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Taking the Dracula Trail

October 22nd, 2013 · Road Less Travelled

Inspired by a visit to Whitby, England, site of the burial of Count Dracula in Bram Stoker’s 1897 horror novel, author Steven P. Unger set out to trace the footsteps of the fictional vampire’s real-life bloodthirsty counterpart, Vlad the Impaler. Unger’s quest, naturally, took him to the mountains of southern Romania and to Transylvania.

The graveyard in Whitby where Count Dracula spent his days sleeping in the sepulcher of a suicide looks the part that it plays, with its weathered limestone tombstones blackened by centuries of the everpresent North Sea winds.  

In my mind’s eye, I could see the un-dead Count Dracula rising at night from the flattened slab of the suicide’s gravestone to greedily drink the blood of the living.

That graveyard made the novel more visible, more visceral, to me, and I wondered if the sites in Transylvania and in the remote mountains of southern Romania would evoke the same feelings. As I was to discover—they did.

Eventually I traveled along the Dracula Trail alone, using only public transportation, to some places that I’d seen before and to others I had only dreamed of, trying my best to systematically strip away the layers of myth about Count Dracula and Prince Vlad the Impaler to find the reality within. I discovered in broken stones and parchments signed in blood why Prince Vlad’s monstrous deeds in life would brand him forever with the name of Vlad Ţepeş (pronounced Tzeh·pish), Romanian for Vlad the Impaler, soon after his death.

Bram Stoker’s Transylvania was the pipe dream of an armchair traveler with a genius for writing:  real enough for the 19th Century reader, but bearing little resemblance to any Romania that ever existed.  For example, Stoker wrote of “hay-ricks [haystacks] in the trees” based on illustrations of Transylvanian haystacks built around stakes, with the ends of the stakes poking out like branches. Thus, generations of Dracula readers assumed that Transylvanians put their haystacks up in trees.

I had traveled to other remote, forbidding places before entering the almost lightless forest of Poenari.  Near Albania’s southern border, I hiked the Vikos Gorge, a dozen miles from the nearest stone-housed village. I baked beneath the unrelenting sun of the Timna Valley close to the Red Sea, where 120º in the shade is considered picnic weather. But never before or since have I felt the apprehension and isolation I did while climbing to Vlad Ţepeş’ mountaintop fortress at Poenari.  The forest was as quiet as a tomb; I can’t recall hearing the song of even a single bird.

The ascent was exhausting. At last I arrived at the lone approach to the fortress, a wooden footbridge. Of all the places I explored that are associated with Vlad Ţepeş, only at Poenari did I feel that he was somehow still keeping watch. Thousands of boyars and their families had been force-marched there from Tărgovişte to die rebuilding the castle for Prince Vlad; it was here that his treacherous brother Radu stormed the fortress with cannons, reducing the once courtly residence into broken turrets and formless rubble.  And it was here that Prince Dracula’s wife cast herself from the highest window of the eastern tower, choosing a swift death over the torture of the stake.

Walk along the top of the thick fortress walls of Poenari, look northward, and you can see part of the Transfăgarăşan Road, leading to a glacial moraine and one of the deepest lakes in the world. (According to local legend, a dragon sleeps at the bottom of the lake, and the villagers nearby will caution you not to throw stones in the water lest the dragon awake.) The view south from the fortress is straight down, to the Arges River far in the distance, and even farther, the road to Curtea de Arges.

©Steven P. Unger. Used with permission. Unger is the author of In the Footsteps of Dracula: A Personal Journey and Travel Guide (2010),  as well as Before The Paparazzi: 50 Years of Extraordinary Photographs with Arty Pomerantz, and a novel, Dancing in the Streets.

 

 

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The Other Worlds of Glastonbury

January 24th, 2013 · New Age

In a visit to this ancient town in the West of England, Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of the award-winning cooking memoir, A Swedish Kitchen, discovers the New Age alive and hopping, right alongside the ancient one. 

Fairy wings flutter in the audience as the “burlesque fairy” at the front of the room blows kisses of green glitter. In the crowd are pirates, flower fairies, and even geishas as well as aficionados of Steam Punk style (think Victorian in goggles a lá Jules Verne). A man in moon boots and a woman in a tutu are dressed all in white with strands of blue LED lights. In a corner, two mermaids are combing their long tresses, flapping their tails, and showing the few children in the room their treasure box of shells. The band comes on, the blonde lead singer in black leather opening with an Irish jig that gets the crowd moving, and then switching to hard rock that keeps them dancing until the clock strikes midnight. Welcome to the sold-out Avalon Faery Ball of 2012 in Glastonbury.

