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Prompt 6 : Coming Undone | Word Count : 1200 (exactly!) | Genre : Travel Memoir

I should have listened to that little voice.

I squint into the setting sun. They’re true; those movies depicting deserts as a golden blended haze of sun and sand. My reveling evaporates with the hollow sound of my water bottle. Empty.
“Have you guys got water?”

My croaky question sends a few lizards scrambling. I stare at my two silent friends, realizing the meaning of their non-commitment. Shit!
“We have to turn around,” I say as casually as I can, “we cannot spend the night with no water.”

The rising panic is palpable. But we know. There is only one way, and that is back to the river.

*****

A few hours before, we were reminiscing under a tamarisk tree. The river was close enough to crawl to, I noticed absently as I listened to the chatter. Our grateful limbs settled into the sparse shadows as we tried to remember how we ended up there.

“Humph,” said Rene, “they said we must make sure we have proper maps.”
“And we said ‘it’s a canyon, surely one just follows the river?’”  Both Rene and Dina nodded, remembering. The concerned ‘they’ wanted to know why we were not packing tents.
“You are so exposed out there!”  they said. And we were brazen in reply.
“Why? It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

Regardless of our arrogant responses to the well-intended advice, we decided to play it safe and prepared.
We researched.
We trained.
We anticipated difficulties.
We provided for survival.
We repacked.

Then we shut out fear. And we turned a deaf ear to the little voice.
We were ready and the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

The descent sported chains to hang on to, while adjusting our balance with loaded backpacks – as we were warned in the many blogs we read. Slow, step-by-step downwards to protect toes – as experience taught us. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs – as demanded by failing lungs and muscles. Every stop an excuse to inhale the arid river-scape, but also to swallow the angst. Hours on our feet downhill, trembling legs and the smallest distance covered before calling it a day.

Too tired to cook, we settled down with snacks and water and a shy moon, hiding behind clouds that quickly assembled into a noisy storm. Our first night out, under a sky filled with thunder and lightning and no tents. Surrounded by storm-echoes rollerblading off fearsome cliffs we huddled together. We shimmered, in the unabating show of lightning like Christmas lights, on-and-off. Hoping to stay dry, we sat on our hastily repacked backpacks and used flimsy space blankets as partial cover. And much later for warmth. As the groans of the canyon became distant we fell into exhausted sleep, not noticing the milky way gliding along its path.

The next morning all was washed clean. Even the trail. The faint proof of human activity was not there anymore. There was a sea of boulders and mile-high walls hugging the gurgling river.
We lost the trail.
We lost the canyon.
We lost spirit.
We lost track of distance and time.
We became profoundly tired – bordering on dangerous. A previously unknown sense of hopelessness stalked us.

THAT’s how we ended up under the Tamarisk tree.

For the umpteenth time we studied our maps. And finally we agreed. There was an emergency exit, close by. We were going out. We quit. We were leaving this canyon with blind corners and dead ends and no contact or signal and we were going to phone whoever to fetch us.

“My toes are like marshmallows, rolled in honey,” Dina said.
“That sweet?” Rene tried some light-heartedness, which we all felt with the certainty that came with the abandonment agreement.
“No! That fat and sticky!” Dina moaned. “And I can do with a shower and pampering.”

We found the dirt track snaking up, over a manageable cliff. We marched on and for the first time in days, felt the return of hope. Walking with new vigor and lighter packs we checked for phone signal.

Much later, guided by a thin two-track disappearing into a flat desert, we finally register. There was no connection to the outside world; no end to the road, no rescuers awaiting us with luxuries, and no water.

*****

There is only one way, and that is back to the river. All the chirpiness is gone. The way back is further. Harder. Heavier. It has no sound.

Darkness infiltrates everywhere. And gains weight. It fabricates an unfamiliar edge. It smothers the senses.  Once again the Milky Way shows its magic, but we are too busy listening to darkness and despair, to notice.

After lifetimes of stumbling, I stop. Suddenly. Dina walks straight into me and Rene into her.
“Dominoes!” I say, but not without affection. “I think I can see the Tamarisk. Am I hallucinating? Please tell me you see it?”
Dina tries to speak, she coughs and her hoarse reply coincides with Rene’s yelp which disturbs owls on-the-hunt.
“That’s where we rested this morning!”
“The river is close, some stupid thing I remember noticing when we looked at the maps.” My relief shrill in my ears.

With the splash of water in our bottles and our heads on our backpacks, we agree there is only one way out of this canyon. Walk to its end.
“Another three days?” Rene asks.
“Who knows.” I say.
“We take each day as it comes. Goodnight,” Dina says and a soft rumble soon plays in the back of her throat.

The next day we see the morning star for the first time. There is a lightness around. I know the canyon is conquered.

The mind-shift is astounding – it defines the rest of our hike.

We make peace with our smell.
We adapt a casualness towards sand in our ears, our beds and in the coffee.
We accept dirt and survival are companions.
We treasure the clean wash of whiskey through a sandy mouth and down a dusty throat. And we stop purifying our drinking water.
We settle at the end of each day under an expanse too majestic to grasp.
And we learn to turn our backs to the wind when it takes us by surprise in the middle of the night.
We dance (albeit with a limp) with joy when we encounter a flat hard piece of track.
We make good use of the puddles to splash salt-peter off our toning bodies.
We lick our fingers after we polish our bowls of rehydrated meals.
We sleep in shoes and clothes.

The granite walls start tapering down and the flow of the river becomes wider. Human presence is evident. We are reaching the end of this formidable natural phenomena. We walk into a subdued camp. We know where to go; exactly the same place where we were picked up a week (or more?) before.

“We did it!” Dina sobs. I turn to laugh away her silliness and then see Rene’s face. Contorted with a primal emotion, I see the deep borne force of survival powered by hope. Proud and tired I spread my arms around them.
“We did it!” I whisper into the group-hug.

And then I become undone …

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Cobblestone & Door

NOT ISTANBUL

Prompt :– A White Lie    Genre :- Sultry (?)     Word count :– 2500

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NOT ISTANBUL                      by Annalie Kleinloog

 

“Your turn, Ali.”

