Where Beauty meets Despair – The hill tribes of Northern Vietnam

I left for Vietnam utterly unprepared for what may come; no mental preparations, no emotional baggage, no expectations. My favorite way to travel, turns out: just plunge, dive in and let it be. Let it affect you. Let it allow you discover yourself in front of unexpected, a mirror of surprise and stress of the unknown… the most revealing.

I knew one leg of the trip would be in the mountains of Sa Pa, close to the sensitive Chinese border. Main reason one goes there – meet the ethnic minorities that live in the area, some trek among the rice fields and villages of mountain scenery, some go to climb the highest peak of Indochina, Fansipan, at 3,143 m – the easternmost lost vestige of the Himalayas. The French went to escape the heat of Saigon; their colonial response to the British hill stations of the Indian Himalayas.

We spent three days in Sa Pa, took the Victoria Express night train from Hanoi – an experience that heightened my excitement, sense of adventure and dreamy disposition. We usually don’t travel by train and I long for it at times – I find it so romantic, hardship and reverie combined; it takes me back to my college years of communist Romania and many books. I feel train stations charged with emotions and private histories; soul particles hovering above tracks, in full moon or pitch darkness, in morning dew or crimson twilight… millions of footsteps traced, lost and found. I must admit, there was no hardship in Victoria Express, just reverie… That night there was a pregnant waxing Moon almost ready to burst full. Just the two of us in the sleeper compartment, we kept the curtains open and watched the sky lying in bed… a dream! I would wake up in the soothing noise of the train moving slowly on tracks and look up; another show – Moon set and made room for stars and constellations to play, and dazzle, and tease at will. Another dream!

Hanoi train station at night

Hanoi train station at night

Victoria Express sleep car

Victoria Express sleeping car

Victoria Express dinning car

Victoria Express dinning car

Arriving in Lao Cai early in the morning

Arriving in Lao Cai early in the morning

We disembarked the train in Lao Cai and took an hour-long car ride to Sa Pa. This ride prepares the eye for scenery and color – leaving behind the noise of typical Vietnamese morning markets, where everything seems to happen at once: buy-sell, haggle, cook, eat breakfast and drink coffee, charge up for the burden of a new day. All that behind, the eye meets endlessly vivid-green terraces, rice fields perfectly manicured on mountain slopes, specs of water catching a sun ray, gleaming in a momentary fairy dance.

And when you turn your eye to the road in front of you, water buffalos, motorbikes, bicycles coming into vision at once and there… peculiar short women in colorful dress walking on the side, carrying round baskets on their backs, but not the bamboo shoulder poles that Vietnamese women carry all day long selling fruits, flowers, and sweets on the streets of Hanoi or Saigon. No more conical straw hats either. This is a different world. Yet here, just as in Saigon, Hanoi or elsewhere in the World I’ve seen, it is the women that seem to always carry the weight of the world.

My first encounter with the local women was immediate, coming out of the hotel, two beautiful Black H’mong women with large smiles and poor teeth approached me in a very good English. Where are you from? What is your name? And this is how my tribal love affair got under way. I knew they were not only about conversation; I knew there must be trade – but I allowed myself seduced by smiles and kindness – the only thing I’d do is to respond. I didn’t buy anything from them that morning, we just arrived and had a full day in front of us – they understood, still smiling and with kind eyes they asked: ‘You buy from me when you return?’ And it was sealed! ‘I will’.

My first Black Hmong 'girlfriends'

My first Black Hmong ‘girlfriends’

Flower Hmong crafts display

Flower Hmong crafts display

Sweet and delicate introduction

Sweet and delicate introduction

Graceful presence

Graceful presence

The main ethnic group in Sa Pa area is the H’mong; the Black H’mong are called such because they wear indigo died hemp clothes they make by hand. We saw a woman in her house extracting hemp fiber from the cannabis plant and barrels of blue/black die from the abundant indigo plant that grows around the area, everywhere on our treks. The women’s hands are stained in indigo from all the work. There is also the Flower H’mong group; their dress is very colorful with intricate designs. I’ve first met three of them in a Tourist Information Center, they were displaying their handwork and crafts. We talked, they showed me their stitch and how they do it with smiling eyes; they didn’t ask me to buy anything.

We started with a self-guided morning tour on motorbike, surveying Sa Pa and the astonishing surrounding area… a tour of the lush jungle bracing slopes stabbed by rich and graceful waterfalls, hiking trails in the foothills of Tonkinese Alps, taking in amazing vistas at Haven’s Gate, the highest road in Vietnam.

Breathtaking view of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near Sa Pa

Breathtaking view of the Hoang Lien Son mountain range near Sa Pa

Surveying the area on motorbike, going local...

