not answer her phone. CRAP!!!

Okay Vincente, what do you say now?! How does “be Zen” help when you’re stranded in a foreign city in the middle of the night?

But I gave it a shot. Be Zen. Breathe in. Exhale slowly. These taxis are just waiting to go somewhere. I have a credit card. I have a smartphone.

In ten minutes on booking.com I found a Pilgrim’s hotel that was still open and had a bed available. The taxi ride was eight minutes and the hotel clerk came outside to greet me. When I told him my story he offered to go the the depot tomorrow and ship my luggage to me so that I could catch my bus tonight. How kind, but “no thank you.” I just wanted to go to bed. I didn’t have pajamas or a change of clothes, but the hotel room had a traveler’s toothbrush. Yay! Grateful for small kindnesses.

The next morning the bus ticket agent told me I could use part of my ticket on a series of connections that would get me to Seville at 9 p.m. “No thanks.” I retrieved my backpack from the locker and took a taxi to the train station. The train ticket agent looked doubtful when I said I wanted to go to  Seville, “today”. But my expression showed desperation so she typed on her keyboard after a few minutes said, “one ticket left! One hundred and five euros.” I slid my credit card into the reader and hit the green “approve” button. And waited. Nothing happened. She looked at her monitor then apologized “someone must have bought the last ticket online”. My face fell, “I need to go today”.

“Be Zen.”

The ticket agent was sympathetic, “Let’s try it again”. So I inserted the credit card again and hit the green button…”Transaction Approved”! The agent smiled and quickly worked to print my ticket, then happily handed it to me with the instructions “the train leaves at 11:30”. That was 2 hours from now so finally I could relax. I settled in at the lobby and found a place to recharge my phone.

I had a text message. It was from Sabine. “Good morning. I missed your call last night. Are you okay?”

Thirty minutes later, she walked into the train station and gave me a big hug. We drank bad coffee in the station cafeteria and traded stories while we waited for my train. And then it was time to go.

On the train to Madrid I scrolled through my messages. At 23:00 last night there was one from Sabine. She had snapped a photo of me from her third floor hotel room as I walked down the street to the bus depot. Her text read “You’ll never walk alone – God bless you!”

from Sabine, “You’ll never walk alone. God bless you!”

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

 

I will remember Vincente’s advice as I travel the caminos of everyday life.

But, my inner pragmatist can’t resist a small tweak:

Be Zen.
And carry a credit card.

Dianne 6.0

New release July 27, 2018
Dianne 6.0

Compare with version 3.0:

* slower speed
* wider bandwidth
* less memory
* sleep mode
* shorter battery life
* improved security
* mobile version
* available colors: “going gray”, “salt & pepper”, “grayish”
*coming soon!: additional language capability

(add your comments with additional features descriptions 😉)

A few photos from the launch party in Murren, Switzerland…

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Thank You For Saving My Mother

The feeling of belonging to a group can be potent medicine to help ward off homesickness and loneliness. Even before leaving the U.S. I began to work on building a community in Spain. I got in touch with “a friend of a friend of a friend” who lives in Seville, I contacted the American Women’s Club in Seville, and I joined the Facebook group “Expats Sevilla”. And since my arrival in Spain, I have worked really hard at building a social network by attending “movie nights”, making coffee dates, and saying “yes” to every opportunity that comes along. Stretching my old comfort zone to a new size.
So when I saw a Meetup trip to northern Spain advertised, I clicked on the link. “Aventura Asturias” is a weeklong trip to the Picos de Europa national park area and includes hiking, kayaking, canyoneering, beaches, caves, guides, transportation, hotels. This is awesome! Sign me up!

I had been researching how to make my own trip to Asturias, but the logistics were daunting. I had met the Aventura Asturias group leaders, Manuel and his son Ramon, on a half-day kayaking trip on a local river and I was impressed with their knowledge and organization. Ramon speaks English tentatively, and Manuel knows a handful of English words. They warned me that I might be the only English-speaker on the trip. But I figured that it would be more fun to struggle with my Spanish skills in beautiful Asturias, than in hot Seville. And even if I couldn’t talk to anyone, I would be able to hike, and explore, and enjoy beautiful scenery.

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When the bus rolled out of Seville our group of forty adventurers was anchored by 30 members of a local hiking club, including some families with ‘tweens’ and a couple of white-haired mountaineers.

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The three sola women were Cristina, ‘Chio’, and me, so we three roomed together. My good luck – Cristina is bilingual! And she is so friendly! And she has a great sense of humor (even in English)! I cannot imagine a better travelling companion than Cristina. Together with Chio and Ramon, we made our own foursome, dubbed “Wikiwiki”, and we often hiked and dined together.