A mid-sized English town, west of London, in the Somerset Levels on the Salisbury Plain, Glastonbury is best known for its eponymous music festival. Every other summer, thousands of young people camp on a field outside the town, braving mud and rain for a chance to hear some of the best contemporary bands. Late at night recorded music, spun by one or another of the DJs simultaneously performing, is piped through special headphones, so the dancers move to different beats in silence.

But on this weekend just before Halloween, we are here not for the music, but for the fairies. Also known as All Hallows’ Eve, this night before All Saints Day is a time when the veil between the worlds, the living and the dead, the human and the fey folk, is thought to be at its thinnest. What better time to visit this New Age center with ancient roots, a place where belief in the otherworldly springs like indigenous flora from the land itself.

For in ancient Britain, the Somerset Levels would flood, and the North Sea was much closer then than now, so that Glastonbury, with its sprawling Abbey and Tor hill, appeared to be an island shrouded in mists. The Lady of the Lake supposedly lived in the waters; she was the Faery Queen who gave King Arthur his magical sword, while a plaque in the Abbey ruins marks the graves of the legendary king and his lady, Guinevere.

Our first day in Glastonbury, we woke before dawn to climb the Tor, a grassy hill topped by St. Michael’s Tower, the only remains of a nunnery that thrived here before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including the great Glastonbury Abbey. After breakfast at our B&B, we attended mass in a small, whitewashed Anglican chapel with frescos of early Saxon saints on the grounds of the Abbey.

In the afternoon, we entered Chalice Well Garden, named for a goblet found in Victorian times, supposedly of ancient Near Eastern origin. Some believe this same cup was used at the Last Supper and that it is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. This garden also houses the spring of iron-rich water that flows over the rocks, turning them red. The fount of the Red Spring is covered with a lovely glass-and-oak lid, decorated with two overlapping ovals, a design known as the Vesica Pisces, which has become a symbol for Glastonbury itself. Given its illustrious history, I somehow expected something grander than the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of this rather small property.

But the biggest surprise of the day was the White Springs temple, although I had never even heard of it before coming to Glastonbury. The small, nondescript whitewashed building that houses the calcium-rich White Spring is around the corner from Chalice Well Garden, on a side street leading up to the Tor. The only indication that this is a special place is the tree outside decorated with a multitude of colorful ribbons, presumably representing prayers or thanks to the spirits of the place. Whereas Chalice Well Garden is peaceful and airy, the White Spring temple is chthonic and dark, a place of palpable earth energies, lit by candles and adorned with natural offerings. Both springs are known for their healing properties. At the pipes on Wellhouse Lane, we filled a bottle with water from each spring.

On this, our second visit, the weather was cold and wet, and we had head colds, leading us to spend much of our time indoors. At the annual Faery Fayre in the converted town hall, a score of artists plied their wares. One painted my face with green vines and silver glitter. From another I bought a silk scarf hand-painted with a petulant fairy poking her head up through the flowers. Meanwhile, my partner, Michael, found a claw-shaped pendant recycled from a piece made for one of the Harry Potter films – a perfect gift for a friend who loves the Hogwarts crew.

We wandered the high street of Glastonbury, browsing in shops selling Buddhist Kuan Yin statutes, Wiccan chalices, and Native American dream-catchers. There were crystals, herbs and incense galore. But best of all were the bookstores. We spent the last rainy afternoon going from one to another. The bookstores were filled with used and remaindered as well as new books on everything from the I-Ching to Stonehenge, from goblins to Mary Magdalene. I found the hilarious Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur, a “mythological dating guide” by Francesca Lia, which left me wondering if I am more of a wood nymph or a fairy or even – yikes – a banshee.

As we boarded the bus back to London the next morning, laden with our books and containers of water from the Red and White Springs, we looked forward to our return to Glastonbury, with its unique mix of legend and history, archaeology and magic.

© Judith Pierce Rosenberg, 2013. Judith is the author of A Swedish Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences, winner of a Gourmand Cookbook Award (Hippocrene Books) now available as an eBook from Amazon.

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A Train Ride to Provo

March 29th, 2012 · En Route, Time and Place

At age 23, like many in his generation at the depths of the Great Depression, John A. Palmer, “packing a toothbrush and razor in the lapel pocket of my jacket and armed with the clothes on my back and a pack of cigarettes,” hit the road, heading west. He had $7. Palmer’s memoir, A Walk to Somewhere, relates the adventure that ensued. In the book’s introduction, written when he was a very old man, Palmer noted: “…the Depression engendered a diversity of feelings; among them, frustration at our inability to advance and succeed. An ever-increasing lack of opportunity in our country, together with the ever-present picture of abject poverty and despair, presented a scenario which we were ill-prepared to accept. Our ‘walk’ was more a journey to understand what happened to our dreams.” In the edited excerpt which follows, Palmer tells how, when faced with crossing the Rocky Mountains, he and two companions hopped a train outside of Laramie, Wyoming.

