The Sky is Alive

Sunlight floods the front room of my apartment in Amsterdam as clouds glide across a light blue sky. The sky seems to constantly change here — as vibrant as a Van Gogh sky. Rain is typical, grey clouds rolling in to douse the city and all those in it.

The Dutch are incredibly congenial people irregardless of the weather. This bodes well for my daughter, Megan, who will spend the next two years here pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Amsterdam.

My oldest daughter, Shannon, and my college bestie, Margo, joined us on this trip spawned by Megan’s latest academic adventure. We’ve managed to work in some sightseeing in and around Megan’s orientation schedule and helping her get settled into her new digs.

The Van Gogh Museum was high on my list of must-sees, but even Van Gogh couldn’t compete with watching my girl purchase a bicycle, the primary mode of transportation in Amsterdam.

Couldn’t help but remember long ago days running along side a little girl as she learned to balance and pedal at the same time.

Amsterdam is known for its canals. I highly recommend one of the many tours. We opted for the Amsterdam Circle Line hop on, hop off tour. It hits many of the hot spots.

We started at Museumpleine with its many museums, including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, home to Rembrandt and other Dutch masters.

We hopped off at the Flower Market, which should be more aptly named “Tourist Chachkies Market,” and the infamous Red Light District with its “coffee” and flesh shops. The Bullfrog was the first coffee shop to open in 1975 after weed was legalized in Amsterdam. Walking down the street is a second-hand smoking experience.

The sex trade was subdued on the Sunday afternoon I strolled by. The windows were mostly empty.

We ended our canal tour at the Anne Frank house in the early evening. We only waited a little over an hour to get in.

I read Anne’s diary when I was 12-years-old. The power of her words catapulted me into her skin. I felt her joy, fear, uncertainty and shared in her belief that, despite everything, people are good at heart. Visiting her hiding place rekindled those feelings and moved me again to mourn the loss of Anne and all the Annes murdered then and since.

Never forget.

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Into the Forest 

Every year thousands of people attempt to hike 2,190 miles from Georgia to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. Only one in four will complete the journey, but each and every one learns something along the way.

My husband, John, began his attempt in late January, but the IT band in his right knee cut his journey short at 362 miles. He had his own reasons for going deep into the forest. Everyone on the trail does.

I had planned to join John on the trail for day hikes and brief overnighters. Like John Muir, conservationist and mountain muse, I “go to the forest to lose my mind and find my soul.” Unfortunately,  a large kidney stone had other ideas, felling me for more than three months.

Luckily, I am better now and I’ve spent the last few days with John providing support, moral and otherwise, for two of our children hiking the trail. Both just graduated from college and entering the deep woods appealed to them. Tiana’s journey will last two months and cover a good section of the trail, while James plans to traverse the entire trail. I can’t help but wonder what the trail will teach them.

On the AT with James and Tiana.

I’ve met a number of hikers in the last few days from all over the country and around the world. A couple from Australia popped their head in our camper door yesterday morning to say hello. Three days ago amid a drenching rain, a man from Germany earnestly assured me that I had saved his life simply by driving him and his companions to a hostel eight miles from the trail so that they could sleep under a roof. A gentleman from Ohio couldn’t believe the southern mountains were still chilly in late May and a man from Texas refused to give up on his dream of completing the grueling trek despite having dislocated his shoulder in a bad fall.

So many people searching for something in the woods. Each and every one will find something — though it may not be what they expected.

The ever-wise Muir said,  “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” He had it right. There’s something about the woods that touches our deepest selves. 

Along the AT in southern Virginia.

The forest soothes and frightens. Being enveloped in its lush, cool greenness acts as a balm to our spirit. At the same time, the woods are foriegn to the comforts of our modernity and frightening in their amorality. They beckon us like the sirens of myth, and like Muir, we must go.

Here’s wishing all the adventurers on the AT from Georgia to Maine, happy, safe trails.

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Taking a Stand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T

I began to see them in Virginia. Signs in their car windows proclaimed their aims on a pilgrimage to our nation’s capitol. Cruise America vans filled with women, rest stop bathrooms full of females headed to the seat of power held overwhelmingly by men.

I decided to join them and make this journey to Washington D.C. the moment I first saw the Facebook post announcing the Women’s March. I was blessed to have my husband, two of our daughters and two of their friends join me.

I have a hundred reasons for making the trip, but for me they all coalesce around one singular aspiration: I want to live in a society that respects females enough to hold males accountable when they touch females without their consent — no matter how rich or powerful the males may be. 

You see, I had my “pussy” grabbed as a small child by a family friend old enough to be my grandfather. I am not alone. One in five girls (as compared to one in 20 boys) are victims of child sexual abuse. Ninety-one percent of the victims of rape and sexual assault are female. 

Consequently, I’m not too fond of any man who uses the power of wealth, position, or physical strength to force himself on an unwilling female. He disgusts me to my core — where the little girl I was still lives. 

For her sake and for the sake of my daughters, I refuse to accept the excuses (“Boys will be boys!”) or delude myself (“He didn’t do it!”) or applaud  (“No more political correctness!”) the disrespect inherent in our newly elected president’s actions and words in regard to women.

The slogan of the Women’s March was “Women’s rights are human rights,” a phrase coined by that “nasty woman” Hillary Clinton during a speech to the United Nations. The phrase seems self-evident and redundant, but in much of the world, women are viewed not as full, sentient humans, but as extensions of their father…then their husband…and finally their son if they’re so blessed.

While my country has made strides in women’s rights, it doesn’t lead the world. In fact, it’s not even in the top 10 on the World Economic Forum’s list of the best places to be a woman. Women in Iceland and Northern Europe fare much better than women here on several fronts — healthcare and government representation just to name two.

The move toward greater equality starts with one thing -RESPECT. Respect that a woman’s body is her own just as a man’s body is his. Respect that women have aspirations that are inclusive and exclusive of parenthood just as men do. Respect that women are 51 percent of the talent and brain power available in the human pool. Respect that emoting isn’t always weakness anymore than stoicism is always strength.  Respect that “male” isn’t the norm by which females are to be measured — it’s just male. 

It’s difficult to garner respect when the man holding our highest office has demonstrated through words and deeds so little respect for women. His behavior greenlights boorish, sexist attitudes. Yet, his disrespect motivated more than a million men and women to make a journey to our nation’s capitol and raise their voices in unison. I was proud to join them.

Today, many men, particularly white men, in our country feel as if they must constantly apologize. As women and minorities have realized gains, some men feel they have lost. I respectfully submit that life isn’t a zero sum game. Others achieving more equality doesn’t mean their gains have oppressed the majority or the privileged. Rather, the playing field is slowly being leveled.

I’m married to a white man. I married him, in large part, because he believes in my right, and the rights of our daughters and sisters, to be paid fairly, to be treated with RESPECT, to be unfettered by a glass ceiling and to have access to affordable health care determined by themselves and their physicians  – not by predominantly white, male legislators. In short, to enjoy the same rights and opportunities afforded to men. 

Many men, and even some women, feel that there’s no need for women like me to march. They believe women are treated equally and assume, I suppose, that the millions who marched in cities around the world yesterday are whiners. In our country, the data doesn’t support their view.

According to the Center for American Progress, although women have outnumbered men on college campuses for almost three decades, have earned at least a third of law degrees since 1980, were fully a third of medical school students by 1990, and, since 2002, have outnumbered men in earning undergraduate business degrees, they have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in the U.S. at anywhere near the rate that you would expect to follow such attainments — particularly in a society that deems itself a “meritocracy.”

The Center points out that “In a broad range of fields, their (women’s) presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. Their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards, as TV pundits, and in Congress—is just 15 percent.

In fact, it’s now estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in leadership roles in our country.”

Progress creeps, at times. Respect is hard to obtain, even when deserved. And so I, and the like-minded, will continue to march.

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Holiday Greetings from Tin Can Gulch

That’s the word that popped into my mind when thinking about writing this year’s letter. So, of course, I looked up the definition for inspiration. Google gave me this.



1. the act or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another.

there were moorings for boats wanting passage through the lock

synonyms: transit, progress, passing, movement, motion, traveling

their passage through the country

I’ve done more than my fair share of “moving through, under, over or past something on the way from one place to another” in the last five years. In fact, 2016 marks the culmination of a five-year travel plan John and I embarked on in 2012. I thought I married a lawyer and sailor only to discover soon after that I needed to add “master planner” to the list of descriptors. That handy skill set has enabled us to safely and economically navigate multiple passages around the world. Thanks, sweetie!

Our first international passage this year was back to Istanbul, one of our favorites. From Istanbul, we journeyed to some fascinating sites in Turkey – Laodicea, Pammukale, Cappadocia, Aphrodicea, and Ephesus. Leaving the outdoor museum that is Turkey behind, we travelled to the south of France to explore Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes. Then we headed home where I stayed put while John visited our friend, Robert, in England. The guys enjoyed a jaunt to Mallorca; then John travelled on through Eastern Europe across the Black Sea with a boat full of drunken Georgians (natives of the country, not our state!) to explore their country before returning home.

We circumnavigated the world in 63 days during the fall, journeying from Atlanta to London then on to Istanbul for a few days to visit friends. From there we flew to Kuwait and then forged on to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Coming home, I saw the super moon rise in Hong Kong and arrived in Los Angeles hours later on the same day to witness it again. Life does grant do-overs on occasion!

Not ones to sit still, John and I begin the next five-year plan in 2017. It starts with John attempting to complete a personal goal of hiking all 2,200 miles (3500 km) of the Appalachian Trail. I’m on board for part of the adventure, providing moral and logistical support along with occasional companionship on the trail. James will join his dad in late May while I return home to focus on finishing my second novel. Then, I will produce, publish, and promote or perish trying! My transition from wannabe writer to (self) published novelist will be a passage I’ve longed for since childhood.

I continue to bear witness to my father’s final passage as he succumbs to Alzheimer’s. I have humbly watched my mother care for him these last few years, but this spring saw her in the hospital and my father necessarily moved from home to a memory care center. I have been awed by my younger sister, Kim, as she has assisted my mom in securing hospice care, evaluating and choosing a memory care unit, and monitoring his medical care every step of the way. Their sacrifices are beyond words.

James Taylor said: “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” Such simple and true words – right up there with “Lord, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end…” But of course, they always do. That’s why most of us don’t relish the passage of time. We want non-stop sunshine, blinded to the necessity of shadows to help us relish the light.

In part, that’s why the holidays are my favorite time of year. The season calls to our better natures, summoning our inner lights to shine brightly even in the cold, darkness of winter. May your light continue to shine long after this holy season fades into the New Year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Things to Know About SE Asia

Considering a trip to Southeast Asia?  If you’ve read my blog entries and scoured travel guides, you’ve generally been given a view of the wonderful, delightful aspects of the area. It’s all true. 

But Southeast Asia, like most places on our planet, isn’t all friendly people, great food and captivating landscapes. Here are some things to know that might inform your travel plans — or not.

Toto, we’re not in Kansas, anymore.

Set aside your first-world expectations.when visiting.  With a few exceptions (e.g. Bangkok, Singapore), you won’t generally find infrastructure resembling anything you’re used to. Sidewalks are a luxury. Paved, maintained roads are few and far between. If dirt and grit are issues for you, stick to resorts and four-star-and-up hotels and don’t stray far from their pampered environs. Reality is grimy.

All Thai massages are not created equal.

The best Thai massage I ever had was not in Thailand! Rather, it was in Florence, Italy where the Italian employer of the Thai masseuse had insured she was well trained. Nothing ever hurt so good! Yet, while massage centers are more plentiful in Southeast Asia than Starbucks are in the U.S., the quality of the experience varies greatly. But, it’s hard to complain when the service is so inexpensive. For example, I had at least one or more foot massages in almost every country we visited. The average price for an hour was just $6.

Bargaining begins with bait and switch.

Cambodia was the worst offender. A $5 guidebook, quickly becomes $10 or more when you show interest. My most memorable example was one evening in Siem Reap. John and I entered one of several massage establishments advertising $2 foot massages. The price was actually $8. No problem, but the young women giving the massages quickly separated John and me, telling us men were serviced in one room and women in the other. We quickly found out why as the young woman proceeded to solicit John. 

Bait and switch — then try to up sell sex to the man while his wife/girlfriend is sequestered in another room 10 feet away. How’s that for a sales process?!

If you can’t take the heat — just don’t go in the kitchen.

Southeast Asia is sweltering. I say that as a Southerner born and raised. Growing up in the Deep South before a/c was ubiquitous, I have experienced the wilting effect of the heat/humidity combo. It pales in comparison to the unrelenting sauna known as Southeast Asia.

We planned our trip for the tailend of the rainy season, heading toward cooler weather. We learned it doesn’t really get “cooler” there until late November. Our first month there, every single day hit 100F or more on the heat index. Night brought no relief. Be prepared to sweat. You’ll never take a/c for granted again!

Road rules are for Westerners.

With some rare exceptions (Singapore comes to mind), there are few road rules throughout Southeast Asia that a Westerner would recognize. Lanes are essentially non-existent. Animals, vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles and people all vie for the same space. Imagine a city, like Hanoi with a population of almost 4 million, with almost no traffic lights or pedestrian crosswalks. It is a free-for-all that I, at least, found daunting. 

Height is a real handicap.

Anyone over 5’6″ will feel like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Beds are low. Bathroom mirrors are low. Toilets are low when they’re not a hole in the floor. Restaurant chairs are low. Bus seats and Tuk Tuk seats do not accommodate my 36-inch inseam. I spent four hours on a bus sitting sideways in an aisle seat because my long legs literally wouldn’t fit.

It’s a man’s world.

Women are invisible in this part of the world, even large, conspicuous women like me. One small example: when walking through a crowd, it magically parted for my husband, but shut tight for me. Even he noticed the difference. As a result, I got cut off, pushed, shoved and poked, particularly in Hanoi, as if I was non-existent with no need, much less right, to occupy the space. 

On two separate occasions, when I boarded a bus alone in Vietnam and sat in a public seat right behind/beside the driver because those seats had the most leg room, the drivers got verbally upset and demanded that I move further back in the bus. The second time, I  refused and asked the driver “Why?” He mimicked my question and told me to move, but when my husband arrived, he backed down.

When opportunities arose to discuss the behavior with English-speaking locals, they dismissed it with words like “culture” and “tradition” or “religious beliefs.” As the recipient of the negative bias, I prefer to call it what it is — sexism.

No matter where you go

Confucius said “No matter where you go, there you are.”  And “there” is always a culture not your own.

I  enjoy observing the differences between my own culture and others. I seek to learn from those differences. I try to withhold judgment when I find cultural differences odd or uncomfortable until I gain a better understanding of why they exist. Different doesn’t always mean wrong. Often, it just means different.

Yet, as Confucius wisely observed — I am there. My physicality, my cultural preferences, my morality, my world views are always with me no matter where I go.They work together to form my preferences of one person, place or thing over another. And in my case, they don’t work in favor of Southeast Asia.

In the fall, we travel to new places and in the spring, John and I always return to a spot we particularly enjoyed. While I am awfully glad we ventured there this fall, we probably won’t be returning to Southeast Asia in the springs left to us.


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Journey’s End in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore

Malaysia is the largest producer of palm oil, which is in tons of consumer products, but I had no idea until I  was landing at the airport in Kuala Lumpur and I saw miles and miles and miles of giant palm trees.

After our travels throughout Southeast Asia, it’s been refreshing to be in a more developed country. We’ve been hanging out at the Avani Sepang Gold Coast Resort.

We did catch a shuttle bus into downtown Kuala Lumpur, but didn’t have time to see the city’s famous twin towers.

Kuala Lumpur

Yesterday,  we flew an hour to Singapore to visit a former colleague and friend of mine and check out that beautiful city. It is an oasis of modernity in a developing region.

Artificial trees function like the real thing.

Skyview observation platform resides atop multi-purpose skyscrapers.

Singapore was part of Malaysia until 1968. Most Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese, but Indians and other Asians live harmoniously together on the small island. There are picturesque old neighborhoods, such as Chinatown or Little India, which I particularly enjoyed seeing against the backdrop of the contemporary cityscape.

Entrance to Little India.

Old complements the new on the edge of Chinatown.

Now, the sun sets on my long visit to a fascinating part of our world. It’s time for the best part of any journey — heading home.

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A Week in Vietnam

Throughout our trip, travellers we met spoke highly of Vietnam. They raved about the beautiful landscapes, the fantastic food and wonderfully friendly people. I was looking forward to visiting the country that had been top-of-mind throughout my childhood because of the war waged here.

Having just spent a week in Vietnam, my perspective is not quite as gushing as the travellers we met, undoubtedly tainted by the fact that I was a bit under-the-weather most of the week. Through that jaded lens, the landscapes are, indeed, lovely, the food can be tasty and the people ranged from very pleasant to some of the rudest I’ve met while on the road.

John and I divided our time between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay. We stayed in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Some people enjoy the chaotic, rapid pace of the city, but I’m not one of them. 

Peaceful interlude in hectic Hanoi.

Sidewalks in Hanoi are not for pedestrians. They are motorcycle parking lots. You dodge people,  motorcycles, vehicles and bicycle rickshaws just to walk anywhere. Crossing a street is a gauntlet since stop lights/signs are almost non-existent and always ignored. How can you look around to sightsee when you’re fearful of being road kill at any given moment?

I did enjoy a trip to Lake Hoan Kiem and the Taoist temple perched on a tiny island in the lake. You crossed a colorful, red footbridge to get to the temple. (See photo of John above for a glimpse of the bridge.)

Lake Hoan Kiem

Confucius say…Be careful on the busy streets of Hanoi.

Lake Hoan Kiem aside, I was glad to leave the beehive of Hanoi for the calmer environs on Cat Ba Island.

Overlooking the bay on Cat Ba.

A day at the beach is a good day, even when you’re not feeling 100 percent.

One of three beaches on Cat Ba.

We also spent a day boating and kayaking around the truly magnificient Ha Long Bay. Our first stop was Monkey Island where I did spot one monkey scrambling over rocks to flee encroaching humans.

The beach on Monkey Island.

Kayaking through caves and in and around the giant limestone monoliths that seem to endlessly populate the bay was definitely the highlight of the visit.

It was also quite interesting to see how people lived on the bay.

While I saw plenty of fishermen, Cat Ba is essentially a tourist town and when dining one morning at a restaurant, we met an interesting young American, a veteran of the war in Iraq. Disillusioned by the war, he had decided to travel the world, paying for it by teaching English, rather than settling down in his home state of North Carolina.

He told us the back story of the young man, age 18,  who was serving us breakfast. Like most Vietnamese, the server works seven days a week, 12 hours or more a day. He sleeps on a mat on the floor of the restaurant. He makes $150/month.

The young man had a funeral in his family and had asked his boss, the owner of the restaurant, for a day off to attend the funeral. His boss had denied his request. The American knew the employer and had intervened on the younger man’s behalf. He was not successful.  Apparently, labor laws in Vietnam are non-existent and the employer couldn’t see how releasing his employee to attend a funeral would benefit his business.

The American was helping the young man improve his English so he could get a better-paying job as a tour guide.

I thought about those two young men as I watched the U.S election from our hotel room in Hanoi.I thought about how both were impacted adversely by the decisions of others — global politics for one and personal politics for the other.

I thought about how surreal it was for someone of my generation to be watching the messiness of democracy unfold during a BBC broadcast on a TV screen in a hotel room located in the capital of communist Vietnam.

Life on the road is beyond strange sometimes.

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