Tag Archives: travel

Volcano Follies in Guatemala

Shoe-meltingly hot lava on Volcan Pacaya

One of the most popular activities for visitors to the Guatemalan highlands is hiking up volcanoes.  Some people approach it like collecting merit badges, listing which ones they’ve “done.” That’s a big job because there are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala, three of them very active.

On our last visit to Guatemala, we hiked up Pacaya near Antigua, which is active, to say the least. It always strikes me when I visit developing countries how few safety rules there are.  For example, on Pacaya, there’s nothing stopping you from walking right up to the lava flow, except common sense, which from my own experience, (and judging from the video below) is often in short supply. Standing all too close to the lava flow—which felt like standing in front of a giant hair dryer—our guide suggested that we poke around with our walking sticks (rented from a group of local children who I initially feared wanted to swat us with them) to be sure that the scree underfoot was sturdy enough to stand on.  Oh, and be sure to check the bottoms of your shoes to be sure they’re not melting…  This just would not be allowed in the U.S. where we worry about keeping five- year-olds in car seats and constantly douse ourselves in Purell.

I recently scored my second Guatemalan volcano: Santiaguito, near Quetzaltenango.  Santiaguito is actually a junior version or extension of the much higher Santa Maria volcano, and therefore a shorter trek, which was fine with me.  The big attraction is that it erupts in a giant cloud of ash and steam about as regularly as Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone. We started our trek around 6:30 a.m. in order to be in place to see it erupt around 8:30.  “Poco e poco,” and with several banana bread and water stops, we made it to the designated viewing spot, a kilometer or so from the crater, along with a fellow hiker from Hungary and a group from France.  Who knew scampering up a dusty trail in Guatemala could be such a cosmopolitan experience?

As can happen with travel, all did not go according to schedule.  Santiaguito was a little slow that morning.  We ate sandwiches in the company of a particularly persistent little begging dog and waited. The clouds rolled in, then the eruption began, half obscured, but viewable nonetheless.  The sound, even at that distance, was amazing, like a huge roaring jet engine.  Of course, if we had been closer, the clouds wouldn’t have been such a problem but I’ll trade a better view for a modicum of safety.  Here’s a video from a guy who was a little too close to Santiaguito for comfort. 

Cuanto Cuesta? Getting Psyched to Bargain in Guatemala

Embroidery for sale in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Who can resist?

In anticipation of traveling to Guatemala, I’m trying to get myself into bargaining mode. I have to do this because I am the world’s worst haggler.  Offer me something for $5, I’ll pay $8 for it. Put a cute kid in front of me and it’s all over. This drives my spouse, the world’s best and most unemotional bargainer, completely nuts.  It doesn’t matter how inexpensive the item the child is selling, he asks for a lower price.

I, on the other hand, offer an amount which is the selling price plus my “empathy quotient,” based on how much I envision the money meaning to the child’s family and how much I would hate having to go out and haggle with tourists if I were that kid.  Then I add more money simply because I’m a wimp.  Any ten-year-old Guatemalan kid holds great power over me. Then the word spreads that he has a “fish on the line.”  His friends show up. They laugh. They give each other high-fives. It doesn’t matter, I can’t say no. Last time I was there, a little girl asked me to buy some dolls.  I said I didn’t need them.  She said, “Buy them for your friends.”  I told her I didn’t have any friends.  She said, “For your enemies.” I told her I’d take two because she was funny.

So, if you see someone walking around Minnesota in winter wearing an embroidered blouse, sandals and carrying dolls, you’ll know it’s me.

McSorley's Old Ale House-Glad to see this NYC institution still going

I was happy to read in the New York Times that McSorely’s Old Ale House is going, even if its without the old chicken bones. Writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Menken, the McCourt brothers), artists, and politicians have whet their whistles here since forever.  e.e. cummings wrote a poem about the place

I was sitting in mcsorely’s. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing. inside snug and evil…

Some things just should not change.

Anticipating Travel: Guatemala

We’ll soon be off to Quetzaltenango, in the highlands of Guatemala, to visit our son Mike who teaches science at a school there. One of my favorite things about traveling is the anticipation of the trip.  I stretch out the pleasure by planning it for weeks. I read about where I’m going (in this case Francisco Goldman’s Long Night of the White Chickens, David Grann’s fascinating New Yorker article, Murder Foretold: Unraveling the ultimate political conspiracy, and a New York Times article on trekking the highlands). I talk to people who have been there, check Web sites, think about gifts I want to bring back for friends.