Off we went into the night, lurching and rumbling and jerking. The beginning of the trip wasn’t too bad, and we amused ourselves by huddling in one corner of the gondola, lying about our various road experiences. At times, wearying of that game, we withdrew into our individual reveries and, as all good conversationalists do, respected the silent interludes, interrupting them only to comment on a shooting star or to mutter an oath upon a particularly inconsiderate lurch of the train. The weather became less balmy as the train climbed higher and higher.

I guess it was the last reverie that awakened me to the situation I was in because my breath exhaled like a spout from a steam kettle. The rumbling and jerking of the gondola underscored that this was no carefree ride ending in the relative comfort of a warm tent on the ocean sands. As we climbed higher and higher, my companions and I started to jog up and down in the empty gondola in an effort to get our circulation going – no easy task – since our running track had its own several motions, and it was not long after that one of our buddies decided, as we slowed near the top of the grade, to take his chances in whatever shelter he could find and continue his journey during daylight. We decided to remain where we were with the cold and the light snow that was starting to cover our footsteps in the open freight car. It wasn’t too much later that the snow began to turn to ice and our jogging became more and more a slip and a slide.

However, the human body, even a well functioning one, has its limitations. In the cold sleeplessness of the environment, my mind started to play tricks as I retreated to a lonely corner of the gondola to rest my trembling legs. The layer of newspapers I had inserted under my shirt and trousers no longer seemed a barrier against the elements but rather another irritant, stiff and cold against my body.

I guess I must have been dozing, when I felt a hand shaking my shoulder, and my buddy pointed to the first rays of dawn. As we left the snow and the summit and started our long slide into Provo, Utah, suddenly it did not seem so cold.
© John A. Palmer, 1993. Used with permission. A Walk to Somewhere is published by Vision Books International.

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Chilling Out in Stockholm

February 10th, 2012 · Eating and Drinking

Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of the award-winning cooking memoir, A Swedish Kitchen, spent summers at the edge of the Swedish archipelago when her children were young. Journeying back to Stockholm, she checks out an unusual, and rather chilly, nightspot.

Each winter, deep in the boreal forests of northern Sweden, a hotel is built anew, all of ice. Reindeer hides cover the ice beds, where guests are ensconced in down sleeping bags. There is even a wedding chapel, akin the Snow Queen’s palace in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale. Or so I imagine, for the touch of frostbite I got at the Norwegian Olympics in 1992 has left me with little inclination to sleep on ice, no matter how well insulated.

However, I was still curious, so I did the next best thing and visited the Ice Bar in downtown Stockholm.

“Your feet will freeze,” the attendant said with a laugh, looking down at my sandals. The weather in Stockholm was unusually warm, 80 degrees and no wind, practically sweltering by Swedish standards. But we were about to leave all that behind, as my 26-year-old daughter and I pulled on blue hooded ponchos that hung below our knees with attached gloves – but no foot coverings.

Nonetheless, we walked through the double doors. About a dozen people were standing around, including a group of women from Southern California. The room lived up to its name: the bar was made of ice; the shelves behind were ice; there were blocks of ice topped with reindeer skins to sit on and more blocks of ice forming alcoves and walls. Some of the blocks had designs carved into them. And yes, my feet were rapidly cooling.

The first drink was included in the entry fee, and the beverages fit the theme, with such evocative names as Torne River (a version of a lemon drop named for a northern waterway), Wolf Paw (lingonberry jucie and lime with Absolut 100), and Snow Flake (vodka with coconut, peach, pineapple and cranberry juices). All but the three virgin drinks were based on Swedish Absolut vodka. Tina had the Husky Sledge (vanilla vodka cinnamon, and apple), while I went for the Northern Light (raspberry vodka, crème de cassis, lime and raspberry puree).

The drinks were rather strong. That, plus the prices (95 or 125 Swedish kronor per drink, depending on whether you retained the same glass, or about $15 and $20 at the time) and the cold, kept us to one. Despite my lack of appropriate footwear, I enjoyed our brief sojourn in a winter wonderland. We walked through the exit, returned our ponchos, continued past the gift shop, and back out into the still-warm summer twilight.

© Judith Pierce Rosenberg, 2012. Judith  is the author of  A Swedish Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences, winner of a Gourmand Cookbook Award (Hippocrene Books). Her earlier non-fiction book, A Question of Balance (Papier-Maché) profiles contemporary writers and artists who have successfully faced the challenges of combining creative careers with motherhood.

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Souvenirs

January 16th, 2012 · Adventure, Road Less Travelled

Novelist Margaret C. Murray returned in December from a journey to South Africa. The things she brought back will not fit in any backpack or suitcase.