Dan’s light touch brings me back to reality with a jolt. I gasp. Good wine turns bad. I cough and splutter. Grateful for the excuse to fetch a glass of water and to gather myself and to remember what my turn is about?

“You OK?” he peeps around the kitchen door. Gorgeous, loving and besotted, Dan.

“Fine.” I smile and wave him back betwixt hoarse breaths.

I can hear the cheerful nattering continue outside. Our group of friends’ typical Sunday pastime – lunch on the open verandah, chilled wine especially with this balmy afternoon breeze, and a topic of interest that sometimes pushes boundaries.

Earlier talk around the table, inevitably steered towards travel and favourite places. Everyone has a story to tell. I leaned back in my chair and into Dan’s protective arm, absorbed in their stories. Laughing when necessary and drifting off dreamily. It must have been the balminess that reminded me so much of that time in Istanbul. Before I met Dan.

It was just before Jane was getting married and it was to be our last girly holiday together. As always, when we travelled, it was an explosion of senses. Cultural, historical and gastronomical. Jane and I didn’t miss a mosque or a museum or an authentic experience. Istanbul was so much more, but it was that humid afternoon in a typical steamy Hammam that interfered with my focus at present.

“The oldest and most reasonable hotel, in the old town,” Jane emphasised the last bit as I queried the weird name she gave to the Taxi driver.   “It’s near the Grand Bazaar and walking distance to the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia” she added, but I knew she always did her research well. I smiled in appreciation. “Cobblestone streets around the shopping areas, good exercise”, she continued the animated itinerary, “then we can drop the bags off before heading to the Bospherous to just chill on a ferry”.

“What about a bit of authentic?” I curbed her fast-forward babbling. “I heard a Turkish Bath is quite different.”

“But we can bath in the hotel, Ali! And I am clean anyway, aren’t you?” She quipped, unenthusiastically. She also understood the secret of amiable traveling. So, we agreed on an authentic Turkish Bath experience by the time we arrived. The historical hotel’s ancient concierge obliged while the aged clerk sorted out the antique keys to our medieval chamber.

“Ahh Ma’am, the original Hammam of all time and in all of Turkey is just around the corner. And there is but one person that can arrange that for you. And that is ME.”

The white gloved, big-grinned concierge puffed his buttoned chest in response to our enquiry and then paused to create the necessary impact of his importance. With us now open-mouthed and big-eyed, he continued to explain: “Yes, this is the ONE Hammam that was used by Sultans. Persian rulers traveled months to see it. Tsars would risk storms, not to miss this.” He swallowed a smoky cough, folded his busy hands behind his back and peered at us from underneath bushy eyebrows.

A dramatic silence crept past. “And important people through the ages from ALL over the world came to have this ONE experience. You see? Ya, only important people like you can go there.”  He ended with a deep bow. We smiled in acceptance of the over-obvious compliment and nodded as was expected, but the look we shared was loaded with suppressed humour.

“I will make reservation now, yes?” Some serious phoning and negotiating accompanied by unfamiliar gesticulating finally resulted in The Bath being secured.  “Please meet here in foyer exactly five o’clock, Ma’am”.   Five o’clock brought us face-to- face with a visibly excited concierge and his on-the-other-side-of-the-phone-friend; the chauffeur of an ominous black car.

As it was late afternoon and a Sunday, there was an eerie stillness around the winding and obscure route we followed. “Like a kidnap scene in a thriller …” Jane mumbled. And glared at me. “You and the authentic thing!” I shrugged the accusation away with a sigh of anticipation. The car’s black polished nose pushed through a gap in an ancient wall. “Wall of Constantinople”, the uniformed and oily-haired driver said. We nodded and pretended to stare in awe. Then we were swallowed by a narrow street on the other side of the gap. Dark alleys combed off to both sides. The driver slowed down, partly to negotiate the uneven width of the road and partly because of visibility. At this snail’s pace I sensed Jane’s impatience and her irritation with my excitement.

“Nobody would know where to find us”, she whispered urgently. And I too noticed that buildings were closer and side streets fewer. In the last rays of the day I could make out a huge door, totally covered by ornate shields, weird patterns and ancient frescoes. Nowhere else to go, this door also indicated the end of the road.

“See where your exploring got us? In the heart of the mafia part of the city … you know these Turks can be cruel and…” Jane swallowed as she was interrupted by a commotion outside. Our doors opened and curious, but friendly faces helped us out. The wave of wigwagging hands and faces carried us through the ancient door. I could just make out Jane’s nervous giggle.

We were led into a cavernous space. Unexpected big and open, but filled with foreign, mesmerising music and chanting in the background. Filled with old smells mixed with clean ones; confusing our chemically conditioned olfactory pathways. Filled with dark spaces; blindingly interspersed with splashes of brightness.

The moment I stepped into the space my thought processes and analytical responses were numbed by the incense, or the dim light, or the strangeness, or all of it.  Different levels in the ancient marble floor made me stumble, my reactions were busy somewhere else.

Jane bumped into me and cursed softly.

Then we came to an abrupt halt in a dimly lit change room. Hushed, but hasty sign language indicated a suspiciously small bundle of clothing. Two bundles with two pieces for each of us. Our hosts disappeared for a moment. As we changed into the scant outfits; the purpose of which still escapes my logic as I was soon to discover that the ‘bath’ had no need for any kind of covering; I could hear the rolling of a foreign tongue giving instructions on the other side of our door. Followed by the friendly hands and faces reappearing to lead us into a different passage. Squeaky and warm wood under our bare feet now. Smooth marble under my naked palms as I tried to stabilise myself against the walls. Muted voices drowned by sounds of what…water? Pattering – feet or hands?

The clean smell of soap became more distinct. So did the sound of water; and then the pattering of, yes, hands. I glanced over my shoulder, caught a glimpse of Jane’s worried expression while passing an old-world wall torch, the only flickering sign of light, and felt a tingle of expectation down my spine.

“Jane,” I motioned and she eagerly caught up with me. “Imagine, to go where the ancients went – to experience what the gods invented. You do know that to explore is to live?” She managed a quivering smile and I giggled.

Steam bubbled from all available gaps as our chaperone opened a door quietly. I could make out the dull sound of a gong; indicating the end of the preceding session. From our side of the door I could just make out the glistening bodies moving to the opposite side of the room.