Surveying the area on motorbike, going local…

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A little private shop selling anything you can imagine at the vista point

A little private shop selling anything you can imagine at the vista point

In the afternoon, still on motorbike, we visited Cat Cat, a Black H’mong village very close to Sa Pa. The scenery – breathtaking! Rice paddies glistening in sunlight, green, green, emerald-green everywhere you turn and blankets of white mist on top on the mountains. The village stony path felt very touristy, lined up with shops selling crafts. However, if you take your eyes a bit further to the left or to the right and look for detail, you see their homes and catch a glimpse of the child bathing, or other household chores in progress. The village natural setting is amazing, perhaps Cat Cat is quickly becoming somewhat inauthentic – so close to Sa Pa and so exposed – but remains most beautiful. Walking down the stone path among houses, stores, tea shops and half-naked children, goats, pigs and roosters, we make it to the bottom of the valley. A river runs through it. We cross it on a wire bridge. To the right the river comes down lazily barely making a statement among the green. Naked children bathe and play. To the left there is a gorgeous little waterfall and the river becomes wild cutting through polished mountain stones. Two young men catch tiny fish with baskets in the waterfall. By now we are surrounded by women and girls trying to sell us something. Anything.

This is confusing!

On one hand I think this is how Heaven must be looking like. The mountain slopes, the mist above, the green of the rice paddies, the river – so lazy where children play in the distance, the waterfall raging down below… the fishermen climbing the waterfall like Black H’mong Spiderman or Ninjas.

However, I look into the women’s eyes, they are still smiling but I finally perceive the desperation. They HAVE to sell me something! I am conflicted!! I thought this was Heaven and I still see Beauty all around, in nature, in their smiles. But deep in their eyes, the Beauty mixes with Despair.

Of course there is some haggling, they ask for as much as they can think of, but when you haggle with a smile in your eyes, it makes it mighty fine. We bought from them, not much – some postcards; their reaction warmed my heart – ‘Me Happy, You Happy!’ They tied little ribbons to our hands – a sign, a pact, a loving seal.

Entering Cat Cat

Entering Cat Cat

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Cat Cat, seemingly quiet

Cat Cat, seemingly quiet

Being approached by another girlfriend

Being approached by another girlfriend

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Surrounded by Black Hmong women and girls showing their wares

Surrounded by Black Hmong women and girls showing their wares

Buy from meeeee, buy from meeee, buy from meeee....

Buy from meeeee, buy from meeee, buy from meeee….

The emerald-green slopes of Cat Cat

The emerald-green slopes of Cat Cat

The burden of years or the years of burden?

The burden of years or the years of burden?

Hand made hemp products for sale

Hand made hemp products for sale

Cat Cat in the valley

Cat Cat in the valley

While girls are learning their mother's trading secrets, the boys seem utterly oblivious of visitors

While girls are learning their mother’s trading secrets, the boys seem utterly oblivious of visitors

Boys will be boys, this time harassing a goat returning back to village. The old man is complacent.

Boys will be boys, this time harassing a goat returning back to village. The old man is complacent.

Water buffalo, a crucial commodity or beast of burden in rural Vietnam.

Water buffalo, a crucial commodity or beast of burden in rural Vietnam.

Innocence

Innocence

Play time, again the boys...

Play time, again the boys…

A better view of the hemp indigo crafts for sale

A better view of the hemp indigo crafts for sale

Walking down to the Valley, we stop and chat and trade smiles for the moment...

Walking down to the Valley, we stop and chat and trade smiles for the moment…

Heavenly looking, right?

Heavenly looking, right?

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Children bathe in the lazy portion of the river

Children bathe in the lazy portion of the river

The beautiful Cat Cat waterfall

The beautiful Cat Cat waterfall

Ninja fishermen flying up the Cat Cat waterfall

Ninja fishermen flying up the Cat Cat waterfall

The Black Hmong Spiderman of cascades

The Black Hmong Spiderman of cascades

A river runs through Heaven

A river runs through Heaven

On our way back to the hotel, my morning Black Hmong girlfriends were waiting. The day must have worn them down and I don’t know how much they sold, but they greeted us with the biggest smiles. I’ve got little hemp purses from them, and yes… another ribbon.

The second day in Sa Pa was a full day trek in the Black Hmong and Red Dzao villages of the Lao Chai valley. This time we hired a local guide. Great English, excellent sense of humor, Xuan – a happy soul! No road this time, not even a trail – just Xuan’s knowledge of where we are and where to go… we crossed rice paddies, bamboo forests, even people’s courtyards with their permission – no beaten path here. However, there were certain stations where village women and girls would sell water and crafts.

Xuan jumping fences; taking us off the beaten path...

Xuan jumping fences; taking us off the beaten path…

Is quite amazing to take in the view, but walking on the edge of the rice terrace is not for sissies...

Is quite amazing to take in the view, but walking on the edge of the rice terrace is not for sissies…

Hmong woman at her house, extracting the help fiber from the cannabis plant

Hmong woman at her house, extracting the help fiber from the cannabis plant

Indigo die in the making - the indigo leaves are macerating in water developing the strong die that persists on the Hmong women's hands...