I just returned from a trip to South Africa with my two sons. I wish I could do it over again, not to change anything or do it differently, but because I still want to be there. So today I’m bringing back Africa.

First, I’m bringing back tolerance for myself. I’m really talking about bringing back if you will,  the tolerance – the forgiveness – shown by South Africans I met, a freedom and lightness I saw in their eyes. It was everywhere – in the malls we stopped at, the restaurants we ate at, in the small stores in Ladysmith and Durban. Often I was asked where I came from. When I answered “United States,” or “California,” I was asked if I minded being hugged. Of course not! I love being hugged! “If I could only put my foot in America once,” I heard one young grocery clerk say.

I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, a work of art and monument to “Life by Skin Color,” a different life for each. As you enter the museum, you randomly pick a ticket that identifies you as “white,” “coloured” or “black.” Then you go through the door that matches your ticket. A few years ago, while teaching English composition to college students, I had shown the movie, Invictus, about South Africa’s dismantling of apartheid during the 1995 Rugby Cup. The movie title is taken from a Victorian poem meaning “Unconquered,” which Nelson Mandela committed to heart while in prison. My one visit to the Apartheid Museum taught me so much more about his vision of democracy for all.

It was amazing to see so much faith and tolerance in light of South Africa’s legacy of apartheid, colonization, imperialism, and slave trafficking by people of every color and background. And this terrible legacy is amplified by the present AIDS/HIV epidemic.

Still, I’m bringing back happiness, the feeling you had as a child, the kind that makes you laugh at anything, like when you turn the corner and come upon a group of six young African maids in crisp, laundered uniforms at the foot of the stairs in a Polokwane hotel. They laugh aloud when you tell them they look pretty, and say you look pretty, too, making tears come to your own eyes then and whenever you remember that hot morning, that corner of the stairs, those lovely faces laughing with you.

I’m bringing back peace too from Africa – the peace that happens when there is nothing you have to do except watch a hippo slowly walk across the sand, one huge foot at a time, and slowly lower itself into the Letaba River. The hippo will stay submerged in the cool water  like this all day with only its two round humps of eyes showing and you can stay too, just watching, just being there, watching hippo eyes.

And awe, the majestic sensation of watching a pride of  lions saunter by in a line. You count them one-by-one, ten lions in all, pacing intentionally and very slowly along a grassy ridge at dusk. “They’re hunting,” says the expert Kruger Park guide. “The females are taking the young males out for their first hunt.” You realize you aren’t breathing and make yourself take a breath. You can do it now. Just breathe.

How close we are, all of us, to each other and to the animals. How amazing to realize we all love and protect our offspring. You know that when you repeatedly see adult elephants, giraffes, and white rhinos in the bush hover over those fabulous curious babies of theirs. You watch the adults stay close to their young, guiding them away from the road while you, privileged Americans, sit in rented cars, jeeps and SUVs, exclaiming and holding out your cameras or cell phones, attempting to capture it all forever.

© Margaret C. Murray, 2012. Used with permission. Margaret C. Murray is the author of Sundagger.net. Her new novel, Dreamers, is a coming-of-age love story set in the Sixties (WriteWords Press, 2011). 

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A Cowtown Hula

November 15th, 2011 · Road Less Travelled, Time and Place

 On a visit to Hawaii’s Big Island during a recent recession, Shelley Buck learns it’s not necessary to buy a luau show ticket in order to experience the hula.

Forget the bare lava fields, palm trees, and rain forest. On a flattish area of the Big Island of Hawaii, just to the northwest of mist-shrouded Mauna Kea volcano, lies a world no traveler who hasn’t been there could anticipate. There’s rangeland. Red cattle with white faces are scattered over golden spreading meadows, their noses down, chewing the rich island landscape. And there are cowboys. Cowboys who hula?

The region’s Parker Ranch, on land granted to an American settler by Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I, has been operating since 1847. Cowboys have been on the land throughout its history. Local residents call them paniolo, a name that comes from hispanolo,  the term used to describe the skilled horsemen from Mexico who initially trained Hawaiian ranch workers in roping, riding, and cattle handling.

But do they hula too? To find out, I’ve come to the premier cowtown in the Big Island’s ranching region, to watch a hula society perform. Dancers from Tahiti are appearing. I spotted an announcement for this dance on a bulletin board yesterday while munching on a slice of pizza and waiting for a sluicing downpour to ease up.

So today, I’ve come back up from Waikoloa, where I’m staying, amid the lava floes and petroglyphs on the Kohala Coast. On the coast, tropical paradises have been created specially for well-heeled tourists. Although the Tahitian dancers will be doing a show over there tonight, I would rather drive the twenty miles to watch them in this rural town. I have a hunch that the festivities here will be less formal and more lively.