I plan partly because I want to do the best things available during my short time there.  But, I also plan as much as possible to avoid disasters. The more exotic and challenging the destination, the more I like to have some idea of what it will be like so I don’t make mistakes–get lost, get robbed, offend people, have them offend me.  A little planning makes me feel more confident and maybe that way I’ll blend in and avoid looking like a naïve tourist just ripe for fleecing.  Since I have short, stick straight blond hair, blending in poses a particular challenge in most of the places I travel lately.  When I went to Haiti, people regularly reached out to touch my very foreign-looking hair. “Madame Blanche!” On the other hand, how often do you get to feel that remarkable?

Ultimately, though I enjoy the planning and anticipation, some of the best parts of travel are those you don’t plan and can’t control.  These are little Zen lessons of being in the moment, as on our last Guatemala trip when I came upon the interesting Mayan women (pictured above) in Santa Catarina, near Lake Atitlan, or the mother and her adorable baby (below) in the square in Antigua.

Reading + Travel = Empathy

It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water.  Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.

The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece  “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”

From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days.   Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.

I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading.  Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”

Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours.  It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.

Google Lit Trips: Literary Travel on Your Computer

I’ve finally had a chance to take a look at Google Lit Trips.  It’s an amazing way to use technology to teach/understand reading and literature and to visualize the connection between what you read and where it takes place. Designed by English teacher Jerome Burg, Lit Trips uses Google Earth as well as contributions from educators and students to map the movements of characters over a plot’s timeline while providing excerpts, pictures, and links at each location.

It’s necessary to download Google Earth and do a little experimentation, but for example, you can follow the path of the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath, get a real-time view of those locales right, see photos from the era, study questions and much more.  Though
it was intended for students, it’s great for anyone taking kids on a trip or for people who are just interested in having a greater connection to the literature. Look at the Downloads, etc. page to find the list of books that you can take a trip with–no passport required.

A Soothing Visit to Birchbark Books: Louise Erdrich Shared Her Book Suggestions–and I Took Them

Yesterday was a blustery day in Minnesota that would surprise even Winnie the Pooh.  I blew into the one of the best places in Minneapolis to be on a stormy day, Birchbark Books .  It’s a cozy independent shop with warm wood, a dog to greet you, and an unusual array of books that might not come to your attention in a big chain bookstore. The shop reflects the literary, environmental and Native American cultural interests of its owner, National Book Award-finalist, Louise Erdrich.

In contrast to the agitating wind outside, soothing Native American music played inside as I strolled through the books, Native American quillwork, basketry and jewelry.  Louise attaches hand-written notes to books she suggests which feels like she has left personal notes just for you. That sales technique certainly worked on me; I picked up a signed copy of Louise’s book The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, along with two books I would never have chosen, Risking Everything-110 Poems of Love and Revelation edited by Roger Housden, and just in time for Halloween, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, about a vampire and a journey through the capitals of Eastern Europe.

The store creates an atmosphere that I would have loved as a child, with a tiny loft and a “hobbit hole” to play in, the kind of place that might stir up a child’s imagination and make even a reluctant reader want to big up a book or have a story read to him. Another of my favorite features of the store:  a confessional that was formerly a sound booth in a bar as well as a confessional. As the shop’s Web site says, “One side is dedicated to Cleanliness, the other to Godliness. Louise is currently collaging the interior with images of her sins.  The confessional is now a forgiveness booth, there for the dispensation of random absolution.”

This would be an excellent spot for a book club outing, perhaps with lunch or dinner at the Kenwood Café next door and a chance to hang out and chat with the store’s booksellers. They also organize a BYOB Book and Dinner Club.

Those who can’t make it to Minneapolis should take a bit of inspiration—okay, steal the idea—and organize your own Book and Dinner event.  What a great way to share meaningful conversation and meet new friends.

Breathless in Boulder, Colorado

Boulder rocks, as they say, especially if you’re outdoorsy, a foodie, or a ghost aficionado. Within easy reach of downtown Boulder there’s a great variety of outdoor activity, though at 5430 feet, a brisk walk taxes the lungs of flatlanders like me. Slow and steady, plus a lot of water, does the trick. You also have to pace yourself with eating to stretch out the enjoyment.

Hit the Trail
Try the hikes that start at Chautauqua Park, at the base of the Flatirons, the symbol of Boulder. This is also rock climbers’ heaven.

While you’re there, visit the Colorado Chautauqua House, a historic landmark that began with the turn-of-the-century movement educate and enlighten working-class citizens by creating gathering places dedicated to learning. Known as Chautauquas, the public spaces offered a place for traveling lecturers, politicians, writers and entertainers to deliver their message to large crowds. In continuous operation since July 4, 1898, the Colorado Chautauqua is one of only three remaining Chautauquas in the country. Today, it is home to concerts, cultural events, educational programs, recreation and historic preservation. The cabins here look like a cozy place to stay and the dining hall comes highly recommended.

You can hit the trail on wheels, too. Rent bikes and hit the Boulder Creek Trail, which for me was slow ride up and a very fast ride down. It’s also fun to cruise the beautiful campus of University of Colorado, and then stop for a beer outside at a huge array of downtown bars and eateries. For further relief from all this exertion—and to sooth knotty muscles–an afternoon at the spa at the luxurious St. Julien Hotel is just the tonic. The hotel offers Sunday morning yoga, too.

Foodie Fare
Bon Appetit named Boulder the “foodiest town in American” in its October, 2010 issue.
To sample some of the reasons why Boulder topped the list, stroll the Farmers Market then grab coffee, tea, breakfast or lunch at the fabulously detailed Boulder Dushanbe Tea House, a gift of Boulder’s sister city Dushanbe in the Republic of Tajikistan.
From 1987 -1990, more than 40 artisans created the decorative elements of the Teahouse, including its hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools, columns, and exterior ceramic panels. My other favorite dining experiences: Salt and The Kitchen, both located on Pearl Street.

Bookish in Boulder
Pearl Street is also home to a number of independent bookstores, with both new and used books. I like the Boulder Book Store with its café next door. While you’re there, check out Boulder: A Sense of Time & Place Revisited by Silvia Pettem.

Finally, if all this doesn’t make you breathless, perhaps a good fright will to the trick. Fans of Stephen King’s book, The Shining, will want to make a trip to Estes Park (a drive of about 45 minutes) for a look at the Stanley Hotel, King’s inspiration for the book. They offer The Stanley Hotel Historic Ghost Tour. For anyone planning to stay in this lovely hotel, they assure visitors that the spirits there aren’t as malevolent as those in the novel.

Reading for Those Traveling to Haiti–or Not

 

Mountains Upon Mountains Near Leogane, Haiti

 

Haiti isn’t exactly the place I’d recommend for a book club trip, but it’s certainly a place about which book clubs are interested in reading.  My friend Patty, a fellow book clubber, is off to Haiti on a service trip to assist in a Haitian orphanage next month.  She’s among hundreds of Americans who travel to Haiti to work in a multitude of ways to improve conditions there.  Of course, literature is one way to understand the complex history, politics and culture of Haiti for those who go there and for those who simply wish to understand more about the seemingly unending problems of this country that is only 600 miles from the coast of Florida.

I, too, was in Haiti (thankfully before the earthquake) and found Edwidge Danticat’s After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti books fascinating to read while I was visiting there, particularly around Jacmel. Also check out Danticat’s beautiful writing about the Haitian experience in Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!

In addition, our book club read All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell, which is a somewhat horrific, but excellent novel of the Haitian slave rebellion and was a National Book Award finalist. It’s part of Bell’s trilogy of novels about the Haitian revolution of 1791–1803, that includes All Soul’s Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused.  Bell also wrote a biography of the central figure of the rebellion, François Dominique Toussaint Louverture.

Our book club also read Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World about less than redressing the inequalities of medical service to the desperately poor.  Also recommended: Paul Farmer’s book, The Uses of Haiti.

Losing and Finding Ourselves

The great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote an essay for Salon.com many years ago that is one of the best discussions about why we travel that I’ve seen.  http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/03/18/why

He says,  “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves.  We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our   newspapers will accommodate.  We travel to bring what little we can, in our             ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently    dispersed.  And, we travel, in essence to become young fools again—to slow time   down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”

It strikes me that you could substitute the word “read” for travel in that paragraph and the meaning would be the same.  When we “escape with a good book,” we read to lose ourselves and sometimes find ourselves along the way just like someone who is wandering the streets and alleyways of a foreign country. Most of us can’t live the life of a travel writer, a vagabond, or an independently wealthy aristocrat on the grand tour of Europe ala the characters that populate the works of Edith Wharton or Henry James.  But we can go there in a book.

However, the best of all worlds is to combine the two.  Ever since I was in grade school, I loved to read about the places we were going on family vacations.  Reading Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain” before a trip to Boston made the visit come alive for me.  Ditto for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” which I read with my children before a trip to Boston where we waddled across the street to the Public Garden following the path of Mack, Jack, Kack, Quack and the other ducklings.

That might be the best part—becoming young fools again.