Indigo die in the making – the indigo leaves are macerating in water developing the strong die that persists on the Hmong women’s hands…

I found a little buddy on my way...

I found a little buddy on my way…

And just the same, the story goes: great scenery, good hike, exotic and beautiful looking women and children everywhere. Xuan explained, this was the time when women dedicated their entire time to crafts and sales – the rice is planted waiting for more rains, it will be late August-early September when the paddies turn yellow that the women will get busy in their fields. They won’t have time to follow trekkers all day long. But for now, at one of the water stations I was picked up by another Black H’mong girlfriend. What is your name? Where are you from? Is he your husband? Again, impressive English. She told me she learned it from the trekkers. They have an ear for languages for sure… and a desperation mixed with resilience. Yet, their approach is so soft and gentle, and it’s not fake. They NEED to make that sale, but their smiles, good will and curiosity are genuine. My new friend walked with us for miles. She lived in the village we were going to have lunch. She braided a beautiful heart from a green twig for me. She made a little horse from another twig. Step by step we hiked down to the valley, talking all the way. She explained me the jewelry she was wearing, two sets of earrings, bracelets, her mother’s long necklace… She is  50 and wanted to see how the valley looked like through my sun glasses. After lunch we purchased little purses again, hand stitched and beautiful.

My 'main girlfriend' in the entire Sapa experience!

My ‘main girlfriend’ in the entire Sapa experience!

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She is the sweetest thing; she braided this beautiful looking heart from  a simple twig.

She is the sweetest thing; she braided this beautiful looking heart from a simple twig.

She wanted to see through my sun glasses...

She wanted to see through my sun glasses…

Selling water, fruits and cucumbers.  Babies everywhere... and true for the entire Vietnam.

Selling water, fruits and cucumbers.
Babies everywhere… and true for the entire Vietnam.

The little horse the made from yet anther twig...

The little horse the made from yet anther twig…

I will never forget her...

I will never forget her…

We headed for a different village – this time a Red Dzao tribe. The dress is different here; young women wear red head-scarves, the older ones have a bigger, more involved red headdress with tassels all around.

A Red Dzao distinguished old woman...

A Red Dzao distinguished old woman…

Cucumber break in Red Dzao land

Cucumber break in Red Dzao land

Red Dzao chat room

Red Dzao chat room

Young, beautiful and worried...

Young, beautiful and worried…

Young, very young  women with babies on their backs everywhere.

Young, very young women with babies on their backs everywhere.

When we stopped for lunch, this Red Dzao woman recognized two of her sisters in one of my pictures...

When we stopped for lunch, this Red Dzao woman recognized two of her sisters in one of my pictures…

Red Dzao women are not as ‘aggressive’ as the Black H’mong ones. They certainly want to sell you something, but won’t walk with you for miles; They may not have the same charisma as the Black H’mong ‘girlfriends’. The women pluck their eyebrow and the hairline until it stops growing. Xuan explained the tradition – old story of a peculiar king that wanted his meal cooked without the risk of burning hair… since then Red Dzao women have followed the tradition. We’ve seen a meal cooking on open fire in a Red Dzao home the next day. I must say, the fire comes very close to the face. We spent some time in their home and had good conversation. Xuan asked the old woman of the house to show us her hair-line. She was a little shy at first, but then she took her headdress off. Now I shall take back the comment about their charisma. Red Dzao are just as sweet and friendly, perhaps a little shy. I was so happy she felt so comfortable in our presence to show us what rarely people see, the self-made receding hair-line of tribal lore.

In a Red Dzao home; the old woman of the house

In a Red Dzao home; the old woman of the house

The younger woman wears a smaller headscarf. She opened up her house offering room and board in what they call a homestay arrangement.

The younger woman wears a smaller headscarf. She opened up her house offering room and board in what they call a homestay arrangement.

Cooking on open fire... watch those eyebrows...

Cooking on open fire… watch those eyebrows…

Talking about the Red Dzao eyebrow and hair-line plucking tradition...

Talking about the Red Dzao eyebrow and hair-line plucking tradition…

Yes, she did it! Brave, sweet woman - she showed us the result of repeating hair plucking...

Yes, she did it! Brave, sweet woman – she showed us the result of repeating hair plucking…

Shy and sweet and a great cook!

Shy and sweet and a great cook!

The third day we hired Xuan again for a guided motorbike tour – we reached further this time; the villages, the trails, the kids, the glimpses of everyday life completely aloof, unaware and indifferent of the foreigner’s eye looking in.

Boys at play while a water buffalo is cooling off nearby...

Boys at play while a water buffalo is cooling off nearby…

Red Dzao woman

Red Dzao woman

Off the beaten track

Off the beaten track

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Yes... thanks to funny Xuan, more balancing on the edge of a rice paddy...

Yes… thanks to funny Xuan, more balancing on the edge of a rice paddy…

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Last day of trekking - thank you Xuan - you were crazy great!

Last day of trekking – thank you Xuan – you were crazy great!