This inland hinterland doesn’t get the publicity of more exotic settings. It doesn’t even look like you think Hawaii should. Although the Big Island has torrid jungles, South Sea harbors, cliffs, lava-streaming volcanos, rain forests—the works—these northern plains are as close as the island gets to the Wild West. In the distance to the right, the blue half-masked mountain rises, standing in for the Rockies, like some scenic backdrop in a John Wayne movie.

Coming along the Kawaihae Road, I catch a glimpse of the blue haunch of the Mauna Kea as I reach Milestone 61. The volcano is dodging behind clouds like a flirting fan dancer. Flanking the road are small farm houses. I pass occasional splendid horses.

The small town, when I get to it, looks like a cowboy kind of place. The shopping center is done up like a horse barn, dark red with white trim. I go inside. If the rain pours again—as it did in torrents yesterday—this party isn’t going to be washed out.

I follow the sound of shouts and drum thumps. There’s a crowd in front of the pizza parlor. Under a massive vaulted skylight, musicians are sitting. Folding chairs are set out for the audience.  A lot of women and children, and  a few men are occupying them. It’s a weekday, and the crowd is made up of local people instead of tourists. Except for me.

A dance is already in progress. Skylights in the high-vaulted barn ceiling shed big rectangles of sunlight over the moving dancers. Then there’s a pause.

“The next dance is for women only,” the master of ceremonies calls out.  Local women hop up from their folding chairs to join the visiting Tahitians on the dance floor. What follows is a little like a teaching session for a square dance. There’s a walk-through of the motions. A dancer from Tahiti smiles encouragement to a doubtful local girl. Then, it is all put together.

This dance is all about arms and hands. Always, as a mainlander, I thought hula was mostly in the hips, but this reminds me of Indonesian or Balinese dance.  Arms, like waves, interweave, as the women move on the floor. Arms interlace. The whole is a study in the geometry of emotion, made by the women’s hands.

A mixed dance follows. No one is in elaborate costume . One of the Tahitians is still in her curlers. The mixed dance is followed by another that’s for just guys. If there are ranch hands among them, I can’t tell. I see a surfer-type in flowered jams, and teenagers with oversized pants, belted low, which drag on the ground. Nobody is wearing a cowboy hat today.

Once again, there’s this motion, this enthusiastic beat, and this palpable reverence for the Tahitian leader of the dance. I realize I am watching a Pacific Island master class. Polynesians are teaching Polynesians the old ways. But the mood reminds me too of a barn-raising party in some Fifties Western movie.

At a break, a dancer refers me to someone at the back. The hula master is away, explains an enormous warm man who seems to be doing the honors for the local hula society. The Tahitian dancers have come to Hawaii under the society’s sponsorship, he tells me.

I explain I want to do an article about this, to bring some notice to this less- visited part of the Big Island. I’m not sure if the idea will be a welcome one, but it is. Catching me by surprise, the substitute hula master opens his own great arms and enfolds me in a bear hug.

Mahalo nui,” he thanks me, and for a moment, I want to stay until the cows come home.

© Shelley Buck, 2011. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of Floating Point, a memoir of living on a boat just off Silicon Valley during the millennial technology boom.

 

 

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A Great Start in Venice

October 8th, 2011 · Time and Place

In this excerpt from her new book, Perfectly Crazy, novelist Mitzi Penzes takes a successful woman entrepreneur, teams her up with a man as desirable as the Michelangelo statue, and folds both into Venice. 

Finally they were in Venice. They stayed in a small room in Hotel Flora close to Piazza San Marco. Despite being in an alleyway, the room was intimate and charming, with a huge bed and its own bathroom. They had access to a little garden, a small enclosed oasis in the built up quarter.

Only minutes away were the piazza, the Grand Canal, and little cafes and restaurants. The characteristic small bridges crossing over smaller waterways looked like the backs of fighting cats, arching up in the middle. The gondolas were everywhere, and the Vaporetto station and Doge’s Palace were next door. The row of little shops where her new place would be opening was close as well. It was an ideal setting for both business and romance.

They had already gone to see the horse statues on the roof of the basilica, seen the view from the top of the Campanile, walked on the Rialto Bridge, and eaten some excellent gelato on the way.

But she had work to do too. Sofia turned out to be a friendly middle-aged woman with a severe bun on the top of her head and silver-framed spectacles. She welcomed Nell like a family member, and introduced her associates, two younger ladies who would be the salespeople. They both were pleasant, and Nell was sure they would work out just fine.

Then Nell excitedly examined the stock. The layout for the store was already there, but the racks were still missing and some of the shelves had their places marked but were not on the wall yet. The wallpaper had a very interesting pattern, and though Nell was not sure if it was a good idea in such a humid area, Sofia assured her she had the same kind of wall covering at home, and it never got moldy. She had lived all her life in Venice, so Nell trusted her opinion.