“Wait here” I translated from the gesture, and knew it wasn’t the steam when I heard Jane breathe hard behind me. Noiseless, our chaperone materialised again from the mist. He guided us into a round room with side passages. Following his wordless instructions, we stretched out on the central marble slab, surprised by its warmth. Jane curled up in protective stance, face-down and foetal. But I found myself in sacrificial position, face up, DaVinci-man, not to miss anything. My view filled with the marble dome adorned with ancient windows; most probably to let the sun in to warm up the slabs. I stretched and waited for the next step in this adventure.

More guests arrived. The round slab filled up with bodies. I realised then that it was Bath night for women. “See?” I said to Jane, “we are not alone.” Secure in the presence of others, she succumbed to the experience. I could tell by her sigh and then turning on her back. And we both observed the ritual starting to whirl around us. Lean, loin-clothed masseurs fell into a rhythmic movement – alternating between filling buckets from hidden taps on the far sides of the room and swooshing the contents over the central marble slab where we reclined.

Group chatter slowly drowned in the symphony created by the hissing of cotton soap-bags filled under ancient taps, accompanied by the pattering of hands. Swirling and twirling; the macabre dance between human, bag and foam was slow enough to be mesmerising, but fast enough to create a luscious lather. The dancers’ shared gestures and expressions indicated the onset of the ‘bath’.

Anticipation was rewarded with the masseur’s firm hands positioning me face-down on the communal slab. He took in his place next to me with his trophy of a foam factory tugged into a loincloth of sort. The only garment of sort on these young men. There was no time to muse over fashion. The first layer of foam was applied as part of a twirling dance movement. I felt the silky flow of the foam over ticklish places. Goosebumps crawled in all directions.

Alternating his foam-dance and lather-layering, the young, but experienced masseur morphed my body into anonymity with the rest of the foam covered group. After an eternity of foam packing, the foam-ritual came to an end.

The sudden stillness enhanced the general hypnotic state as I battled to lift my head, curious. Was the haziness from the group’s heavy breathing or the warm water and foam on cool marble? The calm before the stormy massage phase?

Before reason could take over, strong hands found my back through the layers of foam. Initial surprise caused me to gulp. The masseur took it as a sign of pleasure and proceeded with added vigour making sure not a single fibre of muscle was missed by his probing fingers.

Smooth, rhythmic movements relaxed tense bodies on hard tables. Weariness foamed down the marble slab, onto the marble floor, flowed away into marble canals to join troubles of others across the ages.

“We are unique in our sameness…” I heard Jane groan next to me.

Too soon, the wordless request to turn over was gestured. Barely aware of being human, I obliged. Stretched out, with eyes closed, legs slightly spread and arms floppy with palms facing up, I refused to take control of my senses. Brief irritation with the nervous giggles from around me was replaced by blissful surrender as the foam-dance continued to enchant, albeit from the more sensitive anterior perspective.

Some distant concern about my nakedness and my masseur’s maleness dissipated with the confident manner in his approach. Starting with my left foot and leg, with ever-widening circles he rippled across western restrictions. Anatomical definitions blurred into oblivion as I let myself spin, mesmerised and paralysed.

Slick movements of almost touch – too fast to be grasped – too obscure to be noticed – too subtle to differentiate – too confident to judge. From afar I listened to the heavy breathing and I felt the rhythmic power as he followed this ancient routine. All obtuseness cleared with the sudden conclusion of the ‘bath’. The rhythmic movement stopped abruptly and the atmosphere uncharged in seconds. There was a communal sigh. Everyone on the slab looked flushed. Seated, we received ancient carafes from our individual masseurs. It was filled with cool and clean water. Understanding their gestures, we poured the contents over our foam-covered bodies and stifled gasps as the cold unite us in reality again.

Shiny, clean and naked – several hands reached for stacked towels. Wrapped in dry security, we completed the cycle as we returned to our individual change rooms, to be met by our modern, recently shed attires. Numbed senses, but enhanced awareness. An experience banked in memory. Till today.

I clear my throat again and sip the last bit of water before returning to the pleasant hum around the table outside. Wiping my eyes as I sit down, I smile back at the sympathetic stares. It happens. Dan leans over and kisses my cheek.

“Your turn?” he says and all eyes now focus on me. My turn.

I smile, cough again and start my story about my favourite place.

“You all know that city-travel is not my thing. I prefer the wide open spaces with no interference from civilisation. Rather interaction with locals in rural areas than shopping in malls.” I see some rolling their eyes, they know me. “Give me the smells and sounds of earth in its rawest from.” Appreciative nods around the table.

“But there is ONE city that vibrates with a life of its own. And somehow hums with my vibe too.” Curious glances and knowing smiles. “ The only city I am capable of revisiting over and over again.” Now I see a few leaning forward for more. I smile. “That place where memories created by senses will always haunt me and find my; as if it happened yesterday.”

The daydream fresh in my mind, I once again whirl with the dervishes in concert on the cobbled streets. Where the ice cream sellers played their tricks on me with their bells and little trolleys. I remember the flavours of the food court vendor’s shawarma and his sizzling kebabs. Overflowing grand bazaar, colours, people and exotic items mingle with the constant supply of apple tea and I can feel the glow of the sunset on the waters of the Bospheros.

Suddenly Dan’s face comes into focus and I realise the glow must show. His eyes warm with his own memories. And I realise his anticipation. The reality hit me. I give a little cough, choking experience still an excuse, and continue.

“London” I hear my voice. Strong and convincing. I look at Dan. He beams.

“My favourite place is London.” I pause for effect and to squeeze Dan’s hand on my thigh. “Because that is where I met Dan.”

Whoops and jeers from around the table. And the gentle tuck on my arm, pulling me closer. A whisper in my ear. Enough excuse to make me blush truthfully. Yes, he is gorgeous. And I do love him so.

So what if I have to sacrifice Istanbul? Jane will understand.

Doesn’t Oxford Dictionary define a white lie as a harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fishriver Canyon – Revered

IMG_9554

In the end, there is nothing that can prepare you for this experience.

“Make sure you have proper maps…”

“Ah, don’t worry about maps, just follow the river.”