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On the second day Cristina and I paired up for the 12 km kayaking tour on the Rio Cares. It was advertised as a beginner run with no experience needed. That sounded perfect to me, because despite my 35 years of canoeing experience, even a tiny rapid makes me tense. When Cristina suggested that I take the bow seat and she take the stern, I was happy to give her the steering duties. My primary objective was to avoid the embarrassment of being ‘the American who needed to be rescued’.

We shoved off from the sandbar together with the fifteen other kayaks. In the first minutes, boats were pointed in every direction, but Cristina quickly got our kayak into the center of the river and headed downstream. The current pushed a couple of other boats into the far shore and one boat turned over, while we got out ahead of the pack.

Cristina was giving instructions from the stern, but a strain in her voice let me know that steering wasn’t going as she wished. We were approaching a small rapid and we managed to get our craft positioned perfectly. But the first wave splashed over the bow and filled my seat with water. This was weird. I’d never before had to bail a kayak. We struggled to get out of the fast current and to the side of the river. When we were able to stand, we tried to turn the kayak over to dump the water, but it was too heavy. All the other boats passed us by, so we decided to jump in our half-full kayak and try to catch up with the fleet. But it quickly became obvious that we had a serious problem. “Dianne, we have to go to the shore”. So we again struggled to the side and pulled up on a sandbar. A minute later, our guides Ramon and Luis came from upstream in the two rescue boats. Luis was towing a kayak occupied by Eva and Maria. They had overturned at the very beginning and never managed to do more than go in circles, so Luis had them in tow. They all joined us on our sandbar and we convened over our boat.

Through the opaque plastic, we could see that water sloshed inside the hull of our hollow kayak. In fact, it was half full of water. No wonder we were sinking. The six of us rolled the kayak onto its side and water streamed out of a 10 inch long crack in the hull. Luis and Ramon concluded that this boat could not proceed, and they used a cell phone to call for a replacement boat for Cristina and me. It had been about 10 minutes since we last saw the rest of our group, so Ramon took off in his boat to catch up and tell them to wait for us. After 15 minutes more, another guide floated in from upstream with the replacement boat. Now the five of us set off and we left the third guide on the sandbank with our broken boat to figure out how to get himself home.

In our new kayak, Cristina and I proceeded expertly down the river. This was easy in a boat that was not half-submerged! Luis called out to us from his towboat. He saw that Cristina and I were both strong paddlers so he wanted one of us to take over Eva and Maria’s boat. Another pullout on a sandbar and a quick conference. Maria put her trust in me and volunteered to be my passenger even though she spoke no English. I was nervous to be responsible for her but I was pretty confident in my boating skills. Maria was a steady paddler so I was able to limit my instructions to “muy bien”, “momento”, and “fuerte!”. We moved steadily down the river and eventually we came to the sandbar where the rest of the group was anxiously waiting for us. We were greeted with a cheer, and Maria and Eva excitedly told about their rescue. I didn’t understand a word of the rapid-fire Spanish, but I did recognize “Deana”, and Cristina and I were eagerly pulled into the circle to be congratulated. And then I felt a hug around my waist and heard a timid voice say in English “Thank you for saving my mother”.

Awww! So cute! This was Maria’s 9-year-old daughter, “Maria pequena”.

“Saving” was a little bit of an overstatement, but I didn’t argue. My status as a member of the community was now secure. For the rest of the day, smiles were sent my direction and it seemed that everyone knew my name. I was “in”.

My celebrity lasted only a day, but it was replaced by genuine caring and fondness from the other adventurers. I was invited to join a table at breakfast every morning and I could feel watchful eyes on me whenever we were hiking on a dangerous section of trail. “Maria pequena” always had a shy smile for me, and her mother gave me an extra-big hug at the end of out trip. Cristina and Chio and I plan to meet again soon for another hike. I am happy to be a part of this new community!

Love From A Metro Card

When Julia left Seville to return to her home in Bristol she bequeathed her metro card to me with the caveat that it had only a few cents credit remaining. It is easy to add credit at the machines in the metro lobby, and 20 euro buys me about ten round-trips into the city. My inherited card was slightly frayed on the edges and the laminate was beginning to peel off, and when tapping my card at the turnstile I often received a red light with an error message: new card needed. But I was always able to coax out a green light with a few more taps and the finicky turnstile would let me pass.  Until the day it didn’t. 

It was a quiet afternoon in the metro station and I had to wander a bit to find the attendant. With gestures and broken Spanish, I explained that I needed a new card. He smiled and took my card, then walked to the turnstile and reverently placed the card on the scanner glass. A green light appeared and the gate opened.

He turned to me, smiled and handed back my card. Then, in English with a sonorous Spanish accent, he said “with love“. A simple message to remember to approach everything in life with an attitude of love. Now I smile every time I go to the metro and lovingly place my card on the scanner. I pause for a split-second and remember the lesson of the metro card, “with love“, and I feel happy.