Nell decided to decorate the shop windows with a few glass pieces and traditional Venetian masks. She planned to hang up a chandelier at the top of the window, on whose arms she’d place elegantly dressed mannequins. Flanking the window would be two mannequins in masks and some beautiful vases. In the background, she wanted to display scarves and fabrics that would unite the scene. She did not like standard-issue mannequins; hers were especially detailed and lifelike, made by an Italian company.

The printed materials and other ad items were top quality, since David’s company had made them. His designs were always successful, so she was sure they would help her sales get started. They also decided to display enlarged photos of Nell’s other stores on the wall between the shelves and the racks of garments. All in all, she was very satisfied and was sure they would have a great start.

© Mitzi Penzes, 2011. Used with permission. Author Mitzi Penzes grew up in Hungary, where she trained and practiced as a neurologist before coming to the United States. Now an entrepreneur, she lives with her family and cat in Napa, California.

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Chasing Karma/Teaching Tibetans

July 20th, 2011 · Travel Memoir

In the year 2000, novelist Jacob Sackin taught English in Dharamsala, a village in the Himalayan foothills where the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, and many refugees from Tibet have settled. In these excerpts, parts of a longer essay, Sackin chronicles vivid and bittersweet moments as exiles and a new generation of young Tibetans confront both their roots and their expectations from the West.

Dharamsala, India – Today is the anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment and good deeds are worth 10,000 times more good karma, so everyone in town is giving lots of money to the dozens of Indian beggars who have come up from the surrounding towns. The banks ran out of one and two rupee coins because the Tibetans wanted to give to as many beggars as possible.

An Israeli woman at the bar was trying to rescue the insects with cupped hands as they crawled up the candle toward the flame. I think I also have been chasing karma lately. I notice myself searching for good deeds, carrying wood for an old monk or letting a short Tibetan woman stand in front of me during the Dalai Lama’s teaching, but then not moving for a western woman the next day. I bought a bag of rice for an Indian boy I always see begging on my street and now every time he sees me he tugs on my shirt and asks for money. Some of the Westerners give the beggars money, but others yell at them to get out of the way.

* * *

Last night I heard an old monk talk at the community center who was in prison for twenty-seven years in Tibet. He said that he chewed bones just to exercise his teeth and ate insects like chocolate. He was forced to stay awake for sixteen days straight, and if he fell asleep, the soldiers would beat him. Toads were bound under his armpits, and they ate into his body. The Chinese made him and the other Tibetan monks clean out toilets with Thankga paintings and other ancient scriptures. He said that when the Chinese came into Lhasa, he and a few other monks disrobed and took up guns to fight. He said he had thought it was useless because they were outnumbered, but his friend had said: “No, it’s okay. Soon the Americans will come. They will save us.”

One of my students just found out that his mother died back in Tibet. He doesn’t come to class anymore because he has promised to do 9,999 prostrations for her spirit at the temple. When I told this to an Italian tourist at the community center, he said it sounded like a waste of time, but I’m not sure. The Tibetans believe that even negative thoughts that you send out into the world can influence your karma.

I often see Tibetans making prostrations on the two mile road that goes around the Dalai Lama’s temple. They lie down with their arms outstretched and then stand up in the spot where their hands touched and do it again. The monsoon has been in full swing for a month now, so they are always covered with mud.

The Dalai Lama has said that it is important for Tibetans to learn English. In class we corrected the grammar of a Bob Marley song that I had written out and then learned some new vocabulary words. The Tibetans are hungry for English. I started tutoring a Tibetan monk named Atse in the community center. I looked in Atse’s notebook the other day and saw that he had written the word “rescue,” which we had learned in class, one hundred times.

* * *

A student, Lobsang, told me that he had a crush on a Tibetan girl. When I told him to ask her out, he said: “If I marry a girl it will be difficult for me. My family lives in Tibet and I have no relatives here to help with the marriage. How can I support a family? I can not take care of her when she is sick and make her food. But if I am alone my whole life, there won’t be anyone to make food for me and take care of me when I am old. I can’t understand myself. Now I don’t have happiness in my life.”

Last week Tsultrum slept with a woman from Spain and another from New Zealand. He also said that a woman from Israel tourist raped him. “I am serious,” he said as he pulled on his cigarette. “No fooling.”

Tsultrum is not the only Tibetan guy hooking up with Western tourists. One of my students married a woman from Switzerland last week. He told me that he didn’t love her, but it was the only way he could get out of India.

* * *

When I met the Dalai Lama, I got searched twice. They even wrote with my pen to make sure it was real. I am not surprised about the security, considering that a man who fixes shoes in town just got arrested for being a Chinese spy. He had blueprints of the Dalai Lama’s temple and was supposedly plotting to blow it up.