Vietnam  (1952) Vietnam  (2000) Vietnam  (1997)

village life...

village life…

When you see naked little girls using a runoff ditch and plastic bags, or simply their bare feet to experience a waterslide… you can’t help see their beauty, innocence and joy of life, but can one ignore the misery? They’re not aware, but you, the stranger looking in, you are.

I have a hard time captioning it, and even deciding whether to post or not. But they seem happy!

I have a hard time captioning, and even deciding whether to post or not. But they seem happy…

I have a hard time captioning it, and even deciding whether to post or not. But they seem happy!

I have a hard time captioning, and even deciding whether to post or not.

I have a hard time captioning it, and even deciding whether to post or not. But they seem happy!

I have a hard time captioning, and even deciding whether to post or not.

I have a hard time captioning it, and even deciding whether to post or not. But they seem happy!

I have a hard time captioning, and even deciding whether to post or not.

Even by Vietnamese rural standards the hill tribe minorities are poor; the poorest of all. What is their fate? I was so happy to converse with many of them, to get to know a little of their lives, but are they on their way to lose their authenticity? Will they start trading smiles for camera against a fee?

I hope it rains, so that rice grows nice and abundant.

~

Harvest time in Kathmandu Valley

Our trip to Nepal earlier this year was the pinnacle of our travels so far. Not only have we trekked for fifteen days in the Himalayas all the way to Everest Base Camp, not only have we basked in the sounds, colors, incense and rituals of the Kathmandu temples, not only have I learned that true joy of life and has nothing to do with material wealth, not only have I relished in fifteen days of conversations with our Sherpa guide, friend and protector Temba Sherpa… a soul so clean and bright as I have rarely seen… not only… countless glimpses of blooming rhododendrons, flowers, birds… humbling encounters with Buddhist monks and smiling children everywhere…

Not only that. The day that I recount here was a gift, an unexpected offer that comes one’s way in serendipity, and if you’re open-minded and open-hearted, you trust and follow… and then you’re grateful. The driver we hired for our Kathmandu days both before and after the trek suggested a day in rural Kathmandu Valley at the end of our trip, to which both our trek organizer and our airline agent seemed reluctant.

Well… we went. It remains with me as one of the most memorable days in Nepal. Rarely have I been surrounded by so many smiles… I do not want to comment about the bare existence of these souls… they’re richer than anyone I know! It was close and personal, humbling, emotional… above all… beautiful

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Kathmandu revelations – Boudhanath and Pashupatinath

This was the beginning of a three-week, life transforming travel in Nepal.

First contact with Nepal, the very modest and inefficient airport in Kathmandu. I could see the hills from the plane while landing, dotted with what appeared unfinished red brick buildings. I later learn they’re finished, but just raw… like everything else here. Even though there’s only one plane landing at this time, it took an hour or so to clear immigration. The rudimentary airport organization is no bother, travelers arriving here are open-minded trekkers – everybody gets on with the formalities without complaint.

On the taxi ride to hotel the first shock of the Kathmandu streets, the utter poverty bared visible, heaps of garbage lining the streets. By the former royal palace they were burning the bamboo leaves, chaotic traffic, people and children in tatters by the side of the streets.

We first visit the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhists temples in Nepal. We had both driver and hired a guide to walk us through the history of the place. The Temple as seen from above resembles a giant mandala, four layers of the stupa surrounded by a walkway where people walk in clockwise direction, the Buddhist way. The first wall is surrounded by prayer wheels, turned by pilgrims and visitors alike in clockwise motion. The whitewashed walls of the stupa are cleaned and maintained continuously. On the left side of the walkway are Buddhist monasteries, painting schools where you can see the apprentices at work, painting the thangkas – a form of meditation in itself. A sense of time standing still…

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Our next experience – breathtaking, muting and introspective, all in one: Pashupatinah – one of the holiest temples of Shiva in the world. In Kathmandu, one can’t escape the smoke while crossing the Bagmati River from airport to the city. And your taxi driver will point it to you. They all know what it means. I wonder if this constant reminder of death makes people here soft, calm and in the moment… If the first contact with Kathmandu was a shock in itself, Pashupatinah takes the culture shock to a whole new dimension. Surrounded by a very poor neighborhood, our driver takes us as close as he can find a reliable parking spot, then shows us the direction. We walk a narrow street, amidst raw poverty: cows, pilgrims, beggars, children, fruit and flower sellers… all in a colorful cacophony of smells and sounds.

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We are not Hindu so, not allowed to visit the temple proper but we are free to roam the grounds and cross the river for a ticket entrance. On one side of the river is the temple where pilgrims gather, walk the grounds, perform puja – the Hindu prayer rituals… There is a hustle and bustle of religious activity, some sense of administrative oversight, commerce, and simple wandering. Fortune tellers or astrologers, flower and vermillion sellers sit cross-legged on the sidewalks under colorful umbrellas.