“Better take a tent, you are so exposed…”

“Never. I would never take a tent, just imagine, the whole expanse as your ceiling.”

“Nyaa, don’t worry. It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

“Don’t bother with thermals – 40 plus degrees, promise.”

Well meaning friends and experienced relatives echoed the advice from blogs, Google and Parks Board experts.

So, we decided to play it safe and prepare. Properly.

We anticipated the difficulties and we expected the survivals. We planned for the unforeseen and we shut out the fear.

We were ready, but the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

Descent

The descent lived up to its reputation. Chains to hang onto while adjusting balance with loaded backpacks.

Slow, step-by-step to protect toes. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs. Breathers to inhale scenery.

Three and a half hours and we conquered a mere 2 km. That’s fine, we told ourselves.

A good rest, a swim and only a few more kms before camping. Then bliss under the stars.

But it took another three very long hours to the night-stop which was only 2 km away.

From the exhaustion perspective it was perfect…

By a tamarisk tree and on a soft patch of beach – which we would soon learn to dread –we settled with snacks, water and a shy moon.

We were too tired to cook. Clouds that we had hardly noticed quickly combined into a noisy storm.

So we spent our first night easing into the routine under a sky consumed by thunder and lightning, flimsily covered with a shiny space blanket protecting our sleeping bags; now filled with aching limbs and throbbing feet.

The next morning we awoke to a world washed and clean.

IMG_9473

Elaborating on each day would fill a book with tales of disaster, and a hospital quota of aches and indescribable pains.

Suffice to say we lost the trail, we lost the canyon, we lost spirit, I lost my phone and my camera, we lost track of distances and we found tiredness beyond words. Saturated in a depressing sense of hopelessness.

By the fifth day, which was meant to be our last, we finally made peace with the way we smelt.

We developed a disinterest in the sand in our ears, our beds and our coffee. Dirt and survival were now our companions.

IMG_9532

We did, however, appreciate the crystal clear skies at night – with a view of stars and satellites untainted, which was humbly breathtaking.

We treasured the clean wash of a swig of whiskey through a sandy mouth and a dusty throat.

We slept in awe under a never ending expanse of sky too majestic to grasp.

And we learned to simply turn our backs to the wind when it took us by surprise in the middle of the night.

We danced (albeit with measured limping) with joy when we encountered a flat, hard piece of track.

And we eventually stopped moaning about the miles of sand interspersed with light-years of boulders and rocks.

We made good use of the puddles to splash saltpeter off our toning bodies and eventually stopped purifying the drinking water.

We licked our fingers after we polished the bowls of dehydrated meals. And we finally just slept with our shoes on.

IMG_9466

Then we arrived. A day later than planned.

The emotions of finally reaching the end wiped clean the memory bank of pain and suffering.

Pretty much like birth pains – you forget.

The uncertainty of the next step, the agonizing survival of pain, the desperation of a never-ending cycle all disappeared in the relief, the release and the reward of finishing.

Merely a week later and the suffering is already a distant memory. Awe is what remains.

“Unforgettable,” is what I say when asked…

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Petra

Petra

Route 90 runs south from Jerusalem. At 390m below sealevel, it is the world’s lowest road and the main arterial to popular resorts along the arid banks of the Dead Sea. If you take a right somewhere down south, it takes you to Gaza. It is also the gateway to two places I need to tick off my list of places to visit – Masada and Petra.

My careful research and planning – although anathema to my husband – didn’t put him off this time. Eschewing the comforts and familiarity of his conference he decided to join me. As I bent over the car-rental contract, his sense of humour waned almost immediately. “Must we DRIVE? How far is it?” My usual, ‘just over the hill’ would not work, so I assured him it was an easy drive on well-marked roads all along the Dead Sea with a stop at Masada and then onwards to Petra. “Why can’t we go straight to Eilat? THAT is where you want to be, isn’t it?” I decided to revert to Plan A.

I reached over for the pamphlets that had been staring at me for a while. I opened the Masada leaflet at the sitemap where it explained the steep hikes and the suggestion of doing it before dawn. The Petra one featured the famous sandstone passage, explaining the 6km walk into, around and then out of the ancient city. I kept the trump card for last – DAILY TRIPS from Eilat described in detail the border crossing and visa procedures to get to Petra. “We are crossing BORDERS?” My suppressed grin must have reflected in my eyes.

 

We were interrupted by the return of the goodnatured rental agent. He chattily warned about the roads littered with ‘ruddur’ before handing over the keys. “It’s the local traffic control, they have ruddur (radar)”, he explained when husband-dearest rolled his eyes and his expression morphed from boredom into disbelief as we followed our friend’s directional wave.

Parched landscape, surrounding the Jordan River, could be seen between overtaking trucks and watching out for ‘rudder’. Stretches of Dead Sea and industrial tunnel farming on the banks failed to entertain my passenger and fortunately before too long Masada appeared. My excitement cooled at the sight of the queues – of people and busses. The place was overflowing.

We pushed on. Masada and the other Dead Sea resorts were left behind as we rushed to get to Eilat before dark. The R90 shimmered in the Negev Desert. I saw the Red Sea before I realised we were near Eilat. My relieved shift in the sweat drenched seat awoke my passenger. “Are we there yet?” We were close, yes. I distracted him by making him the navigator. Pointing to a spot on the upside-down-rental map, I insisted on a central hotel.

After booking in there was enough daylight left to explore our surroundings. A slow walk along a coastline that bordered three old worlds was strangely humbling. Israel, Jordan and Egypt meet at this sea. Eilat was originally a port for trade with Asia and later as a military outpost. Detritus from a tourist boom in the 70s could be glimpsed in torn cushions and faded umbrellas. These were limited to the area closest to the port. Flea markets hemmed the hotels. The latter effected an unexpected upliftment in my husband’s mood. He happily returned to our two star hotel with a variety of souvenirs proudly hooked over his shoulders.

The following morning, crossing into Jordan was an easy affair. There was the normal protocol, permissions and stamps on both sides of the border. Our trust in the system was reinforced when we found our online, prepaid guide waiting on the other side of the customs buildings. I ignored my partner’s sighs that accompanied every “no problem” comment from our guide/driver, fearing a disintegration of my only intention – to make it to Petra and back in a single day.