The other day, before the Dalai Lama’s teaching started, three Indian soldiers came out from behind the stage with machine guns. The Dalai Lama followed behind, waving and stopping to talk to people in the crowd. He said that although it showed great merit that his western friends were searching for another religion and not just taking the one they were born with, one should not talk badly about one’s past religion in order justify a newfound faith. He also said that Tibetans, who say mantras and spin prayer wheels, should look to us as an example, and realize that it is the intent, not simply the act, that is important in religion. He also said that the West should not try to keep modern technology from Tibetans just because we think it is bad. It is their right also to have cameras and TV.

* * *

This past month I have been writing out the story line for the Star Wars Trilogy and having my students read it aloud in class. We work on vocabulary, sentence structure, do some comprehension questions and then watch the movies at the community center. They are not as numb to violence as I am, which is strange, since a lot of them have been tortured. Every time a storm trooper got shot, they would cover their faces and cry out. They were amazed that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, and some refused to believe it.

Last week we watched Return of the Jedi. There has been a rumor floating around town that the Ewoks speak Tibetan. When they came on the screen, my students started giggling, and it was true! Tsultrum translated some of their chirps for me. They said: “Hurry!  Good!” and “Come On!”

It was a great ending to the trilogy but also anti-climatic. “So, the Ewoks speak Tibetan,” said Tsultrum. “How glorious! And now it is time to return to the sad life of a refugee!”

© July, 2004 by Jacob Sackin. Used with permission. Sackin is the author of the young adult novels Iglu (2011) and Islands.  He lives in Northern California. Sackin’s full essay is posted on Google Docs.

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Swept Away in Felton, California

June 18th, 2011 · Eating, travel near home

On Father’s Day, Shelley Buck discovers an exotic destination may sometimes lie quite close to home.

“Write about a cultural stretch,” the instructor in my TEFL* program had told me, raising fantasies about dining on lamb’s eyes or chocolate-covered crickets at some exotic San Francisco eatery. But since it was Father’s Day, and the choice of restaurant was not my call, I wound up being towed along by the hero of the day for a dollop of Italy in Felton, California.

Felton is best known for its steam railroad, a pretty good health food store with a mural on the side, and a couple of small shops which sell attractive crystals, if you happen to want some. I don’t. I should add that Felton also boasts three of the six traffic lights in our unincorporated valley. It’s no Metropolis, but down the road, near the turn-off for the state park with the really big redwoods, there’s this Italian restaurant, set a bit back from the highway. It’s not Italy, but it is, after all, in the San Lorenzo Valley, which sounds a little Italian, if you’re making a vigorous cultural stretch.

“It won’t count for the assignment,” I thought. An American Italian restaurant out here at the edge of the continent would not be ethnic enough. The only cultural stretch here would be the big tab; I’m not used to expensive restaurants. And what about my low-cholesterol diet?  I was telling myself  all this as we were seated – my son, husband, and I – inside on the blond curved-back chairs, at a table with a sheet of butcher paper flung across a mustard-colored table cloth in a restaurant only a  seven miles from home.

“Not Italy,” I was whispering silently as I watched the other diners in their white plastic chairs among market umbrellas in the spreading garden below us, the fading sunlight in the garden gilding their hair. And I was still sure when the blond waitress, all in white, brought our menu, with the word organic prominently displayed on it.

Beyond the ochre-plastered counter which separated us from the kitchen, I could see the cook: He had blue eyes. A ponytail held back reddish hair the color of Thomas Jefferson’s as he maneuvered pans with intensity at a stove surface just out of sight beyond a makeshift work island. “Italian restaurant, ha!” I said to myself in derision.

My son confirmed the impression: “You can’t see the stove because he has a hidden microwave back there – a giant one,” he mocked. He wasn’t going to be seduced by any carefully crafted atmosphere. Nor was I, on Father’s Day, this most American of holidays. OK, it was a nice restaurant, close to home, but Italy, it wasn’t.

And then someone called the cook, “Lucca.”

The bread arrived, cut in long slim slices and studded with sliced nuts. Swiftly, too, arrived two dishes of yellow-green olive oil in heavy commercial china. Four immense cloves of garlic floated in one; the second held a mixture of chopped basil bits and a spoon.

“Do I dip or pour?” I wondered. I did both, anointing the bread, while pausing to stare as a waiter with a goatee and a ring in his ear swept by, impossibly balancing four big plates without benefit of a tray. The heavy plates were piled in a spiral like flying saucers radiating from some invisible core. “That’s gotta hurt,” I thought, then gaped as the waiter set down a platter least 18 inches in diameter before a nearby diner. Who could eat that much? Our own eyes were like saucers.