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Barely on the grounds of the temple we notice an establishment for the old – perhaps maintained and financed by the temple and donations. They just happen to be served a meager lunch of rice and water… The destitution of old age in a poor country is hard to bear. Yet, to me everyone is beautiful.

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We cross the Bagmati, a dirty trickle in dry season, mightily swelling in monsoon. The right bank is lined with ghats, platforms where the Hindu families cremate their departed ones. The cremations take place at any time of the day, every day. On the upper side of the river, underneath the Temple gate is the section where the rich are cremated. Down river and down wind is where the poor are turned to ashes. Regardless of one’s standing, the platforms are swept clean – with everything remaining after the straw and wood and flesh give up in breathing flames. The charcoals, ashes, and remains are washed into the river in a somber whirl of thick smoke. I saw children by the river on the upper side; at first I thought they’re playing, later we find out they are the river destitute scouring the dirty waters for the occasional gold ring or bangle left in ashes. On the down (poor) side of the river no children but a heard of holy cows unfazed by the whole business of death.

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I notice a clinic for eye examination – odd location I think to myself – a shabby room by the poor section of the river… I find out later from a child turned guide for us, that the eye is the only organ alowed for transplant from a corpse. I haven’t verified this. We quietly and respectfully take in the entire scene for quite some time. Later we walk up the hill among countless shrines and see the sadhus, the holy Hindu men sitting in contemplation, alone or in groups, some open to interact with visitors, while others are reclined in meditation or deep sleep. We interact with a group of six sadhus, they are open to conversation, speak English, allow us to take pictures and tell us they are covered in cremation ashes. Bright orange warps around the limb bodies, painted foreheads or intricate henna paintings all over face. I think they pose!

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They are expecting money and we pay; for the non-commercial sadhus I guess we’d have to visit an ashram. But it feels good, peaceful and strangely cool… there is something hippy in the air.

A railway station evening in the Andes revisits me

Sept 14, 2012. On a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt on our way to South Africa…  Why do I feel so inspired and so elated when I travel? In trying to fall asleep, I feel a sudden urge to write about Ollantaytambo. A stone, water and sun place, high in the Urubamba Valley, a starting point of Inca Trail, a mighty tale of glories past, this place that lies not only high in Andes, but deeper in my heart.

Why is it when I travel that I feel so different? So alive? All of a sudden my  entire being becomes a sponge. My eyes, my ears, my nostrils, my lips and taste  buds, my skin and everything inside… My brain and stream of being become  basic elements of absorption.

I love the process of absorption. Yet what I find more rewarding is this sudden  impulse, this sudden reliving of a moment past, this rich encounter  with time and emotion, with studded moments of personal life that make up the  sum of being. Don’t they say we are the sum of our relationships and our  experiences? I love the moment when one such particle of past springs forth and  claims its right to attention and reverie, out of the space and time filled sphere of vibrancy and dullness that is life.

Tonight Ollantaytambo claims the spot and nudges  at the muses and at my heart. It comes back in all its suddenness, its remoteness, its timelessness, and love. Ollantaytambo is a place, a spot in universe, a little railway village deep in the  Andes, but all the same is an eternal moment, is now, and past, and future all  together, is Inca fiber and universality, is heart and taste, and smell and  tear of feeling alive and eternal. And now is part of me.

I know my words cannot do justice to the moment and the feeling. Language is  but a poor conveyer of the feeling. If I was Mozart or
Tchaikovsky perhaps I would have had a better chance at telling you all this in  sound. If I was Leonardo or Michelangelo perhaps I would have had a better try  at capturing a glimpse of shiver in a piece of marble. But  I am not them, nor am I Einstein so I could most elegantly show you that we all are here and there, now and then and that my Ollantaytambo speck of universe lives in eternity.

Here is my humble recount in words of one of the most magical moments of  my life. Imagine this little village, tucked in one of the folds of Urubamba, shaded by stunning Andes, warmed by a Sun adored by its inhabitants. My place  of reverie is a train station, a dining room that opens to the platform, with  rustic rooms in the back, whitewashed two-story buildings, huge wooden terrace  and open windows to a garden of tropical bliss, with humming birds, and bees, and  streams of water. My memory is not cheating, it can  barely do it justice, I promise. Go and see….

Is evening,  we just arrived by car,  finally we said  goodbye to the wheel and ready to embark on our railroad leg of Andean
treading. I so much yearned to travel by train, so ready I was to leave behind  the comfort of four wheels and rail into unknown. Apart from the exquisite
beauty of the setting, the rich Inca imprint on everything in the village and  surrounding slopes, my first moment of deep emotion was the realization that
our hotel was in fact on the railway platform. Ah!!! How I loved the idea! We  had to go through iron gates on the platform to enter our hotel.
When I stepped in I felt in an instant that I know the place, deep down, somewhere in my most basic element of being. Almost like stepping into
grandmother’s little house in a remote village on the opposite corner of the Earth.

