Sunday, September 30, 2007


I love train stations. I know they are crowded and dirty but I love the movement and the people. I always harbor the secret sense that, like the song, I can walk up to the counter and order a ticket for the first train going anywhere.

I love traveling by train, too. I like the compartments, and looking at the scenery, the fields and trees and empty buildings and abandoned factories with broken windows.

I love looking at other passengers. The girl with the stripped stockings and huge black shoes reading a book in French. The man who brings his partner a drink that they ceremoniously prepare with soda water and lemon. Once it’s ready, they silently clap before the first sip. The family of four sitting next to us. I see the mother unpack enough food for an army: sliced apples with peanut butter, potato chips, sandwiches, drinks. The boy looks at the screen on his iPod, puts his feet up on the seat and moves to a beat I cannot hear.

When it gets dark, I look out and only see my reflection on the window – a ghost of my face, the orbs of my brown eyes looking back at me and a whooshing image of trees in the background as backdrop.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Cinematic overload

I am watching a movie. Just when I’m gripped by the story, just when I can’t tear my eyes away from the screen, just when every little creak in the house makes me jump ten feet, it happens again.

I realize I’ve already seen it.

In the most fortunate cases, I remember the general theme in a vague sort of way and just can’t recall the details. But most often I have no clue at all that I’m watching it for the second time until…well, until I get a sense of too certain déjà vu. And then I remember certain scenes, but not critical things like how it ends (or even who the bad guy is.)

Should I be worried that this is the obvious consequence of watching too many movies? A critical case of cinematic overload?

Should I be concerned about my declining memory?

Or (my pick) should I make a list of my favorite movies ever and delight in watching them again, knowing for certain that I’m going to love them?

I mean, look at the bright side. Who better to suggest something good to me than someone who knows my taste as well as I do?

No need to send me movie recommendations. I seem to have it covered.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Brain lag

Last week, Luca and I almost had a car accident. It was about 7:00 a.m. and we were driving along Highway 1, with the Pacific Ocean on our left and the mountains on our right. It was slightly foggy and the road was deliciously silent. Suddenly, a deer leaped out in front of us. Even before Luca swerved, it was out of sight.

This week I’m in Mexico City. Forget all the words you just read above – from “driving along” to “Pacific Ocean” to “Mountains” to “calm” to “quiet”. I assure you there will be no deer interfering. This place is surreal, even to my Mexico City born eyes; a live wire of people and color and smog and cacophony and energy. A boy is juggling balls at the stoplight, then asking for money.

If our bodies need time to adjust to jet lag, what about brain lag? We weren’t meant to move so quickly from one location to another. What are the side effects of this sudden, dramatic change in surroundings?

Strange dreams, for sure. Waking up completely disoriented (a condition that in my case often lingers for the rest of the day). Being just a tiny bit out of touch with reality (another lingering condition). Feeling as alive as this place. Looking at the world with wonder.

"For my part” said Robert Louis Stevenson “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Good and bad

I think I am a good traveler because:
- I don't tire easily
- I am curious about new things to eat (as long as it’s not something soft and furry with big, beautiful eyes and long lashes such as rabbit or alpaca; and nobody's intimate parts such as tripe, testicles or brains.)
- Within reason, I have a bug resistant stomach
- I can function fairly well on little sleep
- I like to get up early
- When strangers try to guess where I'm from, they venture Italy, Greece, Romania, Argentina, Iran, Turkey, Spain, Ecuador, Israel - even India. In other words, I don't stick out unless I'm in an Asian or Nordic country
- I can make myself understood pretty much anywhere
- I'm a really good packer
- I travel light
- I rarely complain
- I'm fairly tolerant of heat and cold
- I can walk pretty much all day
- I'm punctual
- I handle changes and delays well
- I want to see everything
- Wanting to rest doesn't make me feel guilty, even if I might be missing something
- I keep myself entertained on flights or long drives
- I’m a good copilot
- I carry my own stuff
- I trust that I can figure it out
- I'm easily amused
- I see the glass half full

I think I could be a better traveler because:
- Someone needs to help me with actual travel arrangements, as I have zero tolerance for "if you'd like to make a reservation, please press one".
- As much as I love to go, I always find it hard to leave home
- Except for dinner, I don't do night life (although I was irresistibly charmed into going dancing in Peru)
- I don't like noise
- I don't like crowds
- Mosquitoes make me crazy
- I get hungry
- I get thirsty
- I always need a restroom
- I can't skip a meal
- I cannot lie in the beach all day
- I don't consider shopping a pastime
- My sense of direction is never where I think I left it

And you? How are you a good or bad traveler?

Friday, September 7, 2007

How dare we?

On the cover of the most recent Time Magazine is Mother Theresa. Mother Theresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity. A Catholic nun who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work caring for the poor, sick, orphaned and dying in India. A Nobel Peace Prize!

Ten years after her death, her biggest secret is revealed. Previously undisclosed letters show that she spent almost 50 years without sensing the presence of God. On the outside, she prayed. She dedicated her life to someone she could not find.

Her letters speak of torture and darkness, coldness, pain; emptiness so great that nothing touched her soul.

I guess every believer doubts at some point or another. (And every doubter believes at some point or another.) But this astonishing woman never stopped working in God’s name. In the middle of all that emptiness, she trusted him completely.

As stunning as I find this, the sentence that broke my heart was “Please destroy any letters or anything I have written”. After everything she did, didn’t she deserve that we at least honor that?

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Best Kept Secret

The news that I was going to Peru was met with perplexity, disbelief, excitement and (in one loving case) grave concern. It is for this reason that I feel the need to set the record straight about Peru.

To begin with, if I had to recommend to someone the best five trips to take, Peru would be one of them. It’s one of the best vacations spots in the world.

To proceed in some sort of chronological order, it would be fair to mention that Taca is an excellent airline, safe, punctual, courteous and organized. I only wish some of the US airlines could hold a candle to the way we were treated flying this one.

Lima - a city I was a number of times suggested to skip - is absolutely charming. It is a shopping Mecca for anyone interested in arts and crafts, textiles, antiques, clothes, jewelry or silver. I am a notorious non-shopper, and felt myself barely resisting the impulse to buy everything in sight. (I was only partially successful).

We visited Cusco, a destination that would hold your attention regardless of your travel preferences, with its hiking, history, shopping, museums, architecture, restaurants and nightlife.

Peru in general is a culinary paradise. I read in a recent article in the New York Times that Peruvian food ranks among the best on Earth, and yet was still surprised by its uniqueness, breadth and subtle flavors. Peru has a notable variety of potatoes which they typically dry in the sun before cooking; grains (among them choclo, giant corn, and the ultra delicious, ultra good for you super grain, quinoa), chili peppers such as aji which they de-vein and de-seed so dishes are flavorful but never hot, chupes (soups), chifa (a ubiquitous mix of Chinese and Peruvian cuisine), cebiche (which they spell with a "b"), tiraditos, fresh seafood, stews, meats, and the widest variety of fruits you could imagine. It's also where Pisco is from, which according to Rudyard Kipling "is compounded of cherub's wings, the glory of a tropical dawn, the red clouds of sunset and the fragments of lost epics by dead masters."

We visited multiple Inca ruins (Tambo Machay, Sacsayhuaman, Puca Pucara, Q’enko, and Pisac in the Sacred Valley, among many others), sites so impossible to conceive - even as you stare at them - that one understands why so many people, beginning with the Spaniards who colonized the region, believed that they were not built by man but by beings from outer space.

In the list of The Seven Wonders, Machu Picchu deserves to be number one. I could spend weeks among its stone walls, exploring the views from each terrace, rock, ledge and window. It is man made, but God had a heavy hand in it, because its breathtaking beauty lies half in its construction, half in its absolutely inspired, otherworldly setting. Like the moon, it defies description. You can't capture it in photographs. You have to be there in person, and you have to arrive from the Gate of the Sun to do the place justice.

We didn’t only see Machu Picchu from the Gate of the Sun but also from Huayna Picchu, the ragged mountain peak you usually see as backdrop in photographs. It’s a heart-thumping climb, after which we sprawled like lizards on huge rocks to see Machu Picchu through intermittent clearings from above the clouds.

We hiked across the Andes, visited a tiny, isolated, remote village way up in the mountains, went to a school where children walk for hours in the dark of pre-dawn for the privilege of attending a class. After all this I can tell you, Peru is safe. The people are beautiful, generous, shy and quick to smile. Tourism is in its infancy, as the country had been held hostage by an infamous terrorist group with a poetic, terrible name: El Sendero Luminoso (The Shining Path), and has only recently been a viable place for foreigners (for less than 15 years).

Peru is now ready for you. Ready to astound you with the remains of a civilization that is more than two thousand years old and yet is still alive today. Ready to surprise you with its improbable mix of Inca and European, with its colonial buildings set on stone foundations built one thousand years ago. It's ready to feed you new flavors, ready to clothe you with the softest Alpaca wool, ready to decorate you with the world's most beautiful jewelry.

You must visit Peru. It will be your favorite place on Earth, maybe only after wherever it is you call home.