I could see children at other tables. At the far end of the long dining room, a little girl was stroking the long white hair of a woman sitting next to her. A man passed by us pressing a nearly newborn baby to his chest. In the garden, a young girl, aged eight-and-a-half maybe, sat side-by-side with adults, quietly munching. Nobody was screaming. In fact, the only noises seemed to be the muted clatter of pans, the hiss of the grill, and an aggressive cheerful music like the hurdy-gurdy soundtrack from some early Fellini film.

Orchestrating all of us.

And then our own dinner arrived. Moments later, looking up for a moment from my vast bowl of penne, tomatoes, grill-singed eggplant and pine nuts, I gazed  at the swirl of white-clad plate bearers, at the painted image on the ancient cooler of an ice cream cone with scoops of gelato piled on top like a bunch of balloons. Caught up in the music’s beat, the rushes of steam, observing the ease, the speed, the opulence of the meal, I surrendered disbelief and simply ate.

The diet could wait; I was  in Italy.

*TEFL = Teaching of English as a Foreign Language
Note to readers: This restaurant, sadly, has closed. But there are others. Seek them out.

© Shelley Buck, 2004. Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of Floating Point, a memoir of living on a boat just off Silicon Valley during the millennial technology boom.  A paperback edition is due out in July, 2011. She holds a certificate in TESL/TEFL from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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A Road Trip into Death Valley

May 17th, 2011 · En Route

In Margaret Murray’s novel, Sundagger.net, six New Age seekers journey to Death Valley in a cramped VW bus, together with their sweat lodge leader. The group’s intent is to hold a Native American vision quest, once there. In this excerpt, the mostly-urban travelers encounter a wild land of fierce winds and disorienting geological trompe l’oeil.

The wind was coming up. Rowan fumed as the bus slid all over the road. They passed ragged chocolate mountains forming a ridge around a lake of dried mud and the beehive furnaces he remembered from his trip to the TPC/IP conference in Palm Springs last spring.

“It’s a mirage! A what-do-you-call it, oasis!” squeaked Tracine. She spit out sunflower seeds into a paper trash bag, annoying him.

“The land slopes from east to west going below a sea that disappeared eons ago,” Anna read from the guidebook. Torn rubber tires littered the side of the road like wings from giant crows.

“Where are we?” Dan asked.

“The only signs I see now are minus elevation signs. This much below sea level. This much. The numbers get bigger and bigger,” said Tracine.

Finally they reached Furnace Creek.

“This is ninety. That’s minus ninety feet elevation,” Dan marveled.

They all got out at the Furnace Creek General Store. Ten minutes later, Dan and Rowan came back with candy, chips, soft drinks, and more beer in brown paper bags. Jim bought bags of Doritos chips while Anna returned with Calistoga Water. They all had to wait for Tracine to get her curly fries.

Now Stonekeeper insisted on driving, so Rowan exchanged places with Two Crows, who moved to the front seat.

“The only fish in the river are fossils,” read Anna as Stonekeeper drove the van over a small bridge above a river of pink and gray sand.

They passed a sign, Something River. Tufts of dried plant life emerged from tiny cracks in the dry arroyo, hinting of spring.

“The only river I see is a river of dark stones on a gray bed,” said Tracine.

“It was a sea,” read Anna. “Camels roamed right here, mastodons.”

Two Crows pointed out a solitary gray butte shrouded in haze, the blue horizon like smoke. “That’s where we’re going,” he said.

Stonekeeper stopped the bus so Rowan could take some shots before the clouds covered the butte.

“It’s beyond Zabriskie Point in Golden Canyon,” Two Crows explained.

The wind was roaring when they stopped again. Rowan got shots of the hills on one side like crumpled gold silk, rippling and peaking. The other side of the hills was dark gray.

“Some Golden Canyon. Duh.”

“You can see where the waves lapped against the mountains,” read Anna from the back of the bus. She said the ruggedness of the mountains was not caused by water erosion like other mountains but by the wind erosion.

The bus was like a bucking bronco in the wind.

They passed a sign—Salt Creek, Death Valley.

“That says it all,” said Rowan. Through the dirty van window, he took pictures of salt streams curling through dry cracked crevices like a bitter moonscape.

“That’s Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Cornfield,” crooned Dan, banging on the drum.

“It really has a sweet sound,” said Rowan. He put his hand back to grab the paper bag full of beer, snapped open a can and took a swig, offering it to Dan.

“We gotta have a campfire tonight,” said Dan.

“Yeah, let’s pop some of that stone-ground corn from Devil’s Corn-field,” Rowan answered, and grinned when he saw Two Crows damn near choke on his cigarette laughing.

Used with permission. Copyright 2008 by Margaret Murray. Her new novel, Dreamers, is due out September 15.

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