After a very warm and heartfelt greeting, when we step outside, in the interior  garden to walk to our room, I feel that my emotion and fullness in beauty is
tested to a new level. The garden is stunning, the flowers, the smells, the  sounds, the simplicity and truly rustic character of it… Ah… The place I
never knew I dreamt of….

My moment is built layer by layer, emotion by emotion, surprise by  surprise, all in an incredible concert of sight and sound and smell and memory.
Then comes the dinner. This unassuming hotel on a railway platform lost in the  Andes had somehow shifted something in my compass… My soul felt home and had  expanded amply that night. The dining room is small and unpretentious, one door  and windows open to the platform. From our table we can see the train coming  from Cusco, on its way to Macchu Picchu. We are going there tomorrow. But now,  I am all here, with every particle of  being absorbing sounds and smells, the view and the emotion. Four Inca-descendant cooks work skillets  in an open kitchen.  Ripe vegetables displayed on a  whitewashed ledge. How clean is everything! How beautiful the tomatoes and the  squash…

On the threshold of the door that opens up to the platform sat down an old  Qechua man, dressed beautifully in the bright colors of the Andes, he softly
starts to play a harp. Then he stats singing. Only later, after being lost  and found in his sound, do I realize he is blind. His voice connects me to the
root of his emotion, if only let yourself float on his thin air wave, he’ll take  you back to Inca times, his face transfixed in sound and condor flight, and sun
and moon, his fingers stroking gently the stings that have seen many seasons  and hold the countless stories of fight and might, and lights in dark-dawning  nights.

And tears are falling… My God! The train that stopped, travelers stepping on  the platform, looking around and carrying with them emotion, expectation,
weariness and dust, with heightened senses, so visible, so tangible… The harp  cords striking gently the air and pulling unseen strings of soul, the evening
falling calmly on earth, the smells, the colors, the wine, the sip, the toasted  corn, the candle on our table… I cannot help but cry from heart, with heart
in throat, in ears, in eyes, and in my skin down to my nails and hair ends. I  am alight; I am a flame of heart and time and love for being and of gratitude.
I fall in love again with my companion, my travel partner and my rock who is  the loyal witness of my love of life and of experience, who has become my
breath and light, who makes my journeys smooth and takes care of my feet and  worldly luggage when I am flying high on sounds of age-old blinding harps lost  in the endless colors and mystery of Andes.

My Salty Portugal

It has been a year since I have met Portugal. A secret love I have carried with me ever since… a place where I have felt that not only the people, but streets and sidewalks, buildings, crumbling churches and rooftops have a soul.  A place where the display of emotion is extreme and common place, where people are warm, the food exquisite in its honesty, and fado is just another way of inhaling and exhaling.

A place so rich in history one can get buried in ruins, and so poor in pretense, one can read through the veils, penetrating straight to the core. One simply needs to enter that state of mind.

A little country of vast culture, a place where I can happily get lost, crisscrossed from east to west and north to south, from the manicured hills of Douro Valley that the delicious sweet Port wine calls home, to the contrasts and conflicts of Porto; the rugged, mesmerizing Atlantic coast, to quaint little old towns on top of hills with age-old citadels and blooming vegetation. To unforgettable fragrant eucalyptus forests, and cork tree hills, to Lisbon and Sintra, the quintessential feminine faces of Portugal.

For me, the most impacting and impregnating of spaces and moments was Porto. A place with a tangible masculine personality….

Virile and rough, in a sailor shirt, bare breasted and sweaty, showing a tacky tattoo while throwing a cigarette butt on the street and spitting with gusto. That is my Porto in the light of the day. So rough and annoying, yet, I can’t escape its attraction.

At night Porto becomes a different story altogether. Warm, sophisticated, fedora hat and cologne, music and vine, it woos and grabs me, pursues me with unexpected moves, and I can’t help surrender to its charms… And so conflicted I am… because I vividly remember tacky tattoos underneath, but I see Porto is not even attempting to hide them. So assured and self-confident this place is in its crumbling appearance; Porto gets me at core, I will not even care about image or appearance.

First impression, second impression, getting into details, diving in, coming back up, looking down from a distance… whether right then and there, in its sweat and its heavy breathing, or looking back one year after, Porto is this man of many talents and surprises, of strong attitudes, resolute and unapologetic.

It is quite intimidating during the day and yet I fall for him at night, I surrender even though I’m not confident that I can trust it. What a paradox, because with Porto what you see is what you get.

When Porto smiles, he shows me missing teeth and I don’t not care; I simply fall in love with the gaps. There’s no pretense, no fake façade. Sleepy seagulls atop of crumbling roofs at midnight, or open kitchens under falling red-tiled rooftops at day, a cacophony of old riches and old ruin, of empire and despair, of stolen gold paid with the lost blood of ever-present generations, of sea and salt, of cod-fish and olives, of tramcars and sweet wine, of facades covered in stories told in exquisite azulejos – blue and white-painted tiles that I could spend a lifetime deciphering.

A place of poetry and street survival; seagulls and dogs, pigeons and cats fighting over the crumbs of the party that is a day in the life of Porto.

