Golden Dreams


Time for prompt #16 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What one landmark, anywhere in the world, would you like to see, and why?

Oh, easy answer: the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Rangoon/Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. I knew almost nothing about Burma until 2006, when it entered my radar through conversations with people who had been there. The stories of the golden temples, their spires poking through the mist; of the activism of the Buddhist monks; of the bravery of the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the popular vote in the previous election and who had been in jail or under house arrest for most of the nearly two decades since–these tales had me wide-eyed. And then I saw the pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda, 325 feet tall, the most sacred site in Burma, its brilliant, golden skin shining in the sun…and it was like looking at a set created for a fantasy epic. Its beauty was unreal.

It was built either 2500 years ago or sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, depending on which legend-slash-history you read. It holds relics from four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha, which are reported to have caused miracles to happen in their presence. I found it hard to believe this building existed, somewhere in the jungles on the other side of the world.

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”  –Rudyard Kipling, recalling his 1889 visit to the Pagoda

I knew then that I had to visit it someday. And now Burma/Myanmar is somewhat calmer, at least for potential visitors. Suu Kyi is free, and has a voice in the government. The military junta discarded its uniforms and began serving as civilians. Barack Obama has been there! Hilary Clinton has been there! Cruises stop there! There are no more mass imprisonments; the monks are no longer turning over their rice bowls and refusing to accept alms from the junta and its followers.

I’m fully aware that unrest, violence, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic minorities still take place there. But the willingness of the country to end its total isolation from the West has made it far more likely that the likes of me can, before too long, travel to Rangoon, stand in front of the beautiful golden building, and be astonished in person.


Paradise Has Ice Cream and Elephants

Prompt number 9 in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What is the best experience you’ve ever had while traveling?

What a question. How do you choose? All the amazing, wonderful, joyful things that happen when you travel, and I can pick only one?

Okay, fine then. I pick: Eating ice cream in Spain while a man carved an elephant and threw it into the sea.

I should explain.

In the town of Las Galletas, on the island of Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, there is a little heladeria by the sea. And in the town of New Braunfels, in the state of Texas, there is a house that contains my dearest friend Maria–except in the summers, when she goes home to her family in Tenerife, and then she is contained by her mother’s house in Las Galletas. Every few summers I join her there. (Because Keep Austin Weird and all that, but would you rather visit your best friend in Texas or in Tenerife? Yep, I thought so.)

The first time I went to the Canaries, about ten years ago, Maria and I set out on a warm afternoon’s mission: to walk into town and sample her favorite ice cream. We headed down the pedestrian-only shopping streets in the general direction of the sea, and ended up at the promenade beside the narrow black sand beach. “Here it is,” Maria said, pointing to the heladeria. Its sliding glass doors were wide open to let in the ocean air–and the ocean was only about fifty feet away. Tables topped with yellow umbrellas lined the promenade out front. A nice selection of helados tempted us from the glass case. This looked promising. I chose the berry-bright frutas del bosque; I don’t remember what flavor Maria chose, but we took our paper cups and our little plastic spoons and we claimed a table in front of the open sliders.

Helado. Splendid.

Helado. Splendid.


As we savored our ice cream (so delicious; Maria was right), we indulged in people watching: mothers herding small children along the promenade; young couples sitting on the sea wall, their arms and legs entwined; grandmothers siting in the shade of the umbrellas, trading gossip in rapid Spanish; British tourists, their pale shoulders and noses turned lobster red by the sun. And a sculptor, carving an elephant.

At some point while we were licking helado off our spoons, a middle-aged man dressed in a black tee shirt and black pants had set up an impromptu studio on the sea wall. He held carving tools, and he was using them to flick slivers of stone off a block about the size of a breadbox. What on earth? I said. We angled our chairs so that we could see better. It took us a while to determine that the emerging figure was an elephant. Animal? we guessed at first. Horse? Dog? we considered as the artist progressed. People stopped to chat with him; some bought him beers. Children stopped to guess; he teased them, told them it was a bird, a giraffe…But as his tools bit further and further into the stone, we finally saw it. Elephant!

