For most of my life, the world was flat to me, bounded by California on the west and Turkey on the east, the farthest points to which I’d ever traveled. Now, after 14 plane trips, eight currencies and 24 time zones, this country girl (and longtime fearful flier) can tell you the world is indeed round. I started out going west, kept going and showed up back in Baltimore again 64 days later. Hey!
Even though I wanted to go ’round the world, I didn’t want a whirlwind tour, a different country every day. You’ve heard of “slow food”— what I desired was “slow travel.” I’d stop only a few places— six or seven in all— but I’d sink deeply into each. And while I’d travel alone, I’d rely on guides and hosts to welcome me, introduce me to their home countries and allow me to know them. Thanks to an air booking agency, Twitter, online traveler review services and my own research, I was able to make all the arrangements for my adventures before I left.
And what adventures they were! I walked the rooftops in old Jerusalem, took a 14-hour market-to-table cooking class in Aix-en-Provence (oh, the lavender-infused creme brulee!) and discovered my own personal ruined castle among the frost-tinged moors on an island in Lochindorb, Scotland.
But, of all my experiences, four stand out.
The Myoshinji Temple Complex
“Myoshinji?” I said hopefully to the woman who stepped down behind me from the bus. It was 11 p.m. and I’d just realized that I’d overshot my bus stop. She smiled and led me silently back down the road until we reached the entrance to the Myoshinji temple complex, which includes about 40 temples, each with its own resident group of monks. The huge and forbidding gate was closed, but a little wooden side door was unlocked.
I walked through it and for the next few minutes felt my way silently through one moonlit temple courtyard after another until I reached the Shunkoin temple, which rents a few rooms to visitors. Like all of the rooms, mine was small, with a mat on the floor and a pillow filled with a kind of seed pod. Delicate sliding screens separated it from the outdoors. I slid the screens closed and fell into a dreamless sleep.
At dawn I was awakened by the sound of gentle rain on wooden shingles and a deep-voiced bell being hit with a wooden hammer. This was the day I would meet Maeda Roshi, head of Zuihoin Temple, teacher and mentor to Masato Fujiwara, the architect and builder who’d been serving as my guide in Kyoto. I had chosen to visit Kyoto because it is a city of art, literature and music, and because its Buddhist temple gardens are miracles of understatement, discipline and humor. But it was the first stop on my trip, and I was feeling a bit disoriented and intimidated by all the foreignness.
My hour with Maeda Roshi changed that. A vigorous man in his late 60s, he was waiting for us in one of the inner temple rooms reached by a corridor lined with magnificent works of art. I managed to get into a fairly comfortable position on the floor— not easy for me— and Masato seated himself to the side so he could translate. Within minutes we were talking and laughing. I felt at ease and understood.
After Maeda Roshi performed a simplified tea ceremony, I ventured a question. “I love to walk among the trees and animals,” I said. “I can feel God there so easily, but I don’t always like to be around people. I can’t feel close to God with other people, especially in a crowd.”
“See the people as trees,” he said. This was a perfect Zen answer: With five words, Maeda Roshi completely resolved my question, lifted me to a new level— and set before me a challenge.
The next day I tried to practice “people-as-trees” in the Ryoanji Temple garden, which is one of the most famous, and most simple, of all Zen gardens in the world: just raked gravel and a few large rocks. The garden was tranquil and peaceful; the other visitors were not. But when I expanded my vision so that the human visitors were part of the scene, not an intrusion, something let go. I was, at least for that moment, in charity with all my fellow human beings— even ones who tell bad jokes in a famous Zen garden. Throughout my entire trip, people-as-trees became a touchstone when I was impatient with anybody or anything— even myself.
The Golden Triangle motorcycle ride
Chiang Mai, Thailand
I was straddling a rented Honda Phantom motorcycle in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, threading my way through traffic, trying to keep my eyes on the bright yellow helmet straight ahead. The helmet belonged to my guide for the weekend, Jim Spence, and when I took my eyes off of it to look ahead, I gasped. Just outside the flat cityscape, the Himalayan Mountains, dim in the morning mist, seemed to fill the whole sky.
I’d bought my first motorcycle when I turned 60, and when I heard about the Golden Triangle loop in northern Thailand, 450 miles of fairly good mountain road (with 4,000 turns) that winds through some of the most spectacular countryside in the world, I knew I had to try it. This would be a day trip; the plan was just to do a small section of the Loop.
My first hint that the day wouldn’t go according to plan occurred at Mae Rim just north of Chiang Mai, when Jim turned off the main road onto a lesser but still mostly paved road. Whenever the road turned sharply, it gave way to a series of ruts. To my surprise I not only stayed vertical, I was enjoying myself. I had asked Jim to take me away from the tourist routes. Here I was, riding past lush fields of green— this part of Thailand could probably feed most of southeast Asia— and stopping at a marvelous roadside restaurant where the owner cooked us a meal straight from her garden.
After lunch, Jim turned off the lesser road, this time to one made of dirt and rock. This was a track he’d taken before, but not for six months and in that time the road had deteriorated to the point where a constant effort of will and muscle was required to forge forward. It was exhausting and scary. But I was still doing well, and still enjoying myself.
Then we came to a stretch of road paved in uneven cobblestones that led to a steep downhill with a curve at the bottom. I stopped and got off the bike, trying to gather my fast-ebbing courage. Right then a scooter sailed past bearing a young Thai woman with two children on the back. “There go all my excuses,” I conceded, saddled up and headed downhill to meet my fate. A man on a scooter was coming up right at that moment and his eyes grew wider and wider as he saw me coming right for him in an impromptu game of chicken. At the last moment I remembered that in Thailand you drive on the left side of the road and swerved out of his way.
Our adventures didn’t stop there, but continued for hours under the hot sun. We got lost, stopped to help a young Thai who had failed to navigate one of the treacherous turns on his scooter, then found ourselves. To my infinite relief, we made it safely back to Chiang Mai just as darkness fell.
My reward for the day was Jim’s quiet comment that I had done very well, and that most riders even with off-road experience would have likely fallen off their bikes at least once on the route we’d traveled. For my own part, I took from the day a sense of quiet confidence that I could handle danger and stress in unknown conditions. Given the choice, I wouldn’t have picked such a difficult route, but I treasured having survived it as much as I treasured my view of the remote Thai countryside.
The Haa Valley, Bhuta
Only eight pilots in the world are licensed to make the entry into Bhutan’s lone airport and if you have a window seat for the approach, you can see why. The day I flew in, the plane played thread-the-needle with a series of mountain spurs, getting closer and closer to the ground, to the accompaniment of wooden flute music piped over the communications system. All the passengers erupted in applause when we dodged the last haystack and touched down.
By Bhutanese law, travelers must be accompanied at all times by a guide. I chose Bridge to Bhutan, which is run by two young brothers, Lotay Rinchen and Fin Norbu. Lotay and Fin come from the village of Dorokha, in the Haa Valley, a pre-industrial farm area in western Bhutan that did not have electricity, roads or cell phones until two years ago. Everywhere I went, I met members of the men’s extended family. The urban family members were educated; at the other extreme were the nomads who follow the family’s herds of cattle to new pastures each day, and who do not read or write (but use cell phones!).
After a day touring the area around the airport so I could acclimate to the altitude of about 8,000 feet, Fin and his cousin Phuentsho and I set off by car for the six-hour trip to Dorokha, which is reached by crossing the 13,000-foot Chelala Pass. The top of the pass, where hundreds of white prayer flags whip in the wind, is mute, heartbreaking and hopeful. Stretching beyond our feet was a series of mountains enclosing fertile settled valleys. As we descended the other side, I saw beautiful farms with carefully tended fields and fences, all built by hand.
In my two days of living with Phuentsho’s sister Deki and her husband Ugyen in Dorokha, I helped prepare an evening meal picked from the garden that featured butter churned that morning and rose at dawn for the milking of the family’s cows. I knew that in 1972, the king of Bhutan coined the phrase Gross National Happiness as an alternative to Gross National Product for measuring growth and progress. And, witnessing a standard of living in Bhutan that includes large well-built farmhouses, good food, beautiful clothing and decoration and an extensive and intricate system of family and village connections, I wondered, “What have I been missing?” And what will happen next year when a hotel is constructed so that foreigners can visit the Haa Valley and soak up all the pre-industrial bliss? I’ve often dreamed of time-traveling to Maryland in the days before the Industrial Revolution, and spending a few days there. Visiting Dorokha gave me a taste of that, and it was wonderful.
Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya
My week in a game camp in the Masai Mara was full of excitement. One day my guides Frederick Ronko and William Rotigen (Masai warriors commonly take English first names and Masai last names) and I helped three young goat herders avoid a troupe of hyena. One night we heard a terrible prolonged roaring noise and the next day found a slaughtered water buffalo and her calf. And, since my cabin was next to a water hole, I was endlessly entertained by zebra grazing, impala and warthog skirmishing and tiny monkeys carrying their even tinier babies watching to see whether I’d left my door open.
But my greatest adventure began when my guides offered to introduce me to a young Masai woman so she and I could play the African drum together. When I saw Agnes Mako sitting shyly on my porch holding two drums in her lap, my heart just melted. After a half-hour or so of exchanging rhythms and smiling, we talked easily (she had learned excellent English in school), and the next day she sent a carefully handwritten note inviting me to attend her school graduation.
A brave and determined 16-year-old with a sweet and slightly mischievous smile, Agnes was one of only two girls in her graduating class. Her mother is a widow living in her late husband’s village, unusual circumstances that allow both Agnes and her mother the rare chance to control their own property, which, for the Masai, is primarily cattle. (In general, Masai women do not own property and have almost no legal rights.)
As Frederick, William and I walked to the school for the graduation ceremony, I told them I wanted to give Agnes a calf that could be raised and sold to pay the fees that would allow Agnes to continue her schooling. It was a radical idea— Agnes will probably be the first Masai young woman ever to have a calf of her own. But Frederick and William and I had had a chance to discuss the idea of women’s rights during our long game drives, and now they offered to help oversee the purchase of the calf and protect Agnes’ rights, if necessary.
When we got to the school, Agnes greeted me along with the other adults, with her head bowed for blessing. I met her mother and asked her permission to make my gift. Then Frederick and William gathered all the adults together and spoke to them about the plan. Though I couldn’t understand what was being said, I could see the excited expressions on the villagers’ faces. Agnes herself was clearly embarrassed by all the attention, but was pleased.
Afterward, when we walked to where the village women were preparing a feast, they all told me they would help see that Agnes continued her schooling. Agnes’ mother took two beautiful beaded necklaces from her own shoulders and put them on my neck. Of all the souvenirs collected on my trip, I treasure those necklaces the most.
I had thought that my ’round-the-world trip would be the last traveling I ever did, that I’d spend the rest of my days “home by the fire.” But now I have friends all over the world to visit. At the very least, I must return to Africa, to see Agnes grow into a leader of her community, and to play the drum with her again.