Petra is an ancient city cut out of sandstone rock – poetically described as ‘the rose-red city half as old as time.’ The trip halfway up the Dead Sea on the Jordanian side, took us to the middle of the day. This was against all advice. “Must we WALK? How far is it?” This time it was through the hill. No pacifying with ‘just over the hill’, no avoiding the sun and no turning around.

My husband looked longingly at the horses and carts dusting the pathway to and fro with overweight tourists. Our guide sensed my determination and strolled purposefully towards a dark narrow gorge – aptly named Al Siq (The Shaft). A barren sandstone channel with streaks of colour, it was only 4 meters wide.

The easy way in and out

The easy way in and out

Absorbed in the geological and archeological treasures, I forgot about heat, exhaustion and my suffering partner. The Al Khazne (The Treasury) facade that has captured the imaginations of so many explorers, poets and moviemakers appeared at the end of this symbolic birth canal. It trembled in the heat, but that did not diminish its magic. Its magnificence was palpable. Brave tourists with tripods at its foundations were dwarfed. I stood still. I let the trail move past me. It was worth it.

As part of the guided tour and as an essential midday escape, we were led into burial caves that occupied the opposite wall. Colourful hollows that housed the dead. The space filled up with hats, sweating tourists and cameras – very alive. My moment of meditation dissolved and, like herd animals we stayed close to our guide. “These were used as burial sites. People lived on the other side, but this was sacred.” Rolling eyes and a sigh from my husband confirmed his total boredom. From one of what was obviously a group of Americans, a hand shot up, “What kind of people did they bury here?”

Houses and Tombs alike

Houses and Tombs alike

 

Only Dead People were buried...

Only Dead People were buried…

 

It would have been one of those passing historically insignificant comments, never to be acknowledged or remembered, if it wasn’t for our guide’s reaction. His brows shot up, which made his eyes huge. He sucked his breath in sharply, shocked. “Only dead ones.”

As I retreated to bury my giggle, I bumped into my husband. Hugging him for support, I felt his body shook with inward laughter. His pinched face did the unleashing. We both burst out laughing.

Husband’s sense of humor was intact.

Petra was breathtaking.

And somewhere on the edge of the Judaea Desert was Masada on ice.

 

Petra Ticked

Petra Ticked

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India – symbolic of an onslaught on all the known senses.

 Chennai and Delhi (new and old) whirred past in three days of snail traffic. The remaining rules of the streets were dictated by the size of vehicle and by sudden urges of any holy cow. Intersections became battlefields where raucous onlookers would surround the warring parties.

Within this human-transport-device-cow milling mass I observed a sequence of events that piqued my curiosity. On the outskirts of a warzone, frowned faces collected what seemed like money, from eager bystanders. This was accompanied by shrill voices in surreal surround sound. Impatient drivers blasted away on an array of hooters; cows howled for their offspring; agitated vendors shoved for another sale while a wrestling match developed between two drivers or a driver and a pedestrian or maybe even two friends. The squabbling went on for ages as the current we were stuck in stuttered past and beyond before I could witness who the victor was.

Intersections and loaded buses

Intersections and loaded buses

Our taxi-guide nodded in a peculiar way (like those dogs in the back windows of cars) in appreciation of my enquiry. He turned down the volume of booming sixties music to reply: “They are betting on the outcome. Like gambling, you know? It’s tradition and some extra income, and all. Everyone does it – all the time”. His explanation confirmed the regularity and ordinariness of the intersection-wars. All the while his earnest eye-darting to the rearview mirror was accompanied by the constant head-bopping.

Streets, roads and all spaces...shopping

Streets, roads and all spaces…shopping

 

In between intersections our line of outdated cars and basket-bikes moved slowly enough for me to study the pedestrians. The sidewalks became streams of human ants busying to and fro in bright garb, stopping briefly for exchanges of dirty money wrapped in kerchiefs for the on-the-go street curry. Whiffs of danya, cloves, turmeric and saffron (the black market type) blended with fumes of progress. The smell of poverty clung to the air that carried incense and curry. My lungs and nose revolted against the unfamiliar mix. Fortunately an innate tolerance and sense of adventure helped my senses (and me) to rapidly adjust.

I was looking forward to visiting the marble white Taj Mahal. Away from the screaming colors of the ubiquitous saris and smells of spice infused air; to a place of meditation and soul restoring. Head-bopping-guide-driver confirmed that this was a quiet place of worship and peace. “Built in the 15th century, dedicated to the third wife of a shah, yes”, he said. “She was a Persian princess who died in childbirth of her 14th child”, he added in his matter of (everyday) fact way. The rest of his story droned on while a vivid, but sad picture of a modern day Princess of the people occupied my mind.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana 

 

On a tour that touched the world, but a lone figure on a bench, Diana perched in typical stance with the mausoleum as backdrop in this over publicized photo. I wondered if she found magic there? I wondered if the staged emptiness of the gardens around the Taj Mahal echoed her emotions? I wondered if the pool reflection of a clear sky mirrored the blue of her eyes? I wondered if she understood a love capable of devoting a temple as the one behind her?

We arrived at Agra, miraculously still in one, albeit, dusty piece. The road was not that long. It was just that slow. Yielding respectfully when Brahman crossed the road (the cattle, not the caste). Dodging dangling passengers from groaning buses, from and to unpronounceable places. Waiting patiently for traffic jams that uncoiled in unimaginable masses of more noise, creatures and gestures.

Holy and happy

Holy and happy

 

Back in the air-conditioned hotel the concierge dutifully spelled out the plans for the next morning. Stabbing with his pen at the travelling brochure he deflated our enthusiasm with: “It is a religious holiday tomorrow”. Before the consequence of this announcement could make sense he trundled out the words I dreaded to hear: “There will be plenty devotees from the countryside. Everybody in India must visit Taj Mahal at least once. Very pleasant. You will see. Please be on time.” Our exchanged glances were censored before they could be translated.

The next morning, buses deposited us amongst more people and food. Tickets and body searchers helped to slow the procession towards the shrine down to a crawl, (so much for being on time). When we finally got into the gardens and saw the monument for the first time for real, the glamour was dulled by flashes from millions of cameras and the equally dazzling smiles of zealous posers. Even so, my sixth sense intuited the subtle undercurrent of magic.