Elephant. Also splendid.

Elephant. Also splendid.

I was delighted. I love elephants. I love Spain. I love ice cream. And I love my friend. And this moment contained all of them! Plus the black volcanic sand, the shush of the ocean, the lisping s-sounds of Castilian Spanish in my ears…and then the sculptor hopped over the sea wall onto the beach and directed a couple of his admirers to hand the stone beast down to him. He gripped it tightly, the muscles in his arms straining as he hauled it to the edge of the water–and threw it in.

Oh, no, we laughed, what’s he doing now? Was this some sort of indigenous Guanche ritual, some sort of sacrifice to an obscure pachyderm goddess of the sea?

Not at all. He was letting the waves rinse it off. That block of stone was going nowhere until he hoisted it out of the water and carried it back up to his cohorts. Once he was up on the promenade again, a young woman who had been at the center of his admirers for a long time opened her wallet and handed him a small wad of bills. She smiled once more at the elephant, wrapped her arms around it, lifted it, and staggered off under its weight.

Maria and I grinned. It had been a perfect afternoon. And here’s the very nice postscript: every time I go back to Tenerife, one of the first things Maria and I do is walk to that heladeria, choose our flavors, stake out a table, and talk about the time the man in black carved the elephant right in front of us.

Images: Helado: By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España (Montañas de helado Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons; Elephant: Teresa (Terry) Jackson [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Family Fun With Austrian Pharmaceuticals

Well! I’ve been buried by some of my other projects these past few days, but I’m back now to catch up on the BootsnAll #indie30 prompts that I missed. I feel especially bad about missing them, since BootsnAll featured a number of my earlier posts in their end-of-week article. I was honored and delighted. You can read the article here, on the BootsnAll site.

Okay, time to catch up:

Prompt #8: What is the worst travel experience you’ve ever had?

I haven’t been to any really dangerous areas of the world, so my bad travel experiences haven’t been extremely scary or life-threatening…but I have traveled with children.

Yes, I see the parents among you smiling ruefully and nodding your heads. Taking children overseas can be a fantastic experience–you get to introduce them to places, people, cultures, that they could never interact with at home.

World, this is my child. My child, meet the world.

You get to instill a sense of adventure in them, and a sense of confidence, too. And a sense of wonder worth more than nearly any classroom experience they will ever have.

Traveling with a five year-old can be a challenge, though. You suddenly realize that much of the world is not childproof. You have to hang onto them to keep them from falling off hotel balconies. Or mountains.

Traveling with a sick five year-old is a trial. Fever thermometers that measure temperatures in degrees Celsius…pharmacies that don’t stock familiar medicines…finding a doctor in a foreign country in the middle of the night…all typical, and all stressful when your little one is sick and listless, and you’re worried, exhausted, and trapped indoors with them for days at a time.

I waited all year for this trip; please don't throw up...please don't throw up...

I waited all year for this trip; please don’t throw up…please don’t throw up…


Traveling with a sick five year-old whom you’ve forced to swallow her medicine, which came in pill form, from the bottle with the label in German and the name of which you not only don’t recognize but can’t even pronounce, who is crying herself red in the face, and who then, seemingly out of defiance but surely out of illness, gags, leans forward, and throws up all over your host’s kitchen–this experience, though it may not involve death-defying feats, war zones, kidnappings, or explosions, is a very bad experience, nonetheless, and will leave you warning your hosts to STAY OUT of the kitchen for about an hour while you clean vomit out of their sugar bowl, and may even lead you to throw up a little bit yourself from the sight, sound, and smell of what’s going on. It may also force you to find another apotheke–drugstore–to explain the upsetting dilemma to the pharmacist (who, happily, speaks some English), and to endure further humiliation as he grudgingly re-fills the prescription for you in liquid form and hands it to you while frowning and informing you that “Here in Austria, our children can swallow pills.”

Really. It’s a very bad experience.

Even if it is slightly hilarious later on.

Image: “Das kranke Kind” (The Sick Child) François-Joseph Navez [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How to Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag

It’s Day 7 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project; the question of the day is (fanfare, please):

What kind of packer are you?

What? Too much?

What? Too much?

I like to think that I travel pretty lightly. Though I’m not a backpacker, I usually head overseas with a small suitcase filled with a few sets of mix-and-match clothes, a toiletries bag, extra shoes, a notebook, and a voltage adapter.

Though there was that one time, about 10 years ago, when my life seemed to be falling apart and I fled to Spain to foist my sad and broken self on my friend Maria and her family…

The night before I was to leave the States, I pulled a small suitcase out of the closet, threw a pile of clothes on the bed, and realized that there was no way they were all going to fit. So in my emotional exhaustion, I did the only thing I could:

I got a bigger suitcase out of the closet.

I crammed all my stuff inside, zipped it shut, and hauled it to the airport. Because of storm delays, the bag got lost in Madrid; though I was going on to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, my giant suitcase went to Barcelona. When the airline finally delivered it to Maria’s mother’s house the next day, my friend, knowing that I’m usually an efficient packer, marveled at its size. I just shrugged; I was too wrecked to care.

That weekend, we were to head to the north end of the island to stay with Maria’s sister for a couple of days. “I’ll give you a small bag,” she said, “and you can just take a few things and leave this one here.” I shook my tired head. “No,” I said, pointing to the mammoth. “THIS is my weekend bag.” I simply was not capable of curating clothes and sandals and putting together a weekend wardrobe. So the giant bag got hoisted into the trunk of Maria’s mother’s car along with everyone else’s little totes and duffels.

Yep, I was mocked. Yep, I didn’t wear half the things I had taken. But in the end, it was okay–the healing properties of that trip, the magic of tapas and helado in the middle of the day, the homemade wine decanted into an old Johnny Walker bottle, the drives into the mountains, the walks beside the sea, the wandering amidst the centuries-old architecture–and the ability to rest, to bask, without judgment, in the comfort of an old, deep friendship–made it all okay.

So. The moral of my packing story is this:

Travel heals; so go. Pack lightly, yes. Plan properly, yes. But if you just can’t, if you’re just too tired and sad to think clearly, if you simply have to flee the country or burst into flame, then just take a bigger suitcase out of the closet, and go anyway.

Postscript: The title of this post is from a World War I marching song, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.” No, I wasn’t around when it zoomed to number 1 on the charts. But yes, I remember it from watching old cartoons in the 70s. It used to be a well-known piece of popular culture. But now…who knows? Thought I’d identify it for the young’uns.

Image: By BazzaDaRambler (… luggage. Uploaded by Oxyman) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

A Passion for Squiggly Lines on White Paper


Day Five’s question in BootsnAll’s #indie30 project is an easy one for me to answer:

What else (besides travel) are you passionate about?

In a word: words. Words are my profession and one of my greatest passions.

I write, I blog, I teach writing. I write when I travel, I write about traveling, I write so I can afford to travel.

I write to make sense of my thoughts. I write to make sense of the world.

I write to make my readers recognize their thoughts in my words; I write so they can read and say Yes.

In the international workshops I teach, words connect American kids to their peers in far-off corners of the planet. They introduce themselves in letters, they write about their hometowns, they write about their hopes for the future, they write their good wishes for their new, distant friends. By exchanging words, they exchange knowledge about each other. They exchange understanding. Words bridge the distances; words broaden their world.

And when I’m not writing or teaching writing, I’m often reading other people’s words. Stories, plays, poetry, essays. Backs of cereal boxes. Tubes of toothpaste. If words are in front of me, I’m reading them. Right now, words are behind me, too: I’m sitting in my office with my back to an entire wall of books, filled with other people’s words.

As the playwright Tom Stoppard said:

“Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”

That’s my hope, my goal, my passion. That’s why I play with words.

Image: By Juanedc from Zaragoza, España (Letras Uploaded by juanedc) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

#indie30 Day 4: Traveling by Car, Wishing for Elephants

The reverie.

The reverie.

What is your favorite style of overland travel?

What I wish my answer was:


What my answer actually is:


The reality.

The reality.

I love elephants. Good god, they’re so tremendous and beautiful, how could you not love them? But for practicality’s sake, I choose the car. I love the freedom of setting my own itinerary, of leaving and arriving when I please, of stopping when I want. I love eating snacks in the car, I love rolling down the windows on cool nights, cranking the radio, and rasping along with Tom Waits:

Late nights and freeway flying

Always make me sing…

Granted, riding an elephant would be much more exotic and story-worthy, but still–travel by car generates its own stash of splendid stories. For example:

1. Traveling from Vienna south to Klagenfurt in a small car with two friends and a large vacuum cleaner. The even landscape of the city gradually nudging itself into green hills and then majestic mountains, providing gorgeous views that change with every curve of the road. “I planned this route specially for you,” my Austrian friend Oliver is teasing. “Since you live in Florida–such a flat state–I didn’t want to shock you with mountains right away. I thought you would need time to get used to them.” How thoughtful. How spectacular.

2. Crossing back into the US from Canada as a child in the backseat of my parents’ car, accompanied by our new puppy–a gift from our Canadian cousins. My sister and I holding our breath and clutching the pup’s shot record as we approach Customs, fearing that some terrible agent will accuse us of adorable-puppy-smuggling or something equally heinous and take him from us. (Parents having encouraged this fear, apparently half-heartedly hoping that the dog they didn’t want in the first place might be confiscated at the border, thus absolving them of responsibility for getting rid of him.) Clearing customs, dog not confiscated. Parents sighing in resignation. The nice McDonald’s manager in Lake George letting us bring him into the restaurant while we eat. Counting license plates. Snuggling the puppy the rest of the way home.

3. Driving across Florida from West Palm Beach to Sarasota with my daughter, on a long-awaited “photo trip.” Taking six hours to make what is normally a three-hour drive, stopping in every little town along the way to take pictures of all the eccentric places to be found in the middle of the Sunshine State. Life-size statues of glowering lions and rearing horses–painted gold–inexplicably guarding the entrance to a sod farm. Giant, full-color murals on the walls of nearly every commercial building in Lake Placid. Rows of pastel-hued antique shops in Arcadia. Stern messages on church marquees: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Go To Hell.” The only fly in the ointment of our plan: constantly leaving the air-conditioned bliss of our car to take those pictures. In August. In Florida. A hundred miles from the nearest ocean breeze.

4. As a child again, in the backseat again, this time in my uncle’s Cadillac, my dad in the passenger seat. Province of Québec. My uncle driving us to St.-Jean-Vianney, an abandoned town, the site of a 100-foot deep sinkhole that had swallowed 41 houses and their sleeping occupants one awful night some years before. Steering that giant American car down a narrow pseudo-path into the pit so we could get a true feeling for how deep and huge it was. The path gradually becoming impassable, nothing but air on either side as he tries to turn the car around…but the Cadillac is longer than the path is wide. Hm. My sister and I peering wide-eyed at the increasing distance between us and the floor of the pit below as he slowly, slowly inches the car out in reverse.

So, yeah. For going where you want, transporting pets, and creating small adventures, there’s nothing like a car.

Though I bet an elephant would have had less trouble getting out of that pit.

 Images: Elephant: By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Car: By Giomayo at it.wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.5-it ( or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

#indie30 Day 3: Travel Styles (Better Late Than Never…)


Okay, I’m a day late (and a dollar short?) with my response to yesterday’s BootsnAll #indie30 prompt. My answer includes colorful stars, though; do I get points for that?

What is your travel style?

Click below for the full-color, definitive chart:

The Travel Style Spectrum