You cannot attempt to understand Portuguese soul without eating grilled sardines or baked cod drenched in Portuguese olive oil, without listening to a fadista from the depths of her sorrow while feeling the pores of your skin electrified and attuned to emotions  felt in the gut and pouring out through the eyes.  You will get better at knowing this place once you taste Portuguese salt and read poems and lines by Fernando Pessoa… You will get even deeper when you look at the hypnotic westward horizon from the strip of a land that Portuguese men construed as the margin of an ocean that they have  made home. And that is when you might understand Saudade – grey horizons swallowing men, taking with them the fragrance of round laughs in full family diners, taking with them at the bottom of the sea the meaning of fullness and simple contentment, leaving behind gilded cathedrals… tall but empty… the riches bearer and unforgiving ocean, whose salt is inexorably mixed with the tears of fadistas.

An unexpected union of being

This is a story from days of magic and lasting memories from a dream land that is America del Sur. Surprisingly, it is the day AFTER our Machu Picchu climb that becomes my first recollection committed to paper about our Peru trip. These have been days of incredible richness in image and color, in smell, sound, and emotion… a trip of personal discovery. So much to see, to hear, and to take in… there is so much to be felt, that it can easily become an overwhelming experience. After the HIGH of Machu Picchu one may be bound to feel depression the next day. No matter how great the hotel, how nice the staff, how tranquil and inviting the flower gardens and water streams, how still majestic the Urubamba Valley, one cannot help but feel a little underwhelmed, a little sad, a little lonely the next day… with Machu Picchu green transfixed on ones heart’s retinae.

In such a slow pace afternoon, after the high of Inca heights, we head out to visit the Maras Saline, a small attempt to bring back wonder and rescue the day. Maras is a town in the Sacred Valley, known for the salt evaporation ponds in use since Inca times. My lines below, however, won’t be about the beauty of the scenery, or the salt ponds, or the Incas. Not even about the Sacred Valley. These thoughts committed to memory and these feelings committed to heart are about humanity, empathy, and something of a mystery… As in most of our journeys, it is the human contact that resonate the deepest and the longest. The Maras Salinas, so majestic and impressive in themselves, will be forever shadowed by a little man that stole my heart in Urubamba. Truth is,  many encounters, things, and moments stole my heart in the Andes. Then again, my heart is too easily stolen. So, foremost, I have to write about my Maras shepherd.

Driving on a dirt road, on our way to the hotel in Yucay, back from the salines, while taking in all that wide-open eyes could  absorb of blessed beauty and tranquility, I notice at the edge of my view a small figure treading on the left side of the road, with a grazing flock of sheep and goats, looking as if he just stepped out of a bucolic painting of unknown memories.  We are driving at a very slow pace, he is walking as the sheep grazed, allowing ample time to contemplate the image, to let questions form, and to indulge in curiosity.

I see this silhouette in motion, becoming clearer and more colored with every passing second, up to the moment when the man gets close enough that I am able to decipher body language, interest. I feel an inner nudge for communication.

As we get close enough to him we stop the car. We roll the windows down and I look at him intently. He comes closer to the car and takes an equal interest in us.

We are on a road less traveled, in a region that does not promote car tourism at all. There is so much silence and peace around us, it makes me feel so disconnected from the rest of the world… just us, the sheep and goats, and vast expanses… I get out of the car and realize that I can see the horizon, or hint at it where separated by a mountain range, a puff of clouds, or by unexpected wheat fields at 3000 m altitude, in a 360 degree motion of wonder.

While keenly aware of  beauty all around, my focus is on this little man so curious, so colorful, so short, so different who comes out of his way to get a glimpse of us. I say Hello, Ola, Bon Dia… I sense a question on his face. I smile. He tentatively smiles back. I start asking him questions he obviously does not understand. He says something that I don’t understand. It is a very rough sound, perhaps the old Quechua language of the Incas.  He seems old. As with most people of the Andes we met on our trip, I cannot easily sense how old they are. Perhaps the sun they venerate so much, the wind, the altitude simply make them seem so. We are trying to communicate; I am smiling and he is almost smiling back fully. I signal him to come closer to me to take a picture. We go by the side of the road; we are taking pictures all the while I am speaking to him.

No need to explain how this encounter is etched on my heart. It feels so different and so special… Was it perhaps because how we communicated? Or the exquisite setting? Or the silence and tranquility? We had no language shared but something very deep and meaningful was shared in that moment.

I am sure that the sense of awe, curiosity and intent I was reading on his face was a mirror of my sense of awe, curiosity and intent. I felt a deep sense of empathy. All of a sudden I wanted to know everything about this unique and unusual human being. Where is he coming from? What language does he speak? Who are his ancestors? Why is he so short? Where does he sleep tonight? Does he love anybody? Is he loved?

So unforgettable the sense of curiosity and interest on his face… We communicated in smiles. Absorbed in the moment, I felt transported into a glimpse of meaning, a different sort of awareness. I started to blow kisses at him. By the time the car started moving I kept gesturing and he started gesturing back: we were blowing kisses at each other. He was imitating me, blowing kisses back.  I was burning to be in his mind, to see, to hear, to understand what was he thinking. Something however, I knew. I felt how he was feeling.  And that is an incredibly special kind of knowing.

So many questions… so many gaps to fill…

This little man is still a mystery; I’ll never know the answers to these questions. Yet, I felt I knew him. We share an origin somewhere. We have inhaled the same air. We have shared an intimate space in a vast surrounding; we were two adjoined dots on the canvas of an exquisite landscape for an instant. Together we’ve shared with sheep and goats, with mountains, clouds, and fields of wheat, one landscape of existence. This little man and I… we shared an ever-present moment in our landscape of being. I deeply felt that we have communed.

Moroccan cacophony

Finally in front of a blank piece of paper, conjuring up the muses to help me do justice to the tumult of feelings and emotions experienced in our December trip in what was my first contact with North Africa.

My Moroccan experience was one of people and humanity. Not discounting in any sense the surprising verdant beauty of the North part of the country, the soft and inviting green, rolling hills crossed on our way from Casablanca to Rabat and Fez, the stunning desolation of the Middle Atlas mountains, or the dramatic peaks, glittering in sun and snow, of the High Atlas mountains on our way down South to the gates of Sahara. Not to take anything away from the majesty of ancient cedars, or the silence and reverence of the palm oases, springing up wherever a trickle of water makes its way in the landscape. And of course, not to forget the exquisite architecture, wood carving, mosaic works of art that are in fact objects of use in daily life, the stone and marble fountains, and fascinating doors. Ah, the doors…

But this, to me, is first a story of a people; a glimpse into humanity and intimation of a style of life, bare needs, and feelings, and emotions worn on djellaba sleeves. Human contact on a personal level is unavoidable… walking the narrow streets of Medinas, life taking place under your eyes hits you at every corner. Here is the barber shop and two customers inside, grooming openly, almost on the sidewalk. Next is the baker, feeding the fire of an underground pit, displaying on his window little round loaves of bread so inviting. And then you see a cluster of women wearing baking dishes or personal grooming essentials and you know you’re close to a hammam, unmistakably next to a bakery whose fires also feed the hot water of the baths. Few more steps and you run into the man carrying the Moroccan tea, served everywhere, at every time of day… small silver tray, beautiful silver teapot, tea glasses filled with fresh mint and blocks of sugar awaiting the destination and the ritual of tea pouring (pulling), to aerate this much revered refreshment.

After another corner, here is the fountain, an ancient work of art, with carvings and mosaics, where women fill their buckets and containers for daily needs, seemingly oblivious of the beauty, and history, and holiness of the fountain. Yet, the reverence to water in this country is palpable.
And boys play football everywhere… If they are not harassing you, the traveler, to sell you something, show you the way, or take you somewhere for a change, then they play football… in every narrow alley, filled with cats, they run in ragged clothes after a ragged ball, shouting in joy, blissfully unaware of their poverty and yet their richness.

This is the trip where I have most interacted with people on a very personal level: from the woman who allowed me inside the second biggest mosque in the world, Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, to our host in Fez, kind and gentle Amal, a middle-age woman, manager of the beautiful riad we stayed at, who almost told us the story of her life in our first evening… to our teenage guide in Fez. And then… the Berbers of the South; Youssef, the owner of the Kasbah we stayed at in Merzouga, a candid and open-minded gentleman with whom we had a meaningful, long conversation on life and values, touching taboo subjects such as religion and politics. I will never forget my hour in the desert with two nomad women, Hadija the teenage girl and her mother; we visited with them, had tea and conversation, our guide Ismail helping with translation. I will come back, with or without the muses, to write about the desert. The tour we took in the morning, to see the colors of the day, to glimpse the life on the outskirts of Sahara, the lot of the nomad Berber tribes, the sub-Saharan African tribes’ settlements with their music and dance… And unforgettable and forever transforming is the time spent sipping tea and talking with Hadija and her mother, witnessing their bare existence and embracing their warm welcome and humanity… that morning in a forgotten corner of the world moved me to tears and deeply humbled me.

And then came the evening… this is my one story of the 1001 Arabian nights… We left the Kasbah, this ‘fortress-oasis in the desert’ in the afternoon, on camel ride, to spend the night in a traditional Berber tent. The colors of the dunes, the sky, the shadows on the sand, the soft pace of the hour, experiencing this incredible union with our two camels and our guide Hassan… And then, the night… the fire, the drums, the stars… ahh… the infinitude of stars, so far, so close… the sky was nothing I have seen before, alight and different from the sky at home, and all the other places on Earth I have raised my eyes from… This desert sky at night felt like another home, perhaps an ancient home, newly recovered yet always present within, perhaps the home of undreamt dreams. It felt like I could almost catch a star and dream the Dream with open eyes…

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