 

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

 

We followed the human serpent. We rolled across the garden paths, coiled up the stairs and watched its other end emerge on the opposite side. Like the omega – in shape and in continuance. We glided over the cool marble and slid down into the shadowy recesses of the tomb. We were carried forward on a stream of chanters and I found myself slipping into the lull of mass hypnosis.

It was due to this altered state of mind (I told myself afterwards) that people appeared friendlier. We were stopped for photographs and autographs(?!). One photo on the stairs leading into the subterranean chamber, ‘with my daughter and wife, please’. A picture to be posed for in front of the small cemetery gate, ‘for our hanty and huncle who are too old to travel, thank you’. One more with a little girl all pink and shy, for her birthday.

 

For my wife, please

For my wife, please

 

One for the family

One for the family with the birthday girl

 

There was magic in the people. Their unsophisticated warmth melted away the exasperation that usually accompanies hordes. Back in the blazing sun their energy mingled with the festivities under the trees and shaded spaces. The inevitable Indian picnic on holidays featured even on holy ground.

Marble base for a picnic

Marble base for a picnic and some prayers

 

Slowly we made our way towards the exit. There we would find a picture-perfect-position our guide promised. Perfect to capture the gold of the setting sun reflected on the marble. Over the heads of the millions, I smiled. “No problem for you”, he cajoled my husband Rob. “You are big and tall, you can see over everybody. The people from the country has never seen a big man like you, that is why they want to take photos back to their villages, to show the others”. Sense surfaced. We smiled, now knowingly, as our sweet talking guide arranged us on the Di-chair, the famous bench that portrayed the sad solitude of Princess Diana.

Flattery will get one anywhere...

Flattery will get one anywhere…

 

After a digital plethora of poses I was asked to remain seated on the bankie. “A request from the people”, our guide tried to comfort me. Flattery proved to take him everywhere and I waved jokingly at the gathering crowd. I smiled at a worried Rob and allowed Mr Smooth to be director of my final pose. “Please hang your head sideways and smile through your hair. They think you are Diana reincarnated.” His eyes rolled towards the crowd.

 

Princess for that one posed moment

Princess for that one posed moment

 

My moment of magic (although in post analytical reality just a creation of Mr Suave), reduced the gold on the marble to a faint memory.

A split second of undeserved recognition and a shared sense of fun completed my Taj Mahal Magic.

 

 

 

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It was long ago. Michele was blonde and I was mouse.

She still is blonde, but I am now silver. Her blondeness taught me then about social-cultural tolerance. Our South Africanness highlighted the worldwide ignorance regarding Africa and color, which I now appreciate in golden memories.

 

Umbria is a province in the middle of Italy, off the trodden track. But it was the unknown on the brochure that caught our attention and lured us into our first hike in Europe.

Footloose and carefree, it promised.

 

The train weaved down the peninsula from Florence towards the Appenine Mountains where Calvin, our English-speaking guide, met us at Foligno station. On the verandah of Beneditti he explained the unfamiliar term of slackpacking; apologized for the outdated war maps and exchanged phone numbers in case we got lost en route. No, there were no others on this excursion; we were too early for the European hiking season. Michele and I were the group.

 

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

Selfie in the Appenines with Poppies

 

Early the next morning a taxi waited to take us to Pettino. Calvin waved us a last “Read the instructions carefully”. We thanked the driver in the one-horse village, more a sheep-still-asleep one, shaded by oak forests. At the dusty crossroads, we consulted the copied notes: From Pettino find the way to Spina Vecchia. We took the only road in the opposite direction to the disappearing taxi. There was a reassuring rusted signpost with a barely visible cursive S.Vech.

 

The motionless air carried no sounds. The world slumbered. We breathed the musky truffle air from the oak forest till we met the sun where it peeped over open wheat fields. Speckles of red poppies in the gold and indigo patches on the cross-valley hills pulled our focus away from the maps. There was an indescribable sense of place. It was as if we were the only wanderers (which we seemed to be), ever to walk this piece of earth.

 

It took a while before the euphoria was replaced by a tinge of concern. We could not find the rusted wire gate or for that matter the old well with a hole in the bucket (dear Liza?). Instead there were fields with sheep, an old man herding them and a sleepy hollow to our left. Somewhere in our entranced state, I skipped a line on the instructions. We needed a phone to contact Calvin.

 

The herder followed us after his unsuccessful attempt to understand our map or us – instead he muttered something about ‘senoritas’ and ‘vino rosso or vino blanco’. At breakfast? I then realized the power of blonde; our illiterate countryside farmer had never seen a bunny like Michele, ever. The awe in his eyes was indescribable and his immediate infatuation overpowered all his logic. I giggled; Michele cringed.

 

A young mother was hanging nappies on a line as we approached her. She dried her hands on an apron and smiled at our expanded group. Mama Maria from Fonni came to our rescue. She understood sign language for telephone. ‘You want shortest route to Cerreto?’ The old Roman road was visible at the tip of her finger; at the bottom of the valley, a direct but challenging descent. This was fortunate, as it proved too difficult for our aged pursuer after he insisted on ‘showing us the way’.

Stone walls and rivers

Stone walls and rivers

 

 

Encouraged by Michele’s endless enthusiasm, I ignored the dull ache in my toes as we followed the off-the-map cobbled path. I let out a loud sigh when the village appeared further down the valley. Elated spirits soon succumbed to pain when we realized that the Panorama Hotel was exactly that. Panoramic. Our destined accommodation was perched on the top of the highest hill of the town. We were entering Cerreto at river level.

 

“You can take your boots off at the first pub we find, and we can have an ice cold beer. We deserve it,” said Michelle. After a day lost in the rural mountains I was too tired to argue, let alone debate the point that neither of us drank beer. The pub sign was visible even before we had a view of the street. Guessing by the blare from that direction, there was obviously a national soccer match on the go. The noise contradicted the emptiness of the main street winding up the hill.

