A Tourist In My Own Back Yard

This essay also appears in my local weekly newspaper, Lamorinda Weekly.

In the beginning: dark, damp soil. A small, black plastic pot of hope. Nothing seems to be growing but my own impatience.

A few evenings later, the dirt has begun to mound and rise, swelled by a pushing from below. In the morning a white nub has appeared below the broken surface of the soil. By evening the protuberance has thickened, a loop of pale white rope tinged with green. The next morning a head is crowning, something large and thick and green dragged up out of the dirt. By the end of that same day, the head has revealed itself, the stalk straightening and hoisting up the bean from which this miracle was born.

Another day and leaves unfurl like the wings of a newborn butterfly, the bean split into drying halves that hang limp from the stem. A week later and the plant is over six inches tall with broad, heart-shaped leaves, and between them: another nub, green and tender, the beginning of a vine. Once planted in the ground it will reach for its support pole and then, finding it, wrap itself counterclockwise—always counterclockwise—and upward, sprouting leaves and flowers and bean pods and clinging to everything it touches. It will grow over six feet long, topping the pole, still reaching skyward until, finding nothing to hold, it will collapse gently onto its neighbor and they will wrap themselves together in a season-long embrace. In two months, I’ll be picking beans and steaming them for dinner.

Until now, I hadn’t paid close attention to how seeds grow. My life for the last few years has centered on travel and so I usually buy plants, put them in the ground, and set my drip irrigation system. While I’m away somewhere vegetables pop out, ready to pluck and eat on my return.  But like all Californians, I’ve been cloistered at home for months along with my family, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to travel again. I’m longing for the newness of places I’ve never been.

Yet, newness is all around me: the spider skittering across my patio with an enormous egg sac; the constant squawks, growls and honks of the blue herons that nest in a hundred-foot-tall eucalyptus down the street; the heady aroma of compost, fungi and microorganisms in the freshly turned soil of my vegetable beds.

Wild radish, four feet tall, billows with flowers of white, pink, and pale yellow for hundreds of yards along a paved path near my home. I’ve walked that path for over twenty years; how is it that I’d never noticed those prolific blooms until now? I startled a crow on the sidewalk and as it exploded into the air, I thrilled to an unexpected shrok-shrok-shrok from its wings, like a muffled hand saw enthusiastically cutting wood.

Unlike the beans, my basil seedlings are growing very slowly. They took the same time to germinate but have hardly changed in weeks. Are they ill, or are they secretive, preferring for now to let their roots do the growing, out of my view?

I don’t know what the future holds, for them or for me. While I wait, I’m delighting in the present. The laughter of the Amazon driver who said, “You made my week!” simply because I smiled and said good morning; the rush of a crow’s wings; sounds as memorable to me as the haunting call to prayer I once heard sung by a quavering old man in Chefchaouen, Morocco.

When I can travel again, I hope I’ll continue to be enthralled not just by what’s exotic, but also by what’s right in front of me.

All We Have To Do Is Breathe!

Last time, I wrote about our amazing dive trip at Raja Ampat, Indonesia. We had one incident that was pretty frightening at the time, but in the end was a great learning experience. I wrote about it for the British magazine Diver, “Britain’s best-selling diving magazine.” My story appears in their May issue! In the lower right corner of the cover you can see a photo of Yvonne and me.

Return with me now to Raja Ampat for a somewhat different take on what can happen when you’re diving in unfamiliar conditions. Click on the cover image, or right here, to read the story.


Diving Raja Ampat

Bluntsnout Scorpionfish

All around me was an utterly alien landscape. I tried to slow my breath, to be still, to float as quietly as I could. A forest of soft, beige coral swayed gently in the bluish-green light. A perfectly camouflaged pygmy seahorse, only 1/2-inch long, clung to an enormous fan coral with its tail. Continue reading “Diving Raja Ampat”

Volunteering in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Twelve well-behaved children sat politely on the floor, their beautiful, smiling faces looking up at Mike and me as we stood in front of the small classroom. It was about 7:00pm on a Thursday evening, and they were there to learn English. We asked if they had anything they wanted to know about us. “What’s your favorite color? And your favorite animal? Your favorite fruit?” These were not the questions we had expected. But what should we have expected a group of five to twelve-year old kids to ask? “What do you think about the current state of affairs in the U.S.?” Not!

We had been touring in and around Siem Reap that day, visiting a silk farm, Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, with our Cambodian guide, Borin. Being a tour guide in Siem Reap is a fairly good way to make money, and if you know English and especially Chinese, you’re more likely to get hired. Borin was learning Chinese and his English was pretty good. I was actually surprised at the extent of his vocabulary, but tour guides pick up a lot of words from their clients.

We came to learn that, in addition to working as a guide, Borin volunteers his time a couple of evenings a week teaching English to a group of children in his neighborhood. When we heard this, Mike and I offered to visit his classroom and speak English with them. Borin’s three children were in the class; the smallest, age 5 and the oldest, age 12, eagerly raised their hands whenever we posed a question to the whole group. Borin explained that learning English is imperative for children in Cambodia. “English is a passport to a better job, the key to prosperity and having a better lifestyle. It is hope to a better future,” he said.

Standing in front of the classroom, I came alive! My natural desire to write on a white board and teach were ignited. I had the children guess English words by playing Hangman with them, which they loved—and they were good at it! Mike and I sang English songs with them, racking our brains to remember the words to The Wheels on the Bus, the Itsy Bitsy Spider, and Old MacDonald Had A Farm, songs we hadn’t sung since our now 22-year old son was small.

The coup de grace, however, was when we taught them how to sing and dance the Hokey Pokey!

In Cambodia there is a shortage of English teachers and a lack of resources, such as tables, chairs, books, and school supplies. When asked what we could donate, Borin requested tables for the children to study. We gave him $24.00, which was enough to buy four tables. When we received a picture of the children sitting at the tables, we felt glad that we had made a small difference.

Borin’s daughter, Nary, hopes to become a doctor when she grows up. With the efforts of her parents and so many other people who are committed to helping the next generation in Cambodia, she hopefully will get her wish.

Note: There are many opportunities to do volunteer work in Cambodia. Some organizations charge a fee, but many don’t. Even just asking your guide, as we did, might unveil some.

Hope for Cambodia

 “Rule 6. Screaming not allowed when being whipped or shocked with electricity.” —Posted sign at Tuol Sleng Prison

Our river cruise was anchored for the night in the Tonle Sap River. After a multi-course dinner including fish curry, fried rice, and beef salad, the twenty-three passengers gathered in the outdoor lounge on the upper deck. The crew, mostly young Cambodian men with poor English skills, were anxious to show off their substantial musical talents.

We listened as they sang their hearts out. Western songs by Elvis Presley, Bette Midler, and Kris Kristofferson. A few Cambodian pop hits. They sang in harmony as well as solo. One played guitar, another was a perfect showman—chin tilted up, smiling, eyes closed as he held a long, soaring note; our tour guide joked that he was going to win Cambodian Idol.

I couldn’t help thinking about how fortunate they were. A few decades earlier, singing those songs would have cost not only their own lives, but the lives of their families and friends. Continue reading “Hope for Cambodia”

The Scooter of Doom

A village in Ooh-Tah
Where the roofs are thatched with gold
If I could let myself believe
I know just where I’d be
Right on the next bus to paradise
Sal Tlay Ka Siti
— The Book of Mormon (the musical)

This morning, when I told Yvonne that I was going to put my hearing aids in, she said, “Huh?” and guffawed loudly when I repeated myself. She has pulled that little gag on me countless times, and I’ve fallen for it every single time.

The view from our hotel room patio in Springdale, Utah

But now that they are in my ears, I can hear the chirping of canyon wrens and the soft rush of the river, yards from my Adirondack chair near Zion National Park. We’ve been on the road for eight days now and have visited all five National Parks in southern Utah. I’ll get to the parks in my next post.

We spent our first night in Salt Lake City. It was a scream—literally.

The Mormon Tabernacle, also called the Salt Lake Tabernacle

It began calmly enough. After checking in at our AirBnB, we took a long, evening walk to see Temple Square, the beating heart of Mormonism. At the visitor center we learned about Brigham Young and his divinely-inspired vision of an enormous temple right there in the middle of nowhere. Amazingly friendly and eager volunteers offered to answer our questions, and politely backed away when we had none. We were impressed with a three-foot-high dollhouse version of the temple, with cutaways revealing the secret chambers within. The real temple, now called the Mormon Tabernacle, is closed to non-believers.

After a late dinner, we rented a Lime scooter for the dark, two-mile trip back to our room. We shared a single scooter, me driving and both of us balanced precariously on its four-inch wide base(warning: this is against the rules).

It seemed like a good idea at the outset, but Yvonne quickly found herself terrified beyond terror. I couldn’t see her face, but she has assured me that Munch’s “The Scream” was joyful in comparison. Yvonne’s hands gripped the backs of mine so tightly that my hands cramped. I could barely control our speed and direction.

Every turn or minor obstacle caused an eardrum-piercing shout of “CAREFUL!!” or sometimes a wordless, blood-curdling shriek. I wished I’d left my hearing aids in my suitcase. Yvonne synchronized her screams to body motion, jerking this way and that to avoid perceived mortal dangers. Her thrashing often threw our balance off and once we nearly crashed into a tree.

Between the chaos, frequent stops for traffic lights, and two-way berating, what should have been a fifteen-minute trip stretched into forty. We still had over a half mile to go when Yvonne had had enough. She insisted that we ditch the Lime and walk, which we did.

Next time, we’ll splurge and rent two scooters.

Author’s note: My lovely, normally-adventurous, good-humored wife approved this post.

I Can See Russia From My Veranda!

I am not really a cruise vacation sort of person. I prefer to spend enough time in foreign ports to get a feel for places, to experience life there even if I’m not actually living the way the locals live. But the cruise I’m on right now is really, really good and I can finally appreciate why some people make cruising their first choice for travel. Of course, it depends on the ship. Continue reading “I Can See Russia From My Veranda!”

Buddha Day

As we headed out of our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, young hotel staffers near the door greeted us with wide smiles and folded palms. I’m sure it was required of them, but over time we found that their warmth and friendliness were very genuine. Buddhism’s call for kindness to others is part of Cambodia’s culture and there was a gentleness to many of the people we met during our time in Cambodia.

Outside, several tuk-tuks offered us rides. We declined, preferring to walk the short distance to the tourist market area, where there were hundreds of shops all selling basically the same stuff: cheap jewelry, clothing, and leather goods. High-quality, gray-market Nike and Under Armor shirts can be had for $5 if you’re willing to negotiate. Continue reading “Buddha Day”

Moroccan and a Half

I was thrilled and honored last year when an abridged version of “Moroccan and a Half” was published on Hidden Compass, an online travel magazine. There, I got to share space with some amazing and even famous writers and photographers. This past March 1, I was equally honored when the original unedited version won a Solas Award in the Destination Story category from Travelers Tales. Here is that story.

Moroccan And A Half
To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days. -Arabic proverb

 The taxi driver glared at me when I demanded that he use le compteur. “What do you think that is?” he snapped in French, pointing at the already-running meter under his dash. Looking both pained and angry, he glanced into the rear-view mirror at another passenger already in the back, then turned again to face me.

Switching to English, I apologized as I got into the front seat of his bright-red petit taxi, explaining that every other driver in Marrakesh had insisted on an inflated, fixed price for tourists like me. “Are you a tourist?” he asked, his voice still raised, chiding me. “Aren’t you living here?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer. Continue reading “Moroccan and a Half”