 

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

Bopping ponytail and Roman paths

 

Approaching the door for the promised resurrection, we both immediately understood the futility of the reward as all the men from the village were gathered around the TV. Our attempted casual, but quick stroll past the only pub didn’t go unnoticed. Judging by their exclamations, the few bystanders on the periphery of the soccer flock had just scored winning goals. The all-male crowd turned in unison towards the cause of the jubilations. My scowl was not noticed as the mass gawked at my fair friend, who suddenly had more haste in completing the final stretch.

 

The Hotel Panorama staff were relieved to welcome us; but were concerned about our late arrival and worried about the boots over my shoulder. The only way I could get up the last part of the hill was barefoot. After the abandoned beer stop, my blisters protested beyond reason. Yet strangely, the cobbles were kinder to my feet than the hard-toe hiking boots. And blonde ruled over blue – Michele’s bobbing ponytail accelerating the escape, but at the cost of my loosening toenails.

 

Slackpacking had benefits. Our real luggage was waiting in our rooms while our daypacks now soaked with the day’s fun (and sometimes run) lay in the sun. Then a hot healing shower, feet nursed, attired afresh and the best Italian cuisine – a trusted remedy for any traveler – followed by a soft sleep on crisp linen. The following day we were scheduled to enjoy a non-hiking day in Norcia, a neighboring small town. Blissful browsing and resting sore limbs and battle worn feet, this was the pattern of our trip for the next week. Early start and early arrival, browse around the town and a rest day before beginning again.

 

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

Criss-crossing valleys and rivers

 

Crossing the Appenines of unknown Umbria in a group of two proved to be one of my most memorable travels. Often we walked through medieval town squares where we soon learned to cover our stringy topped shoulders and hiking-shorts knees during this passage; where elders (always men) judged us with watery glares.

 

We learned that siesta was a given along the Mediterranean so there were no open shops or shopkeepers to be seen during midday. That made us grateful for the ‘Mama’ at every overnight stop. She (all of them) packed a part-of-the-package picnic consisting of fresh bread, cheese, chorizo and a bottle of water and a touch of health (fruit) and the inevitable left over wine, (previous dinner’s unfinished extra large carafe of house wine). As we travelled we chose our lunch spots by view and proximity to destination. Where we would relax, secure in the knowledge that our next haven waited around the corner.

 

Idyllic, almost sacred days

Idyllic, almost sacred days

 

We crossed rivers (mostly Rio Nera), passed trout farms and bathed in drinking troughs. We sang, we danced and we explored. Chained and locked chapel doors did not stop us from taking pictures through broken windows so that we could see what it was they were hiding. The painted ceilings were intact, but the frescoes on the walls were disintegrating. Pictures of a harsh religion were recognizable, depicting punishment in paradoxical subtle colors.

 

Stone Arches

Stone Arches

 

Idyllic days followed nights of culinary wonder; consisting of herb and spice infusions with strange names, smells and tastes. Between towns we had the valleys and mountains to ourselves; infrequently a pair of cyclists would pass us. Unused railway tunnels became changing rooms and Roman aqueducts lined the horizon. Olive groves replaced fields of gold and we strolled through vineyards into rural villages with terracotta-lined balconies. The signposts and the maps started synchronizing and the days had their own rhythm. Our bodies followed.

 

 

It was during one of our peaceful lunches next to a district road that we discovered the general ignorance about South Africa. We heard the music before we saw the line of dust from the approaching truck packed with produce for the market. We watched the young farmers with amusement as they sped past and suddenly changed their minds. There was a whirlwind of confused dust particles as they reversed to stop at our picnic spot. Surprised at their forwardness we made ready to leave.

 

Their friendly open faces permitted for broken conversation loosely translated as: “Where are you from?” “We are from South Africa – Afrique du Sud? Mandela? Bafana Bafana?” Ah, the last reference hit the jackpot. They beamed with recognition. Then frowned with confusion. Impossible sounds the same in almost any language. Michele was the chosen. The older of the two prodded her arm with his earthy forefinger: “No noir? Blanco??” Well, those were the only words we could make out from the duet of objections. We were leaving; not prepared to have a political discussion and explain our heritage in two word sentences. Once safely surrounded by vines, we turned around to see we were being forgiven through a million kisses blown to heaven.

 

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

Walking through small towns, avoiding square with elders

 

Our hiking trip ended and all too soon we were heading to Venice for a refined send off. Betwixt trains and platforms my occupation was watching people go by (sounds like a song?). Michele, in colorful contrast to most of the Mamas on the platform, unawares drew many admiring glances. The blondeness of our trip culminated in the blatant stare of a seemingly distinguished gentleman.

 

Obviously, I decided, he was on a boring business trip and he was looking for distraction – my mother superior alter ego echoed. But not with my friend – my protective loyalty gauge kicked in. Maybe all three emotions overlaid themselves across my expression or my stance, because the gentleman suddenly engaged in my glare. As he hastened towards me I prepared my reprimand – you cannot undress a woman in public, not even only with your eyes…

 

“Senora” – he bowed. I melted slightly. “I am obliged to apologize for my seemingly upsetting behavior.” I approved with a nod. “In my culture it is the finest compliment to savor the appearance of an elegant woman, especially in public. We are a passionate people and we love beauty.” How could I argue with a plea as fervent and honest as that? “I salute you and your friend. You have graced this dreary platform with your presence and….. ” I failed to register the rest of the sentence as he kissed my hand in farewell. I saw Michele gulp and giggle as she observed us from a bookstall.

 

Finally seated on the train to Venice, she would not believe me that I had been protecting her. I surrendered to the teasing. Soon she would forget about it when the Guggenheim and other museums filled her artistic senses.

 

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

Statues and Museums provided a different entertainment

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32. Galapagos- Santa Fe Bay 2

 

 

Galápagos and Archipelago – unpronounceable at first (as I am another-mother-tonguer); two weird words supposed to name something. Together they meant a place I was going to go to – apart they confused me. The isles formed a map-able chain in the Pacific Ocean and they left an unforgettable spot in my travel memory.

That I even toyed with the idea not to include a visit to the Archipelago of the Galápagos while visiting friends in Ecuador in retrospect was madness. But, as I am only human, there was the usual doubt when I said goodbye to the familiar faces at the airport. Was it a good idea to go the remote unknown alone? My friends were continuing their tour in and around Quito (they’d already been to Galápagos) to make it easier for them to collect me on my return from the mysterious islands.

The flight to the main island was about an hour and half. The small-plane-sounds made casual conversation with the friendly-flushed-round-faced nun next to me uncomfortable and most of the niceties got lost in translation. I resorted to exploring.

Being seated by the window, geographic surveying was the logical first area of exploration,. The volcanic bubbles that made up the Archipelago, looked unwelcoming from the sky. Their aridity could not possibly be life sustaining – my thoughts contradicting the booklet I found in the seat pocket of the light airplane. According to Darwin the older the island – volcanic erupted rock, the more sophisticated the life forms and the better the chances of survival. And if one was stuck (like the Darwin Finches), they adapted or died. Darwin found proof for Evolution on these islands by comparing the beaks of dreary finches. The sizes and shapes of their beaks changed between the different islands, perfectly adapting to feed on different sizes of seed. The older islands are further from the volcanic activity and are covered with weird and fascinating fauna and flora – with tortoises and lizards the best known.

 

21. Galapagos-Plazas - Land iguana

Galapagos Plazas – dragon on watch

 

92. Galapagos - Santa Cruz - Darwin Station - lone George whispering sweet nothings

Santa Cruz – Darwin Station – lone George making a pass

 

51. Galapagos- Espanola- Punta Suarez sea iguana

Espanola- Punta Suarez Sea Iguana or Mermaid?

 

 

 

 

Inflight information was soon exhausted and scanning the vast water became monotonous. Thinking seemed better than snoozing and as the religious group seated around and next to me prompted spiritual searching, the evergreen debate of Darwinism versus Creationism topped my list.

So, the spiritual question that superseded the geography – what logic of evolution moved a group of Catholic Nuns to visit? My fellow traveller met my inquisitive glance with another angelic smile as if to say – “all life is beautiful and sacred, and I can read your mind, therefore my contentment.” Religion, conviction and judgment had no place here. Beauty, weird or wonderful was for all. I guiltily turned to the window again to look down on the approaching island. The biggest one and the only one with development, I read, only way to enter and exit the islands, here via sea and air. Named – Isabela – meaning ‘Devoted to God’. Ok…. I beamed an enlightened grin back at Sister Superior next to me.

That was the last of my holy encounter. Babelistic chaos around the luggage collection area churned me away from the nuns and deposited me amongst a sock-and-sandal crowd. A severe and guttural language dispersed all serenity. Clipped words lashed in loud banter amongst the excited group from Holland. My presence went unnoticed. The maelstrom whirled in a general direction towards the port.

Island guides surrendered to the scramble and obviously knew the wave of tourists could go no further than the water’s edge. Here they would then collect their flocks to direct them to the allocated boats from where all visitations of the islands took place under strict supervision. Was my trip going to be subdued and holy or competitive in a loud way?

 

44. Galapagos- Espanola - Gardner Beach - snorkel and smooch

Sealion Den

 

 

Signs with codes linked to boat names were bannered above the guides’ heads for all to see. I located my code on a crumpled plane ticket in my pocket. I was with The Guatuanamerra. It was to be my home for the next 6 days and 5 nights, its guide surrounded by the jolly Dutch. Once we were together on the deck I was noticed – the only single female traveler. Fortunately I knew that everything was pre-arranged with the travel agent. A single accommodation was secured with a supplement paid.

 

As our guide, with his charming local accent, readied himself and us for the rules-and-regulation session I used the time to slip to the bathroom downstairs before the usual rush. On returning to the deck there was a stiff atmosphere and groups separated with a hushed anticipation. The guide walked over to me and asked in an unusual sympathetic tone after my name and booking arrangements. “No problem”, I had the paperwork ready and produced it with confidence. “Um, did you not get the latest correspondence from the booking company?”

 

There was to be a change in schedules and an amalgamation of groups as the chartered boats were half full. The travel company thought it best to combine half loads – economically more viable of course – my notification of these arrangements disappeared in the weeks traveling Ecuador prior to Galápagos. So did my single supplement along with the request for private accommodation. A bigger noise of displeasure arose amongst my Dutch fellow females. The loud objections made me feel uncomfortable and I felt myself leaning to the opposite scale of moan, to quietly accept and let it be. The confusion of the fusion of ferries and foreigners – it sounded like a song along with the wailing women. But in the end there was too much of a flabbergasted fuss, which I could not participate in.

 

70. Galapagos- Floreana- Punta Cormorant stingray spotting

House Mates

 

 

I took the modification of arrangements with relaxed contentment (thanks to my blessed nun experience). Our guide flashed his relief in a Colgate Commercial way. I won a best friend for the duration of the trip. It was a simple matter of teaming up with one of the three gentlemen that then faced me. See? Easy. Just choose a roomie on the one side and ignore the judging couple-crowd from the other side.

I looked at my new best friend, I could not choose, my eyes shouted at him. For three very different reasons – one was from France and oozed the part, the other was from Germany and sounded the part, and the third was from Jerusalem and looked the part. How could I just pick one without deserving the Dutch Judgment? Best-friend-guide fiddled with the last 2 cabin keys, avoiding eye contact. A single sentence from me stilled the keys and jolted his attention “No, YOU choose,” and turned my back on the three. I was prepared to share my cabin with what fate handed me – but still I crossed my fingers for France. I got Jesus.

 

74. Galapagos- Floreana- unlikely roomies

Omer and Self

 

 

It was better than sharing with any girl. There was space in the cupboard and enough time in front of the mirror and no clashing wafts of perfume. The cabin was designed for three people, the bathroom for half. There was a double bed all for me. Omer got the bunk. The boy asked permission before using the room, at any time of day. He sneaked to his space after dinner and left me with the Germans and the French for a nightcap on the deck. By the time I went to bed, he was fast asleep (or pretended to be) with earphones in and cabin neat, to withdraw like a mouse the next morning again.

Getting TO the Galápagos was a singular experience. Being IN the Galápagos turned out more thrilling than anticipated, as was being part of evolution. It demands a million words … at least now I know more about two words: Archipelago means a large body of water with many islands and Galápagos is Spanish for ‘tortoises’.

 

55. Galapagos- Espanola- Stairway to heaven via Punta Suarez

Watch your step, while being watched